Straw Man Arguments about Justification and Sanctification

It seems the goal of some bloggers is to bring as much division between professed believers in Christ as possible. Their modus operandi seems to be misrepresent and conqueror. The reality is, our goal should be to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace.” It should go without saying that there are going to be honest disagreements between true believers. Often there are issues that are so multifaceted that dogmatism is unwarranted. Even in those issues that seem clear-cut, the charge of “heresy” is probably too harsh.

In matters that concern the purity of the gospel, it is clear there are mis-statements that are so grave that the very gospel itself is in danger of being lost. For example, if a person denies the concept of imputation, he has denied the heart of God’s good news. If the sinner’s justification depends to any degree on his faithfulness to God’s covenant, the so-called “good news” would become bad news. Not only do the unconverted sinner’s best works of “righteousness” fall short of meeting God’s standard for justification, but the believer’s best obedience also fails to meet that standard. God requires perfect, continual, and internal obedience to his Law. What one of us can claim that we have loved God, perfectly, continually and from the heart? I would like to believe I love God, yet I would never profess that, even as a believer, I love him with all my heart, soul, mind and strength.

The reality is that God doesn’t declare righteous those who are righteous in and of themselves. Nor, does he justify sinners because through the infusion of grace, i.e., enablement, these sinners have attained a level of faithfulness to God’s covenant that God is now able to declare them righteous, despite their failure to attain the level of perfection the Scriptures teach us he requires.

In truth, God declares the ungodly to be righteous in his sight. The apostle Paul wrote, “unto him who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Romans 4:5). If God declares the ungodly to be righteous in his sight, he must do so by putting a righteousness to his account that he does not personally possess. That is “imputation.”

The question then arises, whose righteousness is put to the sinner’s account? We can answer that question best by asking by what standard God defines that righteousness. It will be clear to anyone who is not biased to the contrary that God’s standard is perfect obedience to his Law. This is the issue Paul considers in Roman’s chapter two. In fact, if we should remove that chapter from its context, it would appear that sinners might be justified through their personal obedience to the law. Years ago I read a book entitled, “Right With God” by John Blanchard. In discussing Paul’s teaching in Philippians 3, he suggested four false bases of justification before God in which sinners often trust. They are ritual, race, religion, and respectability. We find these same false bases in Romans two. Paul argues that knowledge of God’s law, being children of the covenant, religious privilege, ritual, and morality all fail to meet God’s standard. What, then, is God’s standard? Paul’s answer is clear. It is perfect, continual and inward obedience to God’s Law. He wrote, “For it is not the hearers of the Law who are righteous before, but the doers of the law who will be justified [declared righteous]” ( Romans 2:13).

Now, we must ask two questions: 1. What sinner is there among us who has met that standard? Paul’s answer is, “not one!” 2. Who has been subjected to that standard who has met the standard perfectly? The answer is, only one! Paul argues that “since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.” It is not a divine righteousness our case demands. It is a perfect human righteousness, defined by God’s perfect standard. Our case demands a righteousness defined as unbridled, wholehearted love for God that is manifested in an unswerving commitment to God’s revealed will.

The good news is that believers are given credit for that kind of love for God and obedience to his will that even in our best moments we do not possess personally.

In an effort to clarify some issues that seem to be fostering what I would consider unnecessary division, I want to try to draw some distinctions relative to imputation, justification, and sanctification. There are a number of bloggers who regularly misrepresent and blur these distinctions by their prodigiously false statements and “straw man” arguments. This is an appeal to them to return to a meaningful discussion of legitimate issues in an effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace. I want to first state what I believe are “straw man” arguments, then state what I believe are the real issues.

1. Straw man–The obedience of Christ is imputed to believers for sanctification so that it is unnecessary for believers to be obedient to the commands of Scripture.

I have read quite a lot of Calvinistic literature and, in the area of soteriology, would consider myself a Calvinist. Yet, I don’t think I have ever read or heard any reformed writer or preacher suggest that Jesus obeyed for us so that in the matter of sanctification, we don’t need to obey God.

Professor John Murray who was clearly within the Reformed tradition wrote,

While we are constantly dependent upon the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit, we must also take into account of the fact that sanctification is a process that draws within its scope the conscious life of the believer. The sanctified are not passive or quiescent in this process. Nothing shows this more clearly than the exhortation of the apostle: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2: 12, 13). . .God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjugation or coordination of both produced the required result. God works in us and we also work. But the relation is that because God works we work. All working out of salvation on our part is the effect of God’s working in us, not the willing to the exclusion of the doing and not the doing to the exclusion of the willing, but both the willing and the doing. And this working of God is directed to the end of enabling us to will and to do that which is well pleasing to him. . . .The more persistently active we are in working, the more persuaded we may be that all the energizing grace and power is of God (Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Pp. 148-49).

Is there any sense in which Christ’s righteousness must be imputed to believers in the realm of sanctification? I think the answer has to be, yes. Though our standing before God in justification is perfect and complete, our state in sanctification is not and need not be. As new men and women who are not yet made perfect, time after time we will fall short of the ultimate goal of sanctification, i.e. the elimination of all sin from the heart and life. Whenever that occurs, we will be in need of forgiveness. This forgiveness, or lack of it, has nothing to do with our standing before God. Instead, it concerns our communion with God. Still, this forgiveness does not differ in character because it is granted to believers any more than sin changes character because committed by a believer. In 1 John 1:9, we have God’s promise to forgive us, cleanse us and thus, restore us to fellowship. John wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Just as the nature of forgiveness and the nature of sin do not change because they occur in the believer’s life instead of in the life of the unregenerate, so the basis of forgiveness is the same in the life of the believer in the process of sanctification as in God’s declaration of justification. Notice, John wrote, “He is faithful, i.e. true to his promise, and just to forgive our sins. . . .” The question must be, on what basis is he just, i.e. righteous, to forgive our sins. Could he do so apart from Christ’s redemptive work? On what other basis could he be just and at the same time forgive us? I think we must conclude that Jesus’ obedience/righteousness must be put to our account for the forgiveness of our post conversion sins, to restore us to communion with God.

I conclude that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is necessary in God’s work of sanctification but never in the sense that he obeys so that believers don’t need to be obedient. It is because he obeyed that we are enabled by the Spirit to obey.

2. Straw Man–Calvinists fuse justification and sanctification because they assert that though justification and sanctification are different they are never separated.

Calvinists believe justification and sanctification are neither fused nor to be confused. We do not believe sanctification completes justification or that justification is progressive. When we assert that justification and sanctification are always found together, we are speaking of the clearly revealed truth that in all those whom God has declared righteous in his sight, he also initiates and pursues the work of sanctification. That is to say, there is no such person as one who has been justified who is not also being sanctified or a person who is being sanctified who has not first been justified.

This in no way suggests that these two works of God are in some way conflated. God’s concern in justification and sanctification are totally different. In one he intends to deal with our guilt, in the other he intends to deal with the reigning power of sin and our pollution. One concerns righteousness, the other concerns holiness. Justification is complete and instantaneous; the other is progressive and gradual. The believer is no more sanctified because he is declared perfectly righteous nor is he any more justified because he makes progress in sanctification.

3. Straw man–Calvinist’s believe Jesus is still working to maintain our justification.

The implication of this statement is that Calvinists don’t believe Jesus’ work of redemption was finished on the cross. Of course, we do believe he continues to work in that, as our High Priest he carries on the work of intercession based on his sacrificial offering. One problem here is that the Calvinistic position relative to Jesus’ ministry as our High Priest finds its basis in the Epistle to the Hebrews and not in the Epistle to the Romans. The motifs of these two books are completely different. It is interesting to note that the term “justification” never occurs in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The writer of that book approaches the matter of salvation from a totally different manner. For him, salvation is a matter, among other themes, of boldness of approach to the throne of a holy God. He explains salvation based on the sacrificial system of Judaism.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks and answers the question, Q. 25. How doth Christ execute the office of a priest?

A. Christ executeth the office of a priest, in his once offering up of himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God, and in making continual intercession for us.

Notice that according to this answer, Jesus ONCE offered himself up as a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice. . . . His work is of satisfying God’s justice is finished. Based on that finished work, he now appears in God’s presence for us. As our Priest, he intercedes for us in God’s presence. That is, his finished work of oblation is continually presented in the presence of God. His work of sacrifice is finished. By his obedience up to and including his death by crucifixion, he has finished once and for all everything needed to justify his people completely. He now presents that finished work as our advocate with the Father.

4. Straw man–Calvinists believe works are necessary to maintain justification, even if they are Christ’s works.

The only answer I can give to this apart from referring to my previous response is simply to ask for quotations that indicate that any Calvinist believes anything more needs to be done to “maintain justification.”

5. Straw man–“Definitive sanctification”refers back to the definite completion of justification.

Definitive sanctification actually refers to the radical break with sin that occurs when the believer is united to Christ by the effectual call of God. In Romans six, the apostle Paul argues that by virtue of the believer’s union with Christ he has died to the reigning power of sin. Not only did Christ die for the sinner’s justification. The believer died with Christ for his sanctification. He is no longer a slave to sin and to death. This fact, forms the basis for all the exhortations to obedience in the New Testament. This is the indicative/imperative model we find throughout the New Testament Scriptures.

I could go on and on, but I think these issues are sufficient to initiate an honest discussion of matters. If you believe I have misrepresented the Calvinistic position on any of these issues, you are welcome to challenge my views by bringing quotations from well established Calvinists and Calvinistic documents that demonstrate my error.

Let’s talk.


2 Responses to “Straw Man Arguments about Justification and Sanctification”

  1. October 9, 2012 at 10:42 am

    There are some in the list that I had not yet heard.

    “The good news is that believers are given credit for that kind of love for God and obedience to his will that even in our best moments we do not possess personally.”

    That’s hugely important. If I die on MY best day, I will still have sin in me and ‘deserve’ hell. That’s how I see it. It probably wouldn’t preach in many of today’s churches, but I think it’s true.

    “because God works we work” So true.

    “there is no such person as one who has been justified who is not also being sanctified or a person who is being sanctified who has not first been (justified?)

    I think that some who continuously create these straw men are so consumed by either a hatred of John Calvin (I’ve seen that), or something else (hurt and bitterness perhaps), that they just keep lashing out. Lashing out is also sometimes a way of masking our own sin in a thing, and an attempt at a king of ‘self’- justification.

    • October 9, 2012 at 2:21 pm


      Good to hear from you. Thanks for the correction. Yes, I should have said “justified.” The “straw men” I tried to correct are not very common. They are taken from blog post on some of the “discernment sites” you and I have visited. One in particular is now claiming Calvinists are unconverted and are teaching a false gospel. By the way, there are more such “straw men” I chose not to address in this article. What I continue to ask for are quotations, in context, from some of these “heretics” in which they actually state what is being claimed. So far, I have failed in my attempts to tease out such quotations.

      Your comments about “lashing out” are right on the money.

      Your comments

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