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Calvin: No Salvation without Sanctification

October 25th, 2013 | 7 min read

By Guest Writer

Many Christians struggle to integrate the demands of discipleship with the gift of God’s grace. Some tend to make their justification dependent upon their progress in sanctification. Others make their sanctification a superfluous response to their justification. The former leads us into a dead end of performance-driven Christianity dominated by fear and uncertainty. The latter persuades us of our free acceptance before God, but struggles to convince us that holiness is a necessary pursuit. Frequently, these two errors galvanize into theological factions, dig trenches, and exchange fire about “law” and “gospel.”

Do the demands of discipleship and the gifts of grace comport with one another? Are we left to negotiate an uneasy truce between justification and sanctification, or does a more satisfying paradigm exist?

John Calvin, the sixteenth century Genevan reformer, provides an elegant solution to this diIemma. For Calvin, justification and sanctification are distinct, but inseparable benefits that belong to all who are united to Jesus. They hold together, not because one necessarily causes or motivates the other, but because the benefits cohere in a person, namely Jesus Christ.

In the third book of his Institutes, Calvin explores the question, “How do we receive those benefits which the Father

English: John Calvin Deutsch: Maße: 10,9 x 7,8... English: John Calvin Deutsch: Maße: 10,9 x 7,8 cm, Johannes Calvin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

bestowed on his only-begotten Son – not for Christ’s own private use, but that he might enrich poor and needy men?” (Institutes, 3.1.1)

He promptly answers:

First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us. For this reason, he is called “our Head” (Eph. 4.15), and “the first-born among many brethren” (Rom. 8.29). We also, in turn, are said to be “engrafted into him” (Rom. 11.17), and to “put on Christ” (Gal. 3.27); for, as I have said, all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him (Institutes, 3.1.1).

A few paragraphs later, Calvin elaborates:

We know, moreover, that he benefits only those whose “Head” he is (Eph. 4.15), for whom he is “the first-born among brethren” (Rom. 8.29), and who, finally, “have put on him” (Gal. 3.27). This union alone ensures that, as far as we are concerned, he has not unprofitably come with the name of Savior. The same purpose is served by that sacred wedlock through which we are made flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone (Eph. 5.30), and thus one with him. But he unites himself to us by the Spirit alone. By the grace and power of the same Spirit we are made his members, to keep us under himself and in turn to possess him (Institutes, 3.1.3).

For Calvin, salvation flows from our union with the living and exalted Jesus. Unless he dwells in us, and we in him, his death, resurrection, and exaltation are of no value to us. In other words, the Spirit unites us to Jesus, our Benefactor, who bestows on us the benefits won through his accomplishment.

Calvin applies these biblical and theological insights to the relation of justification and sanctification:

Although we may distinguish them, Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces (1 Cor. 1:13). Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness (Institutes, 3.16.1).

Our justification and our sanctification are inseparable because Jesus “contains both of them.” They are gifts of grace that we receive because we are one with Christ. To separate these things is to tear Jesus into pieces. In other words, there is no salvation without justification, and there is no salvation without sanctification because Jesus – salvation’s source – gives both to those who are in Him. As we dwell in Christ, and he dwells in us, we are forgiven and free. Consequently, our new obedience to God is of grace just as much as our pardon. It is grace all the way.

Obviously, Calvin did not hesitate to attribute both legal and relational, or forensic and ontological, realities to our union with Christ. Jesus both imputes and imparts grace when he incorporates us into himself through the Spirit. These benefits belong to us because we are members of the Beloved, Jesus Christ.

Given the current ethos within evangelicalism, these observations invite one significant conclusion: grace changes everything, not simply because it gives us news of our forgiveness, but because it engrafts us into our living Head, Jesus Christ. In Christ, we get everything: he is our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification, and our redemption (1 Cor. 1.30). We possess the benefits of salvation only because we possess the Benefactor, Jesus Christ.

Most evangelical discussions about the benefits of salvation have been indebted to William Perkin’s metaphor of a “golden chain”, derived from Romans 8.28-30. In this paradigm, each of salvation’s benefits, like regeneration, justification, sanctification, adoption, and glorification, are seen as discrete links within a chain of cause and effect. While no agreement exists as to the ordering of the links, the chain model casts a long shadow on the entire theological discourse.

As Sinclair Ferguson points out, Perkin’s model possesses a certain “pastoral brilliance.” However, the metaphor also unwittingly obscures the relation of salvation’s benefits to Jesus Christ (The Holy Spirit, 98). By focusing on “the cause-and-effect sequence” of the benefits, we displace Jesus from his central place within salvation (99). Inevitably, certain benefits receive priority, leading to endless speculation about the causal relationship between the links of the chain.

This dynamic is especially apparent in recent Reformed discussions about justification’s role in motivating sanctification. In this system, the good news of our justification fuels our sanctification by bringing us back, over and over, to our undeserved acceptance before God through Christ. Liberated from the prison of attempting to gain God’s approval, we are set free to serve God because we have his approval already in Christ. Our pursuit of holiness derives its energy from this undeserved gift. Therefore, justification and sanctification are distinct, but yet indivisible. Sanctification is the fruit and consequence of justification while justification is the root and stimulant of sanctification. Here, the shadow of the chain model is readily discernible.

While God’s justification of the ungodly certainly compels our obedience (2 Cor. 5. 14-15), this paradigm obscures the relationship between our sanctification and the living Jesus. By prioritizing justification in the cause-and-effect chain and making sanctification a secondary link contingent upon justification, three things subtly happen: (1) grace becomes synonymous with justification, not all the benefits we receive in union with the resurrected Christ, (2) grace becomes a motivational resource that encourages sanctification, not the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit that enables it, and (3) sanctification looses its radically Christo-centric orientation, becoming a step in a formula distantly related to Christ. This unnecessarily shackles God’s grace to forensic categories, and fails to capture all that Jesus shares with his members (Rom. 6.1-14; 7.4-6; 8.9-14; 1 Cor. 1.30; Eph. 2.1-10; 4.17-25; Col. 2.9-19; 3.1-11; also see Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 66-69). Or, to put it another way, this pastoral practice unwittingly reduces the menu of salvation’s indicatives to justification, forcing a diet that the New Testament does not restrict us too. For example, consider these indicatives that also inform the Christian life: Rom. 6.6-7; 8.9; 1 Cor. 6.19-20; Gal. 5.25; Col. 2.11-13; 3.3. These verses in no way limit the indicatives of salvation to justification.

By orienting salvation’s benefits directly to the living Christ, not within a logical sequence of cause-and-effect, we avoid displacing Jesus from his central role within salvation. Following Calvin, Ferguson writes, “[T]he blessings of redemption ought not to be viewed as merely having Christ as their ultimate causal source but as being ours only by direct participation in Christ, in union with him through the Spirit” (102). In other words, grace is not a gift received in justification that trickles down creating the remainder of salvation’s benefits. Rather, one with Jesus through the Spirit, God’s grace floods our lives, granting us all of salvation’s benefits – justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. All that we have, and all that we are, belongs to us in union and communion with Christ.

As branches in the Vine (Jn. 15.5), we are incorporated into Jesus, and thus experience salvation’s benefits as his members. Like Calvin, let’s keep Jesus central to salvation’s benefits, exalting him as the fountain of all that we are before God. And, as flesh of our bridegroom’s flesh and bone of his bone, may we rejoice in all that he imputes and imparts to us, his beloved.


Chuck Colson is the rector of the Church of the Ascension, a congregation of PEARUSA, in Arlington, VA.