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Sanctification — Its Means

The Holy Spirit is the divine Agent of sanctification, yet He uses means to accomplish His great work. In logical order we may classify the means as primary and secondary.

Primary Means

The primary means of the Spirit's sanctification is the Word of God.4
    Sanctify them through Thy truth: Thy Word is truth. —John 17:17.

    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. — Acts 20:32.

    Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it; that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word . . . —Eph. 5:25, 26.

    Now ye are clean through the Word which I have spoken unto you. — John 15:3.

    Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. — Col. 3:16.

    Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. . . . Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee. — 1 Tim. 4:13, 16.

    All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. — 2 Tim. 3:16,17.

    As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the Word, that ye may grow thereby . . . — 1 Pet. 2:2.
The greatest danger exists when men try to separate God's Spirit from His Word. As Luther complained against the Enthusiasts, they sit in a corner or gaze up into heaven for the Spirit instead of coming to terms with the Word of God.

First, we should realize that the Word is likened to seed. As the life of the plant is in the seed, so the life of God is in His Word. He who receives the Word of God into his heart receives the very life and character of God. The germinating principles of truth will work like leaven to transform the entire life into the likeness of the divine character.

Second, Christ is always present in His Word.
    But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:) or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.) But what saith it? The Word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the Word of faith, which we preach . . — Rom. 10:6-8.
"Christ in you [or among you], the hope of glory," means that the message of Christ is heard and received by the elect community (see Col. 1:23-27). So the apostle exhorts the church:
    Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.—Col.3:16.

Third, the Word "is the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. When the Word is read, the Spirit is present.
Luther. Jesus said, ". . . the words that I speak unto you, they are Spirit, and they are life." John 6:63. Whether the Holy Spirit convicts, converts, quickens, comforts, heals, guides or strengthens, He always does it by the Word. The Word may reach the heart in the words of the preacher, the entreaty of a friend, or even the warning of a foe. All these agencies God may use as instruments to declare His Word. But it is of utmost importance to realize that "God's Spirit is annexed to His Word." — Calvin. Being filled with God's Spirit is the same as being filled with God's Word (cf. Eph. 5:18; Col. 3:16). That is why Luke records that every time someone was filled with the Spirit, he opened his mouth and declared the Word of God (Acts 2:4, 11,22;4:31; Luke 1:67; etc.). Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. If man's heart is filled with the Spirit, he will give evidence of it by speaking the words of God. "For He whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto Him." John 3:34. So when Paul commanded the Ephesians, " . . . be filled with the Spirit. . . ," he added, speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord . . . " Eph. 5:18, 19.

Much that is being said today about the impartation of the Spirit is an injury to the churches. Many are claiming to have an exciting experience in the Holy Spirit which is given directly to them quite apart from any objective revelation of God's Word. There are signs, miracles, tongues and private revelations, but a sound exposition of God's Word is conspicuous by its absence. In some of the charismatic meetings which we have witnessed, the reading of the Bible was the least spectacular part of the meeting. In one place the people seemed bored and dull, and some even snored, until the Word was put aside and the spiritual exercises were begun.

The only safe path for our feet is to stand with the Reformers' declaration that men do not receive the Holy Spirit direct from heaven. He is mediated to us only through the Word. Warned Luther:

Therefore I exhort you to be on guard against those noxious spirits who say: A man acquires the Holy Spirit by sitting in a corner, etc. A hundred thousand devils he will acquire, and you will not come to God. — What Luther Says, ed. E. Plass, Vol.3, p.1462.

Therefore, we must affirm that there is no sanctification for those who neglect the Word or cast a part of the truth behind them.

Law and Gospel

The sanctifying Word comes to men in two forms — law and gospel. God's Word, as "the sword of the Spirit" (Eph. 6:17), has two cutting edges. Says the Lutheran Formula of Concord, "These two doctrines [law and gospel] , we believe and confess, should ever and ever be diligently inculcated in the Church of God even to the end of the world . . ." —Book of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia, 1957), pp. 260,261.

The right use of God's Word means the right use of the law and gospel. For instance, the Spirit uses the law to convict of sin and wound the conscience (Rom. 7:7-13), but the Spirit is not communicated to men through the law. "The Spirit is life" (Rom. 8:10), but "if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law." Gal. 3:21.

