Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Sanctification or Works-Righteousness?

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
All Protestants agree that justification is an important doctrine and many will even subscribe to LutherÕs claim that it is the article by which the Church stands or falls. That we are saved by grace alone through faith alone is a Biblical concept which we in the Free Reformed Churches hold dear. But do we really understand this concept and its implications for the Christian life? I am afraid that many of us, if asked to define the precise meaning of justification, especially in relationship to sanctification, would be hard pressed to come up with the correct Biblical answer. One of the most common misconceptions about that relationship is the one that rightly views justification as exclusively GodÕs work, while sanctification is regarded as more or less the work of man, be it with GodÕs help. The danger hear is that manÕs role becomes so important that to all intents and purposes sanctification is seen as his responsibility. God has done his part (justification) and now man must do his part (sanctification).

The error here is that sanctification is separated from justification, or at least so distinguished from the latter, that it begins to take on a a life of its own, in which case it is little more than moralism.

Especially young Christians are apt to go astray here. They have come to see their sins and hence their need of Christ. They understand that salvation in only by grace, and that they must rely on the work of Christ alone for acceptance with God, but then, after receiving Christ as Saviour, they feel ready to live the Christian life. They study the Word, pray and meditate, avoid places of sinful amusement, struggle against temptations of the flesh and get involved in various Christian activities such as witnessing and other good works. These are all good and necessary things, but the danger is that they will begin to rest on these activities and think of themselves as good Christian who are making good progress in sanctification.

Often they put older Christians to shame with their zeal and enthusiasm for the Lord, and they canÕt understand why these more experienced believers still complain so much about sin and lack of assurance. They have come a long way in combating sin and are much more assured of their salvation and they honestly believe that they have a better grasp of Scripture and the doctrines of grace than many of the older generation.

What is often lacking, however, is a keen awareness of inward corruption and a painful realization that they can do nothing without sinning. By saying this I do not suggest that they do not know graceÑmany of them are fine, upright Christian men and women who want to serve the Lord. And it is true that some of our older members seem to have lost their zeal or perhaps never had any. They can speak of depravity but how often does one hear them testify of the liberating grace of Christ and of their joy in serving the Lord? Still, I am afraid that some of our younger members in their efforts to correct this perceived imbalance may end up with a view on sanctification which is not in all respects Biblical and Reformed. There are two errors here, as I see it. The first one is the failure to see the spirituality of the Law. As long as one thinks of the Law in terms of outward commandments which must be kept, it is possible to imagine one has succeeded in keeping them, at least to a degree, and feel quite satisfied with such obedience. The moment, however, when the spiritual character of the Law (namely that its essence is to love God above all and the neighbour as oneself) is revealed, it will become clear at once that it is impossible to keep the Law in that spiritual sense. As soon as this is realized, the result is fear and confusion, and the earlier assurance of salvation will vanish as snow before the sun. When a believer sees that all his good works are polluted with sin and that he is miles away from attaining the standards God sets for man in His Law, he can no longer take comfort from his sanctification, but needs a firmer ground for his hope. That is where the second mistake comes in, namely the failure to root sanctification firmly in justification.

Sanctification is what God the Holy Spirit does inside the believer. Important as this sanctifying work is, it is not the basis of salvation, nor the foundation of the ChristianÕs hope. Although it is a work of grace, it is fed from the springs of a higher, more primary work of grace, namely justification.

Unless sanctification is rooted in justification and constantly returns to justification, it cannot escape the triple dangers of moralism, self-righteousness and despair.

In Romans 7:14-25 Paul, certainly no novice in the Christian life, tells of his struggles with indwelling sin.

For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold
under sinÉI know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no
good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform
that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do
not: but the evil which I would not, that I doÉO wretched man
that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I
thank God through Jesus Christ our LordÉ(vv.14,18,19,24,25).

No one has grasped PaulÕs lament of Romans 7 better than Dr. Friedrich Kohlbrugge. In his famous sermon on v.14 (I am carnal, sold under sin), he states that the believer is and will remain until death, freshly and enslaved to sin. Against those who espoused progressive sanctification or the notion that believers by self-mortification can become more and more holy, he thunders:

Throw away your holiness crutches, throw them far from you! With
them you will never climb the mount of the Lord. Tear those rags
from you with which you are trying to cover your wounds and
appear before the Righteous and Holy One just as you are! Before
Him to despair of self is salvation. To rely on the righteousness
of Christ is the beginning and the end. The believer will never
invalidate the confession of Paul: ÔI am carnalÕÑcarnal in body
and soul, in mind and will, in all my senses and members. My
total existence is sin, but through faith I am, a partaker of the
full righteousness and holiness of ChristÉLet no one think that
the old man is killed any more at fifty than at twenty. Gradually
to overcome sin is a mirage, a futile endeavour which serves only
the indulgence of the flesh.

Not surprisingly his opponents charged him with antinomianism, but unjustly, I am sure. Admittedly, his language bordered on the heretical at times, but he never really crossed the line. For Kohlbrugge, sanctification is not so much a process as a position resulting from union with Christ. The believer in not only righteous in Christ but holy as well. His favourite text in this connection was 1 Cor.1:30, ÒBut of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.Ó We have everything in Christ, he reiterated over and over again. ÒOnce I have Christ I need no longer worry about my sanctification, no, but I press on and count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.Ó

Expressions such as these suggest a tendency toward passivity and it cannot be denied that some of KohlbruggeÕs followers have drawn conclusions from his teachings which are not in all respects Biblical and in harmony with the Reformed Confessions.

