Sanctification by Faith?

Justification by faith is a doctrine which all evangelicals agree forms the foundation of the Bible’s teaching concerning salvation. The idea that sanctification is by faith is far more controversial. Over the last several years many have debated the issue, including Kevin DeYoung, Sean Lucas, Tullian Tchividjian, and many others. Some have suggested that sanctification is not by faith because it involves effort. Others have argued that sanctification flows from faith in our union with Christ or from faith in our justification. The question then is what is to be done with Biblical imperatives to “work out our salvation.” But is it possible that the debate over the connection between sanctification and faith and imperatives actually flows from a misunderstanding of the connection between justification, faith, and calls to repentance?

Justification by faith most often emphasizes the activity of God, implying the passivity of the believer. While justification is certainly the work of God alone, justification still involves the activity of the person being justified, namely repentance. Throughout all of scripture there is the repeated call to repent and to turn to God in faith for forgiveness and salvation. Were the person being converted completely passive, one would expect these imperatives to be directed towards God and not the individual. Justifying faith does not require a person to be passive but rather assumes the activity of repentance as inextricably linked with faith, even as the two remain distinct but both clearly necessary for salvation. Thus the Westminster Confession states: Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ.” In the doctrine of justification by faith alone, then, there is still the assumed activity of repentance unto salvation, a repentance which involves actively turning from sin, in sorrow for it and rejection of it, to God in faith. Faith which lacks the activity of repentance is not true justifying faith. Thus, the claim that “this sort of language—willing, doing, perform, diligence—has no place in talking about justification” is not entirely Biblical and fails to accurately portray true faith. There may be no ‘diligence’ in justification because justification is a one time declarative irrevocable act, but there is absolutely a ‘willing, doing, performing” of repenting, believing, and turning to God out of faith.

Yet the doctrine of justification truly and appropriately states that the believer does not earn their justification through their faith or repentance as these are actually gifts of God accomplished solely through the work of God’s Holy Spirit regenerating the heart and setting free the person’s will from the bondage of sin according to His own divine purpose. While it is quite accurate to say that it is the believer, not God, who performs the activities of repentance and believing and whose will is actively involved in conversion, the activities of faith and repentance in conversion are directly caused by the actions of God from beginning to end. Without the work of God, there would be no faith or repentance in the person. It is appropriate then to say that God alone is responsible for the presence of faith and repentance in the life of the believer even while it is the person who is effectually called and actively responds by repenting and believing.

Thus, In the Biblical understanding of justification by faith alone there is indeed the activity of repentance which is assumed to be a part of true faith while at the same time flowing from it. Thomas Watson, in his book Doctrine of Repentance, even argues that it is ‘a great duty to repent and turn unto God.’ John Calvin in the Institutes says that in order to be saved we must “make [repentance] our study” or in other translations “our effort.” Faith as the foundation of justification does not negate activity but rather assumes the activity of repentance and turning as part of true conversion. These activities in no way merit or earn the favor of God but are entirely in, from, and by faith, so that justification is truly ‘by faith alone.’

When one turns then to sanctification, there is again the question of the relationship between faith and activity. Some assume that because the effort and activity of the individual is involved sanctification cannot be by faith alone. One author even states “Justification is wholly dependent on faith apart from works of the law. But sanctification–born of faith, dependent on faith, powered by faith–requires moral exertion.” But is this not a false dichotomy in sanctification that is inconsistently applied to justification? Why does effort and personal activity in sanctification mean that it cannot be by faith alone when the effort or duty of repentance and conversion in justification allows the distinction of faith alone to remain? Justification is wholly dependent on faith, in that repentance as an activity does not merit justification but flows from faith.  But there is still the activity, the duty, the effort of repentance and actively turning to God in faith as God works within the individual. Likewise, “moral exertion” while an active part of sanctification, does not merit or even cause sanctification but is an activity, which like repentance, flows from faith in God as God works within the individual. In fact, one might make the argument that just as faith in God assumes repentance, true faith in God’s work of sanctification assumes ‘moral effort.’ Is this not what Paul meant when he said “work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works within you to will and to do His good pleasure.”

The words of the Scottish Confession explain this completely:

So that the cause of Good works we confess to be, not our free will, but the Spirit of the Lord Jesus who, dwelling in our hearts by true faith, brings forth such good works as God hath prepared for us to walk into….And these things they do not by their own power, but the power of the Lord Jesus (without whom they are able to do nothing) worketh in them all that is good (statement 13).

Likewise the Westminster Confession states:

Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ. And that they may be enabled thereunto, beside the graces they have already received, there is required an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them to will and to do, of His good pleasure: yet are they not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty unless upon a special motion of the Spirit; but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them. (16.3)

It is purely the work of God’s Spirit (“the power of the Lord Jesus”/ “wholly from the Spirit of Christ”) that sanctifies believers. Our effort is not that which actually sanctifies us so that we contribute nothing to our sanctification as we contribute nothing to our sanctification. And yet, attributing the work of sanctification to Christ in no way eliminates the call to ‘moral exertion,’ “working out one’s salvation” or “to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them” any more than the monergistic work of God in justification eliminates the call to repentance and conversion. Rather, just as the activities of repentance and conversion are evidence of true faith and the saving work of God, so too the work and effort of mortifying sin is evidence of true faith and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.

The same is true of the doctrine of perseverance of the elect. Throughout scripture there is the call to the elect to endure to the end, to persevere (1 Corinthians 10:12, Hebrews 4:1, Revelation 2-3). And yet, we affirm that this preservation is the work of the Spirit. The call, the imperative to persevere in no way negates the reality that preservation is entirely the work of God. In fact, the way to persevere is to continue in faith in God! So too in justification, sanctification, and other parts of the Order of Salvation it is God who performs and accomplishes the work, but this is no way eliminates the imperatives of scripture to repent, to endure, or to be holy. Rather, the truth that these are the work of God actually strengthen the imperatives because the power of the Holy Spirit is assumed to be working in the individual to accomplish these callings.

Therefore, true faith in the sanctifying work of God’s Spirit in the life of a believer is not ‘easy believism” or “let go and let God” anymore than true faith in the justifying work of God leads to antinomianism or true faith in the preserving work of God leads to laxity. Neither is true faith in God’s work of sanctification an ongoing reflection or meditation upon one’s justification. Rather, just as true faith in the work of Jesus Christ involves repentance and active turning from sin to God so too true faith in the sanctifying work of the Spirit of Jesus Christ involves ‘moral effort.’ As A. A. Hodge writes “And any man who thinks that he is a Christian, and that he has accepted Christ for justification when he did not at the same time accept Christ for sanctification, is miserably deluded in that very experience.” (A.A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology (Edinburgh: Banner, 1976), p. 297). And Martyn Lloyd-Jones agrees “We cannot divorce justification and forgiveness from other parts of truth…God does not justify a man and leave him there. Not at all! If God justifies a man, God has brought that man into the process…And unless we are giving evidence of being in the process and of being perfected by it, there is but one conclusion to draw—we have never been in the kingdom at all, we must go back to the very beginning, we must repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. (Darkness and Light: An Exposition of Ephesians 4:17-5:17 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), pp. 350-351, 353).” Sanctification by faith does not negate effort but rather assumes and requires such action!

Those who are lazy in sanctification must be questioned in their lack faith and understanding of the ongoing work of Christ. It is not moral effort which sanctifies but the work of God, while at the same time the absence of moral exertion leads one to question if the Spirit of God is even present in an individual. For as one does not assume true converting faith when repentance is lacking, so too one cannot assume faith in the ongoing progress of sanctification when there is no effort. True faith in the progress of the Spirit in us assumes moral effort. Christians everywhere should be called to exert ‘moral effort’ out of a faith in the work of Christ in their life even as they are called to repent out of faith in the work of Christ on their behalf. Such activity, such imperatives, such calls to holiness and effort do not negate a sanctification by grace through faith anymore that justification by faith. On the contrary, Christians can and should uphold justification and sanctification both by faith alone, eliminating the inconsistency and false dichotomy of faith and action because true faith acts.

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