The Manifold Helps to Holiness in the Church

Gospel Mystery

In his book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, Puritan author Walter Marshall (1628-1680) gives us no less than six (6) ways in which the fellowship of the saints in the local church is conducive toward growth in holiness and sanctification (p.211-212):

1.  The Word and Sacraments (i.e. the means of grace in public worship), as well as the ministry of pastors and elders in overseeing and caring for our souls (Hebrews 13:17) are a great help to believers in striving to grow in holiness. But how rarely do we consider the ministry of the local church in public worship or in pastoral oversight when it comes to our desire to grow in holiness? Marshall points out that none of these helps unto holiness can be enjoyed outside of the fellowship of believers in the church. If you desire to grow in grace and holiness, do not overlook the importance of the local church.

2.  Mutual Prayer – How great a blessing it is when believers not only pray, or even pray for one another, but also pray with one another? What a support and encouragement that can be! And how much greater when the whole church gathers to pray together!

3.  Mutual Admonition, Instruction, and Consolation – It is not without reason that Scripture so often tells us of the importance of “one another” ministry among believers in the church. We are to let the Word of Christ dwell among us richly, which includes “teaching and admonishing one another” (Colossians 3:16). And one of the reasons that the writer of the book of Hebrews tells us not to neglect to meet together is that we might “stir up one another to love and good works” (10:24-25). Marshall writes,

“In church fellowship there are many helpers, many to watch. Soldiers have their security in company [i.e. numbers]; and the church is compared to an army with banners (Song vi. 4, 10). So, for quickening affections, Iron sharpeneth iron (Prov. xxvii. 17)” (p.212).

So it is not just the pastors and elders who are of great assistance to us in our growth in godliness, but the entire church! We are each to be bother helper and helped!

4.  External Supports – When suffering afflictions, how greatly it helps us to have shoulders to lean upon or cry upon. Simply put, we bear each others burdens in the church.

5.  Excommunication (!) – Yes, you read that correctly. Excommunication is a benefit of being a part of a local church? So what difference is there between that and just not getting involved in the church in the first place? As Marshall explains,

This ordinance is appointed for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved (1 Cor. v. 5). Better and more hopeful it is, to be cast out by the church, for a person’s amendment [i.e. repentance and restoration], than to be wholly without the church at all times; and better to be a lost sheep than a goat or swine . . . ” (p.212).

6.  The Lively Examples of the Saints – How helpful it is to have godly examples set before our eyes throughout our days. And how often is this very thing actually neglected by those churches who seem to undervalue the elderly in our churches, all in the name of the supposed importance of youth. Both are important to be sure (as saints of all ages are), but how much more do the younger need to learn from the older! The dear senior saints who have walked with the Lord Jesus Christ for a great many years have much to teach the younger believers, who are often just taking baby steps in the faith.

Marshall has a lot more to say about the way of sanctification, and I highly recommend this book to you. But I hope that this small sample of what he has to say about it gives you a renewed appreciation for the importance of the church in the Christian life.

Thomas Watson on the Necessity of Sanctification

WatsonIn his book, A Body of Divinity, Thomas Watson gives six (6) reasons for the necessity of sanctification in the life of a Christian. They are as follows:

1. God has called us to it. Watson cites 2 Peter 1:3, which speaks not only of God giving us “all things that pertain to life and godliness” but also having called us to His own “glory and excellence” (or “virtue” – KJV). He also points us to 1 Thessalonians 4:7, which says, “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.” If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, make no mistake about it – God has called you to a life of holiness and sanctification.

2. Without sanctification there is no evidencing our justification. As he writes, “Justification and sanctification go together” (p.244).  See 1 Corinthians 6:11; Micah 7:18-19. They must be kept distinct, but never separate. Although Watson does not necessarily spell it out as such, the concern here seems to be one related to our assurance. Without sanctification, what evidence or proof do we have that we have been justified by Christ?

3. Without sanctification we have no title to the new covenant.  Part of the new covenant is that God gives His redeemed people a new heart. Ezekiel 36:26-27 says,

“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”

So if we do not have a new heart within us by the Spirit of God and so do not walk in the statutes of God and carefully obey His rules or commandments, we are not yet members of the new covenant.

4. There is no going to heaven without sanctification. Here Watson twice quotes Hebrews 12:14 which states, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (NIV). This same thing is explicitly taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith in its chapter dealing with the doctrine of sanctification:

They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them: the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed,and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. (Westminster Confession of Faith 13.1)

Notice that the writers of the Confession also use the language of Hebrews 12:14. In other words, without sanctification no man shall see the Lord (or go to heaven).

