Grace-Driven Effort

D.A. Carson, For the Love of God, volume 2, Jan. 23 entry:

One of the most striking evidences of sinful human nature lies in the universal propensity for downward drift.

In other words, it takes thought, resolve, energy, and effort to bring about reform.

In the grace of God, sometimes human beings display such virtues. But where such virtues are absent, the drift is invariably toward compromise, comfort, indiscipline, sliding disobedience and decay that advances, sometimes at a crawl and sometimes at a gallop, across generations.

People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, and obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord.

We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance;

we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom;

we drift toward superstition and call it faith.

We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation;

we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism;

we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.

HT: Jared Wilson, Matt Chandler, Justin Taylor


15 Responses to Grace-Driven Effort

  1. Susan says:

    Very thought provoking. Kind of like trying to tread water in a fast current- impossible. You have to swim hard to go the opposite way of the current -our natural sinful selfish way of living life.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Wilson, David Wilson. David Wilson said: What can salmon teach you about sanctification? […]

  3. Patron Jenn says:

    In Platonic style, I’m going to be a gadfly for a moment. However, it is not meaningless gadflyness, but rather faith seeking understanding.

    I have to admit I get a bit concerned about where the contemporary Reformed view of sanctification can go. I certainly agree that it is biblical that if someone is justified, sanctification will follow. However, when writing his thoughts on this, I am certain that Calvin had a particular pastoral concern in view. The Doctrine of Election is an appropriate analogy here. While it is theologically true that God’s people are elect, we wouldn’t go out and evangelize using that doctrine. (“Excuse me, sir. Did you know that it’s possible that you’re either one of God’s chosen people, or a reprobate who can never know God, or will to do so?” Not very catchy. 🙂 ) Yet, Calvin had specific pastoral concern here. If someone was of faith, they could look at the Doctrine of Election, and remind themselves that it is not their effort that earned them their salvation, but rather God has intimately loved them as His before the foundation of time. Now THAT’S reassuring!

    Similarly, I think Calvin was concerned pastorally with this issue. If someone is doubting their salvation, they can look back at the sanctification they’ve grown in, and have that as a “badge” of their faith. I may not be perfect, but I am BECOMING perfect, not by any means of my own!

    The problem, it seems, when we approach this view other than ad hoc, is (at least from my own experience and observations) that we mix our own personal efforts in and mistake it as grace. After all, is something really holiness if we can loose it so quickly? I get this picture of us standing before God in that wonderful judgment of vindication, and all of our attempts at “holiness” falling off of us, and us standing naked before Christ realizing how little we had and how much more he actually loved us than we thought.

    To get beyond Calvin and into scripture (imagine that 😉 ), verses like working out your faith in fear and trembling could easily be interpreted that we are to pursue Christ and our rational and existential knowledge of Him.

    Even pragmatically, when I think about sin I tend to sin so much more often! (If you want to struggle with sexual sin, read a book on sexual purity). However, when I think about Christ, I have less desire TO sin, but because I am focused on what is so much more beautiful.

    Now, I am not saying that we shouldn’t do any effort, but many contemporary Reformed theologians seem to paint a picture that Jesus is the gas that gets us to the goal of purity. However, Jesus is the gas that gets us to Jesus. Purity is the wonderful, redeeming effect of pursuing Christ. (I think this principle is the heart of Christ saying we have to hate our fathers, brothers, etc to follow Him… if we are willing to give everything to follow Christ, we will get him and everything we were willing to loose in one sense or another. If we pursue purity, we will fail. If we pursue Christ, we will gain Christ and purity along with it… and when we look back at a life of pursuing Him, we will see how He has made us more and more like Him.)

    Then again, maybe I’ve just been reading too much Luther lately… not as if that’s a bad thing 😉 (Sin boldly, but believe in the grace of Christ more boldly still!)

    Any thoughts?

    With respect,

  4. Patron Jenn says:

    Oops. That was Dan. Don’t know why it didn’t log me out. Sorry.

  5. David Wilson says:

    Hey Jenn/Dan ;),

    You bring up some excellent points. I love having the opportunity to discuss matters of faith. I benefit greatly from the dialogue.

    I believe that we both agree that we are justified freely by grace by the finished work of Jesus on the Cross. It is all of God, and we contribute nothing. Nada. Zip. Full stop.

