Thursday, December 15, 2011

Merging Justification and Sanctification: More About Gothard's Thanksgiving Letter and Concerns About Grace

Note:  A few hours after posting this original version, I realized that I'd published a rougher draft when I sought to correct formatting issues).  Minor grammatical edits added to update to the final draft at 8:15AM.

In a recent post, I discussed the letter that Bill Gothard recently sent out to his Advanced Training Institute alumni wherein he defended his aberrant definition of grace as something that a believer needs to merit after their initial experience of salvation by faith.   (There was so much to say, I couldn't do it all in a single post.)  The error might seem like a rather simple one, and it's ramifications might seem quite limited. They actually turn Protestantism right back around into something that is strikingly similar to Roman Catholicism wherein performance of good works keep a person from damning themselves to hell.

To get technical, Bill Gothards views are heavily influenced by what theology geeks know as “pelagianism” or a variant thereof, a philosophical aspect of theology that maintains that a person has the power within themselves to “pull themselves up by their own boot straps.” I recently found Ron Henzel's notes about his research into Gothard's work in graduate school at Wheaton which demonstrates his admiration not only for pelagian Charles Finney but also the influence of the Keswick/Higher Life Movement and Shepherding/Discipleship Movement gurus like Watchman Nee.

Whereas the New Testament points out repeatedly that God works in the heart and soul of a person to change them through the power of the Holy Spirit which comes by grace (God's willingness to forgive us) through faith (when we repent of our sins and put our trust in God as the One who “pulls us our boot straps for us”), Gothard's version pelagianism teaches that Christian growth after the initial moment of faith in Jesus comes through willpower, striving, and determination to achieve a certain level of holiness through lifestyle. In this type of pelagianism, it's rather tricky, because its advocates don't necessarily deny that the Holy Spirit also works in a person to transform them, but it teaches that Christians who fail to strive and labor through their own will and power of their own flesh and striving are not really Christians.


Growing up as a Pentecostal, I first experienced this Higher Life influence through the discussion of the gifts of the Spirit. As a new Christian, my mother read a great deal of Dwight Moody's writing (a Baptist), and that eventually lead to a discussion with me of what made us different from him (as Pentecostals). I found that many Pentecostals put more emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit themselves than they did the Gospel in many cases, and they would often also look down on those who did not practices or pursue manifestations of the Holy Spirit (if that's indeed what some of them even were). Of those who attended churches that did not speak in tongues, for example, people would often call them and their churches “dead churches” because they were said to lack the full spectrum of power and benefit that was believed to be a result of speaking in tongues.

The “dead church people” were seen as those who made it into the fold successfully in order to eventually get to heaven, but they backed away from a real commitment and all that God offered them through the gifts. This always troubled me deeply, not only because we always had lots of “Baptist books” on our bookshelves, but it also bothered me because I was taught not to judge a person by their outward characteristics or to look down on others who didn't measure up to my own preferences. This perception of a “higher life” and higher level of being as a Christian would set me up to chase after divine healing through “acts of faith and holiness” that were little more than works of my own flesh to achieve a higher level of being. We should always look forward to “higher ground” as the old hymn sings to us, but even its lyrics cry out to God to take the believer to a new place of maturity. It is not a place that we attain on our own. Was it God that works in us or is it me who must be busy about the work in order to earn the right to seize it?

In terms of theology, what Gothard effectively does is merge justification and sanctification together because of the ongoing work needed that must be initiated on the part of the Christian to get the sanctification process to progress for them. The Protestant Reformers demonstrated that justification (to be declared righteous through the Blood of Jesus which is not merited) and ongoing sanctification were related but separate processes with one proceeding after the other. In Gothardism, the focus that one is made righteous (God's work within a person) plays the minor role in the process, and following the "Christian law" gets advanced to the forefront of a person's motivation and concern. In very pragmatic terms, it is a long process of continually giving -- in order to get something in return.

Romans chapter 5 says that by Adam's offense, many died, but through the free gift of Christ, we are justified (we are made free of guilt which comes through the law and are made acceptable to God). As believers, we receive the “abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness” and will “reign in life” through Jesus (vs 17). Grace is the freely given gift of God and precedes both faith and works. The word for “reign” means “to exercise kingly power.” In verse 21, Paul writes that sin reigned in death, but for those in Christ, grace reigns through righteousness. Grace is the first part of the process which starts the cascade which God initiates and perpetuates, and our “reigning in life” (which implies power) results in good works which are an outward sign and end result of what God begins in us through the abundance of grace that he has for us. While we were yet sinners, when we inevitably sin, and where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. (Gothard should know this.)


