With lots of books and blog posts out there about law and gospel, about grace and effort, about the good news of this and the bad news of that, it’s clear that Christians are still wrestling with the doctrine of progressive sanctification. Can Christians do anything truly good? Can we please God? Should we try to? Is there a place for striving in the Christian life? Can God be disappointed with the Christian? Does the gospel make any demands? These are good questions that require a good deal of nuance and precision to answer well.

Thankfully, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The Reformed confessions and catechisms of the 16th and 17th centuries provide answers for all these questions. For those of us who subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity or to the Westminster Standards this means we are duty bound to affirm, teach, and defend what is taught in our confessional documents. For those outside these confessional traditions, there is still much wisdom you can gain in understanding what Christians have said about these matters over the centuries. And most importantly, these standards were self-consciously grounded in specific texts of Scripture. We can learn a lot from what these documents have to teach us from the Bible.

Sometimes the truth can be seen more clearly when we state its negation. So rather than stating what we should believe about sanctification, I’d like to explain what we should not believe or should not say. Each of these points is taken directly from one or more of the Reformed confessions or catechisms. Since I am more conversant I will stick with the Three Forms of Unity, but the same theology can be found just as easily in the Westminster Standards (see especially WCF Chapters 13, 16, 18, 19; LC Question and Answer 75-81, 97, 149-153; Shorter Catechism Question and Answer 35, 39, 82-87).

Error #1: The good we do can in some small way make us right with God. This is a denial of the gospel. The good we do is of no use to us in our justification because “even the very best we do in this life is imperfect and stained with sin” (HC Q/A 62). We “cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment” (BC Art. 24).

Error #2: We must be good Christians so that God will keep loving us. To the contrary, the good news of justification by faith alone means that we can now “do a thing out of love for God” instead of “only out of love for [ourselves] and fear of being condemned” (BC Art. 24). In the midst of daily sins and weakness the struggling Christian should “flee for refuge to Christ crucified” (CD 5.2), truths that “it is not by their own merits or strength but by God’s undeserved mercy that they neither forfeit faith and grace nor remain in their downfalls to the end and are lost” (CD 5.8).

Error #3: If sanctification is a work of divine grace in our lives, then it must not involve our effort. We are absolutely “indebted to God for the good works we do” (BC Art. 24). He is the one at work in us both to will and to do according to his good pleasure. At the same time, “faith working through love” leads “a man to do by himself the works that God has commanded in his Word” (BC. Art. 24). Our ability to do good works “is not at all” in ourselves, but we still “ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in [us]” (WCF 16.3).

Error #4: Warning people of judgment is law and has no part to play in preaching the gospel. Actually, “preaching the gospel” should both “open and close the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdom of heaven is opened by proclaiming to believers what God has done for us in Christ. The kingdom of heaven is closed by proclaiming “to unbelievers and hypocrites that, as long as they do not repent, the anger of God and eternal condemnation rest on them. God’s judgment, both in this life and in the life to come, is based on this gospel testimony” (HC Q/A 84).

Error #5: There is only one reason Christians should pursue sanctification and that’s because of our justification. The Heidelberg Catechism lists several reasons—motivations even—for doing good. “We do good because Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself, so that in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us, and so that he may be praised through us. And we do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ” (HC Q/A 86).

Error #6: Since we cannot obey God’s commandments perfectly, we should not insist on obedience from ourselves or from others. While it is true that “in this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience,” that’s not the whole story. “Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God’s commandments” (HC Q/A 114). Because we belong to Christ and our good works are “sanctified by his grace” (BC Art. 24), God “is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections” (WCF 13.6).

Error #7: The Ten Commandments should be preached in order to remind us of our sin, but not so that believers may be stirred up to try to obey the commandments. The Heidelberg Catechism acknowledges that “no one in this life can obey the Ten Commandments perfectly,” but it still insists that “God wants them preached pointedly.” For two reason: “First, so that the longer we live the more we may come to know our sinfulness and the more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness.” And “Second, so that, while praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, we may never stop striving to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection” (HC Q/A 115).

