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With lots of books and blog posts out there about law and gospel, about grace and effort, about the good news of this and the bad news of that, it’s clear that Christians are still wrestling with the doctrine of progressive sanctification. Can Christians do anything truly good? Can we please God? Should we try to? Is there a place for striving in the Christian life? Can God be disappointed with the Christian? Does the gospel make any demands? These are good questions that require a good deal of nuance and precision to answer well.

Thankfully, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The Reformed confessions and catechisms of the 16th and 17th centuries provide answers for all these questions. For those of us who subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity or to the Westminster Standards this means we are duty bound to affirm, teach, and defend what is taught in our confessional documents. For those outside these confessional traditions, there is still much wisdom you can gain in understanding what Christians have said about these matters over the centuries. And most importantly, these standards were self-consciously grounded in specific texts of Scripture. We can learn a lot from what these documents have to teach us from the Bible.

Sometimes the truth can be seen more clearly when we state its negation. So rather than stating what we should believe about sanctification, I’d like to explain what we should not believe or should not say. Each of these points is taken directly from one or more of the Reformed confessions or catechisms. Since I am more conversant I will stick with the Three Forms of Unity, but the same theology can be found just as easily in the Westminster Standards (see especially WCF Chapters 13, 16, 18, 19; LC Question and Answer 75-81, 97, 149-153; Shorter Catechism Question and Answer 35, 39, 82-87).

Error #1: The good we do can in some small way make us right with God. This is a denial of the gospel. The good we do is of no use to us in our justification because “even the very best we do in this life is imperfect and stained with sin” (HC Q/A 62). We “cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment” (BC Art. 24).

Error #2: We must be good Christians so that God will keep loving us. To the contrary, the good news of justification by faith alone means that we can now “do a thing out of love for God” instead of “only out of love for [ourselves] and fear of being condemned” (BC Art. 24). In the midst of daily sins and weakness the struggling Christian should “flee for refuge to Christ crucified” (CD 5.2), truths that “it is not by their own merits or strength but by God’s undeserved mercy that they neither forfeit faith and grace nor remain in their downfalls to the end and are lost” (CD 5.8).

Error #3: If sanctification is a work of divine grace in our lives, then it must not involve our effort. We are absolutely “indebted to God for the good works we do” (BC Art. 24). He is the one at work in us both to will and to do according to his good pleasure. At the same time, “faith working through love” leads “a man to do by himself the works that God has commanded in his Word” (BC. Art. 24). Our ability to do good works “is not at all” in ourselves, but we still “ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in [us]” (WCF 16.3).

Error #4: Warning people of judgment is law and has no part to play in preaching the gospel. Actually, “preaching the gospel” should both “open and close the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdom of heaven is opened by proclaiming to believers what God has done for us in Christ. The kingdom of heaven is closed by proclaiming “to unbelievers and hypocrites that, as long as they do not repent, the anger of God and eternal condemnation rest on them. God’s judgment, both in this life and in the life to come, is based on this gospel testimony” (HC Q/A 84).

Error #5: There is only one reason Christians should pursue sanctification and that’s because of our justification. The Heidelberg Catechism lists several reasons—motivations even—for doing good. “We do good because Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself, so that in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us, and so that he may be praised through us. And we do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ” (HC Q/A 86).

Error #6: Since we cannot obey God’s commandments perfectly, we should not insist on obedience from ourselves or from others. While it is true that “in this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience,” that’s not the whole story. “Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God’s commandments” (HC Q/A 114). Because we belong to Christ and our good works are “sanctified by his grace” (BC Art. 24), God “is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections” (WCF 13.6).

Error #7: The Ten Commandments should be preached in order to remind us of our sin, but not so that believers may be stirred up to try to obey the commandments. The Heidelberg Catechism acknowledges that “no one in this life can obey the Ten Commandments perfectly,” but it still insists that “God wants them preached pointedly.” For two reason: “First, so that the longer we live the more we may come to know our sinfulness and the more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness.” And “Second, so that, while praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, we may never stop striving to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection” (HC Q/A 115).

Error #8: Being fully justified as Christians, we should never fear displeasing God or offending him. The promise of divine preservation does not mean that true believers will never fall into serious sin (CD 5.4). Even believers can commit “monstrous sins” that “greatly offend God.” When we sin in such egregious ways, we “sometimes lose the awareness of grace for a time” until we repent and God’s fatherly face shines upon us again (5.5). God being for us in Christ in a legal and ultimate sense does not mean he will never frown upon our disobedience. But it does mean that God will always effectively renew us to repentance and bring us to “experience again the grace of reconciled God” (5.7).

