Sanctification by Grace through Faith

s1How do we become free from the burden of sin?

During a Q&A session after a church service where 2 Tim 3:6-17 was preached, someone asked “How do we become free from the burden of sin and how do we live in that freedom?” The preacher answered “Trust in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and preach the realities of the gospel to yourself every day.”

This was the right answer. The problem is that the human heart can take a right answer and implement it in the wrong way. A man can indeed find freedom from sin in Christ, but his hopelessly deceitful heart (Jer. 17.9) can lead him right back into bondage to sin, in practice, even though God has justified him by faith, in principle. Knowing how our corrupt hearts can twist a truth, I coped with this tension by asking the question in the negative: How should we not seek freedom from the burden of sin, and how should we not try living in that freedom every day?” In other words, what is the wrong answer to the question?

The wrong answer

There is a prevailing tendency in evangelical Christianity to assume that after a believer is justified by faith in the gospel, sanctification in his/her life is carried forward largely by his/her effort. The problem is the same one Paul admonished the Galatians: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:3). We assume that after God has brought us into Christ, the real work of staying in Christ is up to us. This widespread tendency–to attempt sanctification by the flesh–is not only seen in Christian living, but is also promoted by a type of preaching that has gripped contemporary pulpits.

In the opening chapters of “Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures” (2007) Dennis Johnson, describes this misleading kind of preaching. This preaching wants hearers to focus on emulating the virtues of Biblical protagonists and renouncing the sins of biblical antagonists. This approach has been called moralistic preaching or “the exemplaristic approach” to preaching (p. 37-43).

The right answer

Then, as a response to moralistic preaching, Johnson promotes the “redemptive-historical approach” to preaching, also known as “reformed preaching” or “Christ-centered preaching.” He points us to Tim Keller as a model practitioner of this approach. Keller labeled his own approach as the “Sanctification by faith-alone” way of preaching (p. 55). This label implies that the problem Keller frequently has to address is a kind of “sanctification by works” mindset in the lives of many Christians.

Then, in a beautiful paragraph, Johnson characterizes Keller’s approach. Here is good, redemptive-historical, gospel-centered preaching:

“What both the believer and the unbeliever need to hear in preaching is the gospel, with its implications for a life lived in confident gratitude in response to amazing grace. Christians are constantly tempted to relapse into legalistic attitudes in their pursuit of sanctification, so we never outgrow our need to hear the good news of God’s free and sovereign grace in Christ. Sanctification, no less than justification, must come by grace alone, through faith alone–we grow more like Christ only by growing more consistent in trusting Christ alone, thinking, feeling, acting ‘in line with the truth of the gospel’ (Gal. 2:14). From this grace alone can flow true sanctification, motivated by gratitude and empowered by the Spirit. We need to repent not only of our sins but also of our righteousness–our efforts at self-atonement in lieu of the surrender to the all-sufficient grace of Christ. Keller traces his discovery of this need of two-fold repentance to George Whitefield’s sermon, ‘The Method of Grace’ (p. 55-56).”

Yes, doing good works or striving against sin are involved in sanctification, but my own effort in killing sin and bearing the fruit of the Spirit–or mortification and vivification–is not the sole basis/cause of sanctification. This hits home hard, and distills concisely what I’ve been seeking to grow into as a Christian—and as a preacher: “to repent not only of our sins but also of our righteousness–our efforts at self-atonement in lieu of the surrender to the all-sufficient grace of Christ.”

I have a High Priest already

I cannot be my own high priest, nor can others be, pronouncing forgiveness, manufacturing peace, granting self-atonement when I consider I have done enough minutes of devotion, prayer, or have refrained for this many days from the vice on the left or the vice on the right. I already have a high priest, Jesus Christ. He sits at God’s right hand. I want to live in him and proclaim him, lifting him up as my all-sufficient object of faith, not only for the past act of God justifying me from the guilt of sin, but also for the present act of the Holy Spirit sanctifying me daily from the power of sin!

“How do we become free from the burden of sin?” It’s by grace alone through faith in Christ alone. Christians often get justification right. But “How do we live in that freedom every day?” This comes through God’s work of sanctification, which also comes by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone.  That’s what you learn by reading or listening to George Whitfield’s sermon “The Method of Grace.”

So, how do we become free from the burden of sin? Believe in Christ. How do we live in that freedom every day? Keep believing in Christ! The answer is the same. Only this time we are keeping an eye on the tendency of the human heart to begin with the Spirit but to try attaining sanctification by the flesh.


  1. Welcome back Ian! I appreciate this reset article more than I expected. My mind tends to dismiss the works vs grace debates as trivial but the truth is that when we revisit this issue we gain a better perspective.

    While I agree with the gist of Ben’s recent article about uncertainty, and there is no longer any fear of doubt in me, my certainty about the gospel has only become vastly more certain the past few years.

    I embrace doubt about many things and I don’t claim to know the Christian gospel comprehensively or fully. And yet I am fully certain that the gospel messages are about the things you mention, Ian: namely grace.

    At ubf I embraced KOPAHN theology. And so I had a form of godliness. I had the appearance of goodness. I had donned a facade of living as a “priestly nation”. But I lacked power. I could barely communicate as an American with non-ubf people, except on a superficial level.

    Whatever theology we espouse, it means nothing until we undergo the epic surrender to grace alone. Is it really grace only that saves and sanctifies? Yes. We lose the joy of our salvation until we work out the premise that we grow by grace alone. This is a messy process, just as a potter makes a huge mess when molding a piece.