    What I believe that Carson is saying is that we are now enabled by grace to walk out our lives in pursuit of Him (that reminds me of our upcoming series called The Pursuit). We do have a part to play in growing in our sanctification, though admittedly, His is the most significant and lasting work.

    Grace teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness. But we must walk in the good of that lesson and obey.

    I think where we all can err in thinking that we have no part at all in our ongoing sanctification. But as we’re told in 1 Timothy 4, we are to train ourselves for godliness. There seems to be a very real possibility that those who have been saved by His grace can still live according to the flesh, rather than according to the Spirit. Paul is continually calling people to live in the good of the victory that Jesus won on the Cross.

    I agree that there is a real danger for people to fail to understand grace, and attempt to merit God’s favor with good works. But I think the answer for misuse of our works is proper use, not disuse. I believe that is the heart of Carson’s comment.

    Does that make sense, or did I misunderstand your comments?

    Thanks again for your contributing to the dialogue!

  6. Derick H. says:

    I’ll make the easiest contribution to this dialogue by saying that I believe you are both right. That is to say, I believe that Carson’s comment can be summed up by Dan’s comment that: “Purity is the wonderful, redeeming effect of pursuing Christ.” Saved by grace, indeed, we ought to pursue Christ. Doing so does not earn merit badges, but as we put off the flesh and fix our lives on Christ, he promises to transform us by his Spirit. We can only pursue him by his grace, and in that pursuit he works in us and through us.

    Carson’s comment details a glimpse of what it looks like when we are not pursing Christ. I know that I am tempted to drift, continuing to practice habits that move my attention away from Christ. God has graciously taught us ways in which we can be intentional about unlearning habits that move us away from him by replacing them with habits that keep us in pursuit of him.

    I need to embrace these gifts more in my life. When I do, I find my self delighting in the Lord and the work he’s doing in me. It is not because I’ve earned anything by my efforts. On the contrary, I see how I cannot even pursue him faithfully and deserve his transformative work even less. Nevertheless, I see him graciously chipping away the bad and shaping me even while I struggle.

    For instance, he’ll change my heart, that can often be reluctant to take time to pray and meditate on Scripture, into a heart that desires to do so without ceasing. I cannot conger up that desire on my own, but by intentionally praying and filling my mind with his Word, albeit all to often reluctantly, I am astounded by the new desires he’s put in my heart.

    Once I taste those desires he’s given, I want more and more. But, alas, old habits die hard as I still manage to find ways to waste my time in pursuit of empty distractions. But thanks be to God, by his grace I more quickly turn back as he has begun to reveal to me the stark difference between what the pursuit of the distractions offer versus the life found in pursuing Christ. At the end of the day, any pitiful efforts I’ve made fall away, but the work he’s graciously done to change me remains.

  7. Daniel Collette says:

    Hey guys,
    Thanks for the helpful and thoughtful comments. In a sense I think my concerns/disagreements/questions are on one level merely semantical. In that case it is silly to spend too much time discussing it. However, in another sense, theology is inherently semantical sometimes, and the purpose of studying it (especially in a systematic sense) is to clarify doctrines, meanings, create distinctions, and ensure that all of our doctrines are coherent and properly aligned with one another.

    So, a few additional thoughts…

    We are absolutely called to pursue Christ. We are called to grow in knowing God, both intellectually and personally. We are called to pursue knowing and believing correct doctrine (what Titus 2 seems to be talking about). However, it would seem that, if we are to hold a consistent definition of what grace and total depravity are, we can have no part in our sanctification. Sanctification is the result of grace. Unless we are to double define grace (one type of grace for justification, another for sanctification), grace is something that happens to us. We can work hard and mistake our works for grace, but those fall out from under us and we are left with the mess that God really sees us as, the mess that he is perfecting and making holy.

    Again returning to Titus 2, since it is the grace of God that trains us to say no to ungodliness and to have self control, this chapter (and most like it) seem to be saying (1) pursue Christ, and (2) know what’s right and wrong (the implication, perhaps, is so that we are not confined to subjective measure for what is and is not from God in our pursuit of Christ).

    I’m not sure that 1 Timothy 4 can warrant a view other than this, too. In scripture, words do not carry exactly the same definition book to book. (e.g., James says we’re justified by our works, but certainly in a different sense than Paul means it). So, for understanding a definition, we must necessarily rely on context. The ungodliness Paul seems to be writing about are people who are legalistic (in the genuine sense of the word–people saying that you can’t eat this or that, forbid marriage, etc). So, Paul writes, instead of following doctrinal lies, study truth and get to know God–train yourself for godliness.

