Grace, the Christian Life and Coalitions

Many have likely followed the discussion regarding grace, justification and sanctification. It has been discussed on numerous blogs. It has resulted in some changes to some ministries. Specifically, this teaching, discussion, disagreement has led to Tullian Tchividjian’s blog being moved from The Gospel Coalition to his own ministry, Liberate.

This discussion has been going on for a few years. The issues had not resolved and the differences and rhetoric had sharpened. Now that this break has occurred, there are explanations about what and why. I include a brief history of some of the key articles/posts about the most recent debate which led to the changes.

At the heart of the discussion, debate and disagreement is the understanding of justification and sanctification. This is a broad statement that must be nuanced if one is going to discern the fault-lines in the discussion. But most of the posts below have attempted to do that so rather than repeat that here, I will link to them below.

Here are a few of the articles that preceded this decision made by TGC and Tchividjian.

Here are responses from the two key entities involved in the decision, Tchividjian and TGC founders and leaders, Tim Keller and Don Carson.

Here are responses from a few after the decision was made.

Reflections (in no particular order)

  • In my assessment, it sounds like Tchividjian responds so strongly against his concerns of legalism or moralism that he goes too far in the other direction, almost becoming antinomian.
  • We all have a biography that affects and influences what we emphasize.
  • Most of these kinds of discussions and debates consist of both personalities (persons) and theology, and that can cloud (or clarify?) the matter. Often if we like the person, we will extend much grace, whereas if we do not, much less grace is extended. In the former, we engage in a hermeneutic of love, while in the latter we engage in a hermeneutic of suspicion. In all instances Christian maturity ought to be reflected in a hermeneutic of love.
  • It is important to address specific biblical texts and particular theological beliefs, not just make general claims and criticisms.
  • Most every theological discussion is part of a much larger and longer historical discussion of the doctrinal belief. It is larger in that doctrinal beliefs are organic such that one is always related to another, which is related to another. Though they can be studied alone, there is no doctrine that remains alone. It is longer in that these doctrines have been discussed, debated, defended throughout much of church history, so awareness of these longer discussions is vital to situate one’s present engagement in the discussion.
  • Though on the surface it sounds like this addresses grace and how it affects one’s understanding of conversion and spiritual growth, there is much more. It addresses regeneration (a new act of creation, in which one receives a new heart and a new nature), justification, sanctification, union with Christ, the understanding of the Bible, the law and the gospel, how justification and sanctification relate, how one gives pastoral counsel to one who struggles with sin, how one understands and lives the whole of the Christian life.
  • One must not overlook or neglect the end-goal of doctrine and theology which is its application in the life of the believer to conform us into the image of the Son. It is one thing to discuss doctrine abstractly, but it is another when one realizes this is truth that is to be applied to one’s life, and, in fact, reflects that we care about our own and other’s salvation (1 Tim. 4:16).
  • The purpose of systematic theology is pastoral theology, i.e. applying God’s truth to the lives of believers (including my own).
  • Rather than working through these disagreements, the answer is to leave and start one’s own ministry. As good as this might be, and as necessary as it may be at times, something is wrong about this being the answer. It was the Holy Spirit’s presence evident among the believers that resulted in the initially sending of Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:2). John Mark deserted them (Acts 13:13). They returned and rejoiced in what God was doing. When they were to embark on their second missionary journey, Paul refused to bring John Mark along with them, which led to a division (Acts 15:36-41). On the one hand, we can rejoice that there are now two missionary teams, not just one: Barnabas and John Mark depart to Cyprus (Acts 15:39), while Paul and Silas return to Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:41). But on the other hand, should we not grieve that it was a division that was the cause of these two teams. Though God used and transformed this situation, and though Paul and John Mark reconciled (2 Tim. 4:11; cf. Acts 13:13; 15:37-39), we must not be too quick to overlook the division.
  • Coalitions and associations, as good and important as they are, have limitations. It is one thing to begin one. It is quite another to sustain one.
  • It is important to remember that because of concerns, real and/or perceived, there will be responses, certain emphases that attempt to respond to or correct what is perceived to me an improper emphasis in the other direction. Often the one responding thinks the response is balanced and appropriate. But it can be imbalanced, though in the other direction. One needs the Christian community to help discern that.
  • Often people can confuse the doctrine one is emphasizing with “of first importance” significance, an essential, which will determine how the person responds. It may be. But one must be careful to equate uncritically my concern (or hobby-horse) with orthodoxy or evangelicalism or the gospel. We must think carefully, discerningly and humbly about how we resolve differences in emphases and theology, and then what we do and how we respond to those differences.
  • In theology it is important to discern between a doctrinal essential and a doctrinal non-essential. It is common for one to conclude that everything one believes or everything a church believes is essential. And yet, there is order and priority of doctrinal matters, and not all theology/doctrine is of first importance. Furthermore, when one assesses what is essential, it is important to understand to what the essential is referring: e.g., an epistemological essential (the Bible) is different from a soteriological essential (what is necessary to be born again).
  • When we think of this issue of justification and sanctification, we think of the now and the not yet. In justification, the future, end-time verdict has become now in that we who are believers in Christ by faith have receive the verdict today: having been justified, we have peace with God (Rom. 5:1; 8:1). And yet we are not yet glorified, so we groan and long to be redeemed (Rom. 8:23), with the assurance that sanctification is glory begun, whereas glorification is sanctification complete. And in between we work out our salvation with fear and trembling knowing it is God who works in us both to will and to do for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13).
  • Finally, as I ponder this in my own life, I am grieved that I don’t despise sin and desire holiness more, and that after many years of walking with the Lord there is so much sanctification that remains. I am thankful for God’s grace, that he who began a good work will bring it to completion (Phil. 1:6).

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