Resources On Keeping Justification And Sanctification Together Without Confusing Them

Justin writes to the HB to ask,

Dr. Clark,

You’ve probably been asked this many times, and have given a clear answer on it;

But with the focus on sanctification and the gospel, how do we understand passages that emphasize “striv[ing] for peace and holiness without which no one will see the LORD (Heb 12:14); and “work[ing] out your own salvation with fear and trembling, knowing it is the LORD who works in you..” (phil 2:12-13)

I do not intend for these to be proof texts. However these are just a couple of key texts that are brought up in this discussion over Law/Gospel, Progressive sanctification, and works. And I ask you in hopes of gaining understanding and some clarity on your position, as it is difficult to have those things in a web-storm

Thanks and God bless!


Hi Justin,

This is a good and very important question. The answer, in short, is to distinguish between is and because or through. It IS the case that believers, united to Christ by the Spirit, through faith alone, will produce good fruit. They are not admitted to the presence of God, however, because (on the ground of) or through (as in instrument or means) that good fruit.

In the Belgic Confession (1561), the confession of the Reformed Churches, in article 23 we confess

We believe that our blessedness lies in the forgiveness of our sins because of Jesus Christ, and that in it our righteousness before God is contained, as David and Paul teach us when they declare that man blessed to whom God grants righteousness apart from works.

And the same apostle says that we are justified “freely” or “by grace” through redemption in Jesus Christ. And therefore we cling to this foundation, which is firm forever, giving all glory to God, humbling ourselves, and recognizing ourselves as we are; not claiming a thing for ourselves or our merits and leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified, which is ours when we believe in him.

That is enough to cover all our sins and to make us confident, freeing the conscience from the fear, dread, and terror of God’s approach, without doing what our first father, Adam, did, who trembled as he tried to cover himself with fig leaves.

In fact, if we had to appear before God relying—no matter how little—on ourselves or some other creature, then, alas, we would be swallowed up.

Therefore everyone must say with David: “Lord, do not enter into judgment with your servants, for before you no living person shall be justified.”

The only righteousness which will stand before the God who is HOLY, HOLY, HOLY (Isa 6) is Christ’s perfect righteousness. That righteousness is by grace alone (sola gratia) imputed to believers and received through true faith alone (sola fide) alone. The same Spirit who unites us to Christ through faith alone for justification also, by grace alone, through faith alone, is gradually putting to death in us the old man and making alive in us the new man (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 88–90). Thus, in Belgic Confession art. 24, we confess:

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,” causing him to live the “new life” 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,” 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”—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.’ ”

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.

You see that there is genuine, Spirit-wrought sanctity in believers but that sanctity is ONLY and ever an EVIDENCE of our free acceptance with God. It is the Romanists and the moralists who seek to make sanctity do more than it was ever intended to do.

Yes, by the grace of Christ, we do strive, we do struggle against sin and toward greater sanctity. Bryan Estelle and I discussed this here and here. The nature of that struggle is indicated by the language of Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 89 when it describes the struggle of putting to death the old man as “[h]eartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more.” That is not easy. Sanctification is getting used to our justification but that is only the beginning. As justified people we acknowledge our sins and confess them before the Lord. We plead for grace to resist temptation. The reality is that we still fail. God is gracious and though, in his providence, he sees our sin, in his grace he does not impute it to us (Ps 32) for Christ’s sake.

Only in glory will be perfect. Until then God is at work in us completing that renewal which he has begun (Phil 1:6). Praise God that our standing before him (justification) is not dependent upon our inherent righteousness or sanctity. Here are some resources on relating justification to sanctification:

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. If Spirit-wrought sanctity “is ONLY and ever an EVIDENCE of our free acceptance with God” then why does Michael Horton say that holiness is an indispensable condition for glorification and that “no one will be seated at the heavenly banquet who has not begun, however imperfectly, in new obedience.” If Horton is right, then isn’t it true that holiness is more than evidence of our free justification? John Davenant certainly thinks, in answer to Bellarmine’s accusation, that good works are more than evidence of the presence of faith:

    • Patrick,

      As I’ve written and explained (did you listen to the two Heidelcast episodes on conditions in the covenant of grace?) people use the word conditions differently. Mike is not speaking of them as prior conditions but as consequent conditions.

      It’s the difference between “is” and “because” or “through.”

      No Protestant can make sanctity anything more than “is.” Full stop.

  2. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the answer. I am quite familiar with the different uses of condition but I am still confused as to how what you are saying comports with what Horton says. A consequent condition is not the same thing as mere evidence of faith/justification/sanctity. It is more than that. I don’t see how we can understand Horton as saying that obedience is only and ever an evidence of our justification.

    Is Davenant not a Protestant when he says that good works are more than evidence of faith?

    • Patrick,

      Well, I think I know what Mike meant. You’re welcome to contact him for clarification. I’ll try to remember to ask him when I see him next. Maybe I’m wrong? I know what the Word of God teaches. I know what we confess. I’m interested in history and it’s important but it’s not definitive.

      As to Davenant, I’ll check out the source for myself. I’m not entirely satisfied with the survey in the Jones/Beeke chapter in Puritan Theology.

      Yes, a consequent condition IS evidence and that’s all it is. That’s why the Belgic calls it fruit.

      Are you saying that God accepts us, ever, in this life or in the life to come, on the basis of something other than Christ’s perfect obedience credited to us?

