[Editor’s Note: This post was written by my good friend and seminary professor Dr. Clair Davis. In it he offers some well-informed and insightful reflections on the unity of salvation in Christ, and on the difficulties we in the conservative Reformed world have encountered as we have sought to understand and express this great truth.]
I think about the grace of God in Jesus Christ as a package. We get so much from Jesus right from the beginning, all together. Why is that so hard to grasp? Mostly because we’re used to thinking about our sanctification as a kind of response to God’s grace in justification. But how do the two relate? No doubt church history gets me confused—it’s easy to think that the job of the theologian is to fix the bad answers that have been given so far. But what if they all answer questions that God and his word never ask? (I get reminded of that all the time because I give a lot of tests, and I always get a bunch of brilliant answers, whose only fault is that they have nothing to do with the questions I asked). What if we need to start over, thinking not about how they relate, but instead about package?
That basic package is justification and sanctification, forgiveness and life-change. One of my favorite hi-tech theology words is extraspective, the way I look only to Jesus Christ, not at all taking a sideways glance at how I’m looking. The background for thinking that way is the late Middle Ages, the time of Nominalism. That meant something like this: the big thing is the Will, God’s and yours too, so cause-and-effect is an illusion, we just think that if something comes before something else, it must be its cause. (Ever learn post hoc, ergo propter hoc? I taught logic for a living once). Cause-and-effect sounded impersonal, automatic, really leaving God and his love out. So those philosophers back then said, it’s not about some mechanical cause, but about God’s will, the way he decides things. (They were so close to being right. Why does God love you, do you think? Watch out! All the bad answers have Pharisee written all over them: I bet God picked me because even though I’m a sinner I’m still nicer than most. The only right answer is: God loves you because he loves you). But they didn’t go that far. The best they could do was: because you’re trying harder than anyone else, God might give you extra credit that you don’t deserve, because he feels like it—so maybe, who knows, could he decide to give you Heaven instead of Hell since you’re the pick of the litter)?
That came over like this: perhaps if you really try harder, you may get enough bonus points to be safe. Jesus was in there somewhere, but the focus was on you and how hard you worked at your salvation. No wonder that our Reformation fathers and mothers liked extraspective so much, since everyone else looked at themselves way too much, and they were determined to look only to Jesus. Lutherans specialized in that, better than anyone else. Reformed people believed it, but also kept checking out their hearts and lives, always desiring more Christ-likeness. See what the Westminster Confession says about our assurance of salvation. The beginning is encouraging, what an amazing gift the Lord gives us, to know that we belong to him and he to us. But then out of nowhere come those ‘sudden and vehement temptations.’ Take me, when I’m preaching away with my heart set on Jesus and his glory—but then I spot all those folks leaning forward in their chairs looking up at me. My focus on Jesus gets dulled by noticing that my sermon is working. It’s one thing when ordinary people aren’t extraspective, but when the preacher isn’t—now that’s terrible. I could tell you of more ordinary ‘sudden and vehement’ ones I have, but the preacher one is the worst. So of course then God ‘withdraws the light of his countenance’: I’m telling people to glorify God but I’m really happy that they’re glorifying me—what in the world must the Lord be thinking of me? The Confession goes on to describe what a life like that is really like, and concludes on the note that at least it’s not characterized by ‘utter despair.’ To me that doesn’t sound like much of a climax. Doesn’t the Confession really need another paragraph, beginning with ‘Nevertheless?’ Now there you can see what Reformed looks like, and that it’s not as simple as Lutheran. But isn’t that a true picture of life, after all? Just when we think that our joy in Jesus is so gripping, isn’t it then that our daydreams are so putrid?
In the seminary world of ‘biblical theology’ where we work to trace God’s story through the Bible, we talk about the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet.’ Christ is risen, but why doesn’t he hurry up and come back for us? My heart is truly changed—but not all the time. A real already, but still a bunch of not yet. Sometimes are we inclined to remember the last thing we hear? So already/not yet isn’t quite right, should it be already/not yet/but still already? I had many fulfilling years with Jack Miller, the one who was so excited about ‘sonship,’ the reality of adoption into God’s family. There he was, working hard with his Greek New Testament, and discovered that Jesus’s promise that he would not leave us ‘desolate,’ was literally that he wouldn’t leave us ‘orphans.’ Jack picked that up and ran with it. I think he was doing my ‘nevertheless.’ When we fall away from Jesus, the thing to do is run back to him, you’re his child after all. God’s grace, God’s love is in God’s heart, and you should run to him, of course with repentance but definitely with faith in his forgiving love.
It seems to me that beats being reminded that at least your despair isn’t ‘utter.’ But we live in a time when obeying God has a low priority, when it seems stultifying, when the love of Jesus is much more appealing than his call to suffer with him. So I almost understand how many are sure Jack and others like him and me are ‘grace-boys,’ modern lingo for antinomian, not giving God’s law any attention. I myself never heard anything from Jack that suggested we not take our sin seriously—rather, the reason grace was so amazing was just that God gave it to sinners. I think his direction was similar to Berkouwer’s Sin book on ‘the knowledge of sin through the gospel.’ That goes something like this: since the remedy is great, the disease must be too. My friend who owned the field pipe store and I were talking this over once. Imagine going into his place saying you had a drainage problem. Then he suggests pipe about three inches wide, but you put your arms out as wide as you could, to show how big was the pipe you needed—so he got it, ‘you do have a drainage problem.’ Grace-boys are big sin-boys too, it seems to me. I don’t see how you can take a really hard look at your sin except as your heart is bathed in grace.
