Brothers We Are Not Perfectionists (1)

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)

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 law 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).

Next time: Simul justus et peccator—the new life and clinging depravity.

25 comments

  1. Dr. Clark, thanks for this very helpful post on the much debated and confusing doctrine of sanctification. I’m looking forward to the next installment.

    “Grace plus anything nullifies grace and denies Christ’s finished work.”
    Shout it from the mountain tops!

    Jack

  2. Thanks for this. There is good, vigorous discussion on regarding the actual nature of the one who is in union with Christ. Would you be able, in your next post, to talk about Rom 7:17,20–as to why Paul would say twice thay it is no longer he who sins? And you might also be able to address what he means in Rom 8 when he says, “you are not in the flesh?” Thanks, and God bless you.

  3. Thanks! BTW, I’m not a perfectionist. I just believe that Christians are new creatures in Christ who, because of the Cross, have been set free from the enslavement of sin and can walk in the Spirit and manifest the fruit of the Spirit instead of the works of the flesh at any given moment.

    • Hi Scott,

      I understand. I agree entirely that we are new creatures in Christ. The question, of course, is what does that mean? I have another installment on this tomorrow AM on the HB where I work through Rom 6.

  4. As you may know, those who lean toward a more depravity-free view of the man in Christ, when they get to chapter 6, focus on these verses for evidence:

    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. (Romans 6:17, 18 ESV)

  5. Great post. Very relevant. Many Christians struggle with a inconsistent view of sanctification and thus are lead to deny the power of the gospel in that aspect. Praise God for all He has risen up to proclaim his truth.

  6. One can see there is a real necessity to define a number of biblical terms in the passages considered and to be… Otherwise a talking past each other is in the offing.

    High level of confidence in RSC with no pressure intended. But, hey!… even if, you can handle it. 😉

  7. I see a real continuity and parallel between Romans 7:20 “So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” and Gal 2:20 “It is no longer I that live but Christ that lives in me” …. sounds to me like clinging depravity and the new life.

    • Kevin, thanks. I believe of you look at Gal 2:20 and Rom 7:20, they actually dovetail well to shoe the opposite: Clearly Paul’s use of sarx in Gal 2:20 means, as the NIV happens to translate, “body.” And that is exactly why Paul says it is no longer he who sins. And it is exactly why Paul says in chapter 8 that we are not in the flesh. And it is exactly why Paul says in chapter 8 that what we’re waiting for at Christ’s return is not the purification of our nature, but the redemption of our (what?) body!

  8. Baptism does accomplish these things. It’s not the water alone…but His Word attached to the water. That’s what Baptism is.

    Paul knew the word ‘symbolizes’. He does not use that word. “…who were baptized…”

    “Those of you who were baptized have put on Christ.”

    “Baptism now saves you.”

    Baptism is not a work we do. We are not the baptizers. God is.

    And in that pure gospel, in that external Word, we can have total assurance. Now we don’t have to look inward , to ourselves, for any of it.

    But with Luther, we can say, “I am Baptized”.

    Thanks.

    What would you do without us Lutheran types to shake things up a bit 😀

    • Christ by His Word and Spirit accomplishes these things, of which the water of baptism is an outward sign and seal. Baptism is not the Word attached to water, but water attached to the W0rd. The Word is the primary thing (the Word being the primary means of grace, the sacraments being secondary, derivitive and dependent upon the Word); and thus the Word can be effective in producing justifying faith apart from the application of the water, through the simple preaching of the gospel (“faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God”), so long as the sovereign Spirit is at work blessing the Word and applying it to elect sinners. Thus the focus should be on the Word of promise (i.e., the gospel of salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ), not on the water as such.

      As a means of grace baptism directs the faith of the believer away from itself to Christ and His saving action (which baptism externally signifies and seals). It is in this manner that baptism supports and strengthens justifying faith in the life of the believer. Justification by faith alone does not mean “trust in your baptism” but “trust in Christ and His saving action alone, to which your baptism points.” To look to one’s baptism for assurance is to make an idol of the sacrament and to overthrow the sacrament’s intent (which is to direct our faith to Christ and Christ alone). (One of the sins forbidden in the first commandment, according to the Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A # 105 is “trusting in lawful means”; as a lawful means of grace I believe baptism would fall under this category.)

    • Regarding your appeal to the statement in 1 Pet. 3:21, to the effect that “baptism now saves you,” that statement by the Apostle must be read in its context. In what sense does baptism “save”? Peter qualifies his statement in this very important way: “…not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (ESV). He is clearly trying to guard his statement “baptism now saves you” from being misunderstood in a ritualistic, sacerdotal or ex opere sense.

  9. I have long said that Paul, in Romans 7, is speaking (1) as a believer (2) about himself. This is so because only a believer can have the spiritual sensitivity to know the difference (and experience the difference) between the “new man” and the “old man.” Unbelievers don’t experience this tension between the two because, being spiritually dead, they only experience the one side (the “old man”) of the equation. Unbelievers don’t notice their sin nature since it’s normal to them – just as a fish doesn’t “notice” the water around it because the water is its natural habitat. So, many thanks for your comments on this passage.

    • Yes, Richard, that is definitely “saved Paul!” He couldn’t say what he says about his inner man if he was not saved. One the key things to note is that in Chapter 7 he uses the words, “I,” “me,” and “my” a couple dozen times. But in chapter 8, where you move out of this sense of constant struggle due to self effort, you see the Holy Spirit mentioned many times, more than all the rest of Romans combined. We have been placed in actual union with Christ through His Spirit so that he can function as God in the man, the way it was always intended to be.

  10. I had written: “Baptism is not the Word attached to water, but water attached to the W0rd.”

    Correction: Technically the above statement is incorrect. I believe Steve Martin was correct to state that baptism is the Word attached to the water. My concern in my confusing statement was to highlight the primacy of the Word over the symbol of water. But in re-reading what I wrote I realized that my statement could have the (unintended) effect of actually downplaying the Word and putting too much emphasis on the water. My apologies for muddying the waters of this baptismal discussion.

  11. Jose,

    According to the Reformed understanding of Scripture, perfection (perfect obedience to the law) is necessary for justification, acceptance with God. Jesus provided that for all who believe. Christ and his righteousness for us is received through faith (trusting) alone. Sanctification is logically and morally as evidence of our profession of faith and as the fruit of justification. It is not a second blessing but any one who says that sanctification is necessary for justification has denied the gospel. The good news is not that Jesus has made it possible for us to do our part but rather that he has done what we could not and would not do. God the Spirit graciously awakens dead sinners, grants them new life and faith and through faith unites us to the risen Christ. It is out of that union with Christ that we live, under grace, seeking to be conformed to God’s moral law out of gratitude for what Christ has done for us.

    • Jose,

      You write: “And, if sanctification is necessary as an evidence of present justification, then logically it is also a precondition for final or ultimate justification.”

      First of all, I would dispute your two-phase understanding of justification (“present justification” and “final/ultimate justification”). The biblical-reformed view is that God’s declaration of justification is once and for all, irreversible, and unrepeatable (i.e., there is no “final” or future justification” as you seem to envision it). Justification is a once-and-for-all and unchangeable (and thus abiding) declaration of a sinner to be righteous in His sight on the sole and all-sufficient ground of Christ’s infinite merit and sacrifice alone (His active and passive obedience), the righteousness of Christ being imputed to the believing sinner and received by faith alone. Because of Christ’s everlasting imputed righteousness, believers have been delivered both now and forever from condemnation and have received the irrevocable title to heaven. “There is therefore NOW no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1, ESV, emphasis added) “Since, therefore, we have NOW been justified by his blood, much more SHALL WE BE saved by him from the wrath of God.” (Rom. 5:9, ESV, emphasis added) “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me HAS eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (Jesus Christ in John 5:24, ESV, emphasis added)

      While Scripture informs believers that they too will stand before the judgment seat of Christ, and while the works of believers will be reviewed at the final judgment; nevertheless the purpose of the final judgment of believers is not to determine their eternal destiny. (Their eternal destiny was already legally established and secured in their justification by faith. In addition, the vast majority of mankind, with the exception of those still alive at the return of Christ, will have already been in either heaven or hell for a significant period of time, so the final outcome of the judgment day will already be known to them before the judgment proceedings begin.) Rather, believers “shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgment” (Westminster Shorter Catechism # 38). In other words, the once-for-all declaration of our justification which was made secretly before the judgment bar of God in heaven when we believed will be openly and publicly declared before gathered humanity on the judgment day. (And while God can see our faith, man can only see our works; thus our works will be brought forth on judgment day as evidences of our justifying faith.) Thus, the purpose of the believer’s judgment on judgment day is not to decide whether or not we will receive “final justification” before God, and thus to determine whether or not we make it into the consummated kingdom of God; rather, its purpose is to serve as an open and public vindication of believers before gathered humanity and a determination of believers’ eternal rewards.

