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Sanctification – A Calvinist Viewpoint

The doctrine of sanctification has been a bone of contention in the church through the ages. Among areas of controversy are the interdependence of sanctification and justification; the relation of faith and love; the interplay of grace and works; the role of the Christian life in our salvation; the tension between personal holiness and the righteousness of Christ; and the question of rewards.

Different understandings. The Roman Catholic view, developed by the mystics and the scholastic theologians, and formally articulated by the Council of Trent, tends to subordinate justification to sanctification. We are justified to the degree that we are sanctified. Justifying grace enables us to cooperate with the Spirit in living a sanctified life—a process often called deification or divinization. Faith by itself is deemed insufficient to justify us: faith must be formed or fulfilled by love. In Catholic mysticism, metaphors of the ladder and mountain were often used to illustrate the ascent of the believer to divinity, an ascent involving purgation and illumination and finally culminating in mystical union and finally culminating in mystical union and ecstasy.

Luther’s emphasis was on the justification of the ungodly. God comes to us while we are yet in our sins and pronounces us just on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. The mystical union with Christ, already realized in faith, enables us to do works that glorify God. Faith in itself is passive, but it becomes active in obedience as the Spirit works within us. We are justified by grace alone through faith, and good works flow spontaneously and inevitably out of the commitment of faith.

Luther was emphatic that out justification and sanctification are based on the alien righteousness of Christ, which covers out sinfulness and makes us acceptable before God. He made a firm distinction between the righteousness of faith, which justifies us, and the righteousness of life, which attests out sanctification. The latter is a consequence and fruit of the former, but it is always incomplete, for the old nature is never entirely extirpated. Christians are righteous and sinners at the same time—righteous because our sin is covered by the perfect righteousness of Christ and sinful because in and of ourselves we are still prone to follow the cravings of the flesh.

Whenever Luther employed the ladder imagery of Christian mysticism, it expressed the descent of Christ to sinful humanity, not the ascent of the Christian to divinity. Instead of the Augustinian synthesis of caritas (Lat.) in which grace makes possible the human ascent, Luther revived the NT motif of agap̄e (Gr.) in which God’s love descends to the world of sin in order to serve and heal. Christians become instruments of divine love sent into the world to ve servants of all. On the basis of faith we become sons and daughters of God, but through the power of love we become virtual gods, since we are now the hands by which God shapes a new world.

Luther also made use of the metaphor of the ship—representing baptism. If we but stay aboard, we will finally arrive at our destination—glorification with Christ in heaven. If we fall away from faith, we need simply to return to our baptism rather than seek a new means of grace such as penance or confirmation.

Calvin, like Luther, regarded justification as primarily a forensic act by which the holy and merciful God cancels our depths on the basis of the merits of Christ. He too viewed justification as the ground of our salvation, but Calvin tried to hold justification and sanctification in balance. Whereas justification is an event, sanctification is a gradual process. Justification is a change of status, sanctification a change in being. In justification we are covered by the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification (or regeneration) we are engrafted into this righteousness. The basis of sanctification is justification; the goal of justification i our sanctification and glorification.

Whereas Luther portrayed the life of the Christian as moving forward but often slipping backward, Calvin’s emphasis was on moving upward to Christian perfection through divine grace. Yet this is a broken ascent, because the old nature though dying continues to reassert itself. Paradoxically, it is also an ascent that is realized through a descent to the needs of an ailing and lost humanity.

For Calvin, justification and sanctification are complementary, not parallel, terms. This is why he spoke of a twofold blessing. We are never justified apart from the blessing of regeneration. We are never recipients of faith without being motivated to practice love.

Yet even the works of the regenerate, Calvin insisted, are nondeserving of God’s grace, accompanied as they always are by motives less than pure; at the same time, these works are not valueless. God crowns our works with God’s grace and even rewards them. They are good because they are used by God to advance God’s kingdom and give glory to Christ.

The message of the Protestant Reformation was revived by Barth in the twentieth century but given a new thrust. For Barth, justification and sanctification are not successive acts of God but two moments in the one act of reconciliation in Christ. Our salvation was fully realized in its totality once and for all times, and for all humanity, in the sacrificial life and atoning death of Jesus Christ. In him we are justified, sanctified, and redeemed. Barth can even say that our conversion takes place in Christ, since through Christ’s death and resurrection the whole world was converted to him. Yet Barth also acknowledges the need for the subjective response to God’s act of mercy and redemption; otherwise God’s redeeming work would have no practical efficacy in our lives. Barth affirms that we are justified by faith and sanctified by love.