Error #8: Being fully justified as Christians, we should never fear displeasing God or offending him. The promise of divine preservation does not mean that true believers will never fall into serious sin (CD 5.4). Even believers can commit “monstrous sins” that “greatly offend God.” When we sin in such egregious ways, we “sometimes lose the awareness of grace for a time” until we repent and God’s fatherly face shines upon us again (5.5). God being for us in Christ in a legal and ultimate sense does not mean he will never frown upon our disobedience. But it does mean that God will always effectively renew us to repentance and bring us to “experience again the grace of reconciled God” (5.7).

Error #9: The only proper ground for assurance is in the promises of God found in the gospel. Assurance is not to be sought from private relation but from three sources: from faith in the promises of God, from the testimony of the Holy Spirit testifying to our spirits that we are children of God, and from “a serious and holy pursuit of a clear conscience and of good works” (CD 5.10). Assurance is not inimical to the pursuit of holiness, but intimately bound up with it. We walk in God’s ways “in order that by walking them [we] may maintain the assurance of [our] perseverance” (5.13). Personal holiness is not only a ground for assurance; the desire for assurance is itself a motivation unto holiness.

Error #10: Threats and exhortations belong to the terrors of the law and are not to be used as a motivation unto holiness. This is not the view of the Canons of Dort: “And, just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the proclamation of the gospel, so he preserves, continues, and completes his work by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments” (CD 5.14). Notice two things here. First, God causes us to persevere by several means. He makes promises to us, but he also threatens. He works by the hearing of the gospel and by the use of the sacraments. He has not bound himself to one method. Surely, this helps us make sense of the warnings in Hebrews and elsewhere in the New Testament. Threats and exhortations do not undermine perseverance; they help to complete it. Second, notice the broad way in which Dort understands the gospel (in this context). In being gospel-centered Christians, we meditate on the “exhortations, threats, and promises” of the gospel. In a strict sense we might say that the gospel is only the good news of how we can be saved. But in a wider sense, the gospel encompasses the whole story of salvation, which includes not only gospel promises but also the threats and exhortations inherent in the gospel.

Clearly, different sermons, different passages, and different problems call for different truths to be accented. One is not guilty of these errors simply by not saying everything that can be said. And yet, in the course of faithful preaching and teaching all the positive truths found in a robust, thoughtful doctrine of sanctification should be publicly declared. Likewise, although we may feel called to trumpet a certain truth about the gospel or sanctification—which certain times and certain texts call for—this in no way excuses the ten errors listed above. It is never wise to celebrate the truth by making statements that are false.

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59 thoughts on “10 Errors to Avoid When Talking about Sanctification and the Gospel”

  1. Nghi Nguyen says:

    About error#10, the use of threats and exhortations. If an analogy can be used, such as medicine, the problem is generally not with the medicine, but with the application of it. There is no one-size-fits-all way to apply medical treatment, so there can be no such thing for the human soul.

    If the gospel is not adequately preached to lead the hearer to an assurance of salvation, threats or exhortation will necessarily stir up the flesh to to yield fruit for death (Romans 7:5)

    It’s incumbent upon the preacher to use the double-edged sword with great fear and trembling, encourage God’s righteous ones, while put the fear of God in the ungodly; all in the same congregation. Careless use of threats does nothing to a seared conscience–don’t cast perl before swine–, but it may damage the feeble faith of a gentle soul.

    In the parable of the wheat and tares, Jesus told us not to try to pull up the tares lest we also damage the wheat. Careless use of threats and exhortations might be a subtle form of doing what Jesus advised against.

    When a friend of mine asked me for my opinion on some major Christian ‘ism, after looking over the various points, I told him all these points attempt to identify who’s wheat and who’s tares, that I’d throw them all away and replace them with clear points on how to be saved. It appears they worry that the Holy Spirit is either dumb or blind that He needs their help, lest some tares will sneak into heaven.