Error #9: The only proper ground for assurance is in the promises of God found in the gospel. Assurance is not to be sought from private relation but from three sources: from faith in the promises of God, from the testimony of the Holy Spirit testifying to our spirits that we are children of God, and from “a serious and holy pursuit of a clear conscience and of good works” (CD 5.10). Assurance is not inimical to the pursuit of holiness, but intimately bound up with it. We walk in God’s ways “in order that by walking them [we] may maintain the assurance of [our] perseverance” (5.13). Personal holiness is not only a ground for assurance; the desire for assurance is itself a motivation unto holiness.

Error #10: Threats and exhortations belong to the terrors of the law and are not to be used as a motivation unto holiness. This is not the view of the Canons of Dort: “And, just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the proclamation of the gospel, so he preserves, continues, and completes his work by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments” (CD 5.14). Notice two things here. First, God causes us to persevere by several means. He makes promises to us, but he also threatens. He works by the hearing of the gospel and by the use of the sacraments. He has not bound himself to one method. Surely, this helps us make sense of the warnings in Hebrews and elsewhere in the New Testament. Threats and exhortations do not undermine perseverance; they help to complete it. Second, notice the broad way in which Dort understands the gospel (in this context). In being gospel-centered Christians, we meditate on the “exhortations, threats, and promises” of the gospel. In a strict sense we might say that the gospel is only the good news of how we can be saved. But in a wider sense, the gospel encompasses the whole story of salvation, which includes not only gospel promises but also the threats and exhortations inherent in the gospel.

Clearly, different sermons, different passages, and different problems call for different truths to be accented. One is not guilty of these errors simply by not saying everything that can be said. And yet, in the course of faithful preaching and teaching all the positive truths found in a robust, thoughtful doctrine of sanctification should be publicly declared. Likewise, although we may feel called to trumpet a certain truth about the gospel or sanctification—which certain times and certain texts call for—this in no way excuses the ten errors listed above. It is never wise to celebrate the truth by making statements that are false.

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59 thoughts on “10 Errors to Avoid When Talking about Sanctification and the Gospel”

  1. a. says:

    so clear, the battle, and the diligence needed…for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and EVERY lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, 2 Cor 10: 4-5

  2. Nick says:

    Thank you so much for this list Kevin. It’s very helpful indeed. I especially appreciate the references to the Reformed doctrinal statements, which show that what you are saying is what has been taught for centuries. I’m deeply worried that modern slogans such as ‘you’re free to fail’ are easily open to misunderstanding. May our generation of forgiven sinners become captivated by the glory of obedience.

  3. Chris Vieira says:

    I wrestle greatly (Pastor DeYoung/fellow blog readers, take this as an invitation to teach/correct me) with the concept of being “indebted to God” (as per Error #3 on this list). I (think?) understand the thought the Belgic Confession is trying to convey in this article: even our good works are the GRACE of God working in us and He is to be given full credit for that, there is no room for boasting for any of us (or as BC Art 24 puts it, “not for merit) However, if I’m understanding the article correclty, that concept is quite different than the concept of “indebtedness”. Debt, by definition, is required to be repaid. Is this how we view our relationship to God’s grace working in our lives?

    Paul says (Col. 2:13-14) our debt has been paid by it being nailed to the cross. When a debt has been paid, it has been paid there is nothing more that can be added/paid back to what was once owed, absolutely nothing more is required. The Lord Jesus (Matt. 6:12) tells us to pray to God asking our Father to forgive us our debts. In essence, when we pray this (as I understand it) we are declaring “backruptcy” towards God, asking our debt be forgiven because we know we cannot repay what is owed. When we do this, and the debt has been forgiven nothing is left to be repaid. Most of us have had financial debts that have either been paid in full or forgiven, when this happens all is paid in full and is final.

    At this point you may have guessed I do have a background in the financial sector. Perhaps I’m making far too big of deal out the word “debt” as it is being used in the BC. Or, perhaps, I’m in need of some help sorting through theologically/doctrinally the concept of being indebted to God. “Debt” is legally required to be repiad. As I would understand it, our debt has been nailed to the cross and there is nothing we could ever do to add or repay that.

    Rather than being indebted to God, I find it more helpful to think of Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians that, as Christians saved by grace through Christ, we have “been bought with a price”. Therefore, rather than being indebted to God, we are God’s possesion ransomed through Christ’s blood shed on the cross for the elect.

