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.”

The Logic Of Fruit As Evidence

The Patristic Period
One of the earliest concerns of the Christian church, beginning with the apostles and intensifying through the patristic and medieval periods, was that those who profess the Christian faith should live in a way befitting their profession of faith. In the apostolic and patristic periods our theologians were often writing within a hostile culture to converts from paganism. There was much that Christians could not control: what the pagans thought of them (e.g., they drown babies, they were cannibals, they were a burial cult etc). The Greco-Roman pagans seemed determined to try to force the Christians to conform outwardly to Greco-Roman piety. They were happy to add Jesus to the pantheon but they (and the non-Christian Jews) were greatly troubled by his crucifixion and they could not tolerate the notion that he had claimed (and the Christians confessed) that he is the only way to God. There offended too by the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as unreasonable and others were critical of the claim that Jesus was born of a Virgin. Occasionally, in the patristic periods, there were even sporadic outbreaks of government-sponsored persecution intended either deal with the problem of the Christians. Those pogroms failed and the Christians persisted. One thing the Christians could control, one claim the Christians could make was that their behavior was exemplary. Those who investigated the Christians from the outside reported (e.g., Pliny the Younger c. 112 AD) that the Christians covenanted among themselves not make false oaths, not to steal, not to desire the belongings of others etc. They recited the Ten Commandments in their services. As part of their apologetic (i.e., defense of the faith) Justin Martyr and Tertullian repeatedly challenged the pagans to find anything wrong with the way Christians behaved. Christians, they argued, were good citizens and could sustain any trial to which the pagans might put them. They repeatedly begged the authorities to leave the Christians alone so they could pursue their lives peacefully.

The Medieval Period
Beginning in the late Patristic period and continuing through the medieval period, however, the high Christian doctrine of the moral and apologetic necessity of good behavior morphed into something else: part of the ground and instrument of the Christian’s standing before God, part of the ground and reason of their final salvation from the wrath to come. By the high middle ages (e.g., as reflected the teaching of Anselm. Bernard of Clairvaux. and Thomas Aquinas) it was widely held, though never formally confessed by the church, that salvation is by sanctification and that sanctification is by grace and free cooperation with grace. The mainstream doctrine became that Christians needed to accumulate merit and that was that free will, i.e., the un-coerced act of the will was essential merit. Behind this lay a set of philosophical assumptions that were received more or less uncritically, chief among which was the notion that God can only say “righteous” or “sanctified” if the Christians is actually, inherently, intrinsically righteous and sanctified. Particularly in the West and entire doctrine of salvation (soteriology) was established to explain how that was and what one must do to be saved (sanctified and therefore justified and finally delivered from the wrath to come).

The became that Christians are infused with a sort of medicine (a metaphor frequently used for grace) which produces new life (there is nothing new about sovereign, prevenient grace) with which the Christian must cooperate toward the formation of a kind of merit that has intrinsic worth. The medieval theologians called this “condign merit.” They recognized, however, in different ways that our cooperation with grace is imperfect or that our good works are still imperfect (different writers put it differently) and therefore God must impute perfection to our best efforts. They called this congruent merit. There was a widespread conviction that the only way to promote sanctity (holiness) and obedience among Christians is to suspend their final standing before God (salvation) upon their cooperation with grace. Good works were not evidence of a right standing with God and salvation but essential to the ground and instrument of our justification and salvation. Where at least some of the Fathers had spoken of justification and salvation by grace through faith in something like the way the Protestants would later do, the medievals defined faith rather differently. They defined faith as sanctification. They taught that faith is a virtue, that it has intrinsic power, and that it is “formed” in us through sanctification, i.e., by grace and cooperation with grace. Where Paul had written, “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6) the medievals (e.g., Thomas) taught “faith formed by love.” They spoke of the “theological virtues” of 1 Corinthians 13: faith, hope, and love. Faith was thought to be the gift of God but it does not given to us fully developed. We must nurture it and since love (caritas from which we get charity) is the greatest virtue, we must develop it by our free cooperation with grace toward the formation of faith. Thus, for the medieval theologians, faith is not so much trusting in Christ and looking to Christ but rather a measurement of the degree of love formed within us, a measurement of our actual sanctity and inherent righteousness.

This prevailing medieval doctrine of salvation by grace and cooperation with grace, however, left the Christian in a state of suspension. Assurance was regarded as ordinarily impossible for the ordinary Christian and undesirable. Indeed, the notion of that one might have certainty that one was saved and would be saved from the wrath to come was regarded as presumption, as arrogance and that was an indication that one was not sufficiently sanctified. Christians were intended in a state of uncertainty. In at least one Saxon Augustinian monk that crisis created by the medieval system would produce a revolution in Western theology, piety, and practice.

The Reformation
When Luther rebelled against the medieval doctrine of justification and salvation by sanctification he re-defined justification as God’s unconditional declaration of justification (righteousness) on the ground of Christ’s condign merit imputed to believers and that received through faith alone (sola fide). Faith in justification and salvation was redefined as the sole instrument through which Christians receive God’s grace and Christ’s righteousness. This is why the sola of sola fide was so important. Love was said to be the fruit and evidence of justification and salvation. Grace was also redefined. Luther and the Protestants found that the medievals had departed from the biblical definition of grace as God’s free favor toward sinners and had turned it into a medicine. They found that some of the Fathers and many of the medievals had downplayed the effects of sin so as to be able to teach our ability to cooperate freely with grace. They recaptured St Paul’s and St Augustine’s doctrine of sin and its deadly consequences.

Where the medievals had come to teach that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection made it possible for Christian to do his part, if he would, Luther and the Protestants declared that the gospel is that Christ had accomplished salvation once-for-all and that he freely distributes it to all who believe, that faith is a free gift of grace, and that even though we are never fully, inherently sanctified or righteous in this life nevertheless we are already fully justified before God and saved from the wrath to come. We are simultaneously righteous even though we remain actually sinners (simul iustus et peccator). That was something that virtually no medieval theologian could say and it was flatly contrary to what became formal Romanist dogma in the mid-16th century.

What of sanctification? Whereas the medievals made sanctification the instrument of our justification and salvation Luther and the Protestants taught that our actual, progressive sanctification is the necessary consequence of our justification and our salvation from the wrath to come. Like the Fathers and the medievals they believed and taught the moral necessity of holiness and obedience to God’s moral law (the ten commandments) but unlike the medievals they taught Christian obedience to the law is the fruit of our justification and evidence of our salvation. There were those, particularly in the 1550s, who dissented from the Protestant consensus. One theologian (Osiander) taught that God accepts us on the basis of our union with the indwelling Christ. Another tried to wedge in the medieval doctrine, by teaching that good works were more than evidence but this revision was universally rejected. The overwhelming consensus among Reformed theologians by the mid-16th century was that sanctification is the necessary consequence of our justification and the evidence of our salvation.

Protestants On Obedience As Fruit And Evidence
Where Rome (e.g., Trent), the Socinians, and Richard Baxter made good works the antecedent condition of our salvation (the law of works), i.e., they played the same role as faith, the Protestants made good works the necessary consequence of our salvation. According to the moralists, we do good works in order to be saved. According to the Protestants, we do good works because we have been saved. One says, in effect, that we are saved from the flood (judgment) partly through faith and partly through our good works. The other says we obey out of gratitude, in union and communion with the risen Christ, because we have been saved, as it were, from the flood. This is the best understanding of Ephesians 2:8–10. Our salvation and the faith by which we receive it, it’s all God’s gift.

Martin Luther
It was Luther who gave us the adjective antinomian, those who reject the abiding validity of God’s holy moral law as the norm for the Christian. Almost as soon as Luther and the Protestants had recovered the gospel of free salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), resting in and receiving Christ and all his benefits, a movement arose that rejected the abiding validity of the moral law. Luther defended not only the first use of the moral law (whereby we learn the greatness of our sin and misery) but also the third use whereby the moral law norms the Christian life. We keep the law not in order to be saved but because we have been saved.

Good works, he taught, are the a necessary consequence of our justification and salvation:

We conclude with Paul that we are justified solely by faith in Christ, without the Law and works. But after a man is justified by faith, now possesses Christ by faith, and knows that He is his righteousness and life, he will certainly not be idle but, like a sound tree, will bear good fruit (Matt. 7:17). For the believer has the Holy Spirit; and where He is, He does not permit a man to be idle but drives him to all the exercises of devotion, to the love of God, to patience in affliction, to prayer, to thanksgiving, and to the practice of love toward all men.1

He was not finished. In the very next paragraph Luther wrote

Therefore we, too, say that faith without works is worthless and useless. The papists and the fanatics take this to mean that faith without works does not justify, or that if faith does not have works, it is of no avail, no matter how true it is. That is false. But faith without works—that is, a fantastic idea and mere vanity and a dream of the heart—is a false faith and does not justify.2

For Luther, as for all the confessional Protestants following him, good works do not make faith what it is but neither can one claim to have true faith without them any more than a tree can be said to be good without fruit. The fruit demonstrates what the tree is. The fruit is evidence that the tree is alive.

This, of course, never satisfies the moralist. He will have good works as part of faith both in justification and for our final entrance into glory:

On the other hand, the weak, who are not malicious or slanderous but good, are offended when they hear that the Law and good works do not have to be done for justification. One must go to their aid and explain to them how it is that works do not justify, how works should be done, and how they should not be done. They should be done as fruits of righteousness, not in order to bring righteousness into being. Having been made righteous, we must do them; but it is not the other way around: that when we are unrighteous, we become righteous by doing them. The tree produces fruit; the fruit does not produce the tree.3

This metaphor of good works as fruit was widely adopted by Protestant writers. It became a standard feature of Reformed theologians in the British Isles and across Europe. It was so widely accepted that it became a the way that the Reformed churches spoke about good works in their confessions.

The Reformed Confessions And Theologians
Perhaps the locus classicus (the most typical place) is Belgic Confession article 24:

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.

The charge made by Rome and the Anabaptists, among others, was that the evangelical doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sola fide would make Christians cold and careless about their sanctification. The Reformed churches refuted that charge by arguing that the same grace by which we have been given new life also produces faith and it is “impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful.” True faith is God’s gift. It unites us to the risen and ascended Christ who, by his Spirit, works in us conformity to himself and to his moral will. This is how we understand “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Rome, remember, turned “faith working through love” into “faith formed by love” (on this see part 1). In response, Calvin wrote on Galatians 5:6, “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.”

In the 1559 edition of the Institutes Calvin wrote at length on the relationship between the grace of justification and the grace of sanctification.

