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Grace aint a carrot; Sanctification aint a stick


I've got a sinking feeling about this.

People sometimes ask me where I stand with Tullian. My genuine first reaction is that I really like him. And every now and again his preaching lands with me. He speaks of Christ's finished work with relentless passion and I admire that.

At times though his preaching (and writing) leaves me a bit more disappointed than I'd expect to feel with a guy so keen to preach the gospel. Partly it's that thing of obsessing over "grace" like she's the fourth member of the Trinity. Partly also it's because "grace" can all too often be used as an inspirational carrot. The Liberate guys are keen to secure "grace alone" against all potential legalisms. That's a laudable aim. But sometimes it seems like the point of these battles is to ensure that my Christian motivation is one of pure grace/gratitude. So often I wanna say "Pah, motivation schmotivation. Trust Jesus, love people. And yeah I phrased that as an imperative. So sue me."

If we start policing all our motivations and evacuating our speech of improper imperatives we might just find that we're the grace Pharisees. Let me say, we definitely need to ensure that Christ is offered apart from law and apart from any deservingness of our own. In other words, there is a right distinction between law and gospel and I'm grateful to Tullian and the Liberate guys for highlighting it. But in the rough and tumble of the Christian life, imperatives and indicatives, duty and joy are going to get jumbled up. That's just the way it is in Scripture and in life. When we insist on certain motivations and configurations of commands and promises an irony comes into play: we can get unhelpfully scrupulous in the name of free grace. 

But that's no reason to censor the guy. I'm really grateful for Tullian and at times he's preached into my life in powerful ways.

The fact that he points out legalism around him does not, in my opinion, make him a divisive figure. There is legalism around him. And while "grace" and "the gospel" can wear thin as terms on his lips - "sanctification" and "obedience" can wear just as thin on the other side.

If Tullian preaches that we ought to love God and neighbour (and he does, all the time), then we can take issue with some of the ways that he does it (see the crits above). But he does preach the good life of love - imperfectly but still genuinely. Therefore I'd say he preaches the only kind of "sanctification" we should concern ourselves with.

Honestly, if you want a "sanctification" that is not precisely and without remainder loving God and neighbour (because this is the good life of Christ freely given to you) then you are pursuing a proud and idolatrous spiritual status of your own. Such sanctification is not holy but utterly profane. The fact that people care so very much about "sanctification" when loving God and neighbour does not entirely satisfy this craving really worries me.

So whatever happens with Tullian and TGC, here's what I wish for both sides. Let's remember:

Grace is not a psychological motivation - it's Christ's life for us

Sanctification is not a religious status we seek - it's Christ's life in us

Grace is not mainly inspiration for the heart.

And grace is not mainly fuel for the will.

Grace is Jesus, freely given to us sinners. So let's hear less about the bad-guy legalists/liberals/licentious over there, let's hear less about the motivations of our hearts, let's hear less about our striving for some kind of holiness quotient and let's hear about Jesus.

The thing is, I do hear about Jesus from Tullian. I hear a lot about Jesus. And I'm grateful. Whatever happens I'll gladly continue listening to his preaching. His is an important voice to hear. TGC would be much the weaker without him.

22 thoughts on “Grace aint a carrot; Sanctification aint a stick

  1. the Old Adam

    "But in the rough and tumble of the Christian life, imperatives and indicatives, duty and joy are going to get jumbled up"

    It's our job to unjuble 'em.

    They must be kept apart and their proper uses understood.( a la Luther )

  2. Glen

    Big picture, I'd agree with you Steve - the Word has a cross-and-resurrection shape. And certainly the Word proclaimed on a Sunday should have that shape. But not every isolated Word of Scripture has that shape and trying to fit every one to that pattern can become burdensome for all involved. Pastoral advice (as the pastoral epistles demonstrate) will involve all kinds of imperatives. Paul didn't seem to mind that, neither should we.

    Having said all that, I think I prefer Tullian's scrupulosity over law-gospel when other folks are just plain scrupulous.

  3. Dave k

    As I think Mark mattes says, Steve, the distinction is not one of grammar but pastoral discernment.

    Thanks for post Glen. Reminds me that Tgc is in some ways just like all churches. Personality differences, mixed with theological differences, mixed with sin - disunity isn't far behind. Bear with one another guys!

    I heard a sermon the other day that said the Church is like a building site. Jesus is building something stunning but at the moment it looks a right mess.