    Your question is good: “How do we become free from the burden of sin?” When I adopted a form of godliness that lacked power (KOPAHN), I was suffocated by at least 8 layers of burden. Only the gospel of Jesus relieved my of those burdens. Now I am so free! Now I never tire of this effervescent excitement of talking about the gospel of Jesus. I have much to learn but I am absolutely certain about the epic surrender to grace.

  2. Thanks for this post, Ian. I appreciate being reminded of the God-originated and sustained nature of all aspects of our salvation. In a world in which even the body of Christ is often confused about this issue, it’s absolutely necessary reiterate and reprocess these central truths more clearly and practically as time passes.

    If I could open up another dimension in this discussion, I would ask the question, “while we can articulate what sanctification entails on a personal level, what does it consist of in a community of people?”

    I’m presently reading a fascinating book entitled Ministry in the Image of God: The Trinitarian Shape of Christian Service. The author posits that an individual emphasis on having a relationship with God and viewing salvation through this lens has been largely passed down to us through Augustine, namely through ideas in his Confessions, and later through the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods. The significance of the Trinitarian view of God was largely ignored during those times and was most recently resurrected by Barth and other scholars.

    The take home point thus far seems to be that an individual view of personhood is not actually biblical; rather as people made in the Trinitarian image of God we only begin to understand ourselves and live fully when in the context of community. This doesn’t mean that we lose our individual attributes and self worth, rather these things are fully realized and appreciated only in community with others.

    The author states that though he was a pastor for many years and could competently minister to others, he was not living in transparent, healthy community with his family and congregation. Due to some things in his childhood he had learned to close himself off from others on an emotional level yet he was seen as a competent minister. It wasn’t until he received communal prayer that his eyes were opened to his past wounds and only then he could begin to heal and practically grow in trinitarian aspects of transparency and mutual deference which of course impacted his family memebers and congregation for the better. This is a really beautiful account of communal sanctification which drives home the point that we as individuals can only go so far in our walk with Christ; that as the members of the trinity exist for one another, so too are we inextricably made for one another.

    I also bring this up because there exists, in evangelicalism, the notion that if we simply articulate the gospel well, presenting an outer semblance that we are “doctrinally correct” in this respect then it is assumed that we are living out the gospel. The recent issues with Mark Driscoll and his church are a case in point. For years, he preached the gospel very well, but no one really called into account the level of his practical sanctification within the community of members who were in his midst. This trickled down to the deepest levels of his church, creating a culture vastly alien from that which is reflected in the biblical trinity. In many congregations, there exists a damning culture of individualism on the pastoral and lay member level.

    Personally, I realize that my awareness of sin and need for sanctification only goes so far as how readily I invite others into my life in order to share Christ together, not just experience him on an individual level. In this sense, I believe that this communal perspective is doing justice to a redemptive-historical view of the gosepl, for historically salvation was seen as a communal endeavor of God’s people.

    So my long-winded post is simply to ask, “what are some practical ways that we together can experience sanctification in a God-directed, God-pleasing and Christo-centric manner that we may experience at least a sliver of the joy and blessedness that exists within the trinity?”

    • Hey brothers.

      Thanks for the comments.

      To David my brother’s question, I conceived of my remarks on sanctification as applying to saved individuals and communities. So the personal/community distinction made above did not frame my thought.

      But this question is so critical in an age of Christianity cast in the image of rugged individualism.

      To me, “communal sanctification” is synonymous with “life in the local church.” To me, the answer to “what does the Bible say about the local church?” would get surgically close to the heart of the issue of the Spirit’s sovereign, gracious work of sanctification in whole saved communities.

      When I consider 1) that the Spirit is sovereignly in charge of sanctification, and 2) the Spirit ordains that the Word of God is one of the principal means of sanctification, and that 3) the Word has a very great deal to say about the local church; then the implications are just massive for the question of “communal sanctification.”

  3. Great article, and a very important point. Someone wrote about the ICC (a group similar to UBF) “first they save you, and then they enslave you.” Already Paul warned in his letter to the Galatians: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” This problem seems to have existed from the beginnings of Christianity.

    • Good point Chris. Christianity seems to always be bombarded by those who wish to impose control on the “new wine” power that arises from the Spirit indwelling people.

      Those who seek such control and imposition on others don’t realize what they are doing until somehow it dawns on them that the Pharisee Jesus spoke of is us.

    • Thanks Chris.

      “This problem seems to have existed from the beginnings of Christianity.”

      I love that comment. Ever since the human race sought the “knowledge of good and evil” apart from God and His Word (Gen. 2-3), there has been an outburst of human-made criteria, definitions, and standards for what is “good/evil” (hence, all man-made ideologies/religions).

      So grace does not sit well with the flesh of the old Adam. Grace makes us fidgety, itchy: “There’s got to be something more! I must have missed something!”

      In Christ, God has given us “good” and has dealt with “evil.” God triumphantly declares us righteous in his Son, gives us life, and enlivens us to “work out our salvation” (Phil 2) motivated by simple loving gratitude for his grace, but to the flesh, the slightest whisper of “do this and ye shall live” outshouts Christ’s triumphant call, “I have done it for you. It is finished!”

      That’s why the preacher in the article said “preach the gospel to yourself every day,” echoing the advice of the Puritans. The flesh’s obsession with meeting some other criteria that God never set up must be daily confronted.

