I’ll take another dose of that, please

The Church has had greater intellects but I doubt she’s ever had a better counselor than John Newton.

In a letter to Lord Dartmouth, Newton addresses the universal plight of every Christian–that our actual lives fall far short of our convictions and desires. Newton illustrates the disparity between our desires and practice by considering the essential practices of prayer and Scripture reading.

Concerning prayer:

[The Christian] would willingly enjoy God in prayer. He knows that prayer is his duty; but, in his judgment, he considers it likewise as his greatest honor and privilege. In this light he can recommend it to others, and can tell them of the wonderful condescension of the great God, who humbles himself to behold the things that are in heaven, that He should stoop so much lower, to afford his gracious ear to the supplications of sinful worms upon the earth. . . And in this light he would consider it and improve it for himself. But, alas; how seldom can he do as he would! How often does he find this privilege a mere task, which he would be glad of a just excuse to omit! and the chief pleasure he derives from the performance, is to think that his task is finished…

And Scripture reading:

He believes it to be the word of God: he admires the wisdom and grace of the doctrines, the beauty of the precepts, the richness and suitableness of the promises; and therefore, with David, he accounts it preferable to thousands of gold and silver, and sweeter than honey or the honeycomb. Yet, while he thus thinks of it and desires that it may dwell in him richly, and be his meditation night and day, he cannot do as he would. It will require some resolution to persist in reading a portion of it every day; and even then his heart is often less engaged than when reading a pamphlet.

What are we to make of these pitiful performances in our Christian lives? Rather than make light of our sin Newton would have us make much of Christ:

But though we aim at this good, evil is present within us: we find we are renewed in part, and have still cause to plead the Lord’s promise, to take away the heart of stone, and give us a heart of flesh.

…Alas! how vain is man in his best estate! How much weakness and inconsistency, even in those whose hearts are right with the Lord! and what reason have we to confess that we are unworthy, unprofitable servants!

It were easy to enlarge in this way, would paper and time permit. But, blessed be God, we are not under the law but under grace. And even these distressing effects of the remnants of indwelling sin are overruled for good. By these experiences the believer is weaned more from self, and taught more highly to prize and more absolutely rely on him, who is appointed to us of God, Wisdom, Righteousness, Sanctification, and Redemption. The more vile we are in our own eyes, the more precious He will be to us; and a deep repeated sense of the evil of our hearts is necessary to preclude all boasting, and to make us willing to give the whole glory of our salvation to where it is due. Again, a sense of these evils will (when hardly anything else can do it) reconcile us to the thoughts of death; yea, make us desirous to depart that we may sin no more, since we find depravity so deep-rooted in our nature, that, like the leprous house, the whole fabric must be taken down before we can be freed from its defilement. Then, and not till then, we shall be able to do the thing that we would: when we see Jesus, we shall be transformed into his image, and have done with sin and sorrow forever. [John Newton to Lord Dartmouth, Letter 1, February 1772 in Letters of John Newton, pp 88-92]

That is good medicine for the soul and I need more.

Grace changes the person

…grace does not simply jump to move us to action without first moving us as persons. Sanctifying grace changes the person, not merely the aggregation of their actions. Grace transforms the very character of the person, leading not only to increasing action in a holy direction but to growth in the very self.

— Michael Allen, Sanctification

Reformation 500: Calvin on sanctification

Let each one of us, then, proceed according to the measure of his puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun. No one shall set out so inauspiciously as not daily to make some headway, though it may be slight. Therefore, let us not cease so to act that we may make some unceasing progress in the way of the Lord. And let us not despair at the slightness of our success; for even though attainment may not correspond to desire, when today outstrips yesterday, the effort is not lost. Only let us look toward our mark with sincere simplicity and aspire to our goal; not fondly flattering ourselves, nor excusing our own evil deeds, but with continuous effort striving toward this end: that we may surpass ourselves in goodness until we attain to goodness itself.

-John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.6.5

Could Abraham have remained childless?

Those “aha!” moments in Bible study are sweet. It’s the experience the psalmist prayed for in Psalm 119:18 — “Open my eyes that I might see wonderful things in Your law” — and that we long to have more of. A couple of years ago I had one of those moments working through Romans 4 and the light from that study¹ brought much-needed correction and clarity on the relationship between justification (God’s declaration that we are righteous) and sanctification (the process of our becoming righteous).

Maintaining these two doctrines without allowing one to undermine the other is threading a theological needle. How, exactly, does one harmonize a not-by-works salvation with a working faith? We find various formulations (with varying degrees of authority):

God will take you as you are but he will not leave you as you are.