    Any helpful thoughts on this are welcomed and appreciated.

  4. Derek Baars says:

    An older translation of the Belgic confession says that believers are “beholdedn” to God for the good works we do. In view of the reference to Philippians 2:13, I understand this language of indebtedness or being beholden to God to mean that He causes, gives, and activates the good works that we do. Therefore, we owe Him eternal praise for them in particular and all of salvation in general. I’m reminded of David’s prayer of thanks in view of the offerings of the israelites in preparation for building the temple. 1Ch 29:14 “But who [am] I, and who [are] my people, That we should be able to offer so willingly as this? For all things [come] from You, And of Your own we have given You.” I hope this is helpful.

  5. Michael Phelps says:

    While I think I agree with just about everything in this article, I am concerned that the Reformed documents and creeds seemed to have replaced Scripture as a guide in these matters. I understand that the Reformed documents have been been guided closely by scripture, but if we use them as a basis for our doctrine we are relying too much on man’s opinion. I only say this because I think that each point would be much more powerful if they derived their proof text from the Scripture.

  6. Chris says:

    Thank you for this list, and especially for #5 and #8. #8 is a strong carryover from Sonship teaching, which I was raised in and think is very helpful and good, yet on that point they err and are particularly unhelpful. Just because a doctrine or idea makes us feel good and secure, that doesn’t mean that doctrine is true.

    God bless.

  7. Billy Tang (@habitang) says:

    I agree with Michael Phelps. I didn’t realise these weren’t scriptural references until I got to the last point about threats that didn’t ring any bells of scripture I had read. I looked up what Canon Dort was for the first time though so that seems like a bit of useful information for me. Is there another article that has the scriptural references for these points, I found most of them consistent with what I understood of the Bible but wasn’t certain about point 10 about threats.

  8. John Michael says:

    In regards to thr Confessions vs. Scripture comments, most translations of these Confessions have a list of Scripture passages that they derive the doctrines from. Just check out the reference from the Confession and under it should be yhe Scriptures.

    I don’t feel it is necessary to be “concerned” that there were no scripture passages, as 1.) These doctrines are clearly biblical, 2.) These Confessions themselves have a host of passages cited, 3.) A biblical case could be made for the usefulness of such creeds and confessions and 4.) It is significantly more convenient to cite a summary of truth than it is to exegete a cluster pf passages that prove said point. For a blog post, this is fine. Hope that helps!

  9. Kenton says:

    I agree with Michael. While it might seem simplest and convenient to quote the Confessions, what we are then doing is in fact overturning sola scriptura, by treating the Confessions as infallible. What results is that when ever there is a disagreement regarding the interpretation of a doctrine, the Reformed Confessions are then brought up in the place of Scripture, as though the Reformed Confessions (being ONLY a few centuries old), carry the full weight of Scripture. Scripture no longer takes the primary place in evaluating doctrine, and in terms of the Reformation’s break from the Catholics, we’ve only exchanged one tradition for another.

    The benefit of quoting Scripture is that Scripture is remarkably clear regarding these errors, even if it must be expounded upon properly. For example, regarding error #5, Paul says this:

    Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. (2 Corinthians 7:1 ESV)

    This demonstrates that sanctification 1) does involve human effort, 2) should be done in the fear of God, and 3) has the promises of sonship and glory as it’s aim. This doesn’t tell everything, such as the fact that God’s grace initiates and propels sanctification through the Spirit, but it says enough to refute three of the errors. This is far more effective (and biblically faithful) than simply quoting confessions, and it serves to reaffirm our claim that Scripture is the final authority on matters of doctrine and practice. Besides, when addressing these matters with a Roman Catholic or a Pentecostal, it will do no good to quote from these confessions.

  10. Jonathan says:

    I can see the value of using the confessions to address various issues. It shows that Christians have always have answers to these issues, that there are consensus views on these issues, and also helps to explain the confessions. Not only that, but it seems scripture at times referred to mere confessions in order to make a point or explain something.

    Despite all that however, I didn’t really like this article. If the confessions are accurate to the word and derived from scripture, why can we not quote the scriptures to back up these arguments? People need to see something is grounded in the inerrant word to be sure of it, and it helps people see how the actual Bible has answers to these things. Also, as others have already said, it really does seem to almost lower the scriptures and elevate the creeds.

    Also, as much as I agree with creeds and see their usefulness, I would be surprised if there were not some errors in all the creeds that are very descriptive. Elevating a certain group of Christians during a certain time to near-canon status is too close to traditionalism for me, regardless of how good they were (and I do think they were very good). In summary, I just don’t think this is the proper way to use and employ the creeds.

