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Salvation — Its Biblical Definition

The gospel is the good news that the Lord Jesus Christ has suffered and died for the sins of the world. This good news message is being proclaimed to all the world and the invitation is being given for all to repent of their sins and believe in Christ as one's Savior and Lord. This message is the pulsating heart of Biblical revelation and all true evangelical religion.

Sin and the Law of God

The Biblical definition of "righteousness" is conformity to the law of God (Rom. 2:13; Ps. 106:3; Luke 1:6), while "sin" is lack of conformity to it. What could be clearer than the words of the apostle John, "Sin is the transgression of the law." 1 John 3:4.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism says, "Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God." Dr. A. H. Strong likewise says, "Sin is lack of conformity to the moral law of God, either in act, disposition, or state."
A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology , p. 549.

Modern theology, however, scorns the simple Bible definition of sin and prefers to use a lot of fancy words to tell us what it is. Paul Tillich, for example, declares that "Sin is the unreconciled duality of ultimate and preliminary concerns, of the finite and that which transcends finitude, of the secular and the holy."
Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology , Vol. 1, p. 218. In a meeting of the American Philosophical Association at New Haven, Tillich also said, "When I use the word 'sin' I do not mean anything like the violation of the ten commandments."

Imagine how very little conviction of sin would be created in the hearts of those listening to preachers who feed on Tillich! Neither will speaking in generalities prepare the hearts of sinners for the gospel. Ministers who do not wish to disturb the carnal slumbers of sinners, should follow this unfailing rule: Attack sin in general, but never become specific. Abraham Kuyper says:

    Generalities are useless.... Ministers who seek to uncover and expose the man of sin by simply saying that men are wholly lost, dead in trespasses and sin, lack the cutting force which alone can lay open the putrefying sores of the heart.—Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), p. 252.
The apostle Paul makes three decisive statements about the law and sin:
    Where no law is, there is no transgression. Rom. 4:15.

    Sin is not imputed where there is no law. Rom. 5:13.

    I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. Rom. 7:7.

From this we may confidently draw the following conclusions:

1. Where there is no knowledge of the law, there is no knowledge of sin.

2. Only those who take the law seriously will take sin seriously.

3. It is useless to preach the gospel to those who have not found themselves to be sinners before the law or those who are not interested in coming to terms with its righteous demands. The law is a mirror. While a man cannot wash his face in a mirror, neither will he desire to wash his face unless he looks into the mirror and sees his state of uncleanness.


Just as we cannot understand what sin is apart from the law, so we cannot understand God's redemptive acts apart from the law. The word redemption, as used in both the Old and New Testament, means a release or deliverance by means of payment. The idea of price must not be forgotten. The word implies deliverance at a cost (see Morris, op. cit. , pp. 12-64).

While God is omnipotent, we must not entertain the idea that He accomplished our deliverance as an easy matter. This is why the Bible writers use a word which implies deliverance at a great price. The question arises, Why a price? or, To whom did God pay the ransom? One erroneous theory of redemption, advocated by some of the church fathers, was that God paid the ransom to the devil. But man did not belong to Satan in the first place. Man might be the devil's captive, but certainly Satan was not man's rightful owner.

But rather, the ransom "price" that was paid was the suffering and death of God Himself in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. While on the cross of Calvary, He suffered the terrible justice and wrath of God which the curse of sin had brought upon the sons and daughters of Adam. We are the ones who deserve to suffer and die on the cross rather than Jesus Christ. It is we who are the lawbreakers and it is we who must meet the demands of God's justice. But the love of God, in pity for us all, reached out to us and He took it upon Himself to bear that curse and punishment which the holy Law of God demanded. He suffered the infinite pains of hell so that we may have the blessing of forgiveness and eternal life. He loved as only a father could love and thus his love could not bear to let us die in our sins. There is no sin which could be committed for which Christ did not suffer. As He hung upon the cross, He suffered in the place of all who fall short of the glory of God, and thus even the vilest of sinnersthe murderer, the adulterer, the child abuser, and the sexual pervert can be forgiven. In all of human history, there is no one for whom Christ did not suffer in order to atone for their sin. Thus, "whosoever" shall call upon the name of Jesus can be forgiven and filled with the Holy Spirit to be saved, not only from the penalty of sin, but the power of sin as well.

The apostle Paul relates redemption to God's Law when he says, "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law." Gal. 3:13. Redemption is related to the justice of God, the moral Governor of the universe. God's justice requires that the law be fulfilled by a life of perfect obedience, and, where there is a failure to conform to His holy will, His justice requires satisfaction by an adequate penalty. God is merciful and He delights in mercy and longs to forgive. But He is also just and will uphold the moral order of the universe. Justice is an attribute of God's character just as much as is mercy, and justice demands that sin be punished and the death penalty executed. God cannot deny Himself, nor can He act contrary to His nature. The Bible writers never give the impression that God forgives sin without regard for justice. The only way God could forgive sinners and remain just was to see to it that His law was fulfilled by a holy life and satisfied by a penal death. This required a price so great that God was the only one in the universe who could save men by meeting the demands of justice. In the person of His Son, He came to this world and undertook this obligation for us. He stood in our place as our Substitute and Representative. In our name and on our behalf, He was "made under the law" (Gal. 4:4). First, by a life of holy obedience, He fulfilled its just claims of a perfect sinless life. Secondly, then by a shameful death on the cross of Calvary, He bore the penalty of sin to make atonement for the transgressions of the race of sinners. All this proved that "God will not, and God cannot, change His law by one hair's breadth, even to save a universe of sinners" (Lord Bacon).

