Grow By Grace

There are all sorts of ideas floating about today in various circles concerning sanctification. If you are getting confused by them, consider the following:

But grow in (by) the grace (help) and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:16).

More often than not, in NT (Koine) writing, it seems that the Greek “en” (often translated “in”) ought to be translated by one of its other possibilities–“by, with,” etc. Here, I am sure that it should read “by,”as I noted in the parenthesis in the quotation. The idea of a “spherical dative” is foolish here (as in many of the translations made of this important preposition).

What Peter was trying to get his readers to understand is that in order to grow in their faith it takes grace and knowledge—both, of course, applied to daily living—in order to grow. And growth, as one learns more about Christ and becomes more like Him, is what sanctification is all about. That grace (here, “help,” the second meaning of the word grace, is also a more appropriate translation).

Growth comes about as a believer learns more of the Christian faith and is helped by God to practice it. More and more he progressively comes to walk as he should (not, in this life without failures, of course). But if one is a true believer, he grows. He will change. He can because he is a new creation. Sanctification is not “on the spot,”as one modern preacher recently said. Nor does it come about without effort: studying and prayerfully applying scriptural truth. It is the result of knowing God’s truth about putting off the old sinful ways and replacing them with new biblical ones that please God. Growth is a sign of life—in this case spiritual life. No growth—no life.

Think about this and refuse to be herded by the crowd that teaches that something other than growth is essential.

Are You “Going On?”

The writer of Hebrews exhorts you to do so. Listen to his words:

Therefore, leaving the elementary message about the Messiah, let us go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, faith in God .  .  . (HCSB Hebrews 6:1)

In making his “Inspired Translation” of the Scriptures (never completed), Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, got to this verse and, misunderstanding it, inserted the word “not”: [“not leaving . . .” etc]. He, of course, was woefully wrong. The people to whom Hebrews was written were long-time Christians who had become dull, and could not appreciate strong teaching (see Ch. 5). Therefore, the import of this verse is that they needed to go beyond the first teachings of the faith to more meaty material, so that they could grow in the truth. They were still sucking on a bottle of milk (see 5:12-14)! He wanted them to mature.

Today, to the contrary, we are told that to mature in the faith, we must go back to the first principles (elements) of Christianity (“Preach the gospel to yourselves”) and concentrate on them.  This strange idea—so contrary to the true method of growth—is being rapidly adopted by pastors and people who ought to know better. The passage before us today strongly counters it. The trouble with this new view is—because it isn’t biblical, it doesn’t work; people do not grow that way. They grow strong spiritually when they “go on” to the meatier truths of the faith, and then put them to practice in daily living!

Have you discovered that you don’t grow by continuing to drink only milk? Re-read, the book of Hebrews (focusing on chapter 5) and learn differently!

 

Blessed in the Doing

Some Christians have missed James’ point—they think that it is contemplating the cross, preaching the gospel to one’s self, and all sorts of other exercises invented by themselves (and others who think like them) that produce fruit in the Christian life. But like Luther, they seem to by-pass, debunk or otherwise disparage the place of good works.

Yet, Paul in his letter to Titus, ends each of the three chapters with comments about the necessity of true works by the faithful. And the statement of James 1:25 says it all: Christians are “blessed in the doing” (CCNT/P).

Some think that Christians, even though they are “new creations,” are incapable of doing what pleases God. But Paul says that were “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10). They always mess up every attempt to act righteously. If the former were true, and all the exhortations to do good, to live by the fruit of the Spirit and so forth, would be fruitless if not worthless. Indeed, if it were impossible to please God by following His commands (in the power provided by the Spirit, of course) Christians might think it impossible to attempt honoring God in their daily living.

But the fact is, as James assures us, it is in the doing of God’s directive will (found in the Scriptures alone) that we shall be blessed. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

Self-Deception

It is a genuine possibility for Christians to deceive themselves. There are many ways in which they might do so—for instance, that’s why we are told to make our calling and election sure (to ourselves, of course: God already knows—in fact, He knew it from all eternity past). There are many other ways to deceive ourselves but, today, I want to mention but one. James is the biblical writer who brings up the matter.  He says:

But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.      (James 1: 22).