Barth accepts Luther’s understanding that the Christian is both righteous and a sinner but insists that sin is now behind us whereas righteousness is before us. In Christ we cannot sin, for we are now rooted in perfect holiness. But the ontological impossibility of falling away from Christ happens again and again, and this is why the life of the Christian is a continuous returning to the fount and anchor of our faith—the cross of Calvary.

As Christians, Barth insists, we can do works that are pleasing to God—not meritorious, since they are performed by sinners, yet nevertheless pleasing to God because they are made possible by God’s grace and declare God’s righteousness and mercy. Good works are works in which our sin is recognized and confessed. Human righteousness is not divine righteousness but will in some way correspond to it.

The paradox of sanctification. Reformed theology holds that our sanctification is a secret work of the Spirit within us, yet it never occurs apart from human effort. The paradox of human striving and irresistible grace is certainly evident in Paul (cf. 1 Cor. 15:10; Phil. 2:12–13). The Christian life is both a crown to be won and a gift to be received. We are summoned to run the race and attain the prize but give all the glory to God, since it is God who makes us run and ensures that the prize will be ours.

The role of the Christian is not to procure or earn salvation but to witness to a salvation already accomplished and enacted in Jesus Christ. We are called to work out the implications of our salvation through a life of loving service. The Christian life is a consequence of salvation (Luther), a sign and witness of our salvation (Barth), and also the arena in which the work of salvation is carried forward (Calvin). We are not coredeemers but co–workers in making God’s salvation known. We contribute not to the achievement of salvation but to its manifestation and demonstration. We also contribute to its extension (Calvin), since our works may well be used by the Spirit of God to bring outsiders into the kingdom. We do not build the kingdom, but we can be instrumental in its advance.

Errors to be avoided. Among the errors that Reformed theologians have warned against are the following: confounding justification with sanctification, for then forgiveness is not entirely gratuitous; viewing justification as wholly extrinsic, thereby denying or underplaying its mystical dimension; equating sanctification with works of purification, and so opening the door to legalism and moralism; reducing sanctification to special experiences, such as the second blessing—the error of experientialism and subjectivism; exaggerating the benefits of sanctification, which leads to perfectionism; minimizing the reality of sanctification, which fosters defeatism; and separating law and gospel, which denies the law as a guide for the Christian life.

Reformed theology, as set forth by Calvin and Barth, contends for the unity of the law and gospel, seeing one covenant in the Bible—a covenant of grace with two dimensions. The so–called covenant of works represents a misunderstanding, especially prominent in rabbinic Judaism. We are freed by grace for obedience to the law. But this is now the law seen in the light of grace—no longer a burden but a privilege, for, paradoxically, in our obedience we realize true freedom. In Reformed theology the second face of the gospel is the law and the second face of the law is the gospel. The law leads us to the gospel, and the gospel directs us back to the law—yet no longer as a legalistic code but now as the law of spirit and life, the law that equips us for service to God’s glory.

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D. G. Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology, 2 vols. (1978).

Gr. Greek

Donald K. McKim and David F. Wright, Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, 1st ed. (Louisville, Ky.; Edinburgh: Westminster/John Knox Press; Saint Andrew Press, 1992), 336.

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3 Responses

  1. Dane says:

    This confuses me. If grace is irresistible at salvation and the will is yielding freely, what then changes in the process of sanctification? Is God’s grace then resistible? I know many believers who struggle in their sin, yet I also know believers who are victorious over their sin. If you have two believers who get caught up in pornography, and one believer gets victory, and the other one does not, who is to blame; God? If you blame the believer (hold them responsible) then God’s grace has to be available. If God’s grace is available then the one who is still addicted to porn is resisting God’s grace. This then leaves room for the victorious believer to have bragging rights – for his willingness got him his victory. If it is all of God, then, is it God’s will for the one to struggle with porn?

    I’m confused.

    • Kevin Hess says:

      Hey Dane, your confusion is your question. It isn’t in the context of the letter. You need a better understanding of Grace. Sin is often a teacher as was the Law. God is shaping and molding you into a “person” like Christ. Above your sin you have to be more mindful of how much God loves you, still. Victory over vice is on Gods time, just do your best. It’s more how we handle our problems then not having any. God wants to bless you right where your at. Walk in that assurance, or not

  2. Kevin Hess says:

    oh but catholics don’t see sanctification subordinate to justification. Justification is active (past present future) sanctification is the feet, per say. No feet, you wait in purgatory :)(joke).

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