Heidelberg 64: Sanctification By Grace Versus Sanctification By Scolding (2)

Open Quote 3 lines64. But does not this doctrine make men careless and profane?

No, for it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness (Heidelberg Catechism 64)

In part 1 we began to look at the intellectual and historical background of the language in Heidelberg Catechism 64.

When the Reformation proposed what seemed in the early 16th century a scandalous message—the Pauline message—of justification as the definitive, legal, declaration by God that sinners (not the sufficiently sanctified) are righteous before the all holy, all righteous, God only on account of the free (sola gratia) reckoning (imputation) of Christ’s perfect, condignly meritorious righteousness to believers and that Christ (and his righteousness) is received through only through faith (sola fide) the Roman communion and the Anabaptists and the so-called “evangelical rationalists” (really an oxymoron) and later the Socinians (biblicistic rationalists) all said: that’s no way to run a company. You will never get people to be good by telling them that they are already saved, that they are already justified now by divine favor alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) resting in and receiving Christ alone.

The same sort of rationalism had earlier said, “look, no one can understand this business of saying that God is one in three persons. Let’s say that God is one but he manifests himself in three persons or that he is one but that the Son is a manifestation of his power.” Thanks be to God that the church read the Word of God together and rejected those proposals to mitigate a fundamental mystery of the Christian faith. Others similar rationalists said, “No one can understand ‘one person, two natures.’ Let’s say ‘two persons’ and  others said, ‘Let’s say one nature.'” Again, thanks be to God that the churches, reading and submitting to the authority of Holy Scripture rejected the siren song of rationalism.

The churches never spoke definitively on the question of justification until after the Reformation and tragically, at the Council of Trent (1545–63) the Roman communion chose the way of moralism, justification/salvation through hitting the mark, through sanctification by grace and cooperation with grace over the gospel mystery of justification/salvation sola gratia, sola fide and the gospel mystery of sanctification as a work of God’s grace. Almost immediately after the Reformation began, however, there were those who began to tinker with and chip away at the biblical doctrines of justification and sanctification Andreas Osiander ingeniously proposed that God can only accept those who are fully, intrinsically sanctified and we are so by the indwelling Christ. He sounded like Protestant by the way he talked about grace, faith, and Christ but in fact he moved the locus (place) of our justification from outside of us (extra nos) where Scripture and the Reformation evangelicals had it to within of us. It is possible to talk formally like an evangelical, like a Protestant but to teach a theology that is moralist. It Where the Protestant preposition was for us the Roman and moralist preposition has always been (and shall always be) in us. In the 1550s there were several proposals to make works some part of the basis or instrument of our justification and/or salvation. Things became so hectic in the 1550s that it seemed as if the Reformation might spin apart, pulled in every direction away from the gospel and toward moralism and rationalism.

What we must understand is that, however valuable scolding may be in a covenant of works, it utterly fails to obtain the desired result in justification and sanctification, which happens only  in the covenant of grace. The history of the medieval church is a vivid illustration. One might have thought that, in the early 16th century, after most of a millennium of teaching justification through sanctification and that by grace and cooperation with grace, the medieval church should have been a city shining on a hill. It was not. When Luther visited in 1510 he was shocked by the immorality of the priests. The entire church was an unholy and unqualified mess. The Fifth Lateran Council declared that the church was “corrupt in head and members.” Popes and priests fornicated openly. The immorality of monks and nuns was an open scandal.

I understand that it is a great temptation to turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works in order to get God’s people to be more godly, more sanctified, and more obedient. The truth is, however, whenever we have given into the twin temptations of moralism and rationalism they have always disappointed us. They never produce the promised result. Like the shade-tree mechanic who promises that he can fix your car for 75% less than the factory-trained mechanics at the shop, moralism/rationalism lies. This is because sanctification is not in our strength. Sanctification is the work of God the Spirit in us. He is the Holy Spirit and it is he who must operate in us to begin to conform us to Christ, and to produce in us fruit and evidence of justification.

The rationalist/moralist cannot accept that sanctification is paradoxical. It does not happen through the law (by making our future justification/salvation contingent upon our behavior) because the law has no power to justify or to sanctify. Before I am charged with antinomianism, I did not say that there is no use for the law in the Christian life nor did I say that the law is not the norm of the Christian life. The law cannot justify and the law cannot sanctify. That is why the Westminster Shorter Catechism 35 says that sanctification is “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”  Sanctification is not a work of the law, but of free grace. Remember, grace and law are united in God but we are not God. We are creatures and sinners. For us, grace and law are two distinct principles. By grace we are being gradually conformed to the image of Christ. By grace we are being brought into conformity to God’s Holy Law. The law is good and holy. The law is for Christians. Anyone who denies that really is an antinomian but sanctification is not a covenant of works, it is not the result of scolding, but it is mysteriously, wonderfully, graciously, the result of God’s free grace to and in sinners.

In justification Christ acts for us but in sanctification he acts in us. The prepositions change. Sanctification is a natural, logical, necessary consequence of justification. It is impossible that those who, by grace alone, are truly implanted or engrafted into Christ should not produce good fruit. A living tree produces fruit. This is what we confess in Belgic Confession art. 24:

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.

