Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

10 Dec 2012

The Problem with "Gospel-Centered" Sanctification


The blogosphere has been humming lately with questions of Christian freedom and Christian depravity, the role of faith and works in sanctification, the priority of law or Gospel in sanctification, and the like. Some have seized the “Gospel-Centered” banner and have used it to wage general war on law and works—after all, they argue,

Major Premise: The Gospel is Justification.

Minor Premise: Justification is destroyed by law and works.

Conclusion: The Gospel is destroyed by law and works.

So what’s wrong with the syllogism? Well, the logical structure is fine, so if an error is to be found, it has to be in one of the premises. In this case, it is the major premise. The gospel is not reducible to the forensic reality of justification. It also includes the experimental reality of regeneration. Together they comprise what the Reformers described as the duplex beneficium of union with Christ—two distinct benefits received simultaneously in the Gospel. And whenever we minimize either of these benefits, the Gospel disappears:

  • Suppress justification and a “Gospel” of legalism, Pharisaism, and pious moralism emerges to insulate the proponent from the righteousness of God.
  • Suppress regeneration and a “Gospel” of antinomianism, Corinthianism, and arrogant license emerges to insulate the proponent from the very possibility of sanctification.

What happens then is saddest of all: the Pharisees and the Corinthians start quibbling over which version of the Gospel is better. The Corinthians hoot that if we continue in sin, grace abounds. And even when checked by Paul’s “God forbid” in Romans 6:2, they still conclude that it’s better to be a Corinthian with no works at all than to engage in works that, upon examination, are found to be self-righteous. The Pharisees howl back that faith without works is dead: “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do,” concluding that the best chance at earning God’s favor is by multiplying works: better a Pharisee who can argue his case (Matt 7:22) than a Corinthian with absolutely no case at all!

The fact is that neither group has a legitimate claim to the label “Gospel-Centered.” Both have missed a critical aspect of the Gospel. Yes, we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, “not from yourselves, [but by] the gift of God; not by works, so that no one can boast.” But we are also sanctified by virtue of the the impartation of a new nature as partakers of the divine nature and new creatures in Christ—regenerate beings “created in Christ Jesus to do good works that God prepared in advance for us to do” and “without which no one shall see the Lord” (Eph 2:8–10; Heb 12:14).

Being “Gospel-Centered” is a good thing. But like the “biblicist” label before it, this new label risks becoming useless if a subset of believers with an incomplete and careless soteriology is allowed to illicitly commandeer the term to seize moral high ground that they have not earned. That is the problem with “Gospel-Centered” sanctification.

5 Responses

  1. Kent Hobi

    Very helpful clarification! We have a meeting with a pastor in our area that this clarification may be of great help. Like some this man uses “Gospel-centered” as a reason to argue against a ministry that includes a progressive personal separation from the world, fearing legalism. This is a very timely post. Thank you so much for your service to the Lord in clarifying these issues.

  2. Mike West

    I believe it boils down to a simple issue of purpose, stemming from a genuine God-accomplished change in a person’s nature. When God saves us by grace our new nature instills the desire to live in such a way that pleases God. Evidence of such a change follows. It isn’t a matter of “I must do this in order to maintain my salvation, or to prove my salvation.” It is a matter of a natural response to the reallity of the new man God has saved us to be. We will not be consistent in our actions because the sin nature has not been eradicated. Becoming a “new man” means that we are no longer in bondage to the sinful ways of the old man, and that we can now live in such a way that is pleasing to God, and brings glory to Him. To believe we must live a works filled life in order to maintain God’s favor we insult grace. But to say that one who is born again need not produce Christlikeness in their life is to insult God’s work of sanctifiation. Again we are dealing with pendulum theology, much like the whole Lordship salvation issue. People tend to make extreme statements in order to prove a point, oftentimes misrepresenting the various aspects of a doctrine. I believe the Bible is clear that we are not only saved by grace, but also kept by grace. Works can neither save one nor keep one saved. At the same time we cannot read James, Peter, Paul, Hebrews, and Jesus without seeing that God’s grand work of grace and justification also involves His positional and progressive work of sanctification in our life. “We love, because He first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19)

  3. Part of the problem with this debate is vagueness of terms. Along with those already mentioned (e.g., “gospel-centered”), there’s a problem with “God’s favor.”

    Some are using this term to include any pleased response God has to our conduct as His children. Then, reasoning that all of God’s favor is by grace alone, our works can have no relationship to His pleasure.

    But this reasoning is incompatible with the New Testament:
    2 Co 5:9 ESV 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.
    Col 1:10 ESV 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.
    1 Th 4:1 ESV 1 Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.