Justifying Grace and the Christian Life

Text: Romans 6:1

Introduction:  Joel Osteen, mega-church pastor and author of The New York Times best seller Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential (Warner, 2005), follows in a long line of the power of positive thinking, first made popular back in the 50’s by Norman Vincent Peale and his disciple Robert Schuller. Osteen has also drunk deeply from the well of the charismatic prosperity teachers Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland. According to Osteen, faithfully following his seven steps, will put you in good with the Almighty and he points to trivial examples of God’s favor to the faithful: faster seating in restaurants, a last-second opening of an excellent parking space, being upgraded to first class without seeking it, and enjoying a personal exemption from an airline’s baggage policy. Osteen tells of not wanting to check an expensive television camera on a flight to India. The counter clerk insists that the airline’s policy strictly forbids him from carrying it on, and Osteen asks if he can talk to someone else. A pilot walks up and offers to stow the camera behind the cockpit. “The woman behind the counter glared at me and shook her head, clearly aggravated,” Osteen writes, “I just smiled and said, ‘Sorry, ma’am; it’s the favor of God.’” Or was it simply that an observant pilot intervened to prevent an unnecessary conflict (which some planning on Osteen’s part could have prevented) from escalating?[1]

Down through the history of Christianity, people (too many to even list) have put forward all kinds of notions of sanctification. So-called “keys” to victory in the Christian life have been advanced as guaranteeing results (like TV infomercials promoting the latest diet fad or piece of exercise equipment). Having said that, sanctification is a subject that many churches (and individual Christians) have little, if any, interest in (Osteen’s book isn’t about sanctification—he doesn’t even address the subject. His book, as the title indicates, is about reaching your full potential—not about such uncomfortable items like indwelling sin, mortification and holiness). A profound shift has occurred, not only in our society, but in our churches as well. This can be seen in a number of areas: Seeker churches (the user-friendly model) for instance, intentionally design new and contemporary forms of worship, not in order to be consciously biblical, but to mirror the musical and cultural preferences of the society at large. The innovations do not stop there. These churches do not claim to have rejected historic evangelical theology (they insist most emphatically that they are Bible-believing evangelicals), but they have repackaged it to fit the likes and dislikes of so-called seekers. One area where this is most apparent is in the area of felt-needs—one that especially centers on the self. The glorification of the self, or at least the preoccupation with the self, is obviously appealing to the therapeutic mentality in modern America. As Phillip Rieff has observed, “[The] self, improved, is the ultimate concern of modern culture.”[2]

Perhaps the best-known promoter of this is television personality Robert Schuller (the most watched religious figure on TV). At the heart of Schuller’s translation project is the concept of self-esteem. Schuller argues in Self-Esteem: The New Reformation (Word, 1982) that Reformational theology—the foundation of Protestantism and the basis of evangelical faith—is “imperfect.” Reformational theology has failed because it is “too heavy a theology.” It has placed “theocentric communication above the meeting of the deeper emotional and spiritual needs of humanity.” As evidence, Schuller argues that the traditional theological definition of sin as rebellion against God “is not incorrect as much as it is shallow and insulting to the human being.” And I, rather than insulting the people, believe the church should build people’s self-esteem because “at the core of sin is lack of self-esteem.” The theology of self-esteem is “based on a solid central core of religious truth—the dignity of man.” The ultimate dignity for mankind is to receive salvation, which means “to be permanently lifted from sin (psychological self-abuse with all of its consequences) and shame to self-esteem and its God-glorifying, human need-meeting, constructive and creative consequences.” In contrast, “a person is in hell when he lost his self-esteem.”[3]

In the name of defending Christian theology, Schuller has managed to subjectivize it thoroughly, explicitly shifting its focus from God to the human craving for self-worth. In this schema, sin is not an objective condition of human nature that leads to separation from God, but is instead a type of psychological deficit. Schuller’s preoccupation with the therapeutic is common within the evangelical world. James Hunter has documented the extent to which evangelicalism has embraced therapeutic understandings of the self, which are based on the assumption that “the attention the self is receiving is legitimate and that the self, as the repository of human emotions and subjectivity, has intrinsic and ultimate worth and significance.”[4]

Additionally, this evangelical fixation with the self amounts to “a fundamental assault” on the inner-worldly asceticism of an earlier evangelical tradition. David Wells cites Schuller as the epitome of a minister “riding the stream of modernity.”[5] By banishing the word “sin” from the Crystal Cathedral, by insisting that we do not sufficiently esteem ourselves, by telling us, in effect, “don’t worry, be happy,” Schuller “is offering in easily digestible bites, the therapeutic model of life through which the healing of the bruised self is found.” The principle problem with the therapeutic model of the self, according to Wells, is that, even when draped in religious terminology, it is based on an assumption about “the perfectibility of human nature…[which] is a anathema to the Christian gospel.” Similarly, Rieff argues that the modern commitment to “the gospel of self-fulfillment” represents a profound break with, rather than reformulation of, historic faiths, specifically Judaism and Christianity. “All attempts at connecting the doctrines of psychotherapy with the old faiths,” warns Rieff, “are patently misconceived.”[6]