How timely is this command since there are those who would question the fact that we should obey God by doing something to improve our Christian lifestyles.

For some, any effort on the part of the Christian to do what God commands is wrong.  In one way or another—contemplation of the cross is a current one—we are told not to make efforts on our behalf (that’s the arm of the flesh), but wait for the Spirit of God (or Christ within us) to do what needs to be done to conform to the “word” for us instead of us. That is to say, according to them, sanctification is not a joint effort by the believer and the Spirit to obey the truth, but a submission on the latter’s part, while the Spirit of God takes over completely.

Certainly, progress in the Christian’s life isn’t made apart from the Spirit, Who perfects His truth in us, but His fruit comes only to those who “walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16), which he defines as “living by the Spirit” (v.25). To do so, each must “”examine his own work” (6:4), “work for the good of all (6: 10), and be sure he is carrying “his own load” (v.5), since the Spirit won’t do so for him, instead of him.

The self-deceiver is the one who thinks that it is enough to know the truth, and forgets the many biblical exhortations to “do the truth” (cf. John’s writings in particular).

Action

Today, one of the errors permeating evangelical churches is the confusion of justification and sanctification. Justification is the declaration that one is righteous before God because of Jesus’ death and resurrection for his sins. It is a one-time act on God’s part, centering around the sacrifice of the cross. Sanctification is an on-going process, lasting throughout a believer’s life.

Justification must not be confused with sanctification: the former is solely the act of God, the latter the work of the Spirit, enabling the believer to obey.  As Jesus said,

If you love Me, keep My commandments.

One does not become sanctified by “contemplating” the cross. He grows by grace as he does the will of the One Who called him. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise—the Bible is clear:

Turn away from evil and do what is good;
Seek peace and pursue it     (Psalm 34: 14).

Those commands all call for action. Sanctification is the fruit of the Spirit!

Commands?

Someone has found 684 commands in the New Testament. Accurate or not, the number must be somewhere nearly so.

And, yet, there are those who believe that any command given to another believer is merely law or works, or something equally as reprehensible to them.

It is neither wrong for God to command us (as Christ in the great commission did), nor preachers today to do so. God doesn’t wrong us by doing so; He commands His children as any good Father would—for our benefit. Why is it, then, that this strange idea is abroad today that all commands are wrong?

Is the problem, then, that we ought not need commands, and that the idea of issuing commands indicates those who need them are living at a lower level than they should?  Or is it simply that the objectors just don’t like to be told what to so?

Whatever the reason, commands there are in the Bible—and we’d better heed all of those directed to us. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

Immaturity

So then, leaving the elementary teachings about Christ, we must advance toward maturity, not again laying a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God . . .

Hebrews 6:1ff is an instructive passage.  In it there is a strong encouragement to grow in the knowledge and experience of the more advanced doctrines of the Christian faith.  It is interesting to note that there are those today who want to linger with the elementary teachings of Christianity. Indeed, they insist that these are all we need to grow.  They tell us to keep on preaching the Gospel to ourselves, for instance. They believe by contemplating the Good News, we will be sanctified. The writer of Hebrews, on the contrary, would have us move on to other things as well. Obviously, he would not want us to ignore, or forget, the elementary truths of our faith, but neither would he wish us to linger with them, never going on to where we can handle more advanced ones.  There were things the writer couldn’t talk to his readers about because they were still babes in Christ, needing milk and not meat. The whole counsel of God was preached by Paul at Ephesus. It ought to be preached in our churches today. Unless we teach all of the word, instead of merely touting the idea of a Gospel-orientation to all we teach, we will fail to urge our people to “leave the elementary teachings.”

Think about this if you are the member of a church that fails to urge you to advance in your knowledge and life for the Lord. To be caught in such a trap can be dangerous to your spiritual growth. It may seem (and sound) spiritual to say that I will grow by preaching the gospel to myself every day, compare that idea with the text before us in Hebrews 6!

