Work Like an Arminian, Sleep like a Calvinist.
Part one: Easy reading
I am occasionally accused by some as being a closet Arminian. Usually this is said tongue-in-cheek, because anyone who knows me knows that I am Reformed through and through. This accusation usually has to do with my constant focus on encouraging others to strive to live a life of personal holiness, putting sin to death by the power of the Holy Spirit, being active in the congregation, and being active in evangelism… all out of thankfulness for our salvation.
There is an old saying that goes something like, “Don’t be leaning on a shovel and praying for a ditch; work like an Arminian, sleep like a Calvinist.” I have never really liked that saying, but I guess it could apply to me. I do work hard, not for salvation, but because of salvation, and I rest assured in the promises of my gracious God. I adore Reformed theology. I believe it is a biblical and God honouring system of theology. I am also aware of the weaknesses in reformed theology, we would be foolish to think that none exist. It may not be perfect, but it is beautiful and certainly glorifies God. In my denomination we take seriously the free offer of the gospel to all who might hear, that the Father requires nothing from us for our salvation aside from faith alone in the atoning work of Christ alone. In my church we believe that as Christians we are God’s covenant people and we can rest in his covenant promises. As the Canon’s of Dordt state:
So it is not through their [believers] own merits or strength but through the undeserved mercy of God that they neither totally fall away from faith and grace nor remain in their downfall and are finally lost. With respect to themselves this could not only easily happen but would undoubtedly happen. But with respect to God this cannot possibly happen, since His counsel cannot be changed, 1 His promise cannot fail, the calling according to His purpose cannot be revoked, 2 the merit, intercession, and preservation of Christ cannot be nullified, 3 and the sealing of the Holy Spirit can neither be frustrated nor destroyed. 4
That is beautiful. God never forsakes us, even when we fail miserably. His promises are sure and we can rest easy knowing that he is in control. Perhaps, sometimes, I think that we rest too easy and are too casual about our life of thankfulness for this great and free gift. No, I am not saying that anyone is unregenerate, or not thankful for their salvation. What I am simply saying is that sometimes…we don’t try very hard to show how thankful we really are 🙂
Part two: This is where I get theological.
I know that theology does not turn everyone’s crank, but hopefully you stick around to read this. And if you do, by all means, please interject if you feel that I am off base. I am not opposed to being corrected! Recently I have had a number of conversations with people in my church about the doctrine of sanctification… I heard a lot of you yawn. How about if I said that I had a lot of conversations that revolved around pursuit of holiness, or living a life of thankfulness, or dealing with sin in our lives or putting sin to death?
I find the doctrine of sanctification fascinating and exhilarating. That the God almighty, Lord of Hosts, creator of the world, the holy one…would set us apart as his chosen ones. OH what a beautiful thing! The range of views on this doctrine across the varying theological traditions is intriguing as well. But what amazes me most, is the vast array I have encountered within my own church. In this section of the post I intend to present a concise summary of what my view is on the doctrine of sanctification. I believe that I hold to a Reformed and biblical view, but like I have said before, I am not a trained pastor, theologian or apologist I am just one Christian dad. I will do my best to make this easy to follow and feel free to comment!
I have noticed in my various conversations that there are 3 common misconceptions concerning the doctrine sanctification:
- The most common mistake is to confuse sanctification with justification or regeneration. Even in Reformed circles it is all too common that people think that if they attain a certain level of holiness, then they know that they are saved. Who has not heard of the churches where one can only attend Lord’s Supper if he feels he is worthy or has achieved a certain level of holiness? We are not saved based on our perceived level of holiness; we are saved because of God’s free grace.
- Others separate them, as if one can be regenerate and choose to take justification and leave sanctification. They may not say it outright, but they certainly claim Jesus as Saviour with their mouths, yet do not submit to his lordship over every area of their lives. This is impossible as a justified person will inevitably be sanctified as well.
- And still others combine regeneration, justification and sanctification by saying that they are part and parcel. It is true, that is, if you are regenerate you are justified and you are sanctified. However, they are not the same thing and should not be viewed as the same thing.
Abraham Kuyper wrote the following regarding sanctification:
SANCTIFICATION must remain Sanctification. It may not arbitrarily be robbed of its significance, nor be exchanged for something else. It must always signify the making holy of what is unholy or less holy.
