Thomas Watson

“A Small Beginning” of Obedience (The Heidelberg Catechism on the 10th Commandment)

Heidelberg 2Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 113-115 deals with the 10th commandment (“You shall not covet” – Exodus 20:17). Here the catechism offers a number of important lessons that we should learn from this commandment.

Q.113. What does the tenth commandment require of us? A. That even the smallest inclination or thought contrary to any of God’s commandments never rise in our hearts; but that at all times we hate all sin with our whole heart, and delight in all righteousness.

The first lesson that the 10th commandment teaches us is a right understanding of the true aim and extent of the law of God – that it is spiritual in nature, and must be obeyed inwardly and from the heart, as well as outwardly in the body. As Thomas Watson puts it, “The laws of men take hold of actions, but the law of God goes further, it forbids not only actions, but desires.” (The Ten Commandments, p.181)

In Romans 7:7, Paul writes:

“What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”” (ESV)

The law of God here reveals to us the true depth and extent of our sin, guilt, and depravity. Like the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-31), we might deceive ourselves into thinking that we have obeyed God’s law simply because we have not lived an outwardly scandalous life; but the 10th commandment pulls us up short and shows us how all of us have broken all of God’s commandments inwardly.

True obedience must be genuine and from the heart, or it is not really true obedience at all. As Q/A 113 tells us, the 10th commandment means that we must hate sin and love righteousness. That is a tall order. The standard is perfection.

What about believers in Christ? Are we able to perfectly obey God’s commandments after our conversion? No. Q/A 114 addresses this very question as follows:

Q.114. But can those who are converted to God perfectly keep these commandments?A. No, but even the holiest of men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.

Not only before conversion (when we are dead in our trespasses and sins – Ephesians 2:1), but even after conversion as well (after we are born again by the Spirit of God and freed from slavery to sin – John 3:3; Romans 6:14), believers are unable to perfectly keep God’s commandments. Simply put, the Bible does not teach perfectionism.

In fact, as the Heidelberg so memorably puts it here, “even the holiest of men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience” (!). How humble ought even the godliest of Christians to be, knowing that they “have only a small beginning of this obedience” in this present life! Even the very holiest among us cannot claim to be even close to perfection in this life.

And yet we must make that our sincere goal. Q/A 114 makes this clear when it adds, “yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.” There is a big difference between a “small beginning” and no beginning at all. As Ursinus himself (the principle author of the catechism) states in his commentary on Q/A 114, “There is, however, a great difference between the regenerate and the unregenerate when they sin.”

We cannot use our inability to keep God’s commandments perfectly as an excuse for a lack of desire and effort to do so sincerely, however imperfectly. As Paul himself says, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Philippians 3:12, ESV)

For the believer in Christ, God’s law is not to be viewed as a merit badge or a burden to bear. As John tells us, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3, ESV)

Our sanctification in this life is every bit as much a part of our salvation that is ours only by the grace of God in Christ as is our justification, adoption, and glorification. In fact, sanctification in this life and glory in the next are very closely-related. Thomas Watson puts it well:

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.” (A Body of Divinity, p.242)

So 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/A 35) is the beginnings of the glory that we will finally and fully enjoy in heaven one day.

When seen in that 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, and a goal for which to pursue. It is but a foretaste of the perfect holiness and happiness that will be ours to enjoy forever in heaven with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Adultery and the Seventh Commandment

Ten Commandments WatsonIn our series of brief studies going through the ten commandments we now come to the seventh commandment, which says,

“Thou shalt not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14, KJV)

This commandment (like the rest of the ten commandments) is what I like to call an “umbrella category.” What I mean by that term is that this commandment represents a particular category of sins or transgressions, and so there are many different ways that a person can break it.

The seventh commandment, simply put, forbids sexual immorality of all kinds.

