There’s an interesting debate brewing in the neo-Calvinist community. As some teachers (in particular Kevin DeYoung) have started addressing the need for human effort as part of the process of becoming holy (sanctification)–as opposed to being saved (justification), where no effort, even the effort of believing, is possible without G-d’s grace–another teacher, Tullian Tchividjian, has proposed a focus to the idea that has proved controversial.
Tchividjian’s idea is that, instead of being a process that begins at justification but then progresses on from it, the entire effort that we put into sanctification is continually bringing ourselves back to our justification. We toil to remind ourselves in every situation that G-d has already freely declared us righteous with no effort of our own. Any sin is a result of our trying to find some other means of justification and failing to believe that we’ve already been justified.
Other teachers, however, object to this idea on the grounds that it doesn’t mesh with Scripture’s exhortation to do specific works. They argue that to focus on the foundation of justification allows too much leeway for people to be lazy. We need to understand that sanctification comes from our effort to do specific good things, not to merely achieve greater understanding of our effortlessly-received justification.
What I find most interesting about the argument is the subtle point about how to proceed with sanctification. The standard view is that the Scriptures tell us what’s right, so let’s focus on making ourselves do those things that are right. It permits us to quickly and easily discern whether or not we (and others) are succeeding, based on the objective evidence of whether or not we (or others) are doing good works.
But perhaps, says Tchividjian, the true process of sanctification is the effort of understanding our inner selves and striving to transform that. Instead of just not sinning, why do we, each of us for our particular reasons, want to sin? And once we know that, how do we correct it? What better way than by applying the foundational understanding of how G-d saved us, and what that tells us about who He is and who we are–our justification–to the inner desires that we uncover in order to correct them? In that way, we become transformed internally into people who want to do right, instead of constantly battling ourselves to try to force ourselves to do right.
This article is a good introduction to the argument:
And this long article provides a thorough description of Tchividjian’s argument: