**This post was originally published on my old site in February, 2015.

I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but “Sanctification” has been a hot topic in Reformed circles on the interweb as of late. Since I belong in this circle (I think I’m aloud to say that), I have a sort of vested interested, and would like to contribute to the already bloated mess. Hopefully this will be helpful for someone. The debate has really been between Tullian Tchividjian and…well… just about everyone else (ok that’s not entirely true, but it often feels that way). This blog will probably mean nothing to you unless you’re somewhat privy to what’s going on, so if you feel like it, you can read the initial series of blogs between Kevin DeYoung and Tullian Tchivjian (which pretty much got everything started) here.

Basically, this blog is going to be a brief analysis and critique of Tullian’s position.

A Commendable Effort 

Get it? Effort? Anyway… Honestly I think that Tullian is a little bit misunderstood. It seems like a lot of the debate is zoning in on Tullian’s failure to acknowledge the Third Use of the Law, but I think this is sort of missing the point (partly because, biblically speaking, the “three uses of the law” aren’t all that helpful to use as a framework anyhow). I think Tullian is too quickly thrown aside as an Antinomian without giving his essential argument a fair hearing. As you’ll see, I do think that his position is in danger of commending antinomianism, but not because of any fundamental error of his initial emphasis; I just think he doesn’t work on his strong foundation carefully enough.

At the bottom of Tullian’s argument–motivationally, at least–is a love for the radical grace of God, and a restatement of that beautiful Augustinian adage: Love God, and do what you please. His main mantra is a biblical one: You can do nothing to achieve your justification! Your security is not to be found in what you do, but in what Christ has done for you. What orthodox Christian would ever disagree with that? Furthermore, he stresses the important point that obedience shouldn’t come from a joyless, dutiful hireling, but from a grateful child. Tullian writes:

If any kind of obedience, regardless of what motivates it, is what God is after, He would have showcased the Pharisees and exhorted all of us to follow their lead, to imitate them. But he didn’t. (One Way Love 53)

Even more, Tullian brings up an incredibly important concern about sanctification:

Many conclude that justification is step one and that sanctification is step two and that once we get to step two there’s no reason to go back to step one. Sanctification, in other words, is commonly understood as progress beyond the initial step of justification. (Work Hard!)

In other words, Tullian is addressing that terrible assumption that sanctification is essentially the process of needing grace less; he wants to smash that error to pieces. All good so far! I think these are the core of what Tullian is trying get after, and they are biblical, glorious gospel truths. The problem with Tullian is that he lays a great gospel foundation, and builds on it in a really sloppy way. With equivocation, he carelessly flattens categories and draws really crazy conclusions. He does this with three terms: law, effort, and grace.


Law! What is it good for, Tullian?

“Absolutely nothin!” (well… he wouldn’t say “nothin,” but you get the idea)

Tullian’s categorizational error with respect to the law is maybe the most obvious of his blunders. He sets up the classic contrast between Law and Gospel; a very good thing to do (in fact, it’s one of Paul’s favorite things to do). It goes something like this: the law is given as a tutor–a sort of mean tutor, who is constantly telling us how much we suck–to teach us just how desperate our situation is. It gives us a certain standard by which we can judge ourselves. The problem is that the standard is nothing less than perfection, and we fall embarrassingly short; it’s there to condemn us, to show us that we will never attain to a level of righteousness that affords us the luxury of commending ourselves before God. Now comes the Gospel: Jesus comes to fulfill the law perfectly on our behalf, and by his substitutionary death, he imputes his perfection onto us by grace, which we receive through faith. The law lines up the pins, and the gospel runs em down! Beautiful! What’s wrong with that? Nothing; that is the gospel. Christ has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. The problem is that Tullian wants the gospel to bowl over things that need to be left standing tall.

The pins that the gospel is supposed to run down are just one kind of “law;” but the bible has more categories of “law” than just this one. DeYoung said it brilliantly:

Part of the confusion in all this is that “law” means different things in the Bible…So while we are not ‘under the law’ in the sense that we are condemned by the law or bound to the Old Covenant of Moses…, we are ‘under the law’ in so far as we are still obligated to obey our Lord and every expression of his will for our lives. (The Hole In Our Holiness 52)

In the beginning of Romans eight, Paul illustrates the gospel by describing how one kind of law frees the believer from another kind of law: “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” (Rom. 8:3) So we are condemned by one kind of law (Gal. 3:10-23), and we are set free from that law by another kind of law (that is, the law of the Spirit; by uniting us in Christ, whereby we receive the righteousness necessary to free us from sin and death). The pins are law, and the bowling ball is a gloriously better law.

