Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

15 Nov 2012

Is Sanctification Furthered by Rules?

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Mark Snoeberger’s recent post on sanctification generated a number of comments on this blog and over at SharperIron. One person asked this:

Do you really believe that sanctification is furthered by rules and if so in what way? I fail to see any way that rules effectively “further” sanctification.

A rule like “children obey your parents” does in fact further sanctification. It is essential to the sanctification of children. Regeneration itself does not bring any revelation as to the particular nature of the sanctified life. Regeneration does not impart any knowledge of the standard of conformity required for holiness. Regeneration is the impartation of a new disposition (or nature; see here). The regenerated person now has a disposition toward God, toward obedience to God. He has a desire to obey God, though the old disposition (or nature) is not immediately removed. Rules like “children obey your parents” further sanctification in that they give the standard of holiness and thus direct the regenerated person toward holiness. True, the rule in and of itself cannot bring about holiness apart from the regenerated heart and empowering Spirit, but the regenerated heart cannot be sanctified without the rule. Regeneration does not impart with it a knowledge of the the obedience required for sanctification.

It might be assumed, however, that people who are regenerated sort of automatically know the standards of holiness and thus don’t need any “rules.” Children, even in non-Christian homes, usually grow up being taught to obey their parents, and thus when they are regenerated, their new disposition leads them toward obedience to their parents, so that it might seem they need no rule to further their sanctification in this area. But that is because they are already aware of the God-given rule of obedience to parents. Admittedly, since we are all created in the image of God, everyone has a general sense of right and wrong written on our hearts (Rom 2:14-15). But of course this is imperfect at best and not sufficient for the holiness God requires.

We might consider the case of sexual immorality, particularly premarital sex. In today’s American culture many young people and those who teach them believe that premarital sex is perfectly normal and that it would be foolish to enter into marriage with someone with whom one has not had sex. Such a person who comes to Christ does not necessarily know, simply because of their regeneration, that having sex with their girlfriend or boyfriend is now sinful. They need a command, an exhortation, a rule that such conduct is contrary to God’s standard of holiness. They need to know this rule if their sanctification is to be furthered. Paul’s culture was similar to what we now face in ours in the realm promiscuity, so that we commonly see in his writings warnings about sexual immorality. People in his time did not automatically know that sexual immorality was forbidden when they came to Christ. They needed a rule (1 Cor 6:18) to further their sanctification.

I think what is behind this uncomfortableness with the role of rules in sanctification is a misunderstanding of the contrast between law and grace that is set forth in Scripture, particularly in a text like Rom 6:14, “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” This is taken to mean that there is some sort of absolute antithesis between law and grace such that any law or “rule” is antithetical to the Christian experience (for more, see here). This aversion to law in sanctification is found among some dispensationalists. Alva J. McClain in his generally helpful book Law and Grace goes to great lengths to disallow any connection between the idea of law and the believer (54). Similarly, Charles Ryrie in his book The Grace of God denies the role of law in sanctification because of the absolute antithesis he draws between law and grace (104). Ryrie thus says the Mosaic Law could not and did not sanctify individuals who were regenerate. But just the opposite is true. David speaks of the man who “delights in the law of the Lord” and goes on in Psalm 1 to describe its sanctifying effects. Sanctification for the regenerate comes through obedience to the will of God set forth in rules, including its Mosaic form. But the Law, as part and parcel of the Mosaic covenant, provided within itself no power to obey that Law. Regeneration was not a guaranteed part of the old covenant, as it is in the new covenant (Jer 31). The problem was not with the Law itself but the inability of unregenerate Israelites to obey it. But obedience to the Mosaic Law brought sanctification to regenerate Israelites like David.