In the sermon on the mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) the Lord Jesus put it this way:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27–28, ESV)

Here Jesus teaches us the proper understanding of the seventh commandment. And in doing so He makes it clear that this commandment forbids not just sinful actions, but also sinful thoughts and desires as well! A person can be outwardly chaste, and yet inwardly still be guilty of adultery. And so it is not just sexually immoral actions that are to be avoided and repented of, but also sexually immoral words and thoughts as well.

This commandment against sexual immorality is worded in terms of the particular form of sexual sin that in some ways is the most heinous and serious version of it – adultery.

What makes adultery so serious a sin before God? Adultery, properly-speaking, is not just sexual immorality (as serious as that is), but is also theft (and so a transgression of the 8th commandment as well). Thomas Watson writes,

“It [adultery] is a thievish sin. It is the highest form of theft. The adulterer steals from his neighbor that which is more than his goods and estate; he steals away his wife from him, who is flesh of his flesh.” (The Ten Commandments, p.155)

It is also a violation of the marriage covenant, and so the breaking of one’s vows, and bearing false witness before God and man (and so also a violation of the 9th commandment). Clearly there is a great deal of overlap between the commandments, and in breaking one of them, we often tend to break others as well.

I’m tempted to say that this commandment is the most-neglected and most commonly broken of all of the ten commandments in our day, even among professing believers in Christ. (In all likelihood that dubious distinction probably belongs to either the 2nd or 4th commandments.)

Whatever the case, the seventh commandment is disregarded, redefined, and transgressed among many professing Christians to such a degree that there no longer seems to be much of a difference or distinction between the church and the unbelieving world around her.

This simply should not be so.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:3 Paul told the believers in Thessalonica, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality.” He said that, not because sexual morality is the end-all, be-all of the Christian life, but because in a debauched culture, abstaining from sexual immorality is one of the primary distinguishing marks that set believers apart from the world around us.

That is as true in our day as it has ever been. Abstaining from sexual immorality is still very much the will of God for His redeemed people, and it is still our “sanctification,” something that sets us apart from the world.

May the Lord grant revival and repentance to many, starting with those of us who profess to know Christ, so that we might follow the will of God in these things. And may He grant repentance, faith, and forgiveness to many who have committed sexual immorality, that they might know peace with God, and begin to follow His will in these things.


Honor Your Father and Your Mother (The Fifth Commandment)

Ten Commandments WatsonIn our study through the ten commandments we now come to the fifth commandment. Despite the relative brevity of this commandment, there are numerous implications and applications that we may draw from it.

The commandment itself simply says,

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12, ESV)

This commandment marks the transition to what is often called the second “table” of the law (basically the second half of the ten commandments, so to speak). The first table (i.e. commandments 1-4) deals with love for God, while the second table (i.e. commandments 5-10) deals with love for one’s neighbor.

It is interesting and instructive that when the Lord begins to turn our attention to love for our neighbor, the place he starts is our relationship with our parents. They are typically the first neighbor (i.e. the first people) with whom we come into contact, and so they are the first ones to whom we owe love.

They are also typically the very first authority figures in our lives. And so we first learn (or fail to learn) to honor and obey those who are in authority over us, in the arena of the home or family. Notice that it is “honor” (and not mere outward obedience) that we are to render to our earthly fathers and mothers.

If as children we fail to learn to honor and submit to authority in the home, chances are we will struggle mightily to learn to submit to the many other authorities that God places over us in our various stations in life. For this reason the Puritan writer, Thomas Watson, once wrote, “Nothing sooner shortens life than disobedience to parents.” (The Ten Commandments, p.132)

In the New Testament the Apostle Paul actually quotes this commandment, interprets it, and applies it to believers today. In Ephesians 6:1-4 he writes,

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (ESV)

Here Paul clearly teaches (in case anyone had any doubt) that the ten commandments still apply today. And they even apply to children! One of the primary applications of the fifth commandment is that children are to (as Paul puts it above) ‘obey their parents in the Lord.’ Why? Two reasons. First, because “this is right.” We know that it is “right” for children to ‘obey their parents in the Lord’ precisely because God has commanded it.

