My journey from Neonomianism (lit: new law) to a Gospel-centered, Evangelical (in the historic sense of that term, see Reformation Essentials) understanding of Christianity has been a long, hard journey (and I am still learning everyday!). For years my problem was like numerous Christians who believe that even though they have been justified by a righteousness produced totally by Christ, they must be sanctified by a holiness produced totally by themselves. Broadly speaking, American Evangelicals do not believe (and most likely are not even aware) that faith and the Gospel alone are sufficient for a believer’s sanctification. As a result, the grace of justification is set aside and a system of sanctification by works is put in its place. Among other ill effects, this removes the Gospel’s ability to assure people that they are indeed accepted by God.
However, “discovering” (i.e., a gracious revealing) that faith and the Gospel are sufficient for both our forgiveness/justification and our growth in holiness/sanctification has made all the difference! The message of Walter Marshall’s book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, has been an unspeakable source of encouragement to me after years of struggling, failing and striving unlawfully on the Galatians 3:3 treadmill of Neonomianism.
“The Gospel-Driven Life maintains that union with Christ by faith is necessary and sufficient for both one’s justification and sanctification.”
You do not and cannot produce holiness/obedience out of yourself. Pietism, like Neonomianism, has had detrimental affects within Evangelicalism’s understanding of sanctification and discipleship. Believers most certainly cooperate with the Holy Spirit in God’s work of sanctification (cf., Philip. 2:12-13). Yet, they do not obey God’s law out of their own resources, self-discipline, resolutions or will power. Countless believers sorely misunderstand this point. In order to be satisfied in God, live holy lives, mortify sin, love God, obey His commands, and love others, one’s heart must be empowered out of the fullness of Christ. The Gospel-Driven Life maintains that union with Christ by faith is necessary and sufficient for both one’s justification and sanctification.
Moreover, though believers cooperate with the Holy Spirit in sanctification they do not thereby merit or earn in any way God’s favor or blessings. Works are God’s gift and thus cannot become the basis for a believer’s self-confidence or boasting (Eph. 2:9-10). Calvin’s words are instructive,
We now see that the saints have not a confidence in works that either attributes anything to their merit, since they regard them solely as gifts of God from which they may recognize his goodness and as signs of the calling by which they realize their election, or in any degree diminishes the free righteousness that we attain in Christ, since it depends upon this and does not subsist without it. Augustine expresses this idea in few words but elegantly when he writes: “I do not say to the Lord, ‘Despise not the works of my hands.’ [Ps. 138:8; cf. Ps. 137:8 Vg.] ‘I have sought the Lord with my hands and am not deceived.’ [Ps. 77:2; cf. Ps. 76:3 Vg.] But I do not commend the works of my hands, for I fear lest, when Thou lookest upon them, thou mayest find more sins than merits. This only I say, this I ask, this I desire: despise not the works of thy hands; see in me thy work, not mine. For if thou seest mine, thou wilt condemn it. If thou seest thine own, thou wilt crown it. For whatever good works are mine are from thee.” He gives two reasons why he dared not vaunt his works before God: because if he has anything of good works, he sees in them nothing of his own; and secondly, because these are also overwhelmed by a multitude of sins. From this it comes about that his conscience feels more fear and consternation than assurance. Therefore, he would like God to look upon his good deeds only that, recognizing the grace of his own call in them, he may finish the work he has begun.” (Institutes, 3.14.20)
When self-confidence is banished, all boasting must also depart so that the Glory of God may fully shine forth (Eph. 1:3-14; 2:9-10). We must not ascribe any merit or glory to our cooperation with the Spirit in sanctification.
We must put no confidence in the righteousness of works. The Scriptures proclaim that Christ is for us both righteousness and life (1 Cor. 1:30; Col. 3:4). This double benefit is possessed by faith alone. Whatsoever then is of faith excludes all boasting and merit!
My burden is that in the context of the typical Evangelical congregation today law is given precedence over Gospel. The Gospel-Driven Life maintains that Gospel should be given precedence over law. To put it another way, the church should not define itself primarily by law but rather by grace, the Gospel. The indicatives (i.e., the Gospel) are what define the church’s identity outside of herself as we are “in Christ” (i.e., in union with Christ). While the imperatives (i.e., law) direct the church’s mission and conduct in the world. The Gospel has precedence not because it over-rules the law, but because by God’s grace we have Christ’s righteousness imputed to us so that the law itself cannot fail to declare us righteous.