It was this view of the atonement which led Adolphe Monod to cry out, "Save first the holy law of my God — after that you can save me." The great Puritan, John Flavell, observed, "Never was the law of God more highly honored as when Christ stood before its bar of justice to make reparations for the damage done." And Spurgeon declared, "I felt that it would not satisfy my conscience if I could be forgiven unjustly."

When men see the atonement only as a means of escape for themselves, a mere skillful way to have their sins pardoned, it will not have the necessary ethical and moral motivation that real Christianity will produce. Those who do not see how seriously the atonement takes the law, will not be led to take the law seriously in their daily living. Our view of the atonement tends to be far too subjective. The object of the atonement was not just our salvation but that the divine law and government might be maintained and vindicated.

If there is a failure to relate the atonement to the law, the death of Christ may appear awesome — but completely unintelligible. On the one hand, people are left with the impression that an angry, vindictive God punished His Son so that, being appeased, He could let us off. (This heathenish view of sacrifice is the philosophy of antinomianism.) On the other hand, some imagine that there was nothing in the divine character or government which demanded punishment for sin. It is said that the death of Christ was merely an exhibition of God's love designed to change us. (This is the "Moral Influence" view of liberal humanism, which denies the Bible principle of salvation by substitution, representation and penal satisfaction. This is the philosophy of legalism.)

Repentance and the Holy Spirit

"Repent ye, and believe the gospel," is the message of the New Testament. Without repentance, none can believe unto salvation. "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." But unless men are caused to see what sin is in the light of God's law and what the atonement is in the light of God's law, they are not going to have any true repentance.

The Greek word for repentance ( metanoia ) literally means a change of mind or attitudes, a change of mind or attitude to the law of God. Bible repentance is repentance for sin, and sin is the transgression of the law, or lawlessness (1 John 3:4). The Bible declares, "The carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be." Rom. 8:7. Here we are told that the natural, unrepentant man is hostile to God and to His law. God and His law cannot be separated. Our attitude to one is our attitude to the other. Man is a fugitive from law. Like the prodigal, he thinks that freedom consists in being free from the authority of the Father. But repentance means a wholly new attitude to God and to the authority of His law—just as the returning prodigal had a completely new view of his father's authority.

How does such repentance come about? Before the apostle Peter called the Jews to repentance on the Day of Pentecost, he told them what they had done and uncovered their awful guilt. The Holy Spirit uses the Law of God to bring conviction of sin and guilt. The Holy Spirit attends the preaching of the Law and the Gospel as a two edged sword in the word of God.

But it is actually best for you that I go away, because if I don't, the Counselor won't come. If I do go away, he will come because I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convince the world of its sin, and of God's righteousness, and of the coming judgment. John 16:7-8

The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. Acts 5:30-31

Paul says, "I had not known sin, but by the law." Unless the law of God is proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit so that men are brought to see that they are damned sinners who deserve and ought to die, they will not repent. This was the point of Luther's conflict with Agricola, the first great Protestant antinomian.

Agricola said that the law was no longer needed to bring men to repentance. Merely preach the love of God and the cross of Christ, and men will come to repentance, he claimed. This insidious opinion threatened to overthrow the cause of the Reformation in Germany. Luther and Melancthon united to oppose this heresy with all the authority of God-given truth, and for future generations they left it clearly on the record of history that the law of God must be maintained and diligently taught in the churches.

We repeat again: Unless the law takes hold of man and convinces him of his utter corruption, lost condition and exposure to the awful penalty of sin, he will not repent.

But there is another element to be considered in repentance. The apostle declares, "The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance." Rom. 2:4. This goodness of divine love and compassion is seen in the cross of Christ. Having seen his awful weight of guilt, the sinner now sees the Son of God bearing it on his behalf as his Substitute. When he sees the holy Father not sparing His own Son, he knows that the holy Law can never be abrogated, modified or relaxed. When he understands that the law had to be fulfilled and satisfied before God could justly extend forgiveness to such a poor rebel, he repents. Now he is not just sorry because he fears the consequences of sin. He is sorry for sin. He sees what it has done to his God-given manhood. He sees how it has caused the infinite suffering of the Son of God. With David he cries, "Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil." Instead of remaining hostile to the authority of God's law, he despises his past life of rebellion and is truly sorry that instead of choosing God's way, the way of obedience, he has chosen his own way, followed his own wisdom and sought to be a law unto himself.

Such repentance cannot exist where there remains a wicked intention to sin. Repentance implies an acknowledgment of the authority of God's law. It is to say, "I am sorry for my rebellious disobedience. I am sorry for the suffering it has caused my best Friend."

Of course, no sinner can originate "repentance unto life." The Holy Spirit brings repentance to the heart of the sinner if he does not resist hearing the law and the gospel. The Spirit-inspired response to the preaching of law and gospel is always "repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20:21).

