Muddying The Distinction Between Justification And Salvation

Biblicism is the attemp to read the bible by itself and by one’s self, i.e., in isolation from the church. Sola scriptura means that Scripture alone is the sole, final authority for faith and life but it does not mean to declare either that believers read the bible in isolation from all other books nor does it mean to say that believers read the Scriptures in isolation from the church. Further, sola scriptura does not mean imply nor does it suggest that we should read Scripture as if no one has eve read it before. Such biblicism has a been a great temptation particularly in the modern period and perhaps especially by American evangelicals, where individualism in politics and economics (as advantageous as it is in those spheres) is carried over into ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) and into hermeneutics (the interpretation of texts) and theology. A second temptation that we face is to attempt to create a narrative about the history of Reformed theology by consulting various writers in the tradition, perhaps one’s favorites, and then using one’s reading of the tradition to determine what “the Reformed” view on a topic is. Here is yet another place where the Reformed confessions help. One the one hand, by learning the confessions and by reading Holy Scripture with our confessions to hand we avoid the danger of biblicism, which has almost always been accompanied by faith destroying rationalism On the other hand, the confessions signify for us that the consensus of the Reformed was (and is). Confessions, whether drafted by an individual and adopted by the churches, as in the case of the Belgic Confession, or drafted and adopted by the churches, as in the case of the Canons of Dort, tell us the consensus interpretation of the Scriptures. Thus, if an ostensibly Reformed writer proposes to establish what he perceives to be “the Reformed” view based upon his personal interpretation of Scripture (per biblicism) or derived from his favorite author at the expense of what is confessed by the churches, then we have a right to be skeptical. To be sure, the confessions may be revised and they may be revised on the basis of the interpretation of Scripture and in consultation with the tradition but that is an ecclesiastical process, whereby one overtures ecclesiastical assemblies (e.g., a consistory or session) and engages the whole church.

In the discussions over justification and salvation initially provoked by the Shepherditetheology, which morphed into the self-described, so-called, Federal Vision Theology, that have turned in recent years to discussions about sanctification it has been suggested that though we are justified by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) when it comes to the broader category of salvation we should think and speak differently. I have already addressed the history of the doctrine of salvation (soteriology) on this topic in a series of five detailed posts. I’ve given some consideration to  Ephesians 2:8–10 on the relation of faith to the gift. Here I want to concentrate on the way the Reformed churches speak about justification and salvation.

Let us grant that it is appropriate to distinguish justification and salvation. The former is a narrower category and the latter is broader. Justification has no reference to sanctification. As Calvin said, “When you are engaged in discussing the question of justification, beware of allowing any mention to be made of love or of works, but resolutely adhere to the exclusive particle.” Under the head of salvation, however, it is appropriate to discuss sanctification. That distinction having been made, some might be tempted to suggest that though we are justified sola gratia, sola fide, we are saved through faith and works or through faithfulness. Were such a suggestion to be made it would be contrary both to the mainstream of Reformed theology and to Scripture as it is confessed by the Reformed churches.

Though, under the heading of salvation, we may discuss sanctification it is not as if sanctification is any less gracious than justification. The Westminster Shorter Catechism is explicit:

Q. 35. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Note that whereas justification is said by the churches to be “the act of God’s free grace” (WSC 33) whereby God declares us to be righteous on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed and received through faith alone, sanctification is the “work of God’s free grace” in renewing us into Christ’s image. Justification is a declarative, definitive (once for all) act and sanctification is a gracious work or process. That is why we have usually spoken of justification as punctiliar and sanctification as progressive, i.e., ongoing.  Rome (like all moralists) confuses justification and sanctification. She says that justification is sanctification and therefore progressive. According to Rome, we are presently being justified by grace and cooperation by grace but we are not yet justified. Scripture says the opposite:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 5:1).

We who believe are presently and perfectly justified. There is no future justification. We are justified now and we shall be vindicated later.

Even when we come to discussing salvation, however, we confess that it too is through faith alone. E.g., the Westminster Shorter Catechism does not say that salvation is through faith and works (faithfulness). No it says that salvation is through faith:

Q. 86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.

Notice that faith is a saving grace. It receives and rests upon Christ not only for justification but also for salvation and that is offered through the gospel. Here we see that the churches speak about salvation just the way they speaks about justification.

This way of speaking occurs repeatedly.

Q. 89. How is the word made effectual to salvation?
A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.

Clearly here salvation includes sanctification (e.g., converting, holiness) but even then notice the instrument of salvation: “through faith” and the outcome: “unto salvation.”

Q. 91. How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?
A. The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.

The Spirit also operates through the sacraments. We reject the Romanist doctrine that the sacraments work ex opere. No, it is God the Spirit who works and he works through the sacraments but the blessings signified and sealed by the sacraments are received only by faith. In each case faith is the instrument of salvation.

In the history of the church, the biblicists have typically become Socinians and they rejected essential doctrines of the Christian faith including the doctrine of justification and salvation by free grace. Traditionalists have corrupted the doctrines of justification and salvation out of fear that gospel of free justification and  salvation would not produce the sort of godliness that they want to see in Christians. Ultimately, the Socinians, the Romanists, and the moralists (e.g., Baxter) agreed: the gospel of free justification with God and free salvation must be rejected because it’s insufficient to produce the desired outcome. They agree with Paul’s opponents who asked, in response to the doctrine of free grace, “should we sin that grace may abound”? They too worried that Paul’s gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone would not produce the right outcome. They did not understand or accept that sanctification is a gospel mystery, that sanctification flows from the gospel.

Above we saw the Westminster Shorter Catechism speaks about the relations between justification, salvation, and faith. I’ve been thinking about this partly in light of the suggestion that seems to be about that where we should say that we are justified sola gratia, sola fide we should say that salvation is through faith and works or faithfulness. We saw that the WSC does not speak this way. Each spring I teach a course on the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort). Last Friday we worked through Belgic Confession articles 22 and 23 in which the Reformed Churches confess that the Holy Spirit “kindles true faith in our hearts” and thereby we gain “true knowledge of this great mystery” and that true faith “embraces Jesus Christ with all his merits.”1 True faith seeks nothing beside Christ since, if he is the Savior, then by faith we have all that we need—Christ is sufficient— or he is but half a Savior, i.e., no Savior at all. If Jesus is a mere enabler, if he merely makes it possible to do our part as the Medieval church, Rome, and all moralists teach, then we are doomed because we are so corrupted by sin that we are not capable of doing our part. We are not capable of doing “what lies within us” as the Franciscan theologian Gabriel Biel (1420–95) had taught. Luther studied Biel’s commentary on the Sentences and was taught that version of covenant theology but as he lectured through the Psalter, under the influence of Augustine’s lectures on the Psalms, he realized that Paul was right to say that by nature, in Adam (Rom 5:12–21) we are “dead in sins and trespasses” (Eph 2:1–4). Therefore we are not, as the medievals imagined, able either to “do what lies within us” nor as our self-described Federal Visionists and New Perspective advocates imagine, “our part of the covenant.” Yes, every covenant does have two parts but, with respect to salvation, we’re talking about a covenant of grace not a covenant of works. This is one of several reasons why it is so important to distinguish those two covenants. The covenant of works said to righteous, holy Adam, “do this and live.” He had the ability to do and live forever. The covenant of grace says to those Adam’s children, heirs of corruption: “trust only in the Last Adam for salvation.” Our part of the covenant of grace is not to obey in order to be justified and saved but to obey because we have been justified and because God has sovereignly brought us out of Egypt, as it were, through the Red Sea (of Christ’s suffering and death) on dry ground. We have been baptized into, i.e., identified with Christ, not he into us. He is the Savior and we are the saved. For these reasons and more, in Heidelberg Catechism 29 we confess that Jesus is the Savior. There’s no mention in the catechism of our cooperating unto salvation. We say “salvation is not to be sought or found in any other.” We would be among others in whom people have been tempted to seek salvation. Question and answer 30 make this explicit:

Do those also believe in the only Savior Jesus, who seek their salvation and welfare of saints, of themselves, or anywhere else?

No, although they make their boast of Him, yet in deeds they deny the only Savior Jesus, for either Jesus is not a complete Savior, or they who by true faith receive this Savior, must have in Him all that is necessary to their salvation.

People do “make their boast of him.” They do talk about being Christians, about believing in Jesus but they stop short of placing their full confidence in his perfect, whole obedience for his people. They want to make some contribution to their salvation. As we say, however, if Jesus is merely a facilitator, then he is no Savior. The similarities with the language of Belgic Confession art. 22 are clear. True faith

seeks nothing more besides him. For it must needs follow, either that all things which are requisite to our salvation are not in Jesus Christ, or if all things are in him, that then those who possess Jesus Christ through faith have complete salvation in Him.

Please observe what faith obtains. It is not merely or only justification. Faith embraces Christ and in him finds “everything necessary for salvation. Through faith in Christ we have a complete salvation. Both the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism agree entirely with the Westminster Shorter Catechism and all three of these confessional documents interweave salvation and justification. The tidy distinction to which some might be tempted is not present here.

To make Jesus a mere facilitator, rather than a complete Savior, is, we confess, “too gross a blasphemy.” It makes him “half a Savior.” Then, immediately, the confession turns to justification through faith alone. Note this. In order to prove our doctrine of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone we appeal to Paul’s doctrine of justification through faith alone.

 Therefore we justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith without works. However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our Righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all his merits, and so many holy works, which he hath done for us and in our stead, is our Righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with him in all his benefits, which, when they become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.

There are no justified sinners that are not also saved. Salvation is a broader category but it too is sola gratia, sola fide. This becomes clearer in Belgic Confession art. 23, the opening words of which say:

We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ’s sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied; as David and Paul teach ns, declaring this to be the blessedness of man, that God imputes righteousness to him without works.

As in article 22, just as soon as the confession touches on salvation it moves to justification through faith alone. The definition of salvation and justification as the “remission of sins” (remissio peccatorum) is in antithesis to the Roman definition of justification as sanctification to which we were said to contribute our condign and congruent merits and acts of propitiation (turning away God’s wrath). In other words, justification and salvation is something God has done for us and which the Holy Spirit applies to us. It is not something that God inaugurates and which we consummate or to which we even contribute. This is why we say, with Paul, “we are just justified freely by his grace, through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ” (Rom 3:24).  To say “freely” is to say that it is not conditioned upon our obedience or even upon the degree of our sanctification. Having been delivered from the Romanist treadmill of salvation through sanctification and that by grace and cooperation with grace, let us not return to it.

This truth, we say is our “foundation” and it gives all glory to God (soli Deo gloria). If salvation and justification are not wholly God’s then there is some glory for us, because we “did our part.”  No, true Protestants, because they are in a covenant of grace and not a covenant of works, are free to acknowledge “ourselves to be such as we really are.” We should not fall into the trap of the moralist, who wants to put us back under the covenant of works. He makes his boast of grace and the covenant of grace but he does not like to distinguish between the covenants of works and grace and so corrupts both of them. As a consequence the believer is never really solidly on a gracious foundation. It’s also a mixed and unstable foundation of grace and works.

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace (Rom 11:6)

These are two different principles. Works says “do in order to be accepted and saved” and grace says, “Christ as done. You are free to do out of gratitude, in the grace, communion of Christ.” Trusting in one’s self, even in one’s cooperation with grace is presumption. Because faith apprehends Christ it is sufficient to cover all our sins. Our works, even our cooperation is nothing, we confess, but a fig leaf and that will lead not to salvation but to being “consumed.” Hence justification and salvation are by grace alone, through faith alone for “it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works” (Belgic Confession, art. 24).

NOTES

1. Both the French and Latin texts of Belgic Confession art. 22 say “true faith.” Schaff translates “une vraie foi” (veram fidem) as “upright faith.” This is quite incorrect and misleading as it begins to take us back down the path to the Roman definition of faith as “formed by charity” (fides formata caritate). See Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Evangelical Protestant Creeds, with Translations, vol. 3 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882), 409.

Justified Through Our Faithfulness?

Introduction
As I mentioned in an earlier post in Romans 2:13 Paul writes, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (ESV).1 The chapter begins with matter of judgment. Since 1:18 Paul has been prosecuting the Gentiles on the basis of their natural knowledge of God, which we suppress. Because of the effects of sin all our faculties and desires are corrupted. Because we all know the moral law of God in our consciences we are without excuse before God. Chapter 2 begins with a reiteration of this law principle: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (ESV). Now he turns his attention to Jews, those who had received the old covenant, the Mosaic law, the national covenant (Romans 9:4–5; 3:1–3; ESV). The whole of chapter 2 is a prosecution of the Jews according to the standard that had been revealed to them, the Mosaic law. God had exercised forbearance with the Israelites but because of the hardness of their hearts (vv.4–5) they are storing up judgment instead. Judgment will be rendered according to “works” (v 6). Those who seek “for glory and honor” by patience will receive eternal life (v. 7). Those who do not “obey the truth” (v. 8) will be judged. Because God is impartial, both Jews and Greeks will be judged according to their works (v. 9–11). Those who sinned under the Mosaic law will be judged by that standard and those who sinned under the natural law by that standard (v.12). The rest of the chapter after v. 13 continues in the same vein. The Gentiles have the substance of the moral law written on their conscience (vv. 14–15). The Jews, who boast about having the Mosaic law, will be judged by the standard of the law given at Sinai (vv. 16–29). Thus, when Paul contrasts “hearers” and “doers” it is hearers and doers of the law. Both Jews and Gentiles are under substantially the same law: love God with all one’s faculties and one’s neighbor as himself (Matt 22:37–40) but, as Paul shows in chapter 3, no one does this. In chapter 5 he explains why this is, because, as the New England Puritans put it, “In Adam’s fall, sinned we all.” The only reference to the gospel in this section is the broad use of the word, the promise that God will judge law breakers. There is no good news for sinners here.

The magisterial Protestant interpretation of Romans 1–3 was that these chapters were largely a presentation of the law, with the intent of demonstrating to Jews and Gentiles the impossibility of sinners of meeting the standard of righteousness. As quoted in the earlier post, Calvin’s interpretation reflects this reading:

They who pervert this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works, deserve most fully to be laughed at even by children. It is therefore improper and beyond what is needful, to introduce here a long discussion on the subject, with the view of exposing so futile a sophistry: for the Apostle only urges here on the Jews what he had mentioned, the decision of the law, — That by the law they could not be justified, except they fulfilled the law, that if they transgressed it, a curse was instantly pronounced on them. Now we do not deny but that perfect righteousness is prescribed in the law: but as all are convicted of transgression, we say that another righteousness must be sought. Still more, we can prove from this passage that no one is justified by works; for if they alone are justified by the law who fulfill the law, it follows that no one is justified; for no one can be found who can boast of having fulfilled the law.

For Calvin, this passage is law, an expression of God’s righteous demand. Anyone who would present himself to God on the basis of the law must actually keep the law. The only thing that satisfies justice is actual, complete, perfect fulfillment of the law. The slightest disobedience to God’s holy law merits only one thing: condemnation. Calvin found no good news for sinners in this section of Romans.

In light of its overwhelming thematic and conceptual unity, in light of the Reformation reading of Romans 1:18–3:20, it is difficult to see how or why any confessional Protestant could or would read this section differently but in 1978 a professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (PA), Norman Shepherd, in the midst of what would become a seven-year long controversy over whether a Reformed Christian may teach justification “through faith and works” or “through faithfulness” proposed 34 theses for discussion and debate. Among them was this one:

20. The Pauline affirmation in Romans 2:13, “the doers of the Law will be justified,” is not to be understood hypothetically in the sense that there are no persons who fall into that class, but in the sense that faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ will be justified (Compare Luke 3:21; James 1:22-25).

This reading dispensed with the historic Protestant (Lutheran and Reformed) distinction between the two principles of law and gospel. Instead, this reading proposed that, in Romans 2:13, Paul was not prosecuting sinners on the basis of the law, that he was not pressing the righteous and holy demands of God upon them to teach them their sins and misery and to drive them to Christ. Rather, according to this re-reading, Paul was speaking of Christians who will so cooperate with grace as to be sufficiently righteous as to be accepted by God was a radical re-reading of this passage.

This radical re-reading of Romans 2:13 continues to reverberate in some Reformed circles to the present day.

The Problem With Progressive Justification
What has been neglected is a 1978 proposal that, at the judgment, “faithful disciples” will be justified before God through their faithfulness.  The current controversy over sanctification is, however, part of an argument that began long before 1978. It has its roots in the late 1520s when Johann Agricola (1494–1566) denounced the doctrine that God’s holy moral law governs the life of the Christian, i.e., what we know as the “third use of the law” (tertius usus legis). In the confessional Lutheran (e.g., in the Book of Concord) and Reformed understanding of justification, salvation, and the Christian life no Christian is “under the law” with respect to his acceptance with God (justification). That cannot be. Paul was repeatedly explicit about this:

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Galatians 2:15–16; ESV).

and

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:10–14; ESV)

and

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Romans 3:28; ESV)

Much of the medieval church had concluded and Council of Trent confirmed a doctrine of progressive justification through sanctification by medicinal grace (divine and semi-divine substances as distinct from divine favor or approval) and cooperation with grace.

At Trent, Session 6 (1547) Canon 11, Rome declared:

If any one says, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Spirit, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favor of God; let him be anathema.

According to Rome, in the sacraments, the Christian is endued with a certain power with which he must cooperate. Justification is through grace and cooperation with grace. Canon 9 made clear the necessity of cooperation with grace unto justification:

If any one says, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.

She continued by denouncing the pan-Protestant definition of faith in the act of justification as “confidence in the divine mercy.” No, according to Rome, faith justifies because it works and through working. Faith does what it does not because of its object but because of what it is, because it is formed by love (fides formata caritate). According to Rome, Christ has done his part, on the cross and in baptism, of making salvation possible but we must do our part. This remains the Roman doctrine of justification in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church (§1987ff). To a man the magisterial, confessional Protestants rejected this scheme as no different from “the works of the law” denounced by the Apostle Paul. The Protestant churches confessed the same.

The theological unity on this point, however, did not prevent all difficulties. In the 1550s the Lutheran theologian George Major (1502–74) proposed that good works are “necessary for retaining salvation.” There is nothing new about the NPP/FV doctrine of “in by grace, stay in through works.” The Reformed categorically rejected that doctrine in favor of teaching that sinners are justified (declared righteous) out of God’s favor alone (sola gratia), received through faith alone (sola fide) resting in, receiving, trusting in  Christ, his finished work for us, and in his promises alone. New life and true faith necessarily results in sanctity, which, in turn, produces good works as fruit and evidence of true faith and justification. When faced with the potential modifying this doctrine  the Synod of Dort replied in effect: We get in by grace and we stay in by grace.

Nevertheless, some Reformed Protestants have sometimes given in to the temptation to reintroduce a version of the “works of the law,” i.e., grace and cooperation with grace, into Reformed theology. Sometimes it comes in the front door, as in the case of Norman Shepherd’s doctrine of justification “through faith and works” or “through faithfulness.” Sometimes, however, justification by grace and cooperation with grace has been reintroduced through the backdoor, as it were, by distinguishing explicitly or implicitly between an initial justification and a final justification. In this scheme sinners are said to be justified initially, in this life, by grace alone (sola gratia), sola fide (through faith alone) but finally justified, in the same legal sense as in the first instance, also partly on the basis of inherent righteousness and sanctity produced through union with Christ. Proponents of this approach limit the function of faith to forensic, legal justification in this life. Once we are justified talk of faith recedes and “existential union with Christ” becomes more prominent. Justification and sanctification are said to be logically twin benefits issuing from existential (formerly known as mystical) union with Christ initiated by God at regeneration. In this view there is and can be no logical order between justification and sanctification. At least one proponent (though we can hardly think he is alone in his sentiments) has argued that Reformed Christians must “move on” from “ordo salutis thinking.” Another critic of the traditional (and arguably confessional) Reformed view has labelled as “semi-Pelagian” the notion that, in the application of redemption, in regeneration (defined as awakening from spiritual death to spiritual life) the Holy Spirit creates or endows the elect with new life and with that new life the gift of faith, and through faith creates a mystical union with Christ and his believer. This would seem to the doctrine and intent of the Westminster Shorter Catechism when it says,

Q. 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?

A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling. [emphasis added]

The catechism’s “thereby” would seem to signal that Spirit-wrought faith and not regeneration per se is the “instrument” of our existential, mystical union with Christ in the application of redemption. In other words, according to the catechism, existential or mystical union (as distinct from that union that may said to exist in the decree, from all eternity, and that federal union that may be said to have existed in Christ’s acting for us in his obedient life and death) is unavoidably part of a logical order. It is the regenerated who believe and it is believers who are united to Christ (and that faith is the gift of God) and is believers united to Christ who are justified.

Two Stage Justification And Double Justification
Sometimes proponents of a “two-stage” doctrine of justification have appealed to the language of “double justification” and implied that the Reformed, under that rubric, taught a two-stage doctrine of justification. The evidence does not support this suggestion. When the Lutherans and the Reformed wrote of a “double justification” (duplex iustitia) they were not establishing either two grounds of standing before God (imputed righteousness and inherent righteousness)—that was the Romanist view advocated at Regensburg (1541)—nor were they imply that there are two stages to justification, initial and final. Rather, they were distinguishing between justification as a legal, forensic act, whereby God declares those who are intrinsically unjust to be legally just on the basis of Christ’s condign merit imputed to them and the process of progressive sanctification whereby the consequences of that justification are worked out gradually, graciously in the lives of believers as they are conformed to Christ in mortification (putting to death the old man) and vivification (the making alive of the new man). This doctrine was effectively that taught by Calvin as the “twofold grace of God” (duplex gratia Dei) and by Olevianus and others as the “double benefit” (duplex beneficium) of the covenant of grace: justification and sanctification. According to Calvin, Olevianus and others, the same Spirit who raised us to life, who gave us the grace of faith, who, through that faith united us to Christ, is also at work in us sanctifying us. This is why they had no need of a “two-stage” doctrine of justification and, instead, distinguished between justification and vindication. We are justified in this life and shall be vindicated in the next. This is how Luther and the rest of the magisterial Protestants related Paul and James. Paul was speaking of a forensic, legal justification and James, in chapter 2, was speaking of evidence of faith or vindication of the claim to be a believer.

Ordo Salutis And A Two Stage Sequence
In the course of the original (or first stage of the) Shepherd controversy (1974–81) many informal documents were created. There was a faculty report and responses to the faculty report and addenda to those documents. There were also public letters to supporters of the seminary and responses to those letters and then finally a report by the board of trustees. Not all of the documents are dated so it’s not completely certain when they were drafted or circulated. I believe the document below to be from 1978 but cannot be completely certain. This document, written in defense of Shepherd, shows the beginnings of what would become a more fully developed approach to Romans 2:13 in which it was interpreted not as an expression of the pedagogical use the law (sometimes denominated the first use, sometimes denominated the second) but as an indication that there are two stages of justification, initial and final, and that Romans 2:13 contains a promise of final acceptance with God on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity.

I quote extensively from the document (pages 5–7). The only omissions are internal outline numbering and internal references to other parts of the document on the grounds that to retain these would be confusing to the reader. Nothing of substance in this section of the paper has been omitted. The document was signed but I omit the name in order to focus on the substance of the issue.

The author writes:

The Roman Catholic notion of faith formed by love and other serious misunderstandings of this verse [Gal 5:6] must be recognized and avoided….Faith justifies only as it rests in Christ and his finished righteousness, not as it looks too its working in love. Love and good works do not have a function or instrumentality for justification separate from, parallel to, or beyond that of faith. The sole instrument of justification is faith, from which working through love flows [sic] as the necessary and integral fruit or manifestation. Where the relationship between faith and its working (good works) is not expressed in this or some other equivalent way, the unique function (instrumentality) of faith for justification and so too, then, Christ’s finished righteousness as the exclusive ground of justification threatened to be obscured or denied.

This seems to be a fairly robust affirmation of the traditional Reformed doctrine of justification on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone through faith alone. The subordinate clause, “from which working through love flows” is not entirely clear grammatically but the intent seems to be to say that those who are justified by grace alone, through faith alone will produce the fruit of sanctification.

There is, however, an interesting qualification that should not be missed. “Love and good works do not have a function or instrumentality for justification separate from or parallel to or beyond that of faith.” Though the statement denies the Roman doctrine of “faith formed by love” it seems as if the definition of faith offered here is not far from it. Certainly we should agree with the author that sanctification and consequent good works do flow as fruit of justification and union with Christ but what is the result of saying that sanctification and good works are a constituent of faith in the act of justification? There is a certain degree of ambiguity. Since this was an informal document perhaps we shouldn’t press it too hard and yet this language does suggest that we will want to pay attention to what follows.

Next, the author appeals to the example of Abraham:

The experience of Abraham implies that as long as the believers earthly life continues, perseverance In the state of justification (from which he can never fall, WCF, 11:5) is essential to his being justified (cf. J. Edwards, works (1974), 1:640–642).

The citation of Edwards is fascinating. As anyone who has studied Edwards’ doctrine of justification it is fraught with difficulties to say the least. A recent volume sought to exonerate his doctrine of justification but, so far as I was able to tell, it never made reference to the article that highlighted the great difficulty in the first place: Thomas A. Schafer, “Jonathan Edwards and Justification By Faith,” Church History 20 (1951): 55–67. It may not be possible to say exactly what Edwards’ doctrine of justification was or that he had a single, coherent doctrine of justification. For more on this see the relevant section in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

More significantly, the author appeals to Abraham’s perseverance (which was mixed at best) not as fruit and evidence of his faith (despite the manifold evidences to the contrary—he was a serial liar and doubter. Abraham was a perfectionist’s nightmare) as “essential to his being justified.” Now the picture is clearer. The Canons of Dort (1619) want us to think and say that perseverance is a fruit of our election not condition (to which the Remonstrants added the qualification “foreseen”; CD First Head of Doctrine, rejection of errors, para. 5). Nowhere does the Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 60) include perseverance as essential to justification. The justified will persevere but they do so by God’s grace as an outworking or a consequence of election and justification. Obedience is essential to perseverance and if perseverance is essential to justification have we not made obedience essential to justification?

This formulation would seem to contradict the express teaching of WCF 11.1 that believers are justified

not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God [emphasis added]

Perseverance is wrought in us but it is an “evangelical obedience” that attends justification, that gives evidence of justification but is no part of the ground, instrument, or even essence of justification.

The document continues:

Paul and James. The much-debated question of the relationship between James 2:14ff. and the relevant passages in Paul can be addressed briefly in the light of the preceding discussion, particularly in view of their common appeal to Genesis 15:6 and the experience of Abraham. The two are not in conflict. Paul looks at Abraham’s faith as it rests in the promise (the promised seed, righteousness) and so receives the forgiveness of sin. James looks at the same faith as it is active and working (2:22); out of trust in the same promise he offered up his only son (seed), Isaac (vs. 21). That James calls this “justification by works” is because he sees Abraham’s deed only as the manifestation and fruitage of his faith, the faith that continues to rest in the promised seed. The justification of which James speaks is not in place of nor a repetition of justification in Paul’s sense (the once-for-all imputation of Christ’s righteousness and forgiveness of sins). Rather, the former, with a view to the persevering of faith working through love, is the reconfirmation or revalidation of the latter. The one, no less than the other, is forensic and declarative, and both have God as their subject. It is not necessary to insist on a demonstrative, as distinct from or excluding a declarative, sense in James.

We should agree with this account right up to the penultimate sentence. “The one, no less than the other, is forensic and declarative, and both have God as their subject.” The author continues by denying that the justification to which James refers is “declarative” as distinct from Paul’s “forensic” (legal). If by these two sentences the author means to blur the distinction between a forensic (legal, declarative act) and justification in the sense of vindication, i.e., the recognition of what is the case, then we should dissent dissent strongly. James refers to our works as evidence of our claim to faith. This is vindication. Paul refers to God’s declaration that sinners are declared to be righteous on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness received through faith alone. These are two distinct things that should not be muddled.

Justification and Sanctification. Justification and sanctification are different, yet they are inseparable (WLC, 77).

They differ in that they address distinctly different exigencies. Justification deals with the guilt and condemnation of sin and is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the pardoning of sin; sanctification deals with the corrupting power of sin and the production of righteousness and the subduing of sin within the believer by the power of Christ’s Spirit.

They are inseparable in that they both inhere and derive from the believer’s vital union with Christ (WLC, 69).

We should agree with the first paragraph and question and qualify the second. There is a double benefit of the covenant of grace, a double benefit of our vital union with Christ. Amen. There is, however, a logical order to the benefits. Without being too graphic consider the birth of twins. Ordinarily, apart from a C-section, twins do not emerge from the womb simultaneously. They emerge in order. Now, that is a chronological sequence. With the double benefit we do not have a temporal, chronological sequence but a logical sequence. It is the justified who are progressively sanctified. I contend that the denial of the logical order has contributed to the original controversy and continues to reverberate in the current confusion.

While it is equally important to distinguish justification and sanctification from each other as it is not to separate them, they are properly distinguished only as their inseparability in Christ is appreciated (cf. 1 Cor. 1:30). Although sanctification in its progressive aspect obviously follows justification in time, the distinction between them is not well expressed by saying, out of concern to safeguard the purity of justification, that it is the basis of sanctification, or by speaking of the priority of justification to sanctification. Much better is the model proposed by Calvin (institutes, 3:11:6): Christ, the sole source of righteousness, is the sun from which proceeds, without confusion or separation, or relative priority both light (justification) and heat (sanctification).

Here we should agree with the author as to what the issue is even as we disagree with his prescription and his analysis of Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ. Since this controversy there has been considerable historical work by Cornelis Venema, Todd Billings, and Richard Muller, to name but three who’ve reached quite different conclusions about Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ and the duplex gratia. My own research into Caspar Olevianus’ doctrine of the duplex beneficium reached similar conclusions regarding his teaching that parallels those of Billings, Venema, and Muller regarding Calvin. More recently, John Fesko has argued the historical case for the logical priority of justification to sanctification.

The temporal sequence is not in question. We should, however, affirm the logical priority of justification to progressive sanctification. ” We have prima facie evidence in Romans 8:30 for thinking this way:

And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified (Romans 8:30; ESV).

It is the elect who are effectually called. It is those who are called who are justified. It is the justified who shall be glorified and glorification is the consummation of progressive sanctification in this life. In Paul’s brief order of salvation here sanctification is represented by and subsumed under glorification.

As the argument unfolds the connection to a two-stage doctrine of justification becomes clearer:

Justification and final judgment.

A pervasive strand of New Testament teaching is that at the end of this age, at Christ’s return all men, including believers, will appear before God (Christ) for judgment (e.g., Matt. 16:27; 25:31–46; John 5:27–29; Acts 17:31; Rom. 2:6, 16; 2 Cor. 5:10; Heb. 9:27; 2 Pet. 3:7; 1 John 4:17).

While some of these passages neighbor for to the differing rewards granted to believers relative to each other, others unmistakably describe, not merely relative degrees a blessing for believers, but a judgment involving all men and in which the issue for all including believers, is the ultimate outcome of either internal life or eternal destruction (E. G. , Matt. 25,: 31ff.; John 5:29; Rom. 2:5–8).

While, in the case of believers, the final judgment is not called “justification” (although see Matt. 12:36, 37 and probably, too, Rom. 2:13; cf. Also the future “hope of righteousness,” Gal. 5:5), the essential features involved—a judicial transaction issuing in an irreversible verdict with eternal consequences—are precisely those at stake in Paul’s doctrine of justification. The positive outcome of the final judgment is in fact, if not in name, a justification.

What was implied and suggested above is now more explicit: a two-stage justification. In this case, however, we have observed that the distinction between them is not sharp. We have seen affirmations of the traditional Reformed doctrine of justification sola gratia, sola fide on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and significant qualifications of the definition of faith and justification which, if allowed to stand unchecked, would be fatal to the biblical and Reformed doctrine of justification.

The final justification envisioned in the section quoted above is distinct from the initial justification but continuous with it. Where the traditional doctrine has sinners justified once for all in this life and that justification vindicated at the judgment, this re-casting clear has them justified a second a second time.

Believers Are Already Justified
Above we began looking at a document, from 1978, which proposed a two-stage doctrine of justification. It recognized that there is some risk, some difficulty, in speaking of a present justification and a future justification. Nevertheless, the document contends that biblical text requires us to speak this way.

The question of the relationship, for believers, of justification already received to the final judgment, although difficult, is unavoidable; cannot be pushed aside, out of the proper concern to protect the once-for-all, definitive character of justification, by saying that the final judgment has “nothing to do” with justification. The unavoidability of this question in the case of Paul, especially, is playing. Paul’s gospel is eschatological through and through. Justification is the verdict of the final judgment already pronounced on the believer, in view of the eschatological significance of Christ’s death and resurrection (cf. age. Ridderbos, Paul, pp. 161–166). For Paul, justification by faith is a piece of “realized eschatology,” demanding to be related in it’s organic ties to the still future eschatological aspects of his gospel.

The document contends that we cannot say that the final judgment has “nothing to do” with justification. Since it uses quotation marks we are left to assume that someone, in the course of the discussion, used this language but it rightly responds that the two are related, that justification sola gratia, sola fide, is an eschatological (final) declaration realized in time and space. The question before us is whether a doctrine of a two-stage justification preserves or jeopardizes the definitive, once-for-all character of justification.