But, since the question concerns only righteousness and sanctification, let us dwell upon these. Although we may distinguish them, Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces [1 Cor. 1:13]. Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness.4

Notice that, for Calvin, we are not justified “without” works but we are not justified “through” them. They are concomitant to our justification and our salvation but they are not the instrument (“through”) of our salvation. This is the difference between through and is. He continued in the next section to give a series of biblical quotations and allusions proving that “no one can put sharper spurs to them than those derived from the end of our redemption and calling” (3.16.2). In other words, contra the moralists, guilt, grace, and gratitude (lived in union and communion with Christ) is enough to empower and enable the Christian life of sanctification and the fruit of good works. He asked rhetorically, “Could we be aroused to love by any livelier argument than that of John’s: that “we love one another as God has loved us”? (ibid). God’s gracious for our present tribulation produces fruit: “Let us always remember that this promise, like all others, would not bear fruit for us if the free covenant of his mercy had not gone before, upon which the whole assurance of our salvation depended” (3.18.7).

In the Second Helvetic Confession (published 1566) the Swiss Reformed confessed:

The same apostle calls faith efficacious and active through love (Gal. 5:6). It also quiets the conscience and opens a free access to God, so that we may draw near to him with confidence and may obtain from him what is useful and necessary. The same faith keeps us in the service we owe to God and our neighbor, strengthens our patience in adversity, fashions and makes a true confession, and in a word brings forth good fruit of all kinds, and good works (ch. 16).

We obey because God has graciously redeemed us. The very same grace and faith that saves also produces the fruit of good works, the evidence of our salvation.

For we teach that truly good works grow out of a living faith by the Holy Spirit and are done by the faithful according to the will or rule of God’s Word. Now the apostle Peter says: “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control,” etc.(II Peter 1:5 ff.). But we have said above that the law of God, which is his will, prescribes for us the pattern of good works. And the apostle says: “This is the will of God, your sanctification, that you abstain from immorality…that no man transgress, and wrong his brother in business” (I Thess. 4:3 ff.).

We are not antinomian but we use the law the way it was intended to be used: as the norm of our new life, not the instrument or ground of our salvation.

The Westminster Confession could not have been clearer about the relationship between faith and fruits:

2. These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life (chapter 16).

Our good works do not justify us. They do not sanctify us. They do not save us but they are the “fruit and evidences” of a true and lively faith. Christ saved us by his obedience, death, and resurrection. The Spirit sanctifies by his grace. Our good works are the fruit of God’s gracious for us and in us.

The logic is this: God graciously works in us new life and faith. Through that faith we apprehend Christ and all his benefits for our salvation. Through that faith the Spirit works union and communion with Christ in which we are sanctified and out of that faith, union, and communion are produced the fruit of our new life and sanctification in Christ. Fruit is a metaphor. As the Belgic Confession has it, good trees produce good fruit. The fruit is evidence of the life in the tree. So, the Spirit produces new life, faith, union with Christ, justification and sanctification in the sinner. Our good works are the fruit of the Spirit’s work in us and evidence of the salvation that we have by grace alone, through faith alone.

NOTES

1. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 26: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 26 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 154–155. I am indebted to John Fonville for his help with this post.

2. Luther’s Works, 26.155.

3. Luther’s Works, 26.169.

4. Calvin, Institutes (Battles edition), 3.16.1.

 

Brothers, We Are Not Perfectionists

Introduction
In the doctrine of sanctification there are several errors to be avoided. First, let’s define our terms and understand what the basic biblical (and confessional Reformed) doctrine of sanctification is. The verb “to sanctify” is Latin. It is the word from which our English word “saint” is derived and it means “to set apart” and “to make holy.” What is holiness? In short it is Spirit-wrought conformity to the moral will of God, Spirit-wrought conformity to Christ, the dying of the old man, and the making alive of the new (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A88). It is:

Heartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more (HC Q/A 89.

and

Heartfelt joy in God through Christ, causing us to take delight in living according to the will of God in all good works (HC Q/A 90).

Perhaps the three great errors the church has committed regarding the doctrine of sanctification are:

  1. Justification through sanctification—This is one of Rome’s greatest errors (and that of all moralists). In order to get sinners to obey moralism makes our acceptance with God contingent upon our obedience. It matters not whether we begin with grace (as Rome does) so long as we end with works. This is exactly Paul’s point in Galatians 3:3 and Romans 11:6. Grace plus anything nullifies grace and denies Christ’s finished work.
  2. Sanctification as a second blessing—This is the error of “Easy Believism, which is the result of the Second Great Awakening revivalist system whereby one walks the aisle, prays the prayer, and signs the card. These acts are treated roughly the way Rome treats baptism, as if it works ex opere operato(by the working it is worked). In this system people are told that it is a good thing if they grow in grace by not strictly necessary. In their effort to protect free justification against the errors of the moralists This view fails to understand the organic relation between free justification and the sanctification which follows it as fruit and evidence.
  3. Perfectionism—This is the error that says that, in this life, we can, if we will, attain to sinless perfection. This view probably existed prior to Pelagius (fl. c. 380–420) but he certainly articulated it on the premise that, in Adam’s fall, we did not sin. Adam was merely a bad example and Christ a good one. In his commentary on Romans he wrote that Paul could not possibly mean what he seems to say in 5:12–21. According to Pelagius, each of us, even after the fall is, as it were, Adam. Because we are not inherently sinful, we can achieve sinless perfection in this life. By the 9th century, even though the Western church formally rejected Pelagius (the Eastern Church did not) it had become mostly semi-Pelagian insofar as it downplayed the effects of the fall and emphasized human ability even after the fall to cooperate with grace. Throughout the history of the church, before the Reformation, there were adherents to the notion to notion that, in this life, prior to death, with sufficient effort in cooperation with grace, Christians may achieve sinless perfection. In the modern period the Wesleyans are the group most closely associated with the doctrine of sinless perfection. B. B. Warfield wrote the great Reformed response to perfectionism (2 vols. Oxford, 1931)

Biblical Realism About Sanctification
For some time I’ve been concerned that we might be losing track of the biblical realism about the degree to which sanctity is achieved in this life. One place I see the influence of this shift away from realism, if you will, is in the way Romans 7 is treated. When, in his commentary on Romans, Pelagius came to 7:14–25, he knew a priori that Paul could not be describing himself or a Christian. This, of course, is opposite the Augustinian and later the orthodox Reformed view of Romans 7. I have heard Reformed folk say, “No Christian could say”:

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (ESV).

It has been said to me that Paul must be speaking in another persona or speaking as if he were not a believer. The immediate difficulty is that there is no obvious sign that Paul has stopped answering the question that he asked at the outset of chapter 7, about relation between the Christian and the law. The metaphor he uses is that of marriage. As long as one’s spouse is still alive one is bound. When the spouse dies one is free. In our case, by virtue of our union with Christ through faith, we have died with Christ and thus we are no longer under the for justification.

There is nothing wrong with the law (7:7). The law did its good and holy work by revealing my sin (vv. 7—12) It was not the law that brought death but rather it was the toxic combination of my sinful nature with God’s holy law.

From this foundation Paul then turns to the contrast between the law as it is in itself, “spiritual” and to himself, as he is in himself, “sold under sin.” The conflict is between what he is in Christ and ongoing sin, between the principle of new life which is at work in him but which is not fully realized and cannot be fully realized in this life.

When one says “no Christian could say, ‘sold as a slave’” I reply, “No unbeliever could possibly say “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being….” This is the testimony of the believer, one in whom there is, by God’s free, sovereign grace, a principle of new life.

There’s just no clear, obvious, prima facie change of person (first suggested by Pelagius) or subject or any indication that Paul is speaking about an unbeliever. He speaks consistently in the first person.

Hence Calvin says (on vv. 15ff):

He now comes to a more particular case, that of a man already regenerated; in whom both the things which he had in view appear more clearly; and these were, —the great discord there is between the Law of God and the natural man, — and how the law does not of itself produce death. For since the carnal man rushes into sin with the whole propensity of his mind, he seems to sin with such a free choice, as though it were in his power to govern himself; so that a most pernicious opinion has prevailed almost among all men — that man, by his own natural strength, without the aid of Divine grace, can choose what he pleases. But though the will of a faithful man is led to good by the Spirit of God, yet in him the corruption of nature appears conspicuously; for it obstinately resists and leads to what is contrary. Hence the case of a regenerated man is the most suitable; for by this you may know how much is the contrariety between our nature and the righteousness of the law. From this case, also, a proof as to the other clause may more fitly be sought, than from the mere consideration of human nature; for the law, as it produces only death in a man wholly carnal, is in him more easily impeached, for it is doubtful whence the evil proceeds. In a regenerate man it brings forth salutary fruits; and hence it appears, that it is the flesh only that prevents it from giving life: so far it is from producing death of itself. That the whole, then, of this reasoning may be more fully and more distinctly understood, we must observe, that this conflict, of which the Apostle speaks, does not exist in man before he is renewed by the Spirit of God: for man, left to his own nature, is wholly borne along by his lusts without any resistance; for though the ungodly are tormented by the stings of conscience, and cannot take such delight in their vices, but that they have some taste of bitterness; yet you cannot hence conclude, either that evil is hated, or that good is loved by them; only the Lord permits them to be thus tormented, in order to show to them in a measure his judgment; but not to imbue them either with the love of righteousness or with the hatred of sin.

From a larger perspective, given Paul’s doctrine of law in chapters 1–2, his doctrine of justification in chapters 3–5, his doctrine of sanctification in chapter 6 and his renewed proclamation of justification and sovereign grace in chapters 8–11, it’s hard to see what else he might have written except an account of the struggle of in the believer between the remaining sin and the new life in Christ. Only in light of this struggle can one really appreciate the declaration of 8:1

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

and the renewed doctrine of sanctification that flows from the triumph announced. The Spirit is at work in us, but we read of the triumph in chapter 8 chastened by the realty of the struggle in chapter 7. This is why Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), one of Calvin’s students and a pastor and teacher in Heidelberg and one of the contributors to/editors of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), taught that the new life is “inchoate.”

Calvin’s account of Romans 7:15–25 taken with Olevianus’ description of the Christian life may both be described as “realistic” as distinct from the somewhat triumphalist, Wesley-influenced or Higher Life-influenced approaches to the new life that dominated among Evangelicals since the 18th century.

There is no question that there is a new principle of life in the believer. Paul says in Romans 6:3–4,

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Baptism, of course, does not accomplish this union. Here Paul uses baptism as way of describing our identity with Christ and a picture of the union that we have with by grace, through faith. The same teaching appears in Ephesians 2:4–6:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus….

We were dead but by grace alone we’ve been made alive, by virtue, of which, ironically, we’ve died to sin are being sanctified progressively into the image of Christ (2Cor 3;18). We are, according to Paul, a “new creation” (2Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15) in Christ.

These categories of “death” with Christ and “new life” indicate a decisive, divinely wrought, break with life before Christ. They signal an inauguration, a beginning, of new things. They do not, however, signal the completion of all things. The consummation is not yet. The principle (beginning) of the end has been introduced and is at work in us, by grace alone, through faith alone, in union with Christ. We are becoming what we shall be but we have not yet become what we shall be (1John 3:2).

