Category Archives: controversy

Scripture and Science Revisited

One of the biggest challenges to the faith of Christians today is found at the intersection of Scripture and science. I plan to specifically address a constellation of issues that arise at this intersection of ideas over the next couple of months. But at the moment I would like to draw your attention to a couple of resources.

First, Carl Trueman and Greg Beale from Westminster Theological Seminary address the topic of The Bible, Myths, Contradictions, and Inerrancy in a helpful interview.

Another brief but good resource can be found in this post by Kevin DeYoung: Ten Reasons to Believe In A Historical Adam.

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What Is Sanctification?

A bit of a discussion, turned into debate, has been ratcheting up in evangelical and Reformed circles over the last year or so regarding the doctrine of sanctification. Specifically, the confusion is over the doctrine of sanctification and its relationship to the doctrine of justification. This is happening at both the popular and the academic level. For those interested in the discussion at an academic level, listen to the discussion / debate between Michael Horton (Westminster Seminary, California) and Lane Tipton (Westminster Theological Seminary).

There are lots of issues involved in the current debate about sanctification and none of them are new. Some of the questions that arise are: How do we use the law? How do we preach the gospel? What is grace? What are God-honoring motivations for obedience? What does it mean to be Christ-centered / Gospel – centered? Can we expect people to make any real and marked spiritual progress in life? Many more questions could be added that are directly and indirectly involved in this discussion. And I certainly won’t answer all of those questions here.  But one important aspect of this debate can be highlighted in a couple quotes that are taken from Tullian Tchividjian in his book “Jesus + Nothing = Everything,” where it is claimed that “Sanctification is the daily hard work of going back to the reality of our justification” (p. 95). Again he says, “Sanctification is the hard work of giving up our efforts at self-justification” (p. 172). 

Left by itself, this is wrong.

And yet, these statements are only wrong because of one word… the word “the.” If I can put it this way, these statements are not wrong because they are something other than the truth. They are wrong because they are something less than the truth. Sanctification is more than “the art of getting used to your justification” “or “going back to your justification.”

Tullian says many good things in his book which awaken the Christian to fresh appreciations of the grace that is ours in the gospel. Amen to that! After all, it is quite true and critically important that Christians know that their sanctification is in Christ and from Christ, not in themselves or merely in their own works of trying harder to be godly (1 Cor. 1:30-31; Gal. 3:1-6).  It is also true that sanctification is entirely by grace. Our sanctification does not stand as a testimony to our own righteousness. It does truly stand as a testimony of the ongoing significance of what God has done for us in Christ.

But….there is something seriously defective with our understanding of sanctification if there is nothing added to this. Christians have now been joined to Christ and are therefore now living their lives as new creations (2 Cor. 5:17), who are now God’s workmanship (Eph. 2:10), who bear fruits that are apparent to others (John 15:1-8, 16). This also is an evidence of God’s grace in our lives. A true understanding of grace recognizes with Scripture that “the grace of God has appeared…training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12).

The popularity of Tchividjian’s book, however, points to the fact that the somewhat lopsided view of sanctification presented there is scratching people where they itch. I think this is true for a couple of reasons.

(1) It is true (and in many circles we don’t say it enough) that the gospel is necessary for our sanctification. We now stand in gospel “grace” (Rom. 5:1). We are to “grow in grace” (2 Pet. 3:18). We continue to come to the “throne of grace” to have our spiritual needs met (Heb. 4:16). We are still being saved by the gospel (1 Cor. 1:18). As Christians, we can heartily agree with the words of the Psalmist: “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Ps. 130:3-4). When we don’t hear this kind of thing, it leaves Christians with a dreary form of performance-based legalism that thirsts for grace (whether we know it or not). Trumpet the word of grace in a strictly law-soaked environment and many a happy saint you will see! May the church have no lack of preaching the cross and the imputed righteousness of Christ. And may thirsty saints continue to drink deeply at the same well of free grace apart from human works that we hold out to non-Christians (Is. 55:1-3). These are blessed benefits of our union with Christ.

