Sanctification and the Bell Curve


So I have been mulling over a point which, if thought through, will help explain various misunderstandings, kerfluffles, and upcoming events. They are different issues, but there is a common thread to them all. The problems are very different, but the thing they all have in common is a sort of egalitarianism when it comes to sanctification. I would like to interact with a recent post by our friend Alastair Roberts, an online imbroglio about my daughter’s #DepartmentofHellNo posts, and also say a little something about the theme of our upcoming Grace Agenda, which happens to be “Keep Your Kids.”


But we need to establish our baseline first. I want to state the principle I will be applying in all this disparate situations. Given that every genuine believer who is in fact justified is justified on the very same ground and basis—through the perfect obedience of the Lord Jesus—this means that there is absolutely no foundation for boasting. Justification is the same for everyone who is justified. No one has a different justification. One man’s justification—the righteousness of the Lord Jesus—is identical to another man’s justification.

We are all of us saved by grace through faith—and even that faith is a gift—precisely so that no man could boast (Eph. 2:8-9). When it comes to passing through the gates of Heaven, God wanted to make sure to absolutely exclude any differentiation. The godliest Christian who ever lived, whoever he was, and the most raggedy Christian ever, the one who made it into Heaven with his coattails on fire, are both received into Heaven on precisely the same basis. They are received through the perfect obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ. When it comes to justification, no man stands out, no man stands apart. This is basic.

But this is not the case with sanctification. While God is equally at work in all believers, God does not work equally in all believers. What God does for all believers in justification is identical. What God does in all believers varies according to His purposes and plans. So when it comes to sanctification, there are weak believers and there are strong believers. There are faithful believers and there are struggling believers.

If you read through the sections of the Westminster Confession on sanctification and on good works (WCF, chapters 13 and 16), this will become readily apparent. Justification is a universal gift, the same for all who receive it, while the grace bestowed in sanctification is as varied as our individual stories are. The Spirit who works in us is the same Spirit, but the Spirit works differently in each of us. The imputation of Christ’s righteousness, however, is the same for all of us.

This is why the gift of heavenly blessedness is the same for all, in that all are saved and not lost, while the rewards that God apportions according our works will vary according to those works. But this does not mean that the heavenly rewards will include a ribbon for “last place” because the rewards apportioned to those ahead of me—because it is Heaven and not a carnal competition—will be a delight to me as well. Think of it as a capacity for joy. Heaven will be an ocean of joy, and one man’s thimble will be submerged in it and another man’s fifty gallon drum will be submerged, and both will be full of joy.

In the meantime, our good works are not all the same, and various imperfections are woven throughout all of them, and this is why they cannot be the basis for our justification. Our justification must be perfect, and so this excludes the performance of even the most outstanding Christian. The righteousness evident in a godly Christian’s life is far inferior to the righteousness imputed every Christian in justification, but it can be superior to that found in a struggling Christian’s life of sanctification.

And what this means—to anticipate the point to be made throughout this post—is that the blessings of another man’s sanctification can be, in this life, the object of envy. Such envy is always sinful, but when it comes to justification envy would also be nonsensical. Why envy something that is the same for all? But when it comes to our sanctification, one servant can have ten talents, one can have five, and one can have one.

“And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’” (Luke 19:24–25, ESV)

And this makes unhelpful and inapt comparisons possible, not to mention envy.

The Biblical Brand™

In a recent article, Alastair Roberts objected to the branding of the word biblical™, or the related phrase biblical worldview™. Instead, he suggested we take the path of wisdom instead. Now I do not wish to be seen as arguing against wisdom here, but neither do I want to say anything against biblical worldview thinking. I do want to suggest that if our problem is branding, we are not going fix it through rebranding.

But because the process of sanctification is uneven, as noted earlier, including the sanctification of the corporate church over time, this means that the bell curve—which shows up in absolutely all human endeavors—must necessarily apply to it.

