The distinction between justification and sanctification
The great discovery, or we can better say rediscovery, of the Reformation was the message of justification by faith alone. Clearer than even the church father St. Augustine to whom the Reformers owed so much, they taught that not our own works, even not the works done in the power of the Holy Spirit, have any place in our justification before God. The only ground of the justification of the believer is the imputed righteousness of Christ.
Clearer than was done in the centuries before them, the Reformers distinguished (without separating them) the doctrines of justification and sanctification. Justification and sanctification must not be confused. Justification is not a medical process by which the sinner is gradually healed as Augustine taught, but justification is the verdict that although a sinner, yea ungodly in himself, the believer is completely righteous in the sight of God.
In justification there are no degrees. The weakest believer is as much righteous in the sight of God as Abraham, the apostle Paul, Luther, Calvin, Bunyan or whatever saint you name. Let me give you a quotation of that good Protestant bishop J.C. Ryle: ‘I hold firmly that the justification of a believer is a finished, perfect and complete work; and the weakest saint though he may not know and feel it, is as completely justified as the strongest (…) I would go to the stake, God helping me, for the glorious truth, that in the matter of justification before God every believer is complete in Christ. Nothing can be added to his justification from the moment he believes and nothing taken away.’
Justification must be distinguished from sanctification. Justification brings us in the sphere of jurisprudence or law. Although in ourselves completely guilty, the Father pronounces us not guilty and graciously grants the right of eternal life on account of the merits of Christ. From the Father’s viewpoint we performed what Christ did for us, and in our place when the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us.
Justification is perfect. There are no degrees in justification, but there certainly are in sanctification. Sanctification means that we belong to Christ and live for Him. We can say that a Christian completely belongs to Christ. In that sense sanctification is no less perfect and definite than justification, but practically speaking we only live very imperfectly to the glory of God. Even our best and most godly works are stained with sin.
So in practical sanctification there are degrees. See the parable of the sewer. ‘But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.’ (Matthew 13:8), It is a fact then that the one Christian is more conformed to the image of Christ than another.
But even the believer who is as much conformed to Christ as is possible in this life, still remains a sinner. It is so aptly stated in answer 114 of the Heidelberg Catechism that ‘even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience, yet so that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.’ Both elements of the answer are important. I shall now expand on the first part.
A Christian realizes again and again that his walk is imperfect, yea very imperfect. Therefore the ultimate consolation of the Christian is not what he has done, does and hopes to do for Christ but what Christ did once and for all for him and in his place. The great puritan John Owen wrote two days before his death to his friend Charles Fleetwood: ‘I am going to Him whom my soul hath loved, or rather who hath loved me with an everlasting love; which is the whole ground of all my consolation.’ We hear in this sentence the words of the apostle Paul in Gal. 2:20: ‘I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.’
When a Christian is in soul anguish seeing all the imperfections of his faith and of his living for God, he can still be triumphant. For he can say with Paul: ‘What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.’ (Romans 8:31-34)
The essence of the biblical and reformed message is that a Christian in this life is both a saint and a sinner
The essence of biblical and Reformed teaching is that a Christian is both a sinner and a saint; in Latin ‘simul justus ac peccator’ (an expression that Luther was fond to use). The imputation of the righteousness of Christ is a definite and all decisive fact. We are either completely just in the sight of God or completely unjust. Only those are just in the sight of God, who believe in Christ for life and salvation.
When we behave as the rich young ruler and have never come as a poor beggar to Christ, we are as much in a state of condemnation as anyone who lives a complete immoral life. By nature the whole world is in a state of condemnation. See Romans 3:19: ‘Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.’
In the light of eternity there are only two states: the state of justification and condemnation. Being once justified it is impossible to fall from the state of justification. Justification by faith alone and the final perseverance of the saints are closely connected.
See Canons of Dort, V, 6: ‘But God, who is rich in mercy, according to His unchangeable purpose of election, does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from His own people even in their grievous falls; nor suffers them to proceed so far as to lose the grace of adoption and forfeit the state of justification, or to commit the sin unto death or against the Holy Spirit; nor does He permit them to be totally deserted, and to plunge themselves into everlasting destruction.’
