Tag Archives: sanctification

Passivity

Bad theology has bad consequences for living.  One particular area that some Reformed people struggle with is regeneration.   Some Reformed believers, especially in the Canadian Reformed and Free Reformed Churches of Australia, have been led to think of regeneration (or being born again) in only one way.  They have been led to believe that you need to be born again every day.  Regeneration is something that takes place over and over again in the life of a Christian.  Rather than an event that takes place once, they view it as an ongoing daily process.

I have addressed this confusion in an earlier blog post.  I pointed out that the confusion mostly arises from overlapping language in our confessions.  Nevertheless, Scripture and the Reformed confessions are clear that there is an initial regeneration of the Holy Spirit.  This is what Jesus was describing to Nicodemus in John 3.  This is what Peter was writing about in 1 Peter 1:  “since you have been born again…”  This is what the Canons of Dort are speaking about in chapter III/IV.  In these places, regeneration (being born again) is a one-time event where the Holy Spirit miraculously takes a heart of stone and turns it into a heart of flesh.

The problem comes when that initial regeneration is confused with sanctification.  Lord’s Day 33 speaks about the “true repentance or conversion of man” and describes it in terms of “the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new.”  That is about sanctification, the process whereby a Christian grows in holiness.  You can see that it’s a process from the words:  dying and coming to life.  The important point is that Lord’s Day 33 is speaking about something distinct from John 3:3, 1 Peter 1:23, and Canons of Dort III/IV.

If these things are not kept distinct, one runs into serious theological fog on human responsibility and activity.  Let me explain.  When it comes to regeneration, there is a Subject and an object.  There is One who acts and one who is acted upon.  There is One who is active and one who is passive.  The Holy Spirit is the One responsible for bringing a dead sinner to spiritual life.  The dead sinner does exactly nothing.  He or she is completely passive in regeneration.  You don’t cause your new spiritual birth anymore than you caused your physical birth.  You were born, you didn’t birth yourself.  Similarly, in regeneration, the Holy Spirit does it all and we do nothing.  As dead sinners, that is all we can do.

Regeneration always has an effect upon the object.  The dead sinner comes to life.  The unbeliever becomes a believer.  He or she takes hold of Jesus Christ through faith, also worked in the heart by the Holy Spirit.  Having taken hold of Christ by faith, there is justification.  A believer is declared righteous by God.  The person so declared no longer relates to God as their Judge, but as their Father.  They are in his family as beloved children and nothing and no one can change that.  Your justification and adoption are not renewed every day in some type of process.  If God has once declared you righteous and his child, then you are forever righteous and his child.  Through Christ, we are secure.

This is the context where we consider the process of sanctification.  If we look at it in terms of Lord’s Day 32, it’s clear that sanctification is first of all Christ’s work in us.  He renews us by his Holy Spirit.  However, even there, we are involved.  We are the ones who “show ourselves thankful to God for his benefits.”  This becomes clearer in Lord’s Day 33.  The dying of the old nature is something that we do:  “It is to grieve with heartfelt sorrow” — who does the grieving?  “…And more and more to hate it and flee from it” — who does the hating and fleeing?  Obviously, this is referring to the activity of a Christian.  The coming to life of the new nature is also something that we do:  “It is a heartfelt joy in Christ” — who has this joy?  “…And a love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works” — who does the loving, delighting, and living?  This is speaking about how a Christian is active in their sanctification.  There’s zero passivity here.

Are you beginning to see the problem if we merge together initial regeneration and sanctification?  In the first, human beings are completely passive.  In the second, human beings are involved and active on a daily basis.  God is still at work, but we work with him, in his power and by his grace.  When these things get muddled what happens more often than not is that people believe themselves to be passive in terms of their sanctification.  This leads to fatalism.  People say to themselves, “When God wants to change me, he’ll do it.  I have to wait for him to do it.  My holiness is not up to me.  I’ll just sit back and wait for him to do his thing.”  This is the type of thinking that people can fall into when they hear that being born again is something that has to happen every day.  If being born again is the same thing as what’s described in Lord’s Day 33, and if being born again is something that is done to you apart from your involvement, then your sanctification must necessarily be something in which you are completely passive.  That is really bad theological reasoning!  It gives people excuses to continue in sinful habits and patterns of life.