Now Alastair is quite right about one thing in all this, and that is that whenever some phrase becomes a hot property, any number of people start using it. And when you have one hundred thousand people using it, you can always slap a bell curve right on top of that baby. And precisely half of the people involved will be using the phrase inadequately, improperly, and without suitable qualifications. This will means that when the Christian church has finally established hundreds of summer worldview camps, from sea to shining sea, approximately half of the kids involved in them will not really “get it.” And the kids on the far left side of the bell curve will come away from the camp with their thoroughly unbiblical notions stamped indelibly with the phrase biblical.

And so what else is new?

If we successfully rejected the branding of the word biblical™, and we all trotted over to the word wisdom, and if that caught on, we would then be confronted with the spectacle of wisdom™, not to mention a host of foolish wisdom advocates. A race (speaking of life here among the Dufflepuds) that can make the pursuit of biblical thinking unbiblical is certainly up to the challenge of making the pursuit of wisdom unwise.

I mean, think about it. The word philosophy means love of wisdom, and has also been the fountainhead of some of the dumbest ideas ever to afflict our planet. The apostle Paul warns us against the wisdom that isn’t wise (1 Cor. 1:20). And of course he also warns us against the biblical ideas that aren’t biblical (1 Tim. 1:7).

The progress of sanctification is uneven, and this includes intellectual sanctification. And on top of that, it includes intellectual sanctification in groups over time. And when something seems really promising, or seems to meet the need of the hour, it is not long before a host of people are pursuing it. We do this with worldview thinking, we do it with wisdom, we do it with classical Christian education, we do it with stadium rallies, and we do it with podcasts. Something catches fire and we are off into the land of monkey see, monkey do.

So if we see a movement going along big time, and we see trouble developing on the left hand side of the bell curve (that will necessarily attend it), and we reject the whole “class” because of the people who are flunking it, then this means we are not thinking carefully. It means that we are not opposed to the idea of the brand™—we just want to promote our rebrand™. We are competing, not analyzing. We are players on the court pretending to be refs.

I want to applaud Alastair’s observations about thoughtless adoption of buzzwords, but we cannot fix that kind of thing through adopting words that aren’t buzzword yet. We should always have our doubts about the left side of the bell curve, but this includes every bell curve, and it doesn’t tell us anything about what the thoughtful people are doing on the right side of their bell curve.

Obedience is Faith

My daughter Rachel has been causing a stir by taking out after the “self care” craze, in which Christian women are being positively encouraged to look in the mirror with what a Jesuit casuist might call dulia. This has caused consternation for the predictable reasons in predictable quarters, but it has also caused a sideshow consternation with some women who are concerned that Rachel’s emphasis on obedience, over against self-admiration, might lead some down the path to works-righteousness.

But Rachel’s emphasis on obedience is not being applauded over against an evangelical faith in Christ. Rather, she is telling women to “obey the Word,” or perhaps “obey the Word, buttercup” over against the seductive summons to “obey the siren song of selfishness and your own words.”

In the biblical vocabulary, works of the law is contrasted with faith. Works in this sense is negative word. But obedience is not a negative word in Scripture because obedience does what it is told to do, the way it is told to do it. Obedience is the obedience of faith. In the same way, good works are referred to positively in Scripture. “Works” are what the wit of man tries to grind out. Faith is what receives the imputed righteousness of Christ, and then that same faith is what receives the commands of God on how we are to live. To use the term that Reformed theology has given to this, we are talking about the third use of the law.

Now some in the modern Reformed world are positively allergic to this third use of the law. They are afraid that if we look to the law to find out what love looks like in a particular situation, then we might be muddying the waters with regard to the first use of the law, which shows us our utter inability to keep the law, and of our absolute need for Christ. But if we are already justified, and we know that this was due to the righteousness of Christ plus nothing, then our attention (in love and gratitude) naturally turns to the third use. And once we find out what love looks like, and if we by the grace of God obey that law (as imperfectly as may be), and if we receive various blessings that God promises for such obedience, then those blessings—given the nature of the case—will be uneven. And by uneven, I mean not the same for everyone.

