SESSION 4: INTRODUCTION TO CHRIST-CENTERED APPLICATION
The historic Protestant doctrine is that we are not only justified by faith rather than our works, but we are also sanctified by faith rather than our works. Yet very few ministers know how Christ’s finished work is the dynamic and guide for growth into holy character.
A. Moralism vs. Sanctification by Faith.
1. The distinctives of sanctification by faith.
Excerpts from G.C. Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification (Eerdmans, 1952):
“The ancient feud of Rome with the Sola-fide doctrine, based as it is on the view that Sola-fide is subversive of sanctification, must be called Rome’s most fundamental error. It was no other than Sola-fide which made clear the true significance of sanctification, and distinguished it from all moralistic effort at self-improvement…” p. 14.
“Wesley admitted full acceptance of the Sola-fide doctrine. [But] one may accept the doctrine and then fail to do justice to it…One can assume it as one’s starting point, as did Wesley, and subsequently view the process of sanctification in terms of a dynamic category—a power plus its effects—without taking account of the bearings which faith always sustains toward divine grace. Sola-fide becomes a point of departure and breaks its connection with sanctification…When the victory of Christ is lost sight of, the warfare degenerates into self-reliant activism…it is on the road to making sanctification independent from justification.” pp. 52, 63.
Luther and Calvin taught that not only was justification by faith in Christ’s work—not ours, but sanctification is also by faith in Christ’s work, not ours. In practice, however, nearly every evangelical teaches that: 1) we are justified by faith in Christ’s work, and 2) we are sanctified by trying very, very hard to live according to biblical principles (with the Holy Spirit’s help, of course). Berkouwer insists that it is not salvation by grace, but sanctification by grace which is the biggest difference between the Reformers and the Catholic church and between the Reformers and later Methodism (Wesley) and much Protestantism today.
2. The general relationship of justification to sanctification.
Excerpts from G.C. Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification (Eerdmans, 1952):
“Orientation” – “Genuine sanctification—let it be repeated—stands or falls with this continued orientation toward justification and the remission of sins…too often the bond between sanctification and Sola-fide was neglected and the impression created that sanctification was the humanly operated successor to the divinely worked justification.” P. 78.
“Feeding” – “Holiness is never a ‘second blessing’ placed next to the blessing of justification…The exhortation which comes to the Church is that it must live in faith out of this fullness: not that it must work for a second blessing, but that it must feed on the first blessing, the forgiveness of sins. The warfare of the Church…springs from the demand to really live from this first blessing.” p. 64.
“Commerce” – “The believer’s constant ‘commerce’ with the forgiveness of sins and his continued dependence on it must—both in pastoral counseling and in teaching—be laid bare, emphasized, and kept in sight…Faith preserves us from autonomous self-sanctification and moralism.” pp. 84, 93.
Berkouwer says that it is a mistake to ask: “we know we have imputed righteousness, but now how do we move to actual righteousness?” We do not ‘move on’. Any particular flaw in our actual righteousness stems from a corresponding failure to orient ourselves toward our imputed righteousness. Sanctification happens to the degree that we “feed on” or “orient to” or “have commerce with” the pardon, righteousness, and new status we now have in Christ, imputed through faith.
3. The practical relationship of justification to sanctification.
Excerpts from martin Luther’s, Treatise Concerning Good Works (1520).
“There is not one in a thousand who does not set his confidence upon the works, expecting by them to win God’s favor and anticipate His grace; and so they make a fair of them, a thing which God cannot endure, since He has promised His grace freely, and wills that we begin by trusting that grace, and in it perform all works, whatever they may be” (Part IX).
“All those who do not at all times trust God and do not in all their works or sufferings, life and death, trust in His favor, grace and good-will, but seek His favor in other things or in themselves, do not keep this [First] Commandment, and practice real idolatry, even if they were to do the works of all the other Commandments, and in addition had all the prayers, fasting, obedience, patience, chastity, and innocence of all the saints combined. For the chief work is not present, without which all the others are nothing but mere sham, show and pretense, with nothing back of them…If we doubt or do not believe that God is gracious to us and is pleased with us, or if we presumptuously expect to please Him only through and after our works, then it is all pure deception, outwardly honoring God, but inwardly setting up self as a false [savior]…” (Part X, XI).
“This faith, faithfulness, confidence deep in the heart, is the true fulfilling of the First Commandment. Without this there is no other work that is able to satisfy this Commandment. And as this Commandment is the very first, highest and best, from which all the others proceed, in which they exist, and by which they are directed and measured, so also its work, that is, the faith or confidence in God’s favor at all times, is the very first, highest and best, from which all others must proceed, exist, remain, be directed and measured…” (Part IX).