Yet it seems to me that Tullian is unable to make this kind of careful distinction; it almost seems like every imperative is tossed under the umbrella of only one kind of law, and is subsequently demolished by the gospel. In other words, his allegiance to his sweeping theological framework ties his hands, and doesn’t allow for him to be as nuanced as the bible is.

Furthermore, this sweeping theology forces him to flatten not only the word law, but also words related to law; like disobedience, for example.

Tullian writes,

Disobedience and moral laxity happens not when we think too much of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in the finished work of Christ alone from start to finish, but when we think too little of it. (First things First)

Tullian is trying identify the essence of disobedience; to get to the root of the issue, which is a great and necessary thing to do. Unfortunately, he still doesn’t go deep enough. The essence of disobedience is not a forgetfulness of the gospel, it is a forgetfulness that God is glorious! The gospel is one of the ways this truth is flushed out; God is shown to be glorious by what he has accomplished through the cross, he is glorious because he has created man to be most happy when reconciled to his maker, he is glorious because of what he has built–namely, the church (or, as I like to call her, a mosaic of trophies of grace). But if none of this was true–if there was no gospel to forget–God would still be glorious, and disobedience would still have it’s essential makeup. In other words, Tullian makes the mistake of assuming that disobedience necessitates a gospel, when in fact it does not. Actually, disobedience precedes the gospel; it is the bad news that necessitates the good news! This last point can be controversial because it sounds like I’m not being gospel centered enough, but think about it. Tullian seems to be saying that the essence of virtue is remembering the gospel. But that is not the essence of virtue at all. The essence of virtue is glorifying God, and the gospel is a means to this end. Granted, it is the means; but it is still just that.


What an appropriate segue. If, in Tullian’s mind, forgetting the gospel is the essence of disobedience, then what would be the essence of obedience but to remember the gospel? This is precisely where Tullian takes us:

Christ’s subjective work in us is his constantly driving us back to the reality of his objective work for us. (Work Hard!)

In other words, remembering, revisiting, and rediscovering the reality of our justification every day is the hard work we’re called to do if we’re going to grow. (Work Hard!)

Notice Tullian’s totalizing language; the subjective work of Christ in a believer is something, and that something is the act of remembering. Now, Christ’s work in a believer is not less than directing his attention back to the gospel, but it most certainly is more than that. This is where things get a little bit tricky, because Tullian is close to a deeply profound truth (which I will discuss in more detail later), but I think he’s there accidentally. Scripture absolutely does link these two things together: thinking on the glorious truth of the gospel, and doing. But their relationship of cause and effect is motivational, not scientific. In other words, the thinking doesn’t automatically produce the doing; if thinking robotically produced doing, then the imperatives of the bible would be superfluous. Yet scripture is riddled with “since, then” language. We are not merely told the glorious indicatives of the Bible, we’re told to do something in response. Take Colossians 3 for example. Paul says, “Since you have been raised with Christ, [indicative] seek the things that are above [imperative].”

“Aha!” you might say, “This supports Tullian’s claim that the essential imperative of a Christian is to think on Christ!” This would be true if it weren’t for the rest of the chapter; but verses 5-25 have a lot of imperatives that are more than just “think on Christ.”

DeYoung is helpful here:

Good works should always be rooted in the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection, but I believe we are expecting too much from the “flow” and not doing enough to teach that obedience to the law–from a willing spirit, as made possible by the Holy Spirit–is the proper response to free grace. (The Hole In Our Holiness 55)

And we have another problem as well. Tullian never really describes how this imperative is different from any other in its most basic makeup. It’s just another work. So Tullian’s practical antinomianism really backfires here. DeYoung again:

The irony is that if we make every imperative into a command to believe the gospel more fully, we turn the gospel into one more thing we have to get right, and faith becomes the one thing we need to be better at. (The Hole In Our Holiness 55)

The problem is this, Tullian is trying to equate remembering with every other imperative that the believer is charged to perform in the New Testament, and that simply won’t work. His gospel is too small; the Good News is not only that Christ has justified us by virtue of his work on the cross, it is also the news that Christ empowers us to live righteously by the Strength of the Holy Spirit. This brings us to the last word that Tullian gets wrong.


