The Gospel Coalition

Between the recent Desiring God conference and Kevin DeYoung's new book, the topic of sanctification has been getting a lot of attention lately. Praise God! If we want to build godly lives in the context of 21st-century civilization, we badly need to recover our Reformation heritage on this topic.

You don't usually hear about the Reformation in connection with this topic. But the Reformation fought and won critical battles for a right understanding of sanctification. Renewing these triumphs over sin in our own time ought to be core to our identity as evangelicals and inheritors of the legacy from our Reformation forefathers.

These days, we usually identify only two causes with the Reformation: the final authority of the Bible and the doctrine of justification without the works of the law. In fact, when the Reformation first began, it had almost nothing to do with either of those causes. The Reformation began as an argument over sanctification.

Just read the 95 theses of Martin Luther that started it all. (No, seriously, if you've never read them, go do it.) It's all right there in thesis one: The scriptural call to repentance is a call to live our whole lives as disciples of Christ, conforming everything we do to his holiness. Thesis two adds a sharp point by clarifying specifically that the scriptural call to repentance does not refer to the sacrament of penance.

Martin Luther did not write those theses to advance a position in a dry academic disputation. The local archbishop, Albert of Mainz, had taken out a huge loan to pay the Vatican to give him a cardinalship. To pay it off, Albert drove a vicious campaign of indulgence-selling. His agents barnstormed through the German countryside, telling people that the way to be godly is by doing religious works---especially donating  to the church.

The people of Wittenberg were being crushed, spiritually and financially, by a legalistic understanding of sanctification. As a parish priest, Luther had to shepherd those people. His heart was breaking for them---just as his heart had been broken years earlier, in the monastery, groaning under the weight of the same spiritual oppression in another form.

Benefit of Hindsight

To be sure, the Reformation doctrines of scripture and justification were all implied in Luther's scathing attacks on the sale of indulgences. But we only see that clearly today because we have the benefit of hindsight. Statements like thesis six ("the pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God's remission") may seem to our ears to be positively crying out for justification without the works of the law. That is only because the later history of the Reformation gave us the ears to hear it.

For two years, Luther insisted that his radical position on sanctification did not bring him into conflict with the church's prevailing doctrines of Scripture and justification. He even dedicated his book-length defense of the 95 theses to the pope, believing in all sincerity that he did not conflict with the magisterium. Then, at the famous "Leipzig debates" in 1519, Roman theologian Johann Eck forced Luther to begin acknowledging his deeper theological premises. (Eck would later serve as lead prosecutor in Luther's trial at the Diet of Worms.)

There's a common phrase among theologians that uses classical philosophical categories of causes to describe the Reformation: the authority of the Bible was its "formal cause" while the doctrine of justification was its "material cause." I think we can get a fuller picture of the Reformation if we add sanctification as the "efficient cause."

In classical philosophy, a formal cause is a framework or pattern or structure that gives shape ("form") to things and events. The Reformation debate was ultimately shaped in the form of a debate over the Bible's authority. Hence Luther's famous speech in his defense at Worms was not about justification but about his fidelity to "Scripture and plain reason" against popes and church councils.

A material cause is the substance or essence of which a thing is made. So long as Luther confined himself to attacking pardon-sellers, he was not excommunicated by the pope or prosecuted by the emperor. Only after Luther was forced to acknowledge his breach with Rome over justification did the Reformation truly become a radical conflict. Justification was the essence of the dispute.

An efficient cause is the force or power behind a thing; it's what makes change and motion happen. Luther turned the world upside down; the extraordinary, far-reaching reforms adopted by Rome in the Counter-Reformation are a testament to the mortal threat Luther represented. All that motion and change must have had a truly titanic efficient cause.

The Reformation was powered by a transformation in millions upon millions of people's understanding of what it means to live a godly life. Peasants and lords chose Luther over Rome, even at the cost of their lives, because the gospel message liberated them from bondage to legalistic ideas of sanctification. And the Reformation helped invent modern civilization by teaching people that making the world a better place is everyone's responsibility, and it's a 24/7 job.

