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Vital Religion

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"we see spiritual realism linked to utter confidence in the work of Christ. The finished work of Jesus is the foundation and encouragement for Christian living."

Perhaps someone should write a book titled Silliness and Sanctification, because, sadly, church history is replete with examples of strange and silly suggestions about the pursuit of holiness. In the ancient church, pillar saints led an ascetic life living alone on a platform built on top of a column. In the contemporary church, Spirit-chasers pursue Pentecostal experiences such as the laughing revival, while neo-traditionalists follow quasi-medieval devotions such as walking a labyrinth. The warning of the Heidelberg Catechism is needed today more than ever that we must not seek to serve God in ways that would make us "wiser than God" (98). Christians who reject self-sanctifying human inventions may also fret about the dangers some approaches to sanctification pose to justification. So many American evangelicals seem to confuse the work of Christ for them leading to justification with the work of Christ in them leading to sanctification. Nevertheless, neither wrong ideas about holiness nor the possibility of compromising justification should lead Christians to abandon a biblically balanced understanding of the Christian life and the necessity of vital religion.

The Scriptures are clear that one of the benefits of Christ's saving work is that his people have been given a new life. Second Corinthians 5:17 teaches, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come." Similarly Ephesians 2:10 declares, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." In Christ we are new creatures who live a new life. While always rejoicing in the indicative that tells us that in Christ we have peace with God, we need also always to hear and heed the call "to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph. 4:24). Here is vital, biblical Christianity.

The Reformers well understood this biblical teaching and imperative on vital religion. We can see that clearly in the opening paragraph of one of the important Reformed confessions, the Belgic Confession (1561), Article 24, "Man's Sanctification and Good Works":

We believe that this true faith, being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God and the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates [i.e., sanctifies] and makes him a new man. Therefore it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love for God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man; for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture a faith working through love, which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word.
This brief statement makes several basic points for us to remember and ponder. First, true faith is not the result of human freedom and decision, but the work of God. The hearing of God's Word of truth and the work of the Holy Spirit causing that Word to bear fruit is the source of faith in our hearts. We need to look to the Word and the Spirit if we would possess the vital religion taught in the Bible. The Holy Spirit, who is Christ with us, is the divine strength for holy living, which is impossible without him. Vital religion is not man-centered, but remains always centered on Christ, his Word, and his Spirit.

Second, the confession teaches that this true faith sanctifies the Christian. This faith is living and fruitful, bringing the new life in Christ more and more to expression. The confession here uses the word "regenerates," not in the technical sense that regeneration would take on in seventeenth-century Reformed theology (when it would come to describe an instantaneous work of God in the heart), but in its meaning in sixteenth-century usage as a synonym with the ongoing lifelong process of sanctification. True faith leads to real progress in sanctification. The Christian life is a daily conversion of putting to death the old man and of bringing to life the new man.

Third, the Christian, as a new creature in Christ, is no longer in bondage to sin. Those without Christ are completely dominated by sin in their lives of rebellion against God. But those who are alive in Christ are no longer dead in sin and controlled by sin. Progress in mortifying the flesh and overcoming sins is a reality for the Christian. The reality of the new life and the deliverance from the bondage of sin must not lead Christians to any arrogance or triumphalism in regard to sanctification. Here the Heidelberg Catechism has a crucial reminder. Question 114 asks, "But can those who are converted to God keep these [ten] commandments perfectly?" The answer is both humbling and encouraging: "No; but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so that with earnest purpose they begin to live, not only according to some but according to all the commandments of God." We are humbled to know that our best growth in sanctification in this life is far from the perfection of holiness that God's law teaches. But we are also encouraged to recognize that the new life in Christ grows in relation to the whole standard of holiness given in the law. Christians cannot use progress in keeping nine commandments to excuse complete failure with one commandment.

Fourth, the confession insists that a right understanding of justifying faith does not undermine a commitment to holiness. The charge that the biblical doctrine of justification leads to moral laxity is at least as old as the apostle Paul. He too faced the accusation: "And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying" (Rom. 3:8; cf. 6:1, 15). But such a charge is false theologically and refuted by the history of the church. Those who have stressed grace and faith have also carefully pursued holiness. The prime examples of this were the Puritans who taught justification clearly (see the Westminster Larger Catechism, Questions 70-77), and who also sought with remarkable fidelity to live according to God's law. In popular culture, the word "Puritan" has come to stand for what is legalistic, hypocritical, and judgmental. The historical reality is very different. While the Puritans would have been the first to acknowledge that they were sinners, they were also those who studied the Word of God with the greatest care to seek to understand the will of God. They sought to live for God personally, but also to live out God's will in their families, their churches, and their society. They were not perfect but were perhaps the best informed Christians about the content of the Bible, and the most serious people in promoting faith and holiness in the history of the church. In light of the Puritan experience, it is ridiculous to suggest that a belief in justification undermines a commitment to sanctification.

