Both/And: Free Justification And Gracious Sanctification

Good works are the necessary, (super)natural consequences of God’s saving grace but they are not sanctification itself.

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. 

 

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.

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