  11. John Hartung says:

    (1) On reading on this subject recently, i was reminded that even our good works though done in the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, still needed to be washed in the blood of Christ (as they are in the life of God’s elect, those who look to Christ’s sufficient work on the cross for all f their redemption This struck me as the ultimate cure for perfectionism without denying the calling to be perfect. We are free in Christ to serve God even in fighting to be godly in the midst of fighting against continued temptation and residual sin. While we can’t add to or substitute for the satisfaction of Christ for our salvation we freely still seek God by living life according to God’s law for al the motivations mentioned or referred to in response to Error #5. But even these efforts are imperfect because of the “not yet” aspect of our sanctification and their merit is commingled with sin. If that were the whole of the story we would either despair of doing any good works at all because all are imperfect or we would be working harder and harder as if we could make our own works perfect. But even our works have been made acceptable to God in and only in the blood of Christ. In that case, our efforts at sanctification are not futile and despite the imperfections of our work we are free to keep growing more perfectly in holiness because of our justification in Christ. But this freedom does not imply that we can seek to do good according to our own ideas about good be cause there is no promise that anat old thing will be acceptable to God, but only those works which are guided and informed by God’s revealed will especially in God’s moral law. Since the dilemma of perfectionism has been overcome in the blood of Christ, we can proceed to do good works for all the various motives based on all the various effects of the application of redemption in the believer.

    (2) I had been impressed with Reformed criticisms of John Calvin on assurance (e.g. RL Dabney is clear about this in his lectures) as being guilty of making assurance the the essence of faith until I read Paul Helm’s account of Calvin as making assurance essential to faith in its ideal condition. Given the syllogism of the assurance of hope:

    (A) Whosoever believes in Christ shall be saved.
    (B) I believe in Christ.
    © Therefore I am saved.

    The problem of assurance is not doubts about (A) which the believer does not have but rather doubts about (B) which the believer may have. Now some have said that Calvin makes the natural mistake of looking at the syllogism and thinking that doubts about faith ought to be self refuted by the act of faith itself so that if you have faith you already have all the essential conditions for assurance and thus assurance is the essence of faith. But this seems contradicted by the experience of believers that we know including biblical persons such as the Psalmists all of which imply that as known to be saved they must have faith and yet do not have assurance. So assurance is not essential to faith after all and thus assurance must be faith backed up with a credible evidence of the fruit of the Spirit and so on, making our calling and election sure.

    But it may be that Calvin is right after all. Paul also in a parallel way warns us to see to it all times that we are in the faith which implies that the basis of being uncertain about our salvation is based on being aware that we are not in the faith. Faith certainly here means in faith as content, assent, and recumbency perhaps highlighting the first (being in the true Christian Faith). But here being in the faith is parallel to making our calling and election sure. The lack of fruitfulness in our life is both a measure of our lack of faith as it is a lack of evidence of assurance. If so then it makes sense to say that ideally assurance is the essence of faith but in the tension of sanctification we may experience faith as a struggle to trust God for all his promises but still not experience the feedback of assurance precisely because our trust is not yet perfected but mixed with doubt, fear, and secret sin. This seems right when we realize that saving faith must receive Jesus as Lord as well as Savior. So maybe their is still an appropriate sense where assurance is the essence of faith in that as faith grows into its proper function so does the feedback of assurance.

  12. John R. says:

    Excellent article. It’s more than a bit troubling, however, that The Gospel Coalition hosts the blog of a guy who regularly (and emphatically!) teaches at least seven of these ten errors as the defining points of his ministry. What gives?

  13. John R. says:

    Also, for the non-creedal evangelicals complaining about resort to the creeds, it’s more than a little relevant that those who are most prominently teaching the majority of these errors today are men who are sworn in their denominations to uphold these creeds on these points. You can have a field day disputing the creeds if you like, but the high-profile offenders of these points may not, at least not without violating their sacred oaths. That’s why citing the Reformed creeds is PARTICULARLY relevant here.

  14. anaquaduck says:

    I would say the confessions themselves are derived from Scripture & are a summary but that doesnt stop them being elevated at times like an idol.

    They are great reminders of Gods spirit a work.