“Note for yourself, then, how far apart these two are: keeping the First Commandment with outward works only, and keeping it with inward trust. For this last makes true, living children of God, the other only makes worse idolatry and the most mischievous hypocrites on earth…” (XII).
All people sin in general because we are sinners, but why do we sin in any particular instance? Luther—any sin is rooted in the inordinate lust for something which comes because we are trusting in that thing rather than in Christ for our righteousness or salvation. Therefore, in sin we are always ‘forgetting’ what God has done for us in Christ and instead are being moved by some idol. Luther says that to fail to believe God accepts us fully in Christ and to look to something else is a failure to keep the first commandment—love God with all the heart. Thus beneath any particular sin is the general sin of rejecting Christ-salvation and indulging in self-salvation.
Excerpt from the Belgic Confession – Chapter 24.
“We believe that this true faith, being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God and the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin. Therefore it is so far from being true that his justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore, it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man; for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture a ‘faith working through love,’ which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word…We would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be continually vexed if they relied not on the merits of our Savior.”
Unless we believe the gospel, we will be driven in all we do—whether obeying or disobeying—by pride (“self-love”) or fear (“of damnation”). Apart from ‘grateful remembering’ of the gospel, all good works are done then for sinful motives. Mere moral effort, may restrain the heart, but dos not truly change the heart. Moral effort merely ‘jury rigs’ the evil heart to produce moral behavior, out of self-interest. It is only a matter of time before such a thin tissue collapses.
B. Moralism vs. Gospel Virtue
1. The ‘Splendor’ or Common Virtue and its Weakness.
Excerpts from Jonathan Edwards. Abridged and paraphrased, from Charity and Its Fruits, in vol. 8, Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Paul Ramsey (Yale, 1989) and Religious Affections, in vol. 2, Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. J. Smith (Yale, 1959).
“A result of ‘faith working by love’ is freedom. On this basis, obedience is called “evangelical” (gospel-based)—the obedience of children to a Father, done with love and delight, as opposed to legalistic, slavish, and forced. God is now chosen for his own sake; holiness is chosen for its own sake, and for God’s sake” (CF, p. 182).
“No matter how many our acts of justice, generosity and devotion, there is really nothing given to God…if God is not the end (or ultimate aim) in what is given. If your aim is the gaining of reputation and love, then the gift was offered to your reputation. If your aim is for profit and comfort, then the gift was offered to your profit…indeed, in such cases the gifts are but an offering to some idol…It is true that by doing great things something is worshipped, but it is not God…” (CF, pp. 180-81).
“Those whose affection to God is founded first on his profitableness to them, only regard God to the limit of the good things he does to meet their desires…But in gracious gratitude, Christians are affected by God’s goodness and free grace, not only as it benefits them, but as infinitely glorious in itself…” (RA, pp. 243, 248).
What makes people honest? Generous? Jonathan Edwards tackled this over the years in his Miscellanies and then in his moral philosophy works: Charity and Its Fruits, Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, and The Nature of True Virtue. He also says many relevant things about this in Religious Affections. The following is my summary of his “gist”.
There are two kinds of moral behavior: “common virtue” and “true virtue.” Let’s take one virtue: honesty. “Common” honesty is developed in two ways:
1) First it can be inspired by fear. There is the secular version—“be honest—it pays!” or “if you are not honest, society doesn’t work”. There is also the religious version—“if you are not honest, God will punish you!” These are all versions of the same motive, namely, that it is impractical to be honest.
2) Second, it can be inspired by pride. There is the secular conservative version—“don’t be like those terrible dishonest people who hurt others and have no virtue!” or the secular liberal version—“don’t be like these greedy people who don’t work for the common good”. There is also the religious version—“don’t be like these sinners, these bad people. Be a good godly person”. These are all versions of the same motive, namely, that I am better than these people who lie.
Edwards is by no means scornful of common virtue. Indeed, he believes in the ‘splendor of common morality’ (Paul Ramsay), which is the main way God restrains evil in the world. He does call it virtue and not sham. Nevertheless, there is a profound tension at the heart of common virtue. We just said that the main reason people are honest is due to fear and pride.