The final judgment, with its dual outcome of eternal life or death, is a judgment according to works [Emphasis original] (Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6; 2 Cor. 5:10) [emphasis original].

In 2009 Rick Phillips gave five reasons why we should not say that we are justified “according to works.”

      • Scripture teaches that justification through faith alone is not provisional in character but utterly definitive in securing God’s righteous verdict.
      • The idea of a future justification of believers suggests that Christians must stand before the Lord with respect to their sinful deeds.
      • According to the vision of final judgment in Revelation 20:11-15, it is only those outside of Christ who will be judged according to their works.
      • Believers will not stand for judgment on the basis of their own works. He explains:

Their key passage is Romans 2:6-13, where Paul speaks of “the doers of the law” being justified (2:13). Reformed theology has classically regarded this passage as describing how religious people hope to be justified apart from Christ. In chapter 1, Paul wrote of the condemnation of pagan idolaters, but in chapter 2 he addresses the religious Jew. Paul warns them against the idea that the law – the Torah – saves them, because one is saved not merely by possessing the law but by keeping it. If you are trying to be justified by the law, Paul says, then you have to do it, not merely possess it. John Calvin explains of Romans 2:13: “The sense of this verse, therefore, is that if righteousness is sought by the law, the law must be fulfilled, for the righteousness of the law consists in the perfection of works.” This is why Paul proceeds to make the point that “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10), and “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). The point of Romans 2:6-13 is to show those who seek to be justified by their works that they will have to keep the law perfectly, which Paul then shows they cannot hope to do. Given its clear context, Calvin comments on Romans 2:13, “Those who misinterpret this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works deserve universal contempt.”

The doctrine of judgment “according to works” does not seem to be used extensively by the Reformed Churches in their confessions. It does not occur in the Belgic Confession (1560), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Canons of Dort, the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), or the Westminster Standards (1648). The Scots Confession (1560) chapter 25 does use it:

Yea, the Eternal, our God, shall stretch out his hand on the dust, and the dead shall arise incorruptible, and in the very substance of the selfsame flesh which every man now bears, to receive according to their works, glory or punishment. Such as now delight in vanity, cruelty, filthiness, superstition, or idolatry, shall be condemned to the fire unquenchable, in which those who now serve the devil in all abominations shall be tormented forever, both in body and in spirit. But such as continue in well doing to the end, boldly confessing the Lord Jesus, shall receive glory, honor, and immortality, we constantly believe, to reign forever in life everlasting with Christ Jesus, to whose glorified body all his chosen shall be made like, when he shall appear again in judgment and shall render up the Kingdom to God his Father, who then shall be and ever shall remain, all in all things, God blessed forever. To whom, with the Son and the Holy Ghost, be all honor and glory, now and ever. Amen.

It is not clear that this section of the Scots Confession is teaching the same thing proposed in the (1978) document since the confession does not distinguish between two stages of justification nor does it equate the judgment according to works to justification.

The document continues:

In the case of believers, the final judgment (justification) does not involve a different principle than justification by faith, as if the sinner is first justified by his faith in the righteousness of Christ and then, at the final judgment on the basis of his works. Such a construction would bring Paul into contradiction with himself and destroy the assurance ministered by his doctrine of justification by faith. Rather, from beginning to end (final judgment) the ground of acceptance with God and his justifying judgment is the finished righteousness of Christ.

This passage is interesting because it addresses one of the concerns animating this series on Romans 2:13. It’s interesting that the document recognizes the possibility that the reader might reach this conclusion. Has the document pushed a boulder down the hill—in other words, is there a good, logical reason to prevent the reader from drawing the conclusion the document hopes to avoid?

In the case of believers, the final judgment according to works is the culmination of the justification by works of which James speaks. “Works” in this instance is an abbreviation for “faith working by love”; works are the criterion or fruit (manifestation) of the faith which all along, from beginning to end (final judgment), rest in Christ and his imputed righteousness. In a word, for the believer the final judgment according to work is the consummation of justification by faith.

Since the document speaks of the judgment as the “culmination” of justification it is difficult to see how justification, in this life, really is once-for-all and final. Does this way of thinking and speaking really accord with Paul’s language: “having therefore been justified by faith, we have peace with God”? (Rom 5:1) Scripture does not say “Since justification has been inaugurated will be consummated in the judgment according to works, we have peace with God.” To read Paul this way would turn his intent on its head. His intent is for the believer to know, with a “certain knowledge and hearty trust” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 21) that he is now presently, irrevocably accepted by God for Christ’s sake alone and this not “of works” or “according to works” but “of faith.” This is why Paul says, in Romans 8:1

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Again, Scripture does not say that, though there is now no condemnation but there remains a future and final adjudication. The catechism picks up on this teaching:

Q. 58. What comfort takest thou from the article of “life everlasting”?

A. That since I now feel in my heart the beginning of eternal joy, after this life, I shall inherit perfect salvation, which “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man” to conceive, and that to praise God therein for ever.

Q. 59. But what does it profit thee now that thou believest all this?

A. That I am righteous in Christ, before God, and an heir of eternal life.

Q. 60. How are thou righteous before God?

A. Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.

When the catechism thinks about the future, even the judgment, it does not envision a second justification nor a second stage of justification. Question 52 assumes that we are already justified.

Q. 52. What comfort is it to thee that “Christ shall come again to judge the quick and the dead”?

A. That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head I look for the very same person, who before offered himself for my sake, to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me, to come as judge from heaven: who shall cast all his and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall translate me with all his chosen ones to himself, into heavenly joys and glory.

For believers the judgment is not a new adjudication, a second justification but a blessing and a vindication of the justification received by grace alone, through faith alone.

The document takes a step in this direction:

In so far as the final judgment may be viewed, in the case of believers, as a justification, the difference between it and the justification that takes place when the sinner is united to Christ may be expressed at the lead of 2 Corinthians 5:7, by the distinction between justification by faith and justification by sight (cf. WSC, 38: “openly acknowledged and acquitted”), or perhaps between justification by faith and justification in the (resurrected) body (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10).

Yet the document ignores the fact that the divines who framed the standards used different language and categories precisely to distinguish between justification and vindication—”openly acknowledged and acquitted.” What has already been declared, namely the justification of sinners, is recognized. We should not accept the document’s facile equation of an ostensible future justification with the vindication of believers.

The document wants to include our future, final justification “according to works” in the gospel.

The inclusion of the final judgment according to works for believers as an integral element of the Gospel, among other things, serves as a reminder that justification by faith is not only something that has happened in the past experience of the believer but is a present, ongoing concern (cf. The title of Calvin’s Institutes, 3:14). Most assuredly, the removal of condemnation, the invitation of Christ righteousness, the forgiveness of sins, all of which take place at the moment the sinner is first united to Christ by faith, are once-for-all and your reversible, and initiate the state of justification from which believers can never fall (W CF, 11:5). Any presentation of the Gospel or formulation of the doctrine of justification that obscures or denies this is simply unfaithful to Scripture. But at the same time it must also be kept clear that this irrevocable justification is received by faith with a view to it’s persevering to the end…. As true faith, wrought and sustained by the sovereign power of God, it is bound to persevere; but it must in fact persevere, of faith which, as it continues to rest in Christ and receive everything from him, works by love.

Justification is not merely initiated. No, it is declared. Justification has been accomplished and applied. We should not accept that way of speaking about justification.

If we simply allow the judgment to be what it is: acknowledgment of what God has already declared and what he has wrought in them as fruit and evidence, we have resolved the matter

To connect justification and perseverance in this way is not to introduce a note of fear or uncertainty into the gospel or confound the entire graciousness of justification with an element of legalism. Rather it is to make intelligible to the congregation its existence between justification and final judgment, as the people who serve the living and true God as they wait for his son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead for their justification, Jesus, who delivers them from the coming wrath (1 Thess. 1:9,10; Rom. 4:25).

The document does not want to introduce fear and uncertainty but has it succeeded? The document seems dissatisfied with the historic Reformed approach of Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude (the three parts of the Heidelberg Catechism) and the gospel mystery of sanctification graciously, gradually wrought within justified believers united to Christ. It begs leave to connect our perseverance to a putative future justification. This is a new thing. The medieval and later the Tridentine Roman communion sought to induce believers to greater sanctity through a two-stage doctrine of justification: an initial justification in baptism and a final justification through sanctification (by grace and cooperation with grace).

The document wants to avoid this outcome but there are too many similarities between the medieval and Roman schemes to the scheme proposed here to ignore.