    1 Corinthians 6:20

  15. Andrew Hall says:

    Kevin, related to sin and sanctification, I would love if someday you posted about this topic: What does it mean when believers, joined to Christ, sin? A quote from Donald Macleod’s book “A Faith to Live By” has always struck me as odd yet inescapable: “We have an even greater dilemma in the fact that the Christian (newborn, indwelt by the Spirit of God, united to Christ, rooted and built up in Him …) chooses to sin. The Christian sins and (I say this advisedly) sins in union with Christ. … John [referencing 1 John 3:9] wants us to know that when we sin we are committing the gravest anomaly and perpetuating the most appalling absurdity because, as Paul tells us, we are sinning in union with Christ (1 Cor. 6:15). Great damage has been done by our attempts to evade the force of this teaching. Daily, we do this absurd, impossible thing and take it all in stride, as if it were the most natural thing in the world that a Christian should sin” (p.103 in the 2010 edition).

    I guess I always thought somehow that the “old man” in us was still the source of our sin, that we are to “put off the old man” and “put to death what is earthly in our members” (Col. 3:5,9). But if our “body of sin” has been rendered dead in Christ (Col. 2:11-14; Rom. 6:5-11), how do these Pauline concepts hang together? They somehow seem contradictory to me.

    Also, how is the body “dead” (Rom. 6), yet we need to put it to death (Rom. 8:13) and not let it reign over us (6:12)?

  16. a. says:

    Chris Vieira’s comment above – you do reference Matt 6:12 –

    don’ think we call to mind enough that when we were dead in our transgressions and the circumcision of our flesh, He made us alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross..

    …in order to regularly call out despicable attempts to willfully, self-justify,rationalize sin about not forgiving my debtors.

  17. Alan says:

    Thanks for this.

    As our church was singing the wonderful song ‘Grace Alone’ by Dustin Kensrue, I found myself struggling to sing the following lyrics:

    “So I stand in faith by grace and grace alone
    I will run the race by grace and grace alone
    I will slay my sin by grace and grace alone
    I will reach the end by grace and grace alone”

    I certainly don’t want to discredit the great grace of God…but is it really true that I slay my sin, run the race and reach the end by grace alone? Lacking in mention of perseverance maybe…thinking 2 Peter 1:10.

  18. Pastor Bruce says:

    Most of your points I would agree with in principle. I do share some similar concerns that others have posted that our teaching on such matters needs to be evidences by the Word of God not the creeds or catechisms of people. We must be cautious to not throw away the historical teaching, it is good record for us, but let us not try to convince others of our beliefs using old man made documents but rather the Bible. I would urge my brother to be more diligent in such matters as I am not moved by such documents but I am certainly moved by the Word of God.

  19. Willliam A. Beck says:

    This is very helpful. Thank you for your work in Christ.

  20. Ken Stewart says:

    Bravo, Kevin! Very timely and very fitting!

  21. Chuck Colson says:

    Thanks for the good word, Kevin. This is a really nice piece of work.

  22. anaquaduck says:

    Each sermon would have to be a confession in a way as it is a mix of Scripture & explanation.

    At least with the Heidelberg Catechism you get to cover an overall understanding which is helpful & personal.

    As a young Christian I was asked to confess my affirmation of the forms of unity as I professed my faith but in hindsight I view it is a lot to ask of a new Christian.

  23. John Thomson says:

    Excellent. And agree too with many comments made. Particularly insightful are those by John R.

  24. Matt says:

    Related to this, I would highly recommend the Introduction of Joe Thorn’s little devotional “Note to Self.” In it he covers “Preaching the law to yourself, preaching the gospel to yourself, preaching the law and gospel together.” Succinct and clarifying. Worth the price of that book.

  25. Joshua says:

    Chris Vieira
    I think That Our Indebtedness To God is In the Sense that we are Ever Receiving Grace From God, So Right Now its by the Grace of God that I’m able to Type This or even take the next breath and that’s Grace that i cannot Pay-back, so i keep receiving Future Grace and the More i do the more indebted to grace I am
    But Oh How wonderful it is to be a debtor To the Grace of God
    Hopefully This was of Some Help :)

  26. Thanks Kevin this is helpful.

  27. Robert Graham says:

    Interestingly, much of the talk about sanctification, law and gospel, and the like, that I have read lately, has all been argued from scripture. Yes, the three forms of unity does indeed have “proofs”, but it would be nice to see this article with the “proofs”, and actually only the scripture. As that is how and what we argue from and that is what is going to convince and convict.

  28. Justin says:

    Rather than using the Dort to support your claims, I would’ve used the Bible to do it. I tend to go for the inspired stuff over a man-made confession. That would be another Error I would put up there.

  29. Mark Chanski says:

    Well said, Kevin. Bull’s eye relevance in our day. Like apples of gold in settings of silver.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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