Grace! Grace! More grace! One-way grace! Audacious grace! Sovereign grace! Yes. Amen and amen. I love thinking on the grace of God; it’s something that you can’t think on enough. There’s no such thing as emphasizing grace too much! Tullian’s problem is not that he needs to balance grace and works better, it’s that he needs to define grace better. We always want to preach grace; yes, but what kind of grace?

I would submit that Tullian’s idea of grace simply needs to get a backbone. Biblically speaking, grace is not the absence of commands. Grace certainly comes with commands, but it also comes to provide the desire to fulfill those demands, and it comes with the power to actually obey them. The reason I think Tullian misses this is because he writes things like this, “Because Jesus succeeded for you, you’re free to fail.” (One Way Love 36) Now, I want to give this brother the benefit of the doubt, but this sounds an awful lot like “sinning so that grace may abound” to me. This is what I mean when I say that Tullian is just not careful enough; a biblical understanding of grace would lead him to say, “Because Jesus succeeds for you, you are free to succeed in Him!” or “You’re failure did not disqualify you from having Jesus succeed on your behalf!” But he isn’t that careful; his grace is too thin–it just glosses over everything. Notice,

To be perfectly honest, in the short term, this message often does inspire the kind of sighs of relief and extended breathers that look a whole lot like nothing. But if a person can be given the space to bask in the Good News for a while… we just as often find that the Gospel of grace, in the long run, actually empowers risk-taking effort and neighbor-embracing love. It doesn’t have to, of course, which is precisely why it does. (One Way Love 188)

Did you catch that? Tullian is saying that grace makes good works optional; “grace doesn’t have to yield good works.” But this is so, utterly, unbiblical! I seem to remember reading somewhere that if someone knows to do good and fails to do it, his neglect is sin (James 4:17); which, to me, sounds like that person has to do that good work–maybe I’m crazy. Good works are not an added bonus to grace; they’re one of its primary ends! (Eph. 2:8-10, Rom. 8:29).

Here’s the thing, Tullian goes too far with his presumed implications of grace, because he is afraid that if we actually preach the imperatives of scripture with unction, we will lose grace. But his fearful precautions are unnecessary, because any genuine success in sanctification is going to be the gospel-driven kind. Christians who understand that they are saved by grace–who strive fervently to live in holiness, and succeed in various ways at putting to death the deeds of the flesh–will not have done so by leaving the grace of God behind; they will have done so by the power of the Holy Spirit, the promise of glorification, and the confidence of their justification—all of which were bought for them at Calvary.

The grace of God calls us righteous, and calls us to be righteous. In some cases this means chopping off our hands and gouging out our eyes; in these cases, grace not only calls us to this, but it provides for us the knife to do the cutting, and the motivation to get the job done.

A Closing Word on the Nature of Sanctification

The most ironic thing about all of this is that Tullian is actually on the cuff of something more profound than I think he’s aware of, and that is this; sanctification is primarily a work that happens to us passively, although not in the way he describes. This whole discussion of sanctification has been seriously overlooking what I will now only briefly mention. Our conformity to Christ is not primarily something that comes about through striving for personal holiness; conformity to Christ happens in God’s ironic process whereby he impresses circumstances upon our lives that bring about sanctification. Through “light and momentary afflictions,” God conforms us into the image of Christ; he beats us into glory through trials and tribulations. This is how God’s economy works, and it is counter-intuitive to the world; weakness yields strength, death yields gain, affliction yields glory.

Many of the Puritans’ favorite imperatives of the New Testament are not given to individuals on their quest for personal holiness, but they are given to the corporate church so as to yield the proper fruits in the messy circumstances of living life together. In these cases, God impresses a difficult situation on believers (he places individuals in situations where they must bear with one another in corporate life) and he molds them into conformity to Christ there! They are to put off the old man (that is, Adam; the old humanity that loves sin) and to put on the new man (that is; Christ, the new humanity that loves holiness); which is a man who suffers for righteousness, casts away immorality, and rubs shoulders with people very different from himself. I know this may seem a little out-of-nowhere, but the point is this; Tullian’s main fault is that he’s too careless, which is particularly tragic because his intuition almost found him stumbling into a clincher on this whole sanctification debate.