Repentance and faith are inseparable, yet their action is completely different. Repentance is generated in the heart of the sinner by the power of the Holy Spirit. The repentant contrite sinner acknowledges the authority of God's law and stands convicted in his heart of his guilt. But merely acknowledging what ought to be done will not save anyone. The repentant sinner casts his helpless soul upon the mercy of God and trusts only in the shed blood of Christ which has fulfilled the the law of God in his behalf. It is the object of ones faith which is meritorious. The Law's demands have been fulfilled by Christ's doing and dying on the cross. And so it is by faith in the sinless life and atoning death of our Lord on the cross of Calvary that repentant sinners who believe and keep on believing are saved from eternal destruction on the final day of judgment. Christ's perfect righteousness is thus imputed and reckoned to him and his name is enrolled in the Lamb's book of life.

Christ's Active Righteousness (His sinless life) and Passive Righteousness (His atoning death) Have Fulfilled the Law of God

As Creator, Lawgiver and Governor of the universe (Isa. 33:22), God has made known His moral law, and His justice requires that man render perfect obedience. Those who do the law, and do it all the time, are blessed and justified (Rom. 2:13; Ps. 106:3). Those who fail to do it at all times are cursed and condemned (Gal. 3:10; James 2:10). As Luther says, "The law must be fulfilled so that not a jot or tittle shall be lost, otherwise man will be condemned without hope."— Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press; St. Louis: Concordia), Vol. XXXI, pp. 348, 349. Repentance by itself stands before the law with nothing to pay. But not so with faith. Faith is the eye of the soul which sees that Jesus fulfilled the law of God for us (Matt. 5:17). Faith is the hand that personally accepts the gospel treasure and brings before God the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ. Faith says, "Mine are Christ's living, doing, and speaking, His suffering and dying; mine as much as if I had lived, done, spoken, and suffered, and died as He did. . . ."— Ibid ., pp. 297, 298. Faith unites the needy repentant soul to Christ and makes that soul a partner of the Lord of the universe, whose righteousness satisfies all the demands of the law. Thus, by faith the whole law—all that justice requires of us—is fulfilled, as it is written, "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness (justification) to every one that believeth." Rom. 10:4.

In this light, we may understand why Paul protests that faith does not side-step the law but establishes it (Rom. 3:31). To trust wholly in Christ's law-honoring sinless life and atoning death is the greatest honor that man can give to the law of God. Faith is not a way to get around the law. It is not a clever substitute for obedience. Faith enables the sinner to meet the claims of the law without compromising in any way the moral order of God's government.

Justification and the Law

Justification is a legal word which means to declare righteous, especially in reference to trial and judgment. It is a word that belongs to the law court. It is therefore impossible to understand this great Bible doctrine unless it is related to law. In the book of Romans, which is the Bible's great charter on justification, the word law is used fifty-six times. Dr. A. H. Strong points out, "Justification is setting one right before law."—Strong, op. cit ., p. 856.

At the outset of his great statement on justification, the apostle Paul declares, "The doers of the law shall be justified." Rom. 2:13. This is an eternal truth which can never be modified or relaxed. A just God and a just law will justify a man only on the condition of perfect obedience. There are two ways in which man may meet the terms. Either he can come before God in his own personal obedience, or he may come in the vicarious obedience of Another. But the principle remains: he must bring to God a life which fulfills the law.

The conflict between Rome and the Reformers was not over the question of whether or not righteousness was necessary for justification. Rome taught that men could be justified before God by a personal righteousness (albeit worked in their hearts by an infusion of divine grace). The Reformers said that men could be justified only by a vicarious righteousness (performed by Christ centuries ago and imputed to the believer). The dispute was never about whether the claims of the law should be satisfied but how they are satisfied.

The great doctrine of justification by faith has often been taught in such a way that it is positively dishonoring to God and to His law. Many think they are following Paul when they speak contemptuously of the law, not realizing that they are blaspheming the honor and majesty of God Himself. The great apostle unsparingly attacks law as a method of salvation but never, never as a moral and ethical norm.

Sanctification and the Law

The Reformers all clearly saw that the law has three main uses:

1. The First Use — (or "political" use) to restrain evil in society.

2. The Second Use, (or "pedagogic" use) — to convict of sin and to be a stern schoolmaster (pedagogue) to lead the sinner to Christ for forgiveness.

3. The Third Use — (or "moral guide" use) to be a moral guide for regenerated Christians to define God's will in sanctification.

A large section of Protestantism today has either neglected or abandoned the great Biblical and Reformation concept of "the third use of the law." (And we are not just referring to the liberals, some of whom have wandered so far from "the holy commandment" that they even talk of condoning homosexuality). A number of evangelicals have been actively promoting this brand of "evangelical" antinomianism for years. In fact, the American evangelical movement is largely caught up in the theories of dispensationalism, views which began to be promoted a little more than a hundred years ago in England. Dispensationalism and Reformation theology are incompatible. Dispensationalists deny the third use of the law. As Louis Berkhof says in his Systematic Theology (London: The Banner of Truth Trust), page 614, "it is pure Antinomianism . . . ."

To what does a denial of the third use of the law amount? Lutheran scholar, John Warwick Montgomery, calls it sanctification de-sanctified (see John Warwick Montgomery, The Suicide of Christian Theology [Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, Inc., 19701, pp. 423-428; reprinted in Present Truth Magazine, March, 1973). It means the destruction of that great doctrine of Christian sanctification. Why? Because, to use the words of G. C. Berkouwer, "Sanctification and law are inseparable; within their compass moves all of redeemed human life."—Berkouwer, op. cit ., p. 182.