Romans 6
There are a few central passages that we must consider when we think about our state in Christ and the progress (or lack thereof) in the Christian life. The first of these is Romans 6:9–19:

We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification (ESV).

Paul says two things essentially.

  1. In Christ, by virtue of our union with Christ by faith, we have died decisively to sin and have been made alive with Christ;
  2. Experientially, we continue to struggle with sin.

We have to affirm both things simultaneously. This is why Paul says that we must reckon ourselves, think of ourselves, as dead to sin. Why? Because we are not yet experientially dead to sin. This is why he writes, “Do not present your members to sin” because, we are still struggling and too often inclined to do just that.

Perhaps the most difficult part of this passage is the clause in v. 14,

“Sin will have no dominion over you.”

One reason it is difficult is because it is often taken as a promise that, if we do our part, we might achieve sinless perfection. This, however, is not what Paul intends to say or imply.

The reason I know this is because of what Paul says in the very next clause:

For you are not under law but under grace

This clause is best understood to be speaking not in experiential language or speaking directly about our experience but rather about what is objectively true about us because of Christ’s coming and saving work for us.

We are not seeking to be accepted with God on the basis of the law because Christ has already done that for us. We have been graciously accepted by God for the sake of Christ’s righteousness for us and credited to us.

For this reason, the power of sin has been broken decisively. Sin will not ultimately win because the power of sin is the law and we’re no longer under the law for righteousness with God. Were we under the law, then sin would have dominion because the power of sin is the law but, in Christ, all that has changed.

The objective truth and reality of God’s actions for us in Christ do have experiential, subjective consequences for us but Romans 6:14 is no promise that we will not ever sin again nor does Paul intend to say, as many have taken it, “if you simply apply yourself you can achieve victory of this particular sin and the reason you have not achieved victory is because you have not applied yourself.”

That’s a rather large and unsubstantiated assumption that people have read into Romans 6:14. It’s an assumption that comes from perfectionism or perhaps from the higher life movement but it does not come from Paul, who is far more realistic about the effects of the fall and the continuing struggle with sin in this life.

Realism is not despair, which is sin. In v. 17 Paul does issue a glorious doxology:

“But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become… slaves of righteousness

When Paul says “slaves to sin” and “slaves to righteousness” he certainly does not mean to say, “you no longer sin” or “you can no longer sin.” He’s not speaking of our experience but of our status. The only way to be a slave to sin is to be under the law for righteousness but we aren’t under the law in that way so we are now slaves to righteousness.

Outside of Christ we could not ever be “obedient from the heart” but now, in Christ, we are, at least sometimes, obedient from the heart. This does not mean that we do not experience the grave sort of struggles, grief, and doubt that sin brings as Paul describes in chapter 7. Our experience does sometimes make us think that we are “sold as a slave under sin.”

Now, however, in Christ, there is a decisive break in the old reality. The new reality, introduced in Christ, is that we no longer belong to the law for righteousness and we no longer belong fundamentally to sin. We have been justified and the Spirit who raised us from death to life is at work in us but that work is gradual and often imperceptible.

Over-Realized Eschatology
So, how should we think of our experience of sin, grace, and sanctification? I have the impression that some folk think that we can make a list of sins and sort of tick them off one by one as “overcome” and they seem to think that we need only to apply ourselves to eradicate the remaining sins—as if sin is like a stain in the carpet—if we scrub harder it will come out.

Behind this, I suspect, lies an over-realized eschatology. All forms of perfectionism rely on the notion that more of heaven has been introduced into history than has actually occurred but the idea that there can be a sort of heaven on earth before Christ’s return has been deeply influential in American Christianity.

As I argued in “‘Magic and Noise:’ Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America” (in eds. R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey (Escondido: Westminster Seminary California, 2010), 74–91) Reformation Christianity has been on alien soil in North America for a long time. Therefore the air we breathe is full of alien, toxic influences of which we should be aware and which we need to filter from our lungs as it were.

Perfectionism is one such influence. It’s harmful because it’s not true and because it doesn’t lead to the thing desired, greater godliness and sanctity. Perfectionism misleads by creating a false impression. If we think we have arrived we will not face our sins for what they are. If we do not face them, we cannot repent of them and die to them. Further, perfectionism cheats by lowering God’s moral standard. No redeemed person can honestly say that they have loved God with all their faculties and their neighbor as themselves perfectly. Any claim to have achieved “perfection” re-defines the standard and that, by definition, cannot lead to greater godliness because sanctity has an objective standard: God’s immutable, perfect holiness and his unchanging moral law.

Because of the influence of perfectionism in American Christianity many (most?) American evangelicals are more comfortable with Wesley than with Luther and yet, for my money, Luther was much closer to true godliness than Wesley, if only because he didn’t cheat, if only because he was ruthlessly honest about our sinfulness, our sin, and our need for grace. The publican was closer to grace and sanctity than the pharisee, right?

We are being changed but it’s much less like a laundry list or carpet cleaning and more like the ebb and flow of a tidal pool. At low tide the water has left and we never saw it leave and didn’t know exactly how it was happening. If we filmed it and played back the film we could see the process and result but standing in the pool we weren’t aware and, in this life, we don’t really get to watch the film. We have the testimony of Scripture that it’s true, that it’s happening but I suspect that the moment we attempt to document it, that very act or the next one will be sin.

Our Inchoate Obedience
Everyone who knows the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) knows the first question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” and perhaps question 21, “What is true faith?” and maybe even question 60, “How are you righteous before God?” Few, however, have probably paid much attention to questions 114 and 115 but they bear directly on how we should think about the nature of the progress of the Christian life.

In question 113, the issue is the implications inherent in the tenth commandment:

That not even in the least inclination or thought against any commandment of God ever enter our heart, but that with our whole heart we continually hate all sin and take pleasure in all righteousness.

In short, the Reformed Churches interpret the tenth commandment to be a summary of the entire moral law and they interpret the moral law to require moral perfection in our faculties. It mentions two, the intellect and the affections but no one could imagine that the will is excluded as if the law demands perfection in two faculties but not the third.

This interpretation raises another question: Can believers keep these commandments perfectly?

No, but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with earnest purpose they begin to live not only according to some, but according to all the Commandments of God (HC, Q/A, 114.

The language of the catechism reflects the widespread Reformed doctrine that our obedience in this life is only “inchoate.” The theologians who used the expression obedientia inchoata and “inchoate sanctity” (sanctitas inchoata) to describe the degree to which we achieve sanctity in this life is like a who’s who of Reformed theology in the 16th and 17th centuries (e.g., Peter Martyr Vermigli, Ursinus, Olevianus, Pareus, Alsted, Gomarus, Rivet,and Marck). Zacharias Ursinus, on questions 89 and 90, describes the “new obedience,” which the Spirit works in us, as “inchoate” or beginning or a sketch or a draft.
That’s a good way to think about the Christian life short of glory, a rough draft. The outlines of the consummate state are being drawn but there are many erasures, as it were. This is not a counsel of hopelessness. We’ve been renewed in order that we might be sanctified.

Let’s be clear. As Louis Berkhof wrote, the source of our new life is the gospel:

God has the right to demand of us holiness of life, but because we cannot work out this holiness for ourselves, He freely works it within us through the Holy Spirit on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which is imputed to us in justification. The very fact that it is based on justification, in which the free grace of God stands out with the greatest prominence, excludes the idea that we can ever merit anything in sanctification (chapter X, section G.2)

The law, however, never stops being the law. So, even as it serves as the standard of the Christian life it continues to prosecute the sin and sinfulness that remains:

115. Why then does God so strictly enjoin the ten Commandments upon us, since in this life no one can keep them?

First, that as long as we live we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ; secondly, that without ceasing we diligently ask God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we be renewed more and more after the image of God, until we attain the goal of perfection after this life.

As we know from the second question of the Heidelberg Catechism

How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?

Three things: the first, how great my sin and misery is; the second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery; the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.

From where do we know the greatness of our sin and misery?

From the Law of God.

Again, even in Christ, even though we come, by the grace of God alone, to love the law the law never becomes anything other than the law. Thus, as Berkhof reminds,

According to Scripture there is a constant warfare between the flesh and the Spirit in the lives of God’s children, and even the best of them are still striving for perfection. Paul gives a very striking description of this struggle in Rom. 7: 7-26, a passage which certainly refers to him in his regenerate state. In Gal. 5: 16-24 he speaks of that very same struggle as a struggle that characterizes all the children of God. And in Phil. 3: 10-14 he speaks of himself, practically at the end of his career, as one who has not yet reached perfection, but is pressing on toward the goal. (ibid, ch. X, sect H.2.(c).2)

The struggle drives us to grace (free acceptance by God) in Christ, it drives us back to the gospel, the announcement of free acceptance for Christ’s sake, to the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, and to the gift of prayer.

Consider the last part of q. 115:

… that without ceasing we diligently ask God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we be renewed more and more after the image of God, until we attain the goal of perfection after this life.

The Good News Of Gracious Sanctification
Questions 114 and 115 aren’t as well known as some others in the catechism but, as we muddle through this life, we should be encouraged that we aren’t the first to think about these issues and we’re not the first try, fail, confess, and try again by God’s grace.

The good news is that, even though you and I are not perfect, perfection did happen after the fall, once. Jesus, God the Son incarnate, was perfect for us. The Spirit is at work, gradually, faithfully, renewing us in the image of Christ and we will attain the goal of perfection “after this life.”

The Reasons Christians Do Good Works

Guilt, Grace, And Gratitude
The Heidelberg Catechism is in three parts: Law, Gospel, and Sanctification or Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. This is not an artificial interpretation of the Catechism nor is it an artificial arrangement of the Christian faith. Question 2 outlines the Catechism for us:

How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?

Three things: the first, how great my sin and misery is; the second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery; the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.

Notice that there are three things that one must know: sin and misery (guilt), how we are redeemed (grace), and how believers live in light of God’s grace (gratitude). Remarkably, even among Reformed Christians this outline is not as well known as it should be. I recall a discussion from more than a decade ago in which a person well familiar with the Reformed Churches professed that he had never heard this outline of the Catechism and suggested that it was some novelty. It is not a novelty. The principal author of the Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83), who was authorized to comment on the Catechism in Heidelberg and who lectured on it explained:

There are others, again, who make the catechism consist of five different parts; the Decalogue, the Apostles’ Creed, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Prayer; of which, the Decalogue was delivered immediately by God himself, while the other parts were delivered mediately, either through the manifestation of the Son of God in the flesh, as is true of the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, and the Eucharist, or through the ministry of the apostles, as is true of the Apostles’ Creed. But all these different parts may also be reduced to the two general heads noticed in the first division. The Decalogue contains the substance of the law, the Apostles’ Creed that of the gospel; the sacraments are parts of the gospel, and may, therefore, be embraced in it as far as they are seals of the grace which it promises, but as far as they are testimonies of our obedience to God, they have the nature of sacrifices and pertain to the law, whilst prayer, in like manner, may be referred to the law, being a part of the worship of God.
The catechism of which we shall speak in these lectures consists of three parts. The first treats of the misery of man, the second of his deliverance from this misery, and the third of gratitude, which division does not, in reality, differ from the above, because all the parts which are there specified are embraced in these three general heads. The Decalogue belongs to the first part, in as far as it is the mirror through which we are brought to see ourselves, and thus led to a knowledge of our sins and misery, and to the third part in as far as it is the rule of true thankfulness and of a Christian life. The Apostles’ Creed is embraced in the second part inasmuch as it unfolds the way of deliverance from sins. The sacraments, belonging to the doctrine of faith and being the seals that are attached thereto, belong in like manner to this second part of the catechism, which treats of deliverance from the misery of man. And prayer, being the chief part of spiritual worship and of thankfulness, may, with great propriety, be referred to the third general part.

