Carson and Zaspel: Rest in the Gospel or Strive Unto Holiness?

During the recent Together for the Gospel conference, Kevin DeYoung delivered an excellent message, “Spirit-Powered, Gospel-Driven, Faith-Fueled Effort.” My prolific friend and fellow Council member for The Gospel Coalition also has a book coming out on the subject, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness. Anyone attuned to the reformed evangelical blogosphere will know that Kevin’s sermon and book spring in part from lively in-house discussions over the last year about the nature of sanctification: its relationship to justification, the gospel, effort, and so on. (If that’s news to you, start here.)

Those who have been tracking that ongoing discussion might be interested to know that many of these sanctification-related issues were recently addressed by D. A. Carson and Fred G. Zaspel at Clarus ’12, a TGC regional conference.

The 83-minute video of our panel discussion is now online. What follows is an edited, partial transcript of a few of the juicier parts (e.g., Dr. Carson’s use of the technical theological category, “scuzzball”).

Striking the Biblical Balance

Ryan Kelly: This issue has been a recent debate and discussion among several blogs in our circle: the issue of rest versus effort in the Christian life. That is, resting in the gospel versus disciplining ourselves unto godliness. Can you speak to that?

D. A. Carson: The two Ryan is almost certainly referring to are both on The Gospel Coalition website, so I jolly well ought to know something about them. And I’ve let them run because I think the debate is healthy. And, in fact, at our council meeting, which we are going to have in May, some of this stuff is going to be thrashed out just a wee bit, too.

Fred was saying that when he reads some of this stuff, he thinks that Warfield would have been pretty happy with what both sides were saying, so while both of these sides on the blog are contradicting each other, Warfield would probably say, “A plague on both your houses, if you absolutize either one side or the other.” But at the same time there is something to be said for both. The question is how to integrate them.

So, on the one hand, you do really have to trust Christ. At the end of the day, what finally commends you to God is not how hard you tried. What commends you to God is the utterly sufficient sacrifice of Christ. That’s resting in Christ. On the other hand, there are so many, many, many passages in the NT that talk of Christian life and experience as warfare. You’re a good soldier (2 Tim. 2:2). Discipline yourself (1 Tim. 4:7) as an athlete striving to win the prize (Phil. 3:14), or as a farmer who works hard in order to receive some of the reward from the vineyard (2 Tim. 2:6). “We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against the principalities and the powers of this evil age” (Eph. 6). And “I put my body in subjection so that after preaching to others I myself might not be a cast away,” (1 Cor. 9:27). Lots and lots of texts like that!

You can make sense of these texts when you remember Philippians 2:12-13: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God working in you, both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”

So it’s not a question of God having done his bit and then you come along and do the extra bit by trying really hard. Because that suggests this little bit is abstracted from what God is doing. God has done his bit, and now it all depends on you, and we speak of cooperating together with God. It’s God and I together producing sanctification.

Well, there’s a sense in which you can say that, but there’s a sense in which you must not. And if this bit that I contribute is independent of God, then it’s really quite wrong. This text says that we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling! And yet it is God working in us, both to will and to do of his good pleasure. That is even our struggling, our wanting to be pure, our disciplining of ourselves, and then all the things that we do.

At the end of the day, God is working in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure. Although we must be struggling along these lines, and growing, yet as we look at our own struggles analytically—from a theological perspective, from a biblically faithful perspective—we recognize that we do this precisely because God is at work in us. That’s one of the signs that God is at work in us—that we want to struggle and keep on going.

So this does not mean, therefore, that you back off into passivity, let go and let God, God’s doing all the struggling on my behalf. Rather, it’s precisely God working in us that empowers us, and compels us, and activates us, and motivates us, and strengthens us, in order to keep struggling. So you are mandated by Scripture to choose the right, to make right decisions, to be godly, to be self-disciplined, and all the rest of those things.

What we need to get rid of is this bifurcation in which God does everything and we sort of sit around and do nothing. Or, on the other hand, we think of God doing so much and we add our bit. They’re both wrong. You want to say a plague on both your houses. Whereas you put them together and see that the things that are mandated to us are precisely the things God empowers us to do by his Spirit, and it seems to me they’re coming a little closer together. Is that fair?