    Again, I know this probably seems semantical, but the practical implications can be huge. It seems that placing us in partial control of our sanctification, we are in severe danger of looking inward instead of outward. This not only makes us less effective for the kingdom (because we’re looking at our own sin instead of serving others and pursuing God… e.g., why care about the lost when the church has it’s own holiness to worry about?), but it also takes the focus off of Christ and what he’s doing for us, and onto ourself and what we can try to muster up for ourselves. This doesn’t mean we just do whatever we want and Christ will change us… but rather, pray, read scripture, worship and live life together… and our sanctification will automatically grow from that. (vs. accountability groups, reading books on conquering this or that sin, etc). A great night of positive theological discussion over a coffee or pint is many times better the cure for sin than getting together weekly and confessing. One is focused on Christ and becoming like him, the other is focused on ourselves and stopping sinning.

    Whenever I’ve tried those sorts of things (groups, books, etc), I not only sinned just as much if not more, but also became increasingly introspective and self consumed… honestly, really unhealthy spiritually. However, when I read scripture, talk theology with friends, love my family, try to serve others (including those outside our local congregation), etc.. I am so excited to do right that I don’t think much about sin, or when I do, it seems far less attractive. Derick much more eloquently describes this last point than I do in his last paragraph, if I understand him right. 🙂

    With all this being said, I may have been a little too quick to jump on Carson in this quote, assuming that he had lots of underlying meaning in what he said, that he never actually said.

    Then, as for what’s really important and what we all absolutely agree on, knowing Christ is wonderful… and hence, The Pursuit looks really, really good. I’m going to have to see if it’s too late to join and if it will fit into my schedule. I hear that Dave Wilson is teaching a class, and I’d hate to miss that one. 🙂

    I sincerely would love to hear any additional/responding thoughts… I probably come across as opinionated, but we’re all in a life long learning journey and I have nothing but respect and love at the end of it all. Thanks for putting up with me and my thoughts. 🙂 (I think context warrants that long-suffering appropriately applies to your putting up with me here! :P)


    • David Wilson says:

      Hey Dan,

      Great comments. Much to reflect on.

      Question. Regarding your comment: “This doesn’t mean we just do whatever we want and Christ will change us… but rather, pray, read scripture, worship and live life together… and our sanctification will automatically grow from that.” — doesn’t this track with the grace-driven effort at the center of Carson’s quote?


  8. darynkinney says:

    It’s both guys. Confess sin, repent and do it all the while looking and delighting in Christ who makes it possible for us to repent in the first place. We need to pursue holiness, put to death and put away those areas of sin that marked our old manner of life (Ephesians 4-5 and Colossians 3 stuff here) and yet do it all standing on the firm foundation of Christ. Our position is “in Christ” this is our new identity. That doesn’t shift or change and that is a glorious thought. His work on the cross must always be our starting point and ending point when fighting sin. Our hope will always be in the righteousness of Jesus. Our joy should be in Him, our confidence for any and all acceptance should be in Him and yet there is a call to abstain from sinful desires which war against my soul. I/ we shouldn’t be overly introspective (that can be unhealthy for sure) but we should definitely confess sin one to another, pursue accountability (“See to it brother that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God… Hebrews 3).

    I agree that sin is less attractive when our focus is on Jesus. Here’s what happens though when we focus on Jesus – He graciously reveals areas that need to change. In love, He does this. For our good and His glory. I vote for reading rich theological books with strong coffee AND accountability groups that don’t beat the members of the group up but rather lovingly encourage those along in the faith – asking hard questions, praying for one another and pointing to Scripture. It’s both.

  9. darynkinney says:

    BTW – I love strong coffee Dan.

  10. Daniel Collette says:

    Hey guys!
    Thanks for taking the time to share your insightful thoughts.

    Dave: You are right. I actually noted that I was too unsympathetic in my reading of Carson’s quote. I read a lot into his comment that he never actually said and may or may not have meant. Genetic and Ad Hominem Circumstantial Fallacies = Guilty as charged. 🙂

    Daryn: I guess it depends on what we’re defining as accountability groups. If it means meeting together regularly to discuss scripture and pray, to be there for one another, then absolutely. However, when the focus becomes sin, I do admit I would get concerned. Another way of saying what I mean is this: Are we making an idol out of holiness? We are a new creation, free from the guilt and shame of sin to know and love God. If a Christian feels shame for sin he has committed that has been confessed before God, that guilt and shame is from the devil. (Holiness isn’t the purpose of being a Christian, it’s a rad side effect that God has promised his people…as the title of John Piper’s book states, God IS the gospel!) So, are we putting our desire to stopping sinning over knowing and loving the one who died for our sins?

