Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

15 May 2013

Sanctification, Homosexuality, and the Church

/

In this post my goal is to utilize the issue of homosexuality as a case study to demonstrate that the “Jesus + Nothing = Everything” approach to sanctification is not merely an academic wrinkle, but an error of such prodigious import that it threatens the very essence of the Christian church.

American culture has apparently reached a tipping point when it comes to homosexuality. It’s OK to be homosexual now. In fact, those of us who aren’t homosexual are apparently supposed to trip all over ourselves in our affirmation of homosexuals to make up for all those years in which American consensus stood against this vice. Blah, Blah, Blech. I’m disappointed, but not particularly devastated: this kind of thing really is an inevitable result of the non-foundational, democratic, and relativist worldview that America has been cultivating for decades.

What is devastating to me, though, is some of the Christian responses to the problem that have recently been raised: applause for believers who have “come out” to unabashedly affirm (not to repent of, mind you, but to affirm) their homosexual status; gracious acceptance of and commiseration with homosexuals who sit beside us as fellow-members of the Christian church; etc. The new angle is that Christian homosexuals are a growing part of the Christian community and we need to be attentive to, not contemptuous of, their peculiar needs.

This conclusion is a necessary one if we hold to a “Jesus + Nothing = Everything,” “Preach-Justification-to-Yourself” approach to sanctification. At the point of salvation, we are told, nothing really happens to us: we still are what we were, with the only notable difference being that we have been declared righteous. If I was a thief before I was converted, I’m still a thief, but a thief saved by grace. If I was a drunkard before I was converted, I’m still a drunkard, but a drunkard saved by grace. If I was a homosexual before I was converted, I’m still a homosexual, but a homosexual saved by grace. And so forth. But this is an inaccurate explanation of the Christian experience. Note with me the following from 1 Corinthians 6:9–11:

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

In these verses Paul clearly states that thieves, drunkards, and homosexuals (and a bunch of other sinner-types) will not inherit the kingdom of God. This does not mean that believers who feel acutely the temptation to steal, drink to excess, or to act homosexually are barred from heaven, but it does mean that anyone who unashamedly and persistently self-identifies as a thief, a drunkard, a homosexual, etc., is unconverted, should be excluded from membership in the Christian church, and must be handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (1 Cor 5:5). What Paul excludes here is any possibility of the kind of sanctification in which one “comes out” about what he irremediably is and then excuses his identity by musing repeatedly on what he has been declared to be in Christ. Instead, Paul’s vision of sanctification involves the repudiation of what one once was in Adam (the old man) and the embrace of the new creation in Christ that now is (the new man).

Paul does not allow Christians to self-identify as sinners. The church is not comprised of thieves, drunkards, homosexuals, etc.; instead, the church is comprised of Christians who once were thieves, drunkards, homosexuals, etc., but who are no longer what they once were. The church is to be populated by new creatures in Christ who have become “spirit people”—people who still sin, but whose dominant trajectory of life is upward. Christians persevere in their identity as spirit people, repent when they fail to live out their new identity, and beat and enslave their bodies lest they be disqualified for the prize (1 Cor 9:27). Anyone who fails to do this will not inherit the kingdom of God. Period.

Of course we are rightly chastened by Paul’s reminder that we too were once enslaved by such sins. As such we should expect unbelievers to be thieves, drunkards, homosexuals, etc., and should treat them no differently than any other sinner—there’s nothing here to suggest that more sanitary sinners such as “the greedy” will fare any better than homosexuals at the Great White Throne. Further, we are sobered by Paul’s observation that all believers have lingering sinful tendencies (like stealing, drinking to excess, and acting on homosexual impulses) that need to be addressed with exhortation, discipline, encouragement, and love. There is no room here for sequestering particular kinds of sins as more contemptible or “yucky” than others. The church must surely learn this virtue and quickly.

But those churches who would accept sinners “as they are” (whether homosexuals or any other variety of sinner) into their memberships, and who would encourage such sinners to ponder the glories of justification rather than repent, engage in a great evil. Such acceptance violates this and every biblical text on church discipline, destroys the purity of the church by including in its ranks those who will not inherit the kingdom of God, and injures severely the witness of the people of God. The problem is not a minor one.