Just as sin, redemption, atonement, repentance and justification lose all true meaning apart from the law, so does sanctification. Sanctification flows from justification. At the same time as the repentant believing sinner is justified by the imputation of Christ's righteousness (an act of God external to the sinner), he is renewed by the impartation of the Holy Spirit (an act of God internal to the believer). Justification sets him right before the law legally and positionally, but being renewed in the spirit of his mind, he begins the life of new obedience. This is sanctification, and it means being conformed to the law of God morally and vocationally. "The children of God are ready to submit themselves to the holy law of God which is now the rule of their lives."— Ibid ., pp. 191, 192.

"Whatever in his [the converted man's] previous course of life was at variance with God's law is at once abandoned."—James Buchanan, The Office and Work of the Holy Spirit (London: The Banner of Truth Trust), p. 1 1 0. In the gift of the Holy Spirit, God writes His law in the hearts of the justified (Heb. 8:10). They are no longer hostile to it (Rom. 8:7), for the scripture is fulfilled:

    For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. Rom. 8:3, 4.

This has been the doctrine of all the great Protestant divines since the days of the Reformation — whether they be Lutheran, Calvinistic, Anglican, Puritan, or Wesleyan. Melancthon, in his Apology of the Augsburg Confession , clearly spelled out sanctification as the new obedience to the law.

There is not a trace in the Reformation, says he [Melancthon], of the supposed fixity of man's moral condition; as if faith were merely the reception of some obscure, external righteousness. It is quite otherwise. Once we have been justified through faith we must keep the law. He mentions the decalogue by name.—Berkouwer, op. cit , p. 37.

And since that time, there has not been one sound, responsible Protestant theologian who has deviated from this principle.

Acknowledging the law's third use is not a return to legalism or a new self-righteousness.

    . . . Luther's theology rests primarily on thankful certainty, and out of it flows the duty of keeping the commandments.—Adolf Koberle, The Quest for Holiness (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1938), p. 169.

    A full-fledged acknowledgment of the third use of the law, rather than being the offspring of a legalistic orientation, issues from the benefaction of grace which liberates man from a precarious autonomy and places him under the direction of God's holy commandments.—Berkouwer, op. cit ., p. 168.

    The believer no longer tries to sail heavenwards on clouds of self-righteousness. Having found anchorage in the righteousness of Christ, he has every reason to render obedience to God's law. In this new obedience the law receives again its original function, a function no longer conceivable in abstraction from the grace of God. For now the commandments are to the believer the gracious guidance of the Saviour-God.— Ibid. , p. 175.

Sanctification and law are truly inseparable. Remove one, and you destroy the other.

True Sanctification

Just as we are justified by faith in Christ's blood (a work external to ourselves), so we are sanctified by faithful obedience to an objective law (the Word of God, which is external to ourselves). Jesus prayed that we might be sanctified by the Word of truth (John 17:17), and the apostle Peter says that the soul is purified by "obeying the truth" (1 Peter 1:22).

Bible sanctification consists in submission to live by something objective—even the Word of the living God. It means that we no longer seek to be guided by our own wisdom, nor by mysterious and uncertain voices within ourselves. Once this basic concept of sanctification is lost or abandoned, men have nothing to fall back on but their own subjective experiences. The issue is one of authority—the authority of God's law versus the authority of human experience.

If the great doctrine of justification is to be restored to its rightful place in the church, we must preach "the second use of the law" — the law to point out sin, the law as a schoolmaster to lead to Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:24).

If the great doctrine of sanctification is to be restored to its rightful place in the church, we must proclaim "the third use of the law" — the law as a guide to forgiven justified believers.

If the second use of the law falls, so does the third, or vice versa. Then there is neither a correct basis for justification nor for sanctification. This is why the church is drowning in an unprecedented flood of religious subjectivism.
Christ's doing and dying are the sole meritorious grounds of God's being able to judge us and treat us as righteous. This is being "justified by Christ." Gal. 2:17. The gospel proclaims that sinners are saved by the objective, concrete acts of God in history. This is an action which is so far outside the sinner that it happened two thousand years ago. This is Christianity. It is the only truly historical religion. All other religions teach that salvation is found in some process within the worshiper, and consequently the worshiper's supreme preoccupation is with his internal experience. Christianity alone proclaims a salvation which is found in an event outside the believer.

This truth, of course, is a great offence to human pride. Cannot we at least sympathize with the children of Israel in the wilderness? Many were bitten by serpents and were facing certain death. Moses put a likeness of a deadly serpent on a pole and invited the dying to look and live. Whoever had heard of such a thing as this? The poison was inside, and how could something completely outside bring them any help? So they were inclined to reason.To us who are bitten by that old serpent, the devil, Jesus declares:

    And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up. . . . — John 3:14.

The meritorious basis of salvation is not a subjective process. If the way of salvation were simply a matter of inviting Christ into the heart or being born again by the Spirit, then Christ need not have come here to suffer and die. No amount of sanctification or inward holiness can bridge the gulf that sin has made and put us into right relationship with God. Fellowship with God cannot rest on an internal process of being made holy. Perfection is not something that God requires at the end of the road. He demands perfection and absolute holiness before any right relationship can begin.

God was not play acting at Calvary. If He were not bound by His own law of eternal rectitude, then Christ need not have died. Calvary was not a legal fiction. It proves that divine law is inexorable. It gives us a legal (lawful) basis of salvation.