      That’s why I pulled out that quote from Johnson: “We need to repent not only of our sins but also of our righteousness–our efforts at self-atonement in lieu of the surrender to the all-sufficient grace of Christ.”

      Self-atonement. Man, that is just challenging.

    • A Bible verse came into my mind: He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” There was no “… and then you need to attend SWS every week and then you need to go fishing and then you need to feed 12 sheep and then you need obedience training and then you need …” The verse also shows so well how the first thing that the jailer thought of was “what must I do“? We are like that jailer, we don’t want to believe that we cannot do anything to our salvation, we are eager to inflict rules upon ourselves and to let others impose their rules upon us. When we can do something, like share testimony every week, we feel so “safe”. That’s why it is so easy for authitarian leaders to make people submit. We willingly submit, because it’s so much easier to just obey and follow rules than to think critically, and re-think our own ideas and make our own decisions every day. Can we call it a “jailer’s mindset”?

      So, yes, it is not only a problem of leadership, it is a problem within ourselves, who allowed leaders to rule over us. I liked the short article Authoritarianism in The Church because it made this point very clear. Maybe, if ever a declaration of guilt is issued by the UBF, it should mention not only the sins of the leadership, but also the sin of us rank-and-file who kept silent for so long, because we trusted in “visible servants of God” and their simple mission/works/obedience based religion more than trusting the invisible God and fathoming the depths of the gospel.

  4. David,

    That exact thought, about viewing salvation from a community vantage point, has been on my mind all day after reading Ian’s article. From what I’ve read of Scripture, both the individual and communal perspectives are biblical. Perhaps one cannot be thought of apart from the other.

    So much emphasis at ubf is on finding the “one”, and your personal obedience is paramount. What we’ve been saying, perhaps, here at ubfriends is that the community needs to take several steps back and do an honest assessment, taking into account third party views of ubf.

    So maybe there’s one view of your trinitarian thinking :) To get a the truth about ourselves, we need all three testimonies: 1) our individual perspective 2) our community perspective and 3) third party perspective.

    ubf leaders as far as I can tell only care about individual perspectives. Their community narrative is a self-aggrandized fantasy. And they ignore most third party perspectives.

    • Well-said, Brian. It’s interesting that every organization that turns out to have long-standing internal issues all deride being “tried in the court of public opinion” when in fact this sort of public or third party trial causes these organizations to undergoe serious, internal introspection. And though these public trials are often embarassing, nasty and imperfect, they are only necessary because the organization in question refused to be transparent for so long.

      In my opinion, ubfriends is perhaps one of the best things to happen to UBF because it has caused some members to critically question if indeed the ministry is espousing characteristics of the gospel. What remains is widespread commitment by the members to engage in this critical process as well as reaching out to a third party, as you mentioned. But we know that the powers that be are going to great lengths to prevent these two things from happening. In such an environment, how can we possibly experience the trinitarian gosepl on a practical level?

    • “we know that the powers that be are going to great lengths to prevent these two things from happening.”

      Correct. That’s the problem.

      “In such an environment, how can we possibly experience the trinitarian gosepl on a practical level?”

      The gospel is new wine and cannot be contained. It will burst forth!

    • David,

      You mention 2 things happening at ubf, both match what I’ve observed from a former member perspective:

      1. “widespread commitment by the members to engage in this critical process”

      2. “reaching out to a third party”

      I want to mention publicly in case anyone doesn’t know. JHA was financially contracted by ubf for a certain period of time. That contract is over and he is no longer on the Ethics committee, as AW indicated recently with his committee members list. From what I know, numerous top leaders at ubf was not happy with what JHA was teaching, but JHA was widely accepted by many ubf members.

  5. All leadership, sadly including church leadership, has often inclined toward NOT being trinitarian: not being transparent, not being entirely honest, not welcoming equitable dialogue (cf. Isa 1:18), not being vulnerable but instead defending and protecting the oligarchy (while the Father fully exposed the Son to the horrors of the cross).

    As long as the Trinity is veiled in the life of the church, the church will remain dysfunctional and unhealthy.

  6. Joe Schafer

    Ian, thanks for this thoughtful article.

    I agree with your basic premise. Sanctification is often misunderstood, especially by Christians who portray themselves as gospel-centered. As they uphold a doctrine of justification by faith, they also promote a lifestyle of sanctification by works. How to explain sanctification is a divisive issue within the evangelical world. Tullian Tchividjian recently split with The Gospel Coalition over this issue (and a few others).

    But as I read the article, I felt uneasy about something. The first comment by DavidW gets close to what I want to say. I agree with David, but I will try to express it differently.

    When people hear the good news of the gospel, they need more than an intellectual agreement with certain doctrines about salvation. They need to experience the realities of salvation in the present time.

    Of course, salvation is past, present and future. We *were* saved, we *are being* saved, and we *will be* saved. Regarding the past, we confess faith that Jesus died and rose, and interpret those events as having saving power for us. Regarding the future, we look forward to Christ’s return, to our bodily resurrection and to eternal life in the world to come.

    But what about the present?

    As embodied creatures, we dwell in space and time. If the gospel is going to be real to us, it needs to be somehow enacted and lived out in our present lives. To the extent that we experience salvation from sin here and now, our confidence in the past and future aspects becomes more solid and sure.

    To me, the tough question — which I have been wrestling with for a long time — is: What are the practical means by which the gospel becomes real to us here and now?