24 Responses

  1. Christopher de Vidal

    Good stuff. One note, before it gets mentioned: While Paul did self-identify as a sinner in 1 Timothy 1:15, he also self-identified as a saint in Ephesians 3:8. Being simultaneously a sinner and a saint is part of the “already/not yet” nature of our position before God.

    The “Jesus + Nothing” movement would quote Paul in saying, “[we] are not under law but under grace.” (Rom 6:14 ESV) They would do well to read the very next verse: “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!”

  2. Christopher de Vidal

    This already/not yet verse nails it for me: “For by a single offering, [Jesus] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Heb 10:14) If you’re not being sanctified, you have no reason to tell yourself that you’ve been perfected. And, if you’re pushing through sanctification, there is no reason to tell yourself it is your own work which perfects you.

  3. Dear Dr. Snoeberger:

    Thank you for this post (brought to my attention by Carl Trueman). It is very helpful, clarifying and challenging for thinking through the issue of sanctification. Particularly this description: “At the point of salvation, we are told, nothing really happens to us: we still are what we were, with the only notable difference being that we have been declared righteous. If I was a thief before I was converted, I’m still a thief, but a thief saved by grace. If I was a drunkard before I was converted, I’m still a drunkard, but a drunkard saved by grace. If I was a homosexual before I was converted, I’m still a homosexual, but a homosexual saved by grace. And so forth.”

    I believe that this is one of the most important points of departure on the larger discussion/question of how we go about relating justification and santification, how we define sanctification and how we characterize the nature of the Christian life. I have met what you describe in the paragraph above, and can affirm that it is indeed in the air in our culture, and even in our theological neck of the woods.

    You have helped me think through this a little more clearly. Thank you.

    Yours sincerely,

    Ligon

  4. Mark,

    I agree that there may be some problems with the Jesus+Nothing crowd, but I think this article is a perfect example of the overly-optimistic, ultimately devastating theology of Sanctification that drives Christians to despair. Your exegesis of 1 Cor 6:9-11 is especially troubling.

    First notice a couple of things here:

    1. In the passage, sanctification is something DONE to the believer. Not something that they have done: “… you WERE sanctified”. Unless you’re wanting to argue that our justification is something dependent on forsaking these sins too?

    2. We know for certain that the believers Paul is writing to include the Sexually Immoral and Drunkards. And yet when he addresses this sinful church, he speaks to them as if they are no longer these things, even though they still are practicing them. He reminds them of their baptism (washed), sanctification, and justification — all done by Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

    1 Cor 6:9-11 seems to be arguing against you.

    When you say things like, “The church is to be populated by new creatures in Christ who have become ‘spirit people’— people who still sin, but whose dominant trajectory of life is upward” I wonder where this language of “upward trajectory” comes from? Certainly not scripture or the law. The standard of sexual purity in the scripture is not ultimately a pattern of progress but never having a lustful thought.

    Here is where St. Paul would remind say: “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” Mark, have you truly considered God’s standard of holiness? “upward trajectory” is not Biblical language.

  5. Mark Snoeberger

    Levi, a couple of things in response to your observations:

    (1) Sanctification is both something that is done to us (definitive sanctification), but also something in which we participate (progressive sanctification). The NT pattern is consistently indicative—imperative: you have died/put off/escaped; therefore live a new way/put to death/add to your faith (so Rom 6:1–4; Col 3:5–14; 2 Pet 1:2–7, among others).

    (2) I think you’ve made my point in your second observation. Paul speaks to his readers as those who are not drunkards, immoral persons, etc., even though they still practice these things. The point is that they are no longer what they were, so they should stop acting like what they were. That’s the essence of sanctification. Because something has been DONE to them and in them, they should respond by DOING.

    (3) In response to your final question, I’d like to suggest it is misplaced. God’s standard of RIGHTEOUSNESS is perfect obedience. I can’t contribute to that—it’s an all-or-nothing legal standing secured wholly through Christ’s imputed righteousness. HOLINESS, on the other hand, is an experimental condition that I can and must improve. That’s why Peter says to “add” virtues to our faith and see to it that they “increase” (2 Pet 1:5–8). It is these kinds of verbs to which I am appealing when I speak of an “upward trajectory” of increasing holiness. The ultimate standard is perfect Christlikeness, and it is something we don’t achieve in this life. Still, it is something that is gradually ours in the process of “transforming” and “conforming” to the image of His Son (e.g., Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 3:18).

