Who Says the Gospel is No Motive to Holiness?

One of the more disturbing things I’ve heard during the recent decade of controversy concerning the various attempts to revise the Reformed doctrine of justification is the claim made by some well-regarded, quite influential, Reformed folks that “guilt, grace, gratitude” structure of the Heidelberg Catechism is insufficient to produce sanctity.

The claim has been made that such a structure is really Lutheran and not genuinely Reformed because it doesn’t build sanctity into justification, that the GGG structure makes sanctity a consequence of justification, it also makes sanctification a second blessing. Well, if the Heidelberg Catechism doesn’t meet your definition of what “Reformed” is then I can’t help you. Second, if you think you have to make sanctity a constituent of justification to make it truly Reformed then you know don’t know the difference between Rome and the Reformation, and finally, if you don’t think that justification or the gospel is a true motive for sanctity then you don’t really understand the gospel and its power.

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  1. Are you trying to say that since they got a Joseph Fiennes (aka Martin Luther) look alike to play the part, then the video has something to do with the gospel as a motive for sanctity?

    Just kidding. But maybe an explication of the video would be helpful.

    Do you have an opinion of John Piper’s Future Grace on this point? I’ve heard in that book that he promotes the error you speak against here; that he says there is pardon for sin by the righteousness of Christ, but that the power over sin is achieved differently –by our active faith… or some such.

    So maybe Piper thinks the gospel is a motive, but not a guarantee of our holiness. There remains significant ambiguity on this in “Reformed” churches.

    • Hi KT!

      Clearly the video wants to motivate the viewer to do something (use seat belts). Many seem to believe that an announcement or a story of redemption is insufficient to move people to do anything. They think that only a command (a law) can do that.

      To see the analogy we first have to determine what sort of speech/message the video is, command or a picture of salvation (gospel). Clearly it is the latter. The video is a good picture of salvation. I think this picture of salvation is also a powerful motivation to change behavior. It motivated me to put my seat belt on before I left the cul-de-sac this AM.

  2. >> if the Heidelberg Catechism doesn’t meet your definition of what “Reformed” is then I can’t help you.>>
    That would make a great bumper sticker.

    >> if you think you have to make sanctity a constituent of justification to make it truly Reformed then you know don’t know the difference between Rome and the Reformation <> if you don’t think that justification or the gospel is a true motive for sanctity then you don’t really understand the gospel and its power.<<
    That's one of the main points brought out by Dr. Ferguson in the talks on the Marrow Controversy, recently referred to by Ligon Duncan on the HB.

  3. Thanks, Scott. Incisive as usual. I agree completely.

    However, this is a problem I’ve noticed in practice: Some pastors who understand grace and its motivating power, who make a careful and Biblical distinction between justification and sanctification, seem to have difficulty with simple imperatives. They appear to be uncomfortable with saying, “Do this,” or “God requires this of you.” I’m not accusing them of antinomianism. They do believe commands to Christians are valid, even important. It’s just that they seem reticent to declare God’s imperatives, almost as if they were fearful of depreciating grace. I really can’t understand it. Aren’t the imperatives powerfully effective precisely because they are built on the solid foundation of the gospel? If we’ve built on this foundation, what are we afraid of?

    If I were writing to “Dear Abby,” I’d sign this, “Sincerely, Perplexed.”

    • Yes, traditionally there was no tension. In our time, however, some have reacted to moralism by shying away from imperatives. We need to preach the whole counsel of God.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    In light of the generally hostile response that the HC received among Lutherans back in that day, can you identify those of whom you speak who suggest that it is not sufficiently Reformed.


    • Warren,

      This hypothesis/thesis has been seriously challenged by some very good work. We should be very cautious about the “Puritans v Calvin” thesis.

      See Mark Dever’s terrific book on Sibbes on this, among many other good works.

      • Sir,

        I got this impression from “Christ the Lord,” edited by M. Horton. However, Dr. Horton did indeed put to the forefront the fact that the more notable Puritans did indeed not forget to make a key distinction between justification and sanctification, and that they upheld that assurance is chiefly predicated upon faith in Christ, and is of the essence of faith.

        • Well, I prefer to speak of the English (or more broadly) British Reformed (Anglicans, congregationalists, and Presbyterians). Some of them were problematic, but most of them (e.g., the Westminster Divines, Owen et al) were quite faithful to the main lines of Calvin’s thought in a different time, facing different questions and challenges.