(2) At the same time, itching ears often love to be told that there is no real hope that we will experience any genuine moral transformation over the course of our lives. And, it is quickly added, that should not cause us anxiety because grace is after all free, not based on our works. As Kevin DeYoung has commented, we hear about the liars and the thieves and the adulterers and the idolaters, and the greedy, and professing Christians say, “Oh, yeah, that is totally me, totally me!” What? Do we fail to realize that Scripture describes these people as those who will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10)? If that description really sums up our moral state, then, according to Paul and the rest of the New Testament, it means we are not a Christian.

There definitely has to be some sense in which we are humble about the continuing presence of sin in our lives on this side of heaven. Hiding sins is the habit of hypocrites. If any man says he has no sin he is a liar (1 John 2:4). Confessing and forsaking sins is the habit of Christians (1 John 1:9). But we also must be able to say in a good conscience that “such were some of you” (1 Cor. 6:11). To be a “new creation” (Gal. 6:15) means we are no longer what we once were. As Christians, we first experience the definitive divine action of sanctification when we are regenerated and then we are progressively sanctified throughout our Christian lives (2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 12:1-2).

Here is a big picture perspective. God’s grace to us in our union with Christ means that we are justified in Christ, adopted in Christ, and sanctified in Christ. Theologians have called these the forensic, the filial, and the transformative aspects of our salvation. All three of these categories are essential aspects of what God does in and for a Christian through their union with Christ. It seems that some today are downplaying the second two categories of what Christ does in our salvation, while they lift the first category of justification up to the heavens. When there is an unbalanced emphasis like this, it is not an example of Christ-centered or gospel centered preaching, no matter how much they talk about Christ or his cross. It does not promote Christ-centered or gospel-centered living to reduce the doctrine of salvation to justification. We must have full gospel preaching for the long-term happiness and holiness of the church.

This is actually a reoccurring discussion in the life of the church over the centuries. An important historical precedent for today’s debate can be seen in the Marrow Controversy of the 16th century. For background on that and helpful connections with today, check out Sinclair Ferguson’s 3-part sermon

Are You Nursing A Grudge?

The children’s Sunday School has been working it’s way through Genesis and most recently has been considering the story of Joseph. I was struck by this reflection that Calvin had on this part of the book. 

“If Joseph had stopped to dwell upon his brother’s treachery, he would never have been able to show a brotherly attitude toward them. But since he turned his thoughts to the Lord, forgetting the injustice, he inclined to gentleness and kindness, even to the point of comforting his brothers and saying: ‘It is not you who sold me into Egypt, but I was sent before you by God’s will, that I might save your life’ [Gen. 45:5, 7-8 p.].” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I. XVII. 8.

The funny thing about nursing a grudge, is that the person who holds the grudge always believes that they are justified, and perhaps sometimes they are. But that is what makes the example of Joseph all the more impacting. No one would deny that he had been sinned against, yet he chose not to dwell on his brothers’ offense. His heart loved his brothers and was willing to reconcile before they showed signs of remorse, and when they humbled themselves he was abundant in his mercy. Truly, Joseph is an example of God’s grace in action.

“So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:12-13)

Christian Fellowship While We Are In the World

During the first four months of 1935, J. Gresham Machen gave a series of radio lectures on the topic of the Christian faith. The specific topics were among the ones that were being particularly contested in his day (the inspiration and authority of the Bible, the nature of God, and the person of Christ). Machen was truly a defender of the faith. With sadness, the cause of truth led him to separate from the increasingly liberal Princeton Seminary where he had taught New Testament from 1906-1929, in order to found Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929. Then six months before his death, he was a leader in the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church after separating from the liberal PCUSA. When he gave these talks in 1935, he was in the latter years of his controversy-filled life which ended somewhat abruptly in January of 1937. The broadcasts were later compiled and published (after his death) in 1945  under the title “The Christian Faith in the Modern World.”