Gospel Indicatives/Gospel Imperatives

Have you ever picked up a book about a subject you were interested in and found that the author required you to learn his peculiar vocabulary, memorize his clever acronyms or acrostics, and acclimate yourself to his unique jargon in order to follow his train of thought? I seldom make it past the first chapter of such a book—it is just not worth the effort. In order to communicate well about any subject it is necessary to have a common language and understand the terminology of the debate in a uniform way. In biblical counseling circles we are experiencing several controversies in which new ways of using old terms has clouded the discussion.

The biblical counseling movement is now immersed in a troubling controversy about the nature of biblical sanctification. A view is being championed by some which teaches that understanding the Gospel, meditating and contemplating upon its riches, and teaching counselees to do the same is all that is necessary for a believer to grow and change. The Gospel, this view claims, frees us from the need to work at obeying the commands of Scripture.

This is an important discussion. A wrong view of sanctification by the counselor can have a devastating effect upon the counselee. In order to have a fruitful discussion, however, it is necessary to use our words carefully, not merely in how kind and loving we are in our discussion (for some, it is unkind to disagree or point out error), but how accurate and clear we are. To that end, I want to urge my friends in the biblical counseling movement to consider carefully how the terms “Gospel Indicatives” and “Gospel Imperatives” are being used.

The two words “indicative” and “imperative” refer to properties of verbs commonly called mood (or mode). Mood comes from a Latin word which means manner. Thus, by using these terms, we are speaking of the manner in which the verb expresses the action or state of being. A verb in the indicative mood makes a statement or asks a question—he sat, they sang, we ate. A verb in the imperative mood expresses a command or request—eat your peas, insert tab A into slot B, close the door.

The word “Gospel” is more important to understand. Language changes with usage and our English word “gospel” has become a much broader word than was used by the New Testament writers. Today, the word is often used to simply mean anything that is true. In this discussion, however, we should be careful to use the term the way the New Testament writers used the word. It is a translation of the Greek word euangelion which means simply “good news.” In three of the Gospels it is used generally to mean good news about the coming of Christ and His Kingdom. In the epistles Paul and Peter used the term in a narrower sense—the Gospel, my Gospel, our Gospel. For Paul and Peter, the gospel was the saving message of Christ. It was “the power of God unto salvation.” It was always used in a soteriological sense.

Now, it is not wrong to use the term gospel to mean countless other things or to point out that all we have and enjoy in Christ is indeed “good news.” But for the purposes of our discussion about sanctification and counseling it would be helpful if we all talked about the same thing and used the term the same way the New Testament uses it.

Our forefathers in the faith would have been baffled by our use of the terms “Gospel Indicatives” and “Gospel Imperatives.” These were not categories that ever occurred to them. It is new jargon and, as such, they do not have any kind of settled theological meaning. If we are to use the terms in their common grammatical sense when referring to “the gospel” we only confuse the discussion by freighting the terms with all the Bible teaches that is true (indicatives) and all the Bible requires of us (imperatives). “The Gospel” (as the term is used in the New Testament) has only two indicatives and but one imperative!

The Gospel is the reporting of news, good news. It consists of two facts of history—Christ died for our sins and He rose again from the dead. Once reported and received by the listener it has been communicated in its entirety. We are not told to “preach it to ourselves” over and over again once we have heard it. It is news. The only gospel indicatives are those two facts of history—Christ died for our sins and rose again from the dead.

When it comes to gospel imperatives there is only one—BELIEVE! The Gospel is the power of God to everyone who believes. All that the Bible teaches we are to do and all it commands that we are to obey are indeed imperatives but by referring to them as “gospel” imperatives we confuse sanctification with justification and do violence to the New Testament usage of the term “gospel.” For Peter, “those who do not obey the gospel” are those who do not believe (1 Peter 4:17).

