In order to guard against the error of easy-believism (aka antinomianism) on the one hand, and the constant temptation to return to the legal mind—attempting to seek or maintain God’s favor through our works—on the other, it is of utmost importance that we continually remind ourselves of the nature of justification and sanctification as taught in scripture, and as reclaimed and heralded in the Protestant Reformation. Concerning the matter of justification (how a sinner is made righteous before God), the Reformed tradition organizes the doctrine around five main distinctives, i.e. the “Five Solas” of the Reformation. The Five Solas proclaim that one is justified by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (Sola Fide), in Christ alone (Solus Christus), for the glory of God alone (Soli Deo Gloria), according to Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura).
Scripture, being God’s perfect self-revelation to man, is the sole authoritative basis on which we form these doctrines (Isa 8:20; LBC 1.1, 6, 10). As previously detailed, Scripture is abundantly clear that sinners are justified, sanctified, and glorified by grace alone. “Salvation is of the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9) And God’s gracious salvation is for His glory alone (LBC 5.1). Our God reserves for Himself alone the honor of being the Redeemer of His church. God alone is glorified in the merciful salvation of sinners, and He will not share His glory with another. With the corruption of our natures reaching to every faculty we possess (Rom 3:9-19; LBC 6.2-5, 5.5, 9.4-5, 11.5, 13.2-3, 15.2, 16.5), and God’s holiness being exalted above the heavens (Isa 6:1-8), we could not make a single contribution toward our own righteous standing before the Lord, even if we desired to (Rom 3:20; LBC 7.1-2, 16.5). Scripture is abundantly clear—every person whom God justifies, He sanctifies (Heb 12:14, 10:14), leading to an imperfect yet growing dependence upon and submission to Christ (Eph 4:11-16; Phil 3:8-14). These things have major implications for how we view things such as the assurance of faith, and the ministry of the church.
In His humiliation, incarnation, perfect obedience to the law, vicarious death and resurrection, ascension, session, intercession and advocacy, Jesus Christ has perfectly accomplished everything that is needed for the salvation of every sinner who is united to Him through faith (LBC 3.6, 7.1-2). There is absolutely nothing to add to the utter sufficiency of who Christ is, what He has done, what He is now doing, and what He will do when it comes to salvation. Salvation is in Christ alone, from beginning to end. He alone gets the honor of doing the saving (LBC 8.1), He is perfectly suited to the task (LBC 8.2-10), and His heart toward sinners is one of mercy, kindness, and limitless, reproachless generosity in gifting us the benefits He has won on our behalf (Rom 5:8-10; Heb 4:15; 1 Tim 1:15-16; Tit 3:3-7; Mk 2:17; Mt 9:13, 11:19, 28-29; Isa 40:10-11, 55:1-7). In fact, He is more willing to shower us with His infinite mercy than even the most humble person is to come to Him for it (2 Pt 3:9; Ezk 33:11; Mt 23:37; Lk 13:34, 15:4-6; Isa 65:2). For any and every sinner who is aware of their need for His salvation (Lk 18:13-14; Isa 55:1; Jn 7:37-38; Mt 5:6, 20:30-31), and comes to Him through faith, He immediately, exhaustively, and irrevocably justifies us (Jn 7:37-38; Heb 9:12; Gal 3:10, cf 3:22; 2 Cor 5:18-21; Jn 6:40; Rom 8:1-4; Acts 10:43; Ps 103:3, 10, 12; Jer 31:34; LBC 10.1, 11.1-2, 5, 17.1-3), communicates every benefit He has purchased to us by uniting us to Himself (Eph 1:3), reconciles us to God (Rom 5:10; Col 1:22) and mediates between us (Heb 2:17), adds us to the family of God through adoption (Rom 8:15; Eph 1:5; Gal 4:4-6; LBC 12.1), and pledges through His perfect intercession and advocacy on our behalf to preserve us and deliver us (Heb 9:24; Rom 8:34; 1 Jn 2:1)—despite the malice of every enemy, including our own remaining corruptions (1 Jn 2:1-2; Hos 11:7-8; Jn 10:28-30; Heb 4:14-16; 1 Tim 1:15-16)—to the enjoyment of His own inheritance in glory (Acts 20:32, 26:18; Eph 1:9-12; 1 Pt 1:3-5); which He freely gives to us in Himself. At its heart, justification is the declaration that a wicked person is righteous (Rom 3:21-25, 4:5, 5:1, 6). And that declaration is made on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ alone, and for His sake (1 Cor 1:30; Phil 3:9; Acts 4:12; Rom 3:21-25; LBC 8.1, 11.1).
