An HB reader writes to ask “in what senses are we under the covenant of works?” I reply
Christians are in no sense under the covenant of works for our standing with God or for our salvation. Our justification and our sanctification are by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). It is not as some seem to be suggesting that our salvation is begun by grace but is ultimately completed by works. This is a false gospel that Paul himself repudiated in Galatians 3:1–6:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? (ESV)
If any part of our salvation (justification, sanctification, glorification) is by works, then it is not by grace (Rom 11:6). These are two inimical principles in salvation. The very idea of a “two-stage” salvation (by grace now, by works then) is a flat repudiation of Paul’s explicit teaching in Galatians 3. When he says “Spirit” in v. 3 he is saying “grace.” None of us was regenerated (brought to spiritual life) by works. We were regenerated by grace alone. In regeneration the Spirit also gave us faith and through faith justified us, adopted us, and united us to Christ. It cannot be that what the Spirit began (by unconditional sovereign grace) we are to complete by works. In the apostolic period Paul applied this principle to the existence of supernatural gifts. They were not by works but by grace. Our entire Christian life is not by works but by grace.
This is the burden of Paul’s teaching especially in Romans 6:12-19:
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification (ESV; emphasis added).
As those who have been united to Christ we ought not, we may not live as if we have not died with Christ to sin, as if we have not been raised from the dead. We ought to, we must present ourselves to God as the offerings we are, “as instruments of righteousness.” Sin no longer dominates us because Christ conquered it on the cross. A decisive break has been accomplished.
In Christ we have been set free to live in Christ and to Christ. We are no longer under the covenant of works for our salvation. We are under the covenant of grace. This is the decisive turn in Paul’s argument and it is precisely contrary to much that is being taught today in evangelical and Reformed circles. It is apparently widely held that the only way to get believers to obey, to be sanctified is (were it possible) to put them back under the covenant of works. It seems that Christians are regularly taught, “Well, it is true that you have been justified by grace alone, through faith alone but your final standing before God is not certain. You must still do your part of obtain your place in heaven.”
That is not the truth. Such a message seeks to put believers back under the covenant of works for their final standing with God but we are not under the covenant of works. We cannot be under the covenant of works. Scripture does not refer to Jesus only as a “Justifier” (thought he is that) but as a Savior. Jesus has completed the covenant of works for us. To suggest that we might be back under the covenant of works for our salvation is to suggest that Jesus is but “half a Savior” (Belgic Confession art. 22). That is, as we confess, a “most enormous blasphemy against God.” If it was wrong from Rome to do it (and it was) it is just as wrong for Reformed and evangelical Christians to do it, however well-meaning they may be.
We (those who have been given new life and with it true faith) are under the covenant of grace. The great burden of this passage for Paul is that the Christian should know, understand, and accept that we ought to be sanctified, we must be sanctified and that gradual, gracious conformity to the image of Christ is possible only because we are no longer under the covenant of works (law) but we are under the covenant of grace (gospel): “I will be your God and you shall be my people.”
It is only because we have been saved by grace alone that we can be sanctified. Our conformity to Christ is by grace alone, through faith alone. It produces good works as the necessary fruit of our salvation (see Belgic Confession art. 24). Grace produces a desire to obey God’s holy law. Grace produces a desire to be conformed to Christ. That is why Paul says, “May it never be!” The idea that a believer might turn around and say, “Since where sin abounded, grace abounded more, let us sin that grace may abound” is unthinkable. We were not saved in order that we might sin. We were saved that we might be sanctified.
Certainly we still struggle with sin. That is the story of Romans 7 but the decisive blow has been struck. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). If we were somehow back under the covenant of works Paul could not have made this glorious declaration but he did because we are in a covenant of grace for our salvation.
Jesus has defeated sin and death and by his grace he has taken us captive and given us wonderful gifts (Ps 68; Eph 4:8). Going back under the covenant of works—were such a thing possible—will not lead to greater sanctity because sanctification is never by works but by grace. The path to sanctity runs through the crucified, resurrected, and glorified body of Christ who fulfilled the covenant of works for us and who is now graciously at work in us by his Spirit conforming us to himself. He will accomplish is good purposes. He will bring it to completion at the say of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6) and he will do it in a covenant of grace, not in a covenant of works.
We are indeed saved, sanctified and glorified wholly by the electing, preserving grace and power of a merciful God. At no point and on no level does our performance in any way contribute to our passage from guilt and death into justification and life everlasting.
There is another growing error extant today which proposes that a man (girls too) can be justified, regenerated, raised from death in Adam to life in Christ, be given His mind and be made a partaker of the divine nature, but, beyond a verbal affirmation, have these truths produce no other effect upon the one so justified. There are some notable Lutherans for instance who insist upon this grave and by the apostle, explicitly denounced falsehood.
You know what I’m talking about. The notion that a person can be a practitioner of flagrant, open public, unrepentant sin and yet be reliably counted among the presently (and forensically) justified and presently (and positionally) sanctified?
You sir have avoided both errors and have here declared a concise and sound exposition of the relationship between justification and sanctification. Magnificent indeed.
Thanks alot for this post
It is only because we have been saved by grace alone that we can be sanctified. Our conformity to Christ is by grace alone, through faith alone. It produces good works as the necessary fruit of our salvation. Grace produces a desire to obey God’s holy law. Grace produces a desire to be conformed to Christ. We were not saved in order that we might sin. We were saved that we might be sanctified.