In Light of the Gospel » Blog Archive » The Gospel and Sanctification
What is the gospel? Even in Reformed theological circles today the answer to that question is answered differently. The very idea that the gospel not only promises but commands may seem to some a departure from Reformed theology. Yet, the great Scottish theologian, Samuel Rutherford upholds the position that the gospel both persuades and commands. Concerning the “commanding” nature of the gospel, Rutherford writes: “it both commands, (as the Law doth) and with a more strong obligation of the constraining love of Christ…so here be no differences at all” (Spirituall Antichrist, II.122). John Davenant, a British delegate to the Synod of Dort, argues similarly: “The law, because it regards man as created by God in uprightness of nature, requires good works to be done in the strength of nature; but the Gospel, because it regards man as fallen, requires good works from the justified; but to be done, not by the strength of nature of free will, but from infused grace” (Treatise on Justification, 1:288).
Rutherford elsewhere affirms that the law and the gospel require the same obedience (Pt. II.7). Indeed, “positively”, they are not contrary to one another. “Perfect obedience, which the Law requireth, and imperfect obedience which the Gospel accepteth are but graduall differences” (II.8). Furthermore, “the Gospel abateth nothing of the height of perfection, in commanding what ever the law commandeth in the same perfection….In acceptation of grace, the Gospel accepteth lesse than the law, but commandeth no lesse” (Pt. II.8). (Maybe Rutherford was thinking of Acts 14:15b?). Rutherford’s position can also be located in theologians such as William Perkins and John Owen.
How can Rutherford maintain such a position? He, like many of his contemporaries, understands Paul’s law-gospel contrast not to be primarily that of command versus promise, but instead a redemptive-historical contrast. But there is more than that.
We need to understand that the gospel is really about Christology first and foremost. Reformed Christology places a stress on the organic relationship between Christ’s person and work; he is prophet, priest, and king; and all of these offices relate to the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is to say, the Gospel is the whole Christ, his person and his work, and our receiving the whole Christ by faith. More than that, Reformed Christology has historically placed a great deal of emphasis on the role of the Spirit in relation to Christ. Hence, Christology informs our pneumatology and vice versa. Paul’s Christology is Paul’s pneumatology; and these two aspects are integral to the gospel (see 1 Cor. 15; 2 Cor. 3:17-18). The Spirit’s work in us is actually Christ’s work in us and for us (Rom. 8:9).
Now, we might possibly come to the conclusion that the gospel is only about “Christ for us”, which some might take to mean: “Christ died for the penalty of our sins; thus the gospel is synonymous with justification by faith alone, that is, the gospel is a forensic declaration that lies entirely outside of us.” Or, you may have heard it put this way: “what Christ has done for us is Christianity; what he does in us is his own business, but what he’s done for us is Christianity. The Reformers really believed, and their followers really believed, that nothing that happens in me is the gospel…the gospel is external. It has to do with Christ dying for me.” However, not only is that not the case for some of our finest Reformed theologians, but such an idea certainly flies in the face of the biblical evidence.
The gospel certainly is “Christ for us”, but that does not mean that that does not include “Christ in us”, something the great English Puritan theologian Thomas Goodwin was careful to point out (see below).
Some theologians have typically distinguished between three works of God: immanent (e.g. the Father electing in eternity), transient (e.g. the Son dying in time), and applicatory (the Spirit applying the merits of Christ’s work). The scope of the gospel involves God’s immanent, transient, and applicatory works. This not only provides a wide scope to the nature of the gospel, but also enforces a fully Trinitarian understanding of salvation.
Thomas Goodwin elaborates on this idea. The concept of “Christ in you the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27) occupies a central place in the gospel. Basing his exposition of the gospel on Colossians 1:3-23, Goodwin shows that “the gospel does not only thus convey the Holy Spirit to you, to dwell in your forever, clotheth you with this righteousness, enableth you with open face to behold God…I say the gospel doth not only do all this, but it changeth you into the same image, from glory to glory” (Works, 4:329).
