RPM, Volume 13, Number 23, June 5 to June 11, 2011

Sanctification by Grace

By John G. Reisinger

The moment God shows us a little more of His truth we should feel compelled to compare this with the rest of Scripture and make sure we have no clear contradictions. It seems to me that is the essence of the Berean spirit which the Apostle commended. A serious problem arises when we feel an even greater obligation to make the new truth fit into our presently held system of theology. There is an assumption involved here that is saying, "Every thing in our system is true therefore we can test anything by comparing it to our system." This is fine for a 'confessional' church that has deliberately wedded its conscience to a confession of faith. R.L Dabney is typical of the mentality that accepts a confession of faith as being equal in authority with the Bible:

"The Confession will need no amendment until the Bible needs to be amended." R.L. Dabney, The Doctrinal Contents of the Confession Memorial Volume of the Westminster Assembly (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publications, 1897.)

Dabney is one of my favorite writers simply because he has such a logical mind. However, he often allows his logic to totally swallow up a text and literally change the meaning of a text of Scripture so it will fit the system set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

In recent years, God has been pleased to open up the truth of sovereign grace to many of His sheep. Spurgeon said, "I shall be eaten of the dogs [for his outspoken Calvinism] for the present but another generation will arise and defend the same truth." We live in that generation! However, along with the great blessings have come the resurgence of many of the doctrinal battles that were bitterly fought by sincere brethren in the past. Some of the very doctrines that divided solid Calvinistic Baptists are again being fought in books and at conferences. One example is the debate between John Gill and Andrew Fuller that has been revived in full force.

One of the subjects under serious discussion today concerns the nature and outworking of sanctification. The argument hinges on whether sanctification is a progressive work of the Holy Spirit or whether we are 'sanctified by faith' in the same sense we are 'justified by faith.' Some years ago I wrote to a young man struggling with the law vs. grace issue. He had been reading the controversy that William Huntington had in his day. The rest of this article is part of a letter that I wrote to this young man. That accounts for the constant use of the personal pronoun you, especially in the last paragraph.

My dear brother, do not allow yourself to get caught in the fallacy of a total 'either/or' thinking. Religious leaders use this Jesuit method of teaching all the time. "It is either A or B. I have proved it cannot be B therefore it must be A." There are some things which are clearly either/or. Either the Bible is the Word of God or it is not. There are no other choices. However, most things, have more than two choices. Covenant Theology as defined by the Westminster Confession of Faith and Dispensationalism as defined by the Scofield Reference Bible are not the only two options. Likewise, Huntington's view of the law/grace tension and the view of those who opposed him are not the only two views. It is quite possible that both Huntington and his enemies were often responding more to what each other was saying than they were exegeting Scripture. The older I get the more difficulty I have fitting into any system. It seems to me the Word of God and true life is far too big for us to whittle down into an all-inclusive system.

"But that's Dispensationalism" is not a sufficient response to prove something is either right or wrong. Likewise, "But that is incompatible with Covenant Theology" is no test of the rightness or wrongness of anything. We must ask,

"What does the text of Scripture say?" The question is: "Do the Scriptures clearly teach that we are 'sanctified by faith' in the same way that we are 'justified by faith.'" This is what you are claiming. Let me immediately say that Huntington was fighting men who were teaching that "Moses will drive you to Christ to be justified, and Christ will send you back to Moses to be sanctified." I, like you, agree with Huntington that such a view must be fought. At the end of the day, that view will always leave Moses as the 'big man on Campus' in the conscience of the Christian and will quickly lead to some form of legalism. I wholeheartedly agree that we do not 'believe to be justified' and then 'obey the law to be sanctified.' That is one of the root errors of the Covenant Theology of the Puritans.

However, you and I, as believers, are faced with many, many exhortations to obey clear objective commandments in the New Testament Scriptures. Do we ignore them? If we teach them, does that mean we are teaching 'sanctification by works?' Is it not possible, or should I say mandatory, to teach that both justification and sanctification are 100% by grace and are not earned or worked for in any sense whatever, and at the same time exhort professing Christians who have "believed by grace" (Acts 18:27) to "Examine yourselves…prove your selves…except ye be reprobates" (II Cor. 13:5) and "make your calling and election sure" (II Pet. 1:10)? Are these verses advocating sanctification by works, or are they merely insisting that the saving faith produced by the Holy Spirit in the true elect of God will, and must, manifest itself, in some degree, in biblical good works. Is the problem either/or or is it both/and while insisting on a correct understanding of which is the cause and which is the effect?

Look carefully with me at two verses of Scripture:

Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12, 13)

How do you teach these verses? One of your favorite catch phrases seems to be "trembling in the camp." Again, let me say that I totally agree with you that men have misused the law to tyrannize the conscience of Christians and have corrupted the gospel of grace. They have made, to use Luther's phrase, "work mongers" out of untaught and insecure believers. They have used guilt to control and manipulate weak Christians. However, what is the "fear and trembling" to which Paul is exhorting us in this text? Is there a "fear and trembling" that is the evidence (produced by the Holy Spirit and not our self effort in obeying the law) of a holy and healthy attitude towards God's truth? Are we to seek to experience this kind of trembling, and is such trembling in anyway inconsistent with the holy joy and assurance that is found in free grace alone?