I again quote Romans 8. Having said that Christ died for us and intercedes for us, Paul finally says: ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:35-39)
Although justification is a one-time definite act, the power and consolation of the message of justification accompanies the Christian his whole life. When I come to speak on the teaching of “Victorious living” we will see that this aspect is neglected and even denied in this form of teaching. We must say that even certain forms of Post Reformation reformed teaching did not emphasize this element enough. There are forms of Calvinism in which we can detect an unhealthy form of triumphalism without denying that we are saved by grace alone with the only ground of our justification being the imputed righteousness of Christ. But, in practice the relevance of justification is more or less restricted to the beginning of the Christian life. All emphasis is put on what we must do for Christ. In practice, the bond between justification and sanctification is made too loose.
In the nineteenth century there was published a correspondence between dr. H.F. Kohlbrugge and mr. I. da Costa. Da Costa, a Christian Jew, accused Kohlbrugge of antinomian tendencies after Kohlbrugge preached he so called comma sermon in 1833 in the German town Elberfeld. This was the most famous sermon Kohlbrugge ever preached. The text of this sermon was Romans 7:l4: ‘For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.’ Preparing this sermon Kohlbrugge realized the function of the comma in our translation. Paul did not say. So far as I am fleshly I am sold under sin. No Paul said, I a believer, in myself am in all aspects of my life carnal, sold under sin. And it was this element that was stressed in the so called comma sermon.
Da Costa wrote Kohlbrugge that after having spoken about man’s sinfulness and the redemption through the blood of Christ he again went back to speaking about man’s sinfulness instead of emphasizing the life of thankfulness the Christian ought to live. Kohlbrugge replied in a somewhat bitter way, but we must say that the content of what he stated was write, namely that in the life of thankfulness we realise more and more our remaining sinfulness.
We find this clearly stated in answer 115 of the Heidelberg Catechism where we read that hat as long as we live we have to learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ; second, that without ceasing we diligently ask God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we be renewed more and more after the image of God, until we attain the goal of perfection after this life. Kohlbrugge could not agree with Da Costa that the life of thankfulness could but for one moment separated from the realisation of our remaining sinfulness and of the blood of Christ as our only resting place.
Much more than in the writings of Da Costa we find an unhealthy triumphalism and activism in neocalvinism. It is certainly not a matter of coincidence that Kuyper who visited in 1874 in Brighton in England a conference of the holiness movement or movement of victorious living was deeply impressed. It is true: doctrinally Kuyper finally did not go along with this movement, but just as in this movement in neocalvinism the emphasis is laid on what a Christian does for Christ and not what Christ did for whom on Calvary and on what Christ sitting at the right hand sight of God still does for him.
Although doctrinally not agreeing with the doctrines of the movement of victorious living we are in practice not for removed from it when we take for granted that everyone in the congregation is saved unless he lives an disorderly life. Although faith is still acknowledge to be a gift of God, all emphasise fall on the fact that we have to show in our works that we are believers. When taken more or less for granted that everyone who comes to church and has confessed his faith is a true believer, the only thing that remains to be said is that you have to behave as Christian and so the gospel becomes a new law.
Neither the preaching of the law - not as rule of thankfulness but as a taskmaster to Christ to make us aware of our sin and misery - nor the element of self examination is given the place is ought to have in preaching when there such an attitude as I described. Although everyone who hears the Word must be called to repent and believe, we must never forget that the consolation of the gospel only belongs to sinners who again and again flee to Christ with the prayer: ‘have mercy upon me’. Isolating the life of thankfulness from the awareness of our remaining sinfulness and of the need we always have of the blood of Christ leads to legalism and transforms the gospel into a new law. A law that Christian full of self righteousness think they can fulfil, but also a law that depresses to true believer who can only be comforted with the gospel message: ‘Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29)
Let me recommend to you, in this context, the works of Kohlbrugge, the theologian I already mentioned. It is a pity that English translations of his work are rare and can be found only with great difficulty. You will find them in certain libraries. I can also recommend the works of Luther and especially his commentary on the Galatians. Luther is more clear in these things than certain Calvinists. I have noticed again and again that Calvi-nists with have that smell of activism and triumphalism do not see Luther as one of our spiritual fathers. But classical Calvinists although disagreeing with Luther on several points, still considered him especially in his view on the relationship between law and gospel as a guide to be trusted.
In the writings of several of the English Puritans of and also of the Scottish Marrow-men Luther is quoted more than once. I just point to the influence of Luther on John Bunyan. That is also a man whose writing I can recommend especially with respect to these things. I call your attention just for the title of one of his works A Defence of the Doctrine of Justification by Faith in Jesus Christ; Showing True Gospel Holiness Flows from Thence.