Gospel. The Holy Spirit is communicated to men, not through their hearing of the law nor by their doing it, but by their hearing of the gospel (Gal. 3:1-3). Says the apostle Paul to the Thessalonians, "For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance.. ." 1 Thess. 1:5. When Peter went to the home of Cornelius, he preached the message of forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ, and the record states, "While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the Word." Acts 10:44.

We see all sorts of gimmicks being resorted to today that men may receive the Holy Spirit. Some advocate "five steps"; others more or less. People even take lessons on how to talk in tongues, or they do something else to manipulate mind and emotions so that souls are carried away by some spiritual euphoria called the baptism of the Spirit. It is surely a sign of the end time, as Paul declares, "Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils . . ." 1 Tim. 4:1.

Let these priests of Baal scream and work themselves up to a high pitch of excitement around their altars, but let those armed with the gospel, like faithful Elijah, rear up the altar of God and place on it the true sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. When God sees this sacrifice presented in faith, He answers by fire. There can be no greater evidence of the Holy Spirit's presence than when the gospel is faithfully proclaimed and men believe on Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.

Besides the fact that the Holy Spirit comes to men through faith in the gospel (Gal. 3:13, 14) (and it is His presence which sanctifies), the gospel brings with it a sanctifying influence:

1. The gospel is a revelation of the divine character. The gift of Christ reveals the Father's heart. In the cross we see truth and justice blended with mercy and compassion. As men behold God as revealed in His crucified Son, the darkness of misapprehension of God's character is swept from their minds, and they come to appreciate His beauty of character. And the more they come to know Him, the more they admire His character. This has a great sanctifying effect on the human character.

But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord. — 2 Cor. 3:18.

2. The gospel of the cross is a revelation of God's estimate of sin. Here we see that sin is the most costly thing in the universe. The unrelieved heinousness of sin is put on display in the sufferings of God's dear Son. God will by no means spare the guilty. Sin merits awful punishment. In this universe all debts must be paid. Here is no easygoing benevolence that easily overlooks sin. By the cross sin is discerned in its hateful nature, and the soul is imbued with the resolve to hate sin and drive it from the soul temple.

3. The gospel of God's love and forgiveness becomes the motive for all right conduct (2 Cor. 5:14, 15).
    The strongest inducement for a Christian to obey the divine law, is the fact that he has been graciously pardoned for having broken the law. He follows after sanctification, because he has received justification. He obeys the law not in order to be forgiven, but because he has been forgiven. — William G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969), Vol.2, p.558.
Nothing enters so fully into the motives of conduct as a sense of the pardoning love of Christ. Forgiveness of past sins becomes the greatest incentive to avoid future ones. They are the great promises of the gospel which rouse the believer to separate from everything displeasing to God (2 Cor. 7:1; Rom. 12:1; 2 Pet. 1:4; etc.).

Law. The gospel is the end of the law as a means of becoming righteous before God or receiving the Holy Spirit. But the gospel does not mean the end of the law as a rule of life for believers. It is true that the law points us to Christ, but Christ also points us back to the law. Jesus said, "If ye love Me, keep My commandments." John 14:15. It was only when Paul was delivered from the law as a covenant of works that he could gratefully confess, "For I delight in the law of God after the inward man . . ." Rom. 7:22.

Karl Barth and some of the Lutheran theologians have been engaged in a real theological hassle over the order of law and gospel. Barth said, "Gospel and law," while Elert and others insisted, "Law and gospel." But the argument reminds us again of "The Blind Men and the Elephant."

In the matter of justification the order is unquestionably law and gospel. The law exposes our guilt and stops our mouths (Rom. 3:19, 20) 50 that we are prepared for the message of justification by grace, for Christ's sake, through faith (Rom. 3:24-26). Again, the law is a "schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith." Gal. 3:24. This is what Reformation theology called "the second use of the law."

Yet in some of the Pauline epistles we discern a different order. When writing to the Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, for instance, the apostle first reminds them of the gospel (the indicative), and on that basis he lays down the law (the imperative) as a rule of life for the believing community. This is what Reformation theology called "the third use of the law."

So in the matter of justification the order is law and then gospel. But in the matter of sanctification it is gospel and then law  — i.e., Paul virtually says, "First, here is the gospel. Now in view of what God has done for you and what you now are in Christ, this is how you ought to live."


