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Throughout this week I will be walking through the five questions Francis Turretin tackles in his chapter on “Sanctification and Good Works” (Seventeenth Topic). Here are the five questions, slightly modified for ease of understanding:

  1. How does sanctification differ from justification?
  2. Can we fulfill the law absolutely in this life?
  3. Are good works necessary to salvation?
  4. Can justified believers do that which is truly good?
  5. Do good works merit eternal life?

Today’s question is the second one: Can we fulfill the law absolutely in this life?

Of the five questions, this one has been the least controversial in recent Reformed discussions. As far as I can tell, the leading voices on all sides are agreed that the “perfection of sanctification” is not possible for fallen human beings on this side of heaven.

Interestingly, Turretin does think certain kinds of perfection are possible. The question about fulfilling the law absolutely is not about the perfection of sincerity (serving God with a whole heart), nor the perfection of parts (being sanctified in body and soul), neither is it about comparative perfection (that some believers would be more advanced than others), nor evangelical perfection (whereby God in paternal forbearance perfects our works with his grace).  Turretin affirms “all these species of perfections,” noting that the Bible often speaks of believers being “perfect” and “upright.” The question for Turretin is not about these things, but about legal perfection (XVII.ii.4).

Here’s Turretin in his own words:

The question returns to this–Can the renewed believer so carry on his own sanctification as to attain perfection (not only as to parts, but also as to degrees); and can he fulfill the law (not only mildly and evangelically, but also strictly and legally) and so copiously satisfy the divine law as to live not only without crime, but also without sin; and the law have nothing which is can accuse and condemn in him, if God should enter into judgment with him? The opponents affirm; we deny. (XVII.ii.7).

That we are unable to fulfill the law absolutely can be seen from several realities taught clearly in Scripture: the remains of sin in the believer in 1 John 1, the struggle between flesh and the Spirit in Romans 7, the unbearable yoke of the law in Acts 15, the command to pray daily for the remission of sins in the Lord’s Prayer, and the example of the saints throughout the Bible (XVII.ii.10-26). There are many ways in which the Bible does talk about the believer being obedient, righteous, and holy, but we must not understand any of these to imply that we can so fulfill the law that God has nothing proper against us were he to judge strictly and legally.

 


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18 thoughts on “Five Questions About Sanctification and Good Works: Can We Fulfill the Law Absolutely in this Life?”

  1. It really is a mute point is being discussed, Christ fulfilled the law as God knew we couldn’t. The old Covenant where the law resided is gone and replaced with a covenant of grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ. When God looks at a believer he sees His Son, He sees Christs righteousness. Our value lies in Gods love for us, His creation…He loved us so much he sent his son to die for us. We didn’t earn its a gift. Perfection lies only with Christ, we may strive for it but our efforts then become self righteous. Only through seeking a close relationship with Christ through the Holy Spirit do we change, becoming more Christ like. As Paul said the letter (law) kills……the rest people can fill in for themselves.

  2. WoundedEgo says:

    Umm… unless you are a Jew you never were nor ever will be under the law. Nor are you under the new covenant. it is strange that Christendom with its endless supply of teachers does not get that.

  3. Kraig says:

    WoundedEgo,
    There are two types of Jews in the Bible, one ethnic and one spiritual, and it is the spiritual Jews who are participants in the covenant, both old and new. The redemptive storyline of the Bible highlights over and over again that God has never been partial to one ethnicity. Many who are not ethnic Jews become Jews by faith, and many who are ethnic Jews are cut off by unbelief.

  4. Michael says:

    WoundedEgo,
    What’s Paul saying in 1 Cor 9:21 about being “under the Law of Christ”?

  5. Scott Christensen says:

    I know this question is off topic, but which would you choose – Turretin’s 3 volume theology or Bavinck’s 4 volume theology?

  6. Ron says:

    Pastor Kevin, Where does “blamelessness” fall into this conversation. (e.g. Job). It seems to me that when the Bible speaks of blamelessness it is not talking about perfection or never sinning, but saying that you’ve been properly cleansed. That you have (by faith) undertaken the means by which God provides for you to be forgiven and for your sin to be propitiated. In that sense, it seems like IN CHRIST, the Christian can fulfill the Law absolutely in this life. Is that putting too fine a point on the intent of this question or is it a legitimate answer?

  7. anaquaduck says:

    Even with the regeneration (by the Spirit) it still seems like a strange path to me. Yes I begin to being conformed to the likeness of the Son by grace & grow in holiness.

    To say or assume that I didnt trip up here or there is still to say God alone did it & He should get the praise. God is pleased when we walk in His ways but equally pleased when we come to Him seeking forgiveness & renewal.Its not about our attainment levels, its about Christ who chooses to work with the humble & lowly in Spirit. In this God is glorified in his church & the wider world.