    Levi, I share your consternation about those who advocate works of the law in order to improve one’s righteous standing. The very suggestion should horrify us. But equally horrific is the idea that because my standing is secure, I can continue in sin (Rom 6:1). You clearly and articulately argue that sanctification can never be pressed so exclusively that it squeezes out justification. What I am suggesting is that justification must likewise not be pressed so exclusively that it squeezes out sanctification.

    That is my great concern with the “Jesus + Nothing = Everything” approach.

    MAS

    1. Mark,

      Thank you for your detailed and thoughtful reply! I appreciate your clarifications. You have given me some food for thought.

      My only rejoinder would be that pastorally there needs to be great care when applying scriptures like 1 Cor 6:9-11. Growing up in a somewhat legalistic Evangelical Church, that specific verse tormented me (as well that it should). The great shame was that I never noticed Paul’s objective language at the end, promising that my identity was secured IN CHRIST, not in myself.

  6. James T. O'Brien

    It seems to me that we do not effectively apply the truth that regeneration precedes faith and all the other fruits of the Spirit. When regenerated, all those fruits are infused (yes, good 17th century Puritans used that term). Of those fruits, it is granted to faith alone to unite us to Christ and to enjoy all the saving blessings He confers. However, those other fruits must also be active. Therefore, repentance is required; mortification of sin is required, growth in holiness is required. Too many today are under the Dispensational cloud that thinks that if something is required besides faith, then we have returned to Roman self-righteousness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Let me put it this way. How do we know that our faith in Christ is of the Spirit and not of the flesh? We know, in part at least, because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts and this is recognized by the loving fruit of the Spirit being active. (II Peter 1:10-11). All the fruit are required, but all the fruit are not the instruments of justification. Thankfully, our sanctification is a work of the Spirit in us, producing in us cooperation. When we fail, as we often do, we have the gracious exhortation to ‘come boldly to the throne of grace there to find help in time of need.’ (Heb. 4:61) Relying on Christ, we press ahead ‘that we may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, we may attain to the resurrection from the dead…forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, we press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 3:10, 11, 13).

  7. Mark Snoeberger

    Mr. O’Brien,

    Thanks for your comments. I’m in theological agreement with much that you have written, but I wonder whether the categories you’ve identified are as tight as you want them to be. Folks like Michael Horton and Tullian Tchividjian, who have thrown in with the “Jesus + Nothing = Everything” approach, are not Dispensationalists or anything close. They have adopted a sanctification model that bears incidental resemblance to the Keswick Model to which many historic dispensationalists adhere, but they are most definitely not under the “Dispensational cloud.”

    Incidentally, my own background is dispensational, but I most emphatically reject the Keswick, second-blessing, faith-preceding-regeneration, repentance-suppressing approaches that you attribute to the dispensational movement.

    This is something bigger than a Reformed/Dispensational debate, and I’m very happy to side with some of my Reformed brothers on this particular point of controversy.

    MAS

  8. Chris Rush

    Well in reference to the Tullian book; if that is the main focus of criticism, I have not ever read or heard him teach it is OK to ever indulge in sinful behavior! Ever! But rather focus on justification as motivation to love God back though joyful obedience. It has helped me and others love the lord more passionately!!!!!! Some of you pastors and teachers need to know some christians feel hopeless and disconnected from Gods love and assurance. A little more focus on ‘ the poor in spirit’ is very needed today.

  9. James T. O'Brien

    Thank you for the thoughtful reply, Mark. As a student of John Gerstner, I was taught that Dispensationalism is essentially antinomian. Not that Dispensationalists are against obedience, only that they do not think any obedience is necessary to be saved. In using the term, my intent was to suggest that antinomianism is in “the evangelical air” we have been breathing our entire lives. The source of this antinomianism is Dispensationalism. I would think that many Reformed men would be horrified to hear that their formulations have unconsciously been influenced by the Dispensationalism that they reject, but I wonder if it isn’t so. I hadn’t thought of Keswick as the source of the Jesus + nothing = everything doctrine. I’ll have to ponder that. If you could elaborate further, it would be helpful.