This rejection of the Mosaic Law as a sanctifying agent in the Old Testament leads Ryrie and others to conclude that that the problem with the Mosaic Law was that it was law. Thus when we come to the New Testament, law or “rules” are commonly seen as antithetical to sanctification. This idea shows up in the writings of various authors, recently those of Tullian Tchividjian. This anti-rule sentiment often leads to a very passive view of sanctification and the idea that instead of rules the believer is to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But in fact the Spirit works with the commandments (rules) of the New Testament in a perfectly compatible way.

15 Responses

  1. Thank you. This is a very helpful article. I think most believers would agree that rules the Bible explicitly gives us are helpful and necessary—and Scripture is full of them. Where I think the arguments begin is when we get to man-made rules based on biblical principles. I think that’s what Dr. Olson was originally referring to, but I could be wrong. There seems to be thinking “out there” that if we add ANY rules (based on biblical principles) that are not explicitly given in Scripture, then we are adding to grace and are being legalistic.

    But is that so?

    I’m not sure how we can not apply biblical principles to specific issues of our day. For example, we have the principle of not looking at a woman to lust after her. We apply that to “Don’t look at pornography on the Internet.” Is that a valid application of a biblical principle? Some would say this rule is adding to grace or going beyond the explicit rules in Scripture. Yet don’t we need these rules as well? I could be wrong, but for many, this seems to be the crux of the debate.

    When can we legitimately create rules based on biblical principles and when does this become Phariseeism?

    1. Bill Combs

      I believe I agree with all you have said. I am not sure about Dr. Olson, but I think he may have quoted Tchividjian because he believed Tchividjian was attacking a problem he himself felt needed to be addressed. But as I read Tchividjian, I think he is saying something more than what Olson would ultimately be comfortable with. But I have no clear answer on this point.

      I agree with you about man-made rules. Obviously, it would be possible to create a man-made rule that is not based on a biblical principle and which would not further a person’s sanctification. For instance, I could say that in order to be obedient to God, to please God, to become holy, one must not eat strawberries.

      As a pastor friend was reminding me at lunch today, man-made roles that are applications of biblical principles are good, even necessary things, if they are created by an individual for his own sanctification–for his own spiritual discipline. Taking your pornography example, a person who had a particular problem with pornography might make a rule for himself that he will not own a personal computer because he has not been able to control himself. This could be a very good rule for himself to keep himself from sin and thereby aid in his own spiritual growth and holiness. That rule could further his sanctification. We assume, of course, he is doing it for the right motive–out of love for Christ, etc. (why else would be doing it?). But it would be problematic–and I think this is where the complaint comes about man-made rules in sanctification–for this man to try to impose that rule on all other believers and argue that in order to be holy and grow in sanctification, all believers must not have a personal computer. So we have to be careful about taking our legitimate applications of biblical principles or commands, and then giving them the same universal authority as the biblical principle or command itself.

  2. I don’t think I disagree with you about any of this, but I’d want to advance one distinction: “Rules” can refer to different things. They can be God’s rules, or they can be the man-made regulations of Colossians 2:20-23, which “have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” Perhaps there are other categories as well.

    I think we need to distinguish between categories when we describe what we can expect rules to accomplish. At the very least we can say that not all man-made rules further sanctification. Some stunt it.

    Granted, Olson was imprecise in that he wasn’t clear whether he was referring to one of those two categories, or both. As I read his post, I actually think his comments, taken charitably and independently, echo Colossians 2. His quotes from Tchividjian, particularly the latter, introduce problems and shape how we interpret his own words.

    1. Ben, nice summary of the issues. I think you’re right on here.

      Thanks for the article Dr. Combs. One point of clarification from one who has read most (all?) of Tullian’s books–he wouldn’t say that obedience to the law/rules of Scripture is antithetical to sanctification. Perhaps this is where Ben’s suggestion for establishing categories whereby to understand “rules” comes into play.

      With Tullian, it seems that where the angst for many lies is in his tendency to deemphasize Scripture’s varied motivations in the pursuit of holiness (thus the exchange with DeYoung). A problem to be sure; but not the same antinomianism.

