Sunday, September 05, 2010

Christian Sanctification - Indicative but no Imperative?

One of the standard features of Christian ethics is that it has an indicative part (what God has done for us in in salvation) and an imperative part (how we are to live in consequence). In other words, because of what God has done for you, now you should live in a manner worthy of your salvation. This pattern of indicative and imperative certainly works in Paul (e.g., Romans 6), but I would argue that it is also the pattern in the Pentateuch since the long is given to a redeemed people not to redeem the people. In fact, Charles Talbert's study on the Sermon on the Mount shows that while Matthew is big on imperatives, he still has an indicative.

Where am I going with this? Well my concern is that some are beginning to replace the imperative element in Christian sanctification (i.e., the need to diligently prosecute, pursue, and cultivate holiness and godliness) with the need for more knowledge of the indicative (i.e., believing more in the grace of God). Dan Ortlund, who is a jolly nice chap, gives a big listing of quotes that basically take this line. For instance, one guy quoted, Jared Wilson, writes: "As pat as the answer may sound, the key to healthy Christian growth in godliness is submissive study of the Scriptures". Now let me say that I believe in big "G" grace and I'm against big "M" moralizing. I'm fully aware that an understanding and appreciation of Christ and his work will work itself out in transformed behavior. No denials. But I am concerned that the "now go and do this" and "in response let us live like this" or "don't do this" that we find in the Scriptures are being marginalized in the name of a piety that is largely cognitive rather than transformative, a piety that is cerebral rather than practical.

But let's consider one of the exhortations to godliness in the Scriptures. Here is 2 Pet 1:3-10 (I preach a sermon on this passage called "Godly Mathematics").

3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence,4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. 5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.9 For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Now notice that there is clearly an intellectual aspect about knowing the call of God and his promises, but thereafter we are called to add certain virtues to our life in order to life a godly life. It is not just a matter of read your ESV study Bible more or "let go and let God brother". We have the responsibility to deliberately adopt changed attitudes and changed behaviours that show our family likeness by our conduct and thereby make our calling and election sure! This is not some moralizing self-help step ladder to salvation, it is the genuine calling of the Christian to work out what God has worked in (Phil 2:12-13). Good theology, godward passion, and christocentric interpretation is not enough. Based on the words of Jesus, Paul, and James I'm willing to say that the differences between the sheep and the goats, between the followers and the fans, between hearers and doers, and between wearing a cross and carrying one, is whether one earnestly struggles against sin and earnestly seeks after godly virtues in the power of God's Spirit. It is mediation on grace, imitation of Christ/God, transformation of the self, and actively pursuing application that will make us godly people.

HT: to Jason Hood for pointing out Dane's post to me.


Paul D. Adams said...

Good words, Michael.
Perhaps the hardest text of all in the NT (at least for me) is John 13:17 "Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them." The blessing is in the doing, not merely in the knowing. Of course, "knowing" is necessary, but it is not sufficient since knowing is telic; a means to an end. It's the doing that brings μακάριος (= happiness).

Mike W said...

is the sticking point the word 'sanctification'?
Has this word been misused (much like 'justification', so that when people wake up to a more biblical grasp of the word, they also chuck out all the good stuff about obedience that has come to be attached to it?
What is a better word?

I never get the 'it all flows out of remembering the scriptures' argument.

David said...

This issue is very timely for me, and one which I've been struggling with. Recently the gospel has come alive with the teaching I've received concerning grace and salvation by faith alone. All of which was great, but I was left (entirely of myself, not from the teaching) with the idea that if I imbibed enough "faith-alone" gospel teaching, enough Trinitarian theology, then by virtue of knowing it and believing it, and loving God more because of it, then my relational orientation towards God and away from self and sin would automatically happen. In some respects it did happen. Meditation on the trinity seemed to somehow drain away the anti-relational root of certain temptations (for example, occasional pornography use lost its appeal directly because my beliefs about what reality is had changed, and not because of any apparent effort on my part). But still, the duality of grace and works continue to play out in me.

The point, as I see it, of the gospel, is that by breaking the back of the power that sin had over our lives through the Law (by effectively revealing how neither our good nor our bad works have any impact on if and how we are saved) God frees us from the categorically imperative duty to be good, thus freeing us to be good not out of duty but out of love - and genuine love will always result in works of love. This opens up the theoretical possibility that someone might never do any good works once they are saved, and yet this doesn't render Christ's sacrifice any less efficacious for them; but, it is theoretically impossible to concieve that one could thus be saved and never allow this good news to impel them to works of love. One would doubt the genuiness of their love/faith.
That being the case, and I think it is, the compulsion to turn away from sin becomes like the desire of a man who loves his wife to stay faithful to her; that is, he doesn't stay faithful because it is the right thing to do (even though it is), but because his love for her makes him wants to be faithful. Similarly, for example, to not get drunk because getting drunk is bad is a very dour kind of sobriety compared with not getting drunk as a consequence of a deep love for Christ. This is where I think the nub of the problem regarding struggling with sin is: the more love their is (felt and not felt) the more that love WILL express itself in deeds. It's just a law of reality.

volker said...

Here are two recent monographs that address exactly this question:



Douglas Haley said...

I agree with the corrective that having been saved we still have lives to live; sheep and goats are distinguished by what they do and do not do. My concern is that this responsibility gets framed as a distinction between God's work for us and our work for him, rather than God's work for us, and then God's work in us, both appropriated by grace, but the second lived cooperatively. Thanks for the stimulating thought, I've posted a longer response here:

Jared said...

Michael, I am unclear on your specific issues with my quote "for instance."

