The Good Life

Last month we studied the doctrine of justification, the “hinge” on which the Protestant faith turns, according to John Calvin. John Murray described this as “the crux of the Reformation.” Justification by faith alone is the “hinge” or the “crux” because it understands faith as resting on and receiving the complete sufficiency of Christ for our salvation. The Roman Catholic approach to reconciliation of sinners with God was the process of moral renovation or sanctification, which yielded an infused righteousness, not an imputed righteousness from Christ’s own merits.

Herman Bavinck describes the genius of the Reformation in this way: “If human beings received the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, adoption as children, and eternal life through faith alone, by grace, through the merits of Christ, then they did not need to exert themselves to earn all of these benefits through good works. They already possessed them in advance as a gift they had accepted by faith.” In the words of the hymn,

By grace alone shall I inherit
That blissful home beyond the skies
Works count for naught, the Lord incarnate
Has won for me the heavenly prize.

As we have seen, justification by faith alone is a doctrine that protects the solas of the Reformation: faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, and glory to God alone. More that that, it is a doctrine that is essential to the Christian life. It undergirds the doctrine of assurance and it reinforces our sober appraisal of the continuing presence of indwelling sin.

Sin in the Christian Life

A striking feature of Calvin’s Institutes is its arrangement of the ordo salutis (order of salvation) in book three. At first glance, it may seem odd to the reader that sanctification (chapters 3–10) precedes justification (chapters 11–16). This is Calvin’s way to put to rest the Roman Catholic charge of antinomianism. As Rome caricatured the Protestant teaching, it claimed that the forgiveness offered by Protestant Reformers removed any motivation for doing good works.

Calvin was eager to demonstrate, contrary to his Catholic opponents, that “actual holiness of life . . . is not separated from free imputation of righteousness” (593). In his careful treatment of this subject he underscores that the faith that receives the benefits of Christ is a living faith. Thus he demonstrates “how little devoid of good works is the faith” that justifies. Calvin’s organization was polemical; from the very start he wanted to dismiss the allegation that justification by faith alone bred indifference to the Christian’s pursuit of holiness.

Justification, Calvin and other Protestant Reformers argued, was never separated from sanctification. Together they comprised the two-fold grace of Christ’s mediation. Calvin outlined the process of sanctification as mortification (the crucifixion of the old man) and vivification (arising in newness of life). When a sinner takes proper estimate of his sin, “he then begins truly to hate and abhor sin; then he is heartily displeased with himself, he confesses himself miserable and lost and wishes to be another man.”

Calvin described sin as an abyss, a bottomless pit of infinite and innumerable transgressions. This is hardly rhetoric that can be considered antinomian. Confessional Protestants continue to confess the reality of indwelling sin. For example, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church Directory for Worship includes a membership vow in which one is asked, “Do you confess that because of your sinfulness you abhor and humble yourself before God, and that you trust for salvation not in yourself but in Jesus Christ alone?”
In contrast, it is the Roman Catholic penitential system that is beset with a superficial understanding of sin. In his recent biography of Calvin, Herman Selderhuis observed that Rome “gave the impression that you could once a year, such as at Easter, drop off all your sins at church as if you were leaving a neat little package at the post office.” This way of understanding sin underestimates the pervasive presence of sin in the life of the believer. The restoration of the image of God in the believer involves a spiritual warfare that continues until our death. In Calvin’s words, sin is a “smoldering cinder of evil” even in the regenerate.

Yet the Reformers did not leave the Christian despairing over his sin. They acknowledged that God’s grace was equally infinite and able fully to atone for the sins of his people. But the triumph of grace in the heart of the believer does not mean that depravity had vanished from the Christian life. Believers are still sinners. For this reason repentance is a constant and lifelong demand for the Christian, and we must expect that it bears fruit in the form of self-denial and cross-bearing. We cannot be content with securing indulgences or surviving purgatory.

Justification and Its Discontents

At the heart of the Roman Catholic objection to justification by faith alone is its refusal to believe that imputed righteousness can deliver the “whole Christ” of salvation. Some Protestants today are making that same argument, and they are in the process displaying terrible confusion about sanctification. Bavinck writes that soon after the Reformation, Protestant sects developed the idea that justification by faith was “defective and incomplete and had to be augmented by sanctification.” Eighteenth-century Lutheran Pietism, for example, sought to “complete” the Reformation by a rigorous and legalistic construal of the Christian life. Similarly, John Wesley’s concept of the second blessing went on to describe sanctification as the “real change” in the believer (justification having accomplished merely a “relative change”). This devolved into perfectionism, the doctrine that some Christians can experience the complete eradication of sin in this present life.

Views like these divide the Christ of justification from the Christ of sanctification. One confused Reformed author recently proposed that no one can enjoy the benefits of the kingdom unless “fully conformed to the image of Christ in true and personal righteousness and holiness.” He went on to add that imputed righteousness does not suffice because the righteousness of the believer must be “real and personal.” Contrary to the author’s disclaimer, his formulation was consistent with Roman Catholicism. Both share a dismissal of the imputed righteousness of Christ as neither “real” or “personal.”