By the way, there's one more classical category of causation: the final cause. This is the purpose toward which people act, the state of fulfillment things are trying to reach. And what was the final cause of the Reformation? God's glory, of course.


[...] original: Gospel Coalition [...]

Dave Sarafolean

October 15, 2012 at 09:25 AM

As a pastor and current ThM student I found your article a little simplistic. I'm currently taking an online course by Dr. Carl Trueman (Westminster Philadelphia) on Forerunners to the Reformation. He has demonstrated that medieval Catholicism was rather eclectic: some followed Augustine (justification is the product of faith and love), some followed Aquinas (grace is infused through the sacraments), while others borrowed from both traditions or created new ones.

Trueman makes a powerful point when he observes that Luther's spiritual crisis revolved around assurance of salvation. He doubted whether he had ever done his best thus deserving God's congruent merit. As he grappled with this question he also interacted with at least two centuries of theological debate that preceded his crisis. That debate provided new categories and new ways of understanding how one is right with God. For instance some described the work of Christ as a "medicine" or "cure" for sin. This along with Luther's study of the book of Romans set the stage for his understanding of justification by faith alone in Christ alone.

True, the 95 Theses set off a firestorm of debate in Germany. But Trueman argues that what gave the Protestant Reformation traction wasn't the 95 Theses but Luther's Heidelberg Disputation. This work was published in September 1517 as a response to scholastic theology. This was about one month before the 95 Theses were posted and no one noticed. Yet, in April 1518 when Luther was summoned to explain his views as articulated in the 95 Theses, his defense was based on this earlier writing and became known as the Heidelberg Disputation. In this work he argues for limited divine revelation by articulating his "theology of the cross." In other words, Luther argued that if we really want to know what the God of the Bible is like we must look to that figure hanging on the cross. There we see God's "cure" for our sin. And the instrument that enables us to make use of that cure is faith.

To read more about Luther's theology of the cross as articulated by Trueman visit this link:

Greg Forster

October 14, 2012 at 01:15 PM

I don't know the details of the development of Luther's thought, but I do know it did develop. You can find vestiges of unreformed thinking and assumptions in a lot of places in the 95 Theses. More important, though, is what's not there. He's not yet challenging that pennance is a sacrament, nor purgatory. He got there pretty quickly on those, though. But I'm sure he kept refining his thought.

That doesn't mean we have to let him be the final judge of what's worth reading. I believe at one point he said Bondage of the Will was the only book of his he wouldn't want to see burned. He was given to exaggerated rhetoric!

John Peters

October 13, 2012 at 11:52 PM

Thank you so much, Greg, for your thought-provoking article. It really got me thinking! Is it true that Luther later admitted to having a flawed view of justification when he wrote both the 95 Theses as well as his commentary on Romans? My understanding is that he wrote his commentary on Galatians when he came to what he considered a more robust view of justification. If that's the case, the lack of holiness exhibited by professing Christians could still be called a cause of the Reformation. But, to find the Reformation's answer to the problem, we'll have to look elsewhere, including to Luther's later positions.


October 13, 2012 at 10:04 AM

As a non-theologian, it seems to me that Protestants have by and large left sanctification by the wayside, eager to claim forgiveness but nonchalant about abiding in Christ. The Reformation may have settled certain theological issues for some, but I wonder if its fruit really rose to the level of revival. That seems to have come later with Wesley and others and is again desparately needed. The precedent that the Reformation set for independent interpretation of Scripture sowed the seed for all of the quasi-Christian cults we see all around us and the popular idea that each person needs to decide for himself what to believe.

Greg Forster

October 13, 2012 at 08:01 PM

Yeah, sure - the Lutheran electorates spent thirty years getting slaughtered by the Emperor's troops because that obviously increased their power. If you can believe that, you can believe anything.

jude atas

October 13, 2012 at 07:27 PM

the reformation is not over. reformed are always reforming! Soli Deo Gloria!