          • Indeed, to use the moniker, “Puritans,” when referring to the more aberrant strains does do a bit of injustice to those who were faithful to Reformed orthodoxy.

            Given the seeming rise of antinomianism at the time, the sound Puritans issued a clarion call highlighting sanctification without confusing, or inhering, it with justification; for we are indeed justified by grace, through faith, in Christ alone, with works playing not a single part in this forensic transaction.

            • Warren,

              It’s fun chasing you up here for this issue. Shortcomings are oftentimes the causes of lack of assurance for believers. I don’t have disagreement on the primary basis of assurance as objective but if you see this Owen quote from his commentary on Psalm 130,

              Call to mind whether you have broken off the treaty with God, and refused his terms. What is the reason, since God hath graciously begun to deal thus with you, that you are not yet come to a thorough close with him in the work and design of his grace? The defect must of necessity lie on your parts. God doth nothing in vain. Had he not been willing to receive you, he would not have dealt with you so far as he hath done. There is nothing, then, remains to firm your condition but a resolved act of your own wills in answering the mind and will of God. And by this search may the soul come to satisfaction in this matter, or at least find out and discover where the stick is whence their uncertainty doth arise, and what is wanting to complete their desire. [Works 6:596]

              he understands the phenomenon of ‘believers without assurance’ and admonishes them to recall the grace of God. If the structure doesn’t have to work into a subjective basis, then Owen should have stopped there.

              As such Owen said later on, ““The more faith that is true and of the right kind, the more obedience; for all our obedience is the obedience of faith.” I would like to suppose that obedience is a subjective act (considered on the objective basis) in the sense that there is involved an internal determination or Owen’s “a resolved act of your own wills in answering the mind and will of God.”

              No contention on the objective basis.

  5. Ptr. John,

    Owen was indeed on the mark when he admonished that believers lacking assurance should recall the grace of God as the basis for comfort. This is what the “straight arrow” Puritans always advocated, being in line with Calvin’s thought. Indeed, for Owen, obedience was chiefly predicated on faith, his “for all our obedience is the obedience of faith.” This obedience consists of a constant looking to Christ, and not our personal “good works.”

    Let us consider Calvin’s take on the matter:

    “Now if we ask in what way the conscience can be made quiet before God, we shall find the only way to be that unmerited righteousness be conferred upon us as a gift of God. Let us ever bear in mind Solomon’s question: “Who will say, ‘I have made my heart clean; I am pure from my sin’?” [Prov. 20:9]. Surely there is no one who is not sunken in infinite filth! Let even the most perfect man descend into his conscience and call his deeds to account, what then will be the outcome for him? Will he sweetly rest as if all things were well composed between him and God and not, rather, be torn by dire torments, since if he judged by works, he will feel grounds for condemnation within himself? The conscience, if it looks to God, must either have sure peace with his judgment or be besieged by the terrors of hell. Therefore we profit nothing in discussing righteousness unless we establish a righteousness so steadfast that it can support our soul in the judgment of God….For no one can ever confidently trust in it [one’s obedience—M.H.] because no one will ever come to be really convinced in his own mind that he has satisfied the law, as surely no one ever fully satisfied it through works….First, then, doubt would enter the minds of all men, and at length despair, while each one reckoned for himself how great a weight of debt still pressed upon him, and how far away he was from the condition laid down for him. See faith already oppressed and extinguished!…Therefore, on this point [assurance—M.H.] we must establish, and as it were, deeply fix all our hope, paying no regard to our works, to seek any help from them…For, as regards justification, faith is something merely passive, bringing nothing of ours [not even repentance and a determination of the will to obey—M.H.] to the recovering of God’s favor but receiving from Christ that which we lack” (Institutes, 3.13.3—5, cited in Michael Horton, Christ the Lord, p. 52—53).

    • Zacharias Ursinus also had this to say:

      “No man can indeed know, or judge with certainty from second causes [i.e., the fruit of conversion], or from events whether good or evil; for the external condition of men furnishes no safe criterion either of the favor or disapprobation of God….We may therefore be ignorant of our salvation, as far as it is dependent upon second causes, but we may know it in as far as God is pleased to reveal it unto us by His Word and Spirit.” (cited in Michael Horton, “Christ Crucified between Two Thieves,” Christ the Lord (The Reformation and Lordship Salvation), ed. Michael Horton (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1992), 132—134.