Saved by good works–no. Saved for good works–yes.

We are saved by faith alone but the faith that saves is never alone.

For by grace you have been saved through faith . . . not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

But for all the explanations out there it was the Abraham analogy in Romans 4 that helped me the most. The explicit point of the chapter is that God counted Abraham as righteous because he believed God’s promise.

But consider the broader implications:

  1. The promise of many descendants was given to Abraham although he was neither a father nor able to become a father.
  2. Abraham believed that God was able to do what he could not.
  3. Abraham’s faith was the vehicle by which the promise became a reality.
  4. At the practical level, Abraham “acted out” the promise.
  5. Because God called Abraham a father, God made Abraham a father.

And Abraham’s story was written for us:

  1. The promise that we will be declared righteous is given to us although we are not righteous nor able to become righteous.
  2. We believe that God is able to do what we cannot.
  3. Justifying faith is the vehicle by which the promise of righteousness becomes a reality for sinful people like us.
  4. At the practical level, we “work out” the promise of righteousness.
  5. Because God calls us righteous, God makes us righteous.

In this light I think we can better understand why Paul: (a) expresses disbelief at the notion that Christians would continue in sin after being justified (Rom 6:1-4) and (b) equates those who are “in Christ Jesus” as those who “do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:1-4). The act of justification can’t be separated from the work of sanctification. Those whom God calls righteous apart from works will be made righteous by their works.

To be sure, Abraham never saw the perfect fulfillment of the promise in his life. Neither will we see the perfect fulfillment of righteousness in this life. But the encouragement of Romans 4 is this: because our righteousness rests on God’s promise we can no more remain fruitless than Abraham could have remained childless.


¹The light bearer for this occasion was Mark Seifrid’s commentary on Romans in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.

Throwing out the (dirty) baby with the bath water [pt 4]

{What follows are key statements from Galli’s review (in bold italics) followed by my thoughts in response}

I think two teachings of Jesus need to play a much larger role in any discussion of holiness…The first is the parable of the Pharisee and the sinner (Luke 18). In that parable we see that the person who has pursued holiness, and has done so with reasonable success, is condemned. The person who is unholy as unholy can be is praised. Luke 18:9-14 is the first of two passages that Galli cites to support his claim that pursuing holiness will inevitably lead to self-righteousness. This is just poor biblical interpretation. The parable isn’t a statement on pursuing holiness (i.e. sanctification) as anyone can see if they read to the end of the parable where Jesus declares that the self-acknowledged sinner “went down to his house justified” (Lk 18:14). Consequently, the central issue in the parable isn’t about how one walks before God (in sanctification) but how one stands before God (by justification). The Pharisee thinks that his right standing with God is due to his work (Lk 18:11-12) but Jesus makes clear that right standing with God is due to undeserved grace (Lk 18:13-14). How one walks after being made right isn’t discussed at all. The claim that the Luke 18 parable proves that pursuing holiness inevitably leads to self-righteousness can only be maintained by ignoring Jesus’ own interpretive conclusion or by conflating justification with sanctification. Either way Galli’s interpretive approach just doesn’t work.

The second teaching is Jesus’ admonition that our left hand should not know what our right hand is doing (Matt 6:3). On this verse at least, Galli does a better job at paying attention to the context by noting that the teaching concerns “almsgiving” before extending the application to “all our good deeds.” Unfortunately, although he sees one contextual road sign he still ends up driving off the road. Two observations should suffice. First, the teaching in Matt 6:2-4 isn’t about self-examination (as Galli suggests) but self-promotion: practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them (Matt 6:1). Second, Jesus’ warning/exhortation invites self-examination (contra Galli) in order to determine why we do our good deeds (man’s praise or God’s praise?) and whether or not our actions (public or private?) line up with our motives. There is simply no way for us to live the Christian life as the metaphorically oblivious left hand (unless you subscribe to Thing theology).

Better than examining ourselves and trying to be holy is to stop looking at yourself in the first place, and to start looking for the neighbor, moving toward him with the rhythm of grace. Isn’t moving toward your neighbor in grace a step of holiness, too? Galli seems to assume that the Christian who looks to himself will not (cannot?) also look to his neighbor but, while that may be true in certain cases, it’s by no means a biblical truism. Grace and holiness aren’t mutually exclusive and the pursuit of one doesn’t mean the abandonment of the other. Jesus ties the two together in passages like Mat 5:43-48 when He commands us to love our enemies (i.e. move in grace) and to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (i.e. pursue holiness). In fact, if we discern the relationship between grace & holiness in Matthew 5 we would have to admit that we move in grace precisely because we want to be holy!