October 13, 2012 at 05:52 PM

The radical reformers, on the other hand, the Anabaptists, Mennonites, etc. they were a spiritual movement. But the Magesterial Reformation was just "let's dethrone the Pope by any means necessary."


October 13, 2012 at 05:50 PM

Panic. The Reformation was more a political movement than a spiritual movement. It was an abandonment of the political power of the Papacy, and any doctrine that would help reach the goal of dethroning the Pope was good enough, even justification by lazy faith alone.

Greg Forster

October 13, 2012 at 01:42 PM

If the Reformation didn't constitute a revival, I'm not sure I understand your use of that term. How do you explain the breathtaking magnitude of the Counter-Reformation reforms if not as a response to a Continent-wide spiritual movement?


October 12, 2012 at 12:07 AM


I devoured your latest book. Thank you for writing it. It was a real blessing to me.

Mere Links 10.12.12 - Mere Comments

October 12, 2012 at 10:00 AM

[...] No Reformation Without Sanctification Greg Forster, The Gospel Coalition You don’t usually hear about the Reformation in connection with this topic. But the Reformation fought and won critical battles for a right understanding of sanctification. Leave a Reply Click here to cancel reply. Name Required: [...]

Pietro Ciavarella

October 12, 2012 at 09:01 AM

"The history of the Reformation shows us, in my view, that getting sanctification right is a critical challenge in navigating the porous and problematic boundary between the church and the world." I couldn't agree more. Thanks for your post and interaction.

Greg Forster

October 12, 2012 at 08:55 AM

Well, admittedly this is a subtle distinction. I tried to acknowlege that by stating clearly that the Reformation view of justification and Scripture were always implicit in the conversation. And you're clearly right that the topic of "forgiveness" was always central to Luther's message. The problem I'm trying to raise is, what categories were they using in 1517-1519 to classify that conversation? The idea that any discussion of "forgiveness" must be classified under the heading of "justification" is itself a product of the Reformation. And priase God for it! But in 1517-1519 that classification was less clear.

But this particular aspect of the argument is not a hill I would want to die on. The thing that I think is most important is to make clear that we fall short of the Reformation legacy if we only get justification and Scritpure right without getting sanctification right as well. Moreover, I think bringing back a robust discussion of sanctification is critical to the emerging focus in many places on how the church intersects with civilization. The history of the Reformation shows us, in my view, that getting sanctification right is a critical challenge in navigating the porous and problematic boundary between the church and the world.

Greg Forster

October 12, 2012 at 08:50 AM

Thanks! I appreciate the encouragement.

Pietro Ciavarella

October 12, 2012 at 08:48 AM

I think you're overstating your case. For about a decade I've annually read the 95 theses out loud with my Reformation class (each student and I read a thesis in a ring). Luther has many concerns in these numerous theses: in fact there are 95 of them. But I would say that his overriding concern is the question of forgiveness. It's not that I don't agree with your article. I just think you're overstating the role of sanctification, which is of course certainly important. For this reason, in my recent book in Italian on justification I felt it essential to include a whole chapter on the relationship between justification and sanctification, in addition to two excursus on what we learn on their relationship from Luther's The Freedom of the Christian Man (works are the fruit of a salvific faith) and Calvin's Institution (e.g. “as Christ cannot be divided into parts, so the two things, justification and sanctification, which we perceive to be united together in him, are inseparable” III.11.6).

[...] article of mine on the Reformation and sanctification appears on The Gospel Coalition this morning: These [...]