      Secondly, while it is true that “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14), and while it is true that sanctification is necessary for final salvation, your statements seems to indicate that you have not fully understood or appreciated the sense in which we Reformed believe that sanctication is “necessary.” It is not “necessary” in the sense that it serves as a legal ground or basis or condition for our acceptance and justification before God. Rather, it is “necessary” as the inevitable fruit and evidence of a true and living (justifying) faith. Our sanctification in no way serves as the ground or basis or condition for God’s acceptance of us. Christ’s merit and sacrifice alone does that (and for anyone to suggest that we must somehow add our own works — even Spirit wrought works — of obedience to Christ’s perfect saving work in order to gain final acceptance before God is not only a false gospel, Gal. 1:8-10; it is also blasphemy against the finished work of Christ). All whom God justifies He also sanctifies, and the faith by which sinners are justified is also the faith by which they are sanctified. And thus anyone who claims to be justified and yet lives a lifestyle of wilful, persistent, unrepentant, conscious sin is clearly making a false profession of faith. In short, the logical “contradictions” that you allege are not there in reality, at least not when the Reformed confessional understanding is properly grasped.

    • Jose,

      You wrote: “The difference between your mono-justification position and my double-justification position is simply that I don’t have to jump through as many hoops to explain what is going on. We both agree, or so it would seem, that only the one who lives the sanctified life will make it to heaven.”

      It is not a matter of “jumping through hoops.” It is a matter of trying to do full justice to all of the biblical data and of seeking to be faithful to the absolute sufficiency and perfection of Christ’s redemptive work.

      Regarding your statement about our “agreement”: Yes, on a superficial level it would seem that we agree that only those seeking to live a sanctified life will make it to heaven. But the glaring difference between us is that you seem to want to make our sanctification a ground, basis or condition of our entrance into heaven (a position which I assert denigrates Christ’s redemptive work, and compromises the biblical gospel of free grace); whereas we Reformed would assert that a sanctified life is simply the inevitable fruit and evidence of true faith, that faith being the sole instrumental condition of justification, and thus of entrance into heaven. (I.E., if there’s no sanctification, then that’s proof there’s no faith; if there’s no faith, then there’s no justification; if there’s no justification, then there’s no heaven.) It might seem like splitting theological hairs, but it is a distinction that is necessary for guarding the integrity of the biblical gospel itself (and thus also necessary for guarding Christ’s sheep from ravenous wolves who would seek to devour them with a false gospel).

    • Jose,

      Sure I can! I suppose that we disagree on definitions. First, you should say you think the case is, how God accepts us, on what basis, and then we can talk. Until then all I can do I guess.

      As to double justification, there are essentially two models, the protestant and the papist. I hold the protestant view, which means that the justice/righteousness whereby we are accepted is condign (meritorious). It’s Jesus’ and its imputed to those who believe. The second justification is really vindication, i.e., evidence of the claim of justification.

      The other model is the papist model that inverts the two. It says that Spirit-wrought sanctity justifies (except that we never actually have perfect justice so they usually cheat by sneaking in congruent (imputed) merit. The second justice is said to be Christ’s justice imputed, which is just icing on the cake.

      The papist never has righteousness because his intrinsic righteousness is never perfect. I have perfect righteousness because I have Christ’s imputed to me. I don’t to have cheat with congruent merit. The papist does.

      This is why the Romanist view of double justice always fails. It never really offers real righteousness.

      Paul says, “having therefore been justified.” That’s a finished thing. The papist cannot say that nor can any other moralist. All they can say is that righteousness is inaugurated but that’s not what Paul says.

      If you won’t accept Paul’s teaching in Romans 6, that sanctity flows from what Christ has accomplished for us, then I don’t know how much more I can do for you.

      Ps. I did a little checking and it turns out that “Jose Gonzales” is a troll who frequents Christian blogs and attacks the Apostle Paul. So, bye bye Jose.

  12. I so appreciate the precision of your blogs and podcasts. While not Calvinistic but broadly Evangelical, I find your stuff clarifying and deepening. Thanks.

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