Fifth, true faith lives out of the love it has for God. Indeed, the key motivation for Christian living is love for God, not selfishness or fear. Some forms of religion promote self-centeredness, but Christianity promotes God-centeredness. Some seek to motivate by inculcating a fear of damnation. But biblical Christianity primarily motivates out of confidence in God's love in Christ. This teaching comes from Jesus: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15).

Sixth, the confession reminds us that the holy life is guided by the commandments of God. The new life in Christ does not automatically or spontaneously know what pleases God. We continue to need God's instruction that he gives us in his law. The Heidelberg Catechism (91) teaches the character of truly good works: good works are "only those which are done from true faith, according to the law of God, and to his glory; and not such as are based on our own opinions or the precepts of men."

As I wrote this article, television news was full of the preparations to elect a new pope in Rome. Cameras love Roman Catholicism because so much of its "holiness" is visible. Television has broadcast pictures of holy buildings and decorations, holy vestments, and holy ceremonies with altars, incense, and processions. One reporter, in speaking of the holiness of Pope Benedict XVI, showed pictures of a Christmas service in which the pope was venerating an image of the baby Jesus. All of this "holiness," however, is not only beyond anything taught in the law of God, but is a distraction from true holiness. Such external manifestations of holiness are likely to promote arrogance, not humility, self-confidence and idolatry, not God-centeredness. The true holiness of repentance, self-denial, love, and service cannot be televised. They are much more difficult to cultivate than external actions. But they are the true manifestations of holiness taught by the Bible.

Seventh, after stressing the reality of sanctification in the life of the Christian, the confession again clarifies the distinction between justification and sanctification. "These works…are of no account towards our justification, for it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works." Since justification by faith is full and finished before the Christian begins to do good works, sanctification cannot be confused with justification. The distinction between justification and sanctification has been wonderfully summarized in the Westminster Larger Catechism (77):

Although sanctification be inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, in that God in justification imputeth the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification his Spirit infuseth grace, and enableth to the exercise thereof; in the former, sin is pardoned; in the other, it is subdued; the one doth equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation; the other is neither equal in all, nor in this life perfect in any, but growing up to perfection.
Finally, the Belgic Confession concludes its article on sanctification by pointing to the vital importance of the distinction between justification and sanctification for the peace of conscience in the Christian. Since our good works always fall far short of the perfection of God, "we do not found our salvation upon them." Our progress in sanctification could never give us real assurance and confidence. Rather, "we would always be in doubt, tossed to and from without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be continually vexed if they relied not on the merits of the suffering and death of our Savior." Here we see spiritual realism linked to utter confidence in the work of Christ. The finished work of Jesus is the foundation and encouragement for Christian living.

The Belgic Confession has largely been our guide in this brief and partial reflection on vital religion. Guido de Bres, the author of this confession, was greatly influenced by the French Confession of 1559 of which John Calvin was the principal author. In conclusion, consider Calvin's motivating words as he encourages us in the pursuit of holiness:

We believe that by this faith we are regenerated in newness of life, being by nature subject to sin. Now we receive by faith grace to live holily and in the fear of God, in accepting the promise which is given to us by the Gospel, namely: that God will give us his Holy Spirit. This faith not only does not hinder us from holy living, or turn us from the love of righteousness, but of necessity begets in us all good works. Moreover, although God works in us for our salvation and renews our hearts, determining us to that which is good, yet we confess that the good works which we do proceed from his Spirit, and cannot be accounted to us for justification, neither do they entitle us to the adoption of sons, for we should always be doubting and restless in our hearts, if we did not rest upon the atonement by which Jesus Christ has acquitted us (French Confession, Article 22).




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W. Robert Godfrey is professor of church history and president of Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California).

Issue: "Spiritual (Re)formation" July/August 2013 Vol. 22 No. 4 Page number(s): 34-39

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