Reformation season is drawing to a close for 2017. Quite naturally, there has been a great deal of emphasis on justification by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). What might have been a time of remembrance and celebration has also been one of controversy since leaving evangelical teachers and even ministers and teaching elders in confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches have been publicly advocating the doctrine that we are initially justified by grace alone through faith alone but finally saved through faith and works. Thus, instead of being principally a(n) historical moment it has become a moment for confessing the faith (in statu confessionis).
Though this last month has been very busy, full of writing and speaking–in addition to my full-time job as a teacher and minister–it has been an opportunity to reflect again on what Scripture teaches about justification (God’s declaration that believers are righteous before him on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed) and sanctification (God’s gracious, gradual work in the life of the believer to bring him into conformity with Christ–more about that in the moment). When we consider these two topics together we talk about salvation.
Controversy can be painful because it brings about separation and even loss (of old ways of thinking, of friendships, and sometimes even ecclesiastical relationships) but it can also be healthy. In this instance we have learned more clearly what Scripture says about these essential topics. Of all the things that are said to be “a gospel issue” surely the gospel itself is chief among them. This controversy has also been useful for bringing to the surface issues that have been simmering for a very long time. E.g., we have learned more about the teaching of those within and without the confessional Presbyterian and Reformed world, who reject basic elements of the Reformed confession (e.g., the covenant of works before the fall). We have learned once again that the covenant of works is not a doctrinal second blessing. Rather we have seen that it is essential to Reformed theology and that the cost of the modern experiment of either marginalizing or rejecting it is too high. The reality is that it is not possible to teach Reformed theology without teaching a covenant of works. One will have a legal covenant. The only question is where will it appear in one’s theology? Will it be before the fall or will a theologian/teacher effectively turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works?
Of course, if our justification is merely initial then it is also only provisional. It means that we are still in a covenant of works. Under a covenant of works we must perform perfect righteousness in order to meet the test and receive the wages. This is the teaching of holy Scripture: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due” (Rom 4:4). It was with Paul’s distinction between grace and works (Rom 11:6) or law and gospel that our theologians taught the distinction between the covenants of works and grace. The two covenants reflect two distinct principles.
One of the things that we have re-learned through this controversy is that at least some of those who reject what we confess about these things do so for the same reason that folk have always rejected our confession: they do not believe that it will lead to sanctification and good works. During the Reformation (and after), our critics in Rome and among the Anabaptists agreed that the Reformation message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone must be rejected because it will not produce the desired results. They were quite plain about this. The Reformation churches (Reformed and Lutheran), however, were convinced that sanctity, and the good works following from sanctification, are the fruit of God’s gracious salvation of his people.
One area where I have gained some clarity over the last decade or so is concerning the distinction between sanctification and good works. They are not identical. Often, however, in Reformed circles, we speak as if they are. This is not what we confess. In Heidelberg Catechism (1563) 88–90 we define sanctification as the putting to death of the old man and the making alive of the new.
88. In how many things does true repentance or conversion consist?
In two things: the dying of the old man and the quickening of the new.
89. What is the dying of the old man?
Heartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more.
90. What is the quickening of the new man?
Heartfelt joy in God through Christ, causing us to take delight in living according to the will of God in all good works.
Notice please that we do not talk about good works until the last clause of question 90. Notice also the relationship between good works and sanctification. sanctification, mortification and vivification, is said to produce in us good works. Sanctification itself is nothing more or less that conformity to Christ. It is being renewed, by the gracious, free, gradual work of the Holy Spirit within us renewing us into the image of Christ. This is what we confess in Westminster Shorter Catechism 35:
Q. 35. What is sanctification?
A. 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.
God’s gracious sanctification enables us to do good works. They are the result of that process, its fruit, not the process itself. Failure to make this distinction has resulted in the little confusion about the biblical and Reformed doctrine of salvation and sanctification. One reason that many do not make this distinction is that they fear of being labeled “antinomian” or they fear being criticized for not taking works seriously enough.
The moralists, i.e., those who reject the Reformation doctrine of salvation, will not be satisfied however by confusing sanctification with good works. This confusion is in effect a halfway house. Do not misunderstand me: good works are necessary for the believer. They are the necessary, (super)natural consequences of God’s saving grace but they are not sanctification itself. Neither are they any part of our justification. They are the consequences of our justification.
We do not have to choose between free justification or good works. God, who graciously justifies sinners, also graciously, progressively sanctifies them into the image of Christ. Out of that free, gracious salvation comes good works just as surely as good fruit comes from a living tree. The teaching of Scripture in the confession of the Reformed churches is not that difficult. It is not complex but it is mysterious because we cannot say exactly how or when or to what degree the Spirit is presently at work in us and yet we know that he is. Our sanctification is as much a matter of faith as our justification in the good works that issue from it are just as mysterious. praise God for the mystery of our salvation, for the gospel-mystery of justification, the gospel-mystery of sanctification, and for the good works for our neighbor and for the glory of God that issue from them.