Fred Zaspel: I think in the blog debate one of the primary concerns was that on the one side, there’s a push for giving effort, striving for holiness, striving against sin. That is what’s commanded. And on the other side, there’s a concern that we’re going to enter into our efforts and striving without a gospel motive. And so we should just rest in your justification, rest in what God has done for you. And there’s a concern that in this emphasis on effort and striving, there will be a loss of a gospel centrality in it all. I sympathize with that.

But I think what there might be happening in that, is an either/or, when it should be a both/and. There are multiple motivations. The overarching motivation has to be gospel concerns—what God has done for us in Christ, both in justification, definitive sanctification, and all the rest. The Spirit’s work within us has to be our primary focus—what God has done, and the provisions we have in Christ. But still there are obligations, and still there are matters of rewards.

Carson: There is also a difference in pastoral diagnosis and application. Consider a few verses from James 1. James 1:9 and following reads,

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation. Since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant. Its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even as they go about their business.

So the gospel comes to a congregation, and there are some people in it that are poor, oppressed, and, in the first century, slaves. They’re nobodies. And the gospel comes and says, “Take pride in your high position. You’re a son of the eternal King. You inherit all things in Christ Jesus. All are yours and Christ is God’s.” And yet the same gospel comes to rich dudes in the same congregation and says, “Don’t you understand that you’re just dust? At the end of the day you’re going to take out exactly what this fellow takes out. Absolutely nothing.” The same gospel comes to different people, and it is applied to them in somewhat different ways. It’s why Puritans sometimes spoke about the importance of the “cure of souls.” When we speak of counseling, they speak of the cure of souls. They used the medical terminology because they saw that a big part of it was a right diagnosis.

Now, applied to this situation, if you come to a time in society or in a local church where you see a lot of people skidding down to indiscipline, where a lot of the young people in the church are not praying anymore, or very few people in the church are having family devotions anymore, where there’s not much care for evangelism, there’s not much care for other people, and people are just happy in the gospel, then there is a part of the ministry that wants to start laying down the law again, as it were, laying down the moral standards. The trouble is, when you lay down the moral standards really, really hard, then it becomes a church that is characterized by do, do, do, do, do, do. And you start getting the impression that by do, do, do, do, doing, you eventually can please God. And you just destroyed the gospel!

But at the same time, if you just preach the gospel in a way that God has done it all, and there are no entailments in how you live, then you can say done, done, done, done, done, and free from the law, oh happy condition, and I don’t have to do anything! And that’s not quite right, either.

So in a church that has lots and lots and lots of moralism in it, you need to see the comprehensiveness of the gospel. That’s what needs to be applied to the church. But once you start getting a whole lot of people who really do understand something of grace, but they’re beginning to sink in lethargy, into a comfortable acceptance of grace without understanding that grace has entailments in terms of obedience and striving, then it becomes urgent to pass on those sorts of emphases too, while still avoiding the do, do, do of just mere moralism.

To put it in the way that Tim Keller likes to put it, the religious world says do, do, do in order to gain reward, to be acceptable before God. Whereas the gospel says because it’s done, done, done, therefore, this is how we must live. To get all of that together in a right balance, you don’t swing the pendulum one way or the other and destroy people or destroy the gospel.

Kelly: So you’re saying some people need rebuke because they are presumptuous and lazy, and others need the balm and comfort of the gospel; they’re actually held back in their Christian life because of their unhealthy, unbiblical guilt.

Carson: Yes. When I was pastor of a church in Vancouver, a number of our Bible studies were evangelistic, and people came in from the outside and got converted in them. And a particular chap got converted. He was in his late 30s, and he spent half his life in jail. He had a low IQ, flunked out of school, was on the wrong side of the tracks, and a social misfit. He had really been a scuzzball for all his life.

Then God genuinely converted him. And when he got converted, on the other hand, he had this background. He’d sit in the back of the church, and if I got anywhere near judgment or sin, he’d sit there and weep. He had such a tender conscience at this point. All of us sort of regular reprobates were looking at this guy crying, and saying, “Boy, the pastor is really powerful this morning. Give it to him!” And if I got anywhere near grace, and the spectacular freedom of it all, he’d look at me and could scarcely believe it was true for somebody as bad as he was.

