Does Hebrews 12:4 Teach Sanctification Through Works?

sanctificationA 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:

  1. Salvation is composed of justification and sanctification
  2. Sanctification is by grace through faith and works
  3. 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.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. If justification of the elect is by God’s grace alone, and sanctification of the elect is a work of God’s free grace, then glorification, in fact the entirety of salvation, is bestowed freely on the elect by God’s grace alone.

    Otherwise the question posed that Paul answers in Romans 6 wouldn’t make sense.

    “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? 2 May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

    It logically follows that those who are recipients of the grace of God now resist sin (though in much weakness and limitation) and set their hearts (though with more failure than they wish) to “now present [their] members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.” (Rom. 6:19b)

  2. Jack, most “Reformed” today do not read Romans 6: 7 as being justified from sin

    Instead they read it as us now having the power to walk in newness of life. And they don’t think that having guilt removed (not under law) as the same as the power of the new life.

    ie, if you are justified and don’t walk in the newness of life, then you will not attain heaven

    but 1. if you are justified, you will attain heaven

    therefore they say 2. you will walk in newness of life, not perfect, but not a habitual sinner either

    3. and if you don’t walk obediently enough, you were never justified

    so the point these puritans are making is NOT that some of the justified fail to attain heaven

    but rather, cautions and threats and warnings that you might not be justified, so no assurance

    or better yet, being sure and also not being sure

    John O. Kinnaird ( September 24, 2015) why is it that so many professing Christians overlook (or worse) so many passages of Scripture that teach that it is God and He alone that CAUSES His elect to walk in paths of righteousness…they change Scripture by translating First John 3:6 and 9 so as to suggest that God’s people can not continue to live in sin forever (but perhaps can until such time as the future arrives) whereas the Greek text clearly say they continuously cannot sin (right now) because they has been born of God and God’s seed abides in them

  3. The “most Reformed” reference was meant in reference to Romans 6. It’s an open question (to me) how many “Reformed” agree with Ramsey and Garcia and Mark Jones. Even if they don’t deny that the new power is liberation from guilt, they tend to say “more than that”, and that “justification alone” and “faith alone” is not enough to get us to sin not having dominion over us.

    Here’s an essay from Garlington which reports the majority report on 6:7. —“According to Schreiner, the verb “justified” (dedikaiôtai, here in the perfect tense) is not merely forensic in v. 7, so that justification cannot be separated from sanctification…. Only those who have died with Christ are righteous and thereby are ENABLED TO CONQUER THE MASTERY OF SIN. Many commentators have struggled with the use of dedikaiôtai in a context in which power over sin is the theme because they invariably limit justification to being declared righteous. The use of the verb in this context, however, suggests that righteousness is MORE THAN forensic in Paul. Those who are in a right relation to God have ALSO been dramatically changed; they have ALSO been made righteous. They have been transformed by the Spirit (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:8-9)…”

    Garlington—“John Murray comes remarkably close to the understanding of Romans 6:7 advocated by the proponents of the “new paradigm.” Far from sharply bifurcating justification and freedom from sin, Murray proposes the following: “Justified from sin” will have to bear the forensic meaning in view of the forensic import of the word “justify”. But since the context deals with deliverance from the power of sin the thought is, no doubt, that of being “quit” of sin. The decisive breach with the reigning power of sin is viewed after the analogy of the kind of dismissal which a judge gives when an arraigned person is justified. Sin has no further claim upon the person who is thus vindicated. This judicial aspect from which deliverance from the power of sin is to be viewed needs to be appreciated. …This prepares us for the interpretation of the forensic terms which Paul uses later in 8:1, 3, namely, “condemnation” and “condemned”, and shows that these terms may likewise point to that which Christ once for all wrought in reference to the power of sin….”

    Romans 6:7 “For one who has died has been JUSTIFIED FROM sin. 8 Now since we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death NO LONGER has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died HE DIED TO SIN once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.

    Christ was never under grace and is still not under grace. Christ was under the law because of the imputed sins of the elect. Romans 6 is about Christ’s condemnation by the law and His death as satisfaction of that law. Christ after His resurrection is no longer under law. Christ’s elect, after their legal identification with Christ’s death, are no longer under law.

    Many commentators tell us that “set free from sin” must mean the elect’s definitive transformation by the Holy Spirit so that the justified cannot habitually sin (or that their new nature cannot sin) They tell us that justification was in Romans chapter five and that chapter six must be about somethingMORE if it’s to be a real answer to the question “why not sin?”. But Romans 6 does not talk about Christ not habitually sinning. Romans 6 locates the cause of “sin not reigning” in “not being under the law” Christ was never under the power of habitual sin , and the definitive death of the justified elect is the same as His death because IT IS HIS DEATH.

  4. Jack, we had this conversation about Romans 8:4. You won’t find many recent “reformed commentators who agree with Calvin and Haldane about 8:4 or about 6:7. I would welcome knowing which ones do point to freedom from guilt (not under law) as being freedom from the dominion of sin.

    Murray: “It is the quickening from death in trespasses and sins that is in the forefront when the apostle says: “But God being rich in mercy . . hath made us alive together with Christ . . . and hath raised us
    up together.” And again in II Corinthians 5:14, 15 this thought is clearly in view. In Colossians 2:20-3:4 the same doctrine is the basis of both rebuke and entreaty.”

    mark—-John Murray assumes that quickening (in these texts) has to do with corruption and
    not from guilt. Murray is right to notice that this quickening is in the present history of the elect person. But he assumes that it is NOT God’s present imputation of righteousness and non-imputation of guilt. Murray begs the question with his presumption that we should be “rebuked”
    based on a mysterious ontological change in our persons so that in the main we don’t live to ourselves anymore.

    John Murray—- “For he who died is justified from sin.” It must be admitted that to suppose a meaning alien to the forensic import of “justify” would be without warrant. BUT we have to recognize that it is characteristic of Paul to use the same term with different shades of meaning in the same context and it is POSSIBLE for him to use this term in its forensic signification without reference to what is specifically justification. The particular context must determine the
    precise application of a term, and in this case it must be observed that Paul is NOT TREATING OF JUSTIFICATION but dealing with what is properly in the sphere of sanctification, namely, deliverance from the enslaving power of sin.

    You will find that most recent Reformed commentators agree with John Murray in begging the question. Since they know already that justification is not a good enough answer for the indicative and motive for obeying the law, they know already that Romans 6:7 cannot be talking about justification from guilt.

  5. Thanks for mentioning that sanctification is the consequence of regeneration. So few do.
    It is the appearance and growing of the new life God has planted that we might be ‘trees of righteousness….. that He might be glorified’.

    I think Piper & co are fostering very dangerous ideas with their ‘double justification’ talk. using phrases like ‘works are necessary’, instead of ‘works are inevitable’. Works are the ‘things that accompany (not produce) salvation’.

    Thanks again


  6. Scott F. Sanborn, one of the opponents of Kline, teaches that Christ’s death is not His righteousness,
    “”It is not death that is the ground of life in Christ. Rather, it is the righteous life of Christ that is the ground of our life. He takes on our death and we receive his life. It is Christ’s eternal life justified in resurrection that we receive, not simply his life on earth.

    Sanborn continues— “God had an end for creating the world apart from the fall and redemption. Jonathan Edwards had this in mind when he wrote his work The End for Which God Created the World…… only the end of creation was revealed in creation, not the end of the fall and redemption. The end of redemption was not revealed in the person of Adam at that time .Adam was not a type of Christ at that time….The infralapsarian position suggests that we cannot assert that God even intended to create Adam in such a way as to be a type of Christ later. ”

Comments are closed.