The Obedience of the Gospel

It’s no secret that I have an abiding interest in the place and function of sanctification in the life of believers. The journey that began for me as a doctoral dissertation answering the Keswick model of sanctification that has historically punished dispensational fundamentalism has taken a new twist in recent years as a new threat has emerged within conservative evangelicalism: the gospel-driven sanctification approach most vividly seen in the writings of Tullian Tchividjian, but certainly not restricted to his sphere of influence.

In ultimate terms, I am not opposed to the label “gospel-driven” as applied to sanctification. My tension with the contemporary use of this label by those in the “contemporary grace movement” (as it is now being labeled in some Reformed circles) is that it restricts the gospel, in varying degrees, to Christ’s accomplishment of justification for us while giving scant attention given to Christ’s accomplishment of regeneration in us. As such, “gospel-driven” sanctification becomes, to a greater or lesser degree, an exercise in recalling Christ’s righteousness imputed in justification (with an attendant abhorrence of all that smacks of “doing” or “rule-keeping”) rather than as a disciplined cultivation and exercise of Christ’s righteousness imparted in regeneration. This is an irregularity of no small concern.

The Great Commission knows nothing of this irregularity. Its burden is not only to secure professions of faith, but to create Christ-followers who are baptized into local church communities and then “taught to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20). In short, the Gospel includes teaching new believers to keep God’s rules, both cultivating virtue and extirpating sin. This very compact expectation represents, I think, the very essence of sanctification, and it is a part of the Great Commission. Obedience is not, to be sure, necessary to salvation, but it is, most emphatically, necessary of salvation. So necessary are obedience and good works in the Christian religion that the Scriptures can say, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). The burden of this statement, which dominates several whole books of the NT canon (James, 1 John, and 2 Peter), informs us that obedience is important to God. As Rick Phillips has recently (and very carefully) explained, The Gospel Includes Sanctification (read the whole thing—he says things so very much more clearly than I). But let me take his statement one provocative step further: if the Gospel includes sanctification/regeneration (and I think Pastor Phillips is correct in affirming this), then to the degree that gospel presentations suppress/omit these ideas, they risk altering the Gospel into something other than what the Bible claims it to be. And that is a very, very big deal.

The reason we Protestants tend to diminish the importance of obedience is, of course, the real and vital concern that we might communicate to an unbeliever that one’s obedience contributes to one’s justification. This is a devastating error, and we rightly want to avoid it at all costs. And so, we reason, if introducing regeneration/sanctification/obedience in a Gospel presentation might confuse an unbeliever about the means of justification, then we may dispense with these topics as matters of secondary importance: it’s more important, after all, to get people saved than it is to get people holy. But this is a very anthropocentric sentiment that flies in the face of Christ’s earthly mission. Christ came not only to rescue his people from the guilt of sin, but also from the power and practice of sin—he came to destroy the works of the evil one and to create a heaven that is scoured free not only of guilt, but of all unrighteousness (see, e.g., 1 John 3:5–8; Rom 6:1–14; Acts 28:16; etc.).

I remain mindful that the “movements” from which many of us and many of our churches have emerged have emphasized obedience and rules to excess, and I cannot condone this. Still, we err mightily if we adopt the binary approach that sees libertinism as the only remedy for legalism. There is an excluded middle here that we badly need to discover.

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14 thoughts on “The Obedience of the Gospel

  1. paul says:

    I wonder if another reason to focus more on justification than sanctification is the very blemished record of obedient living that many professing Christians must sadly admit is their actual experience of the Christian life. Over time it can become very demoralizing and make it difficult to keep on going with any real joy and enthusiasm. The appeal of the gospel driven approach is that it takes the focus off the failure and offers a path to success that gives hope and is energizing, at least for a while. It probably sells a lot of books too.

  2. Ryan says:

    Good article, Dr. Snoeberger. I thought you would also like this article I saw today which had the same exact theme from someone related to Masters Seminary/Expositors Seminary – http://graceandgranite.com/gospel-off-centered-part-1/

  3. Phil Siefkes says:

    Thanks for a clearly written article. The dangers are great. The consequences of such a distorted message are significant for all.

    Keep writing.

  4. Issa Haddad says:

    Great article! Thank you for writing about this subject. It’s a subject that people write about and talk about often at least in blogs and people I interact with.

  5. SherryMcCauleyGolden says:

    Thank you Pastor. This is a burden of mine. I am one of the accused,however I fear for those who are swinging the pendulum too far the other way.

  6. Ben Wright says:

    Mark,

    I’m reading you to say that you agree sanctification is gospel-driven/centered/whatever, but you reject a truncated view of what the gospel does, demands, and accomplishes. True? In other words, I’m assuming you’d agree that the gospel motivates, enables, demands, and secures the believer’s transformation into the image of Christ. (No doubt more verbs could be added.) Do I assume correctly?

    It’s probably fairly obvious that I believe the gospel does all those things, and for that reason I wholeheartedly agree with your concerns about those who dismiss the importance of obedience.