We need to be clear about this, because it does have an impact on how we live.  Theology has consequences.  This is the reality:  if you have taken hold of Jesus Christ by true faith, you can be sure that you have been born again (to use the words of 1 Peter 1:23).  Having been born again, the Holy Spirit lives in you and he empowers you each day to pursue holiness.  Since the Holy Spirit has given you a heart of flesh, your will, which was dead, has been made alive.  Moved and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, your will is “able to produce the fruit of good works” (Canons III/IV, art. 11).  By God’s grace, we have gone from utter passivity to fervent activity.  True, it comes in fits and starts, it’s still stained with sin and plagued with inconsistency, but yet there is no denying that something has changed with a Christian.  In Christ, we are a new creation.  Thus, when it comes to our sanctification, we also must put to death all notions of passivity.


We Distinguish…(Part 4) — Law/Gospel

Law-Gospel2

In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

Despite being found in the Three Forms of Unity, today’s distinction has fallen on hard times. I have lost track of the number of times that I’ve heard Reformed ministers speak disparagingly of the distinction between law and gospel. I think I understand why it happens. Imagine if someone were to say, “Oh, covenant theology makes people into legalists. It’s good that we’ve broken free from the doctrine of the covenant. That doctrine has caused nothing but trouble – it just makes people self-righteous.” It’s true that the doctrine of the covenant has been abused by some and badly taught/misunderstood by others to such an extent that it became a legalistic undermining of the gospel. So do we throw out the doctrine of the covenant? We recognize that there’s a difference between the abuse/bad teaching of a doctrine and an orthodox biblical formulation of a doctrine. We don’t throw out a doctrine simply because it has been mishandled. Similarly, the distinction between law and gospel has sometimes been mishandled or misunderstood. Does that automatically mean we toss it aside? What if there were grave consequences in doing so?

At the outset the context in which this distinction functions has to be laid out. We distinguish between law and gospel in the realm of justification. Justification, if you recall, is God’s one-time declaration that we are right with him solely on account of the merits of Jesus Christ. How law and gospel relate to this doctrine is what we’re concerned with here. When it comes to sanctification (the process of growth in holiness), there is overlap and interplay between law and gospel, but when it comes to justification, they must be distinguished.

Let me illustrate how the law/gospel distinction appears in the Heidelberg Catechism. I could mention the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort as well, but in the interests of brevity, we’ll just stick with the Catechism. In Lord’s Day 2, we confess that the law of God reveals our sin and misery. The law evidently has the character of demand: God orders you to do this or else. Through its demands, the law drives us to Christ. From where do we learn about the Saviour? Lord’s Day 6 tells us the biblical answer: from the gospel. Everything promised us in the gospel is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed, says Lord’s Day 7. There we discover the character of the gospel: it promises us glad tidings and rich blessings. So between Lord’s Day 2 and Lord’s Days 6 and 7, we learn the different characteristics of law and gospel. The law is God’s demand and the gospel is God’s promise for our salvation. Should there be any doubt that this is the intention and meaning of the Catechism, I would refer readers to Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (page 2), and Olevianus’ A Firm Foundation (pages 9-10).

As mentioned at the beginning, this distinction functions within the context of justification. Sinners are facing the judge. They are accused of failing to meet God’s demands – breaking his law. In the context of justification, the law points out not merely empty hands, but treasonous hands. In the words of the Catechism in Lord’s Day 23, the sinner has “grievously sinned against all of God’s commandments, has never kept any of them, and is still inclined to all evil.” That’s what the law announces in the context of justification: you are guilty and you have nothing with which to save yourself from the Judge.