And so following the Lord isn’t just something for grown-ups, but rather starts very early on in life – even in childhood! A big part of a child following Christ involves honoring and obeying his or her parents.

And not just that, but children are to honor and obey their parents because God has even given a promise with this commandment – “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Notice that Paul clearly teaches that this promise that the Lord annexed or attached to the commandment still applies today. God graciously gives us promises of blessing in order to encourage us in our efforts toward obedience!

The Westminster Confession of Faith, in its chapter on the law of God speaks of the usefulness of God’s law for believers, and of the blessings that are promised to us for obedience to His commandments:

” . . . .The promises of it, in like manner, show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof: although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works. So as, a man’s doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourages to the one, and deters from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law; and, not under grace.” (19.6)

God is no harsh task-master toward his redeemed children. Rather he knows what is best for us, commands us to walk in his ways accordingly, and even gives us blessings along the way in order to encourage us when that way sometimes proves to be difficult. God is good, and even his commandments are given for our good as well!

Easter Every Sunday

Ten Commandments WatsonHave you ever asked yourself why Christian churches gather for worship on Sundays, rather than on Saturdays? After all, doesn’t the 4th commandment itself specifically state that it is the “seventh day” (Exodus 20:10) that is the Sabbath, rather than the first day of the week (i.e. Sunday)?

So why Sunday? The Westminster Shorter Catechism addresses that very question:

“Q.59. Which day of the seven has God appointed to be the weekly Sabbath?  A.From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, God appointed the seventh day of the week to be the weekly Sabbath; and the first day of the week ever since, to continue to the end of the world, which is the Christian Sabbath.”

Notice that the turning point is the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, which took place on a Sunday, “the first day of the week” (Matthew 28:1). The resurrection was such a momentous event that it ushered in a change in the very day of the week that we are to observe as the day of holy rest and worship.

In his book, The Ten Commandments, the great Puritan writer Thomas Watson writes,

“The reason why God instituted the old Sabbath was to be a memorial of the creation; but he has now brought the first day of the week in its room [i.e. in its place] in memory of a more glorious work than creation, which is redemption. Great was the work of creation, but greater was the work of redemption.” (p.96)

And so the Christian church started to gather for worship on Sundays, in celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. This change took root very early on in the church’s history. Acts 20:7 tells us that it was on “the first day of the week” that the church in Troas gathered together for the breaking of bread (i.e. the Lord’s Supper) and to listen to the Apostle Paul’s preaching.

Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 16:2, when the Apostle Paul was instructing the church in the city of Corinth about their offering for the relief of the saints in Jerusalem, he instructs them to set it aside and gather it up “on the first day of every week” (i.e. Sunday). In other words, that was already the day of the week when the church regularly gathered for worship.

Lastly, in Revelation 1:10 the Apostle John mentions that he was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” when he received what he passed down to us in that book. Since the time of the Apostles, Sunday has come to be known as “the Lord’s day” and the Christian Sabbath. And so while the particular day of the week changed, but the principle involved in the 4th commandment still abides and applies to us today.

Easter Sunday is the day in the church calendar when we commonly celebrate the Lord Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead. But you really could say that every time we gather for worship on Sunday (the Lord’s day), we are celebrating and commemorating Christ’s resurrection. And so every Sunday is, in a sense, Easter Sunday.

He is risen. He is risen indeed!

The Third Commandment

Ten Commandments WatsonOur study through the ten commandments now brings us to the third commandment, which simply says:

“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” (Exodus 20:7, ESV)

What does it mean to take the Lord’s name in vain? Many people assume that this commandment is primarily about cussing or swearing. The Bible certainly does tell us not to use foul language. For example, in Ephesians 5:4 the Apostle Paul says,

“Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” (ESV)

But the third commandment deals particularly with the “name of the LORD.” And so while this commandment certainly forbids some kinds of cussing (i.e. the kind that explicitly uses God’s name in it), foul language in general is not the primary concern here.

