Monday, June 9, 2014

Justification, Sanctification - and all that... Further Considerations

This post is late to the party, as they say, but I wanted to share some thoughts on a passage of Scripture that was in the spotlight a while back. This is offered as part of the conversation not from a pastor/theologian but a ploughboy theologian, and hopefully it will add a worthwhile wrinkle...

Rick Phillips recently "critiqued" Tullian Tchividjian's post, Unburdened, as did several others. Go read both. I don't intend to get into what I think is behind all the criticism that has recently been directed Tullian's way. But I do think part of that criticism has to do with an ongoing debate about the role of law and gospel in the sanctification of the justified sinner.

What I want to do in this post is simply look at one segment of Phillip's essay and then offer some thoughts. In his critique, Phillips takes Tullian to task for not reading 1 John 5 in context. If I'm understanding him, he is saying that John is writing about sanctification to the exclusion of justification, about our obedience not Christ's, and that the faith of which John speaks of is a faith pointing to the experiential change within believers.
To wit, Tullian explains: "Though the commandments are indeed burdensome, that burden has been laid on the shoulders of another. Jesus Christ, who demands that we be perfect, achieves perfection in our place... God's commandments are not burdensome because we do not carry them."
Let me note that what Tullian says here is absolutely and wonderfully true. But it is true of something that John is not writing about. And when applied as the explanation for what John actually is writing about in this verse, it is absolutely and horribly false. John is writing about sanctification, in which believers gain assurance of salvation through our practical obedience to God's commands.
Horribly false? Justification has no bearing on or connection to this passage? The passage is soley about sanctification and the assurance believers derive from their obedience? Whereas Tullian is emphasizing the burden of obedience to the commandments that one at times inwardly experiences as a sinner, albeit a regenerate sinner, Phillips seems to be emphasizing the other side of the coin:
So why does John then state that the commandments are not burdensome? The answer is given in verse 4: "For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world -- our faith."
John is referring to the mighty work of God's grace in our regeneration, which has changed everything for us experientially.
I read Phillips as saying that "our faith" which overcomes the world is a faith that primarily results in an inward change that experientially changes everything! Does he mean, that the inward change is such that as a believer I never feel a burden or struggle to obey the law? It's always helps to look at concrete examples when talking about our obedience.

When someone unexpectedly points out one of your faults with an air of condemnation is your first inclination to effortlessly turn the other cheek and gratefully receive the criticism? Or, if you're like me, is your first impulse to defend and justify yourself even though you know that's the wrong direction to take? And if you do give a response that is in keeping with God's law, isn't it more than likely that - feeling unjustly attacked - you grit your teeth while ignoring your negative inward feelings, force a smile and feebly reply, "Thank you for your feedback. I'll prayerfully consider your words?" Often being a hypocrite to how we strongly (and wrongly) feel and then choosing to be true to our purpose of godly living is painfully hard. One would hardly describe that as the unburdened response of obedience. Do you feel that you have kept God's commandments as he intended? More than likely you feel a sense of shame at your defensiveness and inability to inwardly obey even though you did so outwardly. I'm not sure how much assurance I would be taking from my obedience in this example. Anyone who is married knows exactly what I'm talking about. In fact, it's in those closed door back and forth collisions with another fallen human being that the fly on the wall witnessses the extent of our burdenless keeping of God's commandments.

Moving on... Phillips stops his interpretation at 1 John 5: 4. But why stop there? Doesn't verse 5 play into the context?
4 For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world-our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
What is the context that John may have had in mind for the phrase "overcomes the world?" One place to look can be found in his gospel, John 16: 31-33, culminating with these verses:
Jesus answered them, Do ye now believe? Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me. These things have I spoken unto you, that in me ye may have peace. In the world ye have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.
John knew that when the world's push came to shove, he and all of the disciples did not bear the burden of Christ's commandments. They scattered and left Jesus alone. Jesus knowing this was to be the case pointed them to himself as the One who would comfort them in their failed obedience. To bear Christ's commandments is an obedience that chooses to die to self. And self doesn't naturally will itself to die. The world at that moment appeared to have overcome the disciples! It's the world that brings tribulation to any who would determine to walk in Christ's commandments.