The gospel throws endangered sinners a lifeline. There is a way to leave the courtroom without the Judge as your enemy – in fact, you can leave the courtroom with the Judge as your Father. That way is through what the gospel promises in Jesus Christ. The gospel holds out to you reconciliation with the Holy Judge, if only you will take hold of Jesus Christ by faith and trust that he has lived a perfect life for you and has offered the perfect sacrifice in your place. The gospel promises peace and fellowship with God. You don’t need to work for it, all you need to do is turn from your sins, look to Christ, and accept the promise. That’s what the gospel announces in the context of justification: in Christ you have everything you need to be declared right with God.

By now perhaps you can sense the danger in fudging with this distinction. The law/gospel distinction in justification insists that in ourselves we bring nothing to our salvation except the sin which makes it necessary. On the flip side, it insists that in Christ we have everything we need for our salvation. How could any Bible-believing Christian deny this? Isn’t this exactly the point Paul was making in Galatians 3:11, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Faith in the gospel promises is God’s instrument for justification. The law, on the other hand, says, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law and do them” (Gal. 3:10). If you rely on the law and your obedience to it for your justification, then you are self-deceived and damned. Paul works with a distinction between law and gospel – so our Catechism didn’t invent this distinction, it was drawn from Scripture.

Allow me to add two important clarifications.

First, no one should understand the law/gospel distinction as pitting the Old Testament against the New Testament. The law is found in both in Old and New Testament, and so is the gospel. Law demands and gospel promises are together found throughout the 66 books of the Bible.

Second, the law/gospel distinction, properly understood, does not lead Reformed believers to antinomianism – having a negative attitude towards the law of God. Remember, the law has three uses. The first use pertains to justification – pointing out our sin and misery. The second use is for civil society. The third use of the law is as our rule of thankfulness. Maintaining a law/gospel distinction in justification does not mean that we throw out the law for our sanctification. No! Quite the opposite. As thankful believers united to Christ, we embrace the law as our friend and we sing with the Psalmist in Psalm 119 of how we love God’s law and strive to follow it.

The law/gospel distinction is crucially important because it appears at the roots of our salvation. If the roots are not healthy, then the tree is not going to be healthy either, and any possibility of real fruit may also come into question. We have to strive for precision, especially in foundational doctrines like justification. No, we are not saved by doctrinal precision. Someone could be confused on this, unable to express it properly, and still be saved. Nevertheless, the danger of trusting in yourself and what you do instead of Christ is far greater if you do not understand this distinction. We must always have it clear in minds the very last words Martin Luther supposedly uttered: “We are beggars. This is true.” The law/gospel distinction reinforces this biblical truth.


We Distinguish…(Part 3) — Justification/Sanctification

romans-8-1

In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

Reformed theology distinguishes between justification and sanctification. We hold this distinction in common with Lutheranism. Both Lutheran and Reformed theologians in the 1500s recovered the essential biblical teaching on this point. Both Lutheran and Reformed churches had seen the grave damage caused by some of the medieval confusion of these doctrines.

To be clear, when we say that justification and sanctification are to be distinguished from one another, we don’t mean that they are opposed to one another. They are different, but certainly not opposites. Moreover, there is an intimate relationship between these two doctrines. While they must be distinguished, they can never be separated.

Defining the Terms

We need to be absolutely clear on what justification and sanctification mean. Whenever I use these words in a sermon, I always explain them. We cannot expect that everyone hears these terms and right away understands what they mean.