Meanwhile, I was wanting some of the regular people who had settled into lethargy to hear the threats and so on, and become convicted of their sin, and be a little less confident of the grace applicable to them, because it wasn’t working out in their lives very powerfully.

But that’s part of the challenge of preaching all the time. You’re preaching to a diverse crowd in a church, and you’re trying to make it apply to the right people. And so partly it’s by the balance of messages, partly by the way application is done, but the same [thing we’ve been discussing] is true here!

If you only say, “You’re a child of the King, therefore do you think God wants you to be a prince or princess in poverty? Claim! Ask of God! You’re a child of the King! All things are yours! Don’t you understand?” then you get an over-realized eschatology, and prosperity gospel, and all kinds of arrogance. It’s really quite dangerous!

On the other hand, if you go to a really oppressed and poor part of the world, where people don’t have much to eat, and they’re oppressed by wicked landlords and totalitarian regimes and so on, and all you talk about is “you’re a miserable sinner,” then you’re not hearing something of the freedom of the power of the gospel to transform and elevate people and raise them up to be sons and daughters of the living God.

So what you especially emphasize is going to vary a little bit. It’s not that the doctrine changes, it’s where the emphases run. It’s going to depend a little bit on your spiritual diagnosis on what’s going on in people’s lives.

The Discussion Continues

In keeping with the conference theme, ”The Cross-Shaped Christian Life,” much of the panel discussion was given to the doctrine of sanctification. Other questions addressed in the video include:

  • How do you understand Paul’s struggle with sin in Romans 7:17-25? (Fred and Don have differing views of Rom. 7—and neither is the most popular view!)
  • What is the relationship between justification and sanctification? Are they tied or separate?
  • Can we see our own growth? Or is growth only the further, deeper acknowledgment of our need for the gospel?
  • If we have only one nature, why do we still sin?
  • What is “perfectionism”? And what is the “higher life movement”?
  • Warfield wrote a work called Miserable Sinner Christianity. What is “miserable sinner Christianity”? Is that the kind of language we should use to speak of Christians?
  • Concerning indicatives and imperatives, how do we avoid neglecting or distorting one or the other?
  • How do we teach new believers the basics of discipleship without promoting check-list Christianity?
  • What are some encouraging and concerning trends in North American Christianity?


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  • Drew

    Thanks for posting this transcript. I’ve enjoyed this discussion, and I agree with Dr. Carson – I think it’s healthy. I pray that having this conversation with fellow brothers and sisters drives us towards a biblical understanding of the entirety of the gospel.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Oh my goodness, Ryan! Thank you so much for posting this transcript. I really love reading D.A. Carson’s thoughts on the matter.

    I’ve engaged recently some confessional Lutherans on the topic of Law and Gospel, and their take is quite a bit of different from the Reformed perspective on Law/Gospel or Justification/Sanctification.

    Of course, I think the Lutherans have made some sizable errors, and they think likewise about the Reform.

    I think that Carson et al has correctly noted the tension and how easy it is to fall off balance from the Both/And beam.

    • Steve Martin

      I,too, have been giving this a lot of thought lately.

      I believe that the Lutherans (of which I am one) have it right in the sense that they have assurance from the visable, tangible, external Word (in baptism and the Supper – real presence and pure gospel in both), while Reformed/Calvinist/Baptist, etc., have to rely on their belief, or their feelings or their religious performance.

      The great gift of the sacraments by our Lord to us, is taken way too lightly by too many Christians. Methinks.

    • Truth Unites… and Divides

      In the countries where Lutheranism is the official religion with its “great gift of the Sacraments” it’s interesting to note the health (or lack of it) in the Lutheran Christianity in that country.

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  • KennyKirk

    Thank you posting this up

  • Brandon E

    Informative talk, thank you for posting.

    I’ve been following brothers Kevin DeYoung and Tullian Tchividjian on TGC on this topic. I’m interested in Kevin DeYoung’s upcoming book to see how he might describe what gospel-fueled “effort” looks like practically. How does it differ in practice from what those who might eschew the word “effort” are saying? Does “effort” mean that we should devote ourselves to prayer, reading the Bible, attending church meetings, preaching the gospel? If so, whom among those who emphasize “rest” above “effort” say anything less, except that they do not use the words “effort” or “striving” to describe it?