Arguing for the Gospel’s primacy over law is in no way intended to diminish law (cf., Gal. 3:21). But we must recognize that the Christian life begins by grace and ends by grace. Thus, grace must always have the final word (cf., Rom. 1:7; 16:25-27; 1 Cor. 1:3; 16:23; 2 Cor. 1:2; 13:14; Gal. 1:3; 6:18; Eph. 1:2; 6:24; Philip. 1:2; 4:23; Col. 1:2; 4:18; 1 Thess. 1:1; 5:28; 2 Thess. 1:2; 3:18; 1 Tim. 1:2; 6:21; 2 Tim. 1:2; 4:22; Titus 1:4; 3:15; Philemon 1:3, 25; Rev. 22:21). Paul said, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me,” (1 Cor. 15:10).
In many instances law and Gospel have been so commingled and conflated the law is no longer seen as full demand and the Gospel is no longer seen as Good News.
The thunder has been taking out the law and the sweetness has been taking out of the Gospel.
Michael Horton refers to this conflation as “Golawspel,” which is neither law nor Gospel but a sort of hybrid mixture of both. Thus today, Horton points out that we get, “…kind, gentle sayings from the pulpit. Law as exhortation but more along the lines of, ‘You will not be as happy if you don’t do this rather than you will go to hell. You are not going to be as fulfilled. Kids are not going to have as much self-esteem.’ This is not exactly hell-fire brimstone preaching but it is still law.” This confusion of law and Gospel has resulted in the elevation of law over Gospel. On any given Sunday morning, the primary source of reference for believers is overwhelmingly law-centered (e.g., practical, relevant tips, steps to a fulfilled life, or ethical exhortations for discipleship void of Gospel motivation, calls for excessive self-examination, etc…). It is disturbing over the ease in which law has become so out of proportion and injured Gospel.
Such imbalance has resulted in undermining the assurance of God’s people (this was definitely the case for me while I was captive to Neonomian, Lordship doctrine). In addition, the elevation of law has deprived God’s people of true Evangelical motivation that enables them to go forward to keep the law and pursue holiness (this again was definitely true for me while I held to a defective view of Lordship teaching, which confuses faith and repentance).
Countless Evangelicals are performance-driven, guilt-driven, self-help-driven, purpose (i.e., law) driven, fear-driven, relevant-practical tip-driven, disciplined-driven, slavishly obedience-driven but very few are Gospel-Driven.
Believers nowadays have no wind in their sails. They have lost their primary source of reference for living the Christian life not only in terms of guidance and direction but also in terms of power and motivation (i.e., drive; see Gal. 2:20 for Paul’s daily point of reference for living). The Gospel always meets us where we are as we are and asks of us nothing in terms of a condition to meet or fulfill in and of ourselves. Rather, the Gospel comes to us and freely gives what the law requires and thus the newly formed man (Eph. 2:14-16) by grace begins to look like what the law demands (Gal. 5:22).
Paul Zahl writes, “When grace is heard and received, when it is not confounded in any degree by the law, it paints a masterpiece: a person unconditionally affirmed who becomes instantaneously the expresser of love, joy, peace, meekness, kindness, and creativity. This graced human being becomes the flesh-and-blood example of the thing the law had wanted of him. Yet the law is gone from his or her mind. Grace produces the appearance of what the law says it wants, but only when grace is able to act unilaterally. Looking at this man or woman, who has been given grace unconditionally, we see established in him or her the very faithfulness and chastity and hopeful spirit that the law had sought to pound into that person.”
“It is imperative for the Evangelical church to begin placing significant emphasis upon the Gospel leading to the law.”
This is to say we must recover the truth that the Gospel not only provides us with the free grace of justification but also all the resources (because of grace alone) to keep each and every command (the third use of the law).
Without this Gospel motivation, believers begin to feel the weight and burden of the unyielding demands of God’s law, their joy quickly turns to despair, their consciences begin to accuse them and they are overtaken by an acute sense of their failures. No believer will ever experience a greater sense of freedom to obey God’s law (thus fulfilling the third use of the law) unless they are Gospel driven! The Christian’s life begins with the Gospel and is sustained by this same Good News of grace over and over again.
Here is how Walter Marshall put it, “…you have to be totally assured that you have sufficient strength both to will and to do what God calls you to do. You have to have both the desire and the power to do the will of God…Most people do not realize their own powerlessness. Most people do not realize that what they need most for living a holy life is sufficient strength to do so. Above all else, you have to understand your need for strength from God if you are going to live a holy life…Anyone who thinks it is easy to obey God apart from God’s empowering grace shows that they do not understand what most Christians and non-Christians have experienced in their lives- failure! It is easier to move a mountain than it is to obey God, unless God is at work in your heart!…in His wisdom, God has assured you that He will give you sufficient strength to enable you both to will and do what you are called to do.”