In his book, The Ten Commandments, Thomas Watson points out no less than twelve (12) different ways that we take the Lord’s name in vain, including such things as speaking irreverently of God’s name; professing God’s name while not living in a way that is consistent with that profession of faith; using God’s name in idle conversation; worshiping Him “with our lips, but not with our hearts” (p.85); hypocrisy; not praying in faith; profaning or abusing God’s Word; swearing by God’s name; and many other things.

Why is the name of the Lord so important? Have you ever thought about that? In the Lord’s prayer we are taught to pray that the name of our Father in heaven might be “hallowed” (Matthew 6:9). In other words, the very first request in the Lord’s prayer is that God’s name might be revered and treated as holy. (And yet how many of us actually pray that way and give such a high priority to the glory of God’s name in our prayers?)

A person’s name represents the person, doesn’t it. We commonly speak of knowing someone by name or being on a “first name basis” with someone. Conversely we sometimes speak of ‘dragging someone’s name through the mud,’ which, of course, means speaking ill of someone.

Well, in a similar way, God makes himself known by His name, and so to take his name in vain is to in some way show disrespect or dishonor toward his name (or toward anything by which he makes himself known). That is why the Westminster Shorter Catechism says that this commandments forbids “all profaning or abusing of anything whereby God makes himself known” (Q.55).

This commandment, then, is ultimately about showing due reverence for God.

And how serious a matter is this? Notice the reason given in the commandment itself – “for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” The Shorter Catechism goes on to explain the significance of those words:

Q. 56. What is the reason annexed to the third commandment?
A. The reason annexed to the third commandment is that however the breakers of this commandment may escape punishment from men, yet the Lord our God will not suffer them to escape his righteous judgment.

Taking the Lord’s name in vain is a sin, and is wickedness in God’s sight. It is no small thing to show disrespect to God or to his holy name. It is a sin that is worthy of hell.

Thankfully there is “a name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12, ESV), even the Lord Jesus Christ. Acts 10:43 tells us that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (ESV). No wonder the name of the Lord is so precious to believers in Christ!

The Second Commandment

Ten Commandments WatsonOur study through the ten commandments now brings us to the second commandment, which says,

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6, ESV)

The first thing that you might notice is that this commandment is much longer and more detailed than the first commandment, which simply says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). The very length of this commandment should get your attention.

The simplest way to summarize this commandment is to say that in it God forbids the sin of idolatryBut what is idolatry? In its most literal sense it is the use of images in worship. In the commandment above the Lord forbids us from the making of images, bowing down to them, and serving them. But it also includes worshiping God in any way that he himself has not ordained. That is the basic meaning of this commandment.

The old Puritan writer, Thomas Watson (1620-1686), put it this way:

“In the first commandment worshiping a false god is forbidden; in this, worshiping the true God in a false manner [is forbidden].” (The Ten Commandments, p.59)

That is a helpful way to understand the relationship between the first and second commandments. The first forbids the worship of false gods; the second forbids false worship, even of the one true God.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism points out that in this commandment the Lord gives us not only a prohibition against a particular form of sin (i.e. the making and serving of images of anything in all of creation), but also gives us several reasons why we should be careful to obey it:

Q. 52. What are the reasons annexed to the second commandment?
A. The reasons annexed to the second commandment are, God’s sovereignty over us, his propriety in us, and the zeal he hath to his own worship.

The first reason why we should be careful to obey this commandment is because God is sovereign over us – He is the Lord. In other words, we should not commit idolatry because God alone is God. In v.5 he calls himself “the LORD your God.” He alone is worthy of worship and obedience.

The second reason is because of God’s redemption and ownership of his people. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you have even more reason to refrain from any form of idolatry. If he is “your God” (v.5), then you simply have no business committing idolatry.