Pietro Ciavarella

October 12, 2012 at 04:02 PM

The irony is that Italy 'had its chance' just before Trent begin in 1545. Two years previous the Beneficio di Cristo (The Benefit of Christ) was published anonymous in Venice, in the vulgar Italian not Latin. Its theme? Justification by faith; which it ties beautifully to sanctification. Mcgrath, in his Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity, in a tour de force roots the modern Evangelical movement in the Italian 16th century movement that gave birth to the Beneficio, and which Peter Martyr was a part of. Just a taste from chapter four of the Benefit in the 1548 English trans. by Edward Courtenay: "This true faith is not so sone geven to man by God, but that he is forthwith stirred with a most stronge zeall and desier to do good workes, and to bring forth most pleasant frutes to the Lorde and to his neighbour, as a very good tree; even as it is impossible but that a fagot of fire being kendeled must geve forth light" (Il Beneficio di Cristo, Corpus Reformatorum Italicorum, Sansoni/Firenze, Newberry Library/Chicago, 1972, ed. Salvatore Caponetto, p. 173). Trent said no to the Gospel and yes to the institutional status quo. From my personal experience, most Italians in Italy who consider themselves Roman Catholics have continued to do the same--even since Vatican II. Please pray for Christ's flock in Italy.


October 12, 2012 at 03:25 PM

Personally, I think the Bible makes clear that both Luther and the Catholics got the relationship between sanctification and repentance wrong. The details are the logical implications of Ezekiel 18, specifically verse 32.

Greg Forster

October 12, 2012 at 01:37 PM

I have been informed over email, and feel responsible to pass on to you my readers, that the Johann Eck who debated Luther at Leipzig was not actually the same Johann Eck who prosecuted Luther at Worms, but actually a different man with the same name.

You can't tell your Ecks without a scorecard! My apologies.

Chris Castaldo

October 12, 2012 at 01:11 PM

Pietro, this is why we Reformed do well to include Peter Martyr in our discussions about justification and sanctification, particularly from his Loci Communes on Romans, to appreciate the effectiveness of justification beyond its propria significatione. It also fills out the Reformation narrative to include important ideas that grew up on the peninsula, a legacy that you and others are continuing.

brad dickey

February 13, 2013 at 07:31 PM

I find it interesting that sanctification seems to be rendered to salvation,instead maturation. Most reformed churches of any flavor, pound on about salvation, salvation, salvation, as if that was all the faith is about.

I noticed that the mere thought of sanctification through works was a negative in the article. The reason for such postures is people think/assume/focus on SALVATION IS SANCTIFICATION. Anything can be sanctified. It's not a word that pertains to one concept. It means set apart. Inanimate objects can be set apart. When the word is used, it's not always on the same topic.

Romans 6:22 shows that atonement (you are "saved" with atonement, right?) comes before obedience, which derives a benefit, and that benefit leads to SANCTIFICATION. If salvation was the all of sanctification, then why was atonement not considered as sanctification?

You are considered set apart at atonement, but that begins the race where you will be transitioned/quickened/perfected/changed/matured into a life that lives apart. This is a made different person by a supernatural God not by man's doing.

Paul wrote that this change comes through works. The Western non Catholic Church as a whole disregards that works are anything but a bad thing. Paul wrote that the people gifted with leadership gifts are to lead the people to works of service. And through those works of service unity and knowledge of Christ came. And that through those works you are perfected, which means finished or made mature. How mature? Paul wrote that maturity is as mature as the fullness of CHrist's maturity on earth. If you measured His maturity in an 8 oz glass, then our measurement of maturity is measured in the same 8 oz glass. And if His glass was 7 oz full, then ours would be as full. This is not something that can be done by man, but is done by God.

People, that's more than considered set apart, and that's more than salvation. You are saved to become that person. That person is made different, they don't "act" different. They got there through application of their faith, the sheep in Matt 25 last parable, not studying about their faith and knowing.

it's about how we live/not what we know. And how we live molds us.

I flinch every time I see works put down in a sanctification conversation. Sorry I preached.


April 22, 2013 at 02:00 PM

For persons interested in knowing a bit about Luther's real view of sanctification (and not just the one a lot of modern conservative Lutherans hold to), you can check out this post I recently did: