5 Counterfeits of Sanctification

WatsonThomas Watson’s book, A Body of Divinity, is a wonderful exposition of part 1 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. It is among the best writing in the Puritan tradition – thorough, thoroughly Scriptural, heart-searching, practical, and pastoral. I heartily recommend it (and anything else written by Watson, for that matter).  Charles Spurgeon calls this volume Watson’s “principal work” (xi).

In his treatment of the subject of sanctification (Q.35 of the catechism), Watson lists 5 counterfeits of sanctification. These are essentially works of self-deception on the part of the unregenerate. In his words, These are “things which look like sanctification, but are not” (p.242). They are as follows:

1. Moral Virtue – Sometimes we can mistake a “fair deportment” (his words) or a generally moral lifestyle for the work of God’s grace in the sanctification of a believer.  Not having one’s life marked by scandal is a good thing, but it falls far short of sanctification. Many an unregenerate person can make such a claim, but surely this is no mark of the work of God’s saving grace in the heart and life.

2. Superstitious Devotion – He notes that this counterfeit version of sanctification “abounds” in the Roman Catholic church (which he refers to as “Popery”), but such superstitious practices abound among Protestants in our day as well. Watson goes so far as to say, “If to tell over a few beads [i.e. the Rosary], or bow to an image, or sprinkle themselves with holy water were sanctification, and all that is required of them that should be saved, then hell would be empty, none would come there” (p.243). Going through religious motions, however sincerely, is not substitute for sanctification.

3. Hypocrisy – This counterfeit of sanctification is (to use his words) “when men make a pretence [sic] of that holiness which they have not” (p.243). This is the worst kind of self-delusion, for in this counterfeit one robs or defrauds himself; “the most counterfeit saint deceives others while he lives, but deceives himself when he dies.” Such a phony holiness is a self-deception that will provide no true and lasting comfort to the soul at death’s door.

4. Restraining Grace – This is where “sin is curbed, but not cured” (p.244). In other words, it is when someone refrains from a particular sin or vice without actually hating that sin or vice. He is not speaking of sinless perfection here, but rather a changed heart, which where it once loved sin, now hates the very sins against which is struggles against in this life. This is what the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.87 means  when it defines “repentance unto life” as “a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience” (italics mine).

5. Common Grace – This last counterfeit of sanctification that Watson lists (and his list is by no means necessarily exhaustive) is where a sinner comes to some apprehension of the gospel message or conviction of sin that, in the end, still falls short of conversion. Perhaps such a person attends the public worship of the church for a time; maybe he even (at least temporarily) feels drawn to the message of Christ, but true repentance and faith in Christ are still sadly missing. This is the man or woman who keeps Christ at arm’s length, but never bows the knee as his or her Lord in this life.

It is clear that these things were not merely academic issues to Watson. This is the work of a careful and caring doctor of souls, an evangelist and pastor of the first order. Sanctification in general seems to be a topic that has fallen on tough times and deaf ears in many corners of the church today. Judging by the evident needfulness of Watson’s words here even back in his day (17th century England), maybe that has always been the case. May it be that God may continue to use the wise, biblical counsel from books this this one to awaken many a self-deceived sinner to truly repent and turn to the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation.


    1. Maybe that was just a common term for catechisms (or for the Westminster Standards in particular?), much like the way we see a lot of Systematic Theology (the title, not just the subject) volumes by multiple authors.

      If you don’t have Watson’s Trilogy (Body of Divinity, 10 Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer), I highly recommend them. Great stuff!

      Good to hear from you, brother!

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