An Unhelpful Description of Sanctification


In his popular book, Jesus + Nothing = Everything, Tullian Tchividjian gives many great explanations of what God’s grace means for sinners like us.  This book constantly focuses the reader on Jesus’ saving work.  There are quite a few helpful and encouraging words in this book.  But it’s not on my recommended reading list.  Why?  Because I don’t think Tchividjian’s description of sanctification is clearly confessional and biblical.  Don’t overreact here; I’m not saying the book is heretical, horrible, or an attack on the gospel.  I’m simply saying the description of sanctification is unhelpful.  For example, here are some quotes from pages 95-96:

“Sanctification is the daily hard work of getting back to the reality of our justification.  It’s going back to the certainty of our objectively secured pardon in Christ and hitting the refresh button a thousand times a day.”

“The hard work of Christian growth, therefore, is to think less of ourselves and our performance and more of Jesus and his performance for us.”

“Think of what Paul tells us in Philippians 2:12: ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.’  We’ve got work to do…What precisely is Paul exhorting us to do?  He goes on to explain: ‘For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (v. 13).  God works his work in you, which is the work already accomplished by Christ.  Our hard work, therefore, means coming to a greater understanding of his work.”

The Reformed confessions and catechisms talk about sanctification quite a bit.  But they don’t talk about sanctification as “getting back to the reality of our justification,” or, “coming to a greater understanding of [Christ’s] work.”  These statements probably fit better in the discussion of true faith (i.e. WLC Q/A 72, HC Q/A 60-61), but they are not Reformed ways to speak about sanctification.

How do the confessions and catechisms talk about sanctification?  Well, first of all sanctification is about the Christian obeying God’s law out of gratitude for salvation and new life in Christ (HC Q/A 32-115).  Second, sanctification has to do with dying to sin and living according to righteousness (WLC Q/A 75, HC Q/A 88-90).  Also, the confessions mention in the discussions of sanctification our good works as “fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith” (WCF 16.2).  We can gain assurance of our faith from the fruits of our faith.  The confessions and catechisms say more about sanctification; this is just a summary (for biblical references, see the proof texts of the confessions given).  But certainly sanctification is not “getting back to the reality of our justification.”

I don’t want to throw Tchividjian under the bus here.  I haven’t read anything else he’s written and I don’t follow his ministry at all.  Maybe he’s clarified this elsewhere.  I just wanted to point this out, echoing what Mark Jones said in Antinomianism (p. 111-121), that we should be careful when speaking about biblical truths and doctrines.  Rhetoric and hyperbole might sound good and grab attention, but we need to work hard to be precise and accurate in our language.  I believe the Reformed confessions and catechisms do a nice job of biblically describing justification, faith, and sanctification, even if the statements in them are not popular, trendy, or twitterable.  If we want to be biblical and confessional, I’d say let’s do our best to use biblical and confessional language.

“What is sanctification?  Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace (Ezek. 36:27, Phil. 2:13, 2 Thes. 2:13), whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God (2 Cor. 5:17, Eph. 4:23-24, 1 Thess. 5:23), and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness (Ezek. 36:25-27, Rom. 6:4, 6, 12-14, 2 Cor. 7:1, 1 Pet. 2:24) (WSC Q/A 35).”

shane lems
hammond, wi

19 thoughts on “An Unhelpful Description of Sanctification”

  1. Is this anything different from, say, Walter Marshall? It’s a little irritating (and grieving) to see the way some in the Reformed camp have piled on Tullian. He is a vast improvement on his predecessor at Coral Ridge Pres.


    1. Richard: That’s a fair question about Marshall. Marshall talks about self-examination, personal holiness, mortification, Christian obedience to the law, and he even talks about fasting and growth in holiness. So to answer your question, it is different than Marshall.

      I fully agree that we must constantly proclaim and uphold the truth of justification sola fide. We’ve got to get that right! But we should also make sure we talk about sanctification in a proper, biblical/confessional way. It’s not like sanctification is a footnote to justification.

      Anyway, as always, thanks for the comments, Richard.


