Let go and let God?

Dear Church Family,

Happy Palindrome Day! (3-13-13) – OK, it’s not a real holiday, I made it up. Now on to more serious matters.

In the sermon, this past Sunday, we examined the Apostle Paul’s teaching on the new life which is ours through faith in Christ Jesus from Galatians 2:19-20. Paul speaks of the new life as a resurrected life (v 19 – “I died to the Law, so that I might live to God”), the new life as a surrogate life (v 20 – “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me”), and the new life as a personal life (v 20 – “the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God”).

Too often, this middle part (the new life as a surrogate life) is taken out of context by some when they speak of a believer’s role in sanctification as completely passive. On Sunday, I mentioned the Keswick (pronounced “kesik”) view of sanctification in this regard and the oft-quoted phrase that is used to summarize this erroneous view of sanctification: “let go and let God.” Since Sunday morning, I have had a couple of people in the congregation ask me about this, so I wanted to address this topic in this week’s reflection in a little more detail.

Pulling Sanctification into Justification

Justification is the one time act of God in which He imputes Christ’s righteousness to a person and forgives his or her sin through faith in Jesus Christ (WSC 33). Sanctification is the continuing work of God that necessarily follows justification, in which a person’s nature is continually renewed and is now able to die to sin and live unto righteousness (WSC 35). Justification and sanctification may be differentiated, but they cannot be separated.

Here’s how the Westminster Larger Catechism describes the differences between the two (WLC 77):

“Although sanctification be inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, in that God in justification imputeth the righteousness of Christ, in sanctification his Spirit infuseth grace, and enableth to the exercise thereof; in the former, sin is pardoned; in the other, it is subdued: the one doth equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation; the other is neither equal in all, nor in this life perfect in any, but growing up to perfection.”

Justification is the monergistic act of God in imputing Christ’s righteousness to human beings by faith. Sanctification entails a kind of synergism between God and the redeemed man or woman. Sanctification is an infusion of God’s grace by which we are enabled to serve and live for God pursuing righteousness. In the Protestant Reformation, one of the key issues was with regard to the Roman Catholic Church’s (RCC) confusion on this issue. Basically, the teaching of the RCC pulls this idea of synergism and infusion (God’s work in sanctification) into the category of justification. The end result is a doctrine of justification by faith in Christ plus personal works of righteousness. In this view, a person must cooperate with God in justification. This is the very thing which the Apostle Paul so directly and vehemently argues against in Galatians.

Pulling Justification in Sanctification

Ironically, in the Keswick view of the Christian life, the opposite error is made: it pulls the idea of the monergistic activity of God in imputing righteousness (God’s work in justification) into the category of sanctification. In this way of thinking, “letting go and letting God” becomes the mantra for yielding to God as the sole worker in sanctification (something that properly belongs in the category of justification). To be sure, there are other deficiencies with the classic Keswick theology (a view of redeemed man has having two natures, an emphasis on ‘crisis’ experiences, the notion that Christians may obtain perfection in this life, an emphasis on quietism, creating two different classes of Christians, a pursuit of a ‘second work of grace,’ etc.), but this categorical confusion of pulling our understanding of God’s work in justification into sanctification is key.

If you are interested in learning more about the Keswick view of sanctification (its history, proponents, and influences), you may find a helpful and brief synopsis here: http://thegospelcoalition.org/mobile/article/kevindeyoung/why-let-go-and-let-god-is-a-bad-idea. By the way, my critique of this Keswick view of sanctification is not new or unique to me. B.B. Warfield was quite adamant and outspoken in his refutations of this view: http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/40/40-2/40-2-pp241-258_JETS.pdf.

As a young man, and a new Christian, J.I. Packer gives voice to what many have experienced through the influence of Keswick theology: “I did try the routine of surrender and of looking to Jesus to carry me through times of temptation by squelching the temptation before it had fully articulated itself in my heart. It didn't work and that was a deeply frustrating and depressing thing. It made me feel like a pariah, an outsider, and at the age of eighteen that was pretty burdensome. In fact, it was driving me crazy.” (http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ref-rev/13-4/13-4_interview.pdf, p 169).

Biblical Sanctification

B.B. Warfield gives four points concerning the evangelical doctrine of sanctification (http://www.the-highway.com/sanctification_Warfield.html): (1) Through the continued supply of God’s grace, the redeemed soul cooperates with the Holy Spirit; (2) the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification is appropriated through means: the word of God, sacraments, prayer, Christian fellowship, divine discipline; (3) sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit in moral purification: the transformation of the whole man, intellect, affections, and will, soul, and body; (4) growth in holiness proceeds in various degrees and is not completed until a believer passes into glory.