Often times in our Lord’s earthly ministry, we saw examples of people approaching Him with an interest in eternal life who did not have an awareness of their true spiritual need for the salvation He came to provide (Mt 5:1, 19:16; Lk 14:25, 18:18; Mk 10:17). To such people, our Lord gave the law (Mt 5:20-6:7, 6:16-7:12, 15-23, 19:16-22; Lk 14:26-33, 18:18-23; Mk 10:17-22)—the schoolmaster which is designed to break our self-righteous delusions and reveal our need for Christ (Gal 3:10, 24; 1 Tim 1:8-11; Rom 3:19-20, 7:13; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Deut 27:26; Jam 2:10; LBC 19.5, 6). We have many examples of this in the gospels, and in the epistles (Rom 2; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21; Jam 2:8-11 cf 2:12). On the other hand, His message to the helpless was pure gospel, with no mixture of law (Lk 12:32; Mt 9:2, 5:6; Lk 7:50, 15:1-7; Jn 6:37-40, 7:32-38). Salvation is 100% of Christ and by Christ; and as long as one is confused about their supposed involvement in their standing before God, they need the good law of God to reveal their destitution until they see their helplessness, and thus come to Christ on His terms—empty handed—to receive His all-sufficient supply (Mt 5:6; Jn 6:35; LBC 19.1-2, 5-7). And the moment someone comes to Christ on His terms, they are saved to the uttermost—freely and unconditionally.
This distinction between law and gospel which we see frequently in Jesus’ ministry, and in the Apostolic writings is absolutely vital to the right preaching of the word of God. This distinction was central to the preaching and teaching of the Reformers, and the Reformed tradition that formed in their wake, but it rarely finds a place in contemporary evangelicalism. This is in no small part due to the influence of the 19th century’s dispensationalism, which provides little to no theological category for how it is that many of Christ’s statements are indeed a kind, pedagogical application of the condemning law, and not gospel.
Given the exhaustive sufficiency of Christ’s salvation, offered freely through the gospel to all needy sinners who come; faith, through which we are alone justified, is nothing more than an empty, open hand, receiving and resting in Christ alone (Heb 10:11-14; Jer 33:16; Rom 3:21-26; Eph 1:6-9, 2:1-10; Jn 7:37-38; Mt 5:6, 20:30-31; Isa 55:1; Lk 18:13-14; LBC 3.5, 7.1-2, 8.8, 11.2-3, 14.2). There is no frame of mind, Spirit wrought or otherwise, besides the awareness of one’s need for salvation, that is required for one to be justified (Jn 7:37-38; Lk 18:13-14; Gal 2:16; Isa 55:1; Mt 5:6, 20:30-31; LBC 11.2, 14.2). There is no reform of the heart, no fruit of sanctification, no submission to Christ’s Lordship, indeed no motions whatsoever toward loving God or neighbor (all of which are the essence of the internal and external works of the law (Deut 6:1-5; Lk 10:26-28; Matt 22:36-40; Mk 12:28-31)) that are preparatory in order to come to Christ (Hab 2:4; Rom 1:17, 4:4-5; Tit 3:5; Gal 2:16). Such things will be present in the life of a believer (Eze 11:19-20, 36:24-27; Eph 2:10; Mt 7:18; Jn 15:5), but they are fruits of sanctification, and must not be held as the grounds or instrument of justification, lest we endanger the purity of the gospel we preach (Rom 3:28; Gal 1:9; LBC 11.2). The call of the gospel is for any sinner who sees their need to come freely and unconditionally (Mt 5:6, 11:28; Isa 55:1-7); and the moment one does, they are made eternally spotless before God, and counted as righteous according to the perfections of their federal head, Jesus Christ.
Faith alone, as a gift of grace alone, taking hold of Christ alone is the sole instrument of our justification, but it is never alone in the person justified, but is accompanied by all other saving graces, including repentance and the fruits of sanctification (Eze 36:25-27; LBC 11.2). The gift of faith through which one is justified is not merely exercised the moment one believes, but remains as the vital connection between a saint and their Savior until they are taken home to glory (Rom 8:23-25; 2 Cor 3:15-18; Rev 14:12). The Spirit sustains the grace of faith (along with every other grace) throughout a saint’s life, and thereby enables them to accept the teaching of Scripture regarding everything it says, commands, and reveals about the perfections and excellencies of God, and the sufficiency of Christ to justify, sanctify, preserve, and finally save us (Lam 3:22-23; Ps 63:8; Jer 31:34; 1 Jn 2:20, 27).