The distinction between “Christ for us” and “Christ in us” is certainly helpful; but, we should be careful to note that “Christ in us” really is “Christ for us”. Indeed, Goodwin argued that “the main sum and substance of Christianity then is, that Christ be revealed in us, and not only to us; that you come to have Christ by application in and to your souls; Christ brought down into your heart….All, then, that God works upon you savingly, from first to last, is a discovery of Christ, some way or other, in you. It is either the knowledge of his person, or it is a conformity to him…and this I call the sum or substance of our religion” (4:345-46). The gospel includes all soteric blessings, including those that are “in” us (e.g. sanctification & glorification).
I believe this is vitally important. In my experience, there is a tendency that I have noticed in some Reformed churches to view the gospel as co-extensive with justification. Thus, sanctification becomes the “response” of the believer to the gospel. In other words, sanctification can be viewed as simply “gratitude” on our part. Some who adopt this view recoil in horror at the thought that good works are necessary for salvation, particularly if they make justification synonymous with salvation or the gospel synonymous with justification. In connection with this, Richard Gaffin has made the following point:
“With such a construction justification and sanctification are pulled apart; the former is what God does, the latter what we do, and do so inadequately. At worst, this outlook tends to devolve into a deadening moralism. What takes place, in effect, is the reintroduction of a refined works principle, more or less divorced from and so in tension with the faith that justifies. These self-affirming works, those self-securing and self-assuring efforts, so resolutely resisted at the front door of justification, creep back in through the back door of sanctification” (BFNBS, 76-77). (Incidentally, the sharp Lutheran antithesis between “law” and “gospel” appears to have been partly responsible for the rise of pietism.)
Gaffin adds: “Sanctification, first of all and ultimately, is not a matter of what we do, but of what God does. As the best in the Reformation tradition recognizes, it (sanctification), no less than our justification, is a work of his grace” (BFNBS, 77). And, that really is good news.
As Berkouwer noted, “the path of good works runs not from man to God, says Paul, but from God to man” (Faith & Sanctification, 191). Are we really prepared to say that our obedience is not part of Paul’s gospel message when we recognize that our good works have been prepared in advance for us to do?
These emphases are necessary because Christ died to make his church holy (Eph. 5:25-27; 1 Peter 2:24; Col. 1:21-23; 2 Cor. 5:15). Herman Bavinck notes the importance of sanctification: “To understand the benefit of sanctification correctly, we must proceed from the idea that Christ is our holiness in the same sense in which he is our righteousness. He is a complete and all-sufficient Savior. He does not accomplish his work halfway but saves us really and completely. He does not rest until, after pronouncing his acquittal in our conscience, he has also imparted full holiness and glory to us….[Evangelical sanctification] consists in the reality that in Christ God grants us, along with righteousness, also complete holiness, and does not just it impute it but also inwardly imparts it by the regenerating and renewing working of the Holy Spirit until we have been fully confirmed to the image of his Son” (Reformed Dogmatics, 3:248).
Justification answers to God’s righteousness; sanctification answers to his holiness. “Hence, the two are equally necessary and are proclaimed in Scripture with equal emphasis….Justification and sanctification…grant the same benefits”, namely, “the entire Christ” (RD, 3:249). And the entire Christ is the entire gospel, which brings me back to my initial contention that the gospel really is about Christology and all that that means, which includes “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).
For Thomas Goodwin this was actually a source of comfort: “that whatsoever glory, and whatsoever riches of Jesus Christ the gospel lays open, it is all yours, it is all in you, and for you” (4:337). By making the gospel not simply about “Christ for us”, but also “Christ in us”, Goodwin actually heightens the Christological glories of the gospel by making a similar point to the one made by Gaffin above:
“if I act anything, it is not I, but the grace of Jesus Christ in me…If I be sanctified it is not grace, so much as Christ, is made sanctification. The truth is, that as a man still grows up more and more gospelised in his spirit, so Jesus Christ is in him, and works out all things else, till there be nothing but Christ in him…” (4:339).
All of this is to suggest that just because many in the church today have a faulty idea of “living the gospel”, we need not over-react to this principle by making the gospel to be totally outside of us. Such an idea would have been foreign to Thomas Goodwin, and I’m sure the Apostle Paul. Based upon the above, any charge of moralism towards those who make the gospel larger than simply justification by faith is utterly groundless. Indeed, in my opinion, moralism is best avoided when the gospel includes the whole Christ, who is both for and in us, the hope of glory.