    But I’m also concerned when people who share our concerns truncate the gospel as well—by terminating the work of the gospel at justification, as if it played no ongoing role in our sanctification. I’m wondering whether you would share that concern.

  7. Mark Snoeberger says:

    Ben, you assume correctly my intent in your first paragraph.

    In answer to your last question, I would answer that I see in justification great motivational and informing value for sanctification. What I question is whether justification, being a forensic/non-experiential phenomenon, can properly be regarded in any sense as a causal or enabling factor in experimental holiness. Justification may motivate believers to pursue holiness, but it is regeneration that is the engine enabling believers to pursue holiness.

    As I see it, there are two concerns here, both of which entail a confusion of the duplex gratia of union with Christ. If we appeal to the grace of regeneration/sanctification as the basis for justification, we end up with some type of legalism, whether that be Romanism, Shepherdism, New Perspectivism, or Pharisaism. If we appeal to the grace of justification as the basis for sanctification, we end up with some type of libertinism/antinomianism, whether that be “easy believism,” Keswick, or Tchividjianism.

    The two graces need to be kept distinct though never apart.

  8. Ben Wright says:

    In case the antecedent of “it” was ambiguous when I said, “by terminating the work of the gospel at justification, as if it played no ongoing role in our sanctification,” I intended for “it” to refer to gospel, not justification.

    So while you seem to be parsing out a bit more systematically how particular aspects of God’s work in salvation relate to ongoing sanctification, I’m looking at numerous texts that describe how saving grace accomplishes ongoing effects in the life of a believer.

    I don’t have any quarrel with your approach. But my concern is to make a different point: Those who truncate the effects of grace are not limited to the antinomian side.

  9. Rodney says:

    I’m curious why you identified yourself as a Protestant rather than as a Baptist.

  10. Mark Snoeberger says:

    That’s true, Ben. What I think is sometimes lost in this discussion is that regeneration is a form of grace too. It is by grace alone that Christ’s gives us a new nature, but it is by Spirit-energized personal effort, discipline, and hard work that we cultivate that new nature and grow to be like Christ.

    What alarms me most about the contemporary grace movement is that it seems at times to appeal to no grace other than the grace of justification. I would argue that justifying grace is, of itself, an inadequate basis for Christian growth.

  11. Ben Wright says:

    I trust you hear no disagreement from me, simply a complementary concern about a similar truncation of the gospel. I’ve heard more than one anti-anti-nomian address the problem by detaching the grace of regeneration and the transforming work of the Spirit from the gospel, as if mature believers should by now be ready to move beyond it. I thought it might be helpful to confirm that you share this concern.

  12. Mark Snoeberger says:

    Rodney, I call myself a Protestant for the same reason I call a tomato a vegetable. I may technically be wrong, but there really seems to be no pressing reason to correct the world for not knowing that it’s a fruit.

    MAS

  13. Having had some concerns about the gospel-driven sanctification movement that were validated in the the kerfuffle surrounding Tullian, I am grateful for responses such as yours and Rick Phillips at Ref 21. I would also give a bit of caution to those who because of the over-reaction by the gospel-driven group are reluctant to talk about obedience being integral to salvation, from its beginning through its culmination.

    You wrote, “Obedience is not, to be sure, necessary to salvation, but it is, most emphatically, necessary of salvation.” I am not covenantal, but it seems that obedience is so tied up in salvation that you cannot parse it out, and is, in fact, necessary to salvation. In Mark 1:15 the command from Christ, a command to be obeyed is to repent and believe, with both verbs being present, active, imperatives. In Matthew 3:2 and 4:17, in the call to repentance from both John the Baptist and Christ, repent is a present, active, imperative.

    In II Thessalonians 1:8 it tells us that God deals out retribution to those who do not obey the the gospel of our Lord Jesus. This has to be referring to those who did not obey unto salvation, not those who disobeyed after salvation. In I Peter 4:17 we are told that if judgement begins with the household of God, then what is the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God. According to Mark 1:15 above obeying the gospel of God starts with being obedient to the command to repent and believe. Obviously, the people referred to here in II Thessalonians and I Peter did not obey that command.

    Additionally, in I Peter we see how obedience is integral to both salvation and sanctification. 1:2..we are to obey Jesus Christ. How do we obey Jesus Christ? We repent and believe the gospel. 1:14-15…as obedient children we are not to be conformed to our former lusts but to be holy in all our behavior. In 1:22..Since, in obedience to the truth we have purified our souls for a sincere love of the brethren, we are to grow in our love for them…here we see the interplay of obedience in both salvation and sanctification.

    So I would have to say that obedience is both necessary to salvation, and necessary of salvation.

  14. Mark Snoeberger says:

    Thanks for your comment, Morris. I agree that it is possible to say that works are necessary to salvation IF sufficient qualifiers are in place. But that’s a very important “if.” And since the preservation of justification by faith alone apart from works looms very large in my priority queue, I feel comfortable with the rubric that I proposed–works necessary as a validation of the salvation “moment” but not necessary to the experience of it.

    MAS