In contrast to the quietism of the Keswick understanding of sanctification (“let go and let God”), the Apostle Paul speaks of the Christian life as being marked by a laboring and striving after godliness (1 Timothy 4:7-10). The believer labors and strives after godliness (pursues sanctification) through self-discipline and attending to the means of grace because godliness is profitable for all things: it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come (v 8). And, the believer labors and strives after godliness (pursues sanctification) through self-discipline and attending to the means of grace because he has fixed his hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers (v 10).

By His divine power, God in His Son has granted to us everything that is necessary not only for life, but also for godliness (2 Peter 1:3). Through His precious and magnificent promises, we have been justified by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and have been granted eternal life (2 Peter 1:4). Because of this, let us apply all diligence, moral excellence, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love so that we may be useful and fruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:5-8). In this way, let us be diligent to make certain about God’s calling and choosing us, as we remember our purification from our sins through the blood of Christ (2 Peter 1:9-10).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Delighting in the Law of God

Dear Church Family,

In the sermon this past Sunday, we examined the doctrine of justification from Galatians 2:15-21. In verse 16, we learn that “man,” “we,” and “all flesh” are not justified by works of the Law but by faith in Christ Jesus. That is to say, in His plan of redemption, God justifies (declares righteous) those who trust in Christ by imputing the righteousness of Christ to them. In the Law, all mankind is condemned, but by faith in Christ we are justified. We are justified by faith alone in Christ alone.

In the sermon this coming Sunday, we will examine the doctrine of sanctification from Galatians 2:15-21. In the latter part of these verses, Paul speaks not of being justified by faith in Jesus Christ, but of living by faith in the Son of God (Galatians 2:20). As the redeemed of the Lord, Christ now lives in us. As a result, the Law of God takes on an added function for those who are born again through faith in Christ. We begin to live our lives by faith in the Son of God, and this faith is marked by a love of the God’s Law and a desire to keep it. The Apostle John puts it this way: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).

In learning about electromagnets with my children, we once made one at home. We got some wire and wrapped the wire real tight around a nail. Then, we took the ends of those two wires and connected them to a power source (two D-Cell batteries) so that the electric current from the batteries passed through the wire. When the electricity passed through the wire that was tightly wrapped around the nail, the nail became magnetized – the nail became an electromagnet.

So, now, think about this. When the nail is all by itself and there is no electricity passing through the wire, it is not magnetized. Therefore, when you touch a piece of iron to the nail, it won’t do anything. It’s just a nail and a piece of iron. But, when you connect the wire that’s wrapped around the nail to a power source, you change the nature of the nail. The nail becomes magnetized and the relationship between the nail and the piece of iron changes. Now, the magnetized nail actually attracts the piece of iron.

Our relationship to the Law of God is much like the relationship between that nail and the piece of iron. In our natural, fallen condition, the Law is only a burden because we are only sinners – like the nail in its natural condition is just a nail. As sinners, the Law of God condemns us and shows us our need for an alien righteousness that is not our own. The Law simply condemns us and shows us our need to be justified by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His imputed righteousness.

But, when you are born of God, made a new creation in Christ Jesus, given the gift of faith, made a new creation, you now have the ability to love and keep God’s commandments. Just as the relationship of the nail to the piece of iron changes when it is magnetized, so too, your relationship to the Law of God changes when you are born again. Yes, the Law still condemns you and shows you your need for Christ. But now, as one who has been regenerated and justified in the eyes of God, Christ lives in you. You have been made alive to God. And His Law becomes attractive, a delight – something that you now, by faith, are actually able to keep.

Will Christians always delight in the Law? Not completely – at least not until heaven. There are still times when the weight of God’s commandments are burdensome, but that’s only because of the remaining remnants of our sin nature. We feel the weight and burden of the Law when we listen to the enticements of the world, our flesh, and the devil – they’re trying to call us back to think and live as if we haven’t been changed.

But, if you are born of God, and believe that Jesus is the Christ – trusting in Him for your salvation – His commandments are not burdensome. That’s part and parcel to the good news of the gospel! It’s what Jesus meant when He said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

When you take Jesus’ yoke upon you, the weight and burden of the law is lifted. And, now, instead of a set of burdensome commandments that you can never keep, the Law becomes a delight. Your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the victory. Jesus bought and paid for you with His own precious blood – you are born of God – your salvation and eternal destiny is safe and secure. And, now, instead of God’s wrath, in the Law you see His gracious, loving, and guiding hand – teaching you how to live and how to love!

