Posted by: stpowen | November 15, 2014

‘Sanctification by the Law’?

1 Corinthians 1:30. ‘But of [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom of God- and righteousness, sanctification and redemption.’
1 Corinthians 9:21. ‘Not without law towards God, but under law towards Christ.’

A while ago, I received from a gentleman called David Gay, a self-published book entitled Christ is all. No Sanctification by the Law. It is a massive tome, and I have not had time to do more than skim through it and had not intended to make any comment on it. Then, more recently, someone accused me of believing in ‘sanctification by the law’ on the basis of something I wrote on another blog some ten years ago. Let me say at once, I do not believe that the law can sanctify anyone and never have done so. These two occurrences have set me wondering; does anyone believe in this doctrine, and if not, why do these people suggest that anyone does?

Mr. Gay lays the blame firmly at the door of Calvin. He writes, ‘John Calvin…..taught that the believer is sanctified by the law. The law is the believer’s rule.’ He goes on to accuse the Reformed confessions of teaching the same thing. The unfortunate thing is that I cannot find any quotation by Calvin wherein he says that Christians are sanctified by the law. To be sure he wrote extensively that the law is the believer’s rule of life, but that is not the same thing at all. Gay puts the cart before the horse; it is not our keeping of the law that sanctifies us, it is our sanctification that will lead increasingly to our keeping God’s righteous laws.

One of Mr. Gay’s errors is the belief that the law is indivisible- that the Bible does not refer to the Moral Law separately from the other laws. I have already addressed that mistake here
and therefore will not do so again {1}. We will first look at what ‘sanctification’ means in the Bible, and then look at what the Reformed confessions say about it.

The basic meaning of Sanctify and Sanctification is to set or to be set apart for God’s service. In Exodus 28:41 we read that Aaron and his sons were anointed, consecrated and sanctified to serve God as priests. Likewise, all the various vessels and implements in the tabernacle were set apart for holy use. They were separated from common use and separated for the purposes of God. Likewise the Lord Jesus Christ was set apart by God for the task of redemption. “Do you say of Him whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” (John 10:36). God the Father had set the Son apart for His service. In John 17:19, our Lord says that He sanctifies Himself, setting himself at the disposal of the Father for the great work of redemption.

Christians likewise are set apart for the service of God. In 1 Cor. 1:2 {2}, the Corinthian Christians are described as ‘Those who are [better ‘have been’] sanctified in Christ Jesus.’ The word ‘saint’ has the meaning of ‘holy one,’ one who has been set apart by God {3}. All this refers to what is called Positional sanctification. It is an act of God which is contemporaneous with justification. The new Christian is declared righteous by God and set apart for God’s service. In 1 Cor. 6:11, Paul has been warning his readers about some of the egregious sins that were prevalent in Corinth: ‘And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.’ The tense is Aorist. This sanctification happened at one point in the past.

However, there is also Progressive Sanctification. It is one thing to be proclaimed to be holy and set apart for God’s purposes, but we must also be made holy. Paul writes to the Thessalonians, ‘Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely’ (1 Thes. 5:23), and Heb. 10:14 says, ‘For by one offering [Christ] has perfected forever those who are being {4} sanctified.’ Now in both these texts we can see that it is God who is the prime mover in our progressive sanctification, but that does not mean that the Christian is passive. ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to do of His good pleasure’ (Phil. 2:12-13). We find the same thing in 2 Peter 1:2-7. God has given us all that we need which pertains to life and godliness, ‘…But also for that very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith, virtue….etc.’ God works and we work.

But of course, this is only made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit in the New Birth. God foretold through Ezekiel, ‘I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgements and do them’ (Ezek 36:27). When the Christian is born again, God writes His laws on his heart (Jer. 31:31ff; Heb. 8:10). Which laws are they? Well, certainly not the sacrificial or dietary laws. ‘Sacrifice and offering You did not desire; my ears You have opened. Burnt offering and sin offering You did not require. Then I said, “Behold I come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do Your will, O my God, and Your law is within my heart”‘ (Psalm 40:6-8). The law within the believer’s heart can only be God’s moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments.

Let us now look at the Reformed confessions to see if they teach Sanctification by the law. The confession with which I am most familiar is the 1689 Baptist Confession. Here is Chapter XIII on ‘sanctification’ [somewhat updated English by Dr. Peter Masters] .

1.______ Those who are united to Christ, effectually called and regenerated, having had a new heart and a new spirit created in them through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, are then further sanctified in a very real and personal way. Because of the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, and by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them, the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed. The different lusts of the body of sin are increasingly weakened and mortified, and Christ’s people are increasingly quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to practise all true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.
2.______ This sanctification extends throughout the whole person, yet it remains imperfect in this life. Some remnants of corruption live on in every part, and from this arises a continuous war between irreconcilable parties- the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit lusting against the flesh.
3.______ In this war, although the remaining corruption for a time may greatly prevail, yet through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part overcomes. And so the saints grow in grace, perfecting
[‘moving towards the accomplishing of’- P. Masters] holiness in the fear of God; pressing after a heavenly life in evangelical obedience to all the commands which Christ as Head and King, in His Word, has prescribed to them.