Thus, Schuller’s insistence that developing people’s self-esteem is the primary mission of the church is at odds with historic Protestant theology. By “riding the stream of modernity,” Schuller demonstrates how Christian practices, if informed primarily by assumptions drawn from non-Christian sources like psychotherapy, can alter Christian theology. Self-satisfaction or having a keen sense of self-worth or self-esteem is not what the Bible means by sanctification! Growing in grace does not mean learning to love and accept yourself! In order to understand (and experientially come to know) what the Scriptures mean by sanctification, we will have to replace these popular psychological and false notions with Biblical and theological ones. One of my former professors, Sinclair Ferguson, has written, “One of our greatest needs is for the ability rightly to discern some of the directions in which evangelicalism is heading, or, perhaps more accurately, disintegrating. We desperately need the long-term perspective that the history of the church gives us. Even within the period of my own Christian life, the span between my teenage years in the 1960s and my forties in the 1990s, there has been a sea change on evangelicalism. Many ‘positions’ that once were standard evangelical teaching are now, after only three decades, regarded as either reactionary, or even prehistoric.”[7]

Robert Wuthnow (who is an evangelical), has noted how Americans have an overt tendency to psychologize life, and this in turn has had a direct impact on how the church functions. “At one time theologians argued that the chief purpose of humankind was to glorify God. Now it would seem that the logic has been reversed: the chief purpose of God is to glorify humankind. Spirituality no longer is true or good because it meets absolute standards of truth or goodness, but because it helps me get along. I am the judge of its worth. If it helps me find a vacant parking space, I know my spirituality is on the right track. If it leads me into the wilderness, calling me to face dangers I would rather not deal with at all, then it is a form of spirituality I am unlikely to choose.”[8]

In other words, “the triumph of the therapeutic” has triumphed not only in the culture at large, but also within the professing Christian Church as well. Evangelicals gladly exchanged the language of the Bible and theology for the language of contemporary psychology. What has this to do with sanctification? Cornelius Plantinga shows us the link. “Why retrieve the awareness of sin? Why restate the Christian doctrine of sin? The reason is that although traditional Christianity is true, its truth saws against the grain of much in contemporary culture and therefore needs constant sharpening. Christianity’s major doctrines need regular restatement so that people may believe them, or believe them anew. Its classic awarenesses need to be evoked so that people may have them, or have them again. Recalling and confessing our sin is like taking out the garbage: once is not enough. But anyone who tries to recover the knowledge of sin these days must overcome long odds. To put it mildly, modern consciousness does not encourage moral reproach; in particular, it does not encourage self-reproach. Preachers mumble about sin. The other traditional custodians of moral awareness often ignore, trivialize, or evade it. Some of the evasions take time and training. As Cornelisus Plantinga has observed, schoolteachers no longer say anything as pointed as, “Stop it, please! You’re disturbing the class!” For these are judgmental words. Instead, to a strong-armed youth who is rattling classroom windows with his tennis ball, educationally correct teachers put a sequence of caring questions: “What are you doing? Why are you doing it? How does this make you feel?” The word sin, Plantinga adds, now finds its home mostly on dessert menus. “Peanut Butter Binge” and “Chocolate Challenge” are sinful; lying is not. The new measure for sin is caloric.[9]

As Christians, we desperately need to recover the language of Scripture and the biblical meaning of such terms as sin, justification, and sanctification. God commands us to “be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). This is not just an Old Testament exhortation. We find the same language in the New Testament. “Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Pet. 1:15-16). This series aims to be more than just a theological analysis. The power of indwelling sin presents each of us with practical problems that directly affect how we live. At the same time, however, we need more than just good advice that is rooted in how we feel about ourselves. Frank Allred writes, “Without a keen awareness of our sinful condition and our natural helplessness to do anything that is pleasing to God, a life of holiness is impossible. The reason for this is twofold. First, as we have just seen, the motivation for holy living springs from a love for God—love that is bourne out of a deep sense of our indebtedness to his grace and mercy. Second, our ability to please him depends on our recognition that we can do nothing without daily supplies of his grace. As long as we have confidence in ourselves and in our own ability to do what God requires we shall make no progress in holiness. The prevailing tendency to go soft on sin therefore is a serious hindrance to our understanding of holiness. The idea seems to be these days that to be thoroughly biblical about the depravity of human nature does not commend the gospel nor encourage believers in the Christian life. Once again, the truth is the exact opposite. Only when unbelievers realize their desperate condition will they seek the Lord, and only when believers recognize that nothing good lives in their sinful nature (Romans 7:18) will they seek God’s grace to live holy lives. Self-confidence is the enemy of Christian holiness.”[10]

I.          What is Sanctification?  Some Important Observations:  Our English word sanctify comes from two Latin words (SANCTUS, holy; and FACERE, to make)—“to make holy.” What does “holy” mean? The Old Testament word QĀDOSH and the New Testament word HAGIOS imply separation and consecration. The doctrine of sanctification is concerned with the pollution of sin.