But what is the main reason we are dishonest? Why do we lie? Almost always—it is our fear or pride. So in common virtue, you have not done anything to root out the fundamental causes of evil. In ‘common honesty’ you have restrained the heart, but not changed the heart. You are doing an ingenious for of judo on yourself. (Judo depends on using the enemy’s forward motion against him). You have ‘jury-rigged’ your heart so that the basic causes of dishonesty are being used to make yourself honest. But this is quite a fragile condition. At some point you will find that honesty is not practical nor humiliating and you will do it. Then you will be shocked. You will say, “I was not raised to do such a thing.”
But the reason you did, was that all your life, through the sermons and moral training you had, you were nurturing the roots of sin within your moral life. This is true whether you grow up in a liberal-moral environment or a conservative-moral environment. The roots of evil are alive and well and protected underneath your moral-behavior progress. And some day they erupt and show themselves and we are shocked.
2. The roots of “True Virtue” and its Nurture
Luther told us that the essence of every sin is a desire to be one’s own Savior and Lord in some particular way. It is to set up some idol which is the real way you are going to save yourself. It may even be a very ‘religious idol’ (cf. Judges 17:1-13). It may be a very religious life, but at the heart it is a way of using God as an object, rather than adoring him as being beautiful for who he is in himself. It is using obedience to God to achieve comfort, security, self-worth/status—therefore our ‘virtue’ is self-centered and conditional. It’s a form of bargaining. It is using our virtue to put God in our debt—he now owes us. He must give us salvation and blessing. Therefore, our obedience is a way to save ourselves and control God. Edwards (see above quote #2) also understands ‘common virtue’ as an idolatrous effort at self-salvation, rather than a response to grace (see above quote #3) in which God is adored for his sheer beauty.
So Edwards says—what is true virtue? It is when you are honest not because it profits you or makes you feel better, but only when you are smitten with the beauty of the God who is truth and sincerity and faithfulness! It is when you come to love truth telling not for your sake but for God’s sake and its own sake. But it particularly grows by a faith-sight of the glory of Christ and his salvation. How does ‘true honesty’ grow? It grows when I see him dying for me, keeping a promise he made despite the infinite suffering it brought him. Now that a) destroys pride on the one hand, because he had to do this for me—I am so lost! But that also b) destroys fear on the other hand, because if he’d do this for me while I’m an enemy, then he values me infinitely, and nothing I can do will wear out his love for me. Then my heart is not just restrained but changed. It’s fundamental orientation is transformed.
3. Thomas Chalmers on Moralism vs. Gospel Virtue.
“The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”, from The Works of Thomas Chalmers (New York: Robert Carter, 1830) vol. II.
The object of the gospel is both to pacify the sinner’s conscience and to purify the heart, and it is of importance to observe that what mars the one of these objects mars the other also. The best way of casting out an impure affection is to admit a pure one…Thus it is that the freer the Gospel, the more sanctifying the Gospel. The more it is received as a doctrine of grace, the more it will be felt as doctrine [leading to godliness]…
On the tenure of “do this and you will live”, a spirit of fearfulness is sure to enter; and the jealousies of a legal bargain chase away all confidence of intimacy between God and man; and the creature striving to be square and even with his Creator is, in fact, pursuing all the while his own selfishness instead of God’s glory. With all the conformities which he labors to accomplish, the soul of obedience is not there, the mind is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed under such an economy can it ever be. It is only when, as the Gospel, acceptance is bestowed as a present, without money and without price, that the security which man feels in God is placed beyond the reach of disturbance. Only then can he repose in Him as one friend reposes in another…the one party rejoicing over the other to do him good…in the impulse of a gratitude, by which is he awakened to the charms of a new moral existence.
Salvation by grace, salvation by free grace, salvation not by works but according to the mercy of God is indispensable to godliness. Retain a single shred or fragment of legality with the Gospel…and you take away the power of the Gospel to melt and conciliate. For this purpose, the freer it is, the better it is. That very peculiarity which so many dread as the germ of Antinomianism [lawlessness], is, in fact, the germ of a new spirit, and a new inclination against it.
Along with the light of a free Gospel, does there enter the love of the Gospel, which in proportion as you impair the freeness, you are sure to chase away. And never does the sinner find within himself so mighty a moral transformation, as when under the belief that he is saved by grace, he feels constrained thereby to offer his heart a devoted thing, and to deny ungodliness.
[Why is this grateful love so important?] It is seldom that any of our [bad habits or flaws] disappear by a mere process of natural extinction. At least, it is very seldom that this is done through the instrumentality of reasoning…or by the force of mental determination. But what cannot be destroyed may be dispossessed—and one taste may be made to give way to another, and to lose its power entirely as the reigning affection in the mind.
