Sanctified by Grace?

Friday, 23 Mar 2012

Chris Jager asked a good question in response to the first post in this series and I thought it was important enough to explore in more than a couple of lines. He asks:

Also, is sanctification a work solely of the Holy Spirit, or both the Holy Spirit and the believer? Is the work attributed to both, or just the Holy Spirit? When does it become “my work,” trying to attain my own righteousness, and when is it true sanctification?

Isn’t true sanctification produced through the hearing of the gospel?

Passive Recipients, Made Active in Good Works

Throughout Scripture, regeneration, which is nothing less than a sharing in the new creation, is brought about by the Holy Spirit. Not only in the beginning, but throughout our lives, the Spirit is renewing us by grace, conforming us to the image of Christ by his Word.

The danger in legalism (or neonomianism) is to collapse the gospel into the law, while antinomianism collapses the law into the gospel. Either way, the office peculiar to each becomes murky until finally it is obscured entirely. Furthermore, while legalism collapses justification into sanctification, antinomianism collapses sanctification into justification. One more, destination is the same, even if arrived at by different routes.

It is crucial, then, to distinguish law and gospel as well as justification and sanctification. Each plays its own essential but distinct role. The law reveals God’s righteous demands, while the gospel reveals God’s gift of righteousness in his Son; in justification God imputes Christ’s righteousness to sinners, while in sanctification he renews them day by day. The law functions as the threatening judge to send us to Christ for our justification, but it also functions as the command of our Father in sanctification.

In the new birth and justification we are passive. Repentance and faith are given as a free gift. However, in conversion—the act of repentance and faith—we are active, having been raised from death to life by the Spirit through the gospel. Our initial and lifelong conversion cannot be attributed to us, but only to the Triune God. Every moment our turning from idols and specific sins (including self-trust, but also other fruits of the flesh) to the Living God is a gift of the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit. Nevertheless, it is not the Father who repents, nor the Son who believes, nor the Spirit who does good works; it is believers who, united to Christ, bear the fruit of faith in love and works. Salvation is not restricted to justification but encompasses all of the blessings we enjoy in Christ: election, redemption, effectual calling, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification.

Two Dangers to Avoid

So there are two dangers to avoid.

First, we dare not treat justification as a free gift that is based entirely on Christ’s person and work in the gospel and then treat sanctification as something that is based on our person and work. As Calvin observes, the Spirit creates faith through the gospel, and this faith bears fruit in love and from love proceed good works. “The source of love is the grace of Christ” (Commentary on Corinthians II:404). “The mortification of the flesh is the effect of the cross of Christ” (Commentary on Galatians, 169). Elsewhere he adds,

Although we may distinguish them [justification and sanctification], Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces [1 Cor 1:13]. Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness” (Inst. 3.16.1).

Calvin’s point is that you can’t receive any of Christ’s gifts without receiving Christ himself and if you are united to Christ, then you cannot fail to receive all of his gifts.

Second, we dare not see ourselves as passive in sanctification, as we are in the new birth and justification. Christ is always the object of faith in every act, but there are different acts of faith. In justification, faith merely “receiving and resting on [Christ] and his righteousness” (WCF 11.1). Yet faith responds variously to different passages in God’s Word: “yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace” (WCF 14.2). So in answer to Chris’s question, we can say something like this: We are justified by grace through a faith that simply rests in Christ and we are sanctified by grace through a faith that, resting in Christ, is working through love. There are many exhortations in the New Testament to cooperate with the Spirit: “Since we live in the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:25-26). We are warned not to quench the Spirit, or as the NIV has it, “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire” (1 Thes 5:19).

We do indeed receive our sanctification as a gift. Not only in the beginning, but throughout the life of daily renewal, believers are always active in love because they are united to Christ alone through faith alone. Nevertheless, the consequence of our being mere recipients of grace is that we are by this gift made active in good works (Eph 2:8-10; Phil 2:12-13, etc.). As Luther said, “Faith is a busy thing.” It is always looking for something to do, not for justification, but for the glory of God and the good of our neighbors. Sanctification is dependent on justification, but it is not the same as justification. Those who make diligent use of the means of grace will mature. They will no longer be children, but will grow up together with the other members of Christ’s body into their head (Eph 4:14-15).

