January 17, 2021

Riffs: 11:23:09: Required Behavior Modification and the Gospel

man-praying-aloneLike any and all Riffs, these are simply some of my thoughts inspired by other posts and discussions. Not a throw down, etc.

This morning at evangel, Joe Carter voiced some of his frustration at the way the “law/Gospel” distinction sounds to his ears. I’ve wrestled with this myself on this site. Then, in the comments, Carter responded to Jared Wilson- and quoted him- in regard to the relation of the Gospel and sanctification, which he described as “behavior change.”

Quote: “Indeed, you did and I think you did a good job. But I also think you added in some stuff that leads to the very problem I’m referring to. For example: Then, why, for the love of God, do we preach all manner of behavior modification, none of which could save a single one of us, when only the gospel saves.”

You seem to be implying that “behavior modification” (i.e., sanctification) is not important. Now I know that this is not what you are saying. But how should other people who may think this statement is to be taken quite literally, be expected to respond? You are creating what could be considered a false dichotomy. Yes, only the gospel saves. But does that mean that Christians are not required to modify their behavior?

When I read this comment this morning, I immediately returned in my mind to my last visit to a church near me, a church I often attend when I am not preaching elsewhere. One thing about this church is predictable: I will hear about the necessity that my behavior must change. I must attend church more. I must do more church-related work. I must give more and witness more (and this despite that I am a full time missionary teacher working with mostly non-Christian teenagers.) I must support the church more. It is a constant example of the “church shaped spirituality” you’ll be hearing about in my book. Everything is about behavior. Behavior that must change. What I must feel. What God requires of me.

When I leave I am, literally, beaten down. The Gospel is a past tense matter and its time to get down to “application.” (Not a bad thing, but something that requires careful gardening.) The over-riding present tense concern is behavior, and I feel it. My behavior is not what the preacher believes it ought to be. And will I hear the “comfortable words” of the Gospel? Unlikely. Somewhere in the relationship between the evangel we proclaim, the offer to the broken and the demands of behavior change we make of the saved, there has been a disconnect. Readers of this site know this language. It is what, as I will say this fall, drives thousands of people away from the church for the sake of their own integrity to the gracious message of Jesus.

We’re on dangerous ground here, friends. Getting the Gospel of justification- a glad announcement of Good News- balanced with reality of Spirit-produced, Jesus-shaped “behavior” change is not just a matter of lining up arguments. It’s a matter of despair or confident assurance in God’s love. Say “required behavior modification,” and I am on the verge of despair, as are many, many others whose journey through evangelicalism has left them hungry for a place to stop and say “Here I know that God loves me, now, with no demands at all.” If you don’t think the sacramental presence view of the eucharist doesn’t touch many of us deeply at that point, you aren’t paying attention.

Why dangerous ground? Because we are talking about two hearts: the heart of the Gospel and the heart of every believer, that heart from which all true Gospel produced, God honoring, Jesus shaped change must flow. Behavior change is small change in the Kingdom if it is not a living garden growing out of soil saturated with the blood and body of Christ.

In my own journey to understand and clarify these issues, there are two resources I have linked more than any other in my blogging since the year 2000.

The first is an address by Dr. Rod Rosenbladt on “Reclaiming the Doctrine of Justification.” It’s in the Modern Reformation archive and should be regular reading for every Christian. In plain language, Dr. Rosenbladt explains the difference between the “law” and the “Gospel.”

Let me assure you this is life-changing help for the Christian who has been told that the Gospel includes “behavior change. The Gospel is an announcement that God has done, in Jesus, all things necessary for our salvation. The announcement has implications for behavior, but the word “required” is not there. The closest thing the Gospel has to a requirement would be the same requirement a drowning man has in stopping trying to swim and stopping resisting the lifeguard and simply resting.

Often, if someone is dying, we say he is “entirely in God’s hands.” This is not just a pastoral expression. It’s the essence of understanding the position of reformation faith. We rest. We stop. We are not involved in required works or required behavior change. We are, hopefully, deeply involved in lives that are in union with Christ and will bear fruit in ways that may be appreciated by others or that are measurable or ways that only God can see.

The second resource is J.C. Ryle’s little essay on The Difference Between Justification and Sanctification. Now some of you may find some statements from Ryle in this article that sound as if he is giving sanctification a place I would not, but a close reading of Ryle will make several things clear:

1) Justification and sanctification are separate and not to be confused. 2) Both flow from the same faith resting entirely on Christ. 3) Sanctification is NEVER such a pressing matter that our salvation is cast into question because of our lack of progress in it. 4) The “necessity” of sanctification isn’t a necessity to justification, but a promise that one does flow and grow from the other. So a very imperfectly sanctified man who places his hope in Christ’s righteousness, not in his own, is by Ryle’s understanding “fit for heaven,” not by his works or efforts, but by Christ, through a faith more practiced and much deepened through the battles of sanctification.

The real concern for me is when connections to the Gospel are replaced by the sort of evangelical shorthand that sounds remarkably similar to certain smiling prosperity preachers. Calling sanctification “behavior change” is like calling marriage “washing dishes.” Saying Christians are “required” to modify their behavior turns something that is driven by a mighty and powerful promise- being dead to sin and alive to God- into the category of a “requirement.”