    Hey! I did a law-gospel comment without realising it!

  4. the Old Adam

    Thanks, Gents.

    Luther said that one is not much of a theologian unless one can rightly divide law and gospel.

    I see far too many preachers lead their people into a sort of schizophrenic Christianity. "I know I'm saved by grace, but the preacher is now telling me that I must do this, that, and the other thing.
    This kind of preaching is everywhere. And it steals the freedom away from the Christian.

    The last words our pastor says to us are, "Go in peace…you are free in Christ!"

    "Now that you don't have to do anything…what will you do?" - Gerhard Forde

  5. the Old Adam

    Just one more thing.

    When using those imperatives that you spoke of, our pastor always asked the question (in different ways and forms, of course), "how are you doing?" Those imperatives are used theologically to accuse us. To expose us. To paint us into a corner. Just the same way that Jesus' words of imperative painted us (hopefully) into a corner in his Sermon on the Mount. You want imperatives?
    "You must BE perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect."

    Rebuke. Then forgive. That's the paradigm that Jesus used.

  6. Cal


    There's no indication that Jesus intended this to terrify and expose. You're not even couching the use of 'perfection' in what is being said in the text.

    Law-Gospel is too 2 dimensional and it rams things into boxes that don't actually exist. It makes nonsense of the tension in 2 Peter 1:5-11.

    Luther rightly destroyed the Thomistic, medieval virtue ethics ladder-climbing that was presented as Bible. He rightly went after Erasmus. But the whole discussion is framed poorly.


  7. the Old Adam


    "There’s no indication that Jesus intended this to terrify and expose."

    What else could possibly happen?

    I know for many, it is merely marching orders. But for those of us rooted in reality, this imperative is frightening.

    But, when Jesus comes down from the Mount and encounters a sinful man (a leper), we see him top the gospel to him.

    Law…gospel. There it is. On steroids.

  8. Andy Cordle

    Hi Glen, thanks for this post. I've just read through Galatians and its striking how much Paul talks about the Spirit in reference to the Christian life post-conversion. From ch3 onwards he can hardly stop talking about Him. Do you think part of the problem here (on both sides) is a misplacing of the Spirit's role? One side making him into a power that helps us obey, the other side forgetting him and putting "grace" in his place... ?

  9. Glen

    Thanks all. I think Dave's point about law/gospel being a distinction made with *pastoral* wisdom is, characteristically, pastorally wise.

    Andy, yes the Spirit brings the living presence of Christ - this feature *can* be missing from both sides at times. Instead we can obsess over the *fruit* of the Spirit (either behaviour or feelings of liberation) rather than the Spirit of the Son Himself.

  10. Chris w

    I agree with Cal! Despite supposedly being about Grace, the law/gospel method is actually just a legalistic standard being thrust upon otherwise good preachers who are teaching the word of God and calling people to trust and obey. Why is simply teaching the word not enough?

  11. Brian Midmore

    Paul makes a very clear flesh/spirit divide which is a better way of understanding things. Thus Law in the flesh is death, but when the Spirit of God takes up the law it is life. Law/gospel is such a slippery idea. E.g. When Spurgeon talked of it he meant it as an evangelistic method: start by laying down the law; bring people to a place where they realise they need Christ in the gospel.

  12. Glen

    @Chris W - Because the Word is a Person and Christ alone means grace alone. Therefore we need to make sure we're preaching the Word and not ourselves - to the degree that law/gospel is aimed at that, it is important.

    The same thing from another angle: the Word has a shape: cross and resurrection. Again, to the degree law/gospel upholds that, it's important

  13. Chris w

    @Glen Certainly I agree that preaching should be Christ-centred but why should this have to take the form of law-gospel? If death and resurrection is what we're after, then why not tell people to die to themselves and live in obedience to God? Doesn't the apostle Paul also apply the cross to sanctification in this way? So long as the word is being taught and Christ is being magnified, I just don't see why "law" and "gospel" need to be distinguished and ordered in that way.

  14. Brian Midmore

    Andy, I certainly agree that the role of the Spirit in sanctification is underplayed. You criticise 'both sides' (Reformed and Lutheran I suppose) but you don't give the correct role of the Spirit yourself.

  15. Glen

    Hey Chris.

    "why not tell people to die to themselves and live in obedience to God?"

