December 14, 2008 Q & A

Is Sanctification a Part of the Gospel?


I had a discussion recently concerning sanctification. From that discussion came this question: Is sanctification a part of the gospel, and why? I won't tell you what my take was for fear of bias.



You perhaps know that one of the debates the Reformers had with the Roman Catholic Church, perhaps the debate after the authority of Scripture, was on the nature of the gospel. How is a person made right with God? The Catholic Church thought that the teaching of the Reformers that a sinner is justified, declared righteous in Jesus Christ alone by faith alone through grace alone, would lead to ungodliness! That is frequently how an emphasis on free and sovereign grace is seen. The fear is that if we come to Christ and have our sins removed by their being laid to Christ's account and we receive Christ's perfect righteousness accounted as our own righteousness (usually called "double imputation" or "Christ's active and passive obedience"), people will have no "incentive" to godly living. That charge has never disappeared either!

The solution the Catholic Church offered was to mix justification with sanctification, to merge the two parts of God's working. But, of course, we being sinful creatures ended up with a works-righteousness mixture, Christ saving us so that we might save ourselves. The Reformers, looking at Scripture, knew that this could never be. Paul wrote to the Galatians "yet we know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified" (2:16). Here Paul protects us from the confusion or melding of justification and sanctification.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism is so helpful in this too:

Question 33: "What is justification?"

Answer: "Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone."

The sinner is established in Christ complete and without offering to God any of his own righteousness or obedience. If any of our efforts infiltrate our "gospel" it is the proverbial drop of poison in the cup, one drop of my efforts at self-salvation poisons the whole. So the Westminster divines were carefully to make this justification an act of God's grace, a decisive, complete act, sovereignly performed by a merciful God based on the merits and death of the Son of God alone.

But the Catechism also clearly defined sanctification:

Question 35: "What is sanctification?"

Answer: "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."

From an act to a work, from a declaration about a person to a work within a person, a work of renewal and transformation, is the distinction which the divines clearly saw.

What we can say, putting these together, is that the person who is truly justified through faith in Jesus Christ will also be sanctified by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the way Paul expressed it in Galatians 2:20. "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." Paul will go on in Galatians to show that the person who is not justified through faith in Christ Jesus will display the deeds of the flesh rather than the fruit of the Spirit (chapter 5). This is because the new birth is truly from above (John 3), a supernatural act of God's power making a spiritually dead sinner to live unto God, as Paul so powerfully sets out in Ephesians 2:1-10. Sanctification, the internal renewal and change of the sinner by the power of God, will and must take place; however, it is a fruit of the gospel rather than the gospel itself.

If we do not keep these things clear, we will drift into the confusion of the Roman Catholic Church. The gospel calls us to repent of our sins and to flee to the Son of God for both deliverance from the guilt and penalty and for new power against sin's mastery; however, we bring nothing to the transaction save a brokenness over sin's offense to God and "an apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ" (Shorter Catechism Q. 87), but it is all ours, not because we have been made holy (the infused righteousness of Rome's version) but because the receiving and resting upon Christ alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel (Shorter Catechism Q. 86), means empty hands receiving forgiveness and righteousness by faith alone.

I hope this is helpful. If you have questions, please contact me.



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