Also in 1 John 2:12-14 -
I write unto you, my little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name's sake.
I write unto you, fathers, because ye know him who is from the beginning. I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the evil one. I have written unto you, little children, because ye know the Father. I have written unto you, fathers, because ye know him who is from the beginning. I have written unto you, young men, because ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in you, and ye have overcome the evil one.
and 1 John 4:4 -
Ye are of God, my little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world.
What is the faith that overcomes the world of which John speaks in 1 John 5: 4? Is it a faith that changes us inwardly creating the ability to keep or bear the commandments? Well, that is part of it. But do not temptation and sin still raise their ugly heads within us when difficult situations arise, at times drawing us away from the required denial of self to the temptation or outright denial of Christ's commands? Might this faith which John mentions refer not only to our regeneration and new nature in Christ but also a faith that looks to Christ who, through his death and resurrection, is the One that has overcome the world for us?

The faith that looks solely to Christ and his finished work is the faith that receives forgiveness and cleansing of conscience for weak, imperfect obedience, even when we scatter and "leave Christ alone." And let's be honest, our obedience isn't what it ought to be. According to WCF our obedience is weak, still stained with the remnant of sin, and far short of true obedience to God's law:
WCF 13.2. This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.
WCF 16.4. They who, in their obedience, attain to the greatest height which is possible in this life, are so far from being able to supererogate, and to do more than God requires, as that they fall short of much which in duty they are bound to do.
5. We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from his Spirit; and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God's judgment.
6. Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God's sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.
John is pointing out that the one who overcomes the world is the one who believes in the Son of God and the work of salvation that he accomplished for his own. But aren't our works/obedience also that which overcomes the world in this life? Well, I'll give a qualified, yes! What then are the works that overcome the world unto eternal life? Doing the works of God.  Again, John's gospel adds some context:
Work not for the food which perisheth, but for the food which abideth unto eternal life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him the Father, even God, hath sealed. They said therefore unto him, What must we do, that we may work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent. (John 6:27-29)
Finally, what John writes in 1 John 4 has to be taken into consideration when unpacking chapter 5 verses 2-5 and the relative burden of commandments:
Herein was the love of God manifested in us, that God hath sent his only begotten Son into the world that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man hath beheld God at any time: if we love one another, God abideth in us, and his love is perfected in us... We love, because he first loved us. (1 John 4:9-12, 19)
"He first loved us" is inseparable from "we love," the keeping of his commandments. It is the good news of God's love, that he sent his Son to be a propitiation for the sins of his elect that changes everything! Believing that gospel, especially since my obedience is continually imperfect and wanting, is the faith that is overcomes. It is this faith that is active in doing the works of God. And it is that gospel, that he first loved us, which supplies grace and power unto sanctification, even salvation (Rom. 1:16). Not just for the future, but it is this gospel of forgiveness and righteousness through faith in Christ alone which now transforms the burdens of the law into a thankful direction of obedience.

Rather than blurring the line between law and gospel and insisting on a sharp separation between Justification and Sanctification, might it be that John is writing just the opposite. We love (obedience to law), because Christ loved us (gospel). Both very distinct yet closely related. We obey (law-keeping), because Christ obeyed for us (law-keeping for us). The law points the way of our obligation which is our reasonable duty, yet as sinners we can never fully accomplish. The gospel announces Christ's satisfactory fulfillment of that obligation for us. The burden of that obligation of the law is lifted because Christ lifted it by bearing it for us. Apart from Christ's bearing the death penalty for our law-breaking (demanded by the law) and keeping the law perfectly for us (required for eternal life) - all of our "sincere obedience" would indeed be unacceptable.

It is the grace of God proclaimed and supplied in the gospel which comforts our conscience, assures us that our obedience/works of the moral law done in faith are sanctified and pleasing to our Father, as well as aids us in our obedience as we battle against the sin which still clings to us. As John Calvin wrote,
In short, I affirm, that not by our own merit but by faith alone, are both our persons and works justified; and that the justification [sanctification] of works depends on the justification [forensic] of the person, as the effect on the cause. (Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote)


  1. Thanks, Jack, particularly for referencing the other texts in the context with the word "overcome" (2:14, 4:4) showing the emphasis to be faith in Christ, and not faith in faith, not even in faith caused and enabled by God's regeneration. My own opinion is that we will never stop finding assurance in our WORKS of faith until we also stop finding assurance in our FAITH. Works of faith are not our righteousness. But neither is faith our righteousness.

