We live in a strange time...
Well at least those of us inhabiting the realm of what is often called Reformed or Orthodox Christianity do...
It seems that many of us are surrounded by a strange mix of freewill advocates and what many are coming to call hyper-gracers. The Freewill advocates fall completely outside of the camp of Reformed or Calvinistic Theology. Therefore it should come as no shock that they take great umbrage with most of what we believe. Often times even going so far as to claim we may not even be genuine Christians because in their eyes we follow systems of men and not God. Where the surprise, or dare I even say the shock, is coming in, is from how some of us are now being labeled heretical from those within our own camp.
One thing that has united the Reformed or Calvinistic camp for centuries is the reality of our embracing of Monergistic Salvation or completely Sovereign Grace. It has been this unity that has driven us to be very clear and concise when battling against the error of Synergism in the Freewill camp. It is a banner to be gladly waved to the battle cry of “Soli Deo Gloria!” as the Freewill camp waves their banner to the cry of William Wallace's “Freedom!”
While I am certain that this newest upheaval is not really all that new in the grand scheme of theological and doctrinal discord, it seems to be taking on a new spin that could only be made possible by the advent of the internet and(anti) social media. What has happened is that many of us are so appalled by Synergism or the idea that man can in anyway cooperate with God in the process of salvation, and rightly so, that we recoil in horror and fear when the word synergy is ever mentioned. The panic that ensues is tantamount to the run on the banks during the stock market crash that predated the Great Depression. This has gotten so bad that if someone speaks of cooperating with God in any way pitchforks and torches start to appear and the villagers gather en masse ready to hunt down the monster that is threatening their idyllic lives. Using the words cooperate or synergy has become the theological version of walking into a crowded theater and shouting fire. You may have the freedom to do it, but you may be held culpable for any injury or death that ensues.
I don’t deny that much of what I have already said and much of what I will say from this point on stems from a recent issue. Recently there has been a falling out between Tullian Tchividjian and The Gospel Coalition. I am not going to be elaborating on what I view as The Gospel Coalition’s tragic mishandling of the Sovereign Grace Ministry sex abuse scandal cover up. I will also not be speaking to accusations against Tullian claiming he is Antinomian or even a New Antinomian. I will also not be addressing the accusations against critics of Tullian claiming that they are legalists or proponents of works righteousness. These accusations have been made by many I consider godly believers who have gone after godly men such as Mark Jones, Steve Lawson, Carl Truman or Jerry Wragg. I will be speaking to the divide and what I perceive to be a grievous error on the part of those passionately battling against synergistic salvation.
When I was truly born again back in February of 2004 I was adrift in a sea of confusion. For all intents and purposes I had been raised a confessional Lutheran that had been baptized as an infant and had done the proper evangelical thing of “asking Jesus into my heart” at the age of 5. I then jumped through all of the proper religious hoops. I went to VBS and Sunday school. I took catechism classes while in the 2nd and 3rd grades. I was confirmed and took my first communion. Then I went on to live like hell and in total rebellion to God until I came home from the military and my parents introduced me to the Baptist tradition.
Having no desire to look as if I was not a believer despite my insipid practice of my “faith”; I adopted the principles of Independent Fundamentalism. I eliminated movies, secular music and alcohol from my life. I was at every church related function I could get to and I even made a big deal of insisting that I have Sundays off from my job. When the time came for me to switch jobs I agreed to work every weekend but I would not come in on Sundays until I had attended church services. When I got off work I would rush home and be there for evening services. I even made efforts to be at every midweek function possible. In short, on the outside I was a faithful Christian. On the inside I was as wicked as one could get, because I was still unconverted. I lived legalism. I breathed it.
Then I got saved. The transformation was amazing even to me. I stopped doing all those things I had been doing out of some sense of wanting to prove to others how spiritual I was. I no longer felt like I was earning my place in heaven by how close I came to maintaining a list of man-made expectations. I stopped measuring my performance based on how other people were performing. Yet something strangely profound began to occur in my life. I began to desire to do those things which were pleasing to God. I began to want to do the things that I saw contained in Scripture. I began to want to bear fruit. The more I read, the more I learned. The more I learned the more I wanted to obey. At first obeying was difficult. It seemed so burdensome to me. Yet the more I obeyed, the more joy I found in it.
This became such an integral part of my walk with Christ I began to talk about it with the pastor of the congregation I was in. The more I spoke about obeying God and the joy that it brought me, the more he pushed back on me. I began to question myself. I began to struggle with these internal desires to do those things that I saw contained in Scripture. I wanted to love God and I wanted to keep His commandments. I wanted to see the fruits of salvation and of the Spirit in my life. I wanted to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Yet I didn’t want to do these things because it was required of me; not if it meant people were going to think I was trying to please God and earn His favor.
Soon I began to ask why it was a bad thing to teach people to obey God if they were truly saved. I began to ask if obedience was required of us after salvation. Then I really began to hear phrases that scared me. Phrases like “you sound like you believe in Lordship Salvation”. What was that? What did it mean? The answer I was given over and over again was that it was works righteousness and it taught people could not be saved without doing good works.