Paul clearly understood that he was both saved by faith and that he lived by faith (Gal. 2:20), but that did not hinder him from saying, "I fight…I run…I keep my body under…let us labor…let us cleanse ourselves…let us lay aside every weight" (cf. I Cor. 9:26; II Cor. 7:1; Heb. 4:11; 12:1). This is holy and conscious effort. However, the choice is not, on the one hand, to ignore these verses and lean toward antinomianism, or, on the other hand, to think that Paul is saying our obedience to the law is the means of sanctification and head toward legalism. Why not say, "The grace of God that saves us is the very same powerful grace that 'works in us [as believers] to [both] will and to do' His revealed will?" Why not magnify grace by insisting that it, and it alone without any help from either the law or carnal flesh, can, and must produce the fruits of true grace. The answer to legalism is not antinomianism, and the answer to antinomianism is not nomianism. The answer to both is the power of the sovereign grace of God in Jesus Christ our living Lord. The answer is to stand under the cross until the heart is melted in worship and praise. Neither a true legalist nor an antinomian can do this.

We both agree that we are not justified by faith and sanctified by works. However, the Word of God nowhere teaches that faith sanctifies us in the same sense, and in the same manner that faith justifies us. In justification, faith is a grace that "worketh not," but simply and only trusts, rests, and leans on Christ (Romans 4:5). And we must never forget that this faith is in itself a gift of God's grace to us. In sanctification, grace is the power of God (the Holy Spirit Himself) in us that literally enables us to both "will and obey." The grace that alone enables us to believe the gospel is the same grace that inwardly constrains us to obey the commandments of our Lord. I grant you that Huntington's enemies often turned the power of sanctification over to the law and greatly confused the doctrine of sanctification. However, Huntington's response of "sanctification by faith alone" corrected one error by creating another one.

We are not sanctified by faith nor are we sanctified by the law. The law is just as impotent to produce holiness in a saint as it is impotent to produce holiness in a lost man. The law is just as powerless to keep our hearts and wills apart from grace as it was to cleanse our hearts in the first place. We are sanctified by grace alone, but it is a grace that enables us to believeingly, and gratefully, walk in obedience to the revealed will of God. The only well from which any obedience can be drawn is the well of grateful assurance of salvation. Here is where Huntington and others were dead right. They saw and rejoiced in a living Christ Who was both at the Father's right hand and in them personally. We must insist that the law is totally powerless to either justify or sanctify, and, at the same time, also insist that the grace in which we boast must sanctify those in whom it resides or else that grace is just as impotent as the law.

The real questions are these:

One: What is the goal of God in redemption? Answer: To save us from our sin for His own glory.

Two: Is it essential that the grace of God in which I boast accomplish that goal in my life? Answer: Absolutely! If grace does not conquer sin, then I am not any better off than I was under the law!

The only verse where the phrase "sanctified by faith" is found is Acts 26:18:

to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.

It is always dangerous to build a whole theological concept on one verse—especially when it creates real difficulties with other clear texts. It is wise to ask, "Can this verse have another meaning other than what I have given it?" Alford comments that the phrase "by faith" in this text belongs to the whole sentence and must not be tied to the word sanctified alone. The true sense of the text is, "that by faith in me they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among them that are sanctified." The basic meaning of sanctified is 'set apart.' It is sometimes equivalent to eternal election and at other times is equal to the word salvation. Compare the above verse with Acts 20:32:

And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.

It is obvious that the word sanctified here means all Christians. We could read it, "among those who are saved," or "among those who are in Christ." The phrase "among them which are sanctified by faith" (Acts 26:18) can only mean "those who are saved by faith." It is identical to the phrase "inheritance among all them which are sanctified" in Acts 20:32. Both Acts 26:18 and Acts 20:32 mean "those who are saved." Acts 26:18 is using the word sanctified to mean "all believers." It is not talking about "how a believer is sanctified," but "who are those who are truly saved." Perhaps a short quotation will help clarify what I am trying to say:

As to the phrase "holiness by faith," I find it nowhere in the New Testament. Without controversy, in the matter of justification before God, faith in Christ is the one thing needful. All that simply believe are justified. Righteousness is imputed "to him that worketh not but believeth" (Rom 4:5). It is thoroughly Scriptural and right to say, "Faith alone justifies." But is it not equally Scriptural and right to say, "faith alone sanctifies." The saying requires very large qualification. Let one fact suffice. We are frequently told that a man is "justified by faith without the deeds of the law." But not once are we told that we are "sanctified by faith without the deeds of the law." 1 On the contrary, we are expressly told by St. James that the faith whereby we are visibly and demonstratively justified before man, is a faith which, "if it hath not works is dead, being alone" (James 2:17). 2 I may be told, in reply, that no one of course means to disparage "works" as an essential part of a holy life. It would be well, however, to make this more plain than many seem to make it in these days. Holiness, J.C. Ryle, p. xiii.

I assure you that I have prayed for you as God called you to mind. It is only because I believe there is evidence of an earnest and burning desire in you to know and preach the glorious gospel of our lovely Lord that I write these words. I shall be happy to have your response and converse with you more. I stand ready to be taught as well as help to teach. I have not yet arrived. I am still learning.


1. If we mean as the meritorious cause, then we are indeed both justified and sanctified "without the deeds of the law." However, if we mean that one can be sanctified without the fruits of obedience being evident in some degree in his life, then we cannot be sanctified without the works of the law. If we could be, that would be saying, "You can be sanctified without actually being sanctified!"

2 Ryle then adds this footnote: "There is a double justification before God: the one authoritative, the other declarative or demonstrative." The first is St. Paul's scope, when he speaks of justification by faith without the deeds of the law. The second is St. James' scope, when he speaks of justification by works. T. Goodwin on Gospel Holiness. Works, vol. vii, p.181.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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