It is thus that a boy ceases at length to be a slave of his appetite, but it is because a [more ‘mature’] taste has brought it into subordination. The youth ceases to idolize [sensual] pleasure, but it is because the idol of wealth has…gotten the ascendancy. Even the love of money can cease to have mastery over the heart because it is drawn into the whirl of [ideology and politics] and he is now lorded over by a love of power [and moral superiority]. But there is not one of these transformations in which the heart is left without an object. Its desire for one particular object is conquered—but its desire to have some object…is unconquerable…
The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one…It is only…when admitted into the number of God’s children, through faith in Jesus Christ, that the spirit of adoption is poured out on us—it is then that the heart, brought under the mastery of one great and predominant affection, is delivered from the tyranny of its former desires, the only way that deliverance is possible.
Thus…it is not enough…to hold out to the world the mirror of its own imperfections. It is not enough to come forth with a demonstration of the evanescent character of your enjoyments…to speak to the conscience…of its follies…Rather, try every legitimate method of finding access to your hearts for the love of Him who is greater than the world.
C. Moralism vs. Christ-centered Exposition.
We alluded above to the fact that Christ-centered exposition is very directly linked to Christ-centered application. It is possible to expound Christ and fail to do Christ-centered application, but it is impossible to do Christ-centered application in a sermon if you have not first done Christ-centered exposition.
For example, look at the story of David and Goliath. What is the meaning of that narrative for us? Without reference to Christ, the story may be (usually is!) preached as: “The bigger they come, the harder they’ll fall, if you just go into your battles with faith in the Lord. You may not be real big and powerful in yourself, but with God on your side, you can overcome giants.” But as soon as we ask: “how is David foreshadowing the work of his greater Son”? We begin to see the same features of the story in a different light. The story is telling us that the Israelites can not go up against Goliath. They can’t do it. They need a substitute. When David goes in on their behalf, he is not a full-grown man, but a vulnerable and weak figure, a mere boy. He goes virtually as a sacrificial lamb. But God uses his apparent weakness as the means to destroy the giant, and David becomes Israel’s champion-redeemer, so that his victory will be imputed to them. They get all the fruit of having fought the battle themselves.
This is a fundamentally different meaning than the one that arises from the non-Christocentric reading. There is, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: is it basically about me or basically about Jesus? In other words, is it basically about what I must do, or basically about what he has done? If I read David and Goliath as basically giving me an example, then the story is really about me. I must summons up the faith and courage to fight the giants of life. But if I read David and Goliath as basically showing me salvation through Jesus, then the story is really about him. Until I see that Jesus fought the real giants (sin, law, death) for me, I will never have the courage to be able to fight the ordinary giants in life (suffering, disappointment, failure, criticism, hardship). For example how can I ever fight the “giant” of failure, unless I have a deep security that God will not abandon me? If I see David as my example, the story will never help me fight the failure/giant. But if I see David/Jesus as my substitute, whose victory is imputed to me, then I can stand before the failure/giant. As another example, how can I ever fight the “giant” of persecution or criticism? Unless I can see him forgiving me on the cross, I won’t be able to forgive others. Unless I see him as forgiving me for falling asleep on him (Matthew 27:45) I won’t be able to stay awake for him.
In the Old Testament we are continually told that our good works are not enough, that God has made a provision. This provision is pointed to at every place in the Old Testament. We see it in the clothes God makes Adam and Eve in Genesis, to the promises made to Abraham and the patriarchs, to the Tabernacle and the whole sacrificial system, to the innumerable references to a Messiah, a suffering servant, and so on. Therefore, to say that the Bible is about Christ is to say that the main theme of the Bible is the gospel—Salvation is the Lord (Jonah 2:9).
So reading the Old Testament Christocentrically is not just an “additional” dimension. It is not something you can just tack on to the end of a study and sermon. (“Oh, and by the way, this also points us to Christ”). Rather, the Christocentric reading provides a fundamentally different application and meaning to the text. Without relating it to Christ, the story of Abraham and Isaac means: “You must be willing to even kill your own son for him.” Without relating it to Christ, the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel means: “You have to wrestle with God, even when he is inexplicable—even when he is crippling you. You must never give up.” These ‘morals-of-the-story’ are crushing because they essentially are read as being about us and what we must do.
Source: Doctor of Ministry Class – Personal Notes – Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando – Class co-taught by Tim Keller and Edmund Clowney – early 2000’s. Class available for free on I-Tunes.