Already, between 1563 and 1583 Ursinus was aware that there was discussion of the organization of the Catechism. It’s interesting that he did not “pull rank” as we say but he it also interesting that the did suggest there are different ways of analyzing the catechism. There is the superstructure and there are substructures within the catechism. A house has a basic frame within which there are rooms and hallways. So too, within the catechism. He argued that the five parts that some had seen we really only expressions of two great heads: law and gospel. That there is today such apparent resistance, within the Reformed world, to these basic categories, which Ursinus had inherited from Luther and Calvin, illustrates how far we have drifted from our roots. When he invoked these categories he was not being controversial. He just states them as a matter of fact, as accepted categories because they were universally accepted by the Reformed theologians and churches of the 16th and 17th centuries. Ursinus, Olevianus, Beza, and Calvin would not understand why some insist on saying that they are Lutheran distinctions since they themselves used them, advocated them, and taught them. In his Summa theologiae, written before the Heidelberg, Ursinus wrote:

Q.36 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).

Not only did Ursinus clearly articulate the very same distinction between law as one principle (“do this and live”) and gospel as another (Christ has done) that he had learned from Philipp Melanchthon (1497&ndash1560), which Melanchthon had learned from Luther, and which Ursinus had heard in Geneva from Calvin and Beza but he did so in covenantal terms, which would become fundamental to Reformed theology. The great Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield would later call covenant theology “architectonic” to Reformed theology. Ursinus equated the law principle with the covenant of works (“the day you eat thereof”) and the gospel to the covenant of grace. Again, when he did this he did not intend to be controversial. He took these things as basic. The Westminster Divines adopted these categories and confessed them explicitly in the 1640s. There was some dissent, e.g., from the Arminians (Remonstrants) in the 17th century but it would only be in the 20th century that they would become highly controversial. From a historical perspective, however, these corollaries (the first use of the law = covenant of works and gospel = covenant of grace) were basic.

Calvin often spoke in terms of law and grace, instead of law and gospel, but he used the traditional terms also. Commenting on Romans 10:9, he wrote:

Do you see how he makes this the distinction between law and gospel: that the former attributes righteousness to works, the latter bestows free righteousness apart from the help of works? This is an important passage, and one that can extricate us from many difficulties if we understand that that righteousness which is given us through the gospel has been freed of all conditions of the (Institutes, 3.11.17)

He made this distinction no fewer than 35 times in his writings and it’s certain that one could many more instances. Calvin’s successor in Geneva was also insistent upon this distinction:

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)

Olevianus (and see the essay published here) wrote that the whole book of Romans could be analyzed as having two parts: law and gospel. Perkins wrote that it is impossible to preach God’s Word without using the distinction. Edward Fisher taught it clearly in The Marrow of Modern Divinity. William Twisse, the first prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly taught it explicitly and many other writers could be cited and have been in other places. Much of this evidence has been in print, in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry and online for many years now.

As we saw, however, Ursinus settled on the tripartite division of the catechism: “The catechism of which we shall speak in these lectures consists of three parts.” The evidence from the catechism itself and from Ursinus is conclusive. We must consider the catechism fundamentally organized in three parts: guilt, grace, and gratitude.

This organization is reflected in 86:

86. Since then we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why should we do good works?

Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and also that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof; and by our godly walk win also others to Christ (Heidelberg Catechism 86).

The major premise of this question is the biblical, Protestant doctrine of salvation sola gratiasola fide, that has been explored and explained repeatedly through this commentary on the catechism. The German text  uses the verb erkauft, which is fairly translated “to redeem” or “to purchase.” This imagery takes us back to Heidelberg 1, where we confess that our only comfort in life and in death that we “belong, body and soul, in life and death” to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. This is Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 6:20, “you were bought with a price, therefore honor God with your body” and 1 Corinthians 7:23, “You were bought with a price; do not become the bondservants of men” (ESV). The Latin text says “liberati simus,” and says literally, “Since from all our sins and miseries, without any of our merit, only by the mercy of God, on account of Christ we have been liberated, why should we do good works?”  The rhetorical effect of the ordering of the phrases is to condition the final clause, the question. We are only discussing good works after reiterating that the biblical, Protestant, and Reformed conviction that redemption (salvation) is by grace alone, through faith alone. To make it crystal clear, the catechism specifically mentions the question of merit. It does rejects any notion that we sinners have merit of any kind, condign or congruent, relative to our standing before God. Here is a discussion merit in Heidelberg 62 and 63.

The catechism  speaks thus because the Reformed (e.g., Calvin and Olevianus) had long spoken of the “double grace” (duplex gratia) or the “double benefit” (duplex beneficium) of Christ. We are justified and sanctified by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. Our new life, our sanctification, that process of being gradually conformed to the image of Christ is the consequence of our free justification and his gracious salvation of his people.

Sanctification As Fruit And Evidence
There is another piece to the back story, as they say in Hollywood. During the 1550s there were great struggles over how to express the doctrine of sanctification relation to the doctrine of justification. Prior to the 50s there had been questions. There had been those whom Luther labelled “antinomians” in the 1530s. This paragraph from his First Disputation against the Antinomians was used almost verbatim in the Heidelberg Catechism:

Likewise against those evils revealed and pointed out to us by the law, lest we despair, that other doctrine also has to be preserved in the Church, which teaches consolation against the accusation and terrors of the law, grace against God’s wrath, remission of sins and righteousness against sin, life against death. That doctrine is the gospel, which teaches that God through his word has locked up everyone under sin so that he might have mercy upon everyone; that he most certainly wants to remit the sins of all, liberate from death, and give righteousness and life to those who feel their misery, unrighteousness, and perdition, and certainly freely without any merit of ours, yet only in such a way that these benefits come upon believers because of Christ.

Here, to be sure, Luther was explaining the relation between the first use of the law and the gospel but this passage illustrates the degree to which the Reformed were dependent upon and influenced by Luther. He also defended what Melanchthon, the Lutheran orthodox, and the Reformed called the third use of the law (tertius usus legis):

The law, therefore, cannot be eliminated, but it remains, prior to Christ as not fulfilled, after Christ as to be fulfilled, although this does not happen perfectly in this life even by the justified. For it requires that we love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves (cf. Matt. 22:37, 39). This will happen perfectly first in the coming life.

No one who has actually read Luther with any care should think that he is an antinomian. Unfortunately, some Reformed folk, relying upon mainline Lutherans (from the USA, Germany, and elsewhere) conclude from the way liberal mainliners speak (and the claims they make about Luther) that he was essentially antinomian. That would be like looking at what some mainline Presbyterian (PCUSA) writers in this country say about Calvin and drawing conclusions that e.g., would support the self-described “Occupy” movement. Again, I doubt any serious Calvin scholar would think this way since Calvin’s greatest fear about society was represented by the Anabaptists in the (1534–35) Münster rebellion. There are too many Reformed folk (and others who identify with aspects of Calvin’s theology, e.g., his soteriology) who do not read those sources that shaped  and influenced Calvin (and other Reformed writers) for themselves. Among those would be Luther.

Nevertheless, through the 1540s and 50s the question persisted among evangelicals (the word they used of themselves) or the magisterial Protestants how to relate sanctification and good works to justification. Some argued that we ought not speak of good works at all since that tends to lead Christians astray. It might tempt them to think once again that their good works, done in cooperation with grace, somehow contributed to their standing before God. It’s not as if there were no grounds for such a fear.  There were some saying that good works were a condition of standing before God. Remember, the Roman doctrine, out of which the evangelicals had come, taught that we justified because we are sanctified and we are sanctified by grace and cooperation with grace. Then there were some who were arguing ingeniously that Christ dwells in us by virtue of our union with him and God looks at us and sees the indwelling Christ and we are justified on the basis of Christ’s indwelling (and not on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed). So, the evangelicals had been ping-ponging between forms of legalism and antinomianism before the 1560s.

In our time, of course, we’ve seen the same sort of ping-ponging. We have the self-described, so-called Federal Vision movement arguing essentially the Arminian doctrine of salvation and calling it Reformed. Among the evangelicals there are antinomians arguing that the moral law no longer applies to Christians and then there are moralists (nomists) who teach that  we are justified and saved because we cooperate sufficiently with grace. So, we are not much better off in the early 21st century than we were in the mid-sixteenth century.

Thus, it is significant that the Reformed Churches confess:

86. Since then we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why should we do good works?

Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and also that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof; and by our godly walk win also others to Christ (Heidelberg Catechism 86).

Notice that we say “because.” There are some today, who call themselves Reformed, who, not unlike those in the 16th century who said that God accepts us because were Christ indwells us, would say that the catechism’s way of speaking is inadequate. They want to say that it is because Christ dwells in us and we in Christ (union with Christ) that we are sanctified and that justification and sanctification are nothing but parallel fruits of that union. That is not the teaching of the Scriptures as understood and confessed by the Reformed Churches. There are, as mentioned last time, two benefits and sanctification is the second benefit of Christ. Here we thinking and speaking of the logical order of salvation. We are not talking about time or a temporal or chronological order. Think of it this way: it is the justified, i.e., those of whom God has declared “just,” that the Spirit is necessarily, graciously, and gradually sanctifying. It is the justified, who are being sanctified, who do good works. If we reverse the order, then we have become Romanists again. Thus, we should reject soundly those who would do away with, as they say, “ordo salutis thinking.” To do away with the logical order in which the Spirit works, as taught by Scripture (e.g., Romans 8) is to send the Reformed Churches right off the cliff to destruction.

We should also reject soundly and unreservedly that teaching that will not say that believers, who are united to Christ by the Spirit, through faith alone, who are justified freely (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), have no moral obligation to be conformed to Christ and thus to do good works. That is antinomianism. No, the Spirit is conforming us to Christ’s image. Those who have been given new life (regenerated) will do good works. They want to do good works out of thankfulness. Gratitude is not, as some say, a second blessing any more than oranges are a second blessing on an orange tree (see Belgic Confession art. 24). This is the language of our Lord Jesus in John 15. Believers “show themselves to be thankful.” They manifest their new life by good works. They give evidence. That’s why the two words most often used by the classical Reformed writers and the Reformed confessions in this discussion are “fruit” and “evidence.” Anyone who is dissatisfied with this way of speaking is on the path to Rome, even if they do not realize it.

Sanctification And Assurance
Sanctification has another function in the Christian life: to bolster assurance. This doctrine has also been controversial in some circles. There is a view that says that sanctification can play no role whatsoever in assurance. There is also an approach that says that, in seeking assurance, the first place a believer looks is to his sanctification. In distinction the Reformed Churches confess:

86. Since then we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why should we do good works?

Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and also that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof; and by our godly walk win also others to Christ (Heidelberg Catechism 86).

The two clauses in view here are “he be glorified through us” and “we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof….” The Westminster Shorter Catechism famously begins by teaching that the “chief end of man” is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” This notion, however, did not arise in the 17th century. He was common Reformed teaching. Adam was created to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. Our Savior, the Last Adam, glorified God and now enjoys him forever, and we shall, by God’s grace, because of Christ’s obedience for us, enjoy him forever and by his grace, with the help of his Spirit, we seek now to glorify him day by day. We do that by obeying him, according to all the teaching of his Word and particularly by obeying God’s moral law. We will address the role of the law in the Christian life in more detail under Heidelberg 91.

When, by the grace of God, in union with Christ, with the help of his Spirit, we are obeying him (however imperfectly) that fruit of our free justification and salvation does contribute to our assurance. To be sure, we do not look first off to our sanctification (fruit) for assurance. That would be a mistake. Our sanctification, in this life, is never complete. Therefore, to look at our sanctification as the primary ground must necessarily result in uncertainty. Should we look principally at our sanctification then every time we sin we should lose our assurance. This is not only unbiblical and contrary to our confession but a terrible way to live the Christian life. The ground of our assurance is Christ’s obedience and righteousness for us not the Spirit’s work in us. The ground, the basis of, our assurance of our salvation and right standing with God is God’s gospel promise to us that “whosover believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The ground of our assurance is objective. It is fixed. It is established by Christ. It is immutable, i.e., it does not change. It cannot change. It is fixed in history and in the heavens. It rests upon God’s immutable, eternal decree and upon his immutable, eternal character and attributes.

Nevertheless, resting on the fact of Christ’s obedience for us and upon his promises to us, e.g.,

  • “it is finished”
  • “having therefore been justified”
  • “no one can snatch them from my hand”

we may also look to the evidence of the work of God’s Spirit in us as proof that we really do believe. We rightly say that we are justified and saved by grace alone, through faith alone (sola fide) but believers frequently ask the question, “how do I know that I believe”? It is not sufficient to answer that question by simply repeating the exhortation, “believe!” There are other questions. “Do I know the greatness of my sin and misery?” and “Do I know the history of salvation?” and “Do I agree that what Scripture says is true?” One who does not yet know himself to be, by nature, under the wrath of God, who has not sensed the jeopardy in which all of Adam’s children exist after the fall, is not ready to flee to Christ as his only hope and righteousness. Certainly true faith involves basic knowledge of the facts of Christ’s saving work and assent to those truths. He must also trust heartily that what Christ did, he did for us (pro nobis), for me (pro me). This is why it is so important for believers to hear and read over and again God’s law and Christ’s promises. We must be reminded constantly of what God demands and what Christ has fulfilled for us and promised to us.

It is entirely appropriate and even necessary, however, for the believer to find encouragement that he does actually believe by observing the evidences, however small and inadequate they may be in this life, that yes the Spirit of God has given him new life. We begin with the objective, the promises of God represented to us in the preached gospel and the gospel made visible in the sacraments. We are baptized people. We are being nourished by the body and blood of Christ. We are received in the church as members in good standing. We do see ourselves for what we are by nature: sinners. We acknowledge that and seek our standing before God only in what Christ has done for us. We are grieved by our sins. With Paul we sometimes despair “what will become of me?” That is the cry of the Christian who struggles with and sometimes seems overcome by sin and death. Finally, however, we say:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom 8:1-4).

It is because of what Christ has done for us that we can move forward in conformity to Christ. Believers are no longer under the law of sin and death but under the “law of the Spirit of life.” Christ has liberated us from condemnation. The same righteous substitute has not only justified but he is sanctifying us. Is our sanctification perfect? No, not by a long shot but just as we trust Jesus for our justification and salvation so we trust him for our sanctification.

Christian Witness
The last major point of Heidelberg 86 is its reference to Christian witness relative to sanctification and good works. This last clause, “and by our godly walk win also others to Christ” is truly important for a variety of reasons. Here is the whole of question and answer 86:

86. Since then we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why should we do good works?

Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and also that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof; and by our godly walk win also others to Christ (Heidelberg Catechism 86).

Imagine how Christianity would be viewed has evangelical television preachers not been found to be committing fraud or to have committed immorality. Imagine if we did not have to account for pederasty among Romanist priests, the crusades, the inquisition, or the treatment of Jews in the middle ages (and after)? Sanctification or its absence has a great affect on the Christian witness to the watching world. Our sanctification or lack thereof has an affect on the plausibility of our testimony to the facts of redemption: the incarnation, Christ’s obedience, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension. Now, regardless of our failings, the facts are the facts. Jesus did what he did and he is returning and when he does he will settle accounts with the skeptics. Nevertheless, just a very brief review of the history of scandals in the church gives plenty of prima facieevidence that keeps us from being cavalier about the corruption of the Christian witness in the world.

The second thing that should be said is that the catechism and the Reformed faith should get at least a little credit for showing some concern about the spiritual welfare of the lost. Even though the catechism was drafted and adopted in a period when the state imposed religion upon its citizens, there is an open recognition that not everyone around us is a believer. This evident concern expressed in the catechism contradicts the assumption often made about the Reformed that they must be indifferent to the spiritual state (and the final state) of those around them who do not believe. The assumption is often made that if God has decreed who is and is not going to come to faith (he has) then Reformed folk must be indifferent (we aren’t). Yes, God is sovereign but that conviction is hardly distinctive to Reformed theology. It was widely held and taught in the church for the 1500 years before the Reformation. Augustine taught it. Anselm taught it, and Aquinas taught it, just to name three. These were all major theologians in the western church. God knows what he has decreed and we know that he has decreed but we do not know whom he has decreed to save and whom he has decreed to reprobate. The church’s duty is to make known the law and the gospel and offer salvation freely, seriously, and promiscuously to all who will recognize the greatness of their sin and misery, turn from it, and embrace Christ in true faith.

Evangelism properly is what the minister does in the pulpit when he proclaims the gospel to the world but each of us as Christians is a witness or gives witness to the faith (the objective facts of redemptive history and the basic truths of Scripture summarized in the creeds) and to our faith, i.e., to our personal appropriation of Christ by grace alone, through faith alone. Each of us is ordinarily surrounded by unbelieving friends, relatives, and co-workers. We must pray for them regularly that God the Spirit might do in them what he has done in us who believe: convict them of their need for Christ, grant them new life, and grant them the grace of faith and through it union with Christ. When we pray that way we should be prepared because God, in his providence, may well give us opportunity to give witness to Christ and to our faith in him.

When, by God’s grace, we do good works that gives witness to our faith and to the truth of the Christian faith. When our lives match our profession opportunities for witness are created. We do not have to choose between a silent witness of good works and a spoken witness to Christ and his truth. We believe in and confess both. They go together. May the Lord give us opportunities to give witness and may he bless that witness when it is given.

On The Necessity And Efficacy Of Good Works In Salvation

noteIntroduction
There is no question among orthodox, i.e., confessional, Reformed folk whether good works are necessary as a consequence, evidence, and a fruit of justification and sanctification by grace alone, through faith alone. There is no question whether God’s moral law, whether summarized in the decalogue, in the gospels, or in the epistles is the norm for the Christian life. Anyone who denies this third use of the law is an antinomian and that error is condemned by both the confessional Reformed and Lutheran churches. There is no question whether there is a distinction between justification, that gracious declaration by God that sinners, united to Christ by the Spirit, through faith alone are reckoned righteous on the basis of Christ’s perfect, whole obedience and righteousness imputed, and sanctification, the ongoing work of the Spirit in believers gradually and graciously conforming them to the image of Christ. On the relations between justification and salvation there is general agreement in the Reformed tradition that they are inseparable but distinct, salvation being a broader category that includes both justification and sanctification. Nevertheless, the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably and so the reader must pay attention to the way the term salvation is being used in any particular context. Finally, generally sanctification and good works are related but distinct. Sanctification describes the process of our conformity to Christ, the dying (mortification) of the old man and the making alive (vivification) of the new by the Spirit in us and good works are a consequence of that gracious work in us.

Recently two related claims have been made about the role of works in salvation. One writer claims “a proper understanding of the necessity of works demands the recognition that works are, in a sense that must be carefully defined and circumscribed, efficacious unto salvation.”

The Confessions
This is, to say the least, an arresting expression. Should we accept it? Let’s try to find a baseline. Do the Reformed Churches speak this way? The expression “unto salvation” does occur in the Westminster Confession (1648). In 1.6 it distinguishes between the general knowledge of God, which all image bearers have and that which is “sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.” In 3.6, on God’s eternal decree, we confess:

6. As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

When we speak of God’s effectual call (as distinct from the general, outward call), we say that the elect are called “unto faith” by the Spirit, who uses the ordinary means of grace. Here we see the (logical) order of salvation. It is the elect who are effectually called, it is they were are justified, it is the justified who are adopted, sanctified, and kept by God’s sovereign power “through faith, unto salvation.” It describes the application of redemption by the Spirit as being “saved.” Here we see how salvation is a broader concept that includes justification along with other benefits conferred freely upon the elect in time and space. The instrument of salvation here is faith. That’s the meaning of the word “through.” We receive Christ and all his benefits through faith alone. This is one reason I’ve been trying to make the case that faith alone is the instrument of justification and salvation (emphasis added).

The expression “unto salvation” also occurs in the Larger and Shorter catechisms (1648). The Larger Catechism reiterates the doctrine of WCF 1 regarding the knowledge of God “unto salvation.” Q/A 79 teaches that believers are “kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation” (emphasis added). Q/A elaborates upon this teaching. The Spirit graciously enables believers to persevere and believers are those who “truly believe in Christ” and who “endeavor to walk in all good conscience before him.” The Larger Catechism here distinguishes between “is” and “because” or “through.” Believers do obey. That is the case but that obedience is never said to be the ground or instrument of their salvation. Q/A 155 specifically addresses this issue:

Q. 155. 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 enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; or building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.