And I suspect that this is the explanation for why some are so allergic to the third use of the law. To be sure, some are simply zealous for the gospel of grace and so any talk about obedience makes them jumpy. They know how quickly a sinful heart can turn obedience into something to take personal credit for. This kind of concern can be allayed through careful theological definition, and wise pastoral care.

But for those who are hostile to the very idea of biblical application, and the receipt of any biblical blessings in response, another possible explanation is that envy wants to flatten the work of the Spirit in sanctification, in order to make it uniform the way justification is.

But it is not. We live in an egalitarian age, and so we want to flatten what the Scriptures do not flatten. Listen to how Paul describes the work of very different kinds of ministers. And notice what they all have in common—the one foundation of Christ—and then take note of what different men do on that foundation.

“For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire” (1 Cor. 3:11–15).

Justification, if present at all, is present in the same way all the time. Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. And the ministries of some men—who are personally saved—will go up in a sheet of flame, while the ministries of others will be revealed by fire as worthy of high praise.

What does the Lord Jesus teach us about our obedience, here in this life? What does He say about the things that we do or refuse to do? He gives us three categories, and it is our relationship to obedience that sorts us into these three categories. The categories are: least in the kingdom, great in the kingdom, and not in the kingdom.

“Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:19–20).

Keep Your Kids

Now one more example. In the realm of sanctification, I want to argue that our obedience in this life is still attended by Deuteronomic blessings. And because sanctification is uneven, it should not be surprising that the blessings given in response are uneven also. As the unevenness of the blessings becomes evident, as mentioned above, this creates space for envy to take root.

Let me take one obvious case of the Deuteronomic blessings (blessings that are manifested in this life) being extended to new covenant believers. At the foot of Mount Sinai, God told all the Israelite children that they should honor their fathers and mothers. He added that if they obeyed in this respect, their life in the land that the Lord their God was giving them would be long (Deut. 5:16).

About fourteen centuries after this, the apostle Paul is speaking to the Gentile children in the Gentile city of Ephesus, and he quotes this commandment as applying to them. He then goes on to quote this promise as being their birthright as well.

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth” (Eph. 6:1–3).

The Deuteronomic promise concerning the land of Canaan, given to Israelite children, is picked up and handed to Gentile children concerning the earth.      

I hasten to add that these Deuteronomic blessing do not fall out of Heaven as though we are operating a cosmic vending machine, where we put the coins of our obedience in and all the blessings that the health and wealth guys ever cooked up come tumbling down around our heads and shoulders. Not that.

But not the bleak world of the etiolated R2K theology either.

When someone becomes a Christian, the cocaine bill goes way down. The time lost in detox centers goes way down. Marriages are saved, and this has economic consequences. Men repent of their laziness, which means they have started to walk out of their poverty. When men walk with God, taking one thing with another, they are blessed in their basket and store (Deut. 28:5).

At the same time, faithfulness also means resistance and opposition. One of the reasons we know that the health and wealth guys have it wrong is that they can give no account of that resistance. They have no category for the faithful saints who were sawn in two, or tortured in other ways, imprisoned, and scourged (Heb. 11:35-37). But the etiolated have no category for stopping the mouths of lions and putting enemy armies to flight (Heb. 11:33-34). All of these are triumphs of faith, and without faith it is not possible to see or understand any of this correctly. And remember, you are looking at uneven ground.

Jesus teaches us about this mixed bag quite clearly:

“And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s, But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29–30).

One of the covenant blessing that we are promised is the promise that our children will love and serve the Lord. We are promised our grandchildren as well. We are given promises that extend to a thousand generations. We invite you to this year’s Grace Agenda to learn more about it all.

But depend upon it. If there were a community of Christians that was actively engaged in learning how to keep their kids, and they seemed to be making significant progress in that endeavor, would that community be applauded by the Christian world? Or would they be actively and fiercely resisted?

Consider the principles outlined above, and you may seek to answer that question on your own time.

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