    Even the Apostle Paul acknowledges our weaknesses can in God’s reality make us useful without a need for being a super or hyper Christian.

  8. Neville Briggs says:

    ” The righteous shall live by faith ”

    Habbakuk and Paul..

    ” But if you are led by the Spirit you are not subject to the law ”

    ” And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me ”

    Paul ( the apostle )

    ” We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever in the order of Melchizedek ”

    Letter to the Hebrews

  9. Bill says:

    Does not God expect perfection ? How can we speak about obeying the law partially ? Again this is not biblical in my opinion which I back up with Galatians 3:10. The law has been fulfilled by Christ. So in the New Testament all we have to do is receive Jesus Christ by faith, what separates from God is unbelief and not disobedience to the 10 commandments. So our sanctification is fully accomplished when we receive the Lord Jesus Christ by faith. At that point we become slaves to righteousness as Romans 6 teaches, which means all the requirements of the Law have been satisfied in us Romans 8:3 . Romans 3:27 calls it the law (principle) of faith and opposes it to a law of works. So by faith a christian obeys perfect this law of faith, and is accounted righteous on account of Christ. Remember there is no such thing as partial obedience, this is roman catholicism. And this idea in sanctification that we somehow obey the law, not perfectly, but better than an unbeliever, or that we make some kind of progress in how we obey the law is utterly heretic. God expects perfection and as Christians we satisfy this expectation by grace through faith. As to the law of works there is no evidence that a christian obeys it better or worse than an unbeliever. First Corinthians 9:25 is definitive, that the unbeliever has as much self control as the christian. It is an insult to unbelievers and the sin of the Pharisee of Luke 16 to teach that a christian can perform better works than an unbeliever.

  10. Bill says:

    Don’t get me wrong there is a vast chasm between believer and unbeliever, but it has nothing to do with the works they perform. What matter is that the christian rests on Christ alone by faith, and this is by grace, in that faith is a gift. But certainly believing in the Lord Jesus Christ is the only requirement for salvation and the only difference between believer and unbeliever John 6:29. That this faith manifests itself in good works is indisputable, and that this good works of faith can only be performed by a believer is evident because they relate to faith. Like being martyred for your faith, or Abraham offering his son as a sacrifice in faith that God would provide another sacrifice, or Rahab the prostitute protecting men of faith b telling them their God was the only true God. How can an unbeliever do works of faith ? He can not. But make no mistake an unbeliever can do works that do not require faith as well as a christian can, so in the areas of coveting, sexual immorality, etc. the unbeliever performs as well and many times better than the christian.

  11. Neville Briggs says:

    Bill, I think that you have said it right.

    I was told emphatically by a Calvinist preacher that faith and belief are works,( a totally alien concept to the scripture.)
    At our church another Calvinist preacher thundered ( literally ) from the pulpit that ” it is all about God, not about you “. He didn’t actually clearly say what ” it ” is , but I suspect the meaning was that God does everything only for Himself and His only motive is ever Himself.
    If that is Calvinist theology then I can’t see how that can possibly sort out in anyone’s mind the way that the Christian walk of faith relates to God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation.
    Jesus said to the Pharisees ” The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath ” This is Jesus cutting the ground from under every legalistic approach to the Kingdom of Heaven.

    It’s all about faith I reckon. because the Bible says so over and over again from Genesis to the Revelation. And why should we have faith in God, because He is doing a new thing for us, not just Himself,
    I know that He is, because the Bible relates God saying ” I make all things new… I will be their God and they will be my people ”
    I place my faith in that rather than trying to define big words from theology books.

  12. Bill you and Neville have really nailed this debate. Very well done. Can I add if we have to fulfill the law still and do good works to earn our salvation we are all in trouble.

  13. WoundedEgo says:

    Kraig wrote:

    Hello Kraig and thank you for your response. The idea that when a gentile comes to faith he becomes a Jew is a bizarre and false notion. When Paul says “He is not a Jew who is one outwardly” he means that a Jew is to circumcised in their heart *as well as* in their flesh. He’s repeating the prophet:

    Jer 4:3 For this is what the LORD says to the men of Judah and Jerusalem, “Break up your unplowed ground, and don’t sow among thorns.
    Jer 4:4 Circumcise yourselves to the LORD and remove the foreskin of your heart, you men of Judah and residents of Jerusalem, or else my wrath will break out like fire and burn with no one to put it out, because of your evil deeds.”

    The new covenant identifies the parties involved. In fact, about half of the words of the covenant are to describe the parties involved!:

    Heb 8:8 For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah:
    Heb 8:9 Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord.
    Heb 8:10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days
    , saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:
    Heb 8:11 And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.
    Heb 8:12 For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.
    Heb 8:13 In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.