The Holy Spirit, as he always has, operates powerfully through the Word. Through the Word he creates new life, confers faith, unites them to Christ, sanctifies, “through faith unto salvation” (emphasis added). Again, the divines did not speak of works as the ground or instrument of salvation. Faith is the instrument of salvation. This is the explicit and repeated doctrine of the Westminster Divines and of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches.

The Westminster Standards would have us think and say that we are justified and saved through faith alone. There is prima facie evidence in Scripture for speaking this way. When the Israelites were against it, when the Egyptian armies were descending upon them at the Red Sea, how did God save them from death and destruction? How were their good works “efficacious unto salvation” at the Red Sea? To ask the question is to answer it. Of course the Israelites were completely helpless and the same sovereign Lord who became incarnate, who obeyed for us, by whose righteousness we are saved is he who stretched out his powerful right hand, parted the waters, and led them through on dry ground. It is he who destroyed Pharaoh and his armies in the Red Sea. This episode is so paradigmatic for the biblical way of considering salvation that when our Lord pronounces the gospel prologue to the Ten Commandments, he says, “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2; revised from the ESV). The Lord saved Israel from destruction despite their sin and rebellion.

According to Jeremiah 31 and the NT Scriptures, the new covenant is new relative to Moses, not Abraham. In the new covenant, however, salvation remains the process of deliverance from the destruction to come, pictured by the Red Sea and the judgments upon Egypt. God is saving those whom he has freely justified for Christ’s sake alone, through faith alone. Those whom he is saving will do good works, not according to their own subjective imaginations but as measured by God’s holy, objective standard: his moral law (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 114). Those good works are the fruit of the Spirit’s work in them. They are enabled by the Holy Spirit. They are evidence that, indeed, the one who professes faith really is a believer. The ground of the believer’s confidence, however, is the righteousness and sacrifice of the Lamb of God imputed to him. The instrument through which God is saving him is faith. As important and necessary as good works are, they are not confessed by the Reformed churches to be “efficacious unto salvation.” After all, just as God graciously delivered us from Egypt, how much more has he graciously delivered us from sin and death? Paul’s question is rhetorical: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously (χαρίσεται) give us all things”? (Romans 8:32 ESV) Salvation is given to us sinners freely, graciously. It was earned for us by Christ. Yes, we must respond appropriately. Scripture and our confessions and theologians are clear about this but we must resist the temptation to re-institute the old medieval and Romanist carrot and stick. No, our faith, our confession, our understanding of Scripture says that it is guilt, grace, and gratitude.

The Theologians: Turretin
In the first part we looked briefly at some biblical texts and the Reformed confessions to consider whether we should think and speak of the “efficacy of works” in salvation. This post considers the claim that the Reformed tradition widely taught that works are “necessary unto salvation.” Francis Turretin (1623–87) was a Genevan Reformed theologian of Italian descent. His family immigrated to Geneva in the 16th century and Turretin became one of the leading defenders of Reformed orthodoxy in the mid-to late 17th century. His Institutes of Elenctic Theology published in the 1670s and 80s is an important witness to the way the orthodox Reformed looked at a variety of issues. It should be remembered that his Institutes were not a systematic theology but rather a response to controversial issues confronting the Reformed in the period, so his treatment of issues is largely determined by his purpose.

Turretin addresses the nature of sanctification and good works in the seventeenth topic, in 5 questions. Like Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (1274) and Ursinus’ Summa Doctrinae(1585 et seq), Turretin used a catechetical (question and answer) method of instruction. The first question concerns the definition of sanctification. His initial response is instructive:

As Christ was made to us of God righteousness and sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30)—not dividedly, but conjointly; not confusedly, but distinctly—so the benefit of sanctification immediately follows justification as inseparably connected with it, but yet really distinct from it [emphasis added].

NB: Turretin kept justification and sanctification together but distinguished them logically and ordered them logically. It is the justified who are progressively sanctified. This was hie starting point in discussing sanctification. Contrary to the way the relations between justification and sanctification have been described in some quarters since the mid-70s, Turretin reflects the typical Reformed way of relating them: they are united, logically distinct, and logically ordered. It is the last part that seems to have stumped so many in recent years. Turretin was Reformed. He was committed to “ordo salutisthinking.” As this revisionist account of the ordo salutis (the [logical] order of salvation) has been as if it were the Reformed view, it is become more difficult for its adherents to read and understand the history of Reformed theology. Understood on their own terms, in view of their own concerns, the classic 16th and 17th century writers cannot be interpreted to have taught the view that seeks to deny any logical order between the twin benefits of justification and sanctification. More on this question in the next post.

From this starting point, which he inherited from Calvin, Olevianus, Perkins, and virtually the entire Reformed tradition before him, he moved on to defining sanctification as a “real and internal renovation of man by which God delivers the man planted in Christ by faith and justified (by the ministry of the word and the efficacy of the Spirit) more and more from his native depravity and transforms him into his own image” (emphasis added; 17.1.2). His first account of sanctification is that it follows from justification. His second is to say that it is what we call progressive sanctification (not definitive) and that it is the result of union with Christ and that union is, as he wrote, “by faith.” In other words, in contrast to the revisionist doctrine of union with Christ offered to us in the last 40 years and advocated by a society of young advocates today, Turretin agreed with, e.g., Calvin and Olevianus that there is a duplex gratia (twofold grace) or duplex beneficium (double benefit) but that fact doesn’t obliterate order nor does it replace faith as the instrument of union with regeneration. His language here is virtually identical to that used by Calvin and Olevianus a century prior. As we interpret Turretin teaching regarding sanctification and good works, then, we must do so in the proper context.

In the next section (3) he elaborated on the progressive nature of sanctification as the gradual, gracious renewal of human nature from the corruption resulting from sin and the extent of sanctification. Note that he did not take the language “to those who are sanctified” to refer to a definitive act but to a progressive, inherent reality. He even described it as the “infusion and practice of holiness.” He could do so because he has already established that justification is a definitive, forensic act by God, a declaration of the imputation of Christ’s (alien to us, proper to him) righteousness, received through faith alone, in Christ alone by faith (resting and receiving) alone. He describes sanctification in traditional (patristic, medieval, Protestant) realistic rather than forensic terms boldly on the basis of this clear distinction. In case anyone missed the order he repeats:

This [progressive sanctification] follows justification and is begun here in this life by regeneration and promoted by the exercise of holiness and of good works, until it shall be consummated in the other by glory. In this sense it is now taken passively, inasmuch as it is wrought by God in us; then actively, inasmuch as it ought to be done by God, God performing this work in us and by us.

The discussion that follows elaborated on these basic themes and distinctions. Justification is forensic (a legal declaration). Sanctification is realistic (it is actually transforming us), the progressive renewal of human nature, in a state of grace, in union with Christ, into the image of Christ. Against Rome and anyone else who would conflate justification and sanctification he devoted 5 sections or articles to distinguishing justification from sanctification. In 17.1.11.He addressed specifically the “chain of salvation:”

Although Paul does to make express mention of sanctification in the chain of salvation [Rom 8:28–30], it does not follow that it is included in the word justification, as if it were identical with it. Fit is far more fitly included wither under calling (which is the beginning of sanctification) or, what we think is truer, under glorification (which is its consummation and complement—as sanctification is the beginning of glory (Rom. 3;2; 2 Cor. 3:18).

Just as stoutly as he distinguished and ordered them, he also kept justification and sanctification united (17.1.15). “They should never be torn asunder.” He speaks of them as “two benefits” (duo ista beneficia) idem and in 17.1.16). Again, this language has roots in Luther’s 1518/19 sermons on “Duplex Iustitia” (Twofold Righteousness), Triplex Iustitia (Threefold Righteousness), Calvin’s use of duplex gratia (twofold grace) and Olevianus’ duplex beneficium (twofold benefit).

For Turretin, as for Calvin and the earlier Reformed writers, faith is instrumental not only in justification but also sanctification:

For the very faith by which we are justified demands this. For as it is the instrument of justification b receiving the righteousness of Christ, so it is the root and principle of sanctification, while it purges the heart and works through love (Gal. 5;6).

We are justified in order that we might be gradually, graciously, passively, and actively sanctified.

In question two he rejected the doctrine of perfectionism, i.e., the teaching that Christians can “live without sin” in this life. He attributes correctly this doctrine to the Pelagians and connects it to “the Romanists and Socinians.” For Turretin as a Protestant Augustinian, the resolution of this problem lies in a proper understanding of God’s holiness, of the nature of his requirements, and the nature of human depravity after the fall.

In the third question (17.3.2) he addresses the question of the necessity of good works, which “pertain to sanctification.” In 17.3.2 he distinguishes between the orthodox view and the antinomians, who deny the necessity of good works in salvation and the moralists (Rome, Socinians) who make them meritorious and “a causality” of salvation. He clearly taught the necessity of “bona opera” (good works) “ad salutem,” which may be translated “toward salvation.” What sort of necessity was it and what did he mean by the prepositional phrase ad salutem? “Are they required as the means and the way (medium et via) for possessing salvation? This we hold” (17.3.3).

The next section is most interesting because it illumines why he felt compelled to speak this way. He mentioned the “interimistic formula” which was a reference to a series of political and religious Interims, during the Schmalkaldic Wars, in the mid-late 1540s which promulgated the language that “good works are necessary to salvation.” Melanchthon had used that language in the 1530s, in his Loci Communes (Common Places), which made it possible for it to be used during the Interims but by the 1550s George Major had elaborated on it to say that good works were necessary “to retain salvation.”1The Interims were political creatures that used deliberately ambiguous language that was capable of being interpreted in multiple senses simultaneously. As Turretin observed, for this reason some Reformed theologians rejected it.

Turretin wanted to retain it, however, and to interpret it carefully in so doing. For Turretin, good works are necessary but they “contribute nothing to the acquiring (acquirendam) of salvation.” At the same time he affirmed that they are necessary “to obtaining” (obtinendam) salvation. So, he distinguished between acquiring and obtaining. Why? Because he wanted a strong response to the Romanist charge that the doctrine of justification sola gratiasola fide leads to licentiousness.

The third question in locus (topic) 17 concerns the necessity of good works. What is the nature of the necessity of good works? As a good teacher, Turretin typically tells us what he going to tell us, i.e., he summarizes briefly what he is about to say and then explains in more detail. In his summaries he stressed the “absolute necessity” of good works (17.3.6) on three grounds: the command, i.e., God’s moral will revealed in Scripture, the nature of the thing itself, and the condition of the believer (17.3.5). Christians are “debtors”—here we hear echoes of Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 2 “third, how we ought to be thankful for such redemption.” When he considers the state or condition of the believer he turns to the covenant of grace (foedus gratiae; 17.3.6). There are two parts to the covenant of grace: God’s free promise of redemption and the consequent conditions, obligations, or stipulation of obedience (obedientiae stipulatione) on our part (17.3.7).  For more on how Reformed folk speak about conditions in the covenant of grace, without turning it into a covenant of works, listen to Heidelcast episodes 46 and 47. He reminded the reader that the covenant of grace is God’s promise to be our God. His moral will (vult) is that we should, in turn, take up the consequent obligation as his people. These obligations are part of the way God administers the covenant of grace, and as we participate in the that administration, we become participants (particeps) in the benefits (beneficia) and the goods (bonorum) of the covenant of grace. At the same time, he conditions this talk of obligation by noting that it is God himself who executes (exequatur) these things in the believer. In other words, even as he used very strong language about the moral necessity of sanctification in and good works by the believer, in response to grace, he was careful not to turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works.