Belgic Confession art. 24 makes clear that we believe that believers will be sanctified, they will produce fruit, they will do good works in light of Christ’s work for them and in union with him as he works in them.

In the ordinary course of things believers will do good works, as they should, as they must, as befits those who have received such free favor from God, in Christ. This is the “way of salvation,” i.e., the ordinary process by which the Spirit works salvation (definitive justification and progressive sanctification). These good works are evidence and fruit of the Spirit’s work. The ground of our one justification is the righteousness of Christ imputed. The only instrument of our justification and salvation is faith alone. We do not advance our understanding of Scripture or our confession of faith by re-defining justification or by tying it to sanctification and works.

NOTES
1. The NA28 says: “οὐ γὰρ οἱ ἀκροαταὶ νόμου δίκαιοι παρὰ [τῷ] θεῷ, ἀλλʼ οἱ ποιηταὶ νόμου δικαιωθήσονται.” The Vulgate reads: “non enim auditores legis iusti sunt apud Deum sed factores legis iustificabuntur.” Theodore Beza’s Latin New Testament has “(non enim qui audiunt legem justi sunt apud Deum; sed qui legem praestant justificabantur.” Arguably the Vulgate is a more straightforward translation. What make’s Beza’s interesting is the insertion of the prepositional phrase apud Deum (with God), the insertion of parentheses (in my 1834 edition) which extend to v. 15, and the use of the somewhat more ambiguous praestant in place of factores. Praestant has a number of senses among them “to fulfill.” It seems as if Beza wanted to make clearer the sense that the law is something that must be performed completely or perfectly and not merely attempted. One of the two notes on this verse in the Geneva Bible (1599 edition) says: “Shall be pronounced just before God’s judgment seat: which is true indeed, if any such could be found that had fulfilled the law: but seeing Abraham was not justified by the Law, but by faith, it followeth that no man can be justified by works.”

How Should We View The Warning Passages?

The Background to the Current Discussion
There is concern by some in the Reformed community that there is too much emphasis on grace, in the doctrine of sanctification, and not enough emphasis on obedience and even godly fear. The question has arisen how this matter should be addressed. What language should we use when speaking about the imperative to sanctity in the Christian life? What role does the law have in our sanctification?

There can be no question that God’s Word teaches the moral necessity of sanctification (holiness) for believers in Christ. Hebrews 12:14 says, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Throughout her entire history the Christian church has taught the moral necessity of believers to strive for holiness, conformity to Christ.

In order to push believers toward holiness the medieval church (600–1500 AD) even came to teach that we are justified (accepted by God) to the degree we are holy and we are holy by grace and cooperation with grace. That unofficial consensus became dogma at the Council of Trent in 1547. It remains the dogma (the official teaching) of the Roman communion today. It was also the teaching of the first-generation Anabaptists in the 1520s and 30s and it became the teaching of some of those groups that were influenced by the Anabaptists and of some wings of the “holiness” movements—even though they were ostensibly Protestant—in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In each case, however, whether in the medieval church, the Roman communion, or in the “holiness” churches, that system has always failed to produce the desired results. There is a reason for this failure: sanctification requires great effort, indeed it requires the ultimate commitment: death to self but it is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Under the Roman system, sanctification became a work. They made our works a part of the instrument (faith) and ground (righteousness) of justification (acceptance with God). That’s why the Reformers accused Rome of contradicting the clear teaching of the apostle Paul:

God counts righteousness apart from works (Rom 4:6)

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Rom 11:6)

…a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Gal 2:16)

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Gal 3:10)

In Reformed terms the medieval system turned the covenant of grace (“the seed of the woman shall”) into a covenant of works (“do this and live” – Luke 10:28). Further, by all measures the medieval system failed to produce the desired results. The Fifth Lateran Council, on the cusp of the Reformation, declared that the Western Church (session 9, 1514) recognized that the church had been corrupted by the sale of ecclesiastical office (simony) and other forms of immorality. When, before the Reformation, in 1510, Luther visited Rome, the moral corruption of the “holy city” was so great he was disgusted and is said to have repeated the German axiom, “If there’s a hell, Rome is built on it.”

The Reformation offered a biblical alternative but, at the Council of Trent, the Roman communion “doubled down” and “went all in” (as the gamblers say) on the system of justification through sanctification and that by grace and cooperation with grace (works). In the Roman system sanctification is not Spirit-wrought. It is enabled by infused grace but is contingent upon our (free) willing and doing. In this Rome and the Remonstrants (the original Arminians) are one. God has done his part, as it were, and now it is up to us.

This is why the medieval church and Rome following her turned to threats and fear as a motivation to sanctity. Jesus was represented to the clergy and laity as an ominous, holy, fearsome judge instead of the one gracious Savior and Mediator between God and man. Not surprisingly the church gradually turned to substitute mediators, to an ever growing (and changing) collection of dead, glorified Christians (saints) who were now said to be able to hear and answer prayers. The greatest of these, of course, was (and is) said to be the mother of our Lord Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Ironically, the medieval church (and implicitly the modern Roman communion), while they affirmed God’s holiness and the necessity of our holiness for acceptance with God, recognized that we sinners do not ordinarily achieve the necessary holiness for acceptance with God. To address this problem some theologians taught that God imputes perfection to our best efforts even though those efforts (sanctity) were inherently imperfect. In the modern period Vatican II embraced a version of this view.

The Reformation repudiated the use of fear and threats of purgatory as an inducement for Christians to become more sanctified. The Reformed Churches embraced with their whole hearts the doctrine of free acceptance with God on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness. They taught consistently that sanctity is a necessary and natural result of true faith and union with the risen Christ. They also taught that the moral law of God as summarized in the Ten Commandments and expressed in the NT is the objective standard for Christian morality. They all agreed that antinomianism, denying the abiding validity of the substance of the Ten Commandments, is a denial of the ethical teaching of God’s Word.

The Use of the Law By The Westminster Divines Against The English Antinomians

Against the antinomians that troubled the church during the English Civil War, the Reformed confessed:

The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.

They recognized, however, that the moral law, whether expressed typologically under Moses or in the NT by our Lord himself or by the apostles did not, of itself, have power to produce sanctity. They knew this because they had learned early on from Martin Luther that God’s Word has two kinds of speech for sinners, law and gospel, or bad news and good. Calvin’s colleague and successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, wrote:

We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the ‘Law,’ the other the ‘Gospel.’ For all the rest can be gathered under the one or other of these two headings…Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity (The Christian Faith, 1558).

The great English Reformed theologian, William Perkins, wrote about preaching:

The basic principle in application is to know whether the passage is a statement of the law or of the gospel. For when the Word is preached, the law and the gospel operate differently. The law exposes the disease of sin, and as a side-effect, stimulates and stirs it up. But it provides no remedy for it. However the gospel not only teaches us what is to be done, it also has the power of the Holy Spirit joined to it….A statement of the law indicates the need for a perfect inherent righteousness, of eternal life given through the works of the law, of the sins which are contrary to the law and of the curse that is due them…. By contrast, a statement of the gospel speaks of Christ and his benefits, and of faith being fruitful in good works (The Art of Prophesying, 1592, repr. Banner of Truth Trust, 1996, 54–55).

The Reformed knew that humans are so sinful and the law is so holy that the law can only direct, guide, and convict. It can never generate holiness. Only Christ, working by his Spirit, through true faith, works out the principle of new life in the Christian by his grace and gospel.

The Reformed theologians and churches expressed this distinction between law and gospel in terms of two kinds of covenants, the covenant of works (law) that says, “do this and live” and the covenant of grace (gospel) that says, “the Seed of the woman shall crush his head” or “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.”

Zacharias Ursinus, the principle author of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) explained the relations this way:

What distinguishes law and gospel? A: The law contains a covenant of nature begun by God with men in creation, that is, it is a natural sign to men, and it requires of us perfect obedience toward God. It promises eternal life to those keeping it, and threatens eternal punishment to those not keeping it. In fact, the gospel contains a covenant of grace, that is, one known not at all under nature. This covenant declares to us fulfillment of its righteousness in Christ, which the law requires, and our restoration through Christ’s Spirit. To those who believe in him, it freely promises eternal life for Christ’s sake (Larger Catechism, Q. 36).