In its most basic form, justification is God as Judge declaring that we are right with him because of what Jesus Christ has done for us in his life and death. We find this doctrine described in the early chapters of Romans, especially chapters 3 and 4. It’s revealed that justification involves a judicial declaration – the picture is of a Judge issuing a verdict. We are the accused. In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 23), we are charged with breaking all of God’s commandments, never having kept any of them, and still being inclined to all evil. However, if we take hold of Jesus Christ by faith, we have a powerful defense lawyer or Mediator for our case. He steps in and pleads on our behalf. He offers up his perfect life and his sacrifice on the cross in our place – these are imputed to us, credited to our accounts. These are more than sufficient to bring the Judge to his verdict: righteous! Note: not merely innocent, but something far better, positively righteous. Because of Christ, the Divine Judge regards us as those who have not only never sinned, but also as those who have been and are actively holy, and even as those who never will sin ever again. All the demands of the law have been met in Christ. As a consequence, the Judge comes down from the bench, takes off his robes, puts his arm on your shoulder and says, “Welcome to my family!” We go from the courtroom to the family room. Justification leads to adoption. God is no longer our Judge, but our Father and we have the privilege of relating to him in that special way.

One of the most important points to understand about this doctrine is that justification is not a process, but an event. Justification is not something that has to take place every day, but it is something that happens when a person first takes hold of Christ by faith (whenever that is). If the Judge has once declared that you are right with him because of Christ, then that verdict stands into eternity. It is not a verdict which needs to be issued every day again. If you have gone from the courtroom to the family room, your place in the family is always secure. The Triune God will no more be your Judge, instead he will always be your Father and you should relate to him as your Father. It was one of the fundamental errors of the Roman Catholic Church to describe justification as a process. They made it into a lifelong development. But the Reformation recovered the biblical teaching of passages like Romans 8:1, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” If you have been justified by faith in Christ, you are justified once and for all. To suggest otherwise is to overturn the Judge’s verdict. The Judge doesn’t appreciate that, and neither should the justified.

When it comes to sanctification, the Bible speaks of it in two ways. There is definitive sanctification – this means that God has definitely set us apart as holy. He has done this in our election, effectual calling, adoption, and so on. This is sanctification as an event that takes place at a certain point. We can see that usage in passages like Acts 20:32 and 1 Corinthians 6:11. However, our focus here is on the more common usage of the word “sanctification” and that’s in reference to progressive sanctification. This is sanctification as the process of Christian growth. That’s how sanctification appears in passages like 1 Thess. 5:23. Sanctification is the process by which believers are being transformed into the image of Christ. This happens as the Holy Spirit works with believers through the Word of God, through the sacraments, and through prayer. This process is one which takes place each and every day that a believer spends on this earth. It only ends when the believer dies or when Christ returns.

One of the key things to understand about sanctification, as distinct from justification, is our role as believers. In sanctification, Christ is the primary subject or actor (see HC Lord’s Day 32). He works through his Spirit to renovate us. However, believers are also active in this process. Because we are regenerated our wills are alive and we are thus capable of cooperating with the Holy Spirit in our sanctification (see Canons of Dort 3/4, article 16).   In justification, we merely believe. In justification, faith is receptive of Christ and his benefits. In sanctification, however, faith is active in bearing the fruit of an increasingly holy life. Scripture calls those who have been born again to strive for holiness (e.g. 1 Peter 1:14-16) and we do that, knowing that as we do so, we are dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Relationship Between Justification and Sanctification

These two doctrines are closely connected. Those who have been justified freely by God’s grace will never be untouched as regards their sanctification. If someone has the true faith in Jesus Christ which is instrumental in justification, then sanctification will invariably follow as a fruit of that faith. Justification is about the roots of our salvation, sanctification is about the fruits of that salvation. They are part of the same package, but we do need to keep them separate because they do represent separate components in the package.

Why It Matters

When these two doctrines are not kept clear and distinct in our minds, the very heart of the gospel is threatened. It was a Reformed theologian (J.H. Alsted) who first said that justification is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. He was echoing what others, including Luther, had essentially said, but he was the first to use those exact words. Alsted was precisely right. The reason why he was right has to do with the place of good works in justification. Our good works have no place in justification! They have a central and necessary place in sanctification, but not in justification. It’s the righteousness of Christ alone that has brought about the once-for-all verdict of the Judge. If we confuse sanctification and justification, we are attempting to bring our good works into the court room. That would result in a devaluing of the work of our Mediator, a loss of the gospel of what he has done for us and in our place. Losing the gospel means losing Christ, and if you have lost Christ, you have lost union with Christ, and then not only is there no hope for justification, there is also no hope for sanctification. We therefore must get this right!