I can not see anything in that which suggests that the writers of the confession believed that Christians are sanctified by the law. Rather it is clearly stated that it is the ‘Spirit of Christ’ that sanctifies. However, perhaps the confession says something different when it comes to talk specifically about the law? The following extracts are taken from Article XIX, ‘The Law of God.’

5._____ The moral law ever bind to obedience everyone, justified people as well as others, and not only out of regard of the matter contained in it, but also out of respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave the law; nor does Christ in the Gospel dissolve this law in any way, but[on the contrary] He considerably strengthens our obligation to obey it.
( Romans 13:8-10; James 2:8, 10-12; James 2:10, 11; Matthew 5:17-19; Romans 3:31 )

I confess that for some years I was unable to agree with this. It seemed to me that if Christians were ‘bound’ to the law, we must be in bondage, and Christ came to set us free. However, when I looked at Romans 6:16, 23. ‘Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves to obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?…….But now, having been set free frome sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.’ Just in case this isn’t clear enough, Paul repeatedly refers to himself as a ‘slave’ or ‘bondservant’ [Gk. doulos] of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:1; Phil. 1:1 etc.). If you are the slave of someone, you obey his laws. But what about our freedom in Christ? Well, James refers to the Ten Commandments as the ‘law of liberty (Jam. 2:10-12), but perhaps I can make it a little clearer with the following parable:

There was once a group of people who decided to play a game of football (‘soccer’) among themselves, but when they came together, some wanted to play with a round ball and some with one that was oblong; some wanted an off-side rule and some didn’t; some thought you could pick the ball up and run with it, others said that was a different game altogether. They could not agree whether to play up and down the pitch or from side to side, nor on the size and height of the goalposts. Others cried out that they didn’t want any rules; they ‘just wanted to be free to play football,’ but they couldn’t agree among themselves how they were going to play, so in the end, there was no freedom to play anything.
Eventually, a copy of the laws of football was produced. Not all of them were relevant to a casual game so someone wrote out a summary of the most important and relevant ones. When they had read those rules, the people agreed to abide by them. At last they were free to play a game of football.

God, in His wisdom and mercy, has given us laws to enable us to live our lives in joy and freedom. He has also given Christians the Holy Spirit to enable us to keep them. We do not have the Spirit in order to make our own rules up; the Spirit writes God’s laws on our hearts so that we can obey them with joy. ‘Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord……Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day’ (Psalm 119:1, 97). God is a God of law. Scientists were only able to land the space probe on that comet recently because God has given us unchanging laws of science (gravity etc.) on which we may depend. He has likewise given us moral laws on which we may frame our lives, and we scorn them at our peril.

6._____ Although true believers are not under the law as a covenant of works, to be justified or condemned by it, yet it is of great use to them as well as to others, because as a rule of life, it informs them of the will of God and their duty and directs and binds them to walk accordingly. It also discovers and exposes the sinful pollutions of their natures, hearts, and lives, and using it for self-examination they may come to greater conviction of sin, greater humility, and greater hatred of their sin. They will also gain a clearer sight of their need of Christ and the perfection of His own obedience; it is of further use to regenerate people [in self-examination] to restrain their corruptions, because of the way in which it forbids sin; the threatenings of the law serve to show what their sins actually deserve, and what troubles may be expected in this life because of these sins even by regenerate people who are freed from the curse and undiminished rigours of the law. The promises connected with the law also show believers God’s approval of obedience, and what blessings they may expect when the law is kept and obeyed, though blessing will not come to them because they have satisfied the law as a covenant of works [to do this would of course require perfect obedience to every part all the time- P. Masters]; if a man does good and refrains from evil simply because the law encourages to the good and deters him from the evil, that no evidence that he is under the law rather than under grace.
( Romans 6:14; Galatians 2:16; Romans 8:1; Romans 10:4; Romans 3:20; Romans 7:7, etc; Romans 6:12-14; 1 Peter 3:8-13 )

7._____ The aforementioned uses of the law are not contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but they sweetly comply with it, as the Spirit of Christ subdues and enables the will of man to do freely and cheerfully those things which the will of God, which is revealed in the law, requires to be done.
( Galatians 3:21; Ezekiel 36:27)

Once again, there is nothing here that suggests that believers are ‘sanctified’ by the law. Rather it is the sanctification of believers that leads them to keep God’s righteous laws. I conclude therefore that the term Sanctification by the Law is a red herring and the claim that Reformed people believe in it is false. The idea that the Lord Jesus Christ has set up another, better, law in the Gospel is inadmissible because it suggests that their is a dispute amongst the Person of the Trinity and that the Father has devised something that the Son has needed to improve. No, no. In the Sermon on the Mount Christ does not give a new law; He gives the proper interpretation of the old, so that we can say with the Psalmist:
‘The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul;
The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever;
The judgements of the LORD are true and righteous altogether’
(Psalm 19:7-8).

{1} See also this post by Richard Barcellos and his excellent book, In Defence of the Decalogue
{2} See also Jude 1 (A.V. and N.K.J.V.).
{3} See Rom. 1:7; 2 Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2.
{4} The A.V. translation of Heb. 10:14 is not good. ‘For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.’ ‘sanctified’ is in the present tense which in the Greek has the meaning of continuous action. ‘Are being sanctified’ is correct.



  1. 1. David Gay is a New Covenant Theologian, that’s the starting point.

    2. Not everyone agrees that James means the Ten Commandments when he refers to ‘the law of liberty’

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