This terrified me. I didn’t want to be that person. The irony of this was that the people telling me I was believing in some form of works righteousness were the quickest to make lists of the dos and the don’ts they found in the bible. So on one hand I was hearing that it was wrong to teach people that they should be obedient and follow the commands of God contained in the Scriptures or they may not be saved while at the same time being pointed to a list of rules by which one marks their spiritual growth. This was terribly perplexing for me. I did not know how to deal with it.
This brings me to the current controversy that has begun to spread like wild fire in the confines of the “Reformed Community”. Is sanctification progressive or is it a once and done deal like justification? Should believers be taught to strive after holiness; labor to be set apart, or has this already been done to them and for them? Should believers be taught to obey the laws of God or the Law of Christ? Do the Ten Commandments have a role in the life of the believer? Should we adhere to them?
What I promise is that I am not interested in building up straw-men only to burn them down. I will not engage in red herrings or ad hominems. Yet I am going to say some hard things and I am going to draw an incredibly painful analogy.
If you are in the group of people within Reformed Theology that does not believe in progressive sanctification or that any believer should be taught to keep the laws of God or the Law of Christ out of a sense of duty or commitment, you are probably not going to like me much when this is done because I adamantly disagree with you. I do not for a minute believe that our sanctification is completely done at the moment of our salvation. Yes there is a sense in which we are made holy in and through Christ’s finished work on our behalf, no arguments from me on that front. Yet one cannot get around the reality that the New Testament is full of admonishments to the believer to work out their salvation in fear and trembling. We are to make our calling and election sure. We are to press on toward the high calling of God. We are to present ourselves as living sacrifices to God holy and blameless. We are to run the race set before us. James tells us that we demonstrate our faith by our works. In short, there is a very real sense in which, after our salvation, a completely Monergistic work, we enter into a synergistic relationship with God through, and empowered by, the Holy Spirit; whereby we grow in holiness and Christ likeness everyday as we actively pursue Him.
This is not a concept foreign to Scripture. Paul writing to the Church in Thessalonica commends Timothy to them and calls him a co-laborer with God. The word translated co-laborer in that passage is sunergos. It is the Greek word that synergy derives from. Timothy is laboring along side of God in the advancement of the Gospel in the world and in ministering to the Church. He is not doing it under his own power. No one who embraces this synergistic nature of the works we do as believers actually believes that a believer is capable of doing these things on his or her own. Not one of us is claiming that we are capable of doing anything morally good or pleasing to God in our own strength. But you have to let go of your fear that believing we work with God after salvation leads to pride and boasting. Nothing could be further from the truth. When I came across this reality in Scripture it rocked me, and oddly enough it delivered me to sense of freedom that I had not yet really discovered. I was free to pursue Him and His imperatives to pursue His holiness by trusting in the strength of the Holy Spirit.
I do not strive because I have the power to do it on my own. I do not pursue holiness because I think I can do it alone. I pursue these things because He has enabled me and then told me to do them, and He expects me to. How am I to demonstrate my love to God and my appreciation for what Christ has done on my behalf if I am not working to keep His commandments? Why is this concept so terribly offensive to you? Why is the concept of duty so dangerous to you?
In Ephesians 2:10 we are taught that God has prepared good works for us from before the foundation of the earth. What does this mean? Is this only encouragement for us to sit back and wait to have these good works happen to us without pursuing them? Do we sit like rag dolls unable to compel ourselves to get up and pursue? Of course not; the Holy Spirit within in us compels us to search out those good works; just as the Holy Spirit compels us to obey God. But obey what? What is it that God has given us to mark obedience by? It certainly isn’t some esoteric ethereal idea. Our obedience is tangible; it has standards and guidelines. Yet it does not curry us any sense of salvific work or special favor from our heavenly Father. We cannot be more loved than we already are through Christ. Yet we can grieve the Father and we can grieve the Son and we can grieve the Holy Spirit; precisely because He loves us and expects us to obey Him; and our disobedience towards Him saddens Him. Our disobedience garners us the just chastisement of the Father. It must; because any father who loves his children teaches them to obey, and chastises them when they don’t. But as we are taught in Romans 8 there is no condemnation for those of us in Christ.
This concept is deeply embedded in Scripture. Take a look at Hebrews 12:3-17:
“Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, Nor be weary when reproved by Him. For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son He receives.
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 1For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears."
This entire passage is about how God loves and disciplines all of those He has received and have fallen into disobedience. There is even a brief description of what that disobedience looks like when Esau is brought up and mentioned for his sexual immorality and unholiness. What is sexual immorality if it is not a violation of God’s commandments? What is unholiness if it is not a violation of God’s law and the marring of His visage upon us? He chastises us in His love for us. He expects us to obey Him because we are His children and it is right and proper for us to obey Him. And while I would never argue that the law in and of itself produces the obedience it requires from the lost, or in the found, it does grant the found a guideline by which we can walk. It provides a guardrail that can work to keep us upon the path of pursuing the holiness without which we will never see the Lord. The more we pursue Christ and sanctification the more utterly dependent we realize we are upon Him for the strength to walk with Him. But this reality does not negate the requirement to put effort into the pursuit.
As many of us know, and as many more do not realize, the days of the early church were a time of prolific slavery. This was also a reality that the Hebrew people were all too familiar with. Some of this slavery was indebtedness based. It was akin to the indentured servants that came to the US from Europe after having agreed to work for nothing more than food and shelter simply to get to the New World. This puts us in mind of what Jacob did to earn Rachel’s hand in marriage from his uncle Laban. Then there was the conquered slave culture where a people were defeated in war and carried away to be the victors’ slaves. Some of these were kept as personal slaves but many were sold at markets. These conquered people were powerless to do anything about their condition. There was no escape, and any who tried were put to death, or beaten so badly so as to never want to try again. Their only hope was to be purchased by a benevolent master. This culture extended all the way into the early years of the US and up until the civil war. In many cases it is still active in the world today.
This was the culture that Paul wrote in and it was the culture that God chose to have the perspective of Scripture penned in. The word doulos, or slave, is replete within the bible. And it carries massive implications for the believer today. Why is that? Because chose to use that word in Holy Writ to describe an aspect of our relationship to Him. He sent His Son to redeem, or buy back, His elect from the curse of the law. He delivered, or made us free, from slavery to sin; to set us free to be slaves of Christ; slaves of righteousness. What does Paul say about this reality in Romans 6:15-23:
“What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The genuine believer is a slave of righteousness under the authority of Christ. This should comfort us and bring us peace. More than that we should look at Christ as a benevolent slave master and not as if He is some despotic tyrant who does not lead well. Those type of slaves masters existed all too often in the history of the US. These were the men who bought slaves right from the ships as they came into port and beat those slaves until they learned how work the fields or died in the process. That is not the type of Master our savior and Lord is. Then there were those who despite taking part in a blasphemous cultural sin treated their slaves well.
These men would pay richly for their slaves and they take them to their homes and feed them and cloth them and shelter them. They provided medical care and when the time came to see these slaves enter the fields to work they went and worked with them. These masters did not pick the slaves up and carry them to the fields. They did not walk behind the slaves and then grab their hands as the slaves waited to be pushed in the right direction. The master did not open and close the hands of the slaves to pick the crops or to plant them. The masters would lead the slaves to the field. He would walk a row alongside and just ahead of the slave demonstrating the right way for the work to be done. For a time this would be slow going and toilsome. Yet as time went on the master could see the slaves gaining more expertise and soon the slaves could look up and see the master standing at the edge of the field. They would see him watching as the work he had done in training his slaves paid off and they became more and more proficient in the work they were doing. All because he had gone with them and walked along side them showing them how to do what he wanted done. These slaves all throughout the history of slavery were often fond of their masters and grew to love them. They went from working out of fear and obligation to working out of love. They were not trying to pay back their master; they knew they were slaves for life. They worked according to the standards that their masters set for them because they knew those standards were right and they wanted to please their master. And often, when presented with the opportunity to be free; those slaves chose to stay in slavery to the one they loved.
This is the Master that Christ is. This is the type of Master we serve in God. He purchased us at great personal expense. He chose us when we had nothing to offer and He gave us life and nursed us to health after the degradation of the slave market of sin had made us broken and sickly. He has provided all that we need and Christ has gone on before us showing us the way in which we are to walk. He has established the parameters of the way we are to conduct ourselves. He has taught us and He has left us lessons to follow; not to earn our salvation or our freedom, but to guide us. These things are good for us. Early in our walk we may desire to do them because we feel we owe it to Him. And don’t we owe Him our obedience? Is that so wrong? Yet, more than that; He has left these things for us so we can be conformed to His image just as He has planned. The Law of Christ is meant to be obeyed. The more we obey it, through the strength of the Holy Spirit, the more like Him we become. There is personal effort in this, and our Master expects us to put forth that effort. And we will know when we are not obeying the command to love God with all that we are and when we fail to love our neighbors as ourselves. He will chastise us as He should. As any earthly father would chastise his children; our heavenly Father will chastise us for failing to obey. There are times when this should cause us to tremble and there are times that this should cause us to rejoice. None-the-less these things work to conform us to the image of God.
We should not be so quick to run from teaching believers to obey the law of God, even if they start out doing it from duty or obligation. We should embrace obedience as something we owe to the One who set aside so much for us. Of course we will never be able to repay what it is that He did in paying for us. But if the effort compels us to love and sanctification is it wrong? If the effort works to conform us daily to His image is it wrong? He gave us His law for a good use in our lives and we do others a disservice when we tell them it is not obligatory to obey their Master. I cannot say this enough; we recognize that the power to obey does not come from the law or from within ourselves; but we are still to actively pursue that obedience. I love my Master. I love my Savior! I love my Lord! And I gladly obey because he expects it of me…
Soli Deo Gloria!