I have been following, again, the current internet debates over sanctification.  It's troubling. Have we really not figured this out yet? Did the Reformation not make things clear for us? While it's not unhealthy to have brotherly discourse over these matters, I woke up this morning and read the following by Rick Philips at Reformation 21:

I can think of few messages more urgently needed by our worldly churches today than the necessity of pursuing practical holiness through obedience and good works.  I realize that many even of our Reformed brothers would rather ignore James' teaching than work through its challenges, both doctrinally and practically.  But as my friend insisted, "James is, you know, in the Bible. 
 First, I would like to say how much appreciation I have for Rick Phillips.  I have always enjoyed reading his articles, and he helped me tremendously with his critique of the Federal Vision. So in what follows, it should in no way be interpreted as an attack on who I believe is a faithful brother in Christ.

As I read his recent piece at Reformation 21, I ask: "what Reformed brothers does he have in mind who would jettison James 2 in their ministries?" That's a fairly serious charge, that "many" Reformed brothers (I'm assuming pastors) are not preaching the whole counsel of God, choosing rather to ignore what Philips gets and is making clear for us all. Have these brothers failed to understand how the Reformation answered James 2? Are that many of us willfully ignorant on this great chapter of God's Word? 

More concerning is the suggestion that the most urgent need of the church today is the pursuit of holiness through obedience and good works. This is been consistently maintained by many in these sanctification debates. But is that really is the most urgent need for the church today? The assumption is that the gospel is now so well appreciated and understood in our Reformed churches that it's created a void of holy, sanctified living by the members of our churches. 

There is no doubt that a problem of worldliness in the church exists, but is the answer to this problem to whip the people into holiness with the law?  According to Paul, that could make matters worse, since the law does have the function of arousing sin (Rom. 7).

I'm still one of those who believes that of top, urgent priority is what Paul prayed for in Ephesians 2, that believers would be able to "comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height to know the love of Christ" before we can begin to, in correlation with how Paul himself orders things, walk like a new man (Ephesians 4). But I'm afraid that confidence in that sequence earns me the charge of being an antinomian today. And this is, I believe, governing the entire discussion on sanctification: the fear of antinomianism.

There are two concerns I have with the direction this discussion is taking over at Reformation 21. First, is the unwillingness to accept the doctrinal trajectory these discussions have taken over time and over some major controversies.  Ironically, Phillips made this same point to Mark Jones in this post. Phillips writes,
However, there is another context that is relevant to our writing, namely, the 21st century context in which we are writing and being read.  Our context is a post-Shepherd context, when versions of these arguments have wreaked havoc against the gospel....But I do believe that our teaching on these matters should account for this context.  We should therefore make plain how what we are saying differs from how others used similar arguments to ill effect.  It is in this respect that I was not surprised that Mark's pieces on grace and merit received charges of a pro-Shepherd position, even if they were not completely fair.
Great point.  Let's not miss what's being said here. In this current discussion, Phillips, like Jones, is rising to the defense of Piper. Why the jealousy to defend Piper in the confessional Reformed world is a bewilderment to me, but I digress. Just what language is being proposed? It is that we should tell our people that good works are absolutely necessary for them to obtain salvation. I realize that some later Puritan luminaries used this language, but that language is not what we find with many of the early Reformers who were defending justifying faith and the role of good works in contrast with the Roman view. The later positions being proposed evidence a distancing from how the Reformers explained the role of good works as consequential fruit.

Rome’s great charge against the Reformed doctrine of justification was that it would lead to antinomianism. The Reformed answer to this charge is a simple one. For the Reformers, the question of the necessity of virtue (good works) in the life of the believer was without dispute. The crucial difference was in understanding the place where it is appropriate to speak of the necessity of works.   

Ursinus speaks of good works as a logical and consequential priority of having been justified. 
Good works are not required, that by them we may apprehend Christ’s merit, and much less that for them we should be justified; but that by them we may show our faith, which without good works is dead, and it not know by them, that is, good works are required as effects of faith, and, as it were a testimony of our thankfulness towards God.
William Perkins spoke of good works as a "sign thereof," and consequential of faith.
The meaning is, that nothing within man, and nothing that man can do, either by nature, or by grace, concurs to the act of justification before God, as an cause thereof, either efficient, material, formal, or final, but faith alone. All other gifts and graces, as hope, love, the fear of God, are necessary to salvation, as signs thereof and consequents of faith. Nothing in any man concurs as any cause to this work but faith alone. And faith itself is no principal, but only an instrumental cause whereby we receive apprehend, and apply Christ and his righteousness for our justification.
Now, in light of current discussion, below are four theses of Shepherd that address his view of good works:
Thesis 20: The Pauline affirmation in Romans 2:13, “the doers of the Law will be justified,” is not to be understood hypothetically in the sense that there are no persons who fall into that class, but in the sense that faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ will be justified (Compare Luke 8:21; James 1:22-25). 
Thesis 21: The exclusive ground of the justification of the believer in the state of justification is the righteousness of Jesus Christ, but his obedience, which is simply the perseverance of the saints in the way of truth and righteousness, is necessary to his continuing in a state of justification (Heb 3:6, 14). 
Thesis 22: The righteousness of Jesus Christ ever remains the exclusive ground of the believer’s justification, but the personal godliness of the believer is also necessary for his justification in the judgment of the last day (Matt 7:21-23; 25:31-46; Heb. 12:14). 
Thesis 23: Because faith which is not obedient faith is dead faith, and because repentance is necessary for the pardon of sin included in justification, and because abiding in Christ by keeping his commandments (John 15:5; 10; 1 John 3:13; 24) are all necessary for continuing in the state of justification, good works, works done from true faith, according to the law of God, and for his glory, being the new obedience wrought by the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer united to Christ, though not the ground of his justification, are nevertheless necessary for salvation from eternal condemnation and therefore for justification (Rom. 6:16, 22; Gal. 6:7-9). 
What drove Shepherd to these views was the fear of antinomianism in the Reformed system. Further, Shepherd accused evangelicals of typically “dodging” the verses that Rome employs to refute the Reformation, like James 2. 

