Sanctification: Let Go and Contemplate?

When I first heard the phrase “preach the gospel to yourself” I thought it meant to remind myself of what Christ has done for me through His work on the cross. A believer certainly ought to remember and give thanks!

Gospel Sanctification

In the past few years, I have noticed a different emphasis grow in prominence. Desiring to help others avoid legalism and live by grace, some teach that bringing to mind Christ’s redemptive work should be a constant occupation. I have observed two thrusts of this teaching. Some employ constant contemplation of the gospel to motivate obedience by generating feelings of delight. Others believe gospel meditation to be the means of sanctification. The two are closely connected.

One writer who promotes the first emphasis teaches that gratitude is the only motivation which makes obedience acceptable to God. Supposedly, obedience out of a sense of duty will inevitably lead to legalism and despair. This idea deemphasizes the will and risks dependence upon self-generated feelings rather than upon the grace of the Spirit. The Bible says it is the Spirit, not feelings or contemplation, who gives the will as well as the power to obey. “If by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Rom. 8:13b-14).

The second emphasis is called “gospel sanctification,” or the Free Grace Movement. Proponents of gospel sanctification promote preaching the gospel to yourself, or meditating upon Christ’s atonement, as the means of sanctification.

Now, we know that sanctification is the process of becoming in thought and action what we are positionally in Christ. The Holy Spirit eliminates sin from the experience of the believer and produces His fruit, gradually conforming him into the image of Christ. The question is, how?

Philippians 2:12-13 says,

Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

Unlike justification which is all of God, in sanctification believers must work while God works in them. Proponents of gospel sanctification agree that Christians work in the sanctification process, but they define work as contemplation of the grace of God in redemption, thinking deeply about grace. Practical effort at obedience is unacceptable because it is considered to be of self, not God. Instead, we must “rest” on what Christ has done, and obedience will then happen.

For example, Tullian Tchividjian says that he used to think he had to work at putting on godly attitudes. But then he realized that growth comes not by working at attitudes but by working to realize what we already have in Christ. On his blog, he says,

Sanctification is the daily hard work of going back to the reality of our justification–receiving Christ’s words, “It is finished” into new and deeper parts of our being every day, into our rebellious regions of unbelief.  It’s going back to the certainty of our objectively secured pardon in Christ and hitting the refresh button a thousand times a day.

This method amounts to seeking sanctification by contemplation, not by hard work at obedience in word and deed by submission of the will. Let go and contemplate.

Concerns

I sympathize with the desire of proponents to counter legalism. We are to live by grace. We are to  love God with all our being, not just superficially clock in and complete projects to earn wages of approval. However, I am concerned that this Keswick-leaning view of sanctification misdirects to a false expectation of lack of struggle, an inordinate dependence upon feelings, and reduced motivation to employ self-discipline upon the will.

It also tends to grant a power to the gospel (or actually one’s contemplation thereof) that belongs to the Holy Spirit. For example, I recently attended a workshop on adultery. Of the offender, the lecturer said that the power to stop adultery “comes from the gospel.” Of the spouse, he said that “the gospel gives power to forgive.” This sounds spiritual, but is it biblical? Nothing was said about the role of the Spirit. Yet the Bible says nothing about walking by the gospel. There is no “preach the gospel to yourself and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” Rather, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). It is the Spirit, not the gospel, who gives power to forgive, to repent, and to obey God in the face of temptation.

Another concern I have is that, unless “gospel” is redefined to be all-inclusive, the emphasis on the by gospel sanctification proponents is theologically myopic. God’s work of salvation through the gospel is certainly a vital theme for daily meditation. Then again, so is God’s work in creation. So is God’s work in providence. So is God’s work through His Word. If we meditate only on the gospel, we miss the rest. Furthermore, the gospel is not the theme of Scripture; Jesus Christ and His kingship is (John 5:39). What about meditating on Christ Himself? So while we daily remember and give thanks for and delight in the forgiveness and grace and righteousness we have through Christ, let us not leave out all aspects of God’s character, greatness, works, and glory.

Spirit-led Sanctification

How is sanctification accomplished? Look again at Philippians 2:12-13.

Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

Believers must work while God works in them. In context, this work is not effort simply at reforming thoughts; it is effort at changing behavior. Don’t just think about grace; put it to work. Behavioral application is what exercises grace and faith. “Putting to death the deeds of the body” by the Spirit (Rom. 8:13) builds and tests beliefs as no mere contemplation can. Paul wrote, “I labor, striving according to His power” (Col. 1:29). He labored, worked strenuously, and simultaneously he did so knowing that it was God who was doing the work through him. The way that believers grow in Christlikeness is by thought-word-and-deed obedience to the Word of God dependent upon the enabling grace of the Holy Spirit.