Above I mentioned another manner of confusion: arguing that, like sanctification, justification is a process. Some say that it is something that must happen every day. That gets perilously close to confusing justification and sanctification. Calling justification a daily process is dangerous because it threatens a healthy biblical sense of who God is and how we relate to him as Christians. As justified believers, we are still sinners – Scripture is clear on this (Gal. 5:17, Rom. 7:24). But as sinners, we now go to God as our Father for forgiveness, not to God as our Judge. The forgiveness that Christians seek daily for their sins is the forgiveness of the Father they’ve displeased with their evil. We need to remember that through Christ and his merits, we have been permanently adopted into God’s family. We are his children, he is our Father, and there is absolutely nothing that can change that. A Christian can confidently say, “I am his child today and, only because of Jesus, I will be his child tomorrow morning too.” So as we pray and as we worship, we can always call on the Triune God as our Father. This is a great privilege afforded to us by the justification we have received once and for all as a gift from our Mediator.

Justification and sanctification are two of the most important biblical doctrines. If we are confused or mistaken on these doctrines, there are enormous doctrinal and practical consequences. However, if we rightly understand them, we are led to more praise for the God of our salvation, both with our words and our works.


Clearing the Confusion on Regeneration

With my preconfession students I’ve been surveying what we call the Order of Salvation — theologians usually use the Latin term Ordo Salutis.  These are the logical steps involved in salvation.  The Reformed Order of Salvation looks like this:

  • Election
  • Effectual Calling
  • Regeneration
  • Justification
  • Adoption
  • Sanctification
  • Glorification

I’ve been devoting a class to each of these.  Last week, we looked at the topic of regeneration.  Unfortunately, there’s often a bit of confusion in our Reformed churches on what regeneration involves.  In this post, I briefly want to address that.

It’s always important to begin with a definition.  We are speaking here about regeneration in this basic sense:  God brings the dead heart of a sinner to life.  A more thorough definition can be found in chapter 3/4 of our Canons of Dort, particularly article 12.  It is the “new creation, the raising from the dead, the making alive…which God works in us without us.”  It is a “supernatural, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, marvellous, mysterious and inexpressible work.”  If we look at Canons 3/4, article 11, we find that this regeneration or conversion is a comprehensive act of God upon the human subject.  It includes the enlightening of the mind, as well as the opening, softening, and circumcising of the heart.  It also instills the will with new qualities, makes it come alive, makes it good, willing, and obedient.  It is a radical change in a person which leads onward to faith and a transformed life.  From all this, it is clear that the church confesses that regeneration is not a process, but an event which takes place logically prior to God bringing a person to saving faith.  After all, “raising from the dead” is not a process.  Either you’re dead or you’re alive.  At one point Christ was dead in the tomb, and the next moment he was raised to life.  The same thing happens in regeneration as described in chapter 3/4 of the Canons of Dort.

This is precisely the point where confusion often sets in.  We have sometimes been taught that being born again/regenerated/converted is not an event, but an ongoing daily process for believers.  We’ve heard things like, “We must be born again every day.”  Is that wrong?  Is regeneration a process throughout our lives or an event that takes place prior to saving faith?

The misunderstanding partly arises because there is some overlap with the terminology used for our progressive sanctification.  Sanctification is the process by which we are increasingly conformed to the image of Christ.  Sanctification is most definitely an ongoing affair.  We are always works in progress, until the very moment we are called to glory.  Now sometimes our confessions use the terminology of regeneration to describe sanctification.  You could think of our Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer 88:  “What is the true repentance or conversion of man?  It is the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new.”  Notice the word “conversion,” the same word used in Canons of Dort 3/4, article 11 as a synonym for regeneration.  But in the Catechism it’s being used to describe the process of sanctification.  It’s the same word, but used in a different sense.  Notice how the Canons use “conversion” to describe an event that “God works in us without us.”  However, the Catechism in QA 88 uses “conversion” to describe a process that includes our actions — QA 89 speaks of us hating sin and fleeing it.  We are to apply ourselves to these things and work with God in them.  In other words, we are passive in our regeneration, but active in our sanctification.