Even a cursory look at Scripture will show that it teaches a kind of progressive sanctification and that believers are frequently exhorted to exercise themselves in this spiritual activity. We are to perfect our holiness in the fear of God (II Cor. 7:1), follow after holiness without which no man shall see the Lord (Heb. 12:14), follow after that which is good (1 Thess. 5:15), after love (1 Cor. 14:1), after righteousness, godliness, faith, patience and meekness (1 Tim. 6:11). There is such a thing as growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18). Passages like these clearly point to consistent and active endeavour.

The Reformed Confessions are also clear on this matter. LordÕs Day 44 of the Heidelberg Catechism speaks of a being Òrenewed more and more after the image of God.Ó The Belgic Confession likewise warns against a Òvain faith: which is in contrast with the Biblical faith which works through love and which, Òexcites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His WordÓ (Art. 24). The Canons of Dordt exhort us Òto mortify the flesh more and moreÓ and Òto press forward to the goal of perfectionÓ (V,2).

With such clear statements from Scripture and the Creeds regarding the believerÕs duty to Òfollow after holinessÓ one may well ask why there should be a debate at all on this issue. The reason for this is that expressions like Ògrowing,Ó Òincreasing,Ó Òstriving,Ó and ÒpressingÓ can so easily be interpreted in a legalistic sense, so that they come to represent moralistic self-improvement rather than growth in grace.

There is always a danger that the activities suggested by these verbs will be seen as activities to be performed by man in his own strength, even if lip service is paid to the Holy Spirit and the need for His help in sanctification. To recognize this need doctrinally alone is not enough to keep us from going in the direction of works-righteousness. Only where this doctrine is experienced as well as confessed will the believer know how utterly dependant he or she is on the Holy Spirit for beginning the work of grace as well as for continuing that work and for bringing it to perfection.

It was this fear, namely that that Biblical doctrine of sanctification would degenerate into a system of moralistic self-improvement, that prompted Kohlbrugge to speak out against those who were always urging believers to strive after holiness. His main motive in doing so was to help troubled souls who under this constant barrage of exhortations to be holy were becoming depressed because they found themselves incapable of doing the things their teachers required of them. They were put on a guilt trip by men who preached Moses more than Christ.

Against this legalistic and moralistic preaching so prevalent in his day, Kohlbrugge sounded a clear protest and sought to lead the people back to the original message of the Reformation, namely Sola Fide, faith alone! Only that message brings comfort to troubled souls. The glorious truth that Christ has done everything for us, Kohlbrugge would not compromise, even if it brought him under suspicion of antinomianism. As I said already this charge was unjust. Few Christians lived as conscientious and upright a life as he did. Like Luther, he would not let anyone rob him of the comfort of justification by faith alone, certainly not by bringing in works by the back-door of a sanctification wrongly understood. KohlbruggeÕs fears were entirely justified and his concern was essentially the same as that expressed in Article 24 of our Confession, namely that Òour consciences would be continually vexed if they relied not on the merits of the suffering and death of our Saviour.Ó

Whenever this is forgotten or de-emphasized, legalism will assert itself, even under a pious mask. As soon as we loosen the bond between justification and sanctification or faith and good works, we end up with works-righteousness, resulting in either pride or despair. The Biblical notion of progressive sanctification can only function properly where the Òwindows of faith are kept open to the grace of GodÓ (Berkouwer). Scripture does direct us to follow after holiness, but never apart from growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ who has said, ÒWithout me you can do nothingÓ (John 15:5). We simply cannot meet the high and holy standard set in GodÕs law in our own strength. That law demands absolute perfection. Therefore, to miss the mark partially, even by a hairÕs breadth, is to miss it entirely.

What then is the secret of sanctification? Abiding in Christ by faith; relying only and entirely on His merits. Apart from His active and passive obedience we remain under the curse of the law. This truth is beautifully illustrated by John Bunyan in his PilgrimÕs Progress. ÒFaithfulÓ nobly resisted the temptation of the ÒOld ManÓ to marry his three daughters: Òthe Lust of the Flesh, the Lust of the Eyes, and the Pride of Life.Ó But he was soon met by the man ÒMoses,Ó who beat him unmercifully for having a secret inclination to agree with the ÒOld Man.Ó ÒMoses,Ó who represented the law, would have killed him, except for the mercy and intervention of the Man with the nail prints in His hands.

Judged by the law, the best state of the best saint is only vanity. In J.C. RyleÕs words: ÒOur purest works are no better than filthy rags when tried by the light of GodÕs law.Ó This is why the apostle cried out: ÒWretched man that I am!Ó Paul does not just mean that his evil works which he hates merit GodÕs condemnation. No, even when he does what is right, his performance is wretched compared to the purity of the lawÕs demands.

Even the holiest of GodÕs saints, therefore, will have to pray with the psalmist again and again: ÒEnter not into judgment with thy servant: for in Thy sight shall no man living be justifiedÓ (Psalm 143:2).

Apart from GodÕs merciful judgment, the good works of the saints would be Òmortal sinÓ (Luther), and nothing is acceptable to God unless mediated through the covering cloud of ChristÕs merits. Because of Òindwelling sin,Ó we need mercy at the end as much as at the beginning of our spiritual pilgrimage, for the old nature is as evil then as ever. Growth in grace, therefore, does not mean becoming less and less sinful, but on the contrary, it means becoming more and more sinful in our own estimation. It is this conviction of the wretchedness of even our sanctified stateÑwhich conviction comes by the lawÑthat keeps sanctification from the rocks of self-righteousness. It keeps the ChristianÕs little bark constantly pointed toward his only star of hopeÑjustification by faith in a righteousness that stands for him in heaven. The refuge of the sinner must ever be the refuge of the saint: ÒThe name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safeÓ (Prov.18:10). This is his Name whereby He shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS (Jer. 23:6).

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