Is Sanctification Part of the Gospel?

We will be asking Dr. Richard Gaffin this very question on a future episode of Christ the Center. Many understand this question to mean “Am I saved by good works?” All orthodox Christians answer an emphatic “No” to that question. Yet some still understand sanctification to be a fruit of the gospel rather than the gospel itself. Those holding this view often describe justification as the gospel. Still others view sanctification as one facet of a larger gospel message including all the benefits believers have in Jesus Christ (justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification). The answer to question 75 of the Westminster Larger Catechism describes sanctification.

Sanctification is a work of God’s grace, whereby they whom God hath, before the foundation of the world, chosen to be holy, are in time, through the powerful operation of his Spirit applying the death and resurrection of Christ unto them, renewed in their whole man after the image of God; having the seeds of repentance unto life, and all other saving graces, put into their hearts, and those graces so stirred up, increased, and strengthened, as that they more and more die unto sin, and rise unto newness of life.

How do you understand sanctification and its relationship to the gospel message? What are your thoughts?  Comment here or join the discussion at the RF Forums.

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12 Responses

  1. Camden,

    If the word “gospel” is defined narrowly or even characterized narrowly cannot include the sentence, “I am being sanctified.” Notice how Paul characterizes the gospel in 1 Cor 15:

    Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

    For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

    As Mike always reminds us, the gospel is an announcement of something that has been accomplished for us, the banner headline: The War is Over. That’s good news. The announcement, “The Battle of the Bulge is Under Way” isn’t good news. Unless we’re talking about definitive sanctification, and the WLC is speaking of progressive sanctification there, then it isn’t “good news” in the narrow sense. Progressive sanctification is ongoing, it isn’t finished. It isn’t accomplished. If one is honest, one is not nearly so sanctified as one ought to be. That’s not good news. That’s no primary or proper basis for assurance. The Good News is that Christ has come, he has obeyed, he has died, and he has been raised. He has triumphed over sin and death.

    Because of the facts announced in the gospel and through that announcement, God the Spirit operates sovereignly to unite his elect by faith alone, to Christ and he begins that sanctifying work in them, creating in them all those fruits and gifts that accompany justifying faith (WCF 11).

    Now, if we want to speak of the good news in a broader sense, and if we want to include in that the (broadly defined) saving work of Jesus in sanctifying his people (not now identifying “salvation” with justification), then yes, we might speak this way but we should be careful to note the way in which we are speaking of the gospel, especially in a time when people are so prone to confuse or to be confused about what the gospel is and how sinners are right with God. Remember that Paul was quite clear about this in Rom 5:

    For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

    Note the verbs. In what state were we when we were “justified”? We were sinners, not sanctified. Christ did not obey for the sanctified. He did not die for the sanctified. He obeyed and died for the ungodly, for the unsanctified. For Paul the Christian life begins with “having been justified…” (Rom 5:1). Were Rome and the moralists correct, Paul should have said, “Having been sanctified….” He did not. It’s clear from Rom 8 that, for Paul, the life of sanctification and union with Christ has the closest possible connection to the objective work of Christ for us but they are conceptually distinct.

    We should remember that, for a millennium before the Reformation, the medieval church defined justification in terms of the inward transformation of the sinner. Justification was said to be progressive and to be identical with the moral renewal of the sinner. In response the Reformation made it clear that justification a declaration by God based on the work of Christ for us and that work is applied to and in us by the Spirit. If, however, we include the Spirit’s work in us in the gospel defined narrowly, then we have begun the trek back to the very medieval theology from which the Reformation delivered us.

  2. I have to agree with Dr. Clark on this one! I’m not sure whether that means I am differing with my fellow Feeding on Christ brethren or not, but what is stated above is extremely important. If we confuse the fruit of the Gospel–even if that fruit comes through our union with Jesus Christ–with the salvation accomplished by Christ, we are in danger. Why not say that mercy ministry is the Gospel–as so many mistakenly do? Wouldn’t that formally count as part of our sanctification? But, if we are concerned about preserving the glory of our God, we must be careful not to bring any of the benefits of Christ in which we participate (i.e. by way of synergism) with the work of Christ from which we benefit (by way of monergism).

  3. Camden Bucey

    Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for your balanced insight. I agree with your statements, especially this wonderful one:

    The Good News is that Christ has come, he has obeyed, he has died, and he has been raised. He has triumphed over sin and death.