Sanctification is a monergistic (accomplished by God alone (Jn 6:63; 1 Pt 1:2; Ezk 20:12; Gal 5:6, 22-23; Jn 15:5; Rom 8:10-14)) work of the Holy Spirit, working by and through the same death and resurrection of Christ that justifies us (Heb 10:10; Eph 3:14-21; 2 Cor 5:14-15; LBC 13.1), whereby every sinner who is justified is also set apart as holy and purified for the Lord’s use. The same regenerating grace which produced in us the gift of faith by the gospel—through which we were justified—also creates in us every other grace via the same new heart (Eze 36:25-27; Mt 7:18; Jn 15:5). Through the ongoing exercise of grace by the abiding power of the Spirit, the word of Christ dwells richly in us (Jn 7:37-39; 1 Jn 2:20, 27), the depths of our remaining corruption is revealed with greater clarity, and we are further matured in our dependence upon Christ to save us (Eph 4:11-16; Phil 3:8-14; Heb 12:1-3 LBC 5.5, 13.2, 17.3). As we mature in our understanding of the depths of our sin, and the assurance of the freedom we have in Christ, the Spirit works in us the fruit of gratitude (Col 3:15-17; Heb 3:15-16; Rom 8:10; Ps 118, 7:17, 52:6-9; 2 Cor 3:17, 4:13-15; LBC 16.2-3, 21.1, 3). Knowing the kindness and severity of God, the gratitude we have through the freedom of the gospel and the assurance of faith by it is the fuel for all growth in holiness (Rom 2:4, 8:10; Heb 9:14; Tit 3:3-8; Jonah 2:9; 1 Cor 6:15-20; Phil 3:12; 2 Pt 1:8-9; Lk 1:73-75; Gal 5:13; 1 Jn 3:1-3; Rom 6:1-2, 12:1; 2 Cor 5:14-15; Heb 6:11-12; LBC 11.3, 14.2, 16.2-4). It is by this evangelical grace that the dominion of sin over us is destroyed, the corruption of our flesh is weakened, and our love of God’s law is increased as we grow in our grateful submission to the lordship of Christ (Rom 7:22, 14:17, 6:13; Tit 2:11-14; 1 Pt 1:18-19, 2:9; 1 Cor 6:20, 7:23).
Because of the remaining corruption of our flesh, which continually wages war against our souls (Gal 5:17; Rom 7:14-25), this sanctification will never produce perfect fruits in this life (Rom 8:26-27; Isa 64:6; Jer 17:9; LBC 6.2-5, 5.5, 9.4-5, 11.5, 13.2-3, 15.2, 16.5). Even our holiest works are carried out with mixed motives (Jer 17:9; Rom 7:15, 21), and can never be acceptable to God on their own. But through the mediation of our Lord, they are indeed perfectly acceptable to the Father in Him (Heb 2:17; LBC 8.10, 16.6).
The fruits of sanctification are absolutely never the grounds or the instrument of our justification (Tit 3:4-7; LBC 13.1; 11.1-2). Christ’s church cannot compromise on that point of doctrine. To point to anything beyond the open hand of faith as the instrumentof our justification is to deny the Apostles’ teaching—the teaching reclaimed and faithfully summarized in the Reformed tradition—pollute the gospel, and yield oneself to the essence of Roman Catholic heresy. The Roman Catholic catechism, quoting the Council of Trent (which was Rome’s response to / condemnation of Reformation theology,) says, “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.” Given that, as our Lord taught, the works of the law are summarized as loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind, as well as our strength, and our neighbor as ourselves; teaching any sort of interior reform beyond one’s personal recognition of their need for Christ (Mt 11:28-30, 5:6; Isa 55:1-7) and the open hand of faith taking hold of Christ as the instrument or the grounds of justification is adding works to Christ, and is Roman in essence (LBC 16.5).