    In Ian’s article, the answer is: Keep believing in Christ. Keep preaching the gospel to yourself every day. Hold on to the gospel message and correct doctrines that were proclaimed to you and keep telling yourself, over and over, that these things are true.

    I’m not satisfied with that answer. Yes, the believer should do these things. But I think it lets the church off the hook too easily. It suggests that the mission of the church is to get the message right and verbally proclaim that right message to the flock through doctrinally correct and Christ-centered sermons, and then the job of the church is basically done; from that point on, it’s up to the individual hearers to accept that message on their own and keep psyching themselves up to believe it on their own, and if it doesn’t work, it’s their fault, because they lacked faith, or they didn’t try hard enough to believe it, or they didn’t psych themselves up enough, or because they rebelling against God and are holding on to certain sins and don’t want to repent.

    I’m all for good preaching. Having solid, gospel centered preaching coming from the pulpit is essential. But for many people at many points in their lives, it’s not nearly enough. We need more. I need more.

    As DavidW suggests, this overlooks the responsibility of the church community to incarnate the truth of the gospel in space and time. When Jesus ascended to heaven, he didn’t leave behind a book or set of principles. He entrusted the gospel to a Spirit filled body of believers and said, “You *will be* my witnesses.” The gospel was not to be merely communicated merely through words, but embodied in the community of believers. Who they are, how they live their lives, how they worship, how they treat one another and care for one another, how treat outsiders and care for outsiders, how they approach and resolve interpersonal conflict, how they incorporate people into the community — all these things communicate volumes about the gospel, much more than any verbal message they proclaim with their words.

    When Jesus commissioned his disciples and founded the church, he didn’t just entrust them with the verbal message and doctrines of forgiveness. He gave them the authority and responsibility to make forgiveness an experienced reality.

    I see this in Matthew 16:17-19, which takes place immediately after Peter’s confession of Christ:

    17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter,[and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

    And again in Matthew 18:18 (which, interestingly, appears right after Jesus’ teaching on conflict resolution within the church):

    18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

    And again in John 20:21-23, which is John’s abbreviated version of Pentecost and the Great Commission:

    21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

    And again in the Lord’s Prayer, which is the corporate cry of God’s people:

    “And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

    Throughout the New Testament, I see God commissioning the church not just to proclaim a verbal message of the atonement, but to be the community of atonement.

    And throughout its 2000-year history, the church has understood that it must do more than verbally proclaim message of forgiveness. It has to make the message of God’s love and forgiveness tangible to embodied creatures through sacrament, through carefully crafted Trinitarian worship, through fellowship and community life, through corporate prayer and contemplative prayer, through acts of kindness and love and self sacrifice, and so on. We (the church) are the Body of Christ on earth until he comes again. We are the arms of Christ who are supposed to corporately reach out and embrace the unclean lepers of the world (all of us, truly) so that through our embrace, they experience actual contact with Jesus who by his touch makes them clean.

    • Joe Schafer

      In a nutshell, what I’m trying to say is this. There is far more to the gospel message than what we can communicate through words. The bulk of what human beings know and learn from one another is what scientists call “tacit knowledge.”

      The gospel, like everything else worth knowing, is more caught than taught. All of our efforts to articulate and verbalize the mysteries of the gospel, while important, cannot be the sole instrument for learning and transmitting the faith, because that is not how human beings are made.

    • Joe Schafer

      One more thought. This is directly related to the question that sparked Ian’s article: How can I be free from the burden of sin?

      Suppose there is church community where people aren’t experiencing the kind of freedom from sin that the gospel seems to promise. What do you tell them?

      I think I know what the Apostle Paul would tell them.

      I suspect Paul would say: Take a long, hard look at your fellowship and community culture. What kinds of hurdles do you expect people to jump through before they are truly accepted and loved as they are? What kinds of people do you hold up as exemplary, and what kinds of people do you treat as problems to be solved?

      I think this is what Paul said in Romans. Jews and Gentiles in the church needed to embody the gospel by how they treated one another. They needed to enact the message of salvation by faith taught in Romans 1-8 by the kinds of behaviors described in Romans 12-15. The more they strove to do the latter, the more they would experience the truth of the former.

    • Thank you for the response, Joe.

      I think you may be overextending your own inferences about the article against a backdrop that was missing from my occasion for writing, for instance:

      “Keep believing in Christ. Keep preaching the gospel to yourself every day. Hold on to the gospel message and doctrines that were proclaimed to you and keep telling yourself, over and over, that these things are true. I’m not satisfied with that answer… There is far more to the gospel message than what we can communicate through words… Throughout the New Testament, I see God commissioning the church not just to proclaim a verbal message of the atonement, but to be the community of atonement.”

      If my article was intended to posit the only thing believers should know, think, and do about sanctification, I would not be satisfied either! :)

      Of course there is more to be said about putting belief to practice. But the scope of the article was limited to dealing with our efforts to merit something from God by our own works, post-justification (and to give a shout-out to Whitefield’s “Method of Grace”). To me, the subject is eminently practical, but there are space limitations. Whitefield’s sermon is an awesome place to go for more ideas on “practice.”

      I think everyone would agree that saying, thinking, listening to, and believing doctrinal propositions is not enough. “Any good theology that does not lead to good practice is not good theology.” I don’t think any thoughtful Christian would say that Christianity is merely a verbal, intellectual experience–only involving the credenda at the expense of the agenda.