    Consider 1 John 4:18
    18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

    ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
    And grace my fears relieved.

    There was a time to live in fear, and there is a time to rest in the heart of God.

  2. Nghi Nguyen says:

    About Error #7. It’s definitely an error, but the answers to this error doesn’t seem to jive with some Bible passages that I know. The Heidelberg Catechism says that the 10 Commandments should be preached for these two reasons:

    Reason #1: First, so that the longer we live the more we may come to know our sinfulness and the more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness.

    The problem that I see here is it seems to be in conflict with these verses:

    Galatians 3:23-25: “Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.”
    Galatians 5:18 “But if you be led of the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
    Romans 3:19: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.”
    Romans 7:4: “So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.”
    Romans 10:4: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believes.”
    And lots more such verses.

    Reason #2: Second, so that, while praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, we may never stop striving to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection.

    What are we perfecting? Our corruptible nature? 1 Corinthians 15:50-52 says, “I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. … in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.”
    If the perfection we have is imparted from Christ, then what are we perfecting? Isn’t the Lamb of God enough of a sacrifice? Isn’t this the original sin that Adam and Eve committed when they wanted to become like God? And this perfection sounds so much like the Buddhism and Hinduism that I used to study before I came to Christ. The endless cycles of birth and rebirth to ascend to a higher state of perfection just wore me out, I thought to myself: one life is enough, and I took a leap of faith and jumped off the wheel.

    Who is to say you have reached your state of perfection? Might it be a moving target?

    And why trying to perfect the old wineskin, the corruptible? Nicodemus must have come to the realization that all the effort to reach perfection seemed pointless, so he came to ask Jesus for a way out. Contrary to his fleshly thinking, Jesus said he must be born again. No, you won’t be improved, but must be born again by the Spirit of God.

    A man dead in sin and trespasses, now by the grace of God rose up, then try to be like God.

  3. Nghi Nguyen says:

    I think I’m running the risk of someone “slandering” me as promoting sin, much like Paul when he preached grace in Romans 3:8. As a matter of fact, God deals with my sanctification all the time, through the course of daily life; as I find a parking space and be ready to yield when someone may be trying to park in the same spot, as I deal with my kids’ less than desirable behaviors, as I make sure not to waste the precious time the Lord has given me, as I prepare Sunday School material for my study group, as I serve my loved ones, as I work with the men in my church to renovate our church building, and doubts, and fears, and temptations, etc.

    Because my Holy Spirit will not let me go scott-free, because He who began a good work in me will accomplish it until the day of Christ Jesus. And often times He works me pretty hard, the crucible can be pretty intense, but the outcome is amazing fruit of the Spirit. Often times as I reflected, would I have learned wonderful truth about Him had He spared me such training? The truth I learned has been so precious it made all the trial nothing by comparison.

    This wonderful work of sanctification can become drudgery when it is written down into … a code, and because the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. I was trying to find a prophesy about God giving His people rest from the ever increasing addition to the law, dots upon dots, letters upon letters, but I can’t seem to find it now… I’ll post it once I find it.

    There is no need to remind God’s beloved of their sins, because if God chooses to cast them so far away from His memory … why are we disobeying Him? And since we’re still in the flesh, every trip and fall will remind us how fragile we are, and how wonderful it is that we have a Savior who can help us in our time of need.

    I don’t know what I will become, and I don’t know what your perfection means, but I believe I have the perfection required to boldly enter the throne of grace, right now, not later. The God who gave me His Son had given me all I needed for godliness and contentment. Why should I be restless?

  4. Nghi Nguyen says:

    Here it is folks, Isaiah 28:12-13:

    12 to whom he said, “This is the resting place, let the weary rest”; and, “This is the place of repose”— but they would not listen. 13 So then, the word of the LORD to them will become: Do this, do that, a rule for this, a rule for that; a little here, a little there — so that as they go they will fall backward; they will be injured and snared and captured.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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