There is a current controversy (that may be too strong of a word, but we’ll go with it) among evangelicals concerning the nature of sanctification in a believer’s life. Let me do my very best to cast the controversy in terms everyone can understand.
The question of the sanctification debate is simple – how does a Christian pursue sanctification (growing more into the image of Jesus)? Or, perhaps worded differently, should a Christian pursue sanctification? At the heart of these questions is the issue of what a believer is (or isn’t) expected to do as a Christian. Does the Bible issue commands to pursue holiness that are directed toward believers with the expectation that Christians are to obey them?
One side of the debate, articulated most adamantly by a pastor named Tullian Tchividjian, is the position that the commands in the Bible, sometimes referred to as the “moral law”, are not given for NT believers to obey. Tchividjian does not deny the goodness of the law insofar as it makes us very aware of our own sin and depravity, thus pushing us into the merciful arms of Christ. What Tchividjian does deny, however, is that after placing faith in Christ, believers are now expected to obey the commands in the Bible in order to pursue sanctification. All that commandment keeping and law abiding is the stuff of legalism and has no place in a grace-filled gospel. What does Tchividjian do with the verses that speak of obeying the commands, such as 1 John 5:3-4? He interprets these verses through the work of Christ who has perfectly kept the law. Thus, believers are no longer obligated to keep the commands in the Scriptures because Jesus has already kept them for us. In fact, Tchividjian takes it one step further. He teaches that even if Christians wanted to obey the commands, we would always fail because we remain completely depraved by sin. Thus, sanctification is not a “cooperative” effort – it is all Christ’s work, not our work.
Now, at this point I need to remind you what we are talking about. We are not talking about our initial salvation experience. Becoming a Christian most certainly is a monergistic work, that is to say, Christ’s work alone saves us, not by anything we do, but only by what He has done on the cross. What we are discussing here is what happens after a person becomes a Christian. Obviously, the gospel and grace are needed every single day of our lives. But does our work, empowered by grace, cooperate with Christ in order to shape us and mold us more into His image? Tchividjian would say no.
On the other side of the debate, as you might expect, is the position that the commands in the Bible are given for NT believers to love and obey. This side of the debate not only views the law as that which condemns us and pushes us to Christ, just like Tchividjian does, but also believes the commands in Scripture are given to be obeyed by Spirit-filled Christians for the purpose of growing in grace. Thus, sanctification is a cooperative effort empowered by the grace of God.
From an application standpoint, preaching, teaching, and exhortations are going to look much different based on which side of the debate you land. If you are under Tchividjian’s preaching, you will not be led to obey the commands under the power of the Spirit. You will not be told to “work hard” in obedience to the moral precepts of God. You will probably be told to “run to Jesus” who will “make you better” apart from obedience to a list of rules. You will be told that you don’t have to do anything, but that you will want to do everything.
If you are under preaching from the opposite position, say for example the preaching of Kevin DeYoung, you will be led to obey the commands of Scripture under the power of the Spirit. You will be told to get to work in obedience to the moral precepts of God. You will certainly be told to “run to Jesus”, but the process of Him making “you better” will be in part outlined through obedience and adherence to His commands.
Both sides agree that works do nothing to save us. Both sides agree that the gospel frees us from the ceremonial aspects of law keeping. Both sides agree on the daily necessity of the gospel for Christian living. For one side, the gospel of grace frees you from pursuing sanctification through obedience. For the other side, the gospel of grace empowers you to pursue sanctification through obedience.
This debate is nothing new of course. This has been an ongoing discussion for about, oh I would say 2,000 years. It is connected to the Law/Gospel distinction. Nevertheless, it is a prominent issue of debate and discussion among evangelical leaders today and, unfortunately, has started to become a distraction to Great Commission work.
I recommend this article by Tullian Tchividjian to better understand the monergistic position.
I recommend this article by Kevin DeYoung to better understand the synergistic (cooperative) position.