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:
- God demands perfect holiness as a condition of seeing him
- My holiness is not perfect
- 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, lest 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 is not 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” (2 Cor 7:1).