Do Christians grow more holy?

tullian-tchividjianAcross the pond, another dispute has arisen and another split taken place, though it has not been much reported beyond narrow interested circles (fortunately). I have to admit to struggling to relate to this kind of debate, so you will need to look elsewhere for a better reporting of it (if you are interested). But it does raise a key issue about Christian living.

A few weeks ago, Tullian Tchividjian was asked to remove his blog from The Gospel Coalition (TGC), which was set up by Don Carson and Tim Keller, because of a difference of theology on the question of sanctification—the question of Christians growing more holy. This is a debate within that conservative evangelical movement known as the New Calvinism, and each of these three are influential figures; Tchividjian is Billy Graham’s grandson.

As I understand it, Tchividjian expressed concern that some Reformed pastors pile on the guilt by telling Christians that they should work hard (‘strive’) to become more holy, and this undermines the idea that God saves us by his grace. By contrast, members of TGC argue that we find exhortations to ‘strive’ all through the New Testament, so we should continue to do the same now. Kevin DeYoung’s response sets this out clearly:

There is no plausible way to read the Bible and conclude that God working in us absolves us from working hard, no responsible way to think that exhortation and exertion are anything other than essential to a life of discipleship.

  • 1 Corinthians 15:10 “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
  • Philippians 2:12-13 “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
  • Colossians 1:29 “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”
  • 2 Peter 1:5 “For this reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge…”

The Bible clearly teaches that God works in us so that we might work out.

Into the mix steps Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today magazine, who laments that, whatever the teaching might be, he actually does not see much change in his own life:

I look at my own life and marvel at the lack of real transformation after 50 years of effort. To be sure, outwardly I’m more patient, kind, gracious, and so forth. But even after half a century of transformation, my thoughts and motives are a cauldron of evil. Just one small example: When a friend fails to show up on time, I’m outwardly patient and kind, but inwardly I battle judgment and condemnation. Earlier in life, I would have lashed out at him for being tardy, as lack of respect for me among other things. Now I have some self-control as I smile and say, “Not a problem.”

As he reflects on this reality, he puts apparent transformation down to a. getting older and b. learning to cover his real motives more cunningly. In the end, he concludes that the only meaningful transformation happens when Jesus comes again. This might strike you as a little cynical, and if so you’d be in good company: Scot McKnight agrees:

If Tullian has a more optimistic theology of preaching grace Galli has a pessimistic theology.

I think McKnight is perhaps being a little harsh; the one thing that is really commendable about Galli’s piece is his honesty, and we could always do with more of that. But McKnight points out some of the real problems with this lack of expectation.

The NT I read calls people over and over and over again to a new life in the here and now. Golfers don’t wait until the kingdom to improve their game; they work hard now and they see improvement — over time. Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness [not imputed, but behavioral] greatly surpasses the righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes” — get this — “you will never ever even enter into the kingdom.”

The NT I read has Galatians 1-4 (grace theology) and Galatians 5-6 (obedience, fruit, love, change), and the Paul I see in the NT is a man transformed, not a man simply waiting the kingdom when the transformation will happen. And the Paul of the NT calls his churches to change, to growth — with his “once you were” and “but now”, and the history of the church confirms this is how the majority have read the NT.

What I find most striking about McKnight’s comments is how obvious they are—of course we should expect transformation. So what is going on? I went back and re-read some of the above debate, and one thing really stood out. In Kevin DeYoung’s piece on grace, transformation, there was one thing missing: mention of the Holy Spirit. Actually, there was one mention:

But as Christ works in us by his Spirit through the gospel, we are called to striving and effort.

I think this phrase is very revealing. It does mention the Spirit, but it is Christ who works in us and it is by the gospel (presumably, by right proclamation of the teaching of gospel doctrines) that the Spirit works. This seems to me to reduce the Spirit to a doctrinal label that makes no difference in practice.—in effect this Trinity is of ‘Father, Son and Holy Scripture.’ What a long way from Paul’s theology! The same thing can be found in other analyses of the issue. Richard Davis Phillips is also part of TGC, and he offers this analysis:

The heart of the controversy lies in these matters:

1) Is it possible, even expected, for Christians to lead increasingly holy lives by the power of God’s grace in Christ received through faith?

2) Does the Bible, and thus should we, issue commands to obedience and personal godliness that are intended for the believer himself or herself to do, in the power of grace through faith in Christ?

Here, then, is the controversy: Tullian has repeatedly written over several years in a way that suggests that the answer to these questions is No.