You have a blog post to explain your position. We had one sentence. :-)

I decided to understand the question Dane posed in terms of something we "do" because of the use of the word "key." Others did not interpret it this way.

I offered "submissive study of the Scriptures" as the key to godliness b/c I believe the revelation of God shows us who we are and tells us what to do, so that is the source for us. I qualified the study as "submissive" to indicate one can't just read, one must place one's self under the authority of Scripture: believe what it says, do what it commands.

How is this marginalizing the imperatives? How is this cerebral piety?

Is it possible you are reading way too much into one-line responses? Or at least into mine?

I hope you'll forgive the pushback; I did want to clarify as you singled my line out. :-)

Michael F. Bird said...

Fair enough response. I didn't suppose that your citation contained everything you thought/believed about sanctification. My problem was that Dane's list of quotes was rather cliche and it made more knowledge of indicative the secret to the imperative. I find this too cerebral and too abstract. 2 Peter clearly says "make every effort" so it is cultivating habits, spiritual discipline, and deliberate pursuit of holiness. In other words, we need to genuinely work at our sanctification and not just listen to T4G sermons over and over! I have a fear of moralizing Christianity, but I also have a fear of a Christianity that substitutes spiritual disciplines for more theology.

Jared said...

Michael, I feel your fear of "puffed up" theology, some of which masquerades as gospel-centrality in the new Reformed movement. But we probably do disagree on some of these finer points. I do actually think more knowledge of the indicative is key to the empowered imperative, assuming the knowledge is personal knowledge -- an astonishment, a wakefulness, if you will, a worshipful knowledge -- not merely cerebral.

Peter does say "make every effort." But he prefaces that imperative with the indicative "for this very reason." Which reason? The gospel (2 Peter 1:3-4), which he says we receive "through the *knowledge* of him."
Then he uses the word "knowledge" again as part of what we should aspire to in our making every effort to supplement our faith.

I don't know exactly what you mean by Dane's list being cliche, especially since the responses varied so much and some of them were quite artful in their wording, but if "Bible study" is cliche, so be it. I acknowledged in my response that the answer probably sounded pat, but I know no other source of hearing what is necessary for Christian growth in godliness than in the revelation of God's inspired word.

Again, we probably do disagree on the relative importance of the indicative vs. the imperative, but we still may be splitting hairs at some level. I'm sure we both agree that podcasts without works is dead :-), and I'm sure we both agree "making every effort" is not the essential message of Christianity.

Blessings, brother.

Michael F. Bird said...


I concur that knowledge of the indicative is the basis for the imperative. 2 Peter 1 takes on that very structure as we both acknowledge. So I got no gripe with Bible study and reflection on God's grace. But my problem is that the focus on the indicative is being emphasized to the point of neglecting the imperative exhortations in the Scriptures as part of sanctification.

Imperative with no indicative will lead to legalism. But indicative with little or not imperative will result in the Mr. Talky-Talk in the Pilgrim's Progress, i.e., anti-nomianism.

It was the overall pattern of Dane's cantata of quotes that I found concerning, not the points individually. You can have all the "knowledge" you like, but unless "you make every effort" it won't lead to sanctification.

I think on that much we are perhaps agreed.


Jason B. Hood said...

"I'm sure we both agree "making every effort" is not the essential message of Christianity."

Absolutely. But it is an essential message of Christianity, and it seems to me it's more so than some in our circles care to allow.

Dane Ortlund said...

Mike, thanks for this brother. Good thoughts, helpful to me, as usual.

I'm a bit late on the train on this comment thread, but anyhow...

I explicitly (and unfairly) asked these brothers for one short sentence. Impossible of course! But they graciously agreed, and whatever they failed to include is due to my unhelpful restraints.

I think I do see things (as of 18 months ago) a bit more as Jared does than as you do, but only 3 hrs and a few pints could clarify how.

One thought about 2 Pet 1 - what i find so fascinating and counter-intuitive about this text is v. 9. He comes to the end of the virtue list and says that the one lacking this litany of qualities 'has forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.' Evidently remembering grace shown in the past moves one forward in present virtue; forgetting this grace retards such growth.

Anyhow Mike, you are a brother and I continue to learn from you online and in print, thanks dude! Hope to see you at ETS.

Jared said...

But my problem is that the focus on the indicative is being emphasized to the point of neglecting the imperative exhortations in the Scriptures as part of sanctification

I'm positive there are people who do this, but I honestly am unaware of any.
What I see is proper emphasis on gospel of grace over duty of obedience. Not neglect of imperative. Just placing of imperative in the shadow of the gospel.

I think this is biblical. I don't know what to do with Galatians, for one instance among many, otherwise.

I also don't think this can be qualified as just "cerebral" unless I don't trust the Spirit to bear fruit in the lives of those who have real knowledge of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jason, you wrote:
But it is *an* essential message of Christianity

True. I'm assuming we agree it's not *the* essential message.

Again, I don't know who's preaching grace with no law. I see many preaching spotlight on grace, shadow on law, and I think that's good. We may (probably?) disagree on that, and that's okay. It happens. :-)

John Thomson said...

Good blog.

It is clear that there are new covenant obligations (obligations always arise from relationship). However, for me the important thing to grasp is that these are 'new covenant' obligations or ethics. They are not 'old covenant obligations'. In a word, they are not the Mosaic Law. The Mosaic Law is not the rule of life for Christian living.

The NT speaks of these NC obligations as 'commands' but only extremely rarely as 'law'. Indeed I am unsure if it ever does so apart from the reference to 'the law of Christ'. The point here being to underline that the NC is not antinomian. I say this because I do not think 'law' is the best word to describe the obligations of sons to a Father. It is a word that creates distance and does not articulate the essential intimacy of NC relationships.

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