During the sanctification debate that arose last year I read many articles and posts, as well as interacted with a number of people on the subject. There was plenty of heat, and some light. A problem quickly became evident to me.
I’ve long held that the more ardently you argue you position the more likely you are to become more extreme, and say extreme things. You tend to treat one doctrine at the expense of other doctrines. A similar debate, years ago, was the Lordship Salvation question among Dispensational teachers like MacArthur, Hodges and Ryrie. One of them unwisely postulated the “unbelieving believer” in advocating a “once saved always saved” viewpoint (this is NOT the same as the Perseverance/Preservation of the Saints).
In the midst of the sanctification debate among Reformed people I heard/read things like: God doesn’t love you more or less based on your obedience or lack thereof; that a Christian can’t please God, and similar statements.
When we champion on doctrine over another (in this case justification over all others) we flatten the teaching of Scripture, remove biblical tensions and end up having to ignore particular texts or pull a Thomas Jefferson and remove them.
Here ares some texts we have to reckon with:
17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. John 10
Wait! The Father loves the Son perfectly from all eternity. How, then, can Jesus say the Father loves Him because of His death and resurrection?
21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him. … 23 Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. John 14
This is similar, but refers to Christians. We only love Him because He first loved us. But if we love Him, we’ll obey Him and He will love us. What? Doesn’t He already love us?
5 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.
6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
7 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? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 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? 10 For 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. 11 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. Hebrews 12
Note the context, the love of the Father for His adopted sons. He disciplines us. Wouldn’t discipline imply He is less than pleased with our conduct, while loving us? Doesn’t this passage teach that God wants us to grow in personal righteousness and works to accomplish this in our lives? Are we to think that God’s responses to us are binary? Either love or hate, and not a love that can be also be angry with the beloved due to disobedience? Are we to think that justification trumps all, or can we have greater nuance that doesn’t deny justification but argues for a more dynamic relationship with God?
…10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Ephesians 5
18 I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. Philippians 4
…10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. Colossians 1
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. 1 Thessalonians 4
See also 1 Timothy 2:3; 1 Timothy 5:4; Hebrews 13:16, 21.
Are we to think that Paul lied and that God wasn’t pleased with that sacrifice or we can’t walk in a way that increasingly pleases God?
During the antinomian controversies of earlier centuries, the Puritans wrestled with these texts and issues. We would be unwise to ignore them. In his book Antinomianism (ebook), Mark Jones pays attention and helps us to recapture a way to understand God’s love for His people that is both steadfast and dynamic. This also helps us to remember and honor the reality of both imputed (justification) and imparted (sanctification) righteousness.
Before I go further let me affirm a statement Steve Brown made at the 1991 Ligonier Conference. My obedience or disobedience cannot add to or subtract from my salvation. I am not more or less justified on the basis of my obedience or disobedience.
The love we experience, and receive, in election and justification was called by Puritans like Samuel Rutherford the love of benevolence. Like all God’s love for creatures, this love is voluntary (He doesn’t have to love them in this way).
“According to this outward, voluntary love, there is a threefold distinction: (1) God’s universal love for all things, (2) God’s love for all human beings, both elect and reprobate, and (3) God’s special love for his people.” Mark Jones, pp. 83.
He notes that this 3rd is called the love of benevolence. It does not arise out of any good in us, but out of God’s own nature and counsel. It is unconditional, and the root of unconditional election and all the benefits of salvation that flow out of that unconditional election. There are no degrees to this love, and it is enjoyed to its fullest by all God’s people. We are completely justified, positionally holy and pleasing to the Father as a result of this love.
But there is another love they argued for in light of the texts we have above. That is the love of complacency, “God’s love of delight or friendship, whereby he rewards his people according to their holiness.” (pp. 84). This is not in place of His unconditional love, but seen in addition to it. God’s people experience both.