      1. Thanks for your gracious reply, Shane. You are absolutely right, of course, we need to get these Biblical distinctives right, and adhere to our Confessions. Again, though, I think it’s irritiating (to me) to see Tullian being piled on by some who were silent when his predecessor in the pulpit used to go overboard on culture war issues (anyone remember a sermon on “Why George Washington was a Christian”?. Tullian’s proclamation of the Gospel is a breath of fresh air.


  2. Don’t you think WCF 14.2 provides a nice balance to this question:

    II. By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein;and acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.

    So… saving faith includes sanctification, which involves effort, but our emphasis (what is “principal”) still needs to be on resting upon Christ alone.

    What do you think?


    1. Chris: good notes, thanks for the WCF reference. Helpful for sure. Certainly faith and sanctification are closely related, like the WCF article you referenced says. We trust God to work in us, we trust Christ to continually intercede for us, and we trust the Spirit to continually change us (etc.). Faith and sanctification go hand in hand.

      But they’re not the same thing. Tullian said sanctification was getting back to the reality of our justification, but the WCF (following Scripture I’d argue) says that faith does that. So when we talk about true faith, we say it constantly rests upon Christ alone – and we say it also shows up in thankful obedience to God’s law (sanctification).

      Not trying to be nit-picky. I’m just saying that the definition of sanctification we’re talking about (quoted in the blog post above) is not the confessional Reformed way to speak about sanctification.

      Glad for your comments!


      1. Shane, I basically agree. Per some other comments, I have no wish to pile on Tullian, and appreciate your tone.

        What I am saying is that WCF 14.2 has enough to make “both sides” happy and should do two things at once:

        1) Keep folks from saying that Sanctification is merely returning to Justification. Compare WCF 14.2 (and WCF 13) to WLC 72, and one sees the difference. I just think that most pithy catch phrases should be abandoned. There is no golden key to sanctification. It’s complex, and must be, given the already/no yet nature of our salvation.

        2) Keep folks from making principal what is not principal (e.g. those who emphasize effort in sanctification too much, when that is not principal to saving faith). It’s hard to nail that down, but most of us been to retreats or conferences where we felt the burden of the Law being laid down on us with no reminder to rest in Christ’s work and approval.

        Blessings, Chris


        1. Chris, that seems fair; I think your two points are helpful. Jerry Bridges talks about this in a similar way. He says when it comes to growth in godliness, we have a dependent responsibility. That is, we are responsible to fight sin and do what is right, but we are completely dependent upon the Holy Spirit and God’s grace to do so.

          I may have a different perspective as well, since I grew up in a Reformed church where these things weren’t muddled, and it always made sense to me that we’re saved totally by grace, but we are to in turn live holy lives to please God.

          Thanks for the comments. I appreciate your tone.


  3. I personally sat under Tullian’s teaching for 3 years. All the while, banging my head upon my stearing wheel on my drive home from church, tears rolling down my face, for this exact reason. Tullian has a difficult time discussing, and clarifying sanctification. I would go through the Bible and find all of my verses that seemed to contradict him. But, in the spirit of love, and believing the best of him, I continued to tell myself it was my own misunderstandings of Tullian. God rescued me from the pit of depression I was in, and showed me that His Word says it perfectly, and that any contradiction, being intentually done, or not, is still against scripture. It was sad to me, to see others go before me to discus this issue, and I never saw any repentance, or change of ideas or teaching, if anything, just a further distruction of what the Bible clearly talks about on sanctification. I have prayed for Tullian, prayed for people still under this teaching, and thanked The Lord for rescuing me. I pray that Tullian will be humbled, and shown what sanctification truly is, and he may use this platform God has given him to proclaim TRUTH.


  4. That this guy Tullian is known and has a platform shows the worldliness of the church. I somehow heard of him before he was at coral ridge; he was billed as “the grandson of Billy Graham.” A distressed “Oh no” came out of me. That is nothing to be proud of. To this day he still boasts of his relation (consider Gal 2:6). Why did coral ridge even want him for a pastor? He wasn’t in the PCA or even in a denomination that has relations with the PCA. So why did they want *him.* Because he could be a celebrity like their former leader?