Let’s have this discussion. It is a vital issue. Those who have resurrected this quietist or contemplative view of sanctification are identified by a number of labels these days—Sonship Theology, New Calvinism, Gospel Sanctification, Christian Hedonism. But regardless of the label, it must be clearly identified as outside the borders of truly Biblical counseling. We will not deal with it as we should if we use fuzzy or cloudy terminology in our discussion. Let’s be clear about what we believe and how the Scriptures teach us to help people change in a way that pleases Him.

On Preaching the Gospel to Yourself

Today we welcome guest blogger Lou Priolo. Lou is a long time friend, author, counselor, and conference speaker. Check out his regular blog site at www.loupriolobiblicalcounseling.com.

To my way of thinking, the place of the doctrine of justification in the believer’s life is much like the operating system on a computer. I’m a PC guy. My personal computer operates under a Windows operating system. Windows is always up and running, but most of the time, it runs in the background. I don’t see it. I can go for days without looking at it (although I know it is functioning as long as the other programs are operating properly). Occasionally, I have to go to the control panel to troubleshoot a problem, make some minor adjustments, or defrag my hard drive, but I don’t give it another thought because I have faith that it is doing what it is supposed to do. So it is with my justification. It is always up and running. Though I am not always consciously thinking about it, everything I do flows from it. Indeed, I could do nothing without it. But there are many other things I am called to do (there are many other responsibilities God calls me to fulfill) on which I must diligently focus my attention. Although I am very grateful for it, I cannot allow myself to be distracted by checking the stability of my operating system of justification every five minutes.

But what about the growing number of those who say that we must (or should or ought to) “preach the Gospel to ourselves every day?” If by Gospel they mean the entire ordo-salutis: effectual calling, regeneration, faith, justification, adoption, sanctification,[1] and glorification—the whole enchilada—there is not a problem (other than the fact that the Bible doesn’t exactly command us to do this). But if, like so many seem to be espousing today, they take a reductionist view of the Gospel—reducing it to justification (or to adoption) alone—there is a problem.

If a new or immature believer does not yet have the faith to believe once and for all that God has truly justified him, he would do well to “preach the Gospel of justification to himself every day” until his faith is mature. But to require me to “preach that gospel to myself daily” is to relegate me to the “O ye of little faith” society (which membership I would be only too happy to acknowledge if I thought it were true in regard to my justification). But the truth is that I believe God. I took Him at his Word when He said that He justified me. By and large, I walk around 24/7 with a righteousness consciousness that flows from my faith in Christ’s finished work on the cross. Even in the midst of my sin, I fully believe that I stand righteous and clean before my Lord (that I am still a son who is loved and accepted by my Heavenly Father) because I have been once and for all justified by faith in His blood. Indeed, my absolutely favorite Bible verse is Romans 4:8, “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not take into account.” Consequently, I have little desire to spend precious moments every day laying anew a foundation that has already been laid for me. Nor do I think that the foundation on which I am building my life somehow needs daily reinforcement. My foundation is firm! I would rather (and I believe the bulk of Scripture directs me to) spend my time building upon that foundation by growing in love, in holiness, and in good works. (I don’t believe we should have a reductionist view of the concept of grace either—grace is more than unmerited favor—it is the supernatural ability and desire that God gives His adopted sons and daughters to obey Him.) And yes, of course, I realize that I can do none of this apart from the Spirit’s enabling power, and that my motivation for working so diligently on my sanctification is out of a heart filled with gratitude for what Christ has done by justifying me (not to mention thanksgiving for a myriad of other mercies with which He has blessed me).

This is not to say that there aren’t moments in my life when, because I am overwhelmed with the guilt of a particular sin, I have to take a bath in Psalm 32, 103, and Romans 3–5 for a few days in order to personally appropriate that justification which I forensically know is mine but that seems to have eluded me experientially. Nevertheless, these moments of weakness (concerning my faith) thankfully for me have been the rare exception rather than the rule.