5. Without sanctification all our holy things are defiled. He writes, “A foul stomach turns the best food into ill humours [i.e. indigestion or illness]; so an unsanctified heart pollutes prayers, alms, sacraments” (p.245). See also Isaiah 1:10-17; Matthew 7:21-23.

6. Without sanctification we can show no sign of our election. Here he points us to 2 Thessalonians 2:13, which says, “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (ESV, italics mine). Watson writes,”Election is the cause of our salvation, sanctification is our evidence. Sanctification is the ear-mark of Christ’s elect sheep” (p.245).

Let all of this be a comfort to every genuine believer in Jesus Christ, and an encouragement to grow in the grace of God in sanctification. May it also serve as a wake-up call of sorts to any who have up to this point contented themselves with a hollow profession of faith, but have never known the grace of God in truth.

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.

The Importance of the Preface to the Ten Commandments

It is often said that “context is key” when it comes to properly understanding something. And that is certainly true when it comes to having a right understanding – indeed a truly Christian understanding – of the Ten Commandments.

Have you ever given any thought to the context in which the Ten Commandments were given? The “preface” (as it has come to be known) is what supplies us with that context. It is found in Exodus 20:2 (and Deuteronomy 5:6), where  God says,

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Notice that deliverance came before duty. In other words, God did not give the Israelites the Ten commandments (which are the summary of His moral law) and then tell them, “If you do all of this, then I will redeem you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Instead, He graciously redeemed them and rescued them from their slavery first! Living lives of holiness unto Him was to be their response to His grace!

The Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches us this same thing regarding the Ten Commandments:

Q.44. What does the preface [Exodus 20:2] to the Ten Commandments teach us? A. The preface to the ten Commandments teaches us, that because God is the Lord, and our God, and Redeemer, therefore we are bound to keep all His commandments.”

So why are we, as Christians, to obey God’s commandments? At least three (3) reasons:

3 Fingers

  1. Because He is the Lord. 
  2. Because in Christ He is now not just God in general but our God.
  3. Because in Christ He has redeemed us from our sins.

So we are to obey God’s commandments first because He is the Lord – He is in charge. He is the Creator and we are His creatures; and we owe Him obedience as such. Secondly, we are to obey Him because in Christ He is our God. Tell that to those who constantly seem to pit the idea of relationship against the existence of rules. Rules (commandments!) are in no way contrary to a right relationship with God. And lastly, we are to obey God’s commandments because He is our Redeemer in Jesus Christ.

Redemption does not free us from the obligation to obey God’s commandments, but rather from the curse for having broken God’s law. The Westminster Confession of Faith goes so far as to say that, Christ, in the gospel, does actually “much strengthen this obligation” (19.5). When was the last time that you heard a preacher tell you that the gospel actually gives you all the more reason to obey God’s commandments? (Perhaps Matthew 28:20 should have been a clue.)

There you have it. It’s really not all that complicated, is it? We do not obey in order to be saved; rather we are saved so that we might then obey God out of gratitude for the salvation that is ours in Christ by grace alone. Obedience is our response to God’s grace. And it has always been that way, even under Moses.

The Difference Between Justification & Sanctification

WCFWhat is the difference between justification & sanctification?  Good question. The Westminster Larger Catechism (not surprisingly) supplies us with a very helpful answer:

Q.77. Wherein do justification and sanctification differ? A. Although sanctification is inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, in that God in justification imputes the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification His Spirit infuses grace, and enables the exercise thereof; in the former, sin is pardoned; in the other, it is subdued: the one does equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation; the other is neither equal in all, nor in this life perfect in any, but growing up to perfection.

So the first thing this tells us is that we must distinguish between the two, but never separate them. You cannot have one without the other (as they are “inseparably joined”), but they differ in significant ways. How, then, do they differ?

First, justification involves the imputation (or reckoning, accounting) of Christ’s righteousness, while sanctification involves the actual infusion of grace and the enabling to exercise it in daily life.  You may recall that the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification mistakenly teaches that justification involves the infusion (rather than the imputation) of Christ’s righteousness. But the biblical doctrine of justification is that in Christ all believers are declared righteous, rather than made righteous. This is what Paul is speaking of in Romans 4:3-5,

“For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness . . . .”

Abraham was not justified by works, but by believing God at His Word in the promise of the gospel. Justification is (to borrow the words of v.5) a matter of God ‘justifying the ungodly’ (or the “wicked” – NIV), not matter of God making the ungodly person godly. (That would be sanctification.)

The second difference noted above in the Larger Catechism is that in justification sin is forgiven, while in sanctification it is subdued. In the former, all believers in Christ are forever freed from the just penalty of their sins – the wrath of God. But in the latter, the  grace of God works in the lives of believers to subdue the power of sin over their lives. In other words, in justification we are viewed and accepted by God as sinless because we are in Christ; but in sanctification we begin to actually and objectively sin less than we did before coming to Christ by faith.