    I absolutely agree that, “…what happens though when we focus on Jesus – He graciously reveals areas that need to change. In love, He does this. For our good and His glory.” Here’s how I see that happening… We are pursuing God through spiritual disciplines and community, and he brings something to mind and convicts us that we need to change something. We try not to do that because we can’t easily and honestly pursue spiritual disciplines and ignore this conviction. When we fail, we confess before God, and he is faithful and just to forgive us! Sometimes, if secrecy is a concern, it can be good to tell someone about it–not so we can sit around and talk about it for 2 hours, but because sin kept to ourselves is sin we are trying to hide. When we talk about it, we are acknowledging that it has no claim on us anymore. (Sin boldly, but believe in the grace of Christ more boldly still). Otherwise, keep looking forward.

    I honestly can’t say that I’ve ever been part of accountability that isn’t a weekly confessional that barely (if ever) mentions Christ or grace. The person who confesses the worst sin gets high fives for humility, and we’d show up the next week to do the same thing… Basically, you’re saved by grace, but now you’re out in the cold and it’s your job to make sure you act like you’re justified. However, I hope (and trust) that isn’t what you mean. So, specifically, how would you describe it? (Hopefully including strong coffee? 😉 )

    I hope this discussion is as helpful and thought provoking for all of you as it is for me… and if not, thank you for your patience. 🙂 Mostly, I hope that my respect and care for each one of you is present, even when there are questions or disagreement.


  11. darynkinney says:


    Well I definitely meant the type of accountability that was grace centered rather than sin centered. I don’t think it’s healthy at all to be focused on sin. I can only hope and pray that you will find men in your life that will build you up in your faith, encourage you on and be bold enough to call you out on your sin when necessary (and be there for you to confess sin to and pray for you). The kind of accountability that I’m speaking of needs to be cultivated and initiated. It doesn’t “just happen”. It’s when we purposefully pursue others by showing interest in their life, praying for them, etc. It’s really rooted in love and humility.

    The accountability group I have enjoyed for more than 10 years happens every wednesday morning. We meet for strong coffee, talk about the LORD (and a whole lot of other things). We have gone through books like Donald Whitney’s 10 Questions to Diagnose your Spiritual Health, we have read books of the Bible together (great idea!! – the BIBLE), we have simply come together, chatted for while and prayed for one another and then there are those times when a guy will share an area of unique temptation or struggle. We’ll listen and chime in where it serves and pray for him. We’ll follow up (hopefully) a week or so later. There are some mornings we need to be a whole lot more purposeful than we are and yet as I look over the years of us meeting I have to say that our hour and 15 minutes at starbucks wed mornings has been a true joy and benefit in my growth in godliness (I do believe we can grow in godliness :))
    Another benefit to having a specific group of guys: I know I can call them and ask for prayer, counsel, guidance over whatever. Trust me, I have and it helps. That’s what I do. Every wednesday.
    On top of that I have faithful men I see all the time at GCCC that spur me on with their very lives.

    I don’t want to make an idol out of holiness (no way) but I do want to pursue it – and I definitely want to take advantage of the grace given through the body of Christ (the church). Hope this helps man!

    • David Wilson says:

      Like anything in our walk, accountability can certainly be improperly understood and applied. None of us are served by a dreary, condemning and relentless obsession with sin.
      That said, I have been tremendously blessed over the course of my walk by relationships where brothers are speaking the truth in love. If growth in sanctification was something I was called to pursue on my own, I’d be completely sunk. I’m so grateful that I have a context for confessing my sin, and drawing on the experience and wisdom of others. I can be blind to my folly and benefit from the input of others. And I can also miss evidences of grace in my life, and am so encouraged when others point them out.
      I’m reminded of this scripture:
      All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
      I’m grateful for how scripture comes forth through preaching. And I’m also grateful for how it’s rendered to me through men who know me and love me. Accountability (discipleship, really) is just one of the tools He has given to help in our growth in godliness. But it’s one tool I don’t want to do without.

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