The assurance of faith is absolutely vital to the Christian life. It is the primary source of our growth in peace, joy, love, thankfulness, and holiness in the Lord (Heb 12:28-29; Col 2:2-3; Jude 20-21; Heb 10:19-25; 1 Tim 4:9-11; LBC 21.1, 3, 16.2-3). The primary basis for Christian assurance is the objective person and work of Christ (1 Pt 1:8; LBC 14.3, 18.2). The essence of a believer’s assurance, therefore, is not something speculative, fallible, or merely subjective, but has its ground in none other than the invincible, living hope on the basis of the historical fact of Christ’s resurrection that is spoken of often in the Apostles (1 Pt 1:3, 20-21; Eph 1:18-23; 2 Thess 2:16-17; 1 Tim 1:1, 6:11-12, 17-19; Col 1:21-27; Rom 5:1-5; Psa 32:1; 1 Cor 15:12; Rom 15:13; 1 Thess 1:3, 5:8-10; LBC 18.2). Various internal and external manifestations of the grace of God in sanctification, the fellowship of the Spirit, hatred of sin, repentance, growth in personal holiness, etc. are inevitable in every justified believer, and can therefore serve to increase and strengthen our assurance (1 Jn 3:18-19; Rom 8:10; Gal 4:4-6; LBC 16.2, 18.2), but they are never properly considered the primary basis of our assurance (Rom 7:22-25). Nor are seasons of apparent spiritual darkness, temptation, weakness, or conscience-wounding sin grounds for despairing for those whose hope is in Christ (Heb 4:14-16; Psa 32:1, 43:5; 2 Cor 4:8-18, 7:5-6; Rom 8:22-39; Phil 1:6; 1 Tim 1:15-16; Isa 40:29; 1 Jn 3:18-20; Jn 10:28-30; LBC 17.1-3)—such dire realities making up the very circumstance we are trusting the Savior, by the promises of His gospel, to keep us through and finally deliver us from (1 Jn 2:1-2; Lk 1:70-75; Ps 63:8; 1 Cor 15:25-26; Eph 6:12-17; Jn 10:28-30; Heb 12:4-14, 13:5-6). It is nonsensical indeed for one who is being sanctified—whose hope is in Christ alone—to look inside themselves, to the remnants of very body of death they’re being set free from, and thereby doubt the grace of God in Christ that is reaching down from outside of themselves through faith; from the One who is seated in the heavenly places. Instead, being prone to doubts, fear, and the remaining corruption of sin within us (LBC 6.2-5, 5.5, 9.4-5, 11.5, 13.2-3, 15.2, 16.5, 17.1-3), believers should continually be encouraged by the ordinary means of the ministry of the church to look outside of ourselves and rest in Christ (1 Jn 2:1-2; Heb 4:14-16, 13:5-6; Phil 1:6; 1 Tim 1:15-16; LBC 18.2-4, 11.2, 13.1). Trusting, as we do, in an all-sufficient Savior, may the cry of the Reformers—“Extra Nos!” (outside ourselves)—be our cry as well.
The Christian life as presented in the Scriptures is not one of endless fruit-hunting to either prove or disprove the genuineness of our faith. The handful of passages that encourage self-examination are being taken out of context and misinterpreted any time they are used to normalize morbid introspection (1 John 1:6-7, 2:3-6, 9-11, 15-17, 22-24, 28-29, 3:6-10, 14-15, 4:5-6, 7-8, 5:2 cf 1 Jn 1:1-4, 7-2:2, 12-14, 25-27, 3:1-3, 16-24, 4:4, 9-19, 5:11-20; 1 Corinthians 11:27-31 cf 11:20-22, 32; 2 Corinthians 13:5 cf 12:19, 13:3-4) in spite of the overwhelming message of the Scriptures—that the object of our faith is someone / something that has occurred outside of ourselves, and that our salvation is began, kept, and will be consummated by that external person. The objective person and work of Christ is sufficient to save, and He is the only sure and effectual anchor for our souls from the beginning of our salvation into eternity (Heb 6:16-20, 9:24). We must be careful to walk in the fear of God in the freedom of our union with the all-sufficient Christ—who is seated in the heavenly places (Rom 8:10; Heb 1:3, 8:1; Acts 7:55; Col 3:1; Eph 2:6)—and continually encourage our fellow brothers and sisters, in the course of our lives in the church, to do the same.