The first part of the covenant of grace is God’s gracious promise, which he reminded the reader, “flows” (fluit) from each of the three persons of the holy Trinity (S. S. Triadis personis; 17.3.8). We may think of the Father as he who adopts us, the Son as our Redeemer, and the Spirit as the comforter and sanctifier. From this threefold grace follows a “threefold necessity (necessitas triplex) of worship and obedience” in order that we might live (i.e., conduct ourselves) as “worthily (digne) as sons of God, members of Christ, and as temples of the Holy Spirit” (17.3.8). It is in the nature of grace that its recipients, having been regenerated and united to Christ, should (necessarily) be gradually and graciously conformed to his image, that we should die to sin (mortification) and be made alive to Christ (vivification).

Turretin turned to the “Word of God or the gospel, which is proposed for believing (credendum) and the rule of faith and life” as proof of the necessity of good works (17.3.9). Christian doctrine, he argued, is not mere theory (merè theoretica). It is also practical. That was his definition of theology: partly theoretical, partly practical, i.e., doctrine and its out working or consequences. “Theoretical” in this usage did not refer to a hypothetical possibility but to the basis for action. One must know what one is doing before he does it. This, he wrote, is why it is called the “mystery of piety.” Doctrine is affective and transformative. He briefly summarized a series of passages (which he typically did, which I omit for brevity but please do not imagine that he was not working carefully with Scripture). In Christ, the God’s law has become “the Law of the Spirit and Life” (Rom 8:2), which liberates us from the “law of sin and death” (a Lege peccati et mortis). Christians are not justified by, through, or out of the law or obedience to the law but in Christ we are not without but we are under the law as debtors (tamen ex leges, sed subleges Christo). True religion is not “mere profession of the truth” (meram veritatis professionem). Here he cited Romans 2:28, 29; James 1:27.

Citing Romans 6:18 he argued that redemption from the curse of the law and the tyranny of the Devil (17.3.10) does not mean liberation from the moral law as the rule of the Christian life. No, God’s grace strengthens our obligation to it, not as the ground or instrument of salvation but as the natural course of the Christian life. “Grace” he wrote, “requires the same” (Idem exigit Gratia). We desire all the more to obey now that we are no longer under law (for justification) but under grace.

We have received all of Christ’s benefits (e.g., eternal election, present justification, future glory) “to promote the work of sanctification” (17.3.11). Good works are the “effects” (effecta) of eternal election, “the fruit and seal (fructa et sigilla) of present grace” and the “seed” (semina) of future glory. Here he quoted Bernard’s famous treatise On Grace and Free Choice, in which Bernard distinguished between effect and cause. Sanctification is the effect “but not the cause of reigning.” Again he cites and summarizes a series of biblical passages. As earlier, Turretin wrote of the “highest and indispensable consequent necessity of good works toward glory and so much that without them to one cannot obtain it” (17.3.12).1

Good works are the consequence of justification, they are constitutive of sanctification, and they are antecedent and the ordained path to glorification (17.3.14). In other words, good works necessarily occur before glory. They are the divinely ordained experience of eternal life begun in this life. They are, he wrote, “the medium to the end.” As soon as he used the expression “medium” (means) he cautioned that this language may not be used to “confuse the Law and the Gospel” (non confundimus ideo Legem & Evangelium) or to suggest that justification is not gracious or through faith alone (per solum fidem). Good works are not required for “living on the basis of the law, but that we might live through the gospel” (17.3.15). Life is not given to us “on account of good works but as the effects which testify that life has been given to us.”2 Believers do not good works out of compulsion but rather we do them “spontaneously and voluntarily” (sponte sponte etἐκουσίως; 17.3.16). The necessity is one of “means and debt.”

The question is what he intended to communicate by the noun “medium.” The answer is found in his usage and context. He used the term in the context of an unequivocal, explicit distinction between works and grace, law and gospel. He distinguished between an antecedent necessity and a consequent necessity. He described faith as the instrument of justification and salvation. Medium was his way of signaling the integral relation between sanctification and good works. Justification necessarily produces sanctification and that results in good works to the glory of God and the edification of our neighbor (17.3.13). Good works are a means in the sense that without them we neither glorify God nor edify our neighbor.

For Turretin, the necessity is a natural, logical, moral consequence of the covenant of grace. It is a strong necessity. He is even willing to say that it is necessary for obtaining (as distinct from acquiring) salvation but he did not describe or use evangelical obedience or good works as the ground or instrument of our salvation. Sanctification and the resulting evangelical obedience simply are the way things are. The logical distinct here was between is (to be) and because (ground) or through (instrument). Good trees produce good fruit. That fruit does not make the tree good but it is the case that good trees produce good fruit and no fruitless tree may be considered a good or fruit bearing tree.

The Theologians: Witsius
Now we turn our attention to Herman Witsius (1636–1708). Born in West Friesland, Herman’s father was a (ruling) elder and his maternal grandfather was a Reformed minister. He studied theology Arabic and Syrian at Utrecht and theology under Gijbertus Voetius (1589–76), Johannes Hoornbeek (1617–66), and Samuel Maresius (1599–1673). He was a full-time minister from about 1656 until 1675. During part of his ministry he served with Wilhelmus a Brakel (1635–1711) before he was called to Franecker to teach theology. He was justly well regarded not only in the Netherlands but also in the British Isles. In 1695 he was appointed by the Dutch Parliament to represent the Dutch Republic at the coronation of James II and to serve as chaplain to the Dutch Embassy in London. His covenant theology mediated between the Voetians and the Cocceians. Here is an entire site devoted to Witsius.3

Witsius is an outstanding guide to this difficult topic in part because he waded through many of the same questions that we are facing in our time. In 1696 Witsius wrote a treatise to try to mediate the dispute between the nomists and the antinomians in Britain: Conciliatory or Irenical Animadversions on the Controversies Agitated in Britain. It was translated by Thomas Bell and published in Glasgow in 1807. I’m using the wonderful Logos version, which is indexed by chapters and subsections and allows me to search the text. There is also a version on Google Books.

Witsius surveys a wide range of issues, e.g., in order to illustrate and press home Christ’s role as federal representative, sin bearer and substitute some had used unhappy expressions concerning Christ’s relations to sin. Witsius, in typical fashion, patiently explained why Christian folk ought not speak that way about Christ while, at the same time affirming the Protestant doctrine of the joyous exchange (e.g., pp. 33–45): our sin for Christ’s righteousness. Witsius was a gospel man.

His sketch of the doctrine of union with Christ is clear and concise:

Doubtless they are united to him,

1. In the eternal decree of God, which, however, includes nothing, except that their actual union shall take place; as was already demonstrated.

II. By an union of eternal consent, wherein Christ was constituted by the Father the head of all those who were to be saved, and that he should represent their persons; hence it was, that Christ obeying the commandment of the Father, and suffering for them, they are reckoned in the judgment of God to have obeyed and suffered in him. All these things, however, do not hinder, but that considered in themselves, before their regeneration, they are far from God and Christ, according to that their present state.

III. By a true and a real union, (but which is only passive on their part,) they are united to Christ when his Spirit first takes possession of them, and infuses into them a principle of new life: the beginning of which life can be from nothing else but from union with the Spirit of Christ; who is to the soul, but in a far more excellent manner, in respect of spiritual life, what the soul is to the body in respect of animal and human life. As therefore the union of soul and body is in order of nature prior to the life of man; so also the union of the Spirit of Christ and the soul is prior to the life of a Christian. Further, since faith is an act flowing from the principle of spiritual life, it is plain, that in a sound sense, it may be said, an elect person is truly and really united to Christ before actual faith.

IV. But the mutual union, (which, on the part of an elect person, is likewise active and operative), whereby the soul draws near to Christ, joins itself to him, applies, and in a becoming and proper manner closes with him without any distraction, is made by faith only. And this is followed in order by the other benefits of the covenant of grace, justification, peace, adoption, sealing, perseverance, &c. Which if they be arranged in that manner and order, I know not whether any controversy concerning this affair can remain among the brethren.4

Here we see Witsius affirming different aspects of union, decretal, federal, in regeneration, and finally and distinctly what he called “mutual union” which is “by faith only.” The reader should notice that, in contrast to some of the idiosyncratic modern accounts of union, Witsius did not juxtapose union with Christ to the order of salvation (i.e., the ordo salutis, the logical order of the application of redemption to the elect by the Spirit). The benefits of the covenant of grace are received simultaneous, through faith, but there is a logical order. He also taught explicitly justification sola gratiasola fide on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone.

He also affirmed clearly the covenant of works before the fall as distinct from the covenant of grace after the fall. He affirmed the Mosaic covenant as both an administration of the covenant of grace and and a pedagogical “repetition” of the covenant of works:

The same doctrine Moses repeated in his ministry. For he also inculcated the same precepts upon which the covenant of works had been built: he both repeated the same solemn saying, He who doeth these things shall live in them, Lev. 18:5 and also added another, Cursed be he who shall not perform the words of this law in doing them, Deut. 27:26. That this is the curse of the law, as it stands opposed to the covenant of grace, Paul teacheth, Gal. 3:10. which, however, is not so to be understood, as if God had intended, by the ministry of Moses, to make a new covenant of works with Israel, with a view to obtain righteousness and salvation by such a covenant. But that repetition of the covenant of works was designed to convince the Israelites of their sin and misery, to drive them out of themselves, to teach them the necessity of a satisfaction, and to compel them to cleave to Christ: and thus it was subservient to the covenant of grace, Rom. 10:4 5

In chapter 8, he touches on the question animating this series. What are the relations between salvation (deliverance from sin and judgment) and works?