    Although I think the Keswick/higher life movement has had its share of unhealthy extremes (such as the strands of perfectionism described in this talk, expecting instant results, etc.), I believe it is worth pointing out that even Charles Trumbull, the Keswick preacher who coined the phrase “let go and let God,” didn’t really advocate passivity. Rather, he (like other Keswick/higher life teachers) basically made a distinction between will and willpower and said that the will should be continually and consciously active to trust God and to believe, receive and appropriate spiritual blessings in Christ, even if our willpower is powerless to produce godliness and fruit. In Victory in Christ he wrote:

    The effortless life is not the will-less life. We use our will to believe, to receive, but not to exert effort in trying to accomplish what only GOD can do. Our hope for victory over sin is not “CHRIST plus my effort!” but “CHRIST plus my receiving.”

    Although I wouldn’t insist upon his use of the word “effort,” I think the distinction he makes is actually quite helpful and meaningful to this discussion.

    Keswick/higher life speaker Lewis Sperry Chafer makes a similar distinction in his book He that is Spiritual:

    The spiritual life is not passive. Too often it is thus misjudged and because of the fact that one, to be spiritual, must cease from self-effort in the direction of spiritual attainments and learn to live and serve by the power GOD has provided. True spirituality knows little of “quietism.” It is life more active, enlarged and vital because it is energized by the limitless power of GOD. Spirit-filled Christians are quite apt to be physically exhausted at the close of the day. They are weary in the work, but not weary of the work.

    This also explains how it could be that some Reformed teachers criticize Keswick/higher life theology for promoting passivity/quietism and yet many proponents of Keswick/higher life theology tended to be exceedingly active in missions and evangelism, in good works such as running orphanages, and in teaching, writing and publishing.

    I also actually find some Keswick/higher life teachers far more convincing than B.B. Warfield on the matter of whether regenerate believers have one or two natures. For example, in a review of Chafer’s He that is Spiritual, Warfield sharply criticizes Chafer for saying that regenerated believers have two natures and not one, and accuses him of implying that that the regenerate have two personalities. But here Warfield seems largely un-conversant with Chafer’s actual point. Chafer explicitly says in his book that the regenerate do not two personalities but two natures (is a nature a person?); and he describes the new nature (the new man) as the person insofar as he or she is incorporated with Christ and the Spirit, and the old nature (the old man) in terms of the fact that the person still has the lingering old Adam and the flesh of sin in this life. Although the old man was judged on the cross, our fallen nature remains an active principle/disposition in our lives experimentally, the source of sin in the regenerate Christian, and will continue to be so until the transfiguration of our bodies at the Lord’s coming. The regenerate believer is said to have a new nature and to be “born again” or “begotten of God” not simply because God has changed their evil, God-hating heart to a good, God-loving heart, but because Christ Himself, who is the eternal life of God (John 14:6; 11:25), personally indwells them, making them partakers of the divine life (1 John 5:12) and the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:3-4). Warfield quotes Chafer as writing, “Salvation is not a so-called ‘change of heart.’ It is not a transformation of the old; it is a regeneration, or creation, of something wholly new, which is possessed in conjunction with the old so long as we are in the body,” (emphasis added by me), but in the versions I’ve read Chafer what actually says is, “Into this whole ‘natural man’ a new divine nature is imparted when we are saved. Salvation is more than a ‘change of heart.’ It is more than a transformation of the old: it is a regeneration, or creation, of something wholly new which is possessed in conjunction with the old nature so long as we are in this body. The presence of two opposing natures (not two personalities) in one individual results in conflict. ‘The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other’ (Gal 5:17)” (emphasis added).

    I think that one of the most positive characteristics of Keswick/higher life theology is that its speakers have tended to see regeneration and sanctification in terms of the Lord Jesus Christ actually and personally indwelling the believers (Col. 1:27; Rom. 8:10), living in the believers (Gal. 2:20), being formed in the believers (Gal. 4:19), filling us unto His fullness (Eph. 3:19), and making His home in their hearts through faith (Eph. 3:17). Hence, our active pursuit of sanctification actually must be an active pursuit of Jesus Christ Himself (Phil. 3:7-16) who is our life, our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification, our redemption (Col. 3:4; 1 Cor. 1:30) in order that He might live and move in us and with us–not of “godliness,” “righteousness,” “sanctification” or “fruit” as if these were things in themselves abstracted from Christ and then given to us or produced in us.