    Amen. I would, however, like to make one small point on my end. I get just a little uneasy when people speak about justification being the gospel [exclusively]. These sorts of statements exclude eschatology from soteriology and don’t do justice to Paul’s two-age construction.

    Yes, I am saved now, [amen to that] and I cannot lose that salvation, but God is still doing a good work in me preparing me for glory. I consider the not-yet a crucial element to soteriology. So when we speak of the gospel as strictly justification, I see that as minimizing God’s soteric work.

    That being said, the not-yet to our salvation should never be construed in a fashion that would undermine our assurance or include good works as a ground for that salvation. I am very distressed that people seem to imply that the “union school” is doing this very thing or at least moving in that direction.

    My uneasiness about excluding sanctification from the gospel proper stems from my zeal to preserve the fact that God continues to work through His Spirit transforming believers until the day they will be glorified and will worship him face to face. God has addressed the problem of sin’s guilt, but he is also addressing the problem of sin’s corruption. The not-yet of salvation is comprised of God’s continued transformative work and the outward declaration and visible manifestion of that salvation apparent in the σῶμα πνευματικόν (1 Cor 15:44).

    Do you have any disagreements to this understanding on your end? I appreciate this discussion and would love to be sharpened (Prov 27:17). Could we possibly discuss anything more important?

  4. I have to completely agree with Camden on this one. Historia Salutis is the Gospel accomplished (Death and Resurrection) and Ordo Salutis is Gospel applied (Justif, Adoption, Sanct, Glorif). Page 34 and 35 in By Faith not by Sight is one of the places Gaffin explicitly addresses the question (pursuasively IMO).

    Gaffin asks whether Christ dying (and being raised) for sin is the center of the gospel. If so then when we seek to think about the gospel “for us” then we must say that it doesn’t stop at justification but also in the re-creational aspect of the what Christ did for us. Thus for Paul, in 2 Cor 5:15, atonement and re-creation are held together as being both integral in what Christ’s death (and resurrection!) means “for us!”

    Thus, Mike Horton always reminds Dr. Clark “the gospel is an announcement of something that has been accomplished for us, the banner headline: The War is Over” and Dr. Gaffin says, yes he has declared (in accomplishment of redemption) that both the guilt and POWER(!!) of sin have been defeated for us! Not just the guilt!

    Anyhow, I will rant if I keep going, but I am in complete sympathy w/ Gaffin on this one. To sum up what I’m saying: In Pauline thought the gospel is everything that Christ accomplished for us in his death and resurrection including procuring a resurrection body and a new/heavens new/earth. Paul would have never concieved of the gospel as anything less that nincluding the sanctifying re-creational aspect of the ordo salutis.

  5. Camden and Michael,

    Well I did distinguish between the gospel considered narrowly as an extrinsic accomplished historical fact and the gospel considered broadly.

    If you insist that the gospel considered narrowly must include our sanctification then, honestly, you’ve forfeited the Reformation in principle. I don’t mean to say that is your intent, only that the end result of including Spirit-wrought sanctity into the gospel NARROWLY considered has the effect of making my imperfect, progressive sanctification part of the ground of my justification.

    The power of sin is broken, but the effect of that breaking is not yet fully realized (already…not yet) in our sanctification. That’s just the point. We’ve always recognized that fact, that Jesus has conquered sin, but we’ve normally addressed that in progressive sanctification.

    I’m happy to use the word “gospel” in a broader sense but I’m zealous to protect that narrow sense.

    Why doesn’t the narrower/broader distinction relieve the problem?

    Further, Camden, your response seemed to move between justification and salvation fluidly. I think it’s helpful, especially when the gospel is at stake, to distinguish the two. Justification is a legal declaration on the ground of accomplished facts. Salvation certainly includes that declaration but may be said to include deliverance from the power of sin. Again, I find this distinction, so long as it’s articulated clearly, to be helpful.

    Nothing in these ways of formulating things denies in the least the ongoing power of the Spirit of the Resurrected Lord to conform those who are united to him to himself.

  6. Camden Bucey

    Dr. Clark,

    Justification is a forensic category – absolutely. May I never be heard saying anything to the contrary. The fluidity in my previous comment was due to a poor choice of words. I am especially regretful of that mistake given the precision necessary in this topic. My apologies.

    As to your question:

    Why doesn’t the narrower/broader distinction relieve the problem?

    I think it does relieve the “problem.” I found this distinction to be very helpful and refreshing. Let me ask a follow-up question for my own benefit. I ask this sincerely. Again, I wish to be sharpened on this issue.

