Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Gospel, Sanctification, and faith...

I want to use a partial comment of mine from a thread at another blog to highlight a concern.  Addressing another commenter, I wrote:

"You ended your comments with, “To be quite honest, I’m happy and relieved that His Spirit is working within me to put sin to death. Though I’m acquitted through my justification and accepted as a son through my adoption, I’d still like the Lord to continue to work in my life.  I consider all of it the good news of the gospel.”  In these words you seem to be saying, in effect, that ‘my loving my neighbor’ (His Spirit working within me) is part of the gospel. Are you including our good works, i.e. progressive sanctification, as part of the gospel?"

In short my question is, does the gospel include - not only the objective finished work of Jesus Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension - but also the subjective work of sanctification, i.e. my good works and the work of the Spirit in mortifying sin?  The answer should be no.  It seems that the gospel is understood by some to be less and less about the proclamation of the unique work of complete salvation won for sinners by Jesus alone and more and more about God's work in us and how we live. Once the gospel begins to include the subjective work of God within believers as shown by good works, it is a short distance to advocating that one can "live the gospel!"... "One's Spirit-wrought works of love are Jesus' gospel to others!"  The gospel then becomes, at least in part, dependent on the evidence and display of a one's holy and loving acts, which in every saint will always be lacking and always less than perfect, given that he is simultaneously a sinner.

This broad understanding of the gospel is a potential recipe for weakening faith and increasing works-righteousness as one seeks to measure up in thought, word, and deed to "the good news" he is supposed to be exhibiting.  It inserts progressive sanctification into the “gospel proper” by considering everything in the Word (promises, laws, threats, admonitions, works) as the good news of the gospel. Certainly we agree it is “good news” that the Spirit is working in us, conforming us to Christ as God predestined.  But that is not part of the good news that the New Testament writers proclaimed.

The way I understand it is that the subjective (yet real) part of God’s work in the believer is distinct from the free promise of God which was kept and accomplished entirely by Jesus Christ through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension and as proclaimed in the gospel. And yet that subjective work in us is indeed connected to it as a sure and holy effect.  That accomplishment of God’s free promise in Christ is the glad tidings – the gospel – and it is that to which a believer's faith looks and finds salvation (Rom. 1:16). The term “gospel”, too often, is simply used in too loose a fashion.  By including everything of God’s Word in it, that glorious gospel word loses meaning and focus, thereby confusing faith as to where to look for nourishment and strength.

From Calvin’s Inst. 3:2.29 -
Free promise we make the foundation of faith, because in it faith properly consists. For though it holds that God is always true, whether in ordering or forbidding, promising or threatening; though it obediently receive his commands, observe his prohibitions, and give heed to his threatening; yet it properly begins with promise, continues with it, and ends with it. It seeks life in God, life which is not found in commands or the denunciations of punishment, but in the promise of mercy. And this promise must be gratuitous; for a conditional promise, which throws us back upon our works, promises life only in so far as we find it existing in ourselves. Therefore, if we would not have faith to waver and tremble, we must support it with the promise of salvation, which is offered by the Lord spontaneously and freely, from a regard to our misery rather than our worth. Hence the Apostle bears this testimony to the Gospel, that it is the word of faith, (Rom. 10: 8.) This he concedes not either to the precepts or the promises of the Law, since there is nothing which can establish our faith, but that free embassy by which God reconciles the world to himself.


  1. Excellent article, Jack. Unfortunately, the confusion of the Gospel with sanctification and the broader view is all too common these days. I have linked to The Nouthetics Studies blog but I was disappointed to see that broader view being taught there. See: Confusion of Sanctification with Justification

  2. Thanks, Charlie. Nice to have you chime in...