It has often been said that justification is deliverance from the guilt of sin, while sanctification is deliverance from the power of sin. This absolutely true, but we must not split them up so that we would conceive of a man enjoying one blessing without the other.

This often happens in "holiness" theology where it is postulated that there are two types of Christians — the elect, who are delivered from the guilt of sin, and the very elect, who are also delivered from the power of sin; or those who only (?) know Christ as Saviour and those who also know Christ as Lord. The Bible knows nothing of this kind of separation between justification and sanctification. It is thoroughly mischievous in its results. If it does not lead to spiritual pride among those who imagine that they are out of Romans 7 into Romans 8, it leads to the Christ-denying notion that a man can be saved from the guilt of sin and yet continue to wallow in its pollution—as if sanctification were optional as far as salvation is concerned.

There is a direct relationship between the guilt of sin and the power of sin. If the guilt of sin is removed, the power of sin is broken. This is Paul's point in Romans 6:14: "For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace." That is to say, as long as a man is "under the law," sin will be king over him, and he will be forced to surrender to its reign. But if he comes under grace, sin has no more power to rule and tyrannize.

It has often been said (and truly) that justification is our title to heaven. We must not forget, however, that the life of heaven begins in the life of holiness here and now. Sanctification is glorification begun. It is the life of heaven in the seed, the first fruits, or down payment, of the immortal inheritance (Rom. 8:23; Eph. 1:14). Heaven is access into God's presence. It is to partake of His holiness and to participate in His life. But this participation in the holiness of God begins here with those who "have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good Word of God, and the powers of the world to come." Heb. 6:4, 5.

In the Fall man lost all those rights and privileges. A sinner has no right or title to participate in God's life of holiness. Yet Christ, and Christ alone, has won for man this right of access: ". . . as many as received Him, to them gave He the right, or privilege [margin], to become sons of God [to be partakers of His divine nature—2 Pet. 1:4], even to them that believe on His name. . ." John 1:12. Faith justifies, and being justified, we have legal access (rights and titles) to enter the way of holiness. Along this route to "the celestial city" many trials lie in wait to purify our faith. There are giants to beat us, nets to catch us, and crafty men to beguile us. And along the King's highway travel such saints as "Ready to Halt," "Little Faith" and poor "Christian," who runs afoul of trouble times without number. In such times of temptation and human weakness, how could we assure our hearts before God unless we could look to our title found in the righteousness of the One who represents us at God's right hand? How easily faith would falter and we would stand disarmed in the midst of our enemies if, being challenged for our right to be traveling the road of sanctification, we put our hand (like "Ignorance") into our own bosom to find some grounds to be among the saints. Happy is the man who, in the hour of test and trial, can look outside to atonement instead of inside to attainment.

Though Satan should buffet,
Though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

Thus, justification is the legal (lawful) basis of sanctification. It makes holiness possible by removing sin's lawful right to rule us and by restoring our lawful right to walk in the way of holiness.

The Holy Spirit indwells the Believer

As we have seen in an earlier section, the Holy Spirit is the effective Agent of sanctification. God sends Him into the hearts of His people in order that they might be sanctified. How then can our sanctified obedience be the condition for receiving the Holy Spirit? Yet on every hand we read books and listen to sermons telling us how we may receive the Holy Spirit by "five steps," "seven steps," "absolute surrender," and other amazing feats of human endeavor. Some even teach that the outpouring of God's Spirit will take place when God's people are fully sanctified. But if we could do these things in order to get the Holy Spirit, what would we need the Spirit for?

What is the testimony of God's Word? Simply that Christ, by His perfect righteousness, has won for us the unmerited gift of God's Spirit. The Spirit has been given to this one Man (Acts 2:32, 33), and all who receive this one Man are forgiven and receive the Holy Spirit without measure (Acts 10:43, 44; John 7:38, 39).

    O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? . . . For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continues not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but, The man that does them shall live in them. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangs on a tree: that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. — Gal. 3:1, 2, 10-14.

The way of justification by faith is the only way of receiving the Spirit of God. To be justified means to be forgiven and declared righteous. It means that God not only regards us as righteous, but can proceed to treat us as righteous. How does He treat the forgiven sinner as righteous? By giving him the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Nothing more and nothing less than perfect righteousness is necessary for the outpouring of God's Spirit. As every believer has this perfect righteousness imputed to him, he may on this one infallible basis have the Holy Spirit imparted to him. When the doctrine of justification by faith is allowed to languish, there is no Holy Spirit and, of course, no true sanctification — even though people spend all their time talking about getting ready for the outpouring of God's Spirit. When justification by faith is revived, the Spirit breathes new life into the church, and God's people run the way of sanctification with great joy and zeal.

Some Practical Examples of How Justification Is the Mainspring of Sanctification

When Christ directed the woman taken in adultery, " . . . go, and sin no more," He was commanding her to live the new life of holiness and purity. But this new life of sanctification was only possible as she first grasped the hope of justification and forgiveness that was given her in the promise of Christ, "Neither do I condemn thee . . ." John 8:11. The liberating decree of "no condemnation" (Rom. 8:1) sets the soul free to run the way of God's commandments.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul exhorts them, "Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth . . ." Col. 3:5. When we see the word therefore, common sense should direct us to see what it is there for. The apostle has just finished telling the Colossians, "For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God." v.3.