      But you are astute to taste a certain flavor redolent in my articles: I love doctrine. It’s because I’ve spent such a long time in ministry-settings where the great doctrines of the faith were not intentionally, explicitly explained, preached, thought about, and loved. I love doctrine. It impels me to worship and love Christ and hence my brothers more! My “practice” and “community life” would be vapid without the great doctrines of grace!

      So, I praise God for congregations that do not diminish the teaching of doctrine because of the kind of apprehensions represented by the above response. Your apprehensions are valid, but the way to address them is not to turn a suspicious eye toward the primacy of doctrinal instruction (i.e., biblical instruction) in the local church. I am all too familiar with tacit knowledge, not only because of my background in the social sciences, but more so because of the time I spent in ministry settings where most things operated on a tacit level.

      The idea of the gospel being more “caught than taught” is something I’ve been trying to run from. On the authority of the Pastoral Epistles, and by God’s enabling, I will keep believing that explicit doctrinal instruction is good, necessary, and one of the main means of sanctification to promote “life together” in the local church.

      “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine” (Titus 1:9).

      “Sound doctrine” definitely encourages.

      Thanks for being some good iron to sharpen me brother.

    • To Joe’s point below:

      “Paul would say: Take a long, hard look at your fellowship and community culture. What kinds of hurdles do you expect people to jump through before they are truly accepted and loved as they are? What kinds of people do you hold up as exemplary, and what kinds of people do you treat as problems to be solved?”

      Beautiful insight.

      Every congregation should take frequent, critical self-examinations in this way.

    • Joe Schafer

      Ian, thank you for these respectful interactions. I appreciate the way you took ownership of this thread and personally responded to me and to others who have posted comments here. These are important issues, and I’m glad that we can discuss them and even disagree a way that may be helpful and edifying.

    • Joe, what would you say about a church that teaches “Christ’s call to endure persecution and suffering faithfully” on a luxury cruise in the Carribean sea? Please tell me that this is a joke!

  7. Good food for thought Joe. This is a new way of approaching the gospel that I haven’t considered much… but instinctively it matches what has been going on in my soul/heart/mind/body.

  8. Thanks, Ian, David, Joe, for such a rich exchange.

    From Ian, I fully agree that we Christians believe that we are saved by faith, but all too often act as though we are sanctified by our works and performance and by other people’s acceptance, opinion, favor or approval.

    From Dave, I also agree that a lack of trinitarian understanding and practice, greatly limits and hinders our church community and interaction.

    From Joe, I agree that the gospel clearly needs to be spoken, preached and clearly articulated. But the gospel also absolutely needs to be lived our, especially when there are problems and conflicts, as there surely will be among “holy spiritual sinners in the church.” Right doctrine + wrong practice = Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church.

    Some may think this cliche is rather simplistic, shallow, banal, trite and hackneyed, but I like it: “Your life is the only Bible some people will ever read.”

    • Joe Schafer

      Ben, I agree with that cliché, “Your life is the only Bible some people will ever read.” But only on the condition that the first word, “Your”, is understood to be plural, and that the second word, “life”, is taken to be the corporate life of the church. The Holy Spirit dwells in the interior life of every believer. But he dwells just as much, or even more so, in the relational spaces between believers who gather together in the name of Jesus (Mt 18:20). That cliché is usually applied to individuals. But the world judges the claims of Christianity on how groups of Christians think and act collectively in the name of Jesus. This is why churches absolutely need to take a critical look at what their corporate behavior says to the world.

    • Yes, I thought of “your life” individually, but I fully agree that our corporate interaction as THE church is of utmost importance.

      So to play the devil’s advocate, how might UBF and UBFriends interact in ways where the world can see the glory and mystery of Christ?

    • “simplistic, shallow, banal, trite and hackneyed”

      What a colorful array of consonants and syllables!

      Nothing trite about that!

    • Joe Schafer

      Ben, you asked, “How might UBF and UBFriends interact in ways where the world can see the glory and mystery of Christ?”

      Before the interaction can improve (and of course improvement is warranted), the interaction has to begin.

      The way you phrased it sounds weird to me, because UBFriends isn’t a corporate entity in the same way that UBF is. People who comment here are speaking for themselves. This website gives them a visible platform to say what they want, and to communicate with one another. UBF can make lots of decisions about how to proceed, but the range of options for this website is fairly limited. As administrators, we can (a) proceed as we have been doing, (b) actively edit articles and censor comments, or (c) shut the website down. But beyond those options, there isn’t much that UBFriends can do; anything more than that is up to the individuals who post here.

    • Joe Schafer

      “How might UBF and UBFriends interact in ways where the world can see the glory and mystery of Christ?”

      Here’s a proposal.

      A leader in UBF can do exactly what Ian has done. Write an article that deals with an important topic, saying exactly what he means and meaning exactly what he says. No indirect messages, innuendo, and so on. Just come out and say what he wants to say. We will comment on the article in a tough but respectful manner. The UBF leader can then follow Ian’s example — reading the comments very carefully, thinking about each one, not getting defensive, not taking disagreement as personal attack, but answering each person who comments directly and with kindness, pointing out where he agrees and where he does not. And we will continue the conversation in that manner.

      Is that asking for too much?

    • Let me chew on this a bit. But briefly, the answer to your question is obviously “NO!”

      Yet, as you surely know, the stark reality is that it’s not going to happen (barring a miraculous, supernatural, totally mind boggling, confounding, unexpected and unpredictable work of the Holy Spirit!).

  9. Hey Ian,

    Just checked out your blog and website. Very good! I’ll have to catch up on your articles.

    • Hey Brian.