That’s what sanctification is all about. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines sanctification as “the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (WSC 35). By faith in the Son of God, we live more and more unto righteousness. By the grace of God, we learn to live more and more in accordance with the Law of God. Or, as Paul puts it, “the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2:20).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Cast Away

Dear Church Family,

In the movie Cast Away (2000), Chuck Noland (played by Tom Hanks) becomes stranded on an island, and then must struggle to survive. At a certain point, he realizes that the only thing that he has control over is the way in which he might kill himself. So, he fashions his own rope out of tree bark, ties the rope to a branch, which is stretched out over a cliff and then tests his contraption of self-destruction with a dead weight. His contraption fails, and recounting the event to a friend, he comments, “I realized that I didn’t even have control of killing myself in the way that I wanted to, and that’s when a warm feeling came over me.” He was learning to trust and hope, not in himself, but in something outside of himself. God is not mentioned in the movie. The world calls this fate, but in literary terms, we might call this the ‘Divine Passive’ - where God is behind the scenes directing events for His purposes.

Finally, after four years on this island, in an act of ‘fate,’ a section of a port-a-potty washes up on shore of Chuck Noland’s island. This gives Chuck an idea for a sail, which he can use to take a raft out past the breakers and head into the open sea, and perhaps be rescued. The cast away makes it off the island. But then a storm ravishes his raft. He loses his sail and the only friend and companion that he has had for the last four years, a volleyball named Wilson. In a dramatic scene depicting the lengths to which we will go in order to cling to our self-made idols, the cast away almost drowns trying to save his volleyball. He is forced to choose between the raft and the volleyball, and reluctantly he swims back to the raft, climbs aboard, and lies down, broken and weeping for the loss of his last vestige of self. Chuck Noland has finally been broken, and he gives up all attempts of survival as he calmly throws his oars overboard, lies back, and lets the ocean tides take him where they may. Then, and only then, do we see ‘fate’, the Divine Passive, enter into the story in a miraculous way as Chuck is rescued by a passing cargo ship.

The point of the movie shouldn’t be lost on those who maintain a Christian worldview. In fact the ways in which ‘fate’ deals with Chuck Noland directly parallels the way in which the Bible says that God brings people to brokenness and repentance, the way in which He brings people into His kingdom. God disciplines us for our good, so that we may share in His holiness. It may seem like pain and sorrow at the time, but we should remember that if we are in Christ, God uses our painful experiences to yield peaceful fruit and righteousness (Hebrews 12:10-13).

Like Chuck Noland in Cast Away, God uses various means to bring us to a point of complete surrender and shows us how if we seek to save ourselves, we will fail. Then God takes the broken individual and rescues and restores him. Once He has brought us to a place where we have thrown out the oars and given up, God reaches into our lives and redeems us. The apostle Paul summarizes this nicely when he writes,

“But whatever was to my profit, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:7-11)

Are you going through a trying time where it seems like you can find no escape? Do you know someone who is hurting and feeling broken because nothing they do seems to be working toward a solution? Are you like the cast away who, though he tried with everything he had, lost control of everything in his life? Perhaps, God is wrestling with you. Perhaps, He is trying to humble or discipline you. Perhaps, He is trying to tell you that all your attempts to rescue yourself, all your tries to heal yourself and your relationships - apart from Christ, they are rubbish. Once you come to this understanding, turn to Christ and His righteousness. We must become like Christ in His death and share in His sufferings in order to know Him and the power of His resurrection. Only in Him can you attain to the resurrection from the dead and be rescued from your storm-tossed raft.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Walking Straight According to the Gospel

Dear Church Family,

In contemporary Reformed circles, there is some debate surrounding the language of “living the gospel,” or “being the gospel.” These are phrases that some use to describe how a Christian’s life ought to bear witness to the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.

On one side of the debate, there are those who say that these phrases are not found anywhere in the Scriptures, and that the gospel is “good news.” It is the good news that God, by His mercy and grace, forgives sinners. The good news of the gospel is not a life lived, but a message that is proclaimed. With much of this, I would agree.