    Galatians 3:5-8, which quotes Genesis 15:6, tells us that Abraham believed God and “IT” was imputed to him as righteousness. Many read this text as saying that faith alone is imputed as the righteousness. Luther, for example, reminds us that to have faith is to have Christ indwelling, and tells us that God really is pleased with the faith God has given us, and this faith is really righteous in God’s sight. But Luther does not explain how this righteous faith (produced by God in the water of regeneration) satisfies the law of God . It is NOT our faith (or works) which satisfies God's law.

    To begin to understand Genesis 15:6, we need to know that “as righteousness” should be translated “unto righteousness”. (See Robert Haldane’s commentary, Banner of Truth). That’s important to see, but at the end of the day, it does not explain the imputation. What is the “it” which is being imputed?

    No matter if we have gone to great lengths to say that the “IT” is not credited as righteousness but only unto righteousness, what is the “IT”“ and why is God imputing “IT

    Those who now define justification simply by talking about "union" with the resurrected Jesus feel not need to talk about a legal transfer of a righteousness that Christ brought in for the elect by His death.

    The “It” has an antecedent, but the antecedent is not faith alone. God imputes the righteousness revealed in the gospel to the person justified by the gospel. I

    Galatians 3:5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and IT was counted to him as righteousness”? 7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify[c] the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith

    In Genesis 17, God warned Abraham that anybody not circumcised would be cut off from the covenant. But that conditional "work of faith" is NOT the gospel God preached to Abraham. God did not say to Abraham: if you believe, then I will bless you. God said, I will bless you without cause, not only so that you will believe but also so that in your SEED there will be one who will bring in the righteousness for the elect alone required by the law.

    The “IT” which is imputed by God to Abraham is the obedient bloody death of Christ Jesus for the elect alone.. The death of Christ is the righteousness of Christ and this is the “IT.

  2. Jack, being the polemicist that I am, I would say that you concede too much to the advocates of the practical syllogism (look at what the Spirit is doing in me). You qualify where I think there is no need to qualify. Directing our faith to Christ and not to our regeneration is not simply "the other side of the coin". Those who are trusting what grace has done in them are NOT trusting in what Christ got done outside them.

    Being the irenic kind of guy you are (no matter what your wife says), you politely ask: "Does he mean, that the inward change is such that as a believer I never feel a burden or struggle to obey the law?" I think the question of "struggle" is not the point, not the problem. The problem is that Rick and others who use their faith and obedience to prove to themselves that they believe are not looking to Christ's propitiation for the elect as making the difference between saved and lost. Struggle or no struggle, they are looking to what God has done in them. And this is not the "other side of the coin". And it's "not part of it". It's the opposite of faith in Christ's death as the satisfaction of God's wrath for all the sins of the elect. We need antithesis here, Jack. Not our faith. God's love in Christ. And God's love in Christ is "the propitiation for our sins".

    At the end of the day, I don't understand saying 1. not justified by works but 2. but oh by the way, our works also are justified

    Why is that necessary? Where does the Bible say that our works are justified?

    If we are holy and just in Christ, then our actions are acceptable before God, without any need of further "justification" of the actions.

    Romans 7:4 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we now bear FRUIT FOR GOD. 5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear FRUIT FOR DEATH.”

    Luke 16:15 That which is highly esteemed among humans is abomination in the sight of God.

    I am not impressed by a distinction between good works being necessary for salvation and good works being the necessary evidence of salvation. It does not at the end of the day seem all that practical to me. I think we would do better to focus on a distinction between “dead works” (works done with unacceptable motives, like gaining assurance) and “fruit unto God” (works that are pleasing to God without being “necessary to gain assurance")

    Our justification is not by our works, not even by our works AFTER faith and justification. If we are already justified, then it’s too late for us to be justified by works. So what's the point of the "justification of our works"?

    If we think we will lose out justification if we don’t work, then we do not yet understand what God’s justification is. If we think that our works will give us the evidence that we are still justified, then we have not yet understood and believed the gospel, which is the good news of Christ’s work and not about our works.

    Even after we are justified saints, we are not yet glorified, not yet raised from the first death and given immortality. But neither is the rest of salvation conditioned on our works or the justification of our works. Our future resurrection from death is not about God enabling us to do what is required, but about God doing for us what we cannot do and never will do.

  3. It's not so much about "separating" (making a distinction) between our loving and our believing, so that faith is instrument but love is not, or so that works of faith are not instrumental. Ultimately, it's about "separating" (making a distinction between our love and God'd love in Christ's propitiation.