Implications for the Church
Given the sufficiency of Christ, the free nature of grace through faith, the inevitability of sanctification by means of gospel-gratitude, the vital nature of our objective assurance, and the world’s and our flesh’s continual tendency to contradict, deny, forget, and minimize these realities—the church must be, as the Scriptures demonstrate, a gospel-saturated refuge for weary pilgrims (Rev 1:6; 1 Pt 2:9; Rom 1:6-7; 1 Cor 1:2-9; 2 Cor 1:5-7; Gal 1:3-5; Eph 1-3; Phil 1:3-11; Col 1:2-3:11; 1 Thess 1:1-10; 1 Tim 1:15, 1 Pt 1:1-25; 2 Pt 1:1-21; 1 Jn 1:1-4; 2 Jn 1-3; Jude 1-3; Rev 1:1-8). Christ must be the center of everything we are about in the church; and feeding Him to the flock is the biblical goal of every gathering (Eph 4:15-16; Col 3:1, 16-18; LBC 22.1-2). Curving the saints’ focus inward on themselves, failing to give them the law lawfully (1 Tim 1:8-11; Gal 5:13-14; Lk 17:10; Job 35:5-8; LBC 19.5-7) and the gospel purely (Rom 3:21-26; LBC 20.1-2, 4), and neglecting the duty to give the people Christ in favor of any other pursuit is a gross dereliction of duty on the part of the Elders (1 Tim 1:3-4; LBC 22:2). As the Reformers faithfully and enthusiastically affirmed—Scripture points us outside of ourselves to the sufficiency of Christ (Col 3:1; Rev 1:6; 1 Pt 2:9; LBC 8.1-5, 9-10); and therefore the primary goal of every biblical church service is to do the same.
Being made in the image of God after our forefather Adam—the man who was created to earn God’s favor by his works (Gen 2:7-17, 3:22, 24; Hos 6:7; Rom 3:23 cf Heb 2:10; 1 Cor 15:45; LBC 4.2, 7.3, 19.1-2); grace is exceedingly alien and unnatural to mankind. The world and indeed our own flesh battles constantly to return us to a legal mind; and therefore back into slavery to sin (Rom 6:14, 7:5, 7-13). The bold claim of the Scriptures is that being brought out of ourselves, fixed upon the grace of God in Christ, and set free from the condemnation of the law, we are by those means actually enabled to do real works of love—the love which fulfills the very law whose condemnation we’re set free from in Christ (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14; Jam 2:8, 12; Tit 3:3-8; LBC 16.2-3, 21.1, 3). The church, then, is where we gather to have our focus reset by the pure Word, the ordinances, prayer, and the fellowship and correction of the body—to have our souls put back to rest in Christ, our hearts refreshed in His love, and our minds renewed so that we might go back into the turmoil of the world full of gratitude, ready to love our neighbors as adopted sons and daughters of God (Rom 12:2, 8:15-17, Eph 1:5-6; Tit 3:3-8; 1 Jn 3:1; Eph 2:10).
But as Paul rhetorically asked in response to his teaching of these gospel truths across the first 5 chapters of Romans, will this free grace not cause people to adopt the mindset: “Shall we continue in sin that grace may increase?” (Rom 6:1) His answer is our answer—“May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom 6:2) The gospel, rightly understood, renders such a proposition nonsensical to those who are being sanctified (Rom 6:1-14). And such persons are the body of Christ (1 Cor 1:2; Eph 5:23-32; 1 Tim 3:15; Heb 12:23 LBC 26.1-2, 6)—the ones whom the church was instituted to call, disciple, and sustain (Jn 21:15-17)! As Christ promised, there will inevitably be tares among the wheat (Mt 13:25-26, 38-39); but as He also instructed we are not to take it as our mission to weed them out (Mt 13:28-30)—artificially fencing the free grace of God in gospel ministry—lest we starve the flock and thereby tear the wheat up with the tares! The local church, when biblically constituted (Jer 31:31-34; Mt 28:18-20; Acts 2:41-42; 1 Cor 1:2; Eph 5:23-32; 1 Tim 3:15; Heb 12:23), is made up of visible saints (LBC 26.2, 6); and biblical gospel ministry ministers the free grace of the gospel accordingly—freely feeding the riches of Christ to the flock according to the Scriptures. As Jesus instructed, He will see to the tares in the time of the harvest (Mt 13:30, 39-42). And in the meantime, if the He so chooses, He will expose the deeds of any who might continue in obstinate sin (Num 32:23), and through the church’s obedience to the command to discipline her members; they will either be restored to repentance, or the credibility of their profession to be a visible saint will be negated by the church (Tit 3:10-11; 1 Tim 5:8; 1 Cor 5:3-5, 11-13; 2 Thess 3:6; Mt 16:19, 18:18-20; 2 Jn 10-11), and she will obediently purify herself by removing them from membership in the hope that they will some day be restored (Mt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5:9-13; 1 Tim 1:20; 2 Thess 3:14-15). Either way, we must be faithful to proclaim the sufficiency of Christ, and the freedom of the gift of salvation in Him (because the Scriptures command it, and the health and sustenance of the saints depends on it!), and trust Christ to grow, prune, and preserve His church; and to purify her (LBC 5.7)—whether in this age or in the harvest—of any who might secretly or publicly misuse the good news and the church (Jude 4); which He has established as the pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim 3:15).