41lA5NO52SLHow extraordinary to ask or answer either of these questions without explicit mention of the Holy Spirit! This, for me, represents the double weakness of the ‘Reformed’ agenda as it is now: a focus on rational explanations of the gospel, involving terms like ‘imputed righteousness’; and a parallel failure to pay attention to key parts of the NT text, in particular, Paul’s theology of the Spirit. (Peter Enns suggests there is another problem too.) When I was teaching on Paul in theological college, I asked students to do a search for mentions of the Spirit in Paul’s writings. The answer was: there are too many to count! No wonder that Gordon Fee puts the Spirit at the centre of Paul’s theology:

Any careful reading of Paul’s letters makes it abundantly clear that the Spirit is the key element, the sine qua non, of all Christian life and experience. To put that in theological perspective, it needs to be noted that, contrary to historic Protestantism, “justification by faith” is not the central theme of Pauline theology.” That is but one metaphor among many, and therefore much too narrow a view to capture the many-splendored richness of God’s esthatological salvation that has been effected in Christ. For Paul the theme “salvation in Christ” dominates everything, from beginning to end. And for him “Salvation in Christ” is the activity of the triune God.

God the Father, the subject of the saving verbs, has fore~ordained and initiated salvation for his people; God the Son, through his death on the cross, has effected it, thereby accomplished for his people adoption, justification, redemption, sanctification, reconciliation, and propitiation, to name the primary metaphors. But it is God the Spirit who has effectively appropriated God’s salvation in Christ in the life of the believer and of the believing community. Without the latter, the former simply does not happen. (Listening to the Spirit in the Text, p 37)

Remarkable, then, that so many short introductions to Paul’s theology do not have a chapter on the Spirit—the exception being Anthony Thiselton’s excellent The Living Paul. When people ask me why I would call myself a charismatic, I answer that it is because I am an evangelical. Important though Mark Galli’s honest and realism is, you cannot read the NT without seeing a major expectation that the Spirit will make his presence strikingly felt in the life of the believer.

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12 thoughts on “Do Christians grow more holy?”

  1. As a Wesleyan Christian, I would suggest that we need to give due attention to the primacy of the divine initiative. We are called to open our lives to a divine grace which transforms. We are called to live holy lives, and our commitment is crucial. However, our efforts can be effective only because the Holy Spirit has transplanted the life of the Risen Lord into our hearts. Our attempts to live holy lives are the outworking of a renewed life which is hidden with God in Christ (Colossians 3:3)

    • But shouldn’t every kind of Christian think this, if our understanding is shaped by the New Testament…?!

      I agree that the Holy Spirit has transplanted the life of Jesus into our lives…but Paul seems to envisage an active continuing work of the Spirit of which believers are aware and which they can identify and describe…?

  2. This is a REALLY big issue. Thanks for raising it. The heart of the issue is the issue of the heart. (both meanings of issue.)

  3. I read Galli’s article the other day and felt that it was both honest and brave (mind you, if you’re going to edit CT you really do have to be brave!)

    The danger of arguments about sanctification is that they – almost inevitably – focus on the visible. My experience is that whatever my life looks look like on the outside, I’m increasingly conscious of the mess that is on the inside. The danger with looking on the outside is that apparent growth in holiness may be no more than a process of socialisation.

    I think that it was Richard Lovelace (probably in his brilliant but long forgotten The Dynamics of Spiritual LIfe) who likened the process of sanctification to that of peeling an onion. Layer after layer is removed exposing the reality within. That’s certainly what my life has felt like, and continues to do so.

    With all due respect to the TGC people involved in this debate, I can’t help feeling that so many such debates (and not just on the Calvinist end by any means) expose the risks of being a high profile Christian. Paul’s comment about a quiet life (1 Thess 4:11) may have wider application than we realise. Perhaps that’s the best context in which sanctification can take place.

  4. PS I should have said, of course, that the peeling process exposes what needs to be changed that we weren’t aware of! Surely that’s what drives us to Christ for grace.