But putting together justification and sanctification, forgiveness and change, has always been hard, maybe because of that medieval background. Gratitude to God is wonderful, but somehow it can come out like this: Jesus did justification, now it’s up to me to do my sanctification. That’s why it was hard to get God’s grace in there. Then I remember that time in John Murray’s theology class. Mr. Murray could be very emotional, at the very most when he yelled at us that the idea of a regenerate unbeliever was ‘a theological monstrosity!!!’ I think about that a lot. That old ordo salutis, the ‘way of salvation,’ going from calling, regeneration, faith etc. through to union with Christ, wasn’t supposed to be about movement in time and experience, but it surely got understood that way. Murray was telling us how ridiculous it was to think that while God had changed your heart you still weren’t a believer. ‘Logical or causal sequence’ he said, not experiential. I’ve been thinking about that. I know there’s something wrong with believing sanctification comes after justification, as a kind of response to it. No, it’s right there at the beginning, side-by-side with justification. It goes on through your whole life, that as you trust in Jesus he changes your heart. (I’m used to the idea that justification is once for all—but if we keep on repenting and being forgiven, isn’t that a life-long thing too?). It has to be right to do a lot with all those therefore’s in the Bible, since Jesus has died for you, of course you live for him. But that’s not at all saying, now it’s up to you, all by yourself.
I’m not eager but I feel I should try to describe a seven-year controversy at Westminster Seminary involving Norman Shepherd. I was moderator of the Faculty all through that time, and knew better than to be openly partisan, but I did my share of thinking. I had very wise colleagues on both sides, pro and con on Norman’s understanding of faith. He talked about faith as ‘obedient faith.’ Of course, you receive Jesus as your savior, and also your lord, the basic package deal. In our high-tech language, you receive Jesus ‘in all of his offices,’ as your prophet and king as well as your priest. But wait a minute, aren’t we committed to ‘faith alone saves?’ If you say obedient faith, aren’t you on the brink of being Medieval again? That kept us busy and upset for more than seven years.
We all knew that ‘faith is never alone.’ We all knew that Jesus does the sanctifying, and we all knew to trust him for that. Why wasn’t Norman’s formula just fine? I’m not totally sure. I do know some of his students didn’t say it as carefully as he did. My guess is, we still have some left-over issues from the 19th century about faith and sanctification. Wasn’t there a ‘second blessing,’ this time for sanctification as the first one was for justification? Wasn’t it wonderful to know that sanctification wasn’t just our laborious battle with sin, but something that Jesus had already done for us? That was Victorious Life, Holiness, Keswick. (Go sometime to the old Keswick grounds in Whiting NJ, now an alcohol rehab place). Just trust Jesus to change your life, why not? Why hadn’t we ever heard that before?
The problem was, you trusted and not much happened, sin was still there. Maybe for others it worked but not for you. Trust harder? Trust Jesus to do the trusting? The problem was, people said that if you trusted Jesus the right way, then you had instant total sanctification. There was always someone around who said he hadn’t sinned for twenty years but that wasn’t you. There was much biblical reality there, but the instantaneous change thing didn’t happen. It took a while for people to understand that it was about a life of trusting Jesus, day by day, hour by hour—then it came together. Then we learn how Jesus is our strong deliverer, how he does win over world, flesh and Devil.
I could be wrong but I think that was what was hard about Norman for many. Justification is right away, isn’t it? But sanctification is a life-long battle, isn’t it? When you hear obedient faith, doesn’t that mean: no justification right away either, no assurance right now, so we’re going back to being pre-Reformation? But what if we remember Mr. Murray teaching us about definitive sanctification? Jesus does begin to change us, right away, as we trust him at the beginning! It is a long battle all right, but it’s been won already. (Oscar Cullmann: at the end of D-Day in Normandy WW2 was over but it still took some time for mopping-up. Ditto the war with sin). That’s what made Jack Miller and me grace-boys—it is a hard fight, but we’re already so happy Jesus won and keeps on winning.
It’s been so hard. Norman was let go, for ambiguous reasons. The PCA didn’t want the OPC because it took them so long to figure it out. People still get nervous around us grace-boys. There’s still a lot of preaching about fighting sin, without much Jesus in it. How long, O Lord, how long—till we can go ahead together, with joy as we battle?
But it is a package, I’m sure of it. Jesus is our Savior, ‘in all of his offices.’ Belonging to him is so much more than going to Heaven if we die tonight. Jesus is with us if we don’t die tonight, if we are called to get up tomorrow morning and put on the gospel armor again. It’s armor all right, but gospel armor, isn’t it?
D. Clair Davis taught church history for many at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He currently serves as Chaplain and Professor of Church History at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, Texas.