  • Luma

    Thank you SO much for posting this! It was very good spiritual food for me today.

    I have been avoiding commenting on the whole “effort” versus “resting” issue because one, I’m not the “get into arguments on blogs” kind of woman, and two, because I’m afraid if I get started writing, it would be like a fire hose. Having said all this and having prayed for clarity and succinctness, I do want to say a few things:

    A. We (my husband and I) spent many years in a movement (Reformed, no less) that was heavily effort driven and holy living oriented. We ended up forgetting the gospel, and we weren’t the only ones. This is what drove me to write “Gospel Amnesia” (currently being considered by an up-and-coming publisher). We know what forgetting the gospel can do to an individual, a family and to an entire church–it is heartbreaking. There was/is much sorrow and lingering consequences. When the gospel is eclipsed, flattened, or thought of as something “to tip you into the Kingdom,” as Carson says, it creates pharisees and stunted Christians.

    B. We have found ourselves with MORE spiritual fruit, joyful children, and a love for Jesus that drives us to obedience, SINCE we started listening to people like Carson, Keller, and Tchividjian. As my husband told me the other day, Tchividjian’s effort ( ;-) ) in driving home the grace of Jesus Christ has NOT turned us into antinomians, quite the contrary! I can write pages on what it does for a soul to have the “law” lifted from it and to grasp (although never fully in this lifetime) the depth and breadth of the grace of God in Christ Jesus. I cry every time I write about it. We’re not being less obedient, but more obedient; we don’t pursue holy living less, but in a qualitatively and a distinctly different way. See Romans 6:14 and all the ramifications thereof.

    C. Zaspel and Carson are correct to say that this is NOT an either/or issue. There has to be a union of the two (effort and rest) and it must be done as Carson discussed, knowing the state of your flock and how and when and to what degree each is emphasized. And as Zaspel said, always with the gospel as center. Carson also spent some time discussing Philippians 2:13, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” I can assure you as someone who spent years “working out” my salvation and putting in effort into holy living, there is a MARKED difference between what was happening before and the Spirit empowered effort/doing now. When Scripture says, “for it is God who works in you” all I can say is: Yes and Amen! We have lived the difference.

    Many thanks again for this post and the link to the discussion!

    In Christ,

  • Luma

    I thought of the perfect Carsonian answer to this question: “Effort? Yes–and No!” I can’t wait to use it as a blog post title. :-)

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  • Andrew Shanks –

    After listening to Kevin DeYoung’s excellent exposition of this topic at the Together for the Gospel conference, I tried my hand at formulating my own statement of the intersection between justifying grace and faith and sanctifying grace and faith. Here it is:

    God’s prevenient grace enables the entire scope of salvation (both justification and sanctification) but does so in such a way that, in his sovereignty, God requires a response from the sinner for both aspects of salvation; the appropriate response for justification is faith, the appropriate response for sanctification is effort, energy, active pursuit of holiness, etc. These responses, of course, are entirely empowered by the same outpouring of grace that originally motivates the sinner to repent.

    This formulation maintains (I think) the total reliance of the believer on God as well as the need for Gospel-fueled effort.

  • Joshua

    Sometimes, I wonder if we’ll ever move past the basics.

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  • Justin Dillehay

    I agree with Carson and Zaspel. The only difficulty I see is that they seem to imply that Kevin and Tullian are each advocating opposite sides of an either/or. But based on my reading of the debate, at least, Kevin has already been advocating both/and. In other words, it seems to me that they really agree with Kevin, but are trying to be diplomatic.

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  • Noah

    I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this lately, and I appreciate the post. I think that the Sermon on the Mount is another passage central to this issue, and I would like to have a better understanding of what Christ was communicating through it. I did come across a book by Carson that dealt with the Sermon on the Mount, and I found it helpful, but I’m still fuzzy (although I didn’t read the whole book, but I’ve looked into other resources as well). There are a wide range of opinions out there concerning the Sermon on the Mount, and I think a large amount of pastors and Christians in general would have trouble articulating just a few of the major views while establishing their own (including myself).

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