      1. Bill Combs

        I am fearful of saying too much here because it is obvious you are more familiar with Tullian than I am. I just noticed Mark’s assessment in his response to his previous post. He says:

        (2) More pointedly, though, I’d like to suggest that the original post does make an extended qualification in the form of a long citation of Tullian Tchividjian, who has persisted in a strictly gospel-reflective model of sanctification that sharply minimizes the role of law, effort, and obedience—even after extended correctives by more capable thinkers cited above.

        I have the same impression. What did Kevin DeYoung say in his original post that needed to be corrected by Tullian. I see absolutely nothing at all, but Tullian did because he has a somewhat different view of sanctification (not radically different). He says he agrees with Kevin, but then begins to take it back. Tullian says: “Sanctification is the hard work of going back to the certainty of our already secured pardon in Christ and hitting the refresh button over and over.” I don’t think that is a very good description of sanctification. It hints at a passive sanctification by faith model. He continues: “In other words, the truest measure of our growth is not our behavior (otherwise the Pharisees would have been the godliest people on the planet); it’s our grasp of grace–a grasp which involves coming to deeper and deeper terms with the unconditionality of God’s justifying grace.” This is really problematic. Again: “Passively, our work is to receive and rest in his work for us which is a terribly painful thing because we are all seasoned “do-it-yourselfers.” This passive view of sanctification keeps coming out. And if passive, we certainly don’t need rules.

        Take the quote from Tullian that Olson refers to in his post:
        “The biggest lie about grace that Satan wants Christian parents to buy is that grace is dangerous and therefore needs to be “kept in check.” By believing this, we not only prove we don’t understand grace, but we violate gospel advancement in the lives of our children.” Do parents really believe that grace is dangerous in the lives of their children? I don’t believe that–certainly most Christian parents don’t. But Tullian suggests that if parents have rules, even biblically based ones, then that is a problem. Godly parents often make a rule that young boys cannot use computers in private, not because they do not believe in grace, but because they believe in depravity, which no amount of grace in this life can ultimately overcome.

        1. Thanks Dr. Combs. Your comments have helped add clarification and I’m in agreement with what you’re driving at. While I tend to be a bit more optimistic regarding Tullian (perhaps simply because I’ve really benefitted from some of his books), I hesitate to push back at all, because I heartily agree that in the exchange with DeYoung, that DeYoung puts forward the more theologically robust option.

          Looking forward to your future posts on this subject!

          1. Bill Combs

            I think I can see a little from where Tullian is coming from. I agree we could probably use a little more reflection on grace as we work through our sanctification since it can sometimes move more to the works side of things. There is a proper balance there somewhere. I believe I have experienced a little of that in my own life in the last few years. As I have reflected more on God’s grace in salvation generally, I think it makes the effort of sanctification more joyful and ultimately more successful.

          2. Ben W

            I wonder whether another piece of the puzzle might not be how we think of the role of rules—even good rules. A regenerate person who obeys a rule, even a God-given rule, but thinks that his obedience ipso facto gains favor with God (in the sense of meriting a right standing) is treading on thin ice in relationship to his understanding of justification.

            I haven’t read any of T.T.’s books, but I sense from shorter pieces that’s one of his concerns. I simply believe that valid concern can be addressed without truncating the biblical response to “looking back to your justification.”

          3. Bill Combs

            I agree, Ben.
            I am reminded of Fred Zaspel’s definition of legalism which I just saw: “Legalism is that attempt to establish or maintain a right standing with God by means of our own efforts.” I like it because it works with justification and sanctification. I know some want to restrict legalism to justification, but I think as a theological concept it is a problem for both doctrines.

    2. Bill Combs

      I believe I agree with all you have said. Please see my reply to Adam Blumer, where I address the issue of man-made rules.