      • “pleased to reveal it unto us by His Word and Spirit”

        the question is, “how does the Spirit reveal it to us?”

  6. The Belgic comports with the HC very nicely…imagine that! Return to the old paths…these questions have been asked and answered. Also, notice the wrong motivation for righteous living – love for ourselves and a condemning fear of God!

    Article 24: The Sanctification of Sinners

    We believe that this true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a “new man,”^57 causing him to live the “new life”^58 and freeing him from the slavery of sin.
    Therefore, far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary, so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned.

    So then, it is impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful in a human being, seeing that we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls “faith working through love,”^59 which leads a man to do by himself the works that God has commanded in his Word.

    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.

    So then, we do good works, but nor for merit– for what would we merit? Rather, we are indebted to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he who “works in us both to will and do according to his good pleasure” ^60– thus keeping in mind what is written: “When you have done all that is commanded you, then you shall say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have done what it was our duty to do.’ “^61

    Yet we do not wish to deny that God rewards good works– but it is by his grace that he crowns his gifts.

    Moreover, although we do good works 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. And even if we could point to one, memory of a single sin is enough for God to reject that work.

    So we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior.

    ^57 2 Cor. 5:17 ^58 Rom. 6:4 ^59 Gal. 5:6 ^60 Phil. 2:13 ^61 Luke 17:10

  7. Mike,

    “These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. ”

    I’m not even arguing on the merits of good works here, actually.

    I’m saying the primary basis of assurance is objective. I’m saying that good works is the basis of subjective assurance but not necessarily result in full assurance — something that Warren, I think, assumes I’m postulating. The objective basis provides the hope for the common failings of the subjective.

    How can you bring a sinning believer to assurance if he merely repetitively recites a mantra of “God loves me” (objective basis) instead of going to what Watson calls as the “grace of repentance?

    I’m just wary about Warren’s position, probably because of my ignorance or naive supposition that the exclusivity of the objective basis will not invite ‘militia christi’ or ‘mortification.’ I think with that I need some help.

    • ERROR: What I meant by “— something that Warren, I think, assumes I’m postulating” is I think Warren wrongfully assumes that what I am proposing is we can attain full assurance in the subjective basis.

  8. Dear Prof Clark,
    Thanks for the post. Some thoughts, if I may. I agree with you that sanctification should not be mingled with justification, and that attempts to do this, perhaps unwittingly, are a betrayal of Reformation doctrine. But I wonder about the adequacy of seeing the sanctified life purely as gratitude motivated by the gospel. Is there not indeed an organic link arising out of faith itself? The faith that lays hold of Christ (instantly receiving justification) also receives the life of the Spirit working within us. This is why “it is impossible for this holy faith to remain unfruitful” as Mike quoted above. This is not to bring sanctification into the definition of justification itself, just to say that there is a link and sanctification is not an optional second step depending largely on our efforts. (This is made clear in M. Horton’s reprinted “Christ the Lord” that you recently publicized.)

      • Thanks Scott. I will try to check out the Caspar Olevian. I am not quite sure whether you are agreeing with the substance of what I said, or pointing me to sources that will correct my understanding. Guess I need to read the book….

    • For me, very helpfully clear – let us know if those links confirm or deny! I think ‘organic’ is a very useful notion, though not new (tree and fruit).

      I’m not sure whether using the word ‘gratitude’ rather than ‘gratefulness’ is not in itself indicative, but possible understandings of the GGG structure seem to me to be

      1. The gospel DOES something organic (in the believer) whereby the attitude of gratitude is supernaturally CREATED. The ‘quite influential Reformed folks’ seem to favor this interpretation of GGG. Our gratitude is part of God’s work and is unavoidable. The more the gospel is repeated and heard, the more something is created in us. This does not mean avoiding law passages but even so, some are concerned that this interpretation avoids the need for ‘fight’.