If God is our Father and we are His sons we can think of this like an earthly father and son. I love my sons, who were both adopted, unconditionally and conditionally. They will never stop being my sons, and I will love them and want the best for them no matter what they do. This is precisely why their sin breaks my heart. They are not my sons by degree. Neither is more my son than the other. But at times I delight in one more than the other, or delight in one son more at some times than others. When they are persisting in rebellion I am not pleased with them. I still love them! Because of this love I discipline them. When they are obedient I delight in them.
This is what Rutherford and Charnock, and therefore Jones, is trying to get at.
“God’s benevolent love is logically prior to his complacent love. It could hardly be otherwise, because God’s love of benevolence is the fountain of election and all blessings the elect receive. The love of complacency delights in the good that is in his elect- but that good is only there because of his benevolent love.” Mark Jones (pp. 85)
This threefold distinction is similar to the discussion of the degrees of sin. We can affirm one aspect of the truth over and at the expense of the others. The wages of sin is death, yet we see in the OT that some sins were punished more severely than others, for good reason. All sin is rebellion, but some are a greater attack on the image of God in others (murder, sexual sin) while others involve property rights. If we think all sin is equal then there should be no difference in our response between stealing a candy bar and brutally murdering a person. We have to honor the Scriptures in both cases, love and sin. This means making proper distinctions.
“The threefold distinction in God’s love for his people means that justice can be done not only to texts that speak of God’s election of his people (Eph. 1:4-5) and his justifying acts (Rom. 4:5), but also to texts that speak of love in the context of ongoing communion with God and Christ (John 12:21-23; John 15:10; Jude 21). … The twofold love of benevolence and complacency is only possible in Christ and our threefold union with the Mediator.” Mark Jones (pp. 86)
It is right to emphasis the love of benevolence. We rightly tell people that God’s love is unconditional. We don’t want them to live in an ungodly fear, and uncertainty with regard to their status before God. I need to often remind my children I love them, even when I’m not delighting in them (in other words, when I’m angry with them). But the person who treats their children in the same way with no regard to their behavior will raise a psychopath. God is bringing us to a healthy maturity in Christ, not one that thinks nothing of our behavior. Growing in Christian maturity (sanctification and discipleship) is similar to maturing as a person. We need to experience both kinds of love, as well as understand them to properly interpret our experience.
This reflects even the Father’s love for the Son. We referenced John 10 above, and how the Father loves the Son because of His atoning death for the flock. Thomas Goodwin references John 15:10 to understand this. The Son was to remain in the Father’s love by obeying the Father’s command or charge (Jn. 14:18). The Father promises the sheep to the Son on the condition of His death on their behalf.
“Again, this love has to do with the ad extra will of God with respect to the God-man in his role as Mediator. God delights in his Son, not only necessarily, because he is his Son, but also voluntarily, because Christ obeys the Father perfectly and this brings delight to the Father.” Mark Jones (pp. 88)
In other words, we see this as we see this passage in Luke. Jesus’ favor with God was not static, but growing.
52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. Luke 2
Our theology, however true it is, should not be imposed on Scripture to flatten it out, but arise from Scripture to honor its tensions. The recent sanctification debates, in my opinion, have revealed how some teachers flatten the teaching of Scripture with a justification-centered interpretative method which results in a form of antinomianism whether they realize it not.
“I’ve never met an antinomian who called himself an antinomian.” R.C. Sproul (Lectures on the Westminster Confession of Faith, Sanctification, part 2)
A healthy theology which helps us engage in healthy discipleship is one that holds our particular doctrines in a biblical tension, and which makes proper biblical distinctions. In the sanctification debate there are two ditches we can fall into, one on either side. The gospel (not the reductionistic version that emphasized only justification) keeps us from falling into the ditch on either side of the road. Unconditionally loved by the Father and declared righteous because of Christ’s righteousness, we seek to obey and please the Father our of filial love and experience the Father’s joy and delight as we grow in Christ likeness, or His loving discipline as we cling to our sin.