Both/And: Free Justification And Gracious Sanctification

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.

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  1. Very clear explanation of a complex and often misunderstood doctrine. You judiciously use the word “consequences”. When wheat grows in a field, it proves that the seed was planted. It is a consequence of the planted seed. It is not expected (nor can it be expected) that wheat will grow before the seed is planted.
    My question: how can this sanctification be applied to an addict, who seems in his Christian life to be only marginally sanctified, and often relapses? The attraction to the addiction is very strong. I don’t want to tell an addict to live in sin; but also don’t want to drive them to a works salvation, where they view their salvation based on their ability to overcome the addiction.
    Thank you!

  2. What a wonderfully clear message on the relationship between justification and sanctification, and it’s ultimate purpose, to serve God’s praise and glory.

  3. Thank you for this very helpful post. I find it baffling how some confuse justification and sanctification. It seems so simple to me, yet there is no end to the discussion. John 3:36 plainly says,

    “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

    The one who believes, obeys, because they have seen life. The wrath of God has been removed from him.


    David Parker, Deacon
    Redeemer Presbyterian Church
    Austin, TX.

  4. Tom, in my humble opinion, all you can do is to preach the gospel to this person with the addiction, that the love of Christ will constrain him, that he should no longer live for himself, but for him and was raised again. II Cor. 14-15 We all struggle with sin, even the great apostle Paul as he graphically tells us in Romans 7. Though we gradually become conformed to the image of Christ through the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work in us, it is only a beginning in this life. We will only be completely free of the corruption of sin and able to perfectly obey God when we are fully transformed in glory at the resurrection.

  5. Tom, I am assuming that the person with the addiction is sorry for his behaviour, for offending against God and neighbor. If not, of course he needs to be confronted and convicted by the law until he is brought to confess his sin and seek forgiveness. Only then can the gospel be preached effectively.

  6. Tom, as I understand it, the Reformed teaching may be summarized by, guilt, grace, and gratitude. We come to see our sin and we despair of our ability to obey as God requires by the righteous demands of God’s law. When the law has done its convicting work, we are open to the preaching of the gospel good news that our acceptance with God depends on grace, through faith in Christ alone who lived the perfect life we cannot live and died the death we cannot die on our behalf. We can only believe this if we have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit. If we are alive, and indwelt by the Spirit, we are being transformed into the image of Christ. That will be evident from our love of God and our desire to please Him by obeying God’s law out of love and gratitude for his undeserved grace. Using this model of guilt, grace, and gratitude seems to me a way of dealing with the problems faced by the person with the addiction, without condoning his sinful behaviour and without driving him to works salvation. If the person is unrepentant, we begin with the law. When he displays remorse and looks for forgiveness we present the gospel. If he believes and is thankful for God’s undeserved grace, he will want to obey God’s law, and that becomes the most powerful motivation to overcome his addiction, out of gratitude to God for forgiveness and the Spirit’s power.

  7. 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.’

    I often pray the Tax-collector’s prayer when I read such as the above, for I often have to complain to the Lord; “Lord I seem to be much worse than I ever was!”
    A wise answer though I believe was given by someone, who said something like this:
    “Ah, brother, the Lord has been touching your spiritual eye-sight, and more and more you have been able to read the fine-print of the law!”

  8. Dear Dr. Clark,

    I realize this is not the main point of the post, but you say in passing that to reject the construct of the “covenant of works” is to reject a basic element of the Reformed confession. In March, 1982, the late Dr. J. Faber, when he was professor of dogmatics and principal of the Canadian Reformed Theological College (now the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary), wrote two editorials in the “Clarion” concerning the covenant of works. (These editorials were part of a series of editorials critical of the firing of your bete noire, Prof. Norman Shepherd, from Westminster Theological Seminary.)

    In the first, “The Covenant of ‘Works’” (March 12, 1982), Dr. Faber lists a number of theologians who have rejected the notion of a covenant of works. These include C. Vonk, S.G. De Graaf, K. Schilder, J. G. Woelderink, and G.C. Berkouwer. He cites, in particular, De Graaf’s rejection of the covenant of works in “Promise and Deliverance” and Berkouwer’s criticism of the idea in his volume “Sin.” In the second editorial, “Gratuitous–A Word from the Beginning” (March 26, 1982), he refers to the “so-called covenant of works” and argues that one ought not distinguish a covenant of works from the covenant of grace. He also cites at length both Woelderink and Schilder.

    Now to the names Faber mentions, one could add Rev. Cl. Stam, the author of “The Covenant of Love,” Prof. John Murray, and W. Wilson Benton, Jr. to the list of theologians who either reject the notion of a covenant of works, or who greatly modify it. Do all these men reject a basic element of the Reformed confession. Are De Graaf, Schilder, Vonk, and the rest outside of orthodox Reformed thought and ought their theology be rejected as heterodox? Or is their position within the bounds of Reformed confessional orthodoxy as defined by the Three Forms of Unity?


    Rev. K.A. Kok

    • Kenneth,

      You have correctly identified the issue. There was a great shift in the modern period, in Reformed theology, away from the nigh unto universal view of the Reformed in the classical period on the covenant of works. Yes, those writers, as far as I know, all rejected what Dominie Schilder called “the so-called covenant of works.” We are no reaping the harvest of this ill-considered and unfortunate experiment. Indeed, through most of the 20th century one struggles to find anyone unambiguously upholding the classic Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works and the pactum salutis. These surgical amputations left the Reformed corpus rather weakened so that many today take the revised views as the norm.

      Whether Mr Murray actually rejected flatly the covenant of works is a matter of debate. To be sure, he became uncomfortable with the nomenclature. In my view, if he dissented from in substance, his dissent should have been tested in the courts of the church. The covenant of works is clearly and unambiguously confessed repeatedly in the Westminster Standards.

  9. (Quote) ‘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. ‘ (Unquote)
    The Hebrews writer puts it perfectly I think; ‘But, beloved, we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation.’ (Heb. 6:9)
    Good fruit will always accompany good growth. Godly fruit, godly growth.

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