As well let’s read what the Belgic Confession, one of the confessional statements from the reformation, states about our sanctification in Article 24:
We believe that this true faith, worked in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the operation of the Holy Spirit,1 regenerates him and makes him a new man.2 It makes him live a new life and frees him from the slavery of sin.3 Therefore it is not true that this justifying faith makes man indifferent to living a good and holy life.4 On the contrary, without it no one would ever do anything out of love for God,5 but only out of self-love or fear of being condemned. It is therefore impossible for this holy faith to be inactive in man, for we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls faith expressing itself through love (Gal 5:6). This faith induces man to apply himself to those works which God has commanded in His Word. These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable in the sight of God, since they are all sanctified by His grace. Nevertheless, they do not count toward our justification. For through faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do any good works.6 Otherwise they could not be good any more than the fruit of a tree can be good unless the tree itself is good.7
Therefore we do good works, but not for merit. For what could we merit? We are indebted to God, rather than He to us, for the good works we do,8 since it is He who works in [us], to will and to act according to His good purpose (Phil 2:13). Let us keep in mind what is written: So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty (Luke 17:10).” Meanwhile we do not deny that God rewards good works,9 but it is by His grace that He crowns His gifts.
Furthermore, although we do good works, we do not base our salvation on them. We cannot do a single work that is not defiled by our flesh and does not deserve punishment.10 Even if we could show one good work, the remembrance of one sin is enough to make God reject it.11 We would then always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be constantly tormented, if they did not rely on the merit of the death and passion of our Saviour.12
Sanctification is a continuing change worked in us by the Holy Spirit, freeing us from sins with which we struggle and forming in us Christlike character, virtues and affections. But it is far more than simply repressing of sins; it is the progressive “putting to death” or destruction of sin in the life of a believer. And that is something to get excited about!
When I contemplate the doctrine of sanctification, I cannot help but think what an extraordinary gift it truly is! It is certainly miraculous that any of us have overcome any sin or attained any level of holiness. I rejoice that my redeemer has not only redeemed my soul, but my whole being as well, and that He still works in me with His spirit to overcome sin and put it to death. The truly extraordinary thing in our sanctification is what God actually does when he sanctifies us. What is it? That is, that we are absolutely unable to transform ourselves into glorified people fit to honour God. If we are left to our own strength, we would never achieve sanctification at all, because we don’t have the will or the power to achieve this. Left to ourselves we would not grow in grace nor bear fruit of the Spirit. As the Confession stated,” For through faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do any good works. Otherwise they could not be good any more than the fruit of a tree can be good unless the tree itself is good.”
The Belgic Confession clearly shows us through scripture that sanctification is a continuation of our new birth. Once God begins the process of new birth, he brings it to completion through sanctification. The Confession associates the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing the power of Christ to us through the reading and hearing of the Word. “We believe that this true faith, worked in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man. It makes him live a new life and frees him from the slavery of sin. Therefore it is not true that this justifying faith makes man indifferent to living a good and holy life. On the contrary, without it no one would ever do anything out of love for God, but only out of self-love or fear of being condemned. It is therefore impossible for this holy faith to be inactive in man, for we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls faith expressing itself through love.” So you can see how all those legalistic man-made rules that we impose on ourselves are utterly useless in achieving true sanctification. Merely trying to be holy, will not make you holy. Not only that, legalistic man made rules actually hinder sanctification because they inevitably take the focus off of the real means of sanctification – the word of God and the working of the Holy Spirit.
Next, the confession defines what is involved in sanctification. ” It makes him live a new life and frees him from the slavery of sin.3 Therefore it is not true that this justifying faith makes man indifferent to living a good and holy life.4 On the contrary, without it no one would ever do anything out of love for God,5 but only out of self-love or fear of being condemned. It is therefore impossible for this holy faith to be inactive in man, for we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls faith expressing itself through love (Gal 5:6). “ Here the Confession focuses on the meaning of sanctification. The scriptures make it clear that this promise is for all believers, not only a select few who deem themselves to have attained a higher level of holiness. There are also those Christians who focus on the last paragraph of this article, saying that Christians are incapable of good works, that every so called good work we do is tainted with sin. Again the Confession puts to rest that argument when it says that a Christian’s good works are also sanctified by God’s grace. You see, left to ourselves we could not produce good fruit, we are so radically depraved and God hating of ourselves that we absolutely cannot do good works. But the Holy Spirit is incapable of producing bad fruit, and if the Christian is a true Christian, born again to a new life by the power of the Spirit of Christ, he must produce good fruit. The Canon’s of Dordt speak to this indwelling power of the Holy Spirit in 5.10 and 5.12:
This assurance (of salvation) is not produced by a certain private revelation besides or outside the Word, but by faith in the promises of God, which He has most abundantly revealed in His Word for our comfort; by the testimony of the Holy Spirit, witnessing with our spirit that we are children and heirs of God; 1and, finally, by the serious and holy pursuit of a clear conscience 2 and of good works. And if the elect of God did not have in this world the solid comfort of obtaining the victory 3 and this unfailing pledge of eternal glory, they would be of all men the most miserable. 4
This certainty of perseverance, however, so far from making true believers proud and complacent, is rather the true root of humility, childlike reverence, 1 genuine godliness, endurance in every struggle, fervent prayers, constancy in suffering and in the confession of the truth, and lasting joy in God. 2Further, the consideration of this benefit is for them an incentive to the serious and constant practice of gratitude and good works, 3 as is evident from the testimonies of Scripture and the examples of the saints.
