A correspondent writes to ask about the interpretation of Hebrews 12:4 which says, ” In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (ESV), relative to the current discussion concerning salvation, sanctification, and conditions in the covenant of grace. We are really discussing the middle premise of what is apparently a widely accepted syllogism:
- Salvation is composed of justification and sanctification
- Sanctification is by grace through faith and works
- Therefore salvation is by grace through faith and works (faithfulness)
I doubt the middle premise and I reject the conclusion.
The argument is being made that Hebrews 12:4 teaches us that sanctification is resisting sin, which involves our free cooperation with grace, ergo sanctification is not by faith alone (sola fide). Once more, there is no question whether believers must be sanctified and whether they must resist sin. The question is whether our sanctification and our resisting sin is a part of the instrument of our salvation or whether it contributes to our salvation or whether our resisting of sin is the consequence and evidence of our gracious salvation.
Let us define our terms. First, we are talking about believers, those who have been regenerated by the free, sovereign favor of God, who, through faith have united to Christ. Salvation does certainly include our justification, sanctification, and glorification. By justification I mean God’s declaration of sinners that they are regarded as righteous on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone and received through faith alone. I take it that, in the present discussion, this definition is not in doubt.
What is sanctification? The Westminster Divines, speaking for the entire Reformed world answered this exact question in the Shorter Catechism this way: “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.” This is identical to the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism 88–90. We will return to this question shortly.
The third aspect of salvation is glorification which, it seems, is often neglected in this conversation. It is hard to imagine that someone would posit that our glorification is through our obedience. Unless one is a perfectionist (e.g., a Wesleyan or Nazarene) or a Pelagian, everyone admits that his sanctity, in this life, is imperfect, that even in a state of grace, his best works are corrupted with sin. In that case our glorification can only be by God’s free favor. In the case that we do not reach a state of perfection in this life it must be that God receives us into heaven despite our lack of perfect intrinsic righteousness.
This brings us back to sanctification. The question really seems to be this: do we not exert effort in sanctification? To answer this question let us go back to Shorter Catechism 35 where sanctification is said to be “the work of God’s free grace.” There is work involved in our sanctification but the subject of the work is God’s “free grace.” It is God who works sanctity in us. He does not work sanctity in us because we have met a prior condition. When the divines said “free grace” they were clearly saying “divine favor not conditioned upon anything done by us or wrought in us” (WCF 11.1). It is those who have been freely justified who are freely sanctified. It is the Spirit who is putting to death in us the old man and it is the Spirit who is making us alive with Christ. That is why we confess that by grace “we are enabled” to die to sin and live to Christ. Sanctification therefore is being enabled by the Spirit to die to sin and life to Christ. The Shorter Catechism does not say include our cooperation the definition.
There is a closely related question: by what instrument do we receive the grace of God’s Spirit: works or faith? To ask th,t question in this context is to answer it. What does Scripture say? The Scripture repeatedly, unequivocally teach us explicitly that we receive God’s grace only through faith. I listed just some of those passages in this earlier post. In addition to those passages see the role of faith 1 Peter 1:6–9. It is by “believing” (πιστεύοντες) that we see him, as it were. The end (τέλος) of faith (πίστεως) is salvation (σωτηρίαν). Please note that salvation (not only justification) is not the end of works but faith. Peter was not soft on sanctification and obedience.
What then is the relationship between sanctification and obedience in Hebrews 12:4? Remember the setting of Hebrews 12. Jewish Christians (likely) were being tempted to abandon their Christian faith to return to Moses (the old covenant), to Judaism. They were under pressure from the synagogue and most probably informally from pagans and perhaps even civil authorities. The pastor to this congregation has just reminded them of the nature of true faith. That cannot be ignored here. He is speaking to a congregation who makes a profession of faith. They profess the same faith held by Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. They were all looking forward to Jesus and to the heavenly city. It is beyond foolish to go back to the system of types and shadows. Having looked backward, as it were, in chapter 11 in chapter 12 he looks upward. Believers are now surrounded by an eschatological cloud of witnesses. Whatever they are enduring presently is nothing in comparison to what they have in Christ and what they shall have in the new heavens and earth. Our path through the desert is to keep our eyes on Christ, the object of true faith, who is seated in glory at the right hand. Whatever we endure here and now we shall be with him in glory. It is in light of those realities, in light of all we have by faith that we, by God’s grace, struggle against sin. Unlike some, his readers have not yet had to face martyrdom for the sake of Christ. The suffering they were undergoing is a form of gentle chastisement from the Father, in order to prepare us for glory (v. 5–11).
This entire section is a characterization of our response to God’s grace. We live by faith. We live in grace and by faith and in grace we do wrestle seriously against sin. The Christian life is a penitent life. The rest of the chapter continues this theme. Like our forefathers in the faith we too are on our way to the heavenly kingdom. We do not want to be like Esau, trading the eternal for the temporal. After all, we have come to the heavenly Zion, which is superior to Sinai. Christ our Mediator, our Savior, and our Lord is atop Mt Zion. He is holy and he deserves holy respect.
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:28–29; ESV).
For more on this listen to this discussion of Hebrews 12.
It seems evident from Hebrews 12 that our obedience is the logically and morally necessary product of our faith, our union with Christ, and that gracious sanctification. Certainly we do struggle against sin. Certainly we do freely exert ourselves against sin and toward godliness but we do so as those who are being graciously sanctified and we lay hold of all the graces that accompany salvation through faith alone. The power of faith is its object. The object of faith is Christ. It is by faith that we have Christ and all of his benefits (justification, sanctification, and glorification). Works are necessary, as the Reformed writers repeatedly said as the necessary fruit and evidence or the necessary consequence of our salvation. We are not saved through them or by them. We are saved by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) but those who are being saved are being graciously sanctified. No one may willfully disregard God’s holy law or live impenitently (see Heidelberg 87) and call himself a Christian but we do ourselves no favor by making works either part of the ground or part of the instrument of our salvation.