Of course, there are many other exceptions that could be cited of people who may rightly be encouraged to take a daily booster shot of the Good News of justification. Perfectionistic people, for example, or legalistic individuals, or those who struggle with certain eating disorders are typically those who don’t comprehend justification and its implications on their lives and therefore would do well to review (indoctrinate themselves with) that part of the Gospel until they are fully assured that what God has promised He is able to perform.

So, this is certainly not to imply that there is something wrong with meditating on Christ and what He has done in regard to one’s justification. Indeed, such meditation serves as our greatest motivation for cooperating with the Holy Spirit in the progressive sanctification process. Thus, it is certainly a good thing to do. But, it is the insistence by some that we are all obligated to do this daily that has prompted me to speak out about what I believe amounts to an unbiblical approach to sanctification.

Meditating on what Christ has done by justifying us is not, from the human perspective, what brings about our progressive sanctification (it is not the scriptural modus operandi for or the practical key to it). Obeying Christ’s commandments (in the power of the Spirit and from a heart that is properly motivated) is what does. Understanding justification (and being appreciative for it) is our primary motivation for sanctification, not a principal means of it.

So again, for those whose faith is weak (momentarily or chronically), or who do not understand or properly value the precious doctrine of justification by faith in Christ, or for those who are so proud as to believe that they can obey the Bible in their own power, I believe they should by all means proclaim the doctrine of justification to themselves as often as necessary until their faith is strengthened or until they come to grips with their own depravity. And for the rest of us, meditating on our justification and being thankful to God for it is a fine and proper thing to do.[2] But for one Christian who struggles with (or is weak in) his faith to tell those of us who don’t that we are obligated to daily do what his lack of faith or knowledge (or perhaps lack of humility) impels him to do is presumptuous, if not legalistic. And for teachers and preachers of the Word who want to encourage others to meditate on the blessedness of being justified more regularly than perhaps they do in order to be properly motivated to obey God, for such teachers to not clearly delineate the biblical distinctions between justification and sanctification and thereby synchronize them in the minds of their hearers, is to put a stumbling block before those saints whom they are wanting to help walk in a manner worthy of the Lord. The Gospel is more—much more—than justification by faith alone.


[1] (including our responsibility to cooperate with the Spirit in the process by obeying Scripture)

[2] I make it my practice to read my Bible every day and am thereby reminded of what I have in Christ whenever I read (as I come across in my reading) the many Gospel passages in Scripture. And, of course, every time I partake of the Lord’s Supper, I do so in remembrance of Him.

If You Love Me, Keep My Commandments

Reformation teaching about justification and subsequent obedience hasn’t changed.

The only obedience that God accepts is that which comes from the work of the Spirit within the believer. It is, therefore, both the fruit of the Spirit and the work of the Christian. To position one of these aspects of biblical obedience over against the other is the error of those who believe that sanctification hardly, if at all, necessitates the efforts of one who is converted. But that work—and it is work—is the effort of the believer spurred on, and assisted, by the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments,” He made it clear that these two elements are juxtaposed, not placed in opposition to one another. It’s foolish—not only unbiblical, therefore—to think or teach otherwise. Those who do so, serve only to confuse believers about a matter that was cleared up early in Reformation theology. Why do they now think they are wiser than the Reformers?

This seems to me to be an unsuccessful effort, of people who have nothing new in biblical interpretation, to discover something anyway. If a matter has been settled by the church, it is wrong to stir up the thinking of the general population of Christians about any change in such long-settled theology unless it is clearly an exegetically-supported change that can be demonstrated to be a genuine advance in thought that improves upon accepted Reformation doctrine.

And, in particular, it’s dangerous to play around with the Gospel, which is good news to be believed: it is the news that Jesus died to save His people, bearing their punishment for their sins, and that He rose again from the dead. When one by grace, through faith, trusts Jesus as Savior, all His sins are forever forgiven, His righteousness, now placed on the books, is that perfect righteousness of the Lord, and He now possesses the Spirit Who enables Him to please God by obedience (as he could not beforehand: Romans 5:5).