The Christian life is, as someone has called it, “The Promise Driven Life,” not the requirement driven life. The “requirements” of the law- Paul’s word, not mine- do one thing: they kill us. Change, whether in behavior, motivation or any other area of the Christian life, comes by faith in Christ and living communion with Christ in the new creation.

Evangelicals rightly pause at Roman Catholic ideas that grace enables us to do good works, which all adds up to faith. The RC system conflates justification and sanctification without flinching. Would that a few more evangelicals would flinch when our discussion of “behavior change” and the “requirement to modify behavior” begin sounding like the Reformation distinctives are merely semantics.

These aren’t simple issues and Christians reading this site have considered them many times over. Before I close let me mention that hundreds of IM readers have been encouraged in this area by a simple mp3 from New Reformation Press, The Gospel for Those Broken By The Church. If you have never listened to this presentation, purchase it and do so. It will be a real help to you on these issues.


  1. Tis grace that brought me safe thus far…and works will lead me home? Is that how the hymn goes? We sure seem to act like it sometimes.

    “Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” – Galatians 3:3 (KJV).

  2. try this: sanctification = faith in Jesus christ. the same thing that creates faith, creates sanctification. nothing else can do this,

    the FRUIT of sanctification (which is NOT sanctfication )outwardly looks IDENTICAL to that outward righteousness that all men can completely do using their free will and reason.

    Both ‘righteous works of the law’ and ‘fruits of faith’ outwardly look and are worked by God. They both accomplish the same will of God.

    works of the law are accomplished in men by the threat, carrots and fear of the law. These happen only through discipline, hard lessons, trial and error. Will power is invoked alot here! just try harder. just say no.

    fruits of faith/sanctification happen spontaneously, automatically, as natural impulse of our new will, now aligned with God’s will through faith. Think of how Jesus kept the law. It looks exactly like that. He did not need to try. it was simply his nature to be perfectly good. what else COULD he have done? he did not need to do ‘spiritual pushups’.

    outwardly fruit of faith = outward righteousness of the law. same will of God being done.

    there are not two wills of God. there is only one.

    The will of God in christ is the only thing that can tell us that do not need to fear God because we don’t measure up to his will. not even that part that says we SHOULD do good works out of a loving response to what our Jesus did for us. that is rarely our pure motive is it?

    the ONLY thing a pagan lacks is a keeping of the first table. fear, love and trust in God above all else, and calling upon God in every trouble rather than relying on something else.

    No ‘evangelical exhortations (ie law!) or ” you SHOULD do good works in loving response to what your Jesus did for you (more law!) can work faith/sanctification. Only hearing the Gospel good news of the life death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins can do this. our will power is actually the enemy of this. our will power, like the res of the old adam must also die.

    Practical takehomes:

    ‘fruit of faith’ and righteous works of the law’ are both visible and are outwardly identical. so fruit of faith is ‘visibly invisible’ if you will. the difference is the invisible faith in the heart, from which flows fruit of faith.

    so how do we tell what of our works are fruits of sanctification and which are forced out of us by the law (since we are sinners AND saints)? we don’t. becoming fruit inspectors is not in our future. but at the same time it would be wierd for a christian to know what the will of God is and say he doesnt care. but then again we should not expect or look for something visible to divide sheep from goat, wheat from tare, shallow soil from deep. Jesus command us to leave that part to him at the end, where we have every confidence, from the grace after grace he has bestowed upon us, that he will resolve this all, too, sweetly by grace.

    in the parables we learn that God not reasonably just. he is unreasonably good and generous. come quickly Lord Jesus.

  3. Thank you for this riff, Imonk. I think this is THE most important issue that evangelicals, and protestants in general, need to address.

    The essay by Dr Rosenbladt was excellent and I found it most encouraging, because I struggle with the issue of being condemned by the law. I would dearly love to believe that Rosenbladt has nailed the issue on the head, but … there are passages such as it being better to cut off the hand than to have the whole body cast into hell, the fruitless branches that end up in the fire, the servant with his one coin, not to mention James’ letter that make me wonder if the Catholics don’t have a point.

    • desiderius:

      works ARE necessary, and you WILL go to hell of you do not conform to God’s will.


      you cannot do this with your will power or fallen reason and free will. not EVEN if you take biblical metaphor literally and turn yourself into a quadraplegic castrated blind deaf person. okay?

      you sin BECAUSE that is who you are, a sinner. you are not a sinner because of what your head hands and mouth do or think. bad tree=bad fruit. not the other way around.

      ONLY faith in christ can save you from hell

      roman catholics do not believe any of these points. and so where is it that you feel they have a point. I am a Lutheran christian in in complete agreement with Dr Rosenbladt by the way just so you know where I am coming from here in the spirit of full disclosure.

  4. webmonk! somehow I am only able to see the posts here from my post #103? forward….. am I doing something wrong here?

    • Click on the link at the bottom for “Older Comments.” After a certain number of comments, all you’ll see are the most recent 5 or so. To see them all, click on “Older Comments.”

  5. Sanctification is what salvation looks like.

    • not quite. sanctification is something God does to us and puts into us . it cannot save.

      salvation looks like a dead jew hanging on a cross.

      jesus death (salvation) proclaimed and announced, creates saving faith. this saving faith sanctifies us, and as a result we do works of outward righteousness that are outwardly indistinguishable from those works done by pagans that God works in both christian and pagan according to his will. the law of god by the way… = the will of god.