The Reformed always grounded their understanding of sanctity and the process of growing in godliness in the covenant of grace, not in the covenant of works. This is why the Heidelberg Catechism was organized in three part: Guilt (law), Grace (Gospel), and Gratitude (sanctification). The Christian life always flows out of sanctity. It is normed by the law but it is empowered by grace and by the announcement of the good news in the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of gospel sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

In contrast to the Romanist approach to promoting sanctity through fear, the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 52 teaches:

52. What comfort is it to you, that Christ “shall come to judge the living and the dead”?

That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head, I look for the selfsame One, who before offered Himself for me to the judgment of God, and removed all curse from me, to come as Judge from heaven, who shall cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall take me with all His chosen ones to Himself into heavenly joy and glory.

For the believer, for whom all debts have been paid, to whom the perfect (condign) merits of Christ have been imputed, the final judgment is no source of fear or terror but a source of comfort. Righteousness has been accomplished. The covenant of works has been fulfilled. The fruit of sanctification is the natural, necessary consequence of our free acceptance with God. The Spirit is at work in us. In the words of the Belgic Confession,

These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification—for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place.

We “do good works” but we “do not base our salvation on them; for we cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment.”  (Belgic Confession Art 24). As Protestants we are free from having to pretend that we are or ever shall be completely sanctified in this life.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that there are warning passages in Scripture, in the NT, that were spoken to the NT church. Those warning passages are God’s Word and we ignore them at our peril.

Westminster Confession 19:6–7 speaks directly to the proper use of the law in motivating believers to great holiness and obedience. The first part of section 6 addressed one of the burdens of this brief series, namely, the problem of using the law without putting believers back under the covenant of works. Thus they confessed (and we with them)

Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others

The divines recognized that it is indeed possible to misuse the law and by such an abuse, well intentioned though it be, to place believers under the covenant of works. This happens when we use the law not as the divinely established norm which in the pedagogical use drives unbelieving sinners to Christ the Savior and in the normative use establishes the moral boundaries for the Christian life (and even then, says Heidelberg Q/A 115, “that we may more and more know our sinful nature”—so there is a pedagogical function of the law here too) but when we express the law conditionally to Christians: “God will approve of you if you, in your own person, do x.”

Consider, e.g., the language of Hebrews 12:14 and the “holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” This is not expressed as a conditional, “if you are holy, then you will see the Lord.” There is an imperative: “Seek peace and holiness.” It is a fact that without holiness no one will see the Lord but if we express this truth as a condition that the believer who is united to Christ, sola gratia, sola fide must meet then how much holiness is enough? Well, of course, God’s holiness is infinite and therefore our holiness must be infinite. Whose holiness, in this life, is infinite? No one’s holiness meets this test. The consequences of the syllogism are hard to miss:

  1. God demands perfect holiness as a condition of seeing him
  2. My holiness is not perfect
  3. Ergo, I will not see him

The next move we are likely to make is to offer some concession: “Well, of course God doesn’t expect your holiness to be perfect actually. He’s prepared to accept your best efforts.”

Now we have regressed entirely to the medieval doctrine of congruent merit, from which the Reformation delivered us. The problem, of course, is that all the evidence in Scripture tells us that God does expect perfect holiness. No one who has read the book of Leviticus could come away thinking that God is satisfied with less than perfection.

The solution for this problem is to recognize the difference between “if…then” and “do…because.” The medieval and Romanist schemes set up deadly conditionals: obey in order to gain (or keep) favor. The Protestants set up grace-wrought consequences. We Protestants seek to obey, in the grace of Christ, in union with Christ, because we’ve been redeemed and because we’ve been given new life.

So, because we’ve been redeemed, we should affirm the Westminster Confession (19.6) and confess the abiding validity of God’s moral law: as a rule of life informing [believers] of the will of God, and their duty,” because, by God’s intention,  “it directs and binds them to walk accordingly.”

It has another function, which we observed in part 1 in the Heidelberg Catechism. The older writers sometimes used the word “elenctic” to describe this use of the law. It’s an adjective that was derived from the Greek word used in 2Tim 4:2 that means “to convict.” This is essentially the same function it plays in the pedagogical use of the law, sometimes described as the first use of the law, as God uses it to drive unbelievers to Christ. It convicts us of the unbelief that remains within us and drives us back to Christ and thence to sanctity by

discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience.

This was standard Reformed doctrine. This was the teaching of Luther, Calvin, Beza, and the Reformed writers between them and the Assembly.

The Westminster Confession was written during a time of considerable social upheaval—a civil war will do that. There was no little theological upheaval as well. The modern Baptist movement was developing and it challenged the status quo on the sacraments. There were quietist movements and extreme rigorists and antinomians (and perceived antinomians). To drive home the point, the divines confessed (and we with them say),

[The moral law] is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law. The promises of it, in like manner, show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof: although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works. So as, a man’s doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one, and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law; and, not under grace. [emphasis added]

This was nothing more than an elaboration of what they had already said. There are pedagogical and normative aspects to what we (following Philipp Melanchthon a century prior) called “the third use of the law.” The fear that one should experience is the fear of being found outside of the free grace of God and the perfect righteousness of Christ imputed.

According to the churches, the moral law does threaten us but not as if we were still under the curse. We are not. For anyone to suggest or imply that believers, united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, in his perfect righteousness, may be placed again under the curse is nigh unto blasphemy. It undermines the finished work of Christ. It is this very error that we reject in Romanism, which really does place believers back under the curse of the law. “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the law” (Gal 3:10).  Who of us has done everything? None of us. Ergo, were that the condition of acceptance with God we are all necessarily cursed. That is why Paul hastens to remind us three verses later, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”

The divines explained that the use of the threatenings in the life of the believer is to remind him of that from which he has been delivered. The threatenings of the law, the reminders of curse, encourage us to obedience by reminding us of that from which we’ve been delivered and by illustrating for us how much God desires godliness but they do not do so by placing us in a state of jeopardy. This distinction in the function of the threats and curses is as essential for their right use as the distinction between law and gospel.

Finally, WCF 19. 7 concludes with a defense of the third use of the law:

Neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it; the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely, and cheerfully, which the will of God, revealed in the law, requireth to be done.

We should observe how carefully the divines distinguished between law and gospel, in covenantal terms, by distinguishing between the covenants of works and grace. Their use of the law as the norm and teacher was always in the interests of driving sinners to see their need of a Savior and to seek godliness by seeking God’s favor in the face of Christ and with the help of his Spirit, who operates (works upon) the human will to make it “sweetly comply” with God’s fixed moral requirements. The key word here is “enabling.” The Spirit, through the “due use of ordinary means” (WCF 1.7) gradually brings our wills into conformity with his own.

A Look At Some Warning Passages
There are passages in the NT that might be described as “warning passages.” The first passage that might come to mind is the stern warning in Hebrews 4 to those Jewish and Gentile Christians who were tempted to turn back to Judaism, to embrace the Mosaic ceremonies, or even to abandon Christ altogether. To such the pastor (preached and) wrote,:

Let us fear therefore, while the promise still stands, let anyone of you should seem to have come short of it.

If we stopped in Hebrews 4:1 we might construe this passages as an exhortation to godliness or obedience as a condition of obtaining the promise but that would be a mistake. The pastor continues:

For indeed we have had good news preached unto us, even as also they: but the word of hearing did not profit them, because it was not united by faith with those who heard it.

The danger here is that of unbelief. The Israelites heard the gospel preached to them and they failed to enter the rest of salvation. That same danger exists today. The message must be received with faith! And, Pastor Paul hastens to add in Ephesians 2, that faith is a gift of God.

Hebrews 10 contains perhaps one of the strongest “warning” passages in the NT. Verses 26–27:

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.

There could hardly be a more frightening passage in all the NT. It seems to seek to drive us to holiness by using the threat of final judgment. Once again, however, if we expand the context, the picture changes considerably. Consider the passage just above this “warning” passage:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

In vv. 19–25 the preacher to the Hebrew Christians begins with assurance, the confidence, the certain Gospel promise that all those who have trusted Jesus have free and full access to the heavenly holy of holies, where Jesus is, through the finished work and righteousness of Christ.

It is in view of the gospel, therefore, that they (and we with them) are to conduct their Christian lives. One of the consequences of faith in Christ is gathering together, on the Sabbath, in holy assembly for public worship.  Because some were being tempted to go back to Moses, back to the types and shadows, they were absenting themselves from Christian worship (perhaps in favor of the Synagogue on the Jewish Sabbath?).

It is in such a context that the preacher warns about the danger of being impenitent, i.e., of sinning without repentance. The sin here is apostasy from Christ and his gospel. In other words, we cannot simply fill in the blank with any sin, under any circumstance, and then shake our finger at others and say, “Stop doing x or you’ll lose your acceptance with God.”