Myriad calls to preserve the bond of unity, to crucify the deeds of the flesh from which quarrels, immorality, and idolatry emerge, to press on, to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to righteousness in Christ, both presuppose justification and entail something distinct from justification. On the basis of our freedom from the law’s condemnation, we are able for the first time truly to love God and our neighbors. We are not what we will be, but we are not what we once were. The new creation has dawned and the Spirit has swept us into it—and keeps us swimming in the powers of the age to come—through his means of grace.

It has sometimes been said that justification is monergistic, but sanctification is synergistic. I understand the point: namely, to distinguish these gifts, as I’ve done above. It is certainly true that we are active in sanctification and that we grow in Christian maturity through our grace-given responses each day to God’s commands and promises. However, it is unusual and, I think, inappropriate to import the monergism-synergism antithesis (typically belonging to the debate over the new birth and justification) into sanctification. It is better simply to say that we are working out that salvation that has Christ has already won for us and given to us by his Spirit through the gospel. Though in sanctification (unlike justification) faith is active in good works, the gospel is always the ground and the Spirit is always the source of our sanctification as well as our justification. As John Owen expressed it, “The doctrine of justification is directive of Christian practice, and in no other evangelical truth is the whole of our obedience more concerned; for the foundation, reasons, and motives of all our duty towards God are contained therein.” In other words, the law always tells us what God requires and the gospel always tells us what God has done for sinners and why they should now yield themselves to righteousness.

In Roman Catholic and other synergistic schemes, we are working toward union with God—a final justification according to works. In evangelical teaching, however, we are working out of, or better, from the union with Christ that is already ours. In sanctification, we are striving, training, and running a race to the finish line—not toward justification, but from justification to our glorification. We “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith…” (Heb 12:1-2).

What the Law Still Can and Cannot Do

In this race, the law still functions as God’s command for us, but no longer with the power to condemn those who are justified in Christ. It is easy at this point to turn the third use of the law (to guide believers) back into the condemning use, or as the old Puritans used to say, to turn back from the covenant of grace to a covenant of works. At the beginning, upon first hearing the gospel, the believer was amazed by God’s grace in Christ. Eventually, though, exhortations have become quasi-conditions for God’s aquittal, as if one began by the Spirit through the gospel and then attained final justification through one’s efforts in sanctification (see Gal 3:3).

Again Calvin’s pastoral wisdom is helpful:

The consciences of believers, in seeking assurance of their justification before God, should rise above and advance beyond the law, forgetting all law righteousness…For there the question is not how we may become righteous but how, being unrighteous and unworthy, we may be reckoned righteous. If consciences wish to attain any certainty in this matter, they ought to give no place to the law. Nor can anyone rightly infer from this that the law is superfluous for believers, since it does not stop teaching and exhorting and urging them to good, even though before God’s judgment seat it has no place in their consciences (3.19.2).

Owen says much the same thing in A Treatise on the Dominion of Sin and Grace, referring to the moral law:

Christ is not in the law; he is not proposed in it, not communicated by it, – we are not made partakers of him thereby. This is the work of grace, of the gospel. In it is Christ revealed, by it he is proposed and exhibited unto us; thereby are we made partakers of him and all the benefits of his mediation. And he it is alone who came to, and can, destroy this work of the devil…. This ‘the Son of God was manifested to destroy.’ He alone ruins the kingdom of Satan, whose power is acted in the rule of sin. Wherefore, hereunto our assurance of this comfortable truth is principally resolved. And what Christ hath done, and doth, for this end, is a great part of the subject of gospel revelation.

Then in the last section of that work he concludes that the law directs us but can never destroy the dominion of sin and give us new hearts any more than it can justify:

It is that which the law and all the duties of it cannot procure. The law and its duties, as we have declared, can never destroy the dominion of sin. All men will find the truth hereof that ever come to fall under the power of real conviction. When sin presseth on them, and they are afraid of its consequents, they will find that the law is weak, and the flesh is weak, and their duties are weak, and their resolutions and vows are weak; – all insufficient to relieve them. … They sin and promise amendment, and endeavor recompenses by some duties, yet can never extricate themselves from the yoke of sin. We may therefore learn the excellency of this privilege, first, from its causes, whereof I shall mention some only:- 1. The meritorious procuring cause of this liberty is the death and blood of Jesus Christ. So it is declared, 1Pet.1:18-19; 1Cor.6:20, 7:23. Nothing else could purchase this freedom… ‘Christ died, and rose, and revived,’ that he might be our Lord, Rom.14:9, and so deliver us from the power of all other lords whatever.

