With all the talk on holiness lately while I’m still talking gospel, I’ve started to wonder if I’ve missed the boat. Lest I be misunderstood in my more recent emphasis on the grace of the gospel: I am not against holiness! It’s just that I spent large parts of my life pursuing holiness in ways that were foreign to the gospel—thinking I was beyond the gospel—and because I’ve traveled that road before and I have seen the difference gospel-centeredness has made in my own spirit, the topic still hits a sensitive spot for me.
There was a time when I said that I was tired of hearing about the gospel, that I wanted to move on to sanctification. I remember saying things like, “we can’t always just be talking about Jesus or justification; we have to move on to how we’re supposed to strive after holiness… justification is an event; sanctification is a process.” But you see, don’t you, the hole in that logic: I assumed that Jesus was merely the foundation, and that you can then move on to something else, holy living if you will. The problem with that is that we don’t get to “move on”: we live there. We live in Christ Jesus, we don’t move on from him. He is not the wedding, in which we say our vows, before we move on into married life, as if that were something different. He is the marriage.
For example, justification—central to, but not the limit of, the gospel—is not simply an event. It is a state of being; it goes on. Grammatically we use an adjective that describes our state of being, so we are not merely justified (past tense of “to justify”), we are justified (present tense of being). This justification is part and parcel with the gospel. It is not the only part of the gospel, but it is one we should never allow to shrink from view. It certainly is not something from which we should “move on.”
Before I go any further I think there is something really important that we miss sometimes—we are not a monolithic people. I don’t deny that there are some sections of the church that may be all “gospel-talk” with no “gospel-action.” I get that. I understand that we see worldly, “outside” culture creeping into the church and seducing Christians, turning them into a people who live no differently than the unsaved in the world. However, even if we were able to protect ourselves from outside culture, the same thing would still happen, because worldliness and sin are in us. And yes, falling into habits of sin that make us indistinguishable from the world would be particularly easy if Christians do not believe in standards of holiness or the ability to do what is at all pleasing to God.
However, living “like the world” is not the only problem that exists in Evangelical Christianity. Parts of the church also stumble into what becomes prideful or even competitive “sanctification,” which ultimately is just another way the world creeps into the church, and not from outside, but from within. An attitude of “moving on” from the gospel and focusing on holiness and sanctification would provide fertile soil for this error.
I think it’s important for pastors, theologians, thinkers and writers to remember that there are different battles in the churches across this land. There are those who live with excess “grace” and deficient law; there are those who live with excess law and deficient grace. There are none who live with excess gospel—that is, if the gospel is rightly understood—because the gospel contains a right picture of law and grace. The gospel contains every holy, gracious, obedient, self-sacrificial act of Christ in his earthly life and as he sits and rules on high. We are given those acts: forensically, to cleanse and justify us, imputedly, his righteousness becomes ours, and exemplarily, to teach and guide us. This is not separate from the gospel, or beyond the gospel, this is the gospel.
As Carson has said many times and in many places, the gospel is not just what “tips us into the kingdom and then we go on to holiness.” Rather all those areas of sanctification (e.g. disciple making, parenting, etc.) are all within the horizon of the gospel—it is the gospel that is the bigger category. Here’s an example Carson used in a recent video at Desiring God for their conference Act the Miracle: (Ephesians. 5) Husbands, love your wife as Christ loves the Church and gave himself for her. That is the gospel, it is the cross as Carson says. So when a husband is loving his wife self-sacrificially for her good, doing something holy, he is living out—”fleshing out”—the gospel, and hence his sanctification, his greater conformity to the image of Christ, is in actuality him living the gospel out every day.
Holiness is not unhinged from the gospel. It can’t be! It mustn’t be! Those who would detach holiness from the gospel, either to minimize it or elevate it, have stopped living within the horizon of the gospel.