So should we really so openly say that good works are necessary for salvation when Shepherd used that language to cause such a controversy? How are we not to equate these ideas today with a pro-Shepherd position? In this respect, should Phillips and others really be surprised if people see these as pro-Shepherd ideas?

Second, my major concern is pastoral. I found Mark Jones' post in his post on Pastor-scholar? Not Likely very convincing.  Jones writes, 
the more I am beginning to realize that the life of the minister and the life of the scholar are very different... The sheep are not just faces in a building, but people to whom pastors must give their lives to and for. Sheep need a lot of attention from shepherds.
 Another great point from Reformation 21 So, please tell me how, when bringing finely nuanced past discussions of (don't forget we're in a post-Shepherd context) of justification and sanctification, we pastors are helping "real sheep." In light of the language being proposed, is this merely theoretical? I'm trying to imagine saying to my congregation: "You will enter glory by your good works." Now one might say, "well, that's not 'quite' what were saying," but that IS how the sheep will hear it. You decide, are these discussions demonstrating that they are 1) pastors, 2) pastor-scholars, 3) or scholars? If we accept Jones' premise that a pastor-scholar is not likely, maybe these guys need to get out of the ivory tower of the scholar and become "pastors", because I am trying to imagine Reformed pastors saying these things.

Further, this discussion demonstrates how far out of touch we've become with the sheep in the Reformed world. Tell me, is the basic problem among our sheep that they are broken over their sin and are trusting well in Christ, or that they are over confident in their own good works?  

I recently heard the story of an old minister who was great at preaching the law. Toward the end of his ministry, he went into one of his best and most faithful parishioners who was on his death bed. This minister asked, "are you confident you will meet the Lord today?", he asked, "Yes," he replied, "I've done everything you told me to and worked hard for this all my life."  The pastor was heart-broken.

In reality, I have a lot of "thieves on the cross" in my congregation. Let me tell you of a man named "Willie."  He is overweight, he is confined to his bed, he has eating disorders, never made it very far in sanctification, in fact, he was a runner for cartels at one point.  Willie bleeds with guilt.  Not sure he'll ever get up again. Should I make sure he understands the need for obedience to enter glory? How much should I tell him he needs to do? Some of those sins are personal, even to obesity.  

Are we really dealing with real people, or have perceived threats governed these discussions to the hurt of the sheep?

All of these cases illustrate that the greatest need in the church today is not a heavier hand with the law. These are real hurting sheep in our congregations. If we are going to be "pastors", some of these "scholarly" discussions in our post-Shepherd context need to go away--even at Reformation 21. 

I stand strongly by the Biblical view that holiness is a fruit and consequence of the love God has  manifested in his provision to supply everything I need, both in the active and passive obedience of Jesus Christ.  He justifies our sheep by faith alone, and whatever follows is designated as a process of sanctification. The divine acts are separated from this "process" in Scripture for a reason, namely, that the NT writers never wanted to wound sincere Romans 7, struggling Christians in suggesting that their eternal life was contingent upon their own personal holiness. This is precisely why Paul leaves out sanctification from the mini-ordo of Romans 8. As James Boice once said, "Our security depends upon what he has done, not on what we may or may not be able to do...our security in Christ does not depend upon our sanctification." Did you hear that? Glory does not depend on our sanctification. Amen!

I hope this doesn't make me an antinomian, but if anyone is questioning that, I promise that I've never put a tattoo on myself out of a real conviction for holiness, but even now, when saying this, I'm feeling totally self-righteous. How much I need to keep my eyes on Christ.


  1. Thank you, Pastor Gordon! How pastoral, and in accordance with Scripture, is "do more"? "Keep your eyes on Christ," not yourself!

  2. Tat not lest ye be tattled upon ...

    More seriously, thank you so much! I hear that the "grace movement" is heretical , but I watch our communion service as families and individuals come forward - broken family, single mom, self-induced health problem - and I thank God that humble people are receiving grace. I just don't "get" the overcomer teaching that makes us the primary agent in our Christian lives.