But, to be clear, the Catechism also speaks of regeneration as a definite one-time event.  We find that in QA 8, “But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil?  Yes, unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”  There regeneration is viewed in terms of the Order of Salvation — this is regeneration as an event in which we are passive.  That’s evident from the fact that the proof-text for the second part of the answer is from John 3:3-5, where Christ is speaking to Nicodemus about being born again.  Being born again there is an event — just as you are physically born once from your mother, so the Spirit gives spiritual birth but once as an event.

Perhaps the clearest place in Scripture that speaks of regeneration as an event is 1 Peter 1:23, “…since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God…”  “You have been born again” are the key words here.  In Greek, this is written in the perfect tense, which means that the action is completed, but has effects into the present.  Peter’s readers are not being spoken of as being born again as a process day after day, but as people who have had a radical change in them by the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word.

In terms of Reformed theology, nothing I have written above is anything new or innovative.  For centuries, Reformed theologians have properly distinguished regeneration as an initial sovereign act of God which has renewed the mind, will, and heart from sanctification as a continuing action in the life of the Christian.  Understanding the Reformed Order of Salvation helps keep this important distinction clear.


All or Nothing!

For better or for worse, we often have a tendency to think in terms of all or nothing, black or white.  This is true in church life and it is also often true in our individual spiritual lives.  Now there is a good and healthy “all or nothing,” but there is also a bad and dysfunctional “all or nothing.”  Trying to keep this straight is an immense challenge.  I want to reflect for a moment on how to hold on the healthy “all or nothing,” while discarding the dysfunctional “all or nothing” in our walk with God.

The bad and dysfunctional mentality sometimes appears when Christians think that the “all” must be there with their sanctification, or there is nothing in their justification.  In other words, our being declared right by God depends on us being 100% on track with our progressive holiness.  If the progress in our holiness is minimal, then our position as God’s children is in doubt.  We cannot be accepted by God, because we do not measure up for God.  For there to be “all” in our justification, there must be “all” in our sanctification.  Our justification then depends on our sanctification.  This is bad and dysfunctional because it is a functional denial of the gospel.  This “all or nothing” mentality ends up adding sanctification to the basis of our justification.   In reality, it seeks to add something to the finished work of Christ on our behalf.  With that thinking, we’ve lost the gospel of grace recovered by the Reformation in the sixteenth century.

But there is also a healthy “all or nothing” mentality that Christians can and should have.  That has to do with the finished work of Christ for us.  It is really quite simple:  either Jesus has lived an entirely perfect life in my place, perfectly keeping all the commandments for me, or he has not.  All or nothing.  Either Jesus has made satisfaction for every single one of my sins or he has not.  All or nothing.  The reality is that he is a complete Saviour.  He is the Saviour who gives all that we need for our salvation — we have everything we need in him and him alone.  In him, I have the perfect obedience God requires in his law.  In him, I have the full forgiveness of every sin I have committed in the past.  In him, I have the full forgiveness of every sin I might commit at this moment.  Wonderfully, in him, I have the assurance that every sin I will ever commit in the future is already forgiven and paid for in full.  I have nothing in myself, but all in Jesus Christ.

I love the way this is expressed in Lord’s Day 11 of the Heidelberg Catechism:  “…For one of two things must be true, either Jesus is not a complete Saviour, or those who by true faith accept this Saviour must find in him all that is necessary for their salvation.”  If we are trusting in Christ alone for our present and eternal well-being, we have all, we have everything — and nothing can take that away from us.  As Paul says in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  “No condemnation” means precisely what it says.  If we are in Christ Jesus by faith, there is absolutely nothing standing against us and there never will be.