Across 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.
How 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.