That isn’t what this warning passage says or implies. So much is made clear by the verses following. He reminds these NT believers of what happened under Moses to those who apostatized. He writes:

How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?  For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Who is in such jeopardy? It is they who, having been initiated into the covenant community (in chapter 6 he writes of being “enlightened” perhaps a metaphorical reference to baptism), who have “tasted of the powers of the age to come” and who now have walked away from their profession of faith.

To be clear, neither Hebrews nor the rest of Holy Scripture, knows anything about the foolish Federal Vision doctrine of a union with Christ created by baptism and preserved by grace and cooperation with grace. This has more do with Romanismt sacerdotalism than it has with Scripture, which never teaches that circumcision or baptism has the power to create a real or even temporary union with Christ. Indeed, the Apostle Paul positively rejected the Judaizing attempt to confer more power on circumcision than it had. See the books of Galatians and Colossians.

The Federal Visionists make this error because they reject the biblical teaching that there are two ways of being in the one covenant of grace: internally and externally (Rom 2:28). I’ve written on the question of “Baptism and the Benefits of Christ” in an essay available free and online at the Confessional Presbyterian.

The short of it is that there are those in the visible covenant community, in the church, who have only an external relation to the covenant of grace and to Christ. They profess faith but they but they lack the new life that the Spirit alone gives.

We may rightly call them apostates who profess faith and who turn their backs on Christ. They were in the visible covenant community. They did receive signs. They did profess faith but, as John says, “they went out from us because they were not of us” (1John 2:19). They were never united to Christ.

Such apostates (as defined above) should be in fear of the holy wrath of God. Jesus has poured out the most holy blood of the covenant, not in bowls or on doorposts, but on the cross and the Angel of Death has passed over all those who by faith alone are covered by that righteous and holy blood. All those, however, whether in the visible assembly of the church or outside of it, who are not covered by Christ’s righteousness are in grave danger.

True believers, however, united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone ( sola gratia, sola fide) are in no such jeopardy. The Christian is simul iustus et peccator (at the same time sinner and righteous). As Paul teaches in Romans 7–8, we sin, we repent of it, we confess it humbly before God, we seek and accept his forgiveness in Christ. As he teaches in Romans 6 we seek to put to death that sin by strength of the Spirit of Christ dwelling within us.

The preacher to the Hebrews knows nothing of a true believer who may fall away. He does, however, know of those who have made profession of faith, who have a merely external relationship to the covenant of grace (Rom 2:28), who are not actually united to Christ by faith. These are two distinct classes of people who co-exist within the administration of the one covenant of grace.

One who has made a profession but who is not actually a believer cannot be placed back under the covenant of works because he has never left it. He is still under a covenant of works, an obligation to produce “perfect and personal obedience” (WCF 7.1). A profession of faith that does not flow from Spirit-wrought new life is false. Such a person remains under obligation to produce the perfect righteousness demanded by the law. A believer, however, has already met that demand by virtue of Christ’s perfect righteousness imputed.

The Warnings In Hebrews 12
Hebrews 12 gives us a pattern for relating the gospel, the third use of the law (the normative use), and warnings. The pastor begins the chapter by urging believers to set aside “every weight and sin” (v. 1). To motivate us to persevere in the struggle toward sanctity he reminds us that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” We do not need to understand exactly who these witnesses are to understand how they function. He also points to Christ, who persevered through death, who was raised and is ascended. He grounds our struggle with sin in Christ the “perfecter and author of our faith” (v.2).

He reminds us that our Lord resisted sin to the shedding of blood (v.4), whether in the Garden of Gethsemane or on the cross. The contrast with our own spiritual sloth is clear.

This battle with sin he calls “the discipline of the Lord” (v.5). We’re not to interpret such Fatherly discipline as a sign of God’s disfavor (as if the only sign of his Fatherly care is earthly prosperity) but rather as a sign of God’s love for us in Christ (vv.5–11). Just as we have earthly fathers who disciplined us because they love us (ordinarily), for our good (that was certainly true in my case) so it is even more true that the Father sometimes chastises us in order to drive us to see our sins, to see our need for Christ and to seek to die to sin and live to Christ. Sometimes the Lord may even withdraw from us a sense of his presence. During such chastisements we continue to trust the Lord, to wait, and to make use of those means he has appointed for our spiritual growth: the preaching of the gospel, the holy sacraments, and prayer.

In vv. 18–24, the pastor reminds us of God’s awesome holiness. This reminder is intended to create in us a sense of due reverence for our Holy God—one that is sorely needed in our day—Notice, however, that Hebrews 12:18–21 says that “we have not come” to the gloomy, frightening Old Covenant mountain. He reminds us that, instead, in the New Covenant, by faith, come to

Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. and to innumerable angels in festal gathering….

This is a much more optimistic, encouraging picture.

God is no less holy, however. As he says, we have come to

God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

The person at the top of the mountain, as it were, is he who gave his life for us, our Mediator.

There is jeopardy associated with the new covenant mountain. We who hear, who profess faith, may not “refuse him who is speaking” (v. 25). Now that we are in the period of fulfillment the jeopardy of unbelief is even greater—”much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.” The next “voice” (v. 26) will not just shake a mountain but will rattle the entire world!

We who believe should be grateful for “receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (v. 28). As the redeemed we want to “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”

If we look at other warning passages in the NT we find the same pattern repeatedly. 1Peter warns not that believers may fall away if they are not sufficiently sanctified. That would be to put believers back under the covenant of works, which is impossible. Rather, Peter warns them, e.g., that if they were to be in trouble with the civil authorities let it be for being a Christians rather than being an idiot (breaking the civil law). He reminds them of the impending return of Jesus in the final flood, as it were, to set all things right. We should therefore be prepared to suffer patiently in view of that reality.

Jude warns about false teachers and other false Christians, who profess faith but who are really hypocrites. They present a danger to the congregation. We do not know who is and is not elect. We may not be presumptuous. God works through instruments. Therefore we must be on guard lest such wolves enter congregations and do irreparable damage. This is why we have the process of church discipline (Matt 18).

Our Lord himself made use of warnings and promises of reward but how should we understand them? Consider his teaching in Matthew 6:2–4:

Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Clearly he intends for us to do one thing (give to the needy) and not to do another (do so in an ostentatious way). Did he, however, set up a conditional reward structure whereby if we give appropriately we will have a reward (whatever that is) but if we fail to meet the condition we will not?

No, that’s not what the Lord says. Such a reading is an example, mentioned earlier in the series, of setting up false conditions and imposing them on the text. Our Lord is contrasting two different attitudes and intentions. The ostentatious giver has no love for the needy. His desire is recognition. When he gives ostentatiously he gains recognition and thus has his reward, such as it is. By contrast, the secret giver does so out of gratitude for God’s gift to him in Christ. He has another secret reward: Jesus the gift. He does not have the gift because he gave but he gave in secret because he already had the gift. There is no “if…then” condition for acceptance with God here. This is a classic case of an “is” (“this is the case”) that some would turn on its head to make it into an “if.”

When we turn Jesus’ words into conditions for acceptance with God we miss his point. In context he’s describing the antithesis between belief and unbelief, between true faith, which produces fruit, and hypocrisy, which produces dead works. Jesus is describing true faith and prescribing behavior that flows from it. The warning here is to make sure that we have true faith, that we believe, to make sure that we are not hypocrites. That’s a salutary warning.

There are warning passages in the NT but they must be read in their context. They must be read the way they are intended to be read. Isolated and collated they can be formed into an intimidating and unduly frightening list of conditions to be fulfilled for acceptance with God. The passages of this class, however, were never intended to be understood or used this way.

The key to unlocking the warning passages is the distinction between the covenants of works and grace. This is not a formula for making the passages go away. It is the biblical way of reading these passages in context and applying them fruitfully toward conformity to Christ.

Now I have an exhortation for preachers: Brothers, it is well for us to desire sanctity for in our people. As we do, however, we must be careful to make this foundational, biblical distinction. We will will help our congregations a great deal by taking a few moments regularly to explain it to them and to illustrate it by treating the NT warning passages with that distinction in mind. When we preachers fail to do this we unintentionally place our people back under the covenant of works, which can never produce in them the sanctity we all earnestly hope and pray to see.

The God who redeemed us is also sanctifying us by his Spirit, working in us a love for his holy law and bringing us into conformity to Christ. By virtue of the power of the Spirit, with which we are endued, we must struggle against sin, more and more recognizing God’s holiness and bringing our desires into conformity to his. In this life we will only make a beginning, even if only inchoate but let us make that beginning. “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2Cor 7:1).