On the other side of the debate, there are those who say that these phrases, and practices to which they point, are important reminders that a Christian ought to seek to live their lives as a testimony of God’s grace. The way one lives – seeking to live a life that becomes a follower of Christ – provides evidence for the reality of the good news. With much of this, also, I would agree.

Assessing the Debate

I believe that biblically speaking, both sides have merit. On the one hand, we need to be very careful in the language that we use to speak about our theology and practice. When we adopt extra-biblical words and phrases, they can become uprooted from the Scriptures and take on a life of their own. Thus, phrases like “living the gospel,” or “being the gospel” can lead to some erroneous ways of thinking if we’re not careful.

For instance, I’ve heard the following quote used from time to time (often, erroneously I think, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi), “Go into all the world and preach the gospel, using words if necessary.” That may sound helpful and nice, but it leads to more confusion and the blurring of categories. When I first heard this line, I thought that it was actually pretty cool and witty; however, cool and witty do not true theology make. The implication of this quote is that one “preaches the gospel” by the way one lives his life; words are secondary and only to be used, if necessary.

On the other hand, the Bible does exhort Christians to live differently, to live lives that are seeking to be commensurate with their professions of faith. Therefore, though we need to be careful with the words and phrases that we use to speak about how we do this, we do need to think about how our behavior and practices (our lives) give credence to our creed (the gospel).

Thinking and Speaking Biblically

Well, I’m not going to try to referee the debate by trying to find some middle ground. Instead, it’s helpful to look to the Scriptures themselves. The Bible provides us with words and categories that we may employ to better help us understand the relationship between the gospel (the good news that we believe and speak with words) and our lives (our behaviors and practices).

There are actually various ways in which the Bible speaks about the importance of our actions as Christians. In our present preaching series in Galatians, there’s a very important one. I’ll return to that in a moment (it’s actually the reason that I’m thinking about these things this week), but let me just mention some others first.

The Apostle Paul encourages Titus to “speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). Then, he tells Titus the specific ways in which he ought to instruct various groups of people in the church concerning those things that are fitting for sound doctrine. In the church, older men, older women, young men, Titus (pastors), and bondslaves are all exhorted to live in ways that are fitting for sound doctrine (Titus 2:2-10). Here are the reasons: to encourage other believers (v 4), to not dishonor the word of God (v 5), to be an example (v 7), to put opponents of the faith to shame, having nothing bad to say about us (v 8), and to adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect (v 10).

The Apostle Peter exhorts us to keep our behavior excellent among the Gentiles so that even as they attempt to slander Christians as evildoers, those unbelievers would – because of the Christian’s good deeds – see them and glorify God (1 Peter 2:12). Peter even goes on to say that Christian wives ought to be submissive to their husbands who may be disobedient to the word, so that their husbands may be won without a word, but by the behavior of their wives (1 Peter 3:1). This may sound like “preaching the gospel without words,” but in the context, the husbands have already heard the word (they’re actually disobedient to it), but their wives chaste and respectful behavior will be a testimony and source of conviction to them.

Thinking and Speaking Confessionally

There are certainly other Scriptures to which we could turn, but our Confession of Faith actually summarizes these things nicely:

These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto; that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end eternal life. (WCF 16:2)

Walking Straight

One final category and the reason for which I mention all of this. In the passage of Scripture for the sermon this coming Sunday (Galatians 2:11-14), the Apostle Paul confronts and admonishes the Apostle Peter because Peter succumbed to the pressure of those around him and withdrew from fellowship with Gentile Christians. Paul says that Peter was “not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). Literally, Peter was not “walking straight.”

Peter’s actions said something about the gospel. Indeed, our actions say something about the gospel. Our actions don’t preach the gospel; for that, words are necessary. However, though Peter actually did preach and believe the gospel, his behavior in the church in Antioch did not correspond with the truth of the gospel.

There are many lessons to be learned from Paul’s confrontation with Peter, but this is one of them: what we do, how we behave, and how we treat others will either be in keeping with the truth of the gospel or not in keeping with the truth of the gospel. We don’t “live the gospel” or “be the gospel,” but we can “walk straight” according to the truth of gospel.

Even with all of his privileges, it took the Apostle Peter time to learn this lesson. If the Apostle Peter could fail in this regard, no doubt we will fail, as well. Our growth in this area comes in fits and starts. May God grant us the wisdom to learn these lessons to walk straight according to the gospel. Praise God that the truth of the gospel is not dependent upon the way we walk; the way we walk is dependent upon the truth of the gospel.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch