One of the great problems in any current controversy is overreaction to a perceived problem. If someone feels that one doctrine is being over-emphasized, the way to correct the problem must be to balance things out by emphasizing another doctrine. At times, this is certainly necessary and expected unless, of course, the theological priorities in the correction get lost. In other words, there are certain theological categories that if their logical priority is lost, the pursuit of balance can actually make things worse.
This is currently happening with many of the discussions regarding sanctification. Many have diagnosed the “grace boys” movement as antinomian. In reaction to what is assumed to be an overemphasis on justification and a narrow definition of the gospel, there has been an aggressive effort to balance things back out by re-emphasizing sanctification.
In the past few years we have seen a plethora of articles by authors emphasizing the necessity of good works for salvation and judgment by works. As I stated elsewhere, the pastoral implications of this are being missed in the zeal to correct perceived antinomianism. All of this has created an unhelpful citation war. Present writers, hoping to regain balance, gain support for their positions by stockpiling quotations from past theologians. While these theologians are certainly worth citing, their work was done in their own contexts and with proper theological ordering. This makes the interjection of their citations, pulled from their own contexts and inserted into our current discussions, well, challenging to say the least.
The current controversy over sanctification appears to be jettisoning certain theological priorities and may actually be having a counterproductive consequence that people have not yet considered. Many explicitly fear that the word gospel is being defined too narrowly. So when people communicate that all they need is the gospel, worry is expressed that maybe this does not include our sanctification too. Since, it is assumed, we are living in such an imbalanced Reformed world right now overemphasizing grace, we need to speak of the necessity of good works for salvation. But what problems might we be creating in this attempt to balance things out?
Assume for a minute that the woman in Luke 7 who came to Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair, said to Jesus: “the gospel you bring in your life, death, and resurrection, is all that I have.” Would Jesus have been concerned to make sure she also understood that her good works would be necessary for her salvation? Had Jesus done this, the priority of his own work would be lost and whatever was meant by “be saved” would soon be understood as synergistic.
With these things in mind, I’ve recently been teaching through the Canons of Dort in our evening worship service at the Escondido URC and was struck the other night by Canons 1:9:
This same election took place, not on the basis of foreseen faith, of the obedience of faith, of holiness, or of any other good quality and disposition, as though it were based on a prerequisite cause or condition in the person to be chosen, but rather for the purpose of faith, of the obedience of faith, of holiness, and so on. Accordingly, election is the source of every saving good. Faith, holiness, and the other saving gifts, and at last eternal life itself, flow forth from election as its fruits and effects. As the apostle says, “He chose us” (not because we were, but) “so that we should be holy and blameless before him in love”.
This is a remarkable statement. Our divines maintained theological priority but were not afraid of being decretal in their language pastorally. Election being the “unchangeable purpose of God”, is when “he choose a definite number of people out of the entire human” and “decreed to give to Christ those chosen for salvation (Canons 1:7).” But notice how Canons 1:9 speak of election as the source of every saving good. You are guaranteed faith and holiness. You are assured in the decree of every saving gift, including eternal life as its fruits and effects. To be clear, from election will come, in the course of one’s life, justification, sanctification, and glorification. So important was this understanding to the Synod of Dort, they made sure to say in Canons 1:8 that “we are decreed both to salvation and to the way of salvation, which God prepared in advance for us to walk in.”
Notice how confident the divines were to speak of the decree as the fountain of all these benefits. This may make many fear hyper-Calvininsm today, but these divines understood the pastoral benefits of correctly emphasizing that all of the fruits that follow in the life of the believer flow from the fountain of election. Election was always intended to encourage and uplift God’s children that the Lord will finish the project he started in them. Election was before any of the fruits we experience, including sanctification, both in order and in time.
Jesus used the decree in this way in his earthly ministry to encourage his sheep, he said to his disciples, “rejoice that your names are written in heaven (Luke 10:20).” This name writing was done before one work was every performed on their part.
Pierre DuMoulin, the French Reformed pastor-theologian, said regarding this verse,
Christ speaks to men that were living and who had not yet persevered in the faith to the end. Yet not withstanding, their names were already written in heaven, their salvation was determined by the certain purpose of God. Their election therefore, was before their perseverance in the faith, contrary to which is the opinion of Arminius, who will have perseverance in faith to go before election, and will have us to be elected for foreseen faith.
If our concern in the sanctification debate is that a narrow view of the gospel is promoting a truncated view and practice of sanctification in the life of the believer, what is the answer? Considering again the woman in Luke 7 who came with tears resting on Christ’s person and work to save her, should I be concerned that in her enthusiasm she might not understand that her works are needed for her salvation? Even if she is accused of some narrow, justification only view of the gospel, don’t we believe in theological priority, that from true faith will follow good works?
This is not an issue for someone who truly has Christ by faith, because gospel, in its narrower and broader definition, has as its primary aim, the forgiveness of sins. That only comes by true faith, which is a gift from God. This is what drove Luther to say that true faith does not need to ask whether good works need to be done, before its asked, it’s done them.
Believing that God has given his elect true faith to embrace Christ and his righteousness, if election is the fountain of every saving good, won’t he also give his elect true sanctification? Further, does God not reserve the right to give sanctification in various degrees and in different measures, as the Canons state?
This doesn’t negate the responsibility to preach and teach sanctification, but it provides a caution for us in the way we present this great work of God in his people’s lives, lest we give the impression that a lack of sanctification may not get his people into glory. If that were possible, who determines the level of sanctification needed to make sure someone will make glorification, especially since sanctification is progressive, and “even the holiest in the life only make a small beginning in this new obedience (HC Q&A 114)?”
How patient are we really being with God’s work in the sheep when we don’t see the progress in them that we think should be there? When we become judge and jury over the level of people’s sanctification, we can easily wound the sheep, take their eyes off of Christ, and rob them of the peace that God intends for them. This is why the apostle motivated new obedience from faith in the promises of the gospel, encouraging believers that even the grace of holiness was something given to them “before time began (2 Tim. 1:9).”
The Lord remains Lord even over our sanctification, its degrees, measures, and our “good works that he prepared beforehand that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:10).” The intended end was always determined before the means were given! We should be clear in this sanctification debate, Christ completes the work he began in us (Phil. 1:6).
I question, therefore, how Arminian our current debate has become in the Reformed world with regard to sanctification. But if someone disagrees and says that such emphases presented here will only lead to hyper-Calvinism, the Canons recognize that someone who claims to be a Christian and is living a licentious, hypocritical, antinomian life, should also understand the doctrine of reprobation, a doctrine so “justly terrible to those who, regardless of God and of the Savior Jesus Christ, have wholly given themselves up to the cares of the world and the pleasures of the flesh, so long as they are no seriously converted to God (Canons 1:16).” And “this consideration of this doctrine of election is so far from encouraging remissness in the observance of the divine commands… (Canons 1:13).”
The Canons thoroughly demonstrate that when God elects someone to salvation, he will give them a living faith, assured confidence, peace of conscience, and ever other saving good, including holiness. This makes the doctrine of election a sweet encouragement to the believer’s conscience, as God intended it to be.
Maybe what this sanctification debate needs to recover is a robust appreciation again for the Reformed doctrine of Predestination.
—Chris Gordon, Escondido
Note: This post first appeared in 2015 on The Gordian Knot. It appears here with minor revisions.