I love this! Through sanctification, our sinful nature is gradually weakened by the working of the Holy Spirit over the course of our lifetime as disciples of Christ. This gradual, lifelong process of putting to death sinful habits and bearing good fruit is called “progressive” or “experiential” sanctification. Many Christians do not realize this aspect of sanctification, they read that when the slavery to sin is broken at conversion, that every Christian is already sanctified. And in a sense that is true, read 1 Corinthians 6:11 for instance, or Romans 1:7 where Christians are called “saints”. This is what is known as “definitive sanctification. Definitive sanctification sets us apart as God’s chosen people, his treasured and covenantal possessions. So in this sense sanctification refers to decisive and radical break with the power and pleasure of sin, it happens simultaneously with regeneration and justification. Definitive sanctification, which happens at the new birth, leads to the progressive sanctification of being made holy as we mature spiritually. If we reversed the title of this article, we could say that we can sleep like a “Calvinist” in God’s promise of our definitive sanctification, and then we can work like an “Arminian” with a grace driven effort in our progressive sanctification.
“He asks, first, therefore, that the father would sanctify the disciples, or, in other words, that he would consecrate them entirely to himself, and defend them as his sacred inheritance.…it is God alone who sanctifies….we ought to infer from Christ’s words, that sanctification is not instantly completed in us on the first day, but that we make progress in it through the whole course of our life , till at length, God, having taken away from us the garment of the flesh, fills us with his righteousness”
At the risk of oversimplifying, let me say this: Regeneration is birth; sanctification is growth.
Regeneration is completed in a moment by the working of the Holy Spirit, bringing someone from spiritual death to life. Sanctification is an ongoing process, dependent on the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the believer, and consisting of the believer’s continuous struggle against sin. The best way I can describe God’s method of sanctification is that it is a grace driven effort that is wholly dependent on God. It has nothing to do with us and our strength, but we are not to be passive in our sanctification. We are made alive, born again, spiritually regenerated by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. We know that outside of Christ we cannot bear good fruit, but also that He is ready to strengthen us to drive us toward sanctification. If we “abide” in the vine, that is Jesus Christ, praying constantly for his aid, he will hear us and we will bear true good fruit in Him, and the Father will accept our fruit.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes[a] so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
Rev. Clarence Bouwman wrote in his “Comments on Article 24”:
“Justification is God’s work for me. I embrace this work in faith and make it my own. Sanctification is equally God’s work in me, and this work too I embrace in faith. The change God worked in me I am to believe. God says I am justified; God also says I am sanctified. If God says this, then I believe that Christ died for me and hence I also receive all the consequences of his redeeming work. Likewise, if I believe that I am sanctified, I also live accordingly. Sanctification is something I am to pursue. I am to make it my business to be sanctified. That means I fight, for example, my weakness for alcohol, my desire to throw up my legs and vegetate before a television. Although the Holy Spirit changes me, it will not do for me to relax my fight against sin.” (Emphasis mine)
There is so much more to say about sanctification, I find the topic exhilarating… But this is a simple blog post, not a post-graduate topical study, so I shall end there. I hope that you are as excited about your sanctification as I am. And again let me clarify that I am not telling anyone to be an Arminian! This is what I believe about the amazing doctrine of sanctification in a nutshell. I am just One Christian Dad.
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Comments on Article 24 by Rev. C. Bouwman
The Seed Database of Sermons.
The Work of the Holy Spirit by Abraham Kuyper (get an e-copy free here)
The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin
Concise Theology by J.I. Packer
The Mortification Sin by John Owen