  10. Mark Snoeberger

    I’m not sure that the antinomianism of the “Jesus + Nothing = Everything” approach is sourced in dispensational theology. I my reading, the “Jesus + Nothing = Everything” approach comes across more as a misguided application of the law/grace distinction that exists in Reformed theology than as a nod to dispensationalism.

    I will agree with you that there has historically been a large block of dispensationalists that has done something similar (after all, the early dispensational movement was overwhelmingly populated by Presbyterians who made a big deal of the law/grace distinction). But there is also a healthy subset of dispensationalists who are effectively Reformed in their soteriology and view of sanctification. We’ve not all bowed the knee to Baal, so to speak. :)

    Now I don’t know all the influences of all the proponents of the “Jesus + Nothing = Everything” approach, but among those whose pedigree I know, I’m not seeing much dispensational influence. Maybe Keswick or Lutheran, but not dispensational. Perhaps you are better able than I to make that determination.

    Cordially, MAS

    1. James T. O'Brien

      Mark, I generally live in the 17th century and occasionally poke my nose out in the 19th (Old Princeton and the Free Church Senatus), so I’m not all that acquainted with WTS West nor the influences on Horton, et.al. So I am happy to concede the point.

      When it comes to similarities to Keswick and Higher Life doctrines, I take it that your point is not that Reformed guys like Tullian and Horton believe in instant and perfect sanctification, but they do believe in sanctification by faith alone without effort (except to keep on reckoning oneself dead to sin.) Have I overstated their view?

      If that is the case then would it be fair to say, at least of Tullian, that progress in sanctification is not necessary to salvation, but if you want to be sanctified it’s easy and requires no work on your part. That would make it the perfect storm of antinomianism and one aspect of a higher life doctrine? (On my terminology: Justification is the beginning of salvation, sanctification is its progress, glorification is its completion in the soul, and the resurrection is its full completion, including the body.) I look forward to your refining my understanding of what these men are saying. Much appreciated, Jim.

  11. Ross Shannon

    Thank you for this post. In your reply to Levi, you make a distinction between righteousness and holiness.

    “God’s standard of RIGHTEOUSNESS is perfect obedience. I can’t contribute to that—it’s an all-or-nothing legal standing secured wholly through Christ’s imputed righteousness. HOLINESS, on the other hand, is an experimental condition that I can and must improve.”

    I find this helpful, but I don’t fully understand what you are getting at. Isn’t God’s standard of each perfect? And isn’t, in a different sense, our condition of each to be improved? Perhaps I’m reading too sharp of a distinction into your comment. I wonder if you could develop this distinction further.

  12. Mark Snoeberger

    The ideal of both is perfection, yes. The point of emphasis is that the righteousness of justification is the perfect, imputed righteousness of Christ that cannot be improved upon. It is received by judicial grant. One either has Christ’s perfect righteousness or he doesn’t.

    The holiness of sanctification, on the other hand, is something that one receives in seminal form in regeneration and must cultivate. It is not perfect, which is why we are called to “bring holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor 7:1).

    MAS

  13. Chris Rush

    The ‘grace’ movement shall we call it, is not antinomian. I get tired of the straw man critiques of neo Calvinism! It is about the perfect law of God, and man’s inability to please God by it. The EMPHASIS is on justification.The grace and kindness of God produces love for God and neighbor.When the emphasis is on sanctification, it produces self righteousness/phariseism/ button down stuffiness.Or despair at failure to live up to Gods standards, and never living up to the standard of the ‘Godly’ Christians.(some of who think they are “almost” perfect) The sword can cut either way in the critique here.But No one is saying it is OK to practice homosexuality or adultery etc. Rather if someone has fallen as such grace is avalible. Gods grace produces conviction in the redeemed. This is not the “carnal christian” view at all.Even Steve Brown believes in church discipline! The root of the “grace movement” just comes as a reaffirmation of Martian Luther for the most part,since he is quoted the most.

  14. J.C. Calhoun

    Many thanks to the author and those who’ve already commented. This is a timely article, and I’m very grateful for it. Those who have not thought through these issues deeply face a bleak future, I’m afraid, as they will be unprepared for the challenges ahead as our society continues to change.

