I came running to the PCA. After years in broader evangelicalism, service in a confessional church and denomination was and remains a breath of fresh air. With its commitment to the Westminster Standards and passion to advance the gospel around the world I count it a blessing to be part of the PCA. I can scarcely describe how life-giving it has been to worship and serve with like-minded brothers and sisters.
I do not consider myself a naïve person. I have been serving in churches since I was twenty-years-old. But I admit to being surprised when I discovered that there were quite different understandings of sanctification and piety within my adopted denomination. Some of what I was reading and hearing articulated about law and gospel, sin and salvation sounded more like a sort of quasi-Lutheranism than the doctrines upheld in the Westminster Standards. Certainly and thankfully I was hearing a gospel that powerfully frees sinners from the penalty of their rebellion. Strangely however I was also hearing that any expectations for actual transformation were best kept low. I was hearing what I can only describe as a reverence for failure.
As I say, this surprised me. And it is why I was both relieved and delighted to have discovered the Gospel Reformation Network (GRN)
in the early days of my entry into the PCA. Like any good organization the GRN desires to make an impact. Their leadership consists of men well known in the PCA. And to my relief the ambitions of the GRN seem rather modest. They don’t appear to have world domination as their goal. Rather the GRN is a fraternal of PCA ministers seeking to advance a sound doctrine of sanctification and to foster piety among pastors. In this I have been helped by their efforts.
I write this not as an “insider” or member of the GRN’s leadership. I am simply a PCA pastor who needs the encouragement of my brothers to continue on faithfully with Christ. Like every member of the church I serve as pastor I need the indicatives and imperatives of God’s Word. I need to rejoice both in the justification accomplished for me and the continuing work of sanctification going on within me.
My experience with the GRN is quite simple. I attended the luncheons they have hosted at the previous two General Assemblies. At the luncheon in Houston in 2014 Derek Thomas delivered one of the finest proclamations concerning sanctification I have ever heard. In Chattanooga in 2015 Jon Payne challenged pastors to be men of exemplary godliness. I need this sort of sharpening and I am thankful to be receiving it.
I have also been greatly helped by Rick Phillips’ seminar at GA this year. His subject was a critique of the contemporary grace movement. I won’t test you by trying to recapture everything Pastor Phillips said. But I do wish to highlight a few points he made that addressed well the very concerns I had as a newcomer to the PCA.
Some of the confusion coming out of the so-called contemporary grace movement is the result of a truncated doctrine of salvation. We must understand both from Scripture and the reformed confessions that salvation encompasses a complex of doctrines including election, effectual calling, regeneration, conversion, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. Justification by faith alone is a glorious doctrine worth proclaiming and singing. We have no hope without the fact that by grace through faith alone God has justified us entirely upon the merits of Jesus. The contemporary grace movement gets this right.
But as Phillips points out, the contemporary grace movement has a troubling habit of reducing salvation to justification only. In other words instead of a full and robust doctrine of salvation whereby we are saved not only from the penalty of sin but also from the power of sin the focus seems to rest entirely on our forensic standing while neglecting our progressive sanctification.
I do not believe that my brothers who identify with the contemporary grace movement intend to undermine sanctification. I am quite sure that they would all affirm the importance of growing in godliness. But doctrine matters. What we believe makes a difference in how we live. So it should not be surprising that sloppy doctrine often leads to sloppy living. The contemporary grace movement’s emphasis on brokenness and ruination is so strong that there seems to be no hope for actual progress in conformity to Christ.
As Pastor Phillips pointed out in his address, one of the chief errors made by many in the contemporary grace movement is an overreliance on the law/gospel dialectic. It is certainly true that the law is not the gospel and the gospel is not the law. But the two are not enemies. In the life of a Christian, one does not cling to one and evacuate the other. While it is true that the law of God can only terrorize and (hopefully) convict the sinner, for believers, the law serves as a light illuminating our path. By his law, God shows us how to live in such a way as to glorify Him. This is what is meant by the “third use of the law.” So the gospel must never be used as a means to indict God’s law as though it was something less than pure and good and helpful for believers.
A related error which Phillips highlighted is the tendency of this movement to force a too radical separation of the Bible’s indicatives and imperatives. Again, as in the case with law and gospel there is a clear and vital difference between Scripture’s indicatives (statements of truth) and imperatives (calls to obey). We must never look to the imperatives as means by which we may be made right with God.
However, the imperatives are more than mere reminders that only Jesus obeyed the law perfectly. That Jesus did obey the law perfectly is gloriously good news for us sinners. But the Bible’s calls for obedience must never be taught in such a way that ends up blunting their salutary force. The imperatives in God’s Word are a vital means toward our sanctification. That means, for instance, that Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan really is about our being good neighbors.
The church of Jesus Christ ought to have pastors and ministers who are actively growing in likeness to Christ. Our godliness must be evident so that we can say to God’s beloved flock, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” Certainly I am not recommending that pastors cover themselves in a veneer of piety. Nor am I suggesting that we somehow cast ourselves as spiritually superior to anyone. We must follow Jesus’ caution against practicing good works as a way of receiving public praise. But surely McCheyne was right when he said, “A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”
He breaks the power of cancelled sin.
He sets the prisoner free.
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