A few months ago on my own blog I wrote about something I write often about: how the good news is that Christ’s finished work actually means the work of salvation is finished, so that even our feeble participation in sanctification is both covered by Jesus and empowered by him through the Spirit. A somewhat prominent blogger then brought up the idea of our own “sweat equity” contributing to our sanctification. I couldn’t think of a more abhorrent idea at the time, an idea more antithetical to the gospel, which suddenly becomes no gospel, because it means Christ made a down payment and now I’m on the installment plan.

I saw the idea again yesterday, as someone linked to the May 2008 edition of The Gospel Coalition’s Themelios journal, in an article titled “How a Mega-Church is Rediscovering the Gospel”. An excerpt, from the pastor of that church:

I met with a man who had been attending our church for four years. He said he needed to ask me a theological question before he could join our church. I never like those kinds of conversations since the question is usually about a distinctive rather than about something central. We met for breakfast, and his question was the best theological question I had ever been asked. He simply asked me how people grow. He said that he knew people were saved by grace, but he wanted to know if I thought people were sanctified through their own sweat equity. I thought for a moment and then told him that the only thing that ever really changed me was love. Ever since the mission trip, I had been feeling that it was more important for me to understand how much Jesus loved me than it was for me to figure out how to love Him. I watched in amazement as relief spread across my friend’s face. He said he had tried for twenty years to be sanctified through his own effort; it had ground him to powder, and he would not go back.

I know this myself personally. Talking about how the gospel and the law relate to sanctification is no mere intellectual exercise for me. It’s not just one more idea for the blog. It made the difference between the crushing weight of my own sinful failure and the freedom that comes from tasting and seeing that the Lord is good. This is a real freedom, a freedom that makes “good works” a celebratory dance, not a day-laborers’ accumulation of sanctifying sweat equity. That way leads to burn out and bitterness. “Do not again return to a yoke of slavery,” Paul practically yells at us.

And I don’t care if this offends you (because it needs to): If you don’t get this, you do not have the joy of gospel wakefulness.

Pastor Joe Coffey continues:
Gospel-driven transformation is both liberating and terrifying.

There are some in our church who have not yet rediscovered the Gospel this way. There are others who hear the terrifying part but not the liberating part, and they sit on pins and needles. Many of them will leave soon, I think. But there are many others who have felt the shackles start to fall off, and, like me, they are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.

It is counterintuitive, but wakefulness to the reality that the work is done makes us work more and harder. The gospel creates what the Law requires. And when we approach the notion of sanctification from the angle of “How much reminding of the spiritual homework can we do?” we miss the point entirely. It is often because we do not trust the proclamation to be effectual, and we do not really believe that the gospel is power in itself, that it bears fruit of itself.

[C]ontinue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. — Philippians 2:12b-13

For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. — Ephesians 2:10

“We must re-evangelize the church.” — John Armstrong

Articles by Jared C. Wilson

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