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.