    Yes, there is a distinction between being justified and being holy (sanctified). But that distinction is not that we believe to be justified and that we work to be holy. if we are not holy (sanctified) by Christ's blood (death), then we are not sanctified at all yet. We are either saints or we are not.

    The line between law and gospel stays clear if we can make sure to say that the gospel is about Christ's satisfaction of the law. On the other hand, if we turn the gospel into something about our loving and obeying and believing, then we will never see that the gospel is about the satisfaction of God's law, because what we do because of faith in no way ever satisfies the law. Since we died in Christ to the law, our obeying the law does not factor into our justification and sanctification, not even when our obeying comes after our justification and sanctification.

    With its emphasis on “knowledge” and “calling”, 2 Peter One reverses legalism by commanding us to examine our works by making our calling and election sure. Those who know Christ are given commandments They are not commanded to become fruitful in order to find out if they know Christ (or are known by Christ).

    But many assume an assurance of calling based on our works. To do that,they attempt to isolate one verse and ignore the context of II Peter 1, which begins in the very first verse with the idea that faith is given because of Christ’s righteousness. They makes their “works of faith” the assurance. In effect, their assurance of Christ’s atonement is only as good as their confidence in their own works. Their “faith” turns out to be assurance in works, not assurance in Christ’s atonement.

    By what gospel were we called? Was it the gospel of “characteristic obedience” or was it the gospel of “Christ paid it all for the elect”? Legalists are trying to follow Christ as Lord without first submitting to salvation only by God’s perfect and complete and sufficient righteousness.

    We do not work to get assurance. We must have assurance before our works are acceptable to God. But many most professing Christians (including those who call themselves Reformed) think of faith as the “condition” that saves them. Yes, they disagree (somewhat) about the source of faith, but at the end of the way they are way more concerned about the condition faith leaves you in(the results in your life) than they are in the object of faith.

    The true gospel explains that the justification of the ungodly does not happen apart from the imputation of Christ’s death and that faith is created by the Holy Spirit causing us to hear the gospel. The true gospel tells us that it is the righteousness ALONE (Christ’s death bearing sins, apart from any works of faith created in us ) which satisfies the requirement of God’s law. (Romans 8:4)

    The moralist does not test her works by the gospel doctrine of righteousness. Walter Marshall teaches us, as Hebrews 9:14 and Romans 7:4-6 teach us, that a person not yet submitted to the righteousness revealed in the gospel is still an evil worker, bringing forth fruit unto death.

  4. Hebrews 6:1– “Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God”

    Hebrews 9:14–”How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”

    The problem with using works “done after you are in the family” to get assurance is that works done without assurance are not pleasing to God. But the light of the gospel exposes our “good works” as “dead works”. And “dead works” are sins.

    John 3:19– “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God..

    Why does Rick want us to think about our works, and not about our sins?

    good works are not sins

    evil works are sins

    dead works are "anything done by a person who is not justified before God"

    if good works are necessary, how many good works are necessary? for what reason?

    and if we can't say how many good works are needed, what's the point of saying "necessary"?

  5. Mark, I think you may be over-thinking Calvin's phrase "justification of works." On what basis are the works of believers accepted? On what basis does he bless and use your posts and teachings? They come from defied hands, inasmuch as they proceed from us. Yet he looks upon those works 'in Christ.' It is on the basis of Christ's finished work that God puts his blessing on the ungodly and their works in Christ. We pray that God bless our works. On what basis should or would he do that? On the basis that our works are deemed acceptable by the blood of Christ, even as our persons. It's not a second justification, but rather one complete justification of his elect in Christ.

  6. I certainly agree that our works (and "sacrifices")are acceptable to God because our persons are accepted. Good tree. Good fruit. I also agree that there's not a second justification, but that's why I am not loyal to Calvin's language about the justification of works.

    This is not only because of how that language is being used by those who teach process justification, or two stage justification. I just don't see that kind of language in the Bible, even though it is there in Calvin. Also inherent in the notion seems to be some idea of extra "rewards" for extra works, but I do not think that any Christian gets any more blessing because of greater effort or opportunity. Certainly our lives and our works are not identical, but all that we have we receive in Christ alone.

    Hebrews 13:15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

    Ephesians 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before him.

    1. I think we're in agreement, then. I agree the uses of the term 'justification' in relation to works is confusing nor a Biblical phrase. Yet, the concept is Biblical.

      Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart Be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer. Ps. 19:4

  7. "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light." ~ Jesus ~

  8. Dear Jack,

    This is so under-reported and SO helpful: