Where the Sanctification Controversy Lies

Richard Davis Phillips
Richard Davis Phillips is the Senior Minister of the Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville, South Carolina. |

The long-simmering controversy over the doctrine of sanctification has heated up considerably lately, especially with The Gospel Coalition's removal of Tullian Tchividjian's blog from its website. Tullian has taken to the media and yesterday in an interview made the comment that he has been slandered. He has also publicly stated that the criticisms against his teaching are based on personal and spiritual defects in his accusers. No specifics are given, much less proof of how he could know this. If this was not surprising enough, Tullian then stated that there is nothing controversial in anything that he teaches. Hearing this, one has to wonder if he actually has read the concerns raised against him (see Michael Kruger's post which argues that Tullian is not responding with reference to the actual criticisms).

Since I am one of the people who has expressed grave concern over Tullian's teaching regarding sanctification, and since I described his blog post on 1 John 5:3-4 as false teaching, let me respond that whatever my personal defects or those of others in this debate, the real issues are in fact substantive and not at all personal. In the interest of clarification, let me therefore point out where in my opinion the controversy lies over Tullian's teaching.

Let me make a few preliminary comments. First, I was providentially hindered from attending last week's meeting of the council of The Gospel Coalition and thus did not participate in the decision to remove Tullian's content. Having spoken with many who were there, I can state with certainty that this decision was solely based on concerns over Tullian's teaching of sanctification. Tim Keller and Don Carson have pointed out that these concerns had previously been made clear to Tullian, despite Tullian's public claim that he has never been informed of any problems. Moreover, I can only say how astonished I was to listen to Tullian's interview with Janet Mefferd two days ago, where he permitted her to more than insinuate that his removal from the TGC blog was based on his criticisms of the Sovereign Grace Ministries legal controversies. Whatever one may think of the SGM scandal, there is no doubt that this claim is simply false.

Second, as Kevin DeYoung has ably outlined, the sanctification debate involving Tullian touches on matters of such great significance to the church and to Christians that it fully warrants pointed debate. For Tullian to claim that there is no controversy, long after Kevin has highlighted very significant matters of disagreement is, to say the least, surprising. Among the many topics highlighted by Kevin are: the propriety of exhortations to holiness, the variety of motivations for good works, the validity of seeking to please the Lord as believers, God's displeasure with sinning believers, the place of effort in sanctification, and the place of union with Christ in salvation. These are massive issues, the significance of which provide a sufficient explanation for Tullian's critics other than personal anger or mean-spiritedness.

Third, Tullian has stated that as far as he can tell the reason for criticism against him is the false idea that the law of God provides the power to produce what it commands. This is an extremely curious statement, since I am not aware of a single person in this debate who has taught or argued this. I would ask Tullian who is teaching that the law gives the power to obey its commands? Here we have yet another instance of Tullian making a sweeping charge of false teaching among his critics without any substantiation. So let me answer clearly, the sanctification controversy is not about whether or not the law of God provides the power to keep its commands. I whole-heartedly agree with Tullian that the law does not convey the power to keep its commands and would join with him in opposing those who teach this, if there are any such people. At least within the PCA or the extended Reformed community involved in this debate, I do not believe there is anyone teaching the error that Tullian alleges to be at the heart of this controversy.

With these preliminary comments in mind, the heart of the controversy lies in these matters:

1) Is it possible, even expected, for Christians to lead increasingly holy lives by the power of God's grace in Christ received through faith?

2) Does the Bible, and thus should we, issue commands to obedience and personal godliness that are intended for the believer himself or herself to do, in the power of grace through faith in Christ?

Here, then, is the controversy: Tullian has repeatedly written over several years in a way that suggests that the answer to these questions is No. When he has been critiqued and prompted to clarify that he is not saying No to these questions, Tullian has not retracted or clarified but has hardened his insistence that we should not expect Christians to change. Moreover, he continually charges that those who urge Christians to obey the Bible's commands are guilty of a graceless legalism.

Without belaboring the matter, let me direct readers to specific examples.

First, in a series of blog posts Tullian has given the impression that Christians are either not able to turn from sin or possess so little such ability that they should not be encouraged to do so. For examples, see here, and here. In November 2012, I expressed concern about Tullian's description of Christians as totally depraved, since this doctrine has the point of arguing the spiritual inability of the totally depraved person, and Christians are no longer spiritually dead. Since Tullian has charged that I and others are motivated by anger, it may be helpful to point out that this exchange took place roughly 18 months ago and did not result in a sustained or embittered assault on Tullian. The Bible abundantly teaches that believers are able, by grace in Christ and through faith, to obey God and do good works. See 1 John 2:41 John 3:6Eph. 2:10Eph. 4:21-24; and John 15:5, to list but a few. Moreover, the Westminster Confession's teaching on sanctification (WCF 13:1) makes this plain as well.

Second, Tullian has consistently taught that the Bible urges sanctification not by telling Christians what they must do but by telling Christians what Jesus has done. This claim was made as recently as yesterday in his radio interview. The problem is that this is false. The Bible overwhelmingly teaches that believers are to exert effort as they "work out" their salvation "with fear and trembling," as "God is working" in them. Tullian's post on Philippians 2:12-13, in which he characterized appeals to read the Bible, pray, and come to church as legalism, was shocking to me. This post was written in April 2011 and did not result in theological jihad against Tullian. The reason was the desire of critics to pray, continue to critique, and give him time to think these things over, without controversializing his ministry.

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