Of course, Roman Catholics claim to believe in justification. But it is really sanctification where they lodge their confidence. Confounding them is deadly. The key distinction was the location of the righteousness on the ground of which God accepts us. Is it something found in us or outside of us? Luther described the justifying righteousness as an “alien” righteousness. Calvin followed Luther: believers are “accounted righteous outside themselves.”

The separation of the doctrine of justification from the Christian life can be described, in most general terms, as the Pelagian temptation. As Michael Horton has observed, Pelagianism “is the default setting of the fallen heart ever since the fall.” In its crudest forms, modern Pelagianism argues for a Christian life through the challenge of finding and improving upon one’s inward potential. It is a journey of self-fulfillment, not self-denial. More subtle forms of this moralism deny the sufficiency of external and alien righteousness, and assert that it must be sustained by a righteousness that is infused, not imputed. Moralistic Protestants today tend to formulate sanctification in Rome-friendly ways. It is hardly surprising when conversions to Rome soon follow.

To be sure, Christians must (and will) lead the good life. They must strive after new obedience. Christianity is a pilgrimage, not a decision, and without holiness no one will see the Lord, the writer to the Hebrews warns. Does this mean that good works are “necessary” for our salvation? This is misleading language, which suggests some discontent with the blessing of justification. Bavinck answers this question cautiously when he argues that sanctification is necessary only “in the sense of presence.” Or to put it in the language of the Westminster Confession, good works are necessary (and indeed, inevitable) as the “fruits and evidences” of that faith that justifies.

Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude

For Protestants, therefore, the doctrine of justification, far from stifling good works, provides the only genuine motive for doing good works. We no longer do them to save ourselves and obtain divine favor. Only when we are right with God can we do good works, out of our love for his mercy. That is to say, gratitude is our motivation for the Christian life.

This truth underscores the priority that justification holds to sanctification. As Bavinck described it, “Logically, justification, which clears our guilt, precedes sanctification, which cleanses us from our pollution.” Justification makes good works possible. Calvin again: “For we dream neither of a faith devoid of good works nor of a justification that stands without them. This alone is of importance: having admitted that faith and good works must cleave together, we still lodge justification in faith, not in works. We have a ready explanation for doing this, provided we turn to Christ to whom our faith is directed and from whom it receives its full strength.” These works arise, Bavinck continues, out of our gratitude and joy at receiving all the benefits of Christ. Of course, Bavinck is echoing the language of the Heidelberg Catechism and its three-fold structure (or “triple knowledge”): Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. Question and answer 86 makes this explicit:

Q. Since then we are delivered from our misery, merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we still do good works?

A. Because Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit, after his own image; that so we may testify, by the whole of our conduct, our gratitude to God for his blessings, (a) and that he may be praised by us; (b) also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith, (c) by the fruits thereof; and that, by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ.

At the same time, the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us that these good works are “imperfect and stained with sin” (Q/A 62), and thus “even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience” (Q/A 114). Similarly, the Westminster Confession of Faith discourages us from appraising our good works too highly. Our ability to do good works is “wholly from the Spirit of Christ,” and because our works come from fallen creatures “they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment” (16.5). God views these sin-stained efforts through Christ’s imputed righteousness and thus He is able to accept them (cf. 16.6).

Fruit and Evidence

False prophets today, such as Joel Osteen, offer the false hope of doing the best we can to find our “best life.” Roman Catholics offer the same counterfeit notion of the good life. The Reformation preserved the biblical teaching on justification’s “alien” and objective character. But the Reformers also insisted on the vital importance of the believer’s subjective renewal and growth in holiness. Moral renovation was not essential to justification, but rather an essential consequence and evidence of it. Sanctification is bound inseparably to justification. This double grace works in the believer in two ways: by justification we stand righteous before God; by sanctification we grow in holiness. But the Reformers grounded sanctification in justification; unless a sinner understood his estate of sin and misery and the way into the estate of salvation through the perfect righteousness of Christ, received by faith alone, the Pelagian temptation would always prompt the believer to regard his own good works as a way to supplement Christ’s goodness and so contribute to his own salvation.

Good works are the fruit of the faith that justifies. Christ in us (his holiness imparted to us) is the evidence of Christ for us (his righteousness imputed to us). If we understand aright, we have confidence that we can indeed live the good life. We can faithfully serve God and neighbor in this world as we eagerly await the world to come. Those who make more of good works, who argue that it is essential in our salvation, who demand the “whole Christ” in their discontent with justification, will inevitably erode the assurance that justification provides.

Proper assessment of good works does not yield the antinomianism that Rome fears. But a false estimation of the character of good works can diminish our sober assessment of indwelling sin. That is the antinomianism to which Rome ironically succumbs. Discontented Protestants may be falling into the same dangerous way of thinking.


Dr. D. G. Hart and Mr. John R. Muether are coauthors of several books, most recently Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Protestantism (P&R 2007). Both are ruling elders in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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