This illustrates the inseparable Biblical relationship between the indicative (you are) and the imperative (you ought). First the believers are reminded that they are dead. (Through faith they have been united to Christ. God considers that when Christ died, they died.) Then they are told, "Put to death your members which are upon the earth." As if to say, "God counts you as dead men, for that is what you really are in Christ. Now this gives you the right and responsibility to act like men who are dead to sin." We are not commanded to put to death our sinful desires in order to become dead, but because we are dead. Being is not the result of doing, but doing is the result of being.
Further on Paul adds to the Colossians, "Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds. . ." Col. 3:9. Every human religion reverses that order. The best it can tell us is to stop lying and thereby put away the old man and his deeds. But the way of the gospel is utterly contrary to human devisings. It says, "You are dead; now act like dead men. You are pure; now flee from impurity. You are perfect; now seek to become perfect. You are; therefore do!" "The New Testament method and way of sanctification, therefore, is to get us to realize our position and standing, and to act accordingly." — Ibid., p.262.

Here is another example of how the Biblical command to live in holiness is undergirded by the fact of justification:

    Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. — 2 Cor. 7:1.

This illustrates how we must grasp the promise of justification before we can obey the command of sanctification. We cannot "cleanse ourselves from all filthiness" unless we believe that we are already washed in the blood of the Lamb (1 John 1:9). We cannot engage in the process of perfecting holiness unless we realize that "by one offering He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified." Heb. 10:14.Consider this apostolic command: ". . . speak evil of no man . . ." Titus 3:2. Is there any commandment of God's Word that we so easily transgress? Who can endure this straight edge of the law? For we are not only commanded to refrain from speaking evil of good men, but we are forbidden to speak evil of any man. And what a blessed, innocent and holy congregation a pastor would have if the members carried this out! Yet if the pastor merely exhorts his congregation to live this sort of life, it is only an exercise in moralism. Obedience to this imperative is only possible as the congregation is reminded and keeps grasping the message of justification by faith. When Paul says " . . speak evil of no man . . . " he adds:

    For [for this reason, in view of this] we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. — Titus 3:3-7.

The publican who in the parable of Christ went down to his house justified had prayed, "God, be merciful to me, the sinner!" Luke 18:13, N.A.S.B. This man was blessed because he was really poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3). He saw himself not only as a sinner, but as the sinner. He felt that no one could be a sinner like he. He stood before God as if he were all the world's sin. This is the man whom God counts righteous. Now when a congregation grasps this kind of justification before God, how can they speak evil of any man?

Whether Paul is appealing for humility (as in Philippians 2), a forgiving spirit (as in Ephesians 4) or dedicated service (as in Romans 12), he always does so on the basis of the gospel. Christian existence is gospel existence. Sanctification is justification in action.
Perhaps the most striking illustration of how redemption undergirds all ethical action is found in the Old Testament — right in God's own preface to the Ten Commandments: "I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. [Therefore] thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt not. . . . Thou shalt not. . . . Thou shalt not . . . ," etc. (Ex. 20:2-17). God's redemptive acts back there (which are an illustration of His liberating acts in Christ and justification by faith) made the new life of obedience a right as well as a responsibility for the redeemed people. Appeals to live the good life which are not based on the truth of justification by faith can only lead to moralism and legalism. But justification puts the believer on vantage ground — legally, psychologically, efficiently and positionally. It makes the yoke of sanctification easy and the burden of holiness light. "The eternal truth is that the law never stands by itself but can be found only, as under the old Dispensation, in the ark of the Covenant." —Berkouwer.

The Need for a Constant Return to Repentance, Justification, and the Forgiveness of Sin

Since the life of holiness is fueled and fired by justification by faith, sanctification must constantly return to justification. Otherwise, the Christian cannot possibly escape arriving at a new self righteousness. We cannot reach a point in sanctification where our fellowship with God does not rest completely on forgiveness of sins.
This is why Luther called justification the article of the standing or falling church. He confessed that his whole soul and ministry were saturated with the truth of justification. This is why he bitterly complained against the evangelical radicals who regarded sanctification, or the new life in the Spirit, as the higher stage in the soteriological (salvation) process. The man who thinks he can get beyond justification by grace falls from grace (Gal. 5:4).

In fact, the major aspect of sanctification is a growing appreciation of our need of God's justification through Jesus Christ. Growing toward Christian maturity does not mean being weaned from our dependence on imputed righteousness. The man who is strong in faith is strong in the doctrine of grace. He becomes more and more overwhelmed and bowed down with the sense of God's mercy and increasingly affixed to justification by the merits of Christ alone.

Says G. C. Berkouwer:

    The believer's constant "commerce" with forgiveness of sins and his continued dependence on it must—both in pastoral counseling and in dogmatic analysis—be laid bare, emphasized, and kept in sight. Only thus can we keep at bay the specter of haughtiness—"as if we had made ourselves to differ". — G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification, p.84.

Or worse yet, if in our zeal for sanctification we fail to keep the preeminence of justification before us, we will get lost in a "minute concern with inwardness." — Ibid., p.86. "History shows how easy it is to get lost when one treats of internal grace." —Ibid. Our only safety is a constant return to the objective truth of salvation by the outside-of-me righteousness of Christ.

Therefore, we must affirm that the essential mainspring of sanctification is to remember. The way of sanctification is to remember what has happened and what has been given to us. It is amazing how often this point is emphasized both in the Old and New Testament. Israel's ethical action was to be constantly undergirded and inspired by her remembrance of what had happened and what had been given to her (see Deut. 5:15). As long as Israel remembered God's redemptive acts in the beginning of her history, she would persevere in the way of holiness. If she forgot what had happened and lost sight of what was given her, she was sure to swerve from the way of holiness.