… Let those that are believers, in all the conflicts with sin, live in the exercise of faith on this purchase of liberty made by the blood of Christ; for two thing will hence ensue:- [1.] That they will have a weighty argument always in readiness to oppose unto the deceit and violence of sin… See Rom.6:2. [2.] The internal efficient cause of this liberty, or that whereby the power and rule of sin is destroyed in us, is the Holy Spirit himself; which farther evinceth the greatness of this mercy. Every act for the mortification of sin is no less immediately from him than those positive graces are whereby we are sanctified. It is ‘through the Spirit’ that we ‘mortify the deeds of the body,’ Rom.8:13. Where he is, there, and there alone, is liberty…

…Wherefore, a great part of our wisdom for the attaining and preserving this liberty consists in the acting of faith on that promise of our Saviour, that our heavenly Father will ‘give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him’ of him. When sin in any instance, by any temptation, urgeth for power and rule in us, we are ready to turn into ourselves and our own resolutions, which in their place are not to be neglected; but immediate cries unto God for such supplies of his Spirit as without which sin will not be subdued, we shall find our best relief.

In this battle, therefore, success is always due to “considering the office and care of our Lord Jesus Christ for our relief,” Owen adds. “Pardoning mercy, according to the tenor of the covenant, doth always disarm this sin in believers of its condemning power; so that, notwithstanding the utmost endeavours of it, ‘being justified by faith, they have peace with God.'” Looking to ourselves, depending on our own progress and resolutions, will not destroy sin at its root, Owen concludes.

Viewed in this light, one can see how antinomianism and legalism come from the same failure to look to Christ for relief from sin’s guilt and power. They are two sides of the same coin, as Thomas Boston pointed out:

This Antinomian principle, That it is needless for a man, perfectly justified by faith, to endeavour to keep the law, and do good works, is a glaring evidence that legality is so engrained in man’s corrupt nature, that until a man truly come to Christ, by faith, the legal disposition will still be reigning in him; let him turn himself into what shape, or be of what principles he will in religion; though he run into Antinomianism he will carry along with him his legal spirit, which will always be a slavish and unholy spirit. He is constrained, as the author observes, to do all that he does for fear of punishment, and hope of reward; and if it is once fixed in his mind that these are ceased in his case, he stands still like a clock when the weights that made her go are removed, or like a slave when he is in no hazard of the whip; than which there cannot be a greater evidence of loathsome legality (Thomas Boston, “The Marrow of Modern Divinity”, 207).

“In a sinking state of the church,” Boston wrote elsewhere, “the law and gospel are confounded, and the law justles out the gospel, the dark shades of morality take place of gospel light; which plague is this day begun in the church, and well far advanced” (Gospel Truth, 106). Another 18th-century Scottish minister, John Colquhoun, adds, “To mingle, then, the law with the gospel, or teach men to join the works of the law to the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ as the ground of a sinner’s title to justification in the sight of God is, according to our apostle, to preach another gospel (A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, 142).

There are some in our Reformed and Presbyterian circles today who do not approve of the distinction between law and gospel or the covenant of works and the covenant of grace that they find in their Confession. Far easier it is indeed to yield to antinomianism or moralism, the default setting of our fallen heart. Justification is by grace alone, in Christ alone, but now we feel that we must go on to some other foundation, with a different basis and different conditions, for our sanctification. Yet, as our Lord said, wisdom is vindicated by what she accomplishes. There is more to our salvation than justification. Because of what God has done and is doing, there is much for us to do now. However, any pretended obedience that is not grounded in the finished work of Christ imputed to sinners is both an offense in the nostrils of a holy and merciful God and a fruitless effort to destroy the fruit of sin while leaving its root intact.


Michael S. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.


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