      Yeah, that…

      Well, it started as a place to advertise academic/theological proofreading/editing services, and when I no longer had time for that, a place to post book reviews done for classes, but occasionally a burning issue comes up that I want to write about and I remember, “oh yeah… that blog.”

      I’m sure I can learn a thing or two about blogging from you.

    • Very good stuff, Ian. One interest of mine lately has been rightly capturing the idea of the Apostolic or Christotelic hermeneutic. I don’t know if you know, but in Westminster Theological Seminary the current administration has let go of some professors who have embraced the aforementioned hermeneutical model. This statement of yours gives a good argument against their position:

      “Some frame the debate in terms of humility: that we, as uninspired disciples, must meekly refrain from reproducing the hermeneutic of the inspired apostles. But another argument of humility could be that, since we are not inspired interpreters, we should adopt the hermeneutic of the inspired writers, rather than another seemingly useful, but ‘ultimately subjective, methodology.'” –

    • Hey David,

      I didn’t hear about that, but it must have been from Westminster Seminary Philadelphia. Could you send a brother a link on that?

      The split-off institution from them, Westminster Seminary in California, deeply embraces an apostolic, Christocentric hermeneutic.

    • Yeah, it’s the one in Philly. So I did a bit more careful reading and realized that it’s not the Christotelic or apostolic hermeneutic that they’re particularly against, rather it is an assertion that a given OT passage has two meanings, that is 1) the author’s original intent and 2) a christotelic meaning. They would argue that since all of Scripture is christocentric (Lk 24:27), the original author, who wrote years before Christ’s advent, was compelled to mainly write in a way that would reveal Christ in the apostolic age.

      But the implications are quite limiting because they’re essentially saying that 1) one shouldn’t take into account the fact that say, Moses when writing Genesis 1 did not have Israel’s particular situation and concerns in mind and that 2) one also shouldn’t take into account much of Moses’ ancient worldview would affect how and what he wrote.

      So WTS is at odds with scholars who would espouse such a bifurcation or dual view of OT texts. They have attempted to provide some clarification on their stance toward the christotelic hermeneutical method here:

      Also, a huff post article on one of the professors that WTS forced into retirement:

    • Thanks David.

      The link from WTS was great. I read the summary and got the gist of what they’re trying to guard against.

      I thought the Huff post author was kind of unfair in his use of the word fundamentalist.

      People be spittin’ vitriol man…

  10. On believing in Christ, in another thread I made the assertion that these days I’m more so beginning to understand that we believe “into” Him, as in the Romans 6 sense, rather than just “in” Him. Someone told me that in the greek language there is no distinction between in and into. Further, when we believe and are baptized into Christ and we become united with him in his death and resurrection. So my life is immersed or “wrapped up” in Him, though my unique personhood still exists; Paul puts it in Acts 17, “in him we live and move and have our being” and we are regarded as God’s offspring. I can see how both this factual and experiential knowledge gives me the confidence and the practical means to overcome the burden of sin, though its effects still remain. I know that some day, he will complete the perfection of his body for this seems like a natural consequence of his ontology, seeing as how he, the head, is a perfected or glorified being.

    But, not to beat a dead horse, I’m still thinking about the role that the collective body plays in the process of sanctification this side of heaven. Joe mentioned verses about reconciliation, church discipline and the ability and responsibility of members to forgive sin. I also think of James 5:16, which reveals the power or efficacy of the collective process of confession and prayer. My observation is that the church does not take this kind of authority, privelege and supernatural power very seriously, at least in the western church. I believe that the Spirit is sovereign in how he moves within the body, but NT teaching also clearly states that we can either quench or resist the Spirit’s efforts through our own obstinancy. Still, thinking about how to utilize the truth of the NT teaching to both individually and collectively overcome the burden of sin.

    • Hey brother,

      “we believe “into” Him, as in the Romans 6 sense, rather than just “in” Him”

      Could you send a link to that?

      “Someone told me that in the greek language there is no distinction between in and into.”

      I heard in a lecture by S. Lewis Johnson that Christ’s promise that the Holy Spirit would “guide them in/into all the truth” could be taken differently depending on which manuscript (ms) you used, the mss with ev or the ones with eis.

      There’s always what Porter says: “Several grammarians contend that wis and ev are used synonymously in NT as well as Hellenistic Greek. The significant overlap in their meanings does not necessarily mean confusion or complete lack of distinction in their uses, however” (Porter, Idioms of the Greek NT, 1992, p. 153, Section 4.6.4).

      “I believe that the Spirit is sovereign in how he moves within the body, but NT teaching also clearly states that we can either quench or resist the Spirit’s efforts through our own obstinacy.”

      Yep. Hence the tension in all of scripture between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. You absolutize one side and get hyper-calvinism; absolutize the other side, Pelagianism. That crucial tension, though offensive to human logic, must be maintained, because scripture maintains it.

      Good food for thought.

    • Fo sho, I concur with what you stated above, especially the sovereignty and human agency tension and thanks for clarifying the Greek.

      I didn’t get the “believe into Christ” from anywhere but the ol’ noggin (and Rom 6). I suppose I simply meant that what has been resonating with me as of late is this idea that more than just intellectually assenting to belief in him, i.e. acknowledging that who he is and what he did (and continues to do) is true, is the idea that I am immersed in life with him. This is the only way that Christianity makes sense to me; we are saved into a relationship with the triune God who is love. From the trinity in ministry book I mentioned above, the author states that Christian ministry is this:

      “[first and foremost] the ministry of Jesus Christ, the Son, to the Father, through the Holy Spirit, for the sake of the church and the world.”

