Is Christian Obedience Spontaneous?

In his otherwise helpful essay defending the traditionally Reformed view of justification, Michael Horton writes, “The gospel of free justification gives rise to a spontaneous embrace of the very law that once condemned it” (105).  Horton is explicitly countering the argument that if one situates justification at the center of Pauline soteriology, he is hard pressed to explain how Paul can draw ethical imperatives from anything other than antithetical judicial indicatives.  In short, if it’s all about justification by faith alone apart from works, what part do good works (of sanctification), in opposition to justification, play in salvation?

Calvin’s answer solved the problem. Neither justification nor sanctification is central, but rather union with Christ, in which one equally receives justification and sanctification.  Calvin doesn’t privilege justification, firmly though he stresses it, but wants to say that by faith (alone) one takes hold of Jesus, in whom both justification and sanctification are gifted to the believer.

Calvin will also solve Horton’s tendency to reduce sanctification to “a spontaneous embrace of the … law.”  Horton cites Galatians 5:16–26 as proof of this spontaneity, yet this passage hints at active, persevering obedience (v. 17, “you are not to do whatever you want,” and v. 21, “I warn you”), not spontaneity.

Moreover, no one reading Paul’s comments in Romans 6–8 would ever conclude that he saw Christian obedience as “a spontaneous embrace of the … law.”  However it may be interpreted, Romans 7 depicts an intense inner (and consequently outer) struggle.  We are under obligation (8:12) to live according to our godly nature and not our lingering sinful nature.  Obligation, not spontaneity.

Jesus himself declared that the way of gospel obedience is hard (Mt. 7:14; Mk. 10:17–31).  The writer of Hebrews again and again exhorts believers to persevere, lest they fail and miss eternal life in the end (2:1–4, 3:1–6, 12–18, 4:1–13, 5:11–6:8, 10:26–39, 12:3–17, 25–29).

Justification is God’s judicial declaration of “right with God” (righteous standing in the heavenly court) solely on the basis of Jesus’ atoning death (Rom. 3:25–26) and victorious resurrection (Rom. 4:25).  Justification is a verdict, not a process, and it can neither increase nor decrease.  Like virginity or fatherhood, it admits of no qualifications.  One is either a virgin or not, a father or not — and justified or not.

Sanctification is a process, and it does admit of qualification; one is more or less sanctified.  Sanctification, unlike justification, is a lifelong battle.  No one is perfectly sanctified in this life, but we are called to make progress (1 Thes. 5:23; Gal. 5:16–25).  And if one fails to persevere in sanctification, he can expect only judgment in the end (Heb. 12:14).  He cannot have recourse to justification as an existential category if he does not persevere. Calvin might say, “Since both justification and sanctification are equally God’s gifts, and inextricably indissoluble ones at that, if you lack sanctification, you also lack justification.” Grace in Jesus means justifying and sanctifying grace.

And since sanctification is a lifelong struggle, there is no “spontaneity” to it.  It’s a long, hard process, and just as we prove our faith by our works (Jas. 2:18), so we verify our justification by our sanctification.

Sanctification as a gift of union with Jesus Christ solves the alleged dilemma posed by a justification that keeps good works at arm’s length.

Any view of justification that implies that a sanctification requiring long, hard, arduous work is optional is not the justification of the Bible.  And any view of justification holding out hope that those who don’t persevere in sanctification can still expect eternal life at the final day is equally false.


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