The third reason given here is God’s own zeal for His worship – that the Lord “is a jealous God” (v.5) who will judge the “iniquity” of those who commit idolatry. And what motive does the Lord assign to those who would practice idolatry? Hatred of God. Think about that. Idolatry is essentially an expression of hatred toward God. No wonder God warns of judgment against those who practice it!

If you truly love God you will keep his commandments (v.6), especially his commandments regarding his worship! We are not left to worship the Lord according to our own imagination or preferences. The second commandment shows that God is jealous (or zealous) that he alone be worshiped, and that he be worshiped according to his revealed will in Scripture alone.


Thy Kingdom Come (The Lord’s Prayer – Part IV)

Praying HandsIn our series about the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), we now come to the second request found in the prayer – “Thy kingdom come” (v.10). Much like the previous request (“Hallowed be Thy name” – v.9), this might not really sound much like a request, but that is precisely what it is. Another way of putting it would be to say, “Let your kingdom come.”

But what exactly does that mean? As brief as this request may be (only three words in English!), it is not necessarily all that easy to understand, is it?

Theologians have often distinguished between the kingdom of grace, and the kingdom of glory. These are not two separate kingdoms, but rather are two aspects of one and the same kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. The old Puritan writer, Thomas Watson notes that “they differ not in nature, but in degree only” (The Lord’s Prayer, p.59). In other words, the kingdom of grace is the present-day expression of rule of Christ, while the kingdom of glory is the future, final, and complete expression or manifestation of that very same rule. The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it this way:

Q. 102. What do we pray for in the second petition? A. In the second petition, which is, Thy kingdom come, we pray that Satan’s kingdom may be destroyed; and that the kingdom of grace may be advanced, ourselves and others brought into it, and kept in it; and that the kingdom of glory may be hastened.

So when we pray for the coming of the Lord’s kingdom of grace to come (i.e. this side of glory, before the return of Christ), we pray for things such as the destruction of Satan’s kingdom; the salvation of the lost; that sinners would be brought to repentance from sin, and faith in the Savior; that the Lord’s rightful reign would be more and more acknowledged by all; that his good and righteous commandments would be affirmed, upheld,and obeyed in all spheres of human life; and for the good news of the gospel to spread to the ends of the earth.

And when we pray for the coming of the kingdom of glory itself, we are then echoing the words of Revelation 22:20 – “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (KJV). To pray for that is to pray for the Lord himself to return in glory, to judge the living and the dead, and to rule in glory with his redeemed people forever in heaven. In that great day the words of Revelation 21:3-4 will finally become a reality:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”” (ESV)

When you see it put that way, who wouldn’t want to pray, “Thy kingdom come”! May the Lord be pleased to teach you and I how to pray. And may he advance and hasten his kingdom in answer to the prayers of his people!

Filler in the Shorter Catechism?

Westminster Assembly 2Is there filler in the Shorter Catechism?  If you have ever written (or graded!) a research paper, you know exactly what filler is, don’t you?

In their works on the Shorter Catechism, neither Thomas Vincent (The Shorter Catechism Explained from Scripture) nor Thomas Watson (A Body of Divinity) offer a single comment on Shorter Catechism Q.32. (Watson actually skips over it entirely!) What is Q.32, you ask?

Q.32. What benefits do they that are effectually called partake of in this life? A. They that are effectually called do in this life partake of justification, adoption, and sanctification, and the several benefits which in this life do either accompany or flow from them.

Sure, it’s an outline of sorts for Q.33-38, but not one comment? Not even the obligatory “no justification without sanctification” note???

Of course, there are reasons for their lack of commentary on Q.32. Each of the benefits spoken of there are dealt within greater detail in the questions that follow (i.e. justification in Q.33, adoption in Q.34, sanctification in Q.35, etc.), and both Vincent and Watson discuss those benefits of redemption in Christ when they deal with those other questions from the catechism.

If nothing else, let it never be said that the Puritans were incapable of brevity! 🙂

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.