    Depends how you say it - Surely Romans 6 is more like "You *have* been put to death in Christ and raised again to new life" those are the gospel indicatives that ground everything for Paul. It seems to me all the law/gospel people are doing is saying "Listen, Pelagius himself could tell you to die to yourself and live in obedience to God. He could even do it by (in one sense) making much of the Lord Jesus. But he'd only be making much of the Rabbi Jesus, not the Saviour Jesus."

    You can preach Christ - even Christ crucified and only be laying down the law. Law-gospel is a way of ensuring it's the *gift* of Christ given to unworthy *sinners* that is the heart of the message.

  16. Brian Midmore

    Hi Glen, are you not just saying that there are two ways of approaching sanctification. Now I would say that it is more Biblical to say that these are either 1) Put to death the works of the flesh by the flesh (Pelagius' way) 2) Put to death the works of the flesh by the Spirit (the apostolic way). Now we can ask 'how do we put to death the works of the flesh by the Spirit? Now this to some extent will involve our co-operation, and will involve all the graces that God offers e.g prayer, confession, communion, bible study, faith, hope, lots of time, fellowship, gifts of the Spirit, etc. When we try to sanctify ourselves it is we ourselves who define the problem, focus on it, and then seek to amend our behaviour ourselves. This is legalism.

  17. Glen

    Hi Brian - yes flesh and Spirit is another way of putting the distinction. Romans 1-7 gives the context for how to understand this "mortification by the Spirit" in Romans 8. Similarly Galatians 1-4 give the context for the fruit of the Spirit (as opposed to the works of the flesh) in Galatians 5. The objective, finished work of Christ is crucial. Law/gospel preaching is a way of - by the power of the Word by the Spirit - put to death the flesh and give birth to the Spirit. Notice how in Galatians 3 the Spirit is almost synonymous with the Promise. If we want the fruit of the Spirit we need to make sure we're offering the promise of the gospel.

    None of this is to deny cooperation with the Spirit (keeping in step being the biblical phrase) or effort, or imperatives in the Christian life or daily dying to self (actually law/gospel *is* death/resurrection), but just saying that in the proclamatory act at the heart of worship we need to make sure the promise is being declared as promise. The Spirit - understood in a Pauline sense - is not fuel in the tank for our flesh to get to work. The Spirit *gives* Christ to us, so that He is ours and we are His. And yes, then we live Christ's life of obedience ourselves, but for the *Spirit* to be animating that we need to be *given* Christ in the Word - not just told to imitate or obey Him.

  18. Brian Midmore

    Another thought concerning preaching Jesus and not ourselves. 2 Cor 4 5-6 says 'we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus..... for it is God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness who has shone in our hearts....'. This is God's creative spoken word that makes light. Preaching should be something that makes light in peoples hearts. If we consider John 8.11 'Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more'. This is no mere command from Christ it is his creative word in the woman's heart that establishes holiness. Its foundation is a freedom from condemnation. Legalism starts with condemnation then moves to our self effort to be good.

  19. Chris w

    @Glen I think your point about rabbi Jesus gets to the heart of my objection. What's wrong with preaching rabbi Jesus sometimes? Jesus has some great teachings which aren't rooted in law/gospel, like the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. It's not arianism to treat Jesus as a great teacher!

    Perhaps your objection is met better in a service which begins with a confession and absolution of sin. Maybe you are working with an over-exalted view of preaching, when it should be seen as one part (a vital part) of a complete liturgy. A liturgy which begins with a confession of sin and ends in the gospel-word of the eucharist.

  20. Glen

    Hi Chris,

    I'm not denying that Jesus is Rabbi - just saying that understanding Him merely as Rabbi misunderstands Him. Law/gospel has *much* room for Christ's teaching and Luke 16, but is concerned to make Christ's Person and work the determinative reality.

    I agree that services should have the shape you mention. And if they did so consistently then a preacher laying us bare in the sermon and then saying "But friends, come and eat! This meal is for sinners" would be more than forgivable. (Of course the sacrament would require *words* of institution so you couldn't escape a law/gospel shape in that instance anyway)

    But yes I do have an exalted view of preaching - law/gospel should be taken together with Luther's three-fold view of the Word I think. And just as Christ and Scripture have that cross-and-resurrection shape, I do think preaching should as well. I'd be very willing to let a preacher off having that shape in their sermon if their ministry and services were law/gospel shaped but I do think the sermon - as Word of God proclaimed - should normally be not only Christ-filled but Christ-shaped.

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