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The Wiles of Works Righteousness (3/4)

By Matthew Claridge–

(For the other parts in this series: Part 1, Part 2)

Justification by Faith, Sanctification by Works

How we put together justification and sanctification has been a struggle for the church since day one. That much is clear from Galatians. Nevertheless, perhaps it wasn’t until the Reformation that the church became fully aware of how entrenched this struggle truly is. Questions and concerns were raised that hadn’t been raised before, at least not for a very long time or in such a pointed way.

Problems typically arise here when we try to simplify the issues for the sake of making doctrine memorable. For instance, in order to clearly distinguish these aspects of salvation, we might say “we are justified by faith and sanctified by obedience,” or “in justification God works alone and in sanctification God works with us.” Now, there is some truth to these kinds of distinctions, but is it the whole truth? It all depends on what you mean by “obedience” and “working with God.” Let me provide a personal illustration that brings the issue into sharp focus.

I earned my BA from a fundamentalist college which had strict guidelines for conduct. Very often, the college pastor would ascend the podium during the mandatory chapel hour to respond to objections that the school’s strict code of conduct was nothing less than legalistic. His response typically went along these lines: “we uphold vigorously the doctrine of justification by faith. No one here is saying you have to obey our rules in order to be saved. We are simply saying these rules are the means God uses to sanctify us, to set us apart, to fulfill God’s command, ‘come out from among them and be ye separate.’ In fact,” he would continue, “legalism is a compromise of justification, not sanctification, as Paul’s letter to the Galatians tells us.”

It was difficult at the time to see what was wrong with this logic. I knew something was wrong, but couldn’t put my finger on it. My difficulty, I believe, was the radical discontinuity I had assumed between justification and sanctification—a tendency all too familiar within evangelicalism of the revivalist strain. Having traveled a few more leagues down the Way, I think I now can articulate the problems here.

First, one of the cardinal errors of this college’s approach was to confuse the institution’s rules of conduct with a spiritual means of sanctification. Instead of simply affirming that their rules were their own peculiar set of standards to “keep a tight ship,” they universalized them, implying that everyone ought to obey them because they are God-given standards for all time. For instance, the school disallowed infants and young children to be in worship services because little yapping kids hindered the work of the Spirit.

The problem here is a very close cousin to the “justification by cultural preference” mentioned earlier. No amount of rules, nor scrupulous obedience to them, can truly sanctify anyone. They are external rules, regulating external affairs, actions, and behaviors (cf. Col. 2.20-23). The “law” simply cannot change the heart; and when we admits this, the “law” works fine. For instance, I honor the US Constitution for what it is, a document regulating the external behavior of government institutions. I don’t confuse the mandates of the Constitution with God-given rules for spiritual growth and sanctification—and most people don’t. But by raising their particular set of rules to the level of a spiritual means of grace, the college I attended was indeed falling under Paul’s indictment of pursuing “perfection by the flesh.”

Second, one of the most famous statements by the founder of the college was this: “these rules are set in place in order that when a student lays his head on his pillow at night, he can do so with a clean conscience.” This notion drives the problem mentioned in the previous paragraphs to new and darker levels. As if mere external conformity to an institution’s rules of conduct were enough to give me a clean conscience! As if such rules of conduct were the standard against which to judge the innocence or guilt of my conscience! It falls headlong into the error Calvin warned us of: “If man is not clearly convinced of his own vanity, he will be puffed up with insane confidence in his own mental powers, and can never be induced to recognize their slenderness as long as he measures them by a measure of his own choice. But as soon as he begins to compare his powers with the difficulty of [God’s] Law, he has something to diminish his bravado.”

Third, the college had a deep and abiding aversion to John MacArthur because of his so-called “Lordship salvation” view. In fact, MacArthur was banned reading for all students. The college prided itself on being all about the “free offer of the gospel” which, in turn, gave them another feather in their cap against the charge of legalism. The fact of the matter is, most people who wanted to join the college church already spoke like, dressed like, and acted like everyone else in the church. Sure, the college preached “free grace,” but for all intents and purposes it was preaching to the choir—you already had to be a reincarnation of 1950’s evangelical America before you could even think about joining the church. The church culture was mono-chrome.  I never felt comfortable inviting ‘outsiders’ to the college church because there were so many hoops and hurdles one had to jump through before you could really be included. These implicit rules for acceptance were far more noticeable than the gospel of grace. In line with the Pharisees, the “law of Moses” received an inordinate focus that swamped the “promise of Abraham.”

Finally, the theological error at the heart of this approach—and at the heart of all confusions over grace vs. obedience—is the partition of the “will” from all the other aspects of the human person. Typically, obedience is seen as the exclusive purview of the “will,” that faculty by which we do things. To obey, we simply have to muster up the resolve to do it. “To obey” is an effort, a work that is ultimately our own responsibility. Sometimes (often, in fact) we are called to “do” things not because we want to or understand what we are doing but because we are told to. It’s our duty, and fulfilling our duty is par for the course in the Christian life. I had this line of thinking used on me several times in one church I attended. One person would say, “I resolved 30 years ago to attend Sunday School every week, and I’ve never missed one.” I truly admire this saint’s resolve (if only everyone was so committed to church attendance!), but to reduce everything we do in our Christian walk to simply a matter of resolve is problematic. I saw it play out time and time again during the insufferable “altar calls” as college students made new decisions for Christ for one thing or another.

But perhaps I’m moving too fast. Let’s look at this argument from a source more resistant to stereotype, C.S. Lewis: “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did … when you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him” (Mere Christianity, 131). This sounds an awful lot like a piece of common advice I’ve often heard, “feelings are fickle. Don’t go by your feelings, simply do as you know you ought.” Indeed, Lewis goes on to say, “the battle is between faith and reason on one side and emotion and imagination on the other … Faith, in the sense I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods”( ibid., 139-40). He concludes: “unless you teach your moods ‘where they get off,’ you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently, one must train the habit of faith.” (ibid., 141)

On the surface, Lewis appears to be saying that our obedience ultimately comes down to a choice of the will. The will initiates the action, the emotions and feelings will come along shortly. And this is how sanctification happens. In a sense, God does his bit by rewarding us for our resolve. However, this would be an uncharitable reading of Lewis. A couple things must be noted.

First, notice in the quotes above that Lewis sets faith and reason against emotion and imagination. That’s shocking in itself since “faith” is more often set at odds with “reason.” In fact, he defines faith as “holding on to things your reason has once accepted.” At this point we might say that obedience is not simply fulfilled by an action of the will but also by the settled conviction of the mind. In obedience, we are not taking a leap of faith toward action despite the rebellion of the rest of our faculties. Our mind invariably provides some confidence that we’ll land when we leap.

Second, Lewis recognizes that there’s something more than ‘reason’ at work in our decision making process—namely our heart, affections, or the “worship-muscle.” For instance, Lewis states, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exist” (ibid., 136).  Thus he also defines faith as personal trust or attraction to a worthy object: “no longer [think] simply about right and wrong; …[try] to catch the good infection from a Person. The odd thing is that while in one way it is much harder than keeping rules, in another way it is far easier” (ibid, 189). This desire for closeness to God is ultimately a product of God’s primary initiative is drawing close to us: “when you come to know God, the initiative lies on his side. If He does not show himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find Him”(164) and “Every faculty you have, your power of thinking or moving your limbs from moment to moment, is give you by God” (143).

So what’s the point? Obedience is ultimately not just the reflex of the will unaided by anything else; it is the product of the whole person acting in agreement—mind, will, and heart. Perhaps it would be helpful  to distinguish between emotions and affections. Emotions can descend on us at anytime, often tied to circumstance, environment, and the state of our health—“I don’t feel like being gracious today; “ get out of my way, I’m crabby;” “I just don’t want to go to church today,” etc. Affections, by contrast, define our fundamental emotional attachment to the true, the good, the beautiful. And this goes one of two ways. Either we grit our teeth and obey because we really value making a good showing in the flesh (Gal. 6.12) or we grit our teeth and obey because we are boasting in the cross (Gal. 6.14). Ultimately, this ability to boast in the cross, to value it for what it is and draw strength from it is something God himself must open our eyes to see (Gal. 4.9; Phil. 213).

The scenario of Christ’s temptation in Gesemene provides a helpful example. On the one hand, Jesus appeared to be quite unwilling to go to the cross, ultimately overcoming this unwillingness by submitting to the Father’s will despite what he himself felt. Is this, then, the triumph of the will over reason and emotion? On the other hand, according to Hebrews, Jesus “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” How do we put these two things together? Jesus’ choice to submit to the Father was not ultimately based on a naked act of the will uninformed by his reasonable and affectionate love and trust in the Father (Isa. 50.6-8). Christ’s greatest compensating desire for the Father’s approval overcame his lesser desire to preserve his own life. His desire to preserve his life was deep; but his love for the Father was deeper still.

Often lurking behind this “sanctification by works” mentality is a lack of faith itself. Many have trouble believing people can be motivated by anything other than fear and duty. We’re afraid if we say our sanctification is by faith and not by works, then we will get lazy and begin excusing bad behavior. It’s the antinomian objection Paul himself addressed (Rom. 6.1-2; Gal. 5.13). But such a glib disregard for obedience on the grounds that “Jesus paid it all” is of course not the product of a genuine faith transfixed with worship of Christ. Faith is not just a reflex of the will, or mental assent to the facts (James 2.19), but a product of the heart’s desire. As Lewis himself says, “if what you call your ‘faith’ in Christ does not involve taking the slightest notice of what He says, then it is not Faith at all—not faith or trust in Him, but only intellectual acceptance of some theory about him.” (148)

In conclusion, I think Paul put the matter rather clearly and bluntly when he said, “whatever is not of faith is sin.” I guess that includes obedience to God, the same obedience I would guess that Paul himself thought he was performing before he was gripped by Christ. After all, Paul also speaks of the “obedience of faith” in a way that frames the entire book of Romans (1. 5; 16.26). This obedience doesn’t spring from the will alone, but from a mind, heart, and a will set on fire by the burning love of Christ (2Cor. 5.14) that can overcome whatever thorn in the flesh is holding us back at the moment.

Matthew Claridge (M.Div. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Th.M.  Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an editor with Credo Magazine and the senior pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist church in Grangeville, Idaho. He is married to Cassandra and has three children.

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