With the trials and trauma of Machen’s heroic life in mind, it is very meaningful to read a series of remarks that he makes in the introduction to his final lecture in the series. He says:

“These are rather trying days to a man who sorrows when a visible Church that professes to believe the Word of God turns away from it so often into the pathways of unbelief and sin; and in such days it is doubly comforting to converse with those who truly love the Gospel of Christ and believe that it alone is the message that is forever new. I do rejoice with all my heart in the Christian fellowship which we have together, and I trust that God may richly bless you, both in joy and in sorrow, and may by His Holy Spirit cause you always to be grounded upon the rock of His Holy Word.”[1]

Machen found his trek through the Christian life to be tiresome in both soul and body. Yet, for him, the Word of God was a solid rock on which to stand and he was greatly encouraged that he did not stand there alone. I hope that you have the same joy in the Holy Spirit, stability in the Word of God and sweetness of Christian fellowship while in the world. I am reminded of the words of our Lord Jesus:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
(John 16:33)

[1] J. Gresham Machen, The Christian Faith In The Modern World, p. 231.

Conduct In Controversy

I love regularly returning to study the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Recently, I picked up the short book Justification Vindicated by Robert Traill and found a surprising nugget at the end. In his day (1642-1716), controversy swirled around this precious doctrine of the gospel. After forcefully defending the doctrine itself, Traill found it profitable to give a few words regarding the proper way to conduct oneself in the midst of controversy. His advice is wise and a few of his thoughts are worth reproducing here for our edification:

So that good may come out of this controversy, let me request a few things of my brethren.

1. Let us not recieve reports suddenly of one another. In times of contention, many false reports are raised and rashly believed. This is both the fruit and fuel of contention…

2. Let us make Christ crucified our great study, as Christians; and the preaching of him our main work, as ministers (1 Cor. 2:2)…

3. Let us study hard and pray much to know the truth and to cleave to it…

4. Let us not run into extremes, upon the right or left hand, through the heat of contention…

And at the end he adds:

The wisdom of God sometimes orders the different opinions of men about his truth for the clearing and confirming of it; each side watch the extremes that others may be in hazard of running into. And if the controversy is fairly and meekly managed in this way we may differ and plead our opinions and both love and edify those we oppose and be loved and edified by them in their opposition.

When we find ourselves in controversy, may God grant us divine wisdom for a gracious disposition. I am reminded of the words of Colossians 4:6:

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”

My Sympathies to Arminius

 Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) was a theologian and pastor of Dutch descent living in the context of a land where the church had to a great degree embraced the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation. Arminius came to disavow these doctrines in many key areas. Overall, this can be summed up in his acceptance of a synergistic view of salvation rather than the monergistic salvation heralded by Luther, Calvin, Knox and others. Synergism is a heresy found in Pelagian and semi-Pelagian theology that has be condemned as error at various points in church history. Not surprisingly then, this left him embroiled in a fair amount of controversy for the rest of his life.

My sympathies go out to Arminius in this. Not because I agree with him doctrinally….I don’t. But because of the way the battle was engaged at times. Roger Olson, an Arminian himself, has written what is probably the authoritative book (Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities) on the subject from an Arminian perspective. Arminius faced many accusations about his doctrine, most of which were right on the mark. Yet he also faced many misdirected accusations, some of which even bordered on absurdity. His character was slandered and his integrity was maligned. Olson tells us that the heated exchanges even left Arminius accused of “being a secret agent of the pope and the Spanish Jesuits, and even the Spanish government” (p. 22). None of these accusations were grounded in truth. All of these personal attacks distracted from the real doctrinal issues that needed to be worked through.

Sadly, these kinds of ad hominem attacks were not new tactics in Arminius’s day and they continue in our day. They create much heat but little light. They do not help resolve issues of disagreement. They neither edify the Lord’s people nor glorify the Lord himself. These tactics are factitious in themselves and should be shunned for the sake of both truth and love. In Paul’s letter to Titus he says that elders in particular must “be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also rebuke those who contradict it” (1:9). Yet he also goes on to say that we should “show perfect courtesy toward all people” (3:2). The elders and congregations in Arminius’s day did not always work out this admonition as well as they could have. How well are we doing in our day?