Gothard teaches something very different, reversing this chain of events. People don't reign in life through the abundance of grace and imputed righteousness that Jesus gives us, but according to Gothard, people are supposed to reign over their own lives through self-control and determination which they should use to do good works. To Gothard, those good works somehow change how God responds to us, and then God offers us grace which gives us power for living, and presumably, more power to have more determination to do more good works.  (Note the cycle in the above diagram.) Grace abounds only when we do works of righteousness, not when we sin. It isn't God's grace that reigns in Gothard's paradigm, it's the individual who is supposed to reign over their own behavior so that they can earn grace. It is a righteousness of self through works, righteousness of self that one must work to merit God's righteousness. Scripture doesn't support this view – it derives only from Gothard's formulaic and oversimplified views which argue a maintenance of salvation through works.
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When that happens, justification collapses into sanctification. You must continually earn justification. This is not only a problem with Gothard. Sonship Theology which has become popular among some Calvinists maintains that justification comes through faith but that we are also sanctified by faith as well, arguing much of the same thing concerning works and merited righteousness that Gothard does. The author of an article that is critical of Sonship Theology states that this approach to justification is “associated with pietist, quietist, Wesleyan Holiness, or Keswick thought.” (Bells and whistles went off in my brain when I read this about this other religious system because it had so much in common with Gothard.)

Not only does the Westminster Confession that Gothard cites in his letter separate forensic justification (a legal status before God which delivers us from the law of sin and death), it establishes “definitive sanctification” which refers to the imputation of Christ's righteousness to us, while He takes and bears away our sin (the act He already completed at Calvary). And it differentiates this “definitive sanctification” from “progressive sanctification” which is the ongoing process of making us holy as we are transformed by the renewing of our mind and conformed to the Image of Christ. Like Sonship Theology, Gothard also confuses and collapses all of these single elements into one process through his redefinition of grace.


Justification neither comprises nor is grounded on a renewal of our character or conduct, but definitive sanctification comprises, and progressive sanctification grows out of, just such a renewal. The initial renewal (“having the seeds of repentance unto life, and all other saving graces, put into their hearts”) is definitive sanctification; the ongoing renewal (“and those graces . . . stirred up, increased, and strengthened”) is progressive sanctification.
If you recall in Gothard's Thanksgiving Letter, he claims quite boldly that his version of grace is drawn from and supported by the Westminster Confession. (I still cannot wrap my mind around that one, save that it is proof of more of his style of proof texting.) Here is what Beisner points out from the Westminster Confession in his article:
Q. 77. Wherein do justification and sanctification differ? A. Although sanctification be inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, in that God in justification imputeth the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification His Spirit infuseth grace, and enableth to the exercise thereof; in the former, sin is pardoned; in the other, it is subdued: the one doth equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation; the other is neither equal in all, nor in this life perfect in any, but growing up to perfection.
Second, consider how the Standards distinguish between faith’s role in justification and its role in sanctification. Of saving faith, Confession, 14.2, says,
By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; 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.
This in no way supports Gothard's claim that the Westminster Confession teaches that grace is a type of power that man must earn through striving to perform good works. Many Christians fall into error when they fall into the problem of black and white thinking. Beisner goes on to say:
Legalists collapse sanctifying faith into justifying faith without any distinction and so talk of an “active, living, obedient” faith in relation to justification without mentioning that it is a “resting” faith. Quietists collapse justifying faith into sanctifying faith without any distinction and so talk of a “resting” faith in relation to sanctification without mentioning an “active, living, obedient” faith.
In his elitism of Fundamentalism and Higher Life, and in his errors of oversimplification, Gothard acts like the legalist who does not differentiate between the “active, living, and obedient” part of faith to deny the rest that the believer enters into through faith.   Here again is an example of Gothard's black and white thinking, an informal logical fallacy and a propaganda technique, used to demoralize and “de-Christianize” anyone who does not ascribe to his teachings, and that results in reductio ad Hitlerum. (This can also be viewed as a primitive ego defense mechanism that children tend to use to feel better about themselves by diminishing others. Paul taught that we should esteem others better than ourselves [Phil 2:3], but that is a whole other doctrine that Gothard distorts, a topic for another day.)

Gothard esteems ALL those who reject his teachings as the evil quietists who make the the polar opposite extreme of his own error: a lack of appreciation for sober, responsible and “active obedience” which results in true antinomianism (those who follow no laws or standards). He fails to acknowledge or perhaps cannot comprehend that there is a sweet place of balance between these two extremes of the legalist and the quietist (a person who follows a type of passive, meditative mysticism that dismisses personal responsibility).

In closing, Beisner states that,
If we conflate these two aspects of faith in either direction, we risk becoming either legalists on the one hand or quietists on the other. The former is deadly, equating with the false gospel of Romanism. The latter is debilitating, leading to practical antinomianism and long-term immaturity in the Christian life. But recognizing and preserving the distinction enables us to rest completely in the saving work of Christ at the same time that we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it is God who works in us to will and to do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).


Thanks to Paul Dohse at Paul's Passing Thoughts and for the work he's done to expose the errors of the “New Calvinists,” a subject I hope to discuss here in days to come. I found Beisner's great journal article on Paul's website when reading about how many new and very popular Calvinists actually fall right into this same error that Gothard does.