  5. Hi Ian,

    A quick response for now. I believe that, as we become closer to God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, our will becomes closer to God’s will and we do what we do willingly and not under coercion 🙂


    • I really like Mark Galli. His reflection on his life is something which a huge swathe of Christendom will find it easy to relate to. His experience reminds me of a preacher from my youth who repeated the phrase “if only we could understand………………. then (all would be well) ” for almost every issue he addressed. There seemed to be such an emphasis on brain work that I’m sure he would have sung “Come on and cerebrate ….. ” as his theme tune if Patricia Morgan’s song had been written then. Years later it occurred to me that the understanding needed in almost every case would come as a matter of revelation as much as reflection or that it might be caught just as much as taught. It’s not however a matter of either/or but rather both/and, just like the evangelical train where the facts and faith precede (and power?) the feelings which can follow on behind.
      It’s desperately frustrating though to be in Mark’s situation (as I believe a HUGE number of people are.) We can have the teaching right (and we can work on this) but the feelings don’t seem to follow. (Aargh! What more can I DO?????)
      This happened a generation ago over glossolalia. There were still a few people around who thought that speaking “in tongues” was a work of the devil but so many people were being blessed by God through the experience that the view of the mainstream church gradually changed. This was great for many people but very frustrating for others who were convinced intellectually that it was OK. They knew that God wanted to bless them with his gifts but it just didn’t seem to happen to them. (Aaargh! What is wrong with me etc.) Maybe for some it never happened but for most I think (like me) it just seemed to happen quite randomly.
      Returning to sanctification I think this is related to our relationship with God. The facts about God can be researched but again the feelings don’t always follow anything like as easily as we would like. Most of us “know” that God loves us as a fact but many still do not FEEL it. Some are aware of this, as I was and again like the tongues thing this provoked a spiritual quest for what proved to be another life changing experience of God. The change happened soon after I started preaching and changed my message totally. If you listen to people preaching or talking about their experience of God you may decide that what you hear is good news or it may seem like bad news. I have a theory which I’d like you, the reader, to test out for me. It is that those who really feel the love of God are not only able to genuinely love, forgive etc from the heart but also have real good news to share. If you want a test of “Do I really feel God’s love?” then try asking “Does God like me?” I am thinking that the people whose preaching makes people feel guilty all the time are ones who’ve got the tlove of God in their heads OK but not yet in their hearts. What do you think?

      • Hi Paintingman-I enjoyed reading your post.
        Just a few points- thank you for affirming the gifts of tongues.I was given this gift over 20 years ago and I am so thankful for it.Some people are delighted that I’ve been given this gift- sadly, others disparage it.
        Re: what you said about preaching and how people respond to it – Jesus had no illusions about any of his friends, but he loved them and they knew it.The only things he was really angry about were self-righteousness, hypocrisy and what I think of as ‘nit- picking’ 🙂 ( ‘tithing a mint’)
        i feel encouraged by your post – thank you again.

  6. I’m from a Wesleyan/holiness theological background, so am ever aware of the Spirit’s working in my life. It’s truly a daily thing, I can’t imagine walking thru this life without it.

    I believe that the issue with Tullian has been less about sanctification (specifically,) and more about a hyper-grace mentality. This theological outlook says that every sin you’ve ever committed, every one you ever will commit, has already been forgiven. You don’t need to ask. Asking for forgiveness means that you doubt God and aren’t walking in His love. It says that when you become a believer you are sanctified immediately, wholly and completely. There are no expectations, no future repentance for sins committed, nothing…only love and communion. To be fair, the case is made that under such love and freedom, an individual will want to respond and abide (they eschew the word “obey,”) in Christ, so works or behavior don’t ever become an issue.

    Hyper-grace is becoming quite popular here in the States, irrespective of denominational differentiation. Tullian certainly isn’t the strongest of the proponents, but his writing has been stretching this way for quite some time now. I suspect this is the real trigger underlying his departure.

  7. May I include a quote from an interview with Gordon Fee please?

    “………’s quite clear in John’s Gospel that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of both the Father and of his Son, and therefore the one Holy Spirit is the full image-bearer of the Godhead. The reason, the point, of the Holy Spirit throughout the New Testament is that the Spirit is to continue the work of the incarnation by incarnating us with God’s likeness As the Spirit, there’s the fruit of the God likeness in our relationships with one another.

    This is the great problem with me that I had – in history, the solitary monk, the one who went out into the desert to get Christian perfection [St. Anthony]. That’s impossible. You can’t find out whether a person is a true Christian until they rub elbows with another Christian. That’s when you find out whether the work of the Spirit is really taking place. The solitary hermetic monk was just so unbiblical that it doesn’t have a leg to stand on, because the real test is how one responds to another when the other is doing things that are either distasteful, wrong, deliberately evil…how we respond to that is going to be the ultimate evidence of the Spirit’s outworking, the life of Christ, in us.”


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