    I find myself in complete agreement with the author. Yet I must admit that, for me at least, these issues are very difficult to address in practice. It seems that there is great danger on either side. If we make mature faith and a certain standard of obedience a requirement for joining the church, are we not setting up a works-based roadblock for these new believers, especially those intoxicated by pro-homosexual propaganda? While I agree with the author that we shouldn’t treat the “yucky” sins differently from others, it seems that widespread acceptance of this behavior makes it a unique and particularly difficult sin to address in our time. How much sanctification must be accomplished before a person is allowed to join a church? Especially when that person is, by their own admission, of a new and immature faith? Who wants to stand in the way of someone who seems to believe in Christ, even if in a very immature way, and who is prepared to confess Him as Lord and Savior? I find this possibility absolutely terrifying. Yet the alternative, as the author described in his last paragraph, is just as terrifying.

    Regarding new Christians (or so we hope) who happen to be too immature to see all of their sins as sin, is there a third way between barring them from membership and an unqualified welcome? Postpone their membership and hope you’re not driving them away? Allow them to join under discipline? Tell them what the Bible says and what the church believes, and allow them to join without formal discipline, hoping that the Spirit will bring further conviction and repentance in their life through the church? For me, this is a wrenching question.

  15. pete dayton

    Great post – and I really appreciated the follow on discussion in the commentaries. My small group just recently completed the JC Ryle classic,”Holiness”, written in response to the Keswick movement. Ryle does a good job explaining that sanctification is indeed a cooperative effort between us and the Holy Spirit, with the Spirit energizing and empowering us to obedience.

  16. The following is a comment I made to a book review at The Gospel Coalition website. We, as the church, must understand what has truly happened by being “in Christ.” Our identity, how we define ourselves, must be based on what God has done for us through salvation in Jesus Christ, not on who we used to be. See below.

    One thing that continues to bother me is the special status that is accorded to being gay. Now it’s gay Christian. Why not prostitute Christian, or gluttoness Christian, or pornography Christian, or alcoholic Christian, or wife-beating Christian? I think you get my drift.

    If I am truly washed, then I am also made new; the old man has died, and the new man has arisen with Christ. I am not that old man any more as I am made new in Christ, and as I continue to be conformed into His image I grow to be more like Christ and the old me is left further and further behind.

    Does this mean that I have left the particular temptation to gluttony, or pornography, or alcohol, or homosexuality, or immorality behind? No, but it does mean that I have victory over those temptations when they occur by the power of Christ in me.

    One of the problems in our church culture is that we, many times, have adopted the philosophy of the 12-step therapeutic culture. Such as once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic; once a sex-addict, always a sex addict, so that we are always in a state of recovery, but never recovered. This tends to be applied to being gay as well…once gay, always gay. The result of this is that people become defined/identified by what they were/who they were, not by who they are now. To use part of the title of the book…Paul tells all of us this in I Corinthians 6:11 “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of God.” Jeremiah 17:14 tells us this, “Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for You are my praise.” We are now in Christ, healed in Christ and saved in Christ. In Christ the old man is dead, long live the new man.

  17. Joseph Carmichael

    Well-writtten, thoughtful post and very helpful comments and replies by readers and the author. Thank you all for this robust discussion of an incredibly important subject.

  18. Hi Mark,

    Thank you for taking time to write this article.

    I have one question: do you think those in the “Jesus + Nothing = Everything” camp would fully subscribe to the logical conclusion you pointed out of “At the point of salvation, we are told, nothing really happens to us…”? I have not heard such bold denials of the transformative consequences of salvation from that camp. I also realize that your summary may be slightly hyperbolic (?) in order to drive your point home.

    So that all my cards are on the table: I have no skin in this game, so to speak (though I have found Tullian’s arguments in this sphere lacking at times) – just an honest question.

    Thanks!

  19. Allen Church

    Without having read much on the writings on “Jesus + Nothing = Everything” crowd it seems to me there is at least one way that their position could have some Biblical credibility (perhaps repackaged). Reformed Pastor Ralph Erskine once stated something like “All doctrines like spokes on a wheel lead to the hub Jesus Christ”. From the standpoint of Jesus Christ’s accomplished work and active work in the believer it could make sense. The believer’s good works of holiness are never separate from Christ. By virtue of one’s union in Christ all concerns expressed at this post are reconciled in Christ who is everything in terms of our of life in Christ which includes justification and sanctification and the resultant practical Christian life of faithful holiness.

    I could be wrong on this but I am taking a shot at some little old fashioned Reformed “Irenics”.

Leave a Reply