    That he used Phil 2:12-13 as he did shows that he didn’t study the passage because you won’t get that notion out of those verses. And as is the point of this post, it is not a reformed view of sanctification. Truth is, though, back in ’92 the White Horse Inn was making this statement all the time, though it was clearly instigated by Rod. (You can find the same in the Lutheran ch in IVP’s 5 views book “Christian Spirituality.”) I dissented from it back then as I do now because it is not what Scripture says and no one who holds to it should be ordained in the PCA.


    1. And this is an example of the “piling on” by some Christians I mentioned above. To say that “no one who holds to these views should be ordained in the PCA” because the hosts of The White Horse Inn shared them is a bit much. Again, I wonder where these same critics were at Coral Ridge when the former PCA pastor was knee deep in culture war issues and giving sermons on George Washington.


      1. The White Horse Inn is a fine program and I think it is of value. However hosts are not merely Reformed but also Lutheran and Baptist. Consequently it is possible for a position to be advocated on the White Horse Inn and yet not be a position which is permitted a NAPARC pastor.


  5. Thanks for writing Richard. Your question may have been rhetorical but to answer it as it concerns myself, when I was a college pastor at the age of 20 and had little understanding of denominations and such, I used James Kennedy as an example of an Arminian on the basis of what I saw in evangelism explosion. How surprised and disappointed I was, then, when I later learned that he was PCA. I could make no sense of it. The first person I ever heard criticize him after myself was M Horton. Long before learning from MG Kline, I conceived of the culture wars in terms of a two kingdom position and spoke out against the semi-pelagian that seeks to wash the swine while replacing faith with externalism and focusing on society instead of the church. Satan doesn’t care if he’s a black devil (promoting sin) or a white devil (advocating morality) – as long as you don’t believe in and love Christ according to the word.

    I did not know there was a “piling on” until I saw it in your initial post. I intended to “pile on” and will continue to oppose error like his. Lloyd-Jones said preaching the gospel will get you called an antinomian. But the wise Lloyd-Jones also said to never do anything that might lead to a false conversion. It’s not an easy balance. From the little I’ve seen of him – I try to remain unaware of popular men and fads – I see shallowness that will not build up the church. His misuse of Phil 2 is a good example. The ministry rests on the study of the word as that is where the Lord has spoken to his people.


  6. OK, this comment does not belong here, but I just finished reading A Dangerous Calling by Paul Tripp, and found your review on line (for which comments are closed, hence my violation of blog etiquette here). I wish I had read your review first, because now I know why I found it so discouraging at times. It really does not encourage the weary pastor who is just trying to persevere in ministry — just warns me about all the danger I may be in, and tells me all the stuff I am not doing well.

    It had good parts, and made some great points, particularly on the danger of pride, but it was remarkably thin on Scripture — pages at a time without any references — in a book on ministry! And it also laid down a pietistic law at points — 1) have great personal devotions all the time always!; 2) write your sermons weeks ahead of time if you really want to be excellent!; 3) just love God supremely and you will be fine.

    These are the things I just can’t do, which is why I need Christ to empower my work if I am do any good. Did not Paul preach with trembling? So, I thought your little comment about public worship informing private worship was right on target, and so encouraging to me. No wonder I feel more encouraged by sermons and worship than I do when it is just me and my Bible (usually).

    Anyway, good review, and thank you for at least showing me that I was not crazy to have my doubts about this book. One question: if this book is for the utterly prideful and in-danger pastor, how is he to know that he needs it?


    1. Thanks for the note, Christ. I’ll move your comment here to that post:

      Or did you read my review on Amazon? Either way, thanks!

      To answer your question, I suppose a pastor who struggles with pride might see some benefit in this book, but not one who is blind to his pride. Make sense?

      If you want more uplifting pastoral reading, read John Newton’s letters. They are gold.



      1. Any particular edition of Newton’s letters? I see there are a couple of editions out…. I know they are on the web (check out the baptist Reformed Reader site), but I prefer something I can spill coffee on. Thanks for all these great reviews!


        1. Well, volume 1 of his Works has a ton of great letters. Or, Banner of Truth put out a single little book of some of his letters (here: Also, for a pastoral version of his letters, check out “Wise Counsel.” Let me know if you have more questions. Blessings on your reading! I assure you Newton will not discourage, but encourage you in the faith and pastorate.


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