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Real Transformation Happens When?
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A debate has been raging in Reformed/Lutheran quarters about "sanctification"—our growth in holiness. Tullian Tchividjian of Liberate argues that the most important thing is "by grace you are saved." Unless we are absolutely clear and certain about this, he says, we'll never be properly motivated for a sustained Christian life. Tullian sees much legalism and spiritual oppression in church and society, and he's anxious to announce this message of gospel freedom.

Various members of The Gospel Coalition don't disagree; they just put the emphasis on another gospel syllable. They highlight that part of the gospel is the promise of the power to become holy. They see many lazy and lethargic Christians failing to strive for the holiness the Bible tells us to seek. They want people to realize—meaning, making it real in their lives—what we are saved for: "to be holy and blameless before him in love" (Eph. 1:4, NRSV).

As with any dispute, personality plays a role. But theology also plays a role, and what I've summarized seems to be a large part of the theology in dispute.

The Gospel Coalition and Tullian have, unfortunately, come to metaphorical blows over this, and Tullian has been knocked out of The Gospel Coalition ring. As with any dispute, personality plays a role. But theology also plays a role, and what I've summarized above seems to be at least one large part of the theology in dispute.

Each side in the dispute has made what seems to me to be tactical missteps in resolving this (I am personally acquainted with making many tactical blunders in my life). And I've been led to believe there are other finer points of theology in dispute. Still, one would hope that everyone can see that the gospel is not a narrow stream but a wide river, with many eddies and currents. And one would hope that those who highlight the call to holiness (made possible by the Holy Spirit's work in our lives) and those who highlight the grace of forgiveness (which is the only ground for holy living) could swim in the same river.

What to Make of Little Progress

I want to raise one sanctification issue that I don't see discussed much. I do not doubt the biblical call to holy living (1 Pet. 1:15 being the quintessential text). But after living the Christian life for nearly a half century, I doubt the ability of Christians to make much progress in holiness.

I look at my own life, and marvel at the lack of real transformation after 50 years of effort.

I look at churches that are committed to transformation and holiness, and I fail to see that they are much more holy or transformed than other churches. I see some piety, some religious devotion, a measure of good works in the community. But in such churches I see a fair amount of spiritual anxiety (hardly a fruit of the Spirit, who promises peace), self-righteousness, judgmentalism, and hypocrisy.

I look at my own life and marvel at the lack of real transformation after 50 years of effort. To be sure, outwardly I'm more patient, kind, gracious, and so forth. But even after half a century of transformation, my thoughts and motives are a cauldron of evil. Just one small example: When a friend fails to show up on time, I'm outwardly patient and kind, but inwardly I battle judgment and condemnation. Earlier in life, I would have lashed out at him for being tardy, as lack of respect for me among other things. Now I have some self-control as I smile and say, "Not a problem."

In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is Editor of Christianity Today in Carol Stream, Illinois.
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Real Transformation Happens When?