  3. Scott,

    I am sure you know what Mike H. is saying better than I. His language does appear (to me at least) to be much stronger than evidence. In fact, it appears that he is saying that it is a non-meritorious antecedent condition to entering glory.

    Okay, now I think I have a better understanding of what you are saying since you do equate consequent condition with evidence and only evidence. I don’t see them as the same, hence my confusion.

    By no means! May it never be! I am not saying that! However, I do agree with WLC 32 (and Calvin, and Davenant and a host of others) that Spirit wrought obedience is, in addition to evidence and thankfulness, the way to salvation.

    It is interesting that the Belgic Confession as cited above is careful to say that it does not want to deny that God rewards good works of believers. This points to another role of obedience besides evidence.

    • Patrick,

      Caveat: the Heidelberg Catechism says, “the reward comes not of merit but of grace.”

      I worry that people are becoming restless with guilt, grace, & gratitude, that growing talk of two stages of justification signals a move away from the Reformation.

      The phrase “the way of salvation” is one of Shepherd’s favorites. He used it to redefine faith as faithfulness. Not that you’re doing so but FYI.

      I don’t want to turn glorification into an opportunity to wedge in works as part of the ground or instrument of acceptance with God.

  4. Scott ,in his intro to the ten commandments,Thomas Watson asserts for the Christian the commandments/law is doable,. albeit imperfectly.Is this what Mark Jones is saying?
    Here is Thomas Watson.
    Though we cannot exactly fulfil the moral law,yet God for Christs sake will mitigate the rigour of the law,and accept of something less than He requires.God in the law requires exact obedience,yet will accept a sincere obedience.He will abate something of the degree if there be truth in the inward parts.He will see the faith and pass by the failing.The gospel remits the severity of yhe moral law.endquote.
    I think this is Tullians understanding of cheapening the law,and downplaying the imputation of Christs perfectly keeping it for those who believe

  5. Scott,I don’t have any complaint.I read Watson years ago and am trying to negotiate my way through,while I am leaning towards Tullians perspective,it can be confusing for the layman.I am delighted with the discussion ,its very important and I have learned a lot from the Heidelblog.
    thanks for your work Thomas

  6. I was looking into B.B. Warfield and his review of Lewis Sperry Chafer’s “He That Is Spiritual” after having relistened to the Lordship Salvation episode of Office Hours with Michael Horton. I then found a June 1997 article from JETS that described and evaluated the interaction of Warfield with Chafer. The author, Randall Gleason, concludes by saying that:

    Finally, both Chafer and Warfield failed to provide for a proper balance between divine initiative and human response in the experience of sanctification. Warfield minimized the element of human responsibility by making sanctification almost exclusively the sovereign act of God. But if humans are not responsible for their own sanctification in at least some small measure, the Biblical exhortations to godly living appear meaningless. In highlighting the Reformed stress on the divine initiative, Warfield missed the equally Reformed emphasis on the role of human faith and the need for diligence if sanctification is actually to progress.

    I wonder if this criticism can be related with ongoing discussions on sanctification, specifically the supposed overemphasis of some.

  7. Dr. Clark,

    What is your opinion of the assertion that progressive sanctification is synergistic? Does the principle of sola gratia apply to the entire ordo, or only to portions of it (regeneration, justification)?

    It seems that if we allow that progressive sanctification is synergistic, and that progressive sanctification is necessary for salvation, then salvation as a whole is necessarily synergistic, contrary to the to notion of sola gratia.

    Of course, we can and should cooperate with the Spirit and actively strive for greater sanctification. If, however, we recognize that this striving is only possible by the empowerment of the Spirit’s work, is progressive sanctification better described as being monergistic? This seems analogous to the situation in justification, where we say that justification is monergistic even though our faith is involved — because our faith itself is a gift from God.

    • Dr. Horton:

      “It has sometimes been said that justification is monergistic, but sanctification is synergistic. I understand the point: namely, to distinguish these gifts, as I’ve done above. It is certainly true that we are active in sanctification and that we grow in Christian maturity through our grace-given responses each day to God’s commands and promises. However, it is unusual and, I think, inappropriate to import the monergism-synergism antithesis (typically belonging to the debate over the new birth and justification) into sanctification. It is better simply to say that we are working out that salvation that has Christ has already won for us and given to us by his Spirit through the gospel. Though in sanctification (unlike justification) faith is active in good works, the gospel is always the ground and the Spirit is always the source of our sanctification as well as our justification. As John Owen expressed it, “The doctrine of justification is directive of Christian practice, and in no other evangelical truth is the whole of our obedience more concerned; for the foundation, reasons, and motives of all our duty towards God are contained therein.” In other words, the law always tells us what God requires and the gospel always tells us what God has done for sinners and why they should now yield themselves to righteousness.”

      – See more at:

  8. What is your opinion of the assertion that progressive sanctification is synergistic? Does the principle of sola gratia apply to the entire ordo, or only to portions of it (regeneration, justification)?

    Those who speak this way are not denying salvation sola gratia. They are simply observing the distinction between God’s work of regenerating spiritually dead sinners, which is necessarily monergistic, with His work of progressively sanctifying those who are already spiritually alive, and therefore are able to cooperate with grace (unlike the unregenerate), though they are not able to contribute one iota to their salvation. All of salvation is by grace alone (that is, it is God’s work alone), but only the work of regeneration is monergistic (God alone working). Hope that helps….

Comments are closed.