To a certain extent I understand why Galli would balk at the notion of pursuing personal holiness. Christians will always run the risk of misinterpreting and/or misapplying Scripture’s holiness commands. However, the risk of failure doesn’t negate the command and the requisite response. The best way to carry the aroma of grace is to self-consciously shed the rotting remains of our old man.

Throwing out the (dirty) baby with the bath water [pt 1]

In their November (Web-only) issue, Christianity Today ran a four-part, multi-author book review of The Hole in our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung. I haven’t read the book but a recently renewed interest in the doctrine of sanctification drew me to check out the discussion anyway.

I expected differing levels of agreement (or disagreement) from the reviewers but I didn’t expect a rebuttal of “the self-conscious pursuit of holiness.” Mark Galli, editor of CT, opens his review by pulling the rug out from our feet when he says:

The Hole in Our Holiness is a fine book that makes a good argument that all devout Christians should read and inwardly digest. And then, as soon as possible, we should forget about it.

Why should a fine book with a good argument be forgotten as soon as possible? According to Galli it’s because a conscious pursuit of holiness will inevitably lead to despair (since we will continue to sin) or self-righteousness (since any “success” will breed pride). So striving for sanctification leads to sin unless you just don’t think about sanctification in which case you will become holy. Uh huh.

In fairness, Galli acknowledges that there “is some deliberate effort involved” in our call to holiness although he also opines “that a conscious and purposeful pursuit of holiness is about the worst way to go about [becoming holy].” We ought to be aware of the dangers that accompany a pursuit of holiness–despair and/or pride–and I don’t deny that Scripture warns against such traps. But Galli’s requisite prescription for avoiding these self-centered ills amounts to throwing out the baby with the bath water except that in this case we wouldn’t even bother to see the baby cleaned first.

What follows are key statements from Galli’s argument (in bold italics) followed by my thoughts in response:

1) The case for holiness is not hard to make, as the Bible is full of injunctions to that end. Set aside the self-defeating endeavor of admitting that “the Bible is full of injunctions” to holiness while simultaneously dissuading the reader from thinking too much about them. Galli speaks of Ephesians 1:4 and 2:10 as definitive statements on practical holiness in relation to which “every other biblical admonition to holy living seems like mere commentary.” With all due respect, such an approach is too short-sighted. Consider just four other passages:

Matthew 5:48  You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
1 Thessalonians 4:3  For this is the will of God, your sanctification…
Hebrews 12:14  Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
1 Peter 1:14-16  As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance,  15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct,  16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

Galli doesn’t even reference such explicit commands. Furthermore, Galli’s  approach glosses over the fact that the Bible communicates the holiness imperative both directly and indirectly. That is, passages which never actually use the word “holiness” or “sanctification” (or their respective cognates) can nevertheless speak to the biblical concept of sanctification. An informal sampling of the New Testament yields such honorable mentions as  Acts 26:20; Rom 6:12-14; 12:1-2; 1Cor 6:20; 2Cor 3:18; 5:9; Gal 5:16ff; Eph 4:17-24; 5:1; Phil 2:12; 3:12ff; Col 1:10; 3:5ff; 1Thess 4:1; 2Thess 2:13; 1Tim 4:7-8; 2Tim 1:9; 2:19, 22; Titus 2:14; Heb 13:21; James 1:21; 2Pet 1:10; 3:11; and 1Jn 3:3.

The point is that Galli’s cursory admission of the biblical call to holiness comes across as self-serving to say the least. I suspect that a more even-handed acknowledgement of the robustness of Scripture’s call would undercut the author’s thesis from the start since the notion that two Ephesian verses adequately represent Scriptures’ expectation of Christian holiness fails to appreciate the full weight of practical holiness as a component of salvation. The biblical injunctions are too many and too varied for us to not think about the pursuit of holiness.

When the ‘excellence’ of a holy man is not peaceful

I do not say for a moment that holiness shuts out the presence of indwelling sin. No: far from it. It is the greatest misery of a holy man that he carries about with him a “body of death;”–that often when he would do good “evil is present with him”; that the old man is clogging all his movements, and, as it were, trying to draw him back at every step he takes. (Rom. vii. 21.). But it is the excellence of a holy man that he is not at peace with indwelling sin, as others are. He hates it, mourns over it, and longs to be free from its company. The work of sanctification within him is like the wall of Jerusalem–the building goes forward “even in troublous times.” (Dan. ix. 25.)

–J.C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and  Roots