…for though Paul taught, that works contribute nothing to justification, or to procure a man’s title to salvation; yet he always taught, that they were not only useful, but also necessary to salvation, and that it is impossible, that sanctification should be separated from justification. James treads in the same path, and teaches that it is necessary that he who is justified by faith, should also be justified by works: that is, perform these works which are the evidences and effects of righteousness, and by which it is demonstrated not only before men, but also before God, that he is righteous: according to that of John, “He who doeth righteousness is righteous,” 1 John 3:7. Indeed there is a double justification: one of a man sinful in himself, whereby he is absolved from sin, and declared to have a title to eternal life, on account of Christ’s righteousness apprehended by faith, which Paul inculcated: another of a man, righteous already, sanctified by the Spirit of Christ, and who is declared to be such, by his words and actions. James teaches, that this is so necessary, and so connected with the former, that he is deceived who boasts of that and is destitute of this.6

As we saw in Turretin, for Witsius, works “contribute nothing to justification” nor do they “procure…title” to salvation. This is equivalent to Turretin’s rejection of the doctrine that good works “acquire” salvation. What role do they play in salvation? In what sense are they necessary? It is interesting that Witsius’ first response to the question is to write of “evidences and effects of righteousness.” He wrote of a “double justification.” Notice, however, that he distinguished between two senses of justification. In the first sense it refers to the once-for-all judicial declaration that a sinner is righteous before God on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (which he discussed at length earlier) and in the second sense it refers to the vindicationof the sinner’s claim to faith. Sanctification and good works are necessary as evidence of the claim to faith.

Believers, united to Christ by the Spirit, have the principle of new life in them. That principle manifests itself in

Now it cannot receive him for justification, except at the same time, it receive him for sanctification: nor receive him as a Priest, to expiate sin, unless it also receive him as a King, to whom it may submit, in order to obedience. Hence it follows, that that act of faith, whereby we receive Christ for righteousness, cannot be exercised, without either a previous, or at least a concomitant repentance, and a purpose of a new life.7

Believers repent. Reformed folk have differed in their rhetoric but there is agreement in substance among the Reformed that it is not possible for one to be a believer and to be impenitent, to be without “a purpose of a new life.” We are justified through faith alone but true faith is always accompanied by repentance and its fruits.

One of the aspects of the antinomian-neonomian controversy, in seventeenth-century Britain, which has resurfaced in our time is the question whether God sees the sins of believers. Witsius answered yes and no:

He sees also the sins of believers, as the sins of believers, inasmuch as they are committed by them: for whatever is true, God sees that it is true. But at the same time, he does not see the sins of believers as the sins of believers, inasmuch as they are no more theirs, but Christ’s, to whom they were imputed, and who hath now satisfied for them.16

In his sovereign providence God sees all. With respect to our justification, however, we must say that God does not see our sins. As We are no longer under condemnation. This does not mean that believers will not face God’s Fatherly displeasure or chastisement. On this see the series on the warning passages in Scripture.

Remember that the Westminster Divines were much agitated by the problem of antinomianism. Mid-century England had been torn by civil war, which always brings with it an existentialist (live now for tomorrow you may die) sort of war-time ethos. Add to that the theological and ethical instability produced by the rise of both neonomian and antinomianism reactions to the Reformation and it’s easy to see why they were so concerned. In chapter 15 of the Animadversions Witsius surveys and summarizes the main arguments of the antinomians. In chapter 16, which we’re considering in this post, he responds. He begins by saying that he shares the major concern of the antinomians, that the “that men may be called off from all presumption upon their own righteousness, and trained up to the exercise of generous piety, which flows from the pure fountain of Divine love.” At the same time he rejected their tendency or the consequence of some of their arguments “to take from good works all that fruit and utility, so frequently assigned them in scripture. Free justification is so to be consulted, that nothing be derogated from the benefit of sanctification.”17

Like Turretin (see parts 2 and 3), Witsius distinguished between “a right to life” and the “possession of life.” We have a right to eternal life only on the basis of “obedience of Christ” imputed and received through faith alone. When we’re thinking and speaking about justification and righteousness before God, “the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded.” Nevertheless, those good works, “which the Spirit of Christ worketh in us, and by us, contribute something” to the possession of eternal life.18 Again, the question is how? In what way?

He appealed to John 6:27:

Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you (ESV).19

and to Philippians 2:12b:

work out your own salvation with fear and trembling

and 1Corinthians 15:58:

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

In no case, he argued, was Scripture speaking of justification. He knew this a priori because justification is not by works or even through works. These passages clearly teach the moral necessity of good works, ergo they must be about sanctification.20

He rejected the argument that since Christ is the way of life that “the practice of Christian piety therefore not the way to life.”21 He appealed to the frequent biblical teaching concerning “the way of righteousness” and “the good way,” the “way of peace,” and “the way of life and salvation .” He appealed to Proverbs 6:23: “For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life” (ESV). He asked rhetorical whether the “narrow way” to which Christ referred (Matt 7:14) is nothing but “the strict practice of Christian religion? which is called the way of salvation, Acts. 16:17.”22

One of the more interesting arguments he confronted is that which said that it is inconsistent with the Christian faith to do something “in order that” one might live. His first response was an appeal to analogy. We live because we eat and we eat to live. These are not inconsistent. In the same way we ought to “act in a holy manner…because we are quickened by the Spirit of God” and at the same time “we must also act in the same manner, that life may be preserved in us, may increase, and at last terminate in an uninterrupted and eternal life.” As a proof of this principle he quoted Deuteronomy 30:19, 20 and concluded “Truly these speeches are not legal, but evangelical.”15

He spent a couple of paragraphs defending the proposition that it is godly and right for a Christian to have a certain self interest, namely salvation. He moved on to explain that, contra the antinomians, sanctification is an evidence of justification. The problem he was confronting was (and remains) the very real problem of the inconsistency and incompleteness of our sanctification. How can one ever find any evidence of justification in our sanctification? Ought not one look only to the promises of God in Christ?

Witsius responded by turning to the witness of the Holy Spirit to the believer that he does indeed belong to Christ.16 This is not an extra-canonical or extraordinary revelation. Rather, he argued,

For the Spirit of God so beareth witness, that he witnesseth together with our spirit, in exciting it to bear a true testimony, and in confirming its testimony, and convincing the conscience of its truth. My conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, Rom. 9:1. and thus indeed, even the witnessing of the Divine Spirit is not altogether separated from the observation of the signs of grace. And it often happens, that the Spirit of God so embraces his elect with these allurements of his most beneficent love, that while they enjoy those spiritual and ineffable delights, which earthly souls neither receive nor taste, they are no less persuaded of their election and justification, than if they saw their names engraven on the very hands of God.9

He wanted the believer to find this sense of God’s presence and assurance in the use of what we call “the means of grace” (i.e., the preaching of the Word, the sacraments, and prayer).

The formation of virtue, by the Spirit, in the believer also contributes to his assurance. We endeavor to “make our calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10). As we strive toward this, we develop what he called “a consciousness of Christian virtues” which contributes to “an assurance of their election and [effectual, inward] vocation….” Like Turretin he too quoted Bernard’s On Grace and Free Will, which, mutatis mutandis illustrates the deep connection between Reformed spirituality and aspects of medieval theology and piety. That is, having been justified by grace alone, through faith alone, on the ground of Christ’s righteousness imputed alone, we are now free to borrow language about progressive sanctification from the earlier tradition.10

The Christian has a duty not to be presumptuous—not to say to himself, “I prayed the prayer, I walked the aisle. I’m good.” What is in question is whether the one who professes faith actually believes. Thus, Witsius reminded the reader of Paul’s command (2Cor 13:5) to “test himself to see whether he be in the faith and whether Jesus Christ be in him.” In Scripture, “the heirs of present grace and future glory are described by their qualities and virtues” and “by the exercise of these.” It is entirely natural (i.e., logical, not “unspiritual”) to look for the consequences and effects of justification, i.e., sanctification11

He was insistent that we should not set the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit against the external evidence, if you will, of justification and true faith in sanctification and good works.12 It is true that no Christian achieves perfection in this life and that our sanctification or our inherent righteous “can, by no means have place before him in order to justification.”13

But when, through the righteousness of Christ apprehended by faith, the believer’s person is made acceptable to God, then his virtues, which he obtained by sanctifying grace, and the exercise of virtues flowing from the same grace, are likewise acceptable to God: and what blemishes of ours cleave to them, these are covered with the most perfect righteousness and holiness of Christ.14

Finally, in this chapter, Witisus, following Charnock, argued that God delights in the holiness that is produced in believers, just as he delights in his own holiness. “Hence it follows,” he reasoned, “”that they who diligently apply themselves to the exercise of Christian holiness, are as acceptable to him, as they are odious who obey their lusts.”15 It is not that we are acceptable to God for righteousness (justification) but that, in Christ, not only our persons are accepted but also even our imperfect sanctity.

As we saw in Turretin, Witsius made a distinction between the way we obtain the legal right to appear before God as righteous—That is by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed alone—and the way we take possession of life itself. We, the justified, live the Christian life united to Christ and in communion with him. The Spirit who united us to Christ is at work in us gradually conforming us to his image. Thus, it is the case that we that we realize the outworking of justification, by grace alone, through faith alone, in sanctification and good works. He distinguished between the cause or a ground, the instrument, and the outworking or the consequences. As he described sanctification and good works as possession, he was describe an effect or consequence of justification. Once more: it is the distinction between because, through, and is.

It is the case that believers will be sanctified. When he wrote that good works “contribute something” to the possession of life was he thinking in instrumental terms? No. He was responding to those who denied the value of good works. They denied the utility and profit of good works. Thus,, Witsius set out the opposite view. Sanctification and good works are useful, they are profitable. Even though he used strong language he never made the the instrument of salvation even as he made them part of the process of salvation. For Witsius, as for Turretin, It is the case that believers will do good works. He was quite impatient with those who profess faith but have no evidence of faith in sanctification and good works. He was impatient with the impenitent and with those who scorn obedience.

NOTES

1. “…summam esse et indispensabilem bonorum operum ad gloriam assequendam necessitatem, et tantam ut sine illis obtineri nequeat Heb. 12. 14. Apo. 21. 27.”

2. “Quia bona opera requiruntur non ad vivendum ex Lege, sed quia vivimus per Evangelium, non ut causae propter quas nobis datur vita, sed ut effecta quae testantur vitam esse nobis datam.”

3. Some of this biographical material is drawn from a biography of Witsius written by my friend Joel Beeke. The page is no longer online, however.

4. Herman Witsius, Conciliatory or Irenical Animadversions on the Controversies Agitated in Britain, trans. Thomas Bell (Glasgow: W. Lang, 1807), 67–69.

5. Witsius, Animadversions, 87.

6. Witsius, Animadversions, 97–99.

7. Witsius, Animadversions, 120.

8. Witsius, Animadversions, 123.

9. Witsius, Animadversions, 161.

10. Witsius, Animadversions, 161–62.

11. The English text I’m following does not, of course, quote the ESV but I’m using it here in the interests of clarity.

12. Witsius, Animadversions, 162.

13. Ibid.

14. Witsius, Animadversions, 163.

15. Witsius, Animadversions, 163–164.

16. Witsius, Animadversions, 168-69.

17. Witsius, Animadversions, 169–170.

18. Witsius, Animadversions, 170–171.

19. Witsius, Animadversions, 171–72.

20. Witsius, Animadversions, 174–75.

21. Witsius, Animadversions, 175.

22. Witsius, Animadversions, 176.

23. Witsius, Animadversions, 178.

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).