Sanctification is not Assurance: A Continued Response to Kevin DeYoung

Sanctification is not Assurance: A Continued Response to Kevin DeYoung June 4, 2015

I recently responded to a post by Kevin DeYoung on the issue of assurance here. He recently wrote a blog post in response to his critics (I was certainly not the only one) here. He mentioned that of the several responses, “some of the critiques were petty and personal,” (hopefully not mine!) but others were thoughtful. This post is an attempt to clarify some of the confusion He responded to one particular post, that by Chad Bird, and in doing so addressed some of the concerns I raised as well.

DeYoung makes three points in this article. First, he argues that there are some who should doubt their salvation, because they are false converts. Second, he points out that self-examination is good, but should not lead to crippling doubt. Third, he notes that Christians should see the signs of God’s work within themselves.

At the end of this particular post, Kevin DeYoung cites a section of Melanchthon’s Apology of the Augsburg Confession as disagreeing with what he calls the “‘stop looking at yourself’ side of the sanctification discussion.”:

We, therefore, profess that it is necessary that the Law be begun in us, and that it be observed continually more and more. And at the same time we comprehend both spiritual movements and external good works [the good heart within and works without]. Therefore the adversaries falsely charge against us that our theologians do not teach good works while they not only require these, but also show how they can be done [that the heart must enter into these works, lest they be mere, lifeless, cold works of hypocrites].

The result convicts hypocrites, who by their own powers endeavor to fulfill the Law, that they cannot accomplish what they attempt. [For are they free from hatred, envy, strife, anger, wrath, avarice, adultery, etc.? Why, these vices were nowhere greater than in the cloisters and sacred institutes.] For human nature is far too weak to be able by its own powers to resist the devil, who holds as captives all who have not been freed through faith. There is need of the power of Christ against the devil, namely, that, inasmuch as we know that for Christ’s sake we are heard, and have the promise, we may pray for the governance and defense of the Holy Ghost, that we may neither be deceived and err, nor be impelled to undertake anything contrary to God’s will. [Otherwise we should, every hour, fall into error and abominable vices.] Just as Ps. 68:18 teaches: Thou hast led captivity captive; Thou hast received gifts for man. For Christ has overcome the devil, and has given to us the promise and the Holy Ghost, in order that, by divine aid, we ourselves also may overcome. And 1 John 3:8: For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.

Again, we teach not only how the Law can be observed, but also how God is pleased if anything be done, namely, not because we render satisfaction to the Law, but because we are in Christ, as we shall say after a little. It is, therefore, manifest that we require good works. Yea, we add also this, that it is impossible for love to God, even though it be small, to be sundered from faith, because through Christ we come to the Father, and the remission of sins having been received, we now are truly certain that we have a God, i.e., that God cares for us; we call upon Him, we give Him thanks, we fear Him, we love Him as 1 John 4:19 teaches: We love Him, because He first loved us, namely, because He gave His Son for us, and forgave us our sins. Thus he indicates that faith precedes and love follows.

Likewise the faith of which we speak exists in repentance, i.e., it is conceived in the terrors of conscience, which feels the wrath of God against our sins, and seeks the remission of sins, and to be freed from sin. And in such terrors and other afflictions this faith ought to grow and be strengthened. Wherefore it cannot exist in those who live according to the flesh who are delighted by their own lusts and obey them. Accordingly, Paul says, Rom. 8:1: There is, therefore, now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. So, too, Rom. 8:12-13: We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die; but if ye, through the Spirit, do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. Wherefore, the faith which receives remission of sins in a heart terrified and fleeing from sin does not remain in those who obey their desires, neither does it coexist with mortal sin.(III.15-23)


Throughout this article, it seems to me that DeYoung is conflating two different issues: assurance and the reality of sanctification. On the one hand, he deals with the issue of assurance, and argues that we need to examine ourselves for the fruits of sanctification in our lives. Then, he goes on to defend the reality of good works and progressive sanctification in the Christian life, from both the Reformed and Lutheran Confessions. DeYoung notes that these four points are made in the Apology:

  • We can grow as Christians (the Law being observed in us more and more).
  • As the fruit of our justification, good works are necessary for the Christian.
  • By the conquering power of Christ, good work are possible for the Christian.
  • Genuine faith in inconsistent with living according to the flesh.

In this sense, DeYoung is absolutely right. There is no question, from a careful read of our Confessions, that these points are indeed good, right, and salutary. I’ve been consistently critical of Gerhard Forde and others in the “Radical Lutheran” camp who downplay the reality of the third use of the Law, and growth in sanctification.

I find myself in an odd place, because I’ve often been labeled an antinomian for critiquing Paul Washer and others who, in my view, spend so much time talking about the fruits of faith that assurance is essentially an impossibility. On the other hand, I’ve been labeled a legalist by several people in the Radical Grace, Mockingbird, and (occasionally) Liberate crowd. I think the solution actually lies somewhere in the middle here.

The problem is that progressive sanctification and assurance are not the same issue. Both sides of these debates tend to view them as such, but this notion is mistaken. On this issue of assurance, in particular, I think Chad Bird, Tullian Tchividjian, and others, are exactly right. It comes from God’s promises through Word and Sacrament. On the reality of progressive sanctification, however, I think that DeYoung and others are correct in emphasizing its reality and the third function of the law. Why can’t we both boldly confess the reality of sanctification and place our assurance solely in Christ?

The two kinds of righteousness paradigm is essential to understand how all of these issues work together. Assurance comes through the passive righteousness given by Christ. This is where I place my hope and trust. Yet, as God’s creature living in this world before others, I have the duty to live in active righteousness, and God’s law functions as my guide. If we mess this up, we either end up looking for assurance in our horizontal righteousness, or denying the reality and importance of horizontal righteousness altogether.

But what does this mean for the false convert? Doesn’t Scripture speak of those who are part of the church but don’t actually savingly believe in Jesus? Of course! This is where the pastoral use of the distinction between God’s Law and Gospel is so essential. It is the Law, not the Gospel, that is to be preached to unrepentant sinners. They are to be told nothing about salvation, but only about God’s wrath and anger toward sinners. Yet, when that individual confesses their unrepentant sin, the Gospel is to be proclaimed freely. My fear, here, is that those in DeYoung’s camp are often preaching the Law, rather than the Gospel, not to unrepentant sinners, but to those in despair who simply need the Gospel.

Only when the two kinds of righteousness, and the distinction between Law and Gospel, are understood, can we have a balanced and Biblical approach to these issues.

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