The function of good works is to give evidence and to give glory to God. It is not the fruit that makes the tree (Rome) but the tree that makes the fruit and it is God’s grace that makes the tree, as it were. How do we know that the tree is living? It has leaves. It gives fruit. How do we know if a tree is dead? When the season comes, it produces no leaves or no fruit. Now, to be sure, we have a few citrus trees and sometimes they rest. One year we get a bushel of fruit. The next year, from the same tree, we get just a little or maybe none at all. Is the tree dead? Not at all but if a fruit bearing tree does not produce any fruit season after season then we begin to investigate. We look at the irrigation. We look at the root system. We look for an infestation. If after treatment the tree continues to remain leafless and lifeless, we cut it down. This is the analogy our Lord used in John 15.

Bearing fruit is what living trees do. I do not stand next to the citrus trees and hector them but we do water them, we do tend them, and in the ordinary course of things living trees produce fruit. So it is with the Christian. Scolding or making our future standing with God contingent upon being good now is not the way to achieve the desired results. The gospel of free grace does not make Christians careless. If one is or seems careless, we approach him according to Matthew 18 (there are three marks of the true church). If he is penitent, then there is fruit. If he impenitent, then we question whether there is life but that is no fault of the gospel of free grace.

I understand that pastors and elders are afraid of antinomianism. The answer is not nomism but faithful, gracious gospel ministry that relies on the power of the Holy Spirit to use the divinely ordained means to accomplish his purposes at his time.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

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  1. Thanks for a great post and a follow up to the previous post. The only thing I might take just a little further is your point on “The gospel of free grace does not make Christians careless. If one is or seems careless, we approach him according to Matthew 18 (there are three marks of the true church).” I am left with saying AMEN!, the gospel of grace does not make us careless. However, if believing in the reality of the truth of the gospel of grace demands that we must believe in a HIGH law, then such law always declares us careless, irresponsible, and abusive of grace, allowing no exceptions or no one to be excluded. The very fact that we are not ever without sin, states that we are indeed all of these things.

    It is your point of Matthew 18, along with Hebrews 3:13, Hebrews 10:24-25 and Proverbs 27:17 that exists as our saving graces. For indeed where I am abusive, lazy, irresponsible you may not be and likewise me with you. It is not our careless, irresponsible, and abusiveness of grace that sits alone as the major issue, for until we are glorified these shall remain major issues. To say otherwise is truly to say that we are without sin. Such acceptance does not allow us to increase in such things, but to increase our ability to admit that we are, weak and incapable and that allows us to live in a true vertical/horizontal relationship, even more so. It is the knowledge of my ongoing sin that makes me all that more thankful for grace given. Yet, when we remain in pride which a low law always allows us to, we not only are unable to use the grace given new each morning, but we always increase in our careless, irresponsible, and abusive behaviors. This is compounded by those who create a culture of a law that points out your failures, while allowing me to believe mine are not possibly as bad.

    Thanks Again!

  2. I am currently reading the Marrow of Modern Divinity, which speaks of the issue in much the same way as yourself. Is there ever a time in church history where this topic has not needed to be addressed? it would be interesting to collect all the historical debates in one catalog.

  3. “The function of good works is to give evidence and to give glory to God.”

    How does assurance fit in with sanctification? It seems like there is a lot of teaching that looks at our sanctification as proof of our justification. “If you are aren’t feeling or acting such and such then you haven’t experienced the saving power of Jesus.” Is this the historically reformed perspective?

    • Eric,

      The ground of our assurance is the objective gospel promise. That’s why HC 21 & 61 make assurance of the essence of faith. Our subjective experience is secondary or tertiary but it does have a place.

      HC 86 says:

      Q. 86. Since then we are delivered from our misery, merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we still do good works?

      A. Because Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit, after his own image; that so we may testify, by the whole of our conduct, our gratitude to God for his blessings, and that he may be praised by us; also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith, by the fruits thereof; and that, by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ.

      WCF 14.3:

      3. This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong;k may be often and many ways assailed, and weakened, but gets the victory: growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.


      2. These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.


      2. This certainty is not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion grounded upon a fallible hope; but an infallible assurance of faith founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God, which Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance, whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption.

      3. This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure,m that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness.

      Here are some resources on assurance:




  4. So is assurance of the essence of faith or not? The WCF makes it clear that assurance is not of the essence of faith, but is, following Gurnall, the cream of faith. The WCF also makes it clear that the inward evidences of faith are, with the promises, evidence of one’s salvation. I.e. trusting in the promises of Christ, and seeing within oneself- through the marks of grace, and the witness of the Holy Spirit with one’s own spirit- a testimony which would suggest one has been saves, leads one into assurance.

    • Alexander,

      You’ve missed a small but crucial qualifier used by the Confession: “not so of the essence of faith. It does not say “not of the essence” but “not so of the essence” that people do not sometimes struggle.

      This was ordinary Reformed doctrine.

  5. Yes but there were, weren’t there, those who believed assurance was necessary. Was that not the position of the first Reformers, or something like it? The later Reformed clearly didn’t hold that, which is why you have Gurnall distinguishing between “basic” faith and the cream of faith, i.e. that saving faith consists of “I believe on Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins” but the cream of faith is “I believe my sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake”.

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