You may have seen Bill Evan’s recap and analysis of the sanctification discussion I’ve been a part over the past months. It’s a helpful summary and raises a number of good points. Later, on the same Ref21 site, Sean Lucas posted a friendly rejoinder. Without necessarily dissenting from Evans, Lucas argues that much of this discussion boils down to a matter of emphasis. This is the paragraph from Lucas that Justin Taylor highlighted on his blog:
I mention all of this to simply say: this is a historical disagreement. It is not recent, not the result of misbegotten, misspent fundamentalist childhoods, not the offshoot of strange Lutheran strains in a pure Reformed stock. I tend to think that the differences are simply matters of emphasis: some lead with imperatives and others lead with indicatives; but both sides hold the indicative-imperative relationship together. If we can recognize that the other “side” holds a legitimate perspective in the Reformed tradition that is largely a matter of emphasis, then we can approach each other with love, respect, and gratitude. We can avoid lumping them into pejorative groups (legalist, neo-nomian, antinomian, cheap grace, moralist), and we can recognize the temptation in our own approach that might lead us to become “imbalanced”—either by overemphasizing indicative to such a point that we fail to say what the Bible says in Colossians 3:5-17; or by overemphasizing the imperative to such a point that we fail to say what the Bible says in Colossians 3:1-4.
That’s a good paragraph. I agree that there is historical disagreement on some of these matters. The Reformed tradition does not always speak with one voice. I also commend Lucas’ exhortation to avoid “lumping” and employing pejorative labels. Finally, I’m sure Lucas is right that part of this debate comes down to a matter of emphasis.
But I’m not sure it’s only a matter of emphasis.
I have no problem with Christians emphasizing the indicatives. I often do. In fact, let me say this as plainly as possible: we ought to positively glory in the indicatives of the gospel. The indicatives ought to fuel our following of the imperatives. Our obedience must be grounded in the gospel. Sanctification is empowered by faith in the promises of God. We need to be reminded of our justification often and throughout our Christian lives. Our pursuit of personal righteousness will not go anywhere without a conviction that we are already reckoned positionally righteous in Christ. So let’s be passionately and repetitively gripped by the gospel of free grace.
I have no problem with that emphasis. Actually, I love it. But my question is whether we can emphasize all the glorious indicatives of Scripture and still insist on obedience to the imperatives. The phrase “insist on obedience” is key. I know that all my friends in this sanctification discussion believe obeying the imperatives is crucial. I know they want Christians to be holy. I don’t doubt for a moment that they think the imperatives of Scripture are really, really important. What I’m not clear on is whether my brothers and sisters in this debate believe we can explicitly and directly insist on obedience to those imperatives.
I’m not sure the issue is just emphasizing one or the other–indicatives or imperatives. There are at least two other issues at play.
1. Should Christians be exhorted to make an effort to obey the commands of Scripture or is the only appropriate exertion the effort to believe more fully the promises of God?
2. Should Christians be exhorted to obey the imperatives or does sanctification so invariably flow from justification that the way to get obedience is always and only to bring people back to the gospel?
I think everyone agrees that justification fuels our sanctification (see Rick Phillips’ post for an excellent summary of the differences between the two). Imperatives must be rooted in indicatives. The question, however, is whether we betray the indicatives by insisting directly and explicitly for Christians to work hard at obeying the imperatives. No ones denies that obedience to the imperatives is crucial. But can we demand obedience to those imperatives? Or is that falling back on law? The central question in this discussion is not just a matter of emphasis between the indicatives and imperatives, but whether emphasizing the indicatives accomplishes the goal of the imperatives without ever insisting upon them. Or to put it another way, is sanctification by faith alone in our justification by faith alone? I think not.
The last thing I want is to be the guy who says “stop making the gospel so important.” I never want to encourage people to emphasize the gospel less. But it is possible to emphasize the gospel in a wrong way. The Westminster Confession of Faith, after expounding that the law “directs and binds” us explains, “Neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it” (WCF 19.7). Likewise, the Larger Catechism says the “moral law” is “of special use” to the regenerate because it shows, among other things, how they ought to take “their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience” (Q/A 97). And the Belgic Confession says about the law, “we continue to use the witnesses drawn from the law and prophets to confirm us in the gospel and to regulate our lives with full integrity for the glory of God, according to his will” (Art. 25). There is no degrading language here about falling back into law or moving beyond justification, no hint that the imperatives are only a concession to our unbelief. The Reformed confessions understand that obedience to God’s commands–which we all want–is not accomplished merely by insisting on indicatives, but also by insisting directly and explicitly on the imperatives that flow from them.