      So the reason why Christ saves and ministers to us is so that we may be brought into fellowship with the Father and the rest of the godhead. As Peter says, we become participants in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

    • Joe Schafer

      …we believe “into” Him, as in the Romans 6 sense, rather than just “in” Him. – See more at:

      DavidW, I think this is very important. And it is related to what I was trying to express.

      When Paul and the early Christians spoke of being “in Christ,” I am quite sure that their mental picture of this was not “me and Jesus.” It was a vision of many diverse parts acting as one body, interconnected and interdependent. An earthly body created by the Father, drawing life from the body and blood of Christ and animated by the Spirit.

      That passage you mentioned, Romans 6, speaks of baptism. Today, evangelicals tend to think of baptism as a declaration of their personal faith in Jesus and their personal decision to follow Christ. But for most of Christian history, baptism was also regarded as the rite of entry into the church. The early Christian understanding of baptism was not merely of one’s personal sins getting washed away. It was a death to the old way of life and a birth into the new life of the resurrected body of Christ, and a body whose visible representation on the earth (until Jesus returns) was the church.

      This is an aspect (perhaps THE aspect) of the gospel that, as far as I can tell, has been almost forgotten by evangelical Christians. And it is closely related to the topic of Ian’s article, which is sanctification.

      I have no problem with what Ian has written. But I confess that I don’t really understand it. I don’t understand it because it is filled with words like justification, sanctification, etc. which are technical terms for abstract concepts. That’s okay. Theologians use words like this all the time. I use them too. But behinds these abstract words are mental images of physical realities, and I want to know what those images are. If someone asked you to draw a picture, a diagram, a cartoon, of sanctification, what would you draw? Two theologians might use this word. They might even agree on a common definition. But if their cartoon mental images of the word are very different, they won’t be talking about the same thing.

      Sorry for that digression. The point I am getting at is this. When we think of sanctification, the physical realities that are evoked in our minds should not be limited to the cleansing and purification of one person. They need to take into account the larger body of Christ, the church, and the interrelationships among its parts. Because, as a practical matter, the church is *the* laboratory that God has prepared for us for our sanctification here on earth. This is why churches have to be much more than organziations or clubs where people agree on some core values and start working on projects together. They need to be communities where people get honest with each other, where they communicate with each other at a deep level, where they expose their true selves to one another, where they disagree and butt heads and hurt one another and apologize and hug and forgive one another again and again, and then worship together and experience the presence of Christ in the corporate life. And then they identify the others, the people who are outsiders, and invite the others to come in and join the body of Christ too. That is my mental cartoon of what it means to come into Christ, and my mental cartoon of what sanctification looks like.

      And how do the Scriptures and teaching of doctrines fit into this? When done properly, it gives people accurate knowledge and a rich vocabulary to think about and understand the realities that they should be experiencing in the life of the church. But that doesn’t always happen. In my experience, what often happens is this. One person (the pastor) stands up and tries to give a rousing, passionate sermon. The sermon may be Christ-centered and full of heartfelt praises to God. It may explain lots of doctrine. But all too often, the bottom line is: “Jesus is wonderful, the gospel is true, now go home and study the Scriptures as I have and believe this message in your hearts so that you can personally experience it as much as I have.” At the end of the day, it is the individual who is told to go home experience the realities of salvation by the strength of his own faith, because it ain’t happenin’ in the fellowship of the church. As a pastor, I have done this myself, and I believe it is a pastoral copout.

  11. Hey brother Schafer,

    I agree with nearly everything you said, and even the one thing I disagree with (that justification and sanctification are tools of theologians that mainly denote abstract concepts), I know are coming from places of your pastoral, personal, and congregational experience, some of which may have been painful/frustrating, or joyous/sweet.

    As you pointed out, it’s true that theologians often throw around these words with little experiential feeling or application. But we should not let their behavior frame our love of the realities those (inspired) words reveal.

    These (inspired) words were not conceived in academic minds; they may be abused by academic minds. But they are from scripture.

    I did a little exercise (–for myself–and not to imply that you or other readers do not know these verses. But I love the mouse-cursor-hover feature that shows verses when you reference them) to show that these words are from Christ and the Apostles, and that we are not left to our cartoon-like imaginations.

    Instances of forms of “sanctification” (Hagiasmos) in the NT.
    (Note, however, that the idea of sanctification is present in many places where the word is not).
    Romans 6:19
    Romans 6:22
    1Corinthians 1:30
    1Thessalonians 4:3
    1Thessalonians 4:4
    1Thessalonians 4:7
    2Thessalonians 2:13
    1Timothy 2:15
    Hebrews 12:14
    1Peter 1:2

    Instances of forms of “justify” (dikaia’o) in the NT.
    (Note, however, that the idea of justification is present in many places where the word is not).
    Matthew 11:19
    Matthew 12:37
    Luke 7:29
    Luke 7:35
    Luke 10:29
    Luke 16:15
    Luke 18:14
    Acts 13:38
    Acts 13:39
    Romans 2:13
    Romans 3:4
    Romans 3:20
    Romans 3:24
    Romans 3:26
    Romans 3:28
    Romans 3:30
    Romans 4:2
    Romans 4:5
    Romans 5:1
    Romans 5:9
    Romans 6:7
    Romans 8:30
    Romans 8:33
    1Corinthians 4:4
    1Corinthians 6:11
    Galatians 2:16
    Galatians 2:17
    Galatians 3:8
    Galatians 3:11
    Galatians 3:24
    Galatians 5:4
    1Timothy 3:16
    Titus 3:7
    James 2:21
    James 2:24
    James 2:25