NOTE: It is important to note that the guilt of sin (that state of deserving condemnation or of being liable to punishment because we have violated God’s law) is dealt with in justification, though justification and sanctification must never be separated. These are, however, two distinct things. Anthony Hoekema makes these helpful remarks: “The following differences between justification and sanctification should be recognized:

A:        Justification removes the guilt of sin: whereas sanctification removes the pollution of sin and enables the believer to grow in his or her likeness to Christ.

B:        Justification takes place outside the believer:  and is a declaration made by God the Father about his or her judicial or legal status. Sanctification, however, takes place within the believer and progressively renews his or her nature.

C:        Justification takes place once and for all:  and is neither a process nor a repeated event. Sanctification, however, as it is usually understood, is a process that continues throughout life and is not completed until after this life is over. Why is it important to maintain these distinctions? First, to do full justice to biblical teaching on these Soteriological blessings. Further, to maintain the truth that justification means the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believing sinner wholly apart from that believer’s deeds—that, in other words, our justification is based solely on the suffering and obedience of Jesus Christ, and not on our own good works.[11] Second, and equally important, to blur the two leads to numerous errors. James White explains, “Many errors about the work of God in salvation could be avoided if everyone would recognize one fact: Justification, while intimately connected to sanctification (both are actions of God’s free grace), is a separate divine act, with a differing time frame of operation. That is, while it is completely true that everyone who is justified will also be sanctified (made experientially holy—conformed to the image of Christ, made more like Him through growth in grace and the knowledge in Christ) it is likewise just as true that justification must be distinguished from sanctification. If it is not, tremendous errors result, for inevitably this wrong view results in a confusion of the experience of sanctification with the ground upon which all of the work of God rests, the perfect sacrificial work of Christ on Calvary.”[12]

Conclusion: Reformed theologians speak of sanctification in two different senses. First, there is what is referred to as DEFINITIVE sanctification. This has reference to the once and for all definitive act of sanctification that is an essential aspect of justification as expressed in texts like I Cor. 1:2 and 6:11. We will deal with this in some detail in Rom. 6:2. The second sense has to do with PROGRESSIVE sanctification which has both a negative aspect and a positive aspect involving mortification (putting to death sinful practices) and vivification (putting on the new man’s practices). “Sanctification,” as Hoekema elsewhere observes, “must be understood as being both definitive and progressive. In its definitive sense, it means that work of the Spirit whereby He causes us to die to sin, to be raised with Christ, and to be made new creatures. In its progressive sense, it must be understood as that work of the Spirit whereby He causes us to die to sin, to be raised with Christ, and to be made new creatures. In its progressive sense, it must be understood as that work of the Spirit whereby He continually renews and transforms us into the likeness of Christ, enabling us to keep on growing in grace and to keep on perfecting our holiness. One could think of progressive sanctification as the continual maturing of the new person who was created by definitive sanctification. While sanctification in its totality is the work of God from beginning to end, particularly in its progressive phase the active participation of the believer is required.”[13]



[1] Cf. the review by Douglas LeBlanc in Christianity Today (April, 2005), p. 104.


[2] Phillip Rieff, The Triumph of The Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Harper & Row, 1968), p. 4.


[3] Schuller, p. 79.


[4] James Davidson Hunter, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation (Univ. of Chicago, 1987), p. 64.


[5] David F. Wells No Place For Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Eerdmans, 1993), p. 175.


[6] op. cit., p. X.


[7] S. Ferguson “Repentance, Recovery, and Confession” in Here We Stand: A Call From Confessing Evangelicals eds. J. Boice, B. Sasse, (Baker, 1996), p. 136.


[8] R. Wuthnow “Small Groups Forge New Notions of Community and The Sacred,” Christian Century (Dec. 8, 1993), p. 1239.


[9] C. Plantinga, Jr. Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Eerdmans, 1995), p. X.


[10] F. Allred, The Eclipse of The Gospel (Grace Publications, 2001), p. 187.


[11] A. A. Hoekema, Saved By Grace (Eerdmans, 1989), P. 178.


[12] J. White, The God Who Justifies (Bethany House, 2001), p. 88.


[13] A. A. Hoekema “The Reformed View” in Five Views on Sanctification (Zondervan, 1987), p. 77.

Abide in Christ

by Andrew Murray

So many Christians, instead of accepting God’s invitation to enter His throne room, stand alone outside the door, uncertain and ashamed. Christ beckons them to His banqueting table and offers them a room in His house, but they foolishly give up the glory of the life He has offered. They come to Jesus as Redeemer but never go beyond the doorway to abide in Him and experience the unspeakable joy of dwelling with the King of Kings. Andrew Murray knew what it meant to be continually in the Father’s presence. Read these thirty-one heart-searching readings and learn how to live daily in closer communion and fellowship with Him. Accept God’s invitation and live in His blessing and glory instead of shuffling your feet at the gate.

Paperback; 256 pages

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