We must return to what we said about the fussless, practical nature of sanctification. There is a danger of becoming too abstract in our definitions of holiness. We forget that the Hebrew writers, who wrote both Testaments, are very concrete. Sin means breaking God's law (1 John 3:4). Justification means being set right before the law (Rom. 2:13; 3:20-31). And what is holiness but a life conformed to the law of God? Sanctification is not rapture or the manifestation of spiritual ecstasy under extraordinary circumstances. It is entire surrender to the will of God. It is living by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. It is accepting Christ as Ruler as well as Saviour. Walter Marshall begins his great classic, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, by showing that sanctification means "to perform the duties of Holiness and Righteousness required in the law." He continues:
    The scope of all is to teach you how you may attain to that practice and manner of life which we call holiness, righteousness, or godliness, obedience, true religion, and which God requires of us in the law, particularly the moral law, summed up in the ten commandments, and more briefly in those two great commandments of love to God and our neighbour (Matt. xxii.37,39); and more largely explained throughout the holy Scriptures. My work is to show how the duties of this law may be done . . . — Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, p.1.

This concrete nature of sanctification — the true keeping of God's commandments — needs to be driven home in this permissive age. There has been such a onesided harping on "We are not saved by good works," that many people have gotten the idea that good works are of little consequence. Legalism used to mean the method of trying to be saved by our obedience to the commands of God. But as Dr. Gordon Clark has recently pointed out5 it has evolved a new meaning. Today it is often taken to mean any conscientious obedience to the will of God as revealed in His Word. The man who trembles at God's Word (Isa. 66:5) and is careful to submit his life to the authority of God's rule is in danger of having his name cast out as a legalist.

If we look to Adam's sin in the Garden of Eden and to Christ's obedience in the Garden of Gethsemane, we will not think it a small matter whether we yield conscientious obedience to God or not.We will see that there is no greater evil in the universe than sin — the transgression of God's holy requirements. As disobedience to God's law is the sum of all misery, so obedience to His law is the quintessence of all happiness. God did not send His Son to suffer and die in infinite shame and humiliation in order that we might enter a new order in which we can regard His holy commandments lightly. The purpose of the atonement was not merely our salvation, but that the divine law and government might be maintained and vindicated. It was that the whole universe might have God's estimate of sin and God's estimate of the holiness of His law.

If the confessions of the Reformation are unanimous in their rejection of salvation by the law, they are also at one in their insistence on the fact that we are saved for the keeping of the law. As Walter Marshall says, "Though we are not saved by good works, as procuring causes, yet we are saved to good works, as fruits and effects of saving grace." — Ibid., p. 99. Declares John Calvin, "Let us put far from us the ungodly notion that the law is not to be our rule, for it is our changeless rule of life." Says the Puritan, Samuel Bolton:

    Just as the Papists set up the law for justification, so the Antinomians decry the law for sanctification. We claim to be free from the curses of the law; they would have us free from the guidance, from the commands of the law. We say we are free from the penalties, but they would abolish the precepts of the law. They tell us that we make a false mixture together of Christ and Moses, and that we mingle law and Gospel together. How unjustly they lay this charge against us let men of understanding judge. We cry down the law in respect of justification, but we set it up as a rule of sanctification. The law sends us to the Gospel that we may be justified; and the Gospel sends us to the law again to inquire what is our duty as those who are justified. Whatever they say of the law, though they cast contempt and disgrace upon it, and upon those who preach it, yet we know that, for the substance of it, it is the image of God, a beam of His holiness. — Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (London: Banner of Truth), p. 71.6
The Scripture teaches us that it is not in man to direct his steps (Jer. 10:23). This is as true of the converted man as of the unconverted man. It is true that the believer has the Holy Spirit, but we must not get the idea that the Spirit sets a man free from the need for an objective, outside-of-me rule of life. The apostle Paul does not arrive at a "Spirit ethic." The Spirit is annexed to God's Word. Just as He leads us outside of ourselves to that "cross without" for justification, so He leads us to the "law without" for sanctification. We are justified by the outside work of Christ, and then we must be guided in the way of holiness by the outside Word of God.

Says the apostle, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." 2Tim. 3:16, 17. It is very apparent that Paul includes law as well as gospel in "all Scripture," for does not the Spirit use the law "for reproof, for correction"? And although the gospel inspires and motivates to good works, how may we be informed as to what works please God unless out of His law?

The law of God has a sanctifying effect far beyond mere information as to what is right and wrong. The law is the revelation of divine holiness, a transcript of God's character. It is an expression of God's idea. When we receive Christ, who is the perfect expression of God's law, it becomes our idea. We begin to love what God loves and to hate what He hates. The principles of the divine character, as expressed in God's law, are written by the Spirit of God on the tables of the heart (Heb. 10:16). The perfection which the law demands becomes the aim of our lives, the only standard that we can accept as worthy of the kind of service we owe to God. With the apostle Paul we rejoice in the law of God, yet mourn only that we fall far short of its perfection (see Rom. 7:14-25).

Therefore, it is plain as day, and may be clear to all save those who are obstinately blind, that the Spirit sanctifies the believer by means of the Word of God, and that Word includes both law and gospel. The man who is being sanctified will exhibit the same attitude to the law as the man who wrote Psalm 119. Just as there is no sanctification for those who reject the gospel, so there is no sanctification for those who despise the law.

The obverse side of hearing God speak to us in His Word is prayer — the believer's speaking to God. Yet without gospel and law there is no acceptable prayer. First, because the gospel alone shows us how we may approach God in the name and merits of the Man at God's right hand. His blood, righteousness and intercession give us access with confidence into God's presence (Heb. 10:19-21; Eph. 3:12). Second, because God will hear us when we pray according to His will (1 John 5:14), and the law of God is a revelation of the divine will. "He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be abomination." Prov. 28:9.

The Word, therefore, is the indispensable means of sanctification. The gospel brings the inspiration and power for obedience, and the law illuminates the path of obedience. This is Bible sanctification.

Secondary Means

The Spirit of God also works through secondary means7 to promote the believer's growth in the life of holiness.

God's people are called to separate from fellowship with sinners:
    Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in His law doth he meditate day and night. — Ps. 1:1,2.

    I have not sat with vain persons, neither will I go in with dissemblers. — Ps. 26:4.
The apostle warns the church:
    Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. Be not ye therefore partakers with them. . . .And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret. —Eph. 5:6,7,11,12.

    Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners. — 1 Cor. 15:33.

    Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be My sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty. — 2 Cor. 6:17, 18.
The assembly of believers, who have been called out from the world, is what the New Testament calls "the church." Here God's Word is preached and heard, the sacraments are administered, and the redeemed community have the benefit of Christian fellowship.

The church is the kind of environment that every Christian needs. it is not heaven, but as Luther says, the church is an inn for the sick and for the convalescents. Here the inmates need to be encouraged, fed, edified, warned and disciplined. He who would follow after holiness has something to do. The Bible says:
    . . . not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching. — Heb. 10:25.

    Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. — Col. 3:16.

    Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. — Gal. 6:1,2.

    . . . submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. — Eph. 5:21.
Then there are the providences and trials of life, which are used by God to shape and polish the believer as a living stone for the temple of God. Adversity, prosperity, sickness, disappointment, bereavement, failure and success are tools in the hands of the divine Architect.

Says James:
    My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. — James 1:2, 3.
Peter declares:
    . . . that the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ . . . — 1 Pet. 1:7.
Paul adds:
    And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose. — Rom. 8:28.

    For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory...— 2 Cor.4:17.
And says the writer to the Hebrews:
    . . . for whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth. . . . Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but He for our profit, that we might be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby. — Heb. 12:6, 9-11.

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Footnotes:

4 The sacraments of baptism and the supper are signs of the gospel, for in them the gospel is proclaimed. Other than this acknowledgment, we will not enter into a discussion of the Sacraments as a means of grace.
5 Gordon Clark, "concerning Justification," Christianity Today, Mar.16, 1973.
6 The reader is also referred to G.C. Berkouwer's excellent chapter, "Sanctification and Law," in his Faith and Sanctification Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952.
7 These things are not "the means of grace" in the sense that the Word of God is the means of grace. We do not mean that they convey forgiveness of sins, faith and the Holy Spirit to us, but that God uses these things to nourish faith.