There is currently a debate within the Reformed community on the great doctrine of sanctification. It’s an important discussion with far-reaching implications for our Christian lives, and it’s worth taking a few moments to consider it together. It should immediately be said that the issue under discussion is not whether Christians are called to be holy. Thankfully, on this all agree. Rather, the issue has to do with the nature of holiness itself and the means and motives we must use in its pursuit.
Some, often reacting to an overbearing restrictiveness in their past church experience, revel in the glories of their adoption and free justification and make it the sole foundation of a holy life. We have right-standing before God based solely on the imputed righteousness of Christ. His obedience and blood have won our pardon, and to that verdict we have contributed nothing. It is all a free gift of sheer unmerited grace. The wonder that such a truth should inspire in us ought to always result in a desire to eschew all sin and live wholeheartedly for God’s glory. To all this we must add our loudest, “Amen.” However, many go on from this to conclude that the key to growing in personal holiness is simply a matter of re-appropriating the good news that we are accepted freely for Christ’s sake. In some less sophisticated presentations of this approach, it is even suggested that to the degree that we feel the joy of sin forgiven, will obedience to God’s commands result in our lives, inevitably and automatically. If you want to be holy, so the argument runs, the way to accomplish it is not to study the imperatives of scripture and work at conforming oneself to them, but to think about the holiness of Jesus reckoned to our account. As you grasp his work for you, you will find yourself becoming like him, effortlessly.
The great difficulty with this formulation of the doctrine of Christian sanctification is that it can tend to minimize duty and effort and can lead to a growing aversion to any positive view of the role of the law of God in the Christian life. It tends to understand God’s moral commands only as accusing, condemning pronouncements coming to us from a holy Judge. And so they are, but only if we are not Christians. If we have been justified by grace through faith in Christ, the sting and penalty of legal condemnation has been paid in full at Calvary. “There is, therefore, now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Christians hear the law, not as the accusing voice of a prosecuting attorney, but as the loving exhortation of Abba Father who is training us and teaching us to bear the family likeness in all our moral doings. The law of God is not and cannot ever be the Christian’s enemy. Because of the Cross, God’s law is forever our friend, even when it says hard things to us about our sin. And so, because of the Cross, we can say with the psalmist, “Oh, how I love your Law!” When it exposes our sin, it does not do so to condemn us but to bring change. It does indeed drive us back to Calvary for pardon, but it does more. Having brought us back again to the Cross, it lifts us from the dust of penitence and instructs us in the path of new obedience, urging us to press on in the strength Jesus provides.
Which brings us to another problem in much recent discussion of sanctification; it tends to leave little room for actual moral change. Whenever a Christian struggles and falls into sin, as we all will on this side of heaven, the answer to our failure is not simply to point us back to justification and remind us that there is pardon and mercy for us because of the cross. Praise God this is true! But the cross has won more for us than pardon alone. It has also won our purity. It has won more than forgiveness. It has also won our holiness. Jesus died for both justification and sanctification. The message to the fallen believer is that changeis possible, if they are in Christ. Not only were they not condemned, not only is there forgiveness for us from sin’s guilt, but more, God promises us victory over sin’s power. And that promise empowers us, so that we do not grow weary in well doing. It reminds us that our labor in the Lord is not in vain. It teaches us that though we may battle long and hard and often stumble and fail, though sin may often best us in our daily combat, nevertheless, it shall not and will not have final mastery. Christ has won the victory, and he will make his people holy. And so we can press on, fight on, never signing a truce with the besetting sins that plague our lives, not just because we have forgiveness when we fall, but also because we have grace to change that we may not fall again.
Any version of the doctrine of sanctification that does not call Christians to hard and diligent, yet joyful and confident effort, any view that instead suggests all we need do is think more about Christ’s work for us, instead of us, and that change will then come naturally—any such view is an enemy of true holiness. It robs the gospel of half its glory: it affirms that Jesus paid for our sin so that we might be counted righteous in God’s sight, not because we are, but because Jesus was righteous for us, but it denies that Jesus also died to destroy sin’s dominion and secure for us not just a right legal status before the judgment of God, but also a changed life under the rule of God. The twin graces of the gospel are our justification and our sanctification. Our works have nothing to do with the former. But the latter does not exist and cannot progress without the former. Brothers and sisters, doctrine matters, and the precious doctrine of sanctification is especially important because how we think about holiness affects how we try, and whether we try to be holy. Our witness is at stake. The honor of Christ is at stake. So learn to love God’s law. Learn to strive for holiness. Learn to cling to Christ for more than pardon, but also for power to obey. And may God get all the glory!