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Q. What is sanctification?

A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness. 
(Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q&A 35)

Several times I have heard Christians recite the following formula: “Christians are saved by grace, justified by faith, and sanctified by works.” On first hearing, this sounds right as the slogan attempts to capture three important biblical emphases. Yes, we are saved by grace and not by our works (Rom. 6:14; Eph. 2:8). Yes, the ground of our justification is the merit of Christ, which becomes ours through faith alone (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16). And yes, good works will be found in the lives of those who are saved by grace and justified by faith (Eph. 2:10). But — and here is where the slogan takes us in the wrong direction — we are not sanctified by our good works.

This is a very important point and is often misunderstood by many. The reason why the last part of the above formula is incorrect (“sanctified by works”) is because when discussing sanctification, the formula confuses the cause (God’s grace) with the effect (good works). To put it another way, while the process of sanctification inevitably leads to the production of good works, good works do not produce our sanctification.

It is my sense that many Christians are confused about this matter. Thankfully, the resolution to this is made plain in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question and answer 35. Notice that according to the Shorter Catechism, our sanctification is said to be the work of God’s free grace. Sanctification does not result from the performance of good works. God’s people must be careful not to confuse the cause (grace) with the effect (good works) when it comes to this important doctrine. We are not sanctified by our good works; rather, because God sanctified us, by grace, He produces good works in our lives. In fact, we do not sanctify ourselves any more than we justify ourselves. Sanctification is God’s work, and His work in us produces good works, or what Paul describes elsewhere as the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–24).

In Ezekiel 36:27, we read the Lord’s declaration: “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” The cause is God’s indwelling Spirit, the effect of God doing this is that we obey His rules (that is, we do good works).

In two New Testament passages, Paul makes the same point. In Philippians 2:13 we read: “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” and then in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 the apostle states, “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” In both verses Paul is clear that God is the author of our sanctification. God renews and sanctifies us, we don’t renew and sanctify ourselves.

And yet, once we have been renewed by God’s grace, the effects of God’s work within us inevitably begin to manifest themselves. In fact, Paul puts it this way in Ephesians 2:10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” In Romans 6:4 Paul states that “we were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” In our union with Christ (of which baptism is the sign and seal), we die to sin so that we rise to newness of life. Paul goes on to say of those who have died and risen with Christ: “Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (vv. 13–14). 

The apostle Peter speaks of this cause and effect relationship in equally direct terms: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). Christ died for our sins, so that we might likewise die to sin and then live our lives accordingly — in righteousness.

So, while the slogan “saved by grace, justified by faith, sanctified by works” is well-intended, it misses the mark. It is better to say “saved by grace, justified by faith, and sanctified by the Spirit.” Indeed, having been justified by faith alone, we are renewed by God so that we die to sin and live in righteousness. Yes, we must do good works. But they are the effect of God’s grace, and not the means by which we are sanctified.  

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From the April 2009 Issue
Apr 2009 Issue