First thing, if you haven’t already, go to the post below and look at the trailer for The Grace Agenda. We’ll wait here. Okay, second, if you haven’t already, check out this link to Justin Taylor that points you to an irenic and helpful discussion between Tullian Tchividjian and Kevin DeYoung on the subject of personal effort in sanctification.
Here’s my two cents on why they are both right, and why the whole Reformed world could benefit from a review of Aristotle’s four causes — material, formal, efficient, and final. Not that Aristotle is the butterfly’s boots or anything, but the ability to layer a discussion is one that is greatly needed in debates like this one. Not every point can be placed side by side and compared. Many points, especially in theology, have to be nested inside one another.
Tullian says that it’s all grace, man, and the strenuous effort that is required of us is the effort of comprehending the gracious nature of our justification. Kevin grants that point, but says there is more effort required than just getting our minds around justification. Here’s why they both have a point.
Take music for an example. The whole song is in the key of Grace, or G for short. Not every note is a grace note, so to speak, but the whole thing is defined by grace and resolves into grace. Grace is the context for everything. But suppose that a discussion breaks out between two members of the choir, one saying that he finds it helpful to always remember the key they are singing in, while the other grants that it is always important to keep that in mind, but the main thing for him is trying to hit those three difficult notes in the 12th measure. They are not really disagreeing.
Adjust the music image slightly. Say that the white keys on the piano are the keys of promise and the black keys are the keys of the law. Okay. But what’s the song? Don’t tell me it is a song of law because black keys are used in it. What key is it in?
This is actually why the debate over whether the covenant of works was gracious is so important. It is not a debate over whether there was an obligation to obey in the Garden, but what key that obligation was in. It also explains why confusion is so easy — one man maintains that this is in the key of G, while another man is saying, no, no, this note is plainly an F#.
Change the image from a piece of music (in time) to a story, taking place over time. If all we had was a snapshot of Gollum biting off Frodo’s finger, it would hard (if not impossible) to see this as a gracious event. But if we take it outside the snapshot, and embed that event into the larger story, it resolves into grace. Instead of an ugly and pointless action, we see the resolution of the whole narrative.
So this is why every event must be arranged, layered, stacked, prioritized. In Mere Christianity, Lewis cites the example of a woman who dismissed the possible harmful effects of a bread shortage because at their house “they always had toast.”
If Tullian and Kevin were helping someone get their car out of a ditch, there could be a good five minutes straight when both of them were thinking about nothing but pushing, and where neither of them were thinking about how this relates, or not, to the larger questions of individual effort and the grace of God. But it does resolve, later on, for both of them, in just the ways they have described. And they both have a point. Pushing a car is not getting your mind around justification. Not taking prideful credit for pushing a car is getting your mind around justification. In context, both are true, and out of context, neither one is.
If we arrange the categories right, if we nest them properly, we can have continued, fruitful discussion. But disagreement is not really necessary.