The third difference is a very important one, and that is that all believers are equally & perfectly justified, but sanctification can and does differ from one believer to the next in this life. There are no degrees of justification (i.e. you are either justified before God or you are not), but there most certainly are differing degrees of sanctification. Not only that, but while all believers are perfectly justified in this life, none of us are perfectly sanctified in this life. Not a one. In this life all believers are, by the grace of God, “growing up to perfection.”

So let us never separate justification and sanctification – they belong together. The one who has been once and for all time justified in Christ will also presently be in the process of being sanctified in this life. But let us also avoid the opposite mistake of confusing the two or mixing them up. To do that is to (at minimum) hinder our growth in grace, or even (at worst) to deny the gospel itself.

Sanctification: Glory in Seed Form

Tulips Closed

How are we to understand the nature of sanctification in the life of a believer in Jesus Christ?  What is the relationship between the work that God is presently carrying on to completion in our lives (Philippians 1:6), and the full and final completion of that work in us at the day of Christ?

In his book, A Body of Divinity, Thomas Watson writes,

Sanctification and glory differ only in degree: sanctification is glory in the seed, and glory is sanctification in the flower. Holiness is the quintessence of happiness. (p.242)

Glory is the full flower of which sanctification is the seed. As Watson says, they differ only in degree, not in kind.

So our sanctification (the ongoing work of God’s grace in our lives whereby we are “enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” – Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.35) is the beginnings of the glory that we will finally and fully enjoy in heaven one day.

When seen in that particular light, the effort expended on our part in dying to sin and living unto righteousness in this life can be seen not as a burden to bear, but as a blessing to enjoy.  It is not only evidence that our citizenship truly is in heaven (Philippians 3:20), but is also then (in a sense) a foretaste of the perfect holiness and happiness that will be ours to enjoy forever in heaven with the Lord Jesus Christ.

“The True Driving Force In Authentic Christian Living”


steam-289008_1280What is the primary motivation for a believer in Jesus Christ to live the Christian life?  What should drive us to (as Paul says in Romans 12:1) offer up our bodies as living sacrifices, “holy and acceptable to God”?

Guilt? Fear? The hope of gain? Trying to earn God’s favor or stay in His good graces?  While we may find ourselves from time to time being motivated by any number of those things in our pursuit of living the Christian life, none of those things are the proper fuel for the Christian’s engine, so to speak.

Trying to live the Christian life through guilt, fear, or the hope of gain is a lot like trying to drive a car with no gas and four flat tires. You just won’t get very far at all.

So what should motivate us offer up our bodies as a living sacrifice?  In Romans 12:1 Paul says that we should do so “by the mercies of God.” In other words, God’s mercy and grace toward us in the gospel of Jesus Christ should motivate us.  So our primary motivation should be, not fear or guilt, but gratitude.

In his book, Rediscovering Holiness, J.I. Packer writes,

The secular world never understands Christian motivation. Faced with the question of what makes Christians tick, unbelievers maintain that Christianity is practiced only out of self-serving purposes. They see Christians as fearing the consequences of not being Christians (religion as fire insurance), or feeling the need of help and support to achieve their goals (religion as a crutch), or wishing to maintain a social identity (religion as a badge of respectability). No doubt all these motivations can be found among the membership of churches: it would be futile to dispute that. But just as a horse brought into a house is not thereby made human, so a self-seeking motivation brought into the church is not thereby made Christian, nor will holiness ever be the right name for religious routines thus motivated. From the plan of salvation I learn that the true driving force in authentic Christian living is, and ever must be, not the hope of gain, but the heart of gratitude. (p.75)

So if you want some practical advice on living the Christian life, one of the most helpful things you should do (although certainly not the only thing) is to consider and mediate upon the mercies of God in the gospel.  In the words of Psalm 103:2, we must “forget not all his benefits.”

The more we grasp the greatness of God’s mercies and grace toward us in Jesus Christ, the more we will be filled with gratitude and love for our God & Savior.  And that will be the true driving force in our discipleship.

Book Review: The Hole In Our Holiness


Kevin DeYoung’s book, The Hole In Our Holiness (2012, Crossway) is one of the most helpful books that I have read in a long time regarding the Christian life.

In its brief 146 pages, DeYoung puts the horse (the gospel) firmly before the cart (living the Christian life), as it should be.  The cart can never truly get very far without the horse!  In our day it seems that many pastors and writers either put the cart before the horse (or practically omit the gospel altogether) by legalistic or moralistic teaching, or they focus on the gospel nearly to the point of omitting the cart (what can often amount to a soft form of antinomianism).  DeYoung ably shows that the writers of Scripture did no such thing – they taught doctrine and practice, faith and life – and that in the correct order.