Our fathers understood not Thy wonders in Egypt; they remembered not the multitude of Thy mercies; but provoked Him at the sea, even at the Red Sea. Nevertheless He saved them for His name's sake, that He might make His mighty power to be known. He rebuked the Red Sea also, and it was dried up: so He led them through the depths, as through the wilderness. And He saved them from the hand of him that hated them, and redeemed them from the hand of the enemy. And the waters covered their enemies: there was not one of them left. Then believed they His words; they sang His praise. They soon forgot His works; they waited not for His counsel . . . . They forgot God their Saviour, which had done great things in Egypt; wondrous works in the land of Ham, and terrible things by the Red Sea. . . . Yea, they despised the pleasant land, they believed not His Word... — Ps. 106:7-13, 21, 22, 24.

The Present Continuous Nature of Justification and Forgiveness . For all its strength, Reformed theology tends to relegate justification by faith to an initiatory action in the soteriological process. This is because it contends that the subjective (personal) justification of the believing sinner is a once-and-for-all-time, non repeatable act. Hence the relationship between justification and sanctification is seen as justification succeeded by sanctification.

The tendency is to celebrate justification as something which happened "back there when I became a Christian" — or to have a memorial of it perhaps once a year. Admittedly, the Reformed doctrine of "the perseverance of the saints" puts some stern backbone into the necessity for sanctification. But where this is lost in the more popular "once saved, always saved" version, justification by faith really ceases to be vitally relevant in daily Christian existence.

We submit that the Reformed Calvinist scheme of "once justified always justified" fails to keep justification at the center. We suggest that Paul sees only the atonement of Christ on the cross as the once-and-for-all-time event freely offered to all who will believe and repent. The repentant believer is subjectively (personally) justified (declared righteous) when he receives Christ in faith. The gospel teaches us that the repentant believer in Christ is "eternally secure" only if he continues to believe to the end. Thus it is not just he who begins the race in Christ, but he who finishes the race in Christ who inherits eternal life by the unmerited grace of God. .

". . . being justified [present continuous tense] freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus . . . through faith . . ." Rom. 3:24, 25.

This is not just something which happened "back there when I became a Christian." The law always demands perfect righteousness. We always find ourselves falling short 8 of the law's demand (Rom. 3:20, 23). Hence, we must always confess ourselves as sinners and must always flee in faith to lay hold of that "righteousness of One," with which the law is well pleased. Believing unto justification is not a once-and-for-all-time action, but in the New Testament (John 3:16 for instance) it is generally written in the present continuous tense. As Luther writes in his commentary on Romans, the believer always waits and asks to be justified, and as he keeps on counting himself a sinner and imploring God's mercy, God keeps on counting him righteous.9 Justification, therefore, is no mere filling station along the way or no mere door that we enter but once. To accept God's justification in faith is our whole work for our whole life. We never get past "repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20:21) as our Lord and Savior. We never get beyond it. And certainly (as Luther warned many times) we never learn it too well. As we have received Christ so we are to continue to walk in Him. The Holy Spirit not only convicts us of sin at the beginning of our life in Christ, but He also continually convicts us of our short-comings and calls us to repentance and continued faith in the blood of Christ.

The strength of Reformed theology is that it recognizes that man today is still obligated to render to God the obedience that God required of man in his sinless state. This demand for perfect righteousness cannot be annulled, modified or relaxed. Christ did not die to make a lower or easier standard acceptable to God. Christ lived a sinless life in order that our faith might grasp the virtue of His obedience and be able to present to the law the perfect obedience which it rightfully demands. This does not mean that the believer, being justified by a vicarious righteousness, can become secure and lazy, not caring if he obeys or disobeys the holy commandments. He sees the law as an expression of the kind of man God wants him to be. In the gospel he sees that this is now the kind of man he is in Jesus Christ. Now the law becomes an expression of the kind of man he wants to become in daily, concrete existence. God's ideal has become his ideal.

This is what the Reformers called "the third use of the law" — the law as the rule of life for the justified forgiven believer. Although it cannot tyrannize the conscience of the believer, it is a radical and rigorous demand for utmost perfection in every act, word, thought and motive — a spiritual law that desires "truth in the inward parts." Ps. 51:6. As believers, the Spirit works within us "that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us." Rom. 8:4. But alas, there is another factor which we must contend with — something which causes us to cry out in anguish. This brings us to our next point.

Growing in Christ: "Righteous and yet Unrighteous" (Luther) Conversion to Christ does not do away with the bitter knowledge of our sin, but it puts us where we may endure its increasing revelation. It is not from immature believers that we hear startling confessions about the corruption of their human nature, but from holy prophets, apostles and mature saints. We may even be surprised that they cry out of the depth and bitterness of soul anguish:

"Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts." Isa 6:5

No work or deed of the saints in this life can meet the severity of God's law. Apart from God's merciful judgment, the good works of the saints would be "mortal sin" (Luther), and nothing is acceptable to God unless mediated through the covering cloud of Christ's merits. Because of "indwelling sin," we need mercy at the end as much as at the beginning. Growth in grace also means becoming more and more sinful in our own estimation. The repentant believer begins to grow in holiness and obedience to God's holy Law, but still needs the imputed righteousness of Christ. The Christian must always be justified by faith in the blood of Christ alone.