    Many strain out gnats in scripture and blithely swallow camels, such as the notion that God is confused about who is the house of Judah and who is not.

    God has a special relationship with the Jews:

    Amo 3:1 “Listen to this message that the LORD has spoken about you, people of Israel. It concerns the entire family that I brought from the land of Egypt:
    Amo 3:2 “You alone have I known from among all of the families of mankind
    ; therefore I will hold you accountable for all your iniquities.”

    You misunderstand the figure of the olive tree. The figure is of those who are of Abraham, not of Isaac. Abraham is the tree in that figure. The seed of Abraham through Isaac are the “natural branches” and those who are the children of Abraham by faith are the grafted branches. The grafted branches are not Jews though they are descended from Abraham:

    Rom 4:12 He is also the ancestor of the circumcised—those who are not only circumcised, but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
    Rom 4:13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the Law, but through the righteousness produced by faith.
    Rom 4:14 For if those who were given the Law are the heirs, then faith is useless and the promise is worthless,
    Rom 4:15 for the Law produces wrath. Now where there is no Law, neither can there be any violation of it.
    Rom 4:16 Therefore, the promise is based on faith, so that it may be a matter of grace and may be guaranteed for all of Abraham’s descendants—not only for those who were given the Law, but also for those who share the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.
    Rom 4:17 As it is written, “I have made you the father of many gentiles” Abraham acted in faith when he stood in the presence of God, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that don’t yet exist.
    Rom 4:18 Hoping in spite of hopeless circumstances, he believed that he would become “the father of many gentiles,” just as he had been told: “This is how many descendants you will have.”

    Blurring the line between Jew and gentile leads to all kinds of confusion.

  14. WoundedEgo says:

    Michael wrote:
    “What’s Paul saying in 1 Cor 9:21 about being “under the Law of Christ”?”

    Here’s the verse:
    1Co 9:21 To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.

    First of all, Paul/Saul is a Jew, no?

    Second of all, Paul clearly says he died to the law to be married to another, yes?

    The “law of Christ” is different from the law of Moses:

    Gal 6:2 Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.

    And the verse you cite clearly shows that Paul considered the gentiles as “without the law”. So it makes my point that the gentiles are not and never were under the law. And the same is true for the covenants:

    Rom 9:4 Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises;
    Rom 9:5 Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.

  15. Ross Riggan says:

    Grahame,

    Where has Kevin DeYoung said or even so much as has suggested that we must keep the law to earn our salvation?? He has not. This is one of those scenarios where using too many words and complicated sentences does us a true disservice. We all know the Gospel teaches us that Jesus has perfectly kept the law for us and has credited His perfect righteousness to us at the cross which we receive by faith. Nothing we do, no good work, no sinners prayer, no walking the aisle, no law keeping does this. Christ does. However, if our life post-conversion does not have a characteristic of repentance and spirit-filled fruit, while these actions do not save us, their absence will throw our “conversion” into suspect lighting. We don’t now keep the law to be saved or produce fruit to earn Gods favor: we already have it all! But we do those things because that is what His Spirit inspires us to do out of love for Him. If that love is lacking, perhaps we were never converted.

    I am not sure why DeYoung has chosen to address this, but I think it’s important to discuss these things because too many in our American culture have mentally assented to the truths of the Gospel and their life has not changed at all, proving that their mental assent was not conversion. Sanctification is important in many ways not the least of which is to confirm that we have truly come to know and love our Savior.

  16. Bill says:

    Ross, you wrote that sanctification confirms that we have truly known our Savior. This is complete folly. What confirms that we have truly known our Savior are the promises of the gospel. Christ’s word is the only assurance of salvation. Tell me how did the thief on the cross truly know he knew his Savior ? Did he try to get off the cross to perform good works ? Or did he trust Jesus words “tonight you will be in paradise with me”. It is the promises of the gospel that assure me that I know my Savior, my sanctification actually proves the opposite, that I can not be saved by good works.

  17. Well said Bill. Ross I never said “Kevin DeYoung suggested that we must keep the law to earn our salvation? However by using words from John Piper he publishes a position where Piper indicates their is more need than the cross to reach heaven. And I quote John Piper’s Foreword to Tom Schreiner’s new book where Piper notes in passing that though we are justified by faith alone, there are conditions for our final glorification such that we do not “attain” heaven by faith alone.” Hence my comments…so what are these conditions I wonder …the list if not only by grace then must include works or the law. If you know what they are let me know please. It he puts things in his blog or others make comments then they are open to challenge or agreement. Always good to joust with you Ross.

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Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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