God, Not Man, Is The Author Of Sanctification

Sanctification is a work of the Triune God, that is ascribed more particularly to the Holy Spirit in Scripture. It is particularly important in our day, with its emphasis on the necessity of approaching the study of theology anthropologically and its one-sided call to service in the kingdom of God, to stress the fact that God, and not man, is the author of sanctification. Especially in view of the Activism that is such a characteristic feature of American religious life, and which glorifies the work of man rather than the grace of God, it is necessary to stress the fact over and over again that sanctification is the fruit of justification, that the former is simply impossible without the latter, and that both are the fruits of the grace of God in the redemption of sinners. Though man is privileged to cooperate with the Spirit of God, he can do this only in virtue of the strength which the Spirit imparts to him from day to day. The spiritual development of man is not a human achievement, but a work of divine grace. Man deserves no credit whatsoever for that which he contributes to it instrumentally… A man may boast of great moral improvement, and yet be an utter stranger to sanctification.

Louis Berkhof | Systematic Theology, pages 532, 535.


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  1. Two items come to mind that I don’t find compared and contrasted treated at any length by Berkhof:

    1. Definitive sanctification, e.g., http://covenantofgracechurch.org/modules/news/article.php?storyid=10

    2. Progressive sanctification, e.g., http://covenantofgracechurch.org/modules/news/article.php?storyid=9

    I have also a few uncomfortable weeks wrestling with some of my Reformed brothers and sisters over the view that sanctification has a synergistic component, as in man’s “cooperation with the Spirit” during his walk of faith.

    • Patrick

      1. I sympathise!

      2. I too dwell on how best to persuade my Reformed friends of the dangers of Synergism but, as you know, there is an enormous paradigm (hermeneutic) gulf.

      3. They and I can agree on everything in Berkhof above except, for me, “Though man is privileged to cooperate with the Spirit of God” spoils it all.

      4. However we set out a ‘theory’ (a theology) of regeneration, if we then describe it anthropocentrically as cooperation, we then undermine that theology.

      5. I next plan to try to utilise the difference between (i) God as Agent, us as His instrument, rather than (ii) us as Agent, and the Holy Spirit as some sort of instrumental fuel deposited in our tank, whether once-for-all or daily.

      6. But I doubt this will persuade. I think the problem is deeper still and hangs on the extent to which the regenerated believer has some sort of moral autonomy (‘free will’) independent of, though given by, God.

      7. If he has some such autonomy, then surely his Christ-likeness is in part ‘his’? I think that was the error of the Pharisee who compared himself to the tax collector; he was not trying to impress God to gain justification; he thanked God for the sanctification he now possessed

      8. I think the believer does not have any such moral autonomy, but deep down for many in the Reformed tradition (and despite all protestations about the sovereignty of God), I think for them the commands in scripture do imply an ability in (regenerated) man.

      9. But in this are they not attributing the ‘powers’ of the new man to the old man? But the new is new, and the old is dead; the wineskins are not mixed

  2. Dr. Clark,

    The only thing about which I cavil is that “sanctification is the fruit of justification.” I haven’t studied this issue long enough to see how it is classically formulated, but the WLC makes me think that justification, like sanctification, is a “fruit” of union or benefit, and that sanctification does not flow from justification.

    I tend to think of these as two distinct benefits. The one fully and finally satisfying the righteous requirements and punishment of God and imputing Christ’s righteousness to us; the other progressively conforming us into the image of Christ by the enabling work of the Spirit.

    • Ryan,

      I am quite aware of this argument. One great problem with it is that most all of the Reformed tradition (and Luther before them) thought and spoke differently. Take a look at Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit Benefit of Christ where I explain how one significant Reformed theologian ordered justification and sanctification. Cornel Venema has argued for years that Calvin’s doctrine of the duplex gratia Dei (twofold grace of God) contains a logical order. See also “The Benefits of Christ: Double Justification in Protestant Theology Before the Westminster Assembly,” Anthony T. Selvaggio, ed., The Faith Once Delivered: Celebrating the Legacy of Reformed Systematic Theology and the Westminster Assembly (Essays in Honor of Dr. Wayne Spear). (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 107–34. John Fesko addresses this question in his volume on union with Christ. He also addressed it in his inaugural address.

      There is no question whether Reformed theology has long taught that there is a double benefit/double grace. There’s no question whether Reformed theology has taught a logical order to that grace and the pattern is quite clear that the order is that it is the justified who are sanctified.

      The notion that the two benefits, justification and sanctification, are exactly parallel is relatively novel and depends upon prior assumptions that are in doubt, namely a peculiar notion of one aspect of union with Christ and a disputed doctrine of definitive sanctification (whose roots in Reformed theology are unclear).

      The difficulty with your quotation of the WLC is that it assumes that the WLC is saying the same thing as the proponents of this idiosyncratic view of mystical union with Christ. There is good reason to doubt that identity as I’ve tried to show on the HB. Here’s a Five-part series I did on this very question. Remember, there are three aspects of union with Christ. Current discussions tend to focus on mystical union but the tradition also spoke about union in other ways.

      Here are other HB resources on union.

      Take a look at these resources.

  3. Dr. Clark,
    Thanks for the help. I’m grateful that you provided some references for me to check. Romans 6:22-3 comes to mind:

    “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

    I would admit I see a logical connection present in this passage. My trouble is that I do not see it articulated in the WLC. Union, in my opinion, seems to be assumed, not justification. I am not willing to be contentious on this issue, however. I suspect presuppositions would figure heavily into exegesis of many biblical passages.

    As an aside, what do you make of 1 Peter 1:2? What would be a helpful category or terminological distinction to make when reading “in the sanctification of the Spirt”? Could the adjective “definitive” be useful here? Or is there a better way to think through Peter’s greeting? Any help would be greatly appreciated.


    • Ryan,

      Yes, union, but which aspect of union? There are three: decretal, federal, and mystical. Are you assuming that it must be mystical? I don’t assume that.

      Why would definitive sanctification be the best way to explain 1Pet 1:2? Why not progressive?

      Take a look at the posts I provided and then get back to me.

      ps. Here are the posts on union with Christ.

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