"This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, 'It is through faith that a righteous person has life.' " Romans 1:17 NLT

It is this conviction of the wretchedness of even our sanctified state—which conviction comes by the law—that keeps sanctification from the rocks of self-righteousness. It keeps the Christian's little bark constantly pointed toward his only star of hope—justification by faith in a righteousness that stands for him in heaven. The refuge of the sinner must ever also be the refuge of the saint.

    The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runs into it, and is safe. — Prov. 18:10.

    . . . and this is His name whereby He shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS. — Jer. 23:6.


Sanctification cannot exist without justification, "for the heart of sanctification is the life which feeds on justification." — Berkouwer, op. cit, p.93. And justification cannot exist without sanctification any more than light can exist without heat.

Justification and sanctification must be seen as two parallel lines which cannot meet this side of glory. Justification looks back to the finished work of God in Jesus Christ and declares, ". . . ye are complete . . ." (Col. 2:10); sanctification points us away to the return of Christ and says, "Not . . . already perfect. . ." Phil. 3:12.

Justification pronounces us already pure (1 John 1:9); sanctification commands us to cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit (2 Cor. 7:1). Justification clothes us in Christ's victory (John 16:33); sanctification means pressing on to overcome (Rev. 3:21). Justification tells us that the battle is won (Is. 40:2); sanctification nerves us on to "fight the good fight of faith." 1 Tim. 6:12.

Justification is resting in God's completed work (Matt. 11:28; Heb. 4:1-10); sanctification is pressing on toward the mark (Phil. 3:14). Here is the paradox of being and seeking to become; of being righteous by faith and sinful in nature; of "possessing all things," yet "having nothing." 2 Cor. 6:10.

Why does and why must this paradox between justification and sanctification exist? It exists because of the separation of the two advents of Christ. At His first coming He redeemed us, perfected us, and gave us life and immortality (Heb. 9:12; 10:14; 2 Tim. 1:10). At His second coming He brings us these blessings to enjoy as empirical realities (Eph. 1:14; 1 John 3:3; Heb. 11:40; Col. 3:4; 1 Cor. 15:50-56).

The first advent was inaugurated eschatology — for in Christ the last things have already taken place. The second advent is consummated eschatology — for then God will openly disclose what Christ has already done. The decisive victory has already taken place (first advent), and Christ is seated at God's right hand "expecting till His enemies be made His footstool." Heb. 10:13. Then that victory will be disclosed to the view of all. In "the times between" we must live by faith—knowing that we are righteous, yet still seeking to become righteous; believing that death has been destroyed, yet waiting for the sight of death to disappear; confessing that our sins have been put away, yet anxious that we feel sin no more. It is from this separation of these two advents — Christ has come, and Christ will come — that we have the paradoxical relationship between justification and sanctification. And because we must relate the "now" and the "not yet," we must live in the tension of having and not having.

It is not in vain that the apostles frequently exhort us to faith and patient waiting in "the times between." Church history has proved that human nature wants to solve the paradox "here and now" instead of waiting for the "there and then." Antinomianism tries to destroy the tension by settling for justification and throwing out the absolute necessity of the inward process of sanctification. Perfectionism tries to destroy the tension by getting beyond forgiveness and establishing a relationship with God on the basis of sanctification. Either way, human nature wants to reduce the two parallel lines of justification and sanctification to one line this side of eternity. But this cannot be done without heresy. As a train needs twin tracks and must operate on both, so it is with a sound soteriology. And just as a train cannot jump one rail without jumping both, so it is with justification and sanctification.

If one protests that he is not comfortable living with this paradox and this tension, then we must remind him that he is not supposed to be. Life is not fulfilled in the historical process. Here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come. We dwell in tents with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, being heirs with them of the same promise. When faith becomes sight and grace is lost in glory, sanctification will be consummated, and forgiveness of sins will be no more. "Even so, come, Lord Jesus."

8 In Romans 3:23 the verb translated "come short" is in the present continuous tense.
9 The present continuous nature of justification was the genius of Luther's emphasis. In "The Disputation Concerning Justification" (1536). He says:

. . . forgiveness of sins is not a matter of a passing work or action, but comes from baptism which is of perpetual duration, until we arise from the dead. — Luther's Works (American ed.; Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press; St. Louis: Concordia, 1955), vol. 34, p. 163.

. . . Forgiveness of sins is not a matter of a passing work or action, but of perpetual duration. For the forgiveness of sins begins in baptism and remains with us all the way to death, until we arise from the dead, and leads us into life eternal. So we live continually under the remission of sins. Christ. is truly and constantly the liberator from our sins, is called our Savior, and saves us by taking away our sins. If, however, he saves us always and continually, then we are constantly sinners. — Ibid., p.164.

On no condition is sin a passing phase, but we are justified daily by the unmerited forgiveness of sins and by the justification of God's mercy. Sin remains, then, perpetually in this life, until the hour of the last judgment comes and then at last we shall be made perfectly righteous. — Ibid., p.167.

For the forgiveness of sins is a continuing divine work, until we die. Sin does not cease. Accordingly, Christ saves us perpetually. —Ibid., p.190.

Daily we sin, daily we are continually justified, just as a doctor is forced to heal sickness day by day until it is cured. — Ibid., p.191.