      The reason I keep referring to “rules” is that I am trying to get at a false view of sanctification that, as I mentioned in my post, is based on a misunderstanding of the Mosaic Law, which believes that obedience to the Law could not bring about sanctification even in the Old Testament. And the reason it could not is because it is “law.” Therefore, “law” cannot bring about sanctification in the New Testament. One form of this is Keswick theology, which says that we are justified by faith and equally sanctified by faith. Thus law or rules have no part in a believer’s sanctification. This creates a problem when these folks are reminded about all the commands in the New Testament. They try to dance around these commands, hoping to convince us that these are by nature different from Law in the Old Testament. But of course they are not. Paul even refers to them as the Law of Christ. I am trying to emphasize that these NT commands are rules and laws like Old Testament Law. There is much to address here, and I will explain all this further in a future post, God willing.

  3. Jon Nason

    Dr. Combs, thank you for the call to balance regarding the relationship between sanctification and moral law. I wonder if a practical confusion exists between God’s moral law and the way the individual believer processes his obedience to it, i.e. his methods, ways of obedience. Donald McKim wrote a great article showing William Perkins’ position on this relationship in the Evangelical Quarterly of 1987. McKim argues that Perkins’ position had a huge impact not only on Puritan theology, but “American” evangelical theology. Here’s the link:

  4. Bill

    I am largely on your side in this issue. I certainly believe that the Spirit of God has providentially in the NT provided guidance on godly living that are precepts we must follow. I find TT’s views too extreme and think KdeY gets a better balance.

    That being said, I would perhaps wish to quibble a bit here and there with you.

    1. You write, ‘Regeneration does not impart with it a knowledge of the the obedience required for sanctification.’ I agree. However, the indwelling Spirit does. This seems to me to be part of the distinction between the OC and the NC. To be sure the OC was demand without a new nature or power and the NC gives both, however, the NC also gives the law ‘written on the heart’. This is somewhat different from merely the ‘works of the law written on the heart’ in creation which is itself an awareness of the difference between right and wrong. The law ‘written on the heart’ in the NC is a heart taught in godliness and predisposed to obey. This teaching is the work of the Spirit and also includes the ability to obey.

    2. Obligation belongs to any (covenantal) relationship. ‘Oughts’ are intrinsic to relationships. However, there is a rule-keeping mentality that is sub-Christian. The Law was in fact simply a series of rules and obligations. It was a covenant of legislation. These ‘laws’ were largely ‘do not’s’ for they presupposed a non-regenerate heart. The NC does not lead us by such a system. Indeed such a system of ‘do’s and do nots’ belongs to (spiritual)infancy, it is how we teach children and not mature sons (Gals 3,4). In the NC sonship endows us with spiritual intelligence (the Holy Spirit’s wisdom) that means we are no longer led by a mere series of rules.

    3. The primary NC guidance model for holiness is Christ, and especially Christ in death and resurrection. It is to Christ, in death and resurrection, that the NT again and again points to instruct us in holiness and godliness. We ought to walk as he walked.

    4. Undoubtedly, the Holy Spirit, guides us through the whole of Scripture for it is all profitable for instruction in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). He does so, however, not simply by making it a text book of rules for clearly many OT ‘laws’ no longer directly apply to us today. Rather, he enables us to see its redemptive-historical development and to interpret accordingly. In this we have the Spirit inspired teaching of the apostles to rightly understand and apply the Spirit-inspired word that preceded the arrival of Christ and the Kingdom.

    In conclusion, I have no difficulty with the fact the NT writers frequently express the obligations of NC living in concrete terms. These terms should have been obvious to the believers who had the Spirit but of course the flesh so easily blinds us. I simply wish to observe that the way of holiness is not rule-based but Spirit-based and Christ-based as the Spirit applies to our hearts the implications of the death and resurrection of Christ. Obligations exist (they existed for Christ who must do the things his Father did) but they are not expressed in the shape of ‘the Law’, that is, we are not a spiritual nation kept by an imposed system of legislation such as Israel was or as Islam is today.