    Once God’s work of salvation is complete (justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification) and we are worshiping our Lord in the New Heavens and New Earth, will we look to our justification with the same priority as we do in the current era of redemptive-history?

  7. Jim Cassidy

    Let’s not confuse categories here. We must be careful not to absolutely equate “gospel” with “salvation”. That word “gospel” is used in so many different ways. It refers to ‘gospel truth’ or ‘the gospel of John’ or the ‘the gospel which Paul preached’, etc. But technically speaking the Gospel as Good News is an event in redemptive-history. Paul is clear about that in the citation offered by Scott. In that sense the gospel does not include elements of redemption applied at all. I think we have to move away from this subjective understanding of the Gospel today in which every testimony of what God has done in my life is called “preaching the Gospel”.

    But now, let’s talk about “salvation.” Ah, that’s a slightly different perspective. Salvation does include both the Historia and Ordo Salutis – the objective and subjective, what God has done pro nobis and in nobis. Here we may speak about the two fold benefit of salvation accomplished. As sin entails both guilt and corruption, so salvation includes both justification and sanctification. I don’t think that Scott is denying that (though I can be wrong).

    Scott, given what I said above, would you feel comfortable saying that sanctification is a part of salvation as opposed to saying that it is part of the gospel?

    I know I would.

  8. Jim Cassidy

    I might also add that while J. and S. are simultaneous benefits of salvation/union with Christ, they are not equally ultimate. If I may put it this way, J. is essential to salvation in a way s. is not. In other words, I can conceive of a person who is justified but not sanctified (in the progressive sense) – think of a deathbed conversion, for example. But I can never, ever, conceive of a person who is sanctified but not justified.

  9. Nicholas T. Batzig


    Could it be that we need to differentiate between the forensic and declarative blessings that are ours in the historia (i.e. justification, adoption, and definitive sanctification) and the transformative blessings of the ordo salutis (i.e. regeneration, sanctification, and glorification)? I am suggesting that we speak of the forensic and declarative blessings in the narrow sense that Dr. Clark speaks of above, and the transformative blessings as the Gospel in the broader sense. What is the weakness of this position? It seems to safeguard against loosing the “outside of ourselves” nature of the Gospel, while preserving the duplex gratia (i.e. guilt abolished and corruption removed). OF course all of this comes through union with our Lord Jesus, but the Gospel is not what we do. If sanctification is synergistic are we not in danger of saying that the we participate in bringing about the Gospel.

  10. I don’t think I care what you want to put in the “narrow” and “broader” box. After all, for me the narrow box is historia salutis and the broader is ordo salutis. Properly speaking, the gospel is what Christ did 2000 years ago for his people in his life, death, and resurrection. But as Bavinck reminds us, salutis isn’t salutis unless there is an application (think, ordo) of that salutis. So, if we want to systematize Gaffin’s way or Clark’s way it is both fine to me personally. However, I don’t think that for Paul, the Gospel would have been distinguished between transformative and forensic blessings. Yes, the blessings themselves are distinguished in Paul as being transformational or forensic, but not in a way which identifies only part of the application of redemption, gospel. In this vein, I was just thinking about Romans 8. The good news is not just that Christ atoned for my sins (guilt) and was raised for my justification (all forensic), but that he died to sin so that I might die to sin and procured for me a resurrection body and made me a partaker of the age-to-come by the life-giving Spirit (transformative) Note also how the good news/hope for the Christian is primarily future, in Rom 8, with regard to something forensic like adoption. This is why, Gaffin’s paradigm and system is simply more appealing to me. Paul seems to be thinking in already/not-yet and historia/ordo categories, not firstly forensic/transformative categories.

    There might be some talking past one another, I’m thinking also about the discussion going on at Mark Jones blog over the conditionality of the new covenant. Whereas I have no problem with speaking about conditions in the New Covenant (as Mark Jones successively shows that most 17thC Reformed authors spoke about conditions) I would expect Dr. Clark (though he can surely speak for himself) doesn’t like that sort of language. He might then say I have “forfeited the Reformation in principle.” Boiled down however, I don’t think theologically there would be much difference between Dr. Clark and my position, though we would be uncomfortable with each others language.

  11. My head is spinning.

    How about a friendly “head-to-head” on Reformed Forum with, say, Gaffin & Horton? Do it in the same kind spirit recently displayed by Duncan & Keller.

    Or one of those books where 3 or 4 authors each present their position and the others critique each of the others’ presentations.

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