I’ve read with interest debates in the Reformed community on the doctrine of sanctification the last few years. Debates about the motivations and sources of sanctification now are worked through in discussions on Ref21, The Gospel Coalition, and other Reformed web blogs. Tullian Tchividjian has been at the center of these discussions and has received critiques from theologians and pastors such as Rick Phillips, William B. Evans, and Kevin DeYoung.
As a recent seminary graduate that is now doing a church planting internship, these discussions have also taken place around me. In addition, in my call to preach in a church plant where I am standing before young people plotted at different points on the spiritual spectrum (including agnostics), I feel the pressure to balance both Paul and James in presenting the gospel that both evangelizes and edifies.
However, a helpful observation by Tim Keller in his new book, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, has had me frame this debate in a new way. Rather than seeing one side of this debate advocating a non-Reformed or non-confessional view of sanctification, I believe something akin to the Marrow Controversy of the 18th century is happening.
Keller appeals to the Marrow Controversy as to why pastors and churches in the same denomination subscribe to the same confession but have different philosophies of ministry (what Keller calls ‘Theological Vision’). The Marrow Controversy had two sides that both subscribed to the Westminster Standards but worked out the implications of their confessional theology in different ways. The so-called Marrow Men (Thomas Boston, Ebenezer Erskine, Ralph Erskine) advocated the ‘free offer of the gospel’ while the opposition did not see gospel ministers as having the right to offer the gospel to those who did not show signs of election. The reason that the Westminster Standards did not resolve the issue is that systematic theology alone won’t answer all of our questions about practical theology, especially if it is a ‘boundary-set’ theology as opposed to ‘center-set’ (to borrow a line of thinking from Carl Trueman). A boundary-set theology answers many questions, but many others questions are left unanswered in light of our contemporary context.
Is something like this going on in the debate over sanctification? I am inclined to say yes. As I read a Tchividjian blog, a Jack Miller book, or listen to a Keller sermon, I don’t hear anything non-confessional regarding sanctification. Indeed, many imperatives jump out as I read or listen to these men. There is no denial of the third use of the law as such, but the emphasis and outworking of these ideas looks different pastorally than how their critics would prefer. Yet, this has less to do with the Westminister Standards and probably more to do with ‘Theological Vision’ and the various contexts these pastors and theologians do ministry.
I don’t agree with Tchividjian’s entire approach to the matter. I am more inclined to agree with William B. Evans, Sinclair Ferguson, and Richard Gaffin as to how they view sanctification in light of our union with Christ rather than our justification. I don’t deny that viewing one’s sanctification in logical connection to justification is unbiblical (it certainly isn’t). Rather, union with Christ seems to be the more dominant perspective in the New Testament. If we are to be as balanced as the Bible is balanced, then this needs to be preached and taught more than it currently is. (I am indebted to Evans for his work in this area.)
Yet, even if my emphasis and balancing perspectives are different from Tchividjian or others, the fact that this debate has less to do with confessional theology and is more like the Marrow Controversy will give me more grace and charity in discussing these issues, though the Marrow Controversy itself did lack charity. I am dialoging with men who are confessional, Reformed, and in good standing in their presbyteries. Their ‘imbalance’ shouldn’t be condemned. Rather, we should encourage loving, civil dialogue.
None of us are striking the most balanced presentation of this issues that takes into account all that the Bible says about soteriology. It would benefit the Reformed community to learn from other voices which articulate different emphases so that we don’t oscillate between legalism or antinomianism. It would also benefit the Reformed community to articulate a Reformed faith that seeks understanding from Scripture alone, realizing how nuanced God’s Word is when it comes to the motivations and sources of our becoming more like Jesus.