Transformation or Not?

Transformation or Not? June 2, 2014

The dustup over the last couple weeks between TGC, focused there on Kevin DeYoung’s post, and Tullian Tchividjian now has an even more radical wrinkle. First, some context: the essential difference is that both TGC and Tullian believe in transformation of the individual believer but TGC folks, with their more Puritan approach, believe in highlight sanctification as a summons by God in the present world and which needs emphasis while Tullian’s more Lutheranesque approach is to preach and teach grace and the good news of grace will awaken transformative life in us. To the radical wrinkle.

Mark Galli, in one of his rather routine memes at CT, stands closer to Tullian than to TGC but with a darker theme. If Tullian has a more optimistic theology of preaching grace Galli has a pessimistic theology. Here are some lines from Galli:

Tullian Tchividjian of Liberate argues that the most important thing is “by grace you are saved.” Unless we are absolutely clear and certain about this, he says, we’ll never be properly motivated for a sustained Christian life. Tullian sees much legalism and spiritual oppression in church and society, and he’s anxious to announce this message of gospel freedom.

Various members of The Gospel Coalition don’t disagree; they just put the emphasis on another gospel syllable. They highlight that part of the gospel is the promise of the power to become holy. They see many lazy and lethargic Christians failing to strive for the holiness the Bible tells us to seek. They want people to realize—meaning, making it real in their lives—what we are saved for: “to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph. 1:4, NRSV)….

I want to raise one sanctification issue that I don’t see discussed much. I do not doubt the biblical call to holy living (1 Pet. 1:15 being the quintessential text). But after living the Christian life for nearly a half century, I doubt the ability of Christians to make much progress in holiness….

This is not a picture of the “victorious Christian life.” Yet so much preaching and teaching in American churches seem to suggest that if we just do this or that more fervently—always depending on the grace and power of the Holy Spirit!—we can make significant progress in the life of holiness. We Americans [don’t lay this at the feet of Americans, this is a church history approach] are a very optimistic bunch with a can-do spirit. But I’m wondering if we’re overpromising, with the result that we’ll eventually underdeliver. This can only lead us into despair….

But we are wise to remember that in large part, the Christian faith is an eschatological faith—that is, it is mostly about promise and fulfillment, about what Christ’s death and resurrection assures us in the future. And one big thing is that we will, in fact, be made holy and blameless in love. I’ve come to believe that the promise of real transformation does not apply to this life, but to the next (see especially 1 Cor. 15) [false dichotomy]. Thus my hope is not fixed on improvement in this life, but on transformation in the next [another false dichotomy] ….

As for progress or lack thereof, I tend to avoid thinking about it much. I leave it in God’s hands. As for deciding whether my moral progress is the direct work of the Holy Spirit or the natural consequence of old age and learning from mistakes—that too is beyond my pay grade. My job is not to measure my holiness or that of others (“Do not judge”—Matt. 7:1), nor to despair when I continue to think and do awful things, nor to give others false hope. Our real hope—and the real reason for our lack of despair and our continuing joy—is the promise of future transformation in Christ.

The NT I read calls people over and over and over again to a new life in the here and now. Golfers don’t wait until the kingdom to improve their game; they work hard now and they see improvement — over time.

Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness [not imputed, but behavioral] greatly surpasses the righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes” — get this — “you will never ever even enter into the kingdom.”

The NT I read has Galatians 1-4 (grace theology) and Galatians 5-6 (obedience, fruit, love, change), and the Paul I see in the NT is a man transformed, not a man simply waiting the kingdom when the transformation will happen. And the Paul of the NT calls his churches to change, to growth — with his “once you were” and “but now”, and the history of the church confirms this is how the majority have read the NT. Nor do I see a Paul obsessed with a satisfaction with a self-conscious of his own sinfulness but a man who beats his body in order to become the person God wants him to become, both now and then. The darker themes one finds here, then, are no place for a pastoral theology.


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