      2. The gospel SPEAKS of God’s generosity which is supernatually UNDERSTOOD (by the believer). But the understanding may not necessarily engender gratitude. For those of a certain natural personality, a reciprocity will spring up automatically; but for others, the enormity of God’s generosity must be repeatedly explained, sometimes with the edginess of reminders about wrath and the requirements of the law. Those ‘Reformed folks’ mentioned above are concerned that this understanding of the gospel as (just as) message underplays the power of the gospel, and that any such necessary, supplementary follow-up ‘edgy’ treatment amounts to the application of the law (That is why such ‘folk’ advocate that the antidote to licence is not more law, but more gospel)

      3. That just the simple statement ‘Jesus died for your sins’ would somehow be adequate as a gospel sermon. But most agree that this only amounts to a description (teaching not preaching, if one can make that difference; ‘descriptions of the gospel’ are not the ‘gospel’). Noone would equate teaching the confessions with preaching the scriptures. This approach gives rise to a distinction between (simplistic but sometimes fruitful) ‘gospel sermons’ (evangelistically for unbelievers) and ‘application sermons’ (for believers) – the latter involving the ‘edginess’ mentioned above.

      It therefore depends on whether one sees gratitude as a state of mind, or (like gratefulness) a state of heart

    • Some quick thoughts come to mind to toss up on the wall and see if they stick… yes, there is an inward or “organic” change:

      WCF 10.1. All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by his almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.

      Yet this supernatural gift of a renewed mind, an new heart, and new right-will doesn’t bypass the fact that we still have sin and its deceitfulness to contend with. Organic doesn’t mean automatic. And sin is initially connected with ‘why’ we do something. Is it wrong to do a good work? Depends. The motive of gratitude in my obedience is in proper keeping with the amazing grace of salvation given. That motive keeps my centered or balanced. Sin would distract me back to a motive of “measuring up” or in some way contributing to my standing as a child of God. That sinful seed of a motive that wants to self-justify or avoid condemnation through my behavior is always lurking there within to draw me away from Christ. It’s that that needs to be mortified or denied, not just the outward sinful behaviors. So a real change within wrought by God enables a new motive (via the heart of flesh) of grateful obedience (right-will to embrace good) because “therefore there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” A gospel focus – the blood of Christ and his righteousness always the ground of my good works and my refuge for forgiveness of sin, not any inward or organic change as real as it is.

  9. Ptr. John,

    Looking constantly, chiefly, to Christ as the objective ground of the assurance of salvation produces the gratitude that is the bedrock of all good works and obedience.

    It all revolves around looking to Christ.

    Therefore, no good work, no outworking of obedience has its root in anything other than looking to Christ. It would then be foolish to base one’s comfort and assurance in an introspective analysis of one’s performance since this same performance was predicated upon a prior looking to Christ which gave rise to the gratitude that enabled it to be manifested.

    • Warren,

      You said, “It would then be foolish to base one’s comfort and assurance in an introspective analysis of one’s performance.”

      If performance as a secondary basis is out of the picture, then this verse

      3We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. 4The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love[b] is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: 6Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.

      will create difficulty on your proposal. Note verse 5 “this is how we know”.

      • Well, HC 86 teaches that the work of God’s Spirit in our lives is a secondary source of assurance and comfort. We look first to Christ and to his promises but we can also be encouraged by the evidence of his work in us.

      • Ptr. John,

        Notice the full sentence: “It would then be foolish to base one’s comfort and assurance in an introspective analysis of one’s performance since this same performance was predicated upon a prior looking to Christ which gave rise to the gratitude that enabled it to be manifested.”

        The argument put forth by that sentence of mine is that all good works, obedience, and performance begins with a looking to Christ, which produces the gratitude necessary for their production.

        Therefore, any good feeling and comfort arising from our good works and obedience would be foolishly apprehended if it went about like, “Yes, I am loving my neighbor, I am keep the Sabbath…I am saved!” The biblical mode would be, “Christ lived and died for me. I am so thankful for all He’s done. In love, I will obey His commands.”

      • Also, if Romans 7 perfectly describes the normal Christian life, then it shows us that as the Christian matures in Christ, his knowledge of his own wickedness and depravity grows in proportionate measure. The mature Christian’s normal disposition towards his own sanctification is not one of self-content but of seeming despair.

        This first “G,” Guilt, then drives him to look to Christ for the comfort and assurance, the second “G”, Grace, that he needs to quiet his soul. The blessing thus received, he is filled with the last “G”, Gratitude, which impels him to obedience.

  10. “…if you don’t think that justification or the gospel is a true motive for sanctity then you don’t really understand the gospel and its power.”



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