    • Joe Schafer

      Ian, thanks for your gracious reply. I completely agree with what you said. These words (justification, sanctification, redemption, grace…) appear in Scripture and are a key part of the faith-vocabulary of the early church. And yet Paul did not make these words up. They were words that already existed in the Greek language. And they meant something to Paul and the Jews and Gentiles of the first century. When I said they are “abstract” I did not mean that to be pejorative, as if they are devoid of meaning. What I meant (and sorry if that didn’t come across clearly) is that these words refer to concepts, not to physical objects, and concepts are harder to pin down. They evoke rich metaphors and elaborate mental pictures that go beyond any precise technical meaning or dictionary definition. Most likely, when the early church began to use those words and apply them to the gospel, the meaning became even richer.

      If Paul were to say “apple,” would the apple of his day have the same appearance, texture, and flavor as an apples of today? Probably they would be similar. But what if Paul says “sanctification”? When we speak and hear these terms today, are the rich metaphors and mental pictures conjured up in our minds similar to those that existed in the minds of Paul and his first century audience?

      I have a strong suspicion that our understanding of these terms tends to be more individualized (“me and God”) and the understanding of Paul and his hearers tended to be more corporate (“we and God”, where “we” is the church). Is that plausible? If so, I think it has profound implications for how we understand and teach the gospel in our day.

    • I see. I completely agree then.

      So, on the one hand, what you say makes me think “Darn that hermeneutical spiral.” The work of exegesis is meant to get us across that seemingly endless semantic/cultural bridge between the 1st century and today. And it’s so difficult.

      On the other hand, I remember hearing Dana Harris respond to a question during a talk on the book of Revelation at TEDS by giving thanks to God for “sovereignly maintaining the referents of words” so that Christians today could still understand certain things. (The context of this comment was that oft-expressed speculation that Apostle John might have seen tanks in his vision, but described them as monstrous animals, etc.).

      Thanks brother.

    • Joe Schafer


      And on the third hand, one can say, “Thank God for that hermeneutical spiral.” Because it means that the work of biblical studies is never finished, and must be done afresh in each generation. We have the same opportunity that Martin Luther had, to take a new look at the same old Scriptures, to rediscover messages that our churches have forgotten, and to generate new understandings of the mysteries of the gospel that have never been heard before.

  12. Oh thank you for this article, Ian! This is what UBFers need to hear, and also all who may visit this site! The true gospel!

  13. Hey Beka,

    Praising God that it was helpful!

    Those first few chapters of Johnson’s “Him we Proclaim” prompted lots of good reflection.

  14. Joe Schafer

    Roger Olson, a committed Arminian, posted an article today that makes a point very similar to Ian’s.

  15. forestsfailyou

    Good article. I heard nearly this exact phase “…a believer is justified by faith in the gospel, sanctification in his/her life is carried forward largely by his/her effort.” by Mark Yang when he visited. I am not sure who knows the guy, but he rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it was him telling me… well I shouldn’t go off on a tirade here. But at the very least, he instructed our missionaries that this was true.

    • “he rubbed me the wrong way”

      Sorry, couldn’t help it….. inside joke. yea we know him.

    • Some UBF leaders simply love (over) emphasizing man’s effort and work in Phil 2:12, while not clearly explaining or knowing how Phil 2:13 works in the Christian’s sanctification. The key word “for” in Phil 2:13 is often not explained or very very poorly explained or simply completely ignored!

    • forestsfailyou

      Cs Lewis actually mentions those exact two passages when talking about faith an works. He said the first makes it sound like it’s all us, and the second makes it sound like it’s all God. He concludes that it is a paradox and that churches tend to emphasize one over the other.

  16. forestsfailyou

    I found out how to get ubf leaders to read these articles. You copy and paste them into an email, don’t give the author and say “hey I read this article what do you think?”. When you do that with this article the response is

    “I think he is right but he is very vague about how to ‘we grow more like Christ only by growing more consistent in trusting Christ alone’ and to a new person this can lead to licentiousness.”

    • forestsfailyou

      **new Christian

    • Hey friend,

      I confess that most of my motivation to writing this was to get people (especially leaders) to buy, read, and think about Johnson’s “Him We Proclaim” (2007). The respondent will find plenty there to address the question of growing more like Christ.

      But the response also made me shudder to think of a situation where someone who truly trusts more in the sufficiency of Christ will–as a result of trusting in Christ more fully– fall into licentiousness. I’m glad I never read that in the New Testament.

    • I agree fully, Ian. We are probably confused because the ubfer that forests showed this too is using a new word that ubfers picked up from this latest crisis/reform movement: licentiousness. (WIth each crisis in 1976, 1989, 2001 and 2011 they modified their language. In the years after 2001, for example, they started using “pastor” and “elder”)

      They’ve been studying the books of Timothy at there “leadership development workshops”. So they have picked up vocabulary that sounds more New Testament. In the past they emphasized Genesis, so they sounded/looked very Old Testament.

      But whether OT or NT, they just don’t know how to use the words or teachings in a Christian manner. So what this ubfer was saying was code language for: “Just get back to doing the ubf heritage and stay loyal to the ubf mission”.