So this book is both instructive and corrective.  He shows us that the right motivation and fuel for living the Christian life (to borrow Jerry Bridge’s phrase – the pursuit of holiness) is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  We who are in Christ have been saved by God for God – for holiness (chapter 2).  He also shows the correct biblical relationship between the gospel and the law of God (chapter 4).    In this chapter he fights against the unbiblical extremes of both legalism and antinomianism.

He notes what should be common knowledge among Christians today, but often is just not clearly understood – that sanctification, while a work of God’s grace in the lives of all true believers, still takes effort on our part.  He writes,

It is the consistent witness of the New testament that growth in godliness requires exertion on the part of the Christian. (p.88)

Amen to that!  Growth in godliness doesn’t just happen; it isn’t just automatic.  There is no “cruise control” or “autopilot” in the Christian life.

There is also a chapter devoted to the topic of “Saints And Sexual Immorality” (chapter 8).  This section is sadly all too necessary in our day and age.  DeYoung notes that often when it comes to sexual immorality, those within the church just do not seem much different from those without.  He writes,

If we could transport Christians from almost any other century to any of today’s “Christian” countries in the West, I believe what would surprise them most (besides our phenomenal affluence) is how at home Christians are with sexual impurity. It doesn’t shock us. It doesn’t upset us. It doesn’t offend our consciences. In fact, unless it’s really bad, sexual impurity seems normal, just a way of life, and often downright entertaining. (p.108)

If you are looking for a book to help you understand the Christian life – the what, why, and how of pursuing holiness and following Christ, then I highly recommend this book to you!  It is easily the best book on that subject that I have read in quite some time. (Other helpful books on the subject include J.I. Packer’s book, Rediscovering Holiness, Jerry Bridges’ book, The Discipline of Grace, and J.C. Ryle’s classic book, Holiness.)

You can order a copy here: The Hole In Our Holiness

John Murray on Sanctification


In his book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, John Murray writes the following about the sanctification of the believer in Christ:

There is a total difference between surviving sin and reigning sin, the regenerate in conflict with sin and the unregenerate complacent to sin. It is one thing for sin to live in us: it is another for us to live in sin. (p.145)

If you are a Christian and you struggle with sin . . . welcome to the club!  That is not a cause for worry or despair.   The work of the Lord in your sanctification is ongoing; it is lifelong.  You will spend the rest of your life repenting of sin, and you will do that because of the grace of God at work in you!

The time to worry (as Murray says) is if you are complacent in and about your sin.  That is a sign that sin is still reigning in your life.  It is a sign that, despite whatever profession of faith you may have made, you are simply not yet a Christian.

But if you are a believer in Christ, you are no longer a slave to sin.  As Paul writes in Romans 6:20-23,

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It is vitally important that we understand the difference between “surviving sin and reigning sin.”  The better we understand not only the nature of our justification, but our sanctification in Christ as well, the better equipped we will be to deal with our sins and the doubts that sometimes accompany them.

Justification is an “act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.33).  So we are not justified by anything that we do (not by any righteousness of our own!), but only on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Christ, accounted to us by faith alone!

And sanctification is “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.35).  So, unlike justification (which is a one-time act of God’s grace), sanctification is the ongoing work of God’s free grace in the life of a believer, conforming us more and more into the image of Christ.

Understanding the work of God’s grace in our sanctification (like the act of His grace in our justification) is a key to experiencing the assurance of our salvation in Jesus Christ.  In fact, truly understanding the difference between the two (our justification and our sanctification) is one of the keys to experiencing the assurance of our salvation.

And God most certainly does want every one of us who believes in the name of Jesus Christ to know that we have eternal life (1 John 5:13).

Who said that theology wasn’t practical!

Half a Savior? (J.C. Ryle on Sanctification)


holinessMany talk a good game when it comes to grace, justification, and forgiveness, but hardly ever seem to make mention of sanctification, as if our salvation in Christ did not also include that as well.

J.C. Ryle writes,

He who supposes that Jesus Christ only lived and died and rose again in order to provide justification and forgiveness of sins for His people, has yet much to learn. Whether he knows it or not, he is dishonouring our blessed Lord and making Him only half a Saviour. (Holiness, p.16)

Do we emphasize the nature & necessity of sanctification in our churches, in our preaching & teaching?  If not, are we dishonoring Christ and making Him out to be only half a Savior?

Sanctification is every bit as much a part of our salvation in Jesus Christ as justification, forgiveness, adoption, and glorification.  And that should be reflected in the preaching & teaching of our churches, as well as in our lives as Christians.