Is the gospel necessary? Of course. None would have the indwelling Holy Spirit to enable sanctification without salvation by the work of Christ (Rom. 8:9). Neither can we, apart from union with Christ, do anything that pleases God (John 15:5).

Is meditation important? Certainly. We must renew the mind in order to put off lies and put on truth, to conform our thoughts and beliefs to the Word of God so that we know how to glorify Him in our deeds.

But if you have to have feelings of delight before you will believe the truth of your justification or before you make a choice of the will to obey, then you are living by sight, not by faith. Besides, feelings lie. Just because you feel delight doesn’t mean that your obedience is especially acceptable to God. The Christian life is not one long mountain high of delight. Most of it demands willful choices to read God’s Word and then practice it without corresponding warm fuzzies and often in opposition to what we feel like doing. We must choose with the will, not meditate into feelings.

While we should always be grateful for grace and our justification in Christ, the premise underlying “preach the gospel to yourself” for sanctification is false. That is, the gospel does not sanctify believers. It saves unbelievers. Contemplation of Christ’s death and resurrection is not the biblical method of growth in godliness.

Believers cannot restfully meditate their way to obedience. “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body” and “present…your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Rom. 6:12-13) don’t just happen. Obedience takes work. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we” …would meditate ourselves into them? …would contemplate grace? …would live gospel-centered lives? No, “…so that we would WALK in them” (Eph. 2:10). Works are actions that we do with a choice of the will. We put off lying and put on truth-speaking, put off theft and put on labor and giving (Eph. 4), and these actions will not be accomplished by delighting oneself into it. Believers must fight the fight, run the race, compete for the prize, work hard like the farmer (1 Tim. 6:12; Heb. 12:1; 2 Tim. 2:5-6). This work must all be done in dependence upon the Holy Spirit, but it nonetheless must be done. (See more on preaching the gospel to yourself here.)

Work by Grace in Faith

Our hard work pleases the Father. Ephesians 2:10, quoted above, shows that He planned obedience for us. He delights in our obedience because it shows our love for Him. “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (John 14:21).

If you don’t feel like obeying yet you choose to obey in faith that God is working in you, trusting that the Spirit is giving you the will and is giving you the grace to follow through on that choice, and if you obey, you will please God with or without feelings. You will be loving God. You will be living by grace.

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About Linda

Wifing, Singing, Studying, Counseling. I counsel at Gateway Biblical Counseling and Training Center. M.A. in Biblical Counseling. Certified by Association of Certified Biblical Counselors
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5 Responses to Sanctification: Let Go and Contemplate?

  1. Julie McPherson says:

    That is exactly what I’ve been seeing in my study on a Sanctified life lately. Thank you for putting it down in writing, clearly and concisely.

  2. Samuel Fuller says:

    In regard to being too myopic when we focus so much solely on the gospel to the neglect of meditating on other aspects of God (creation, providence, etc), I think Martyn Lloyd-Jones once had a similar concern. “In [evangelicals’] anxiety to present salvation in terms of the personal and work of Christ, evangelicals had become unbalanced and tended to forget God the Father. There was a danger of ‘Jesusology’. The worship of God as three Persons must always be remembered. In particular, the emphasis, ‘I believe in God the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth’, needed to be restored–not simply God the Saviour, but before that, God the Creator. [Lloyd-Jones] pointed out that modern hymns and choruses had encouraged the tendency which he criticized, a tendency which had reached a point at which evangelicals would rather have talks on ‘Personal Work’ than on the character of God.” (“The Life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones” by Iain Murry, page 290-291).

    This focus solely on the personal benefits of Christ and His work on the cross was a major cause, Lloyd-Jones thought, to the lack of knowledge and belief in God’s sovereignty. I thought his point regarding the songs particularly searching–am I really singing the full-orbed worship of God in all His attributes?

  3. Christina says:

    Thanks so much for this post! My pastor husband and I have discussed this topic at length as we have come across it in so many books and blog posts and conversations with people. I have struggled to know how to affirm what is good at those times while guarding against inaccuracies. Your post helps continue to bring more clarity in my mind. I really appreciate your taking the time to write this!

    • Linda says:

      You are welcome. I, too, struggle with cutting through the issues to determine what is truth and what is error.
      Pastor’s wife is a highly challenging position. You are influencing many lives as you support your husband and love his flock. Thank you for your gifts of service.

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