From the beginning God’s plan of redemption included sanctification and glorification. Israel was called to be a holy people; purity of heart and act was the goal, beyond mere proper cultic conformity. Having been forgiven, the disciple of Jesus is called to follow him, deny self, and take up a cross. Jesus uses the idea of reward as an incentive to spur us on to faithfulness; nonetheless, all rewards are a free gift of grace. God’s children in Christ, for his sake, are holy; therefore they are commanded to become holy. We are God’s workmanship.
The post-apostolic church continued to insist on holiness of life but had to contend with the reality of post-baptismal sin, even grave sin. Distinctions began to be made among sins, with less serious ones addressed by legalistic works of penance as the way to forgiveness. A twofold morality—one for ordinary believers and the other for “saints”—contributed to the growth of the eremetic and monastic life. Regular precepts were supplemented by “counsels of perfection,” namely, the three virtues of chastity, poverty, and obedience. The latter were deemed especially meritorious, and the church followed a semi-Pelagian line. The good works of the saints add to the “treasury of merit” that the church, through indulgences, can dispense to the faithful.
The Reformation repudiated this entire scheme and took its position on the doctrine of Justification by faith alone. Better said, it is through faith that the believer receives Christ the Savior, who justifies the sinner. Though the theologians of the Reformation, especially the Reformed, understood this faith as a living faith rooted in the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, Reformation sectarians and mystics wanted more. Among Pietists and Methodists, Justification had to be followed by sanctification unto perfection, a constant communion with God in love and obedience. Though this emphasis can lead to eccentricities and to ascetic legalism, it has also, to its credit, produced great works of mission and philanthropy.
Christ is our holiness in the same sense in which he is our righteousness. Logically, Justification, which clears our guilt, precedes sanctification, which cleanses us from our pollution. Furthermore, Justification is a juridical act, completed in an instant, while sanctification is an ethical process that continues throughout our lives. Though Justification and sanctification are distinct, they must never be separated. They are united in the power and work of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification as well as Justification is a gift, purely of grace.
God’s people are holy and called to be holy, set apart by God to be conformed to his Son and to live to his glory. The gift is also a call to active continued repentance on the part of the Christian. We are to die to sin and “present our members as instruments of righteousness.” We are grafted into Christ the vine and also told that we must bear fruit. This duality has been misunderstood by nomists and antinomians alike. The former insist that good works are necessary conditions for salvation; the latter are indifferent to repentance, prayer for forgiveness, and good works, since Christ’s perfect sacrifice made them superfluous. Lutherans had special difficulty with this tension and engaged in bitter debates over it. Reformed theologians had less difficulty, speaking of good works as necessary not in the sense of merit but in the sense of presence. The presence of good works is a sign of God’s work of grace in a believer.
Good works in the strict sense are those done out of true faith, in conformity with God’s law, and to his glory. The virtues of the pagans are not good works. It is out of faith working through love that believers seek to do God’s will as expressed in the Ten Commandments. Both nomists and antinomians forget that the law of God is rich and full and cannot be reduced to “precept upon precept, line upon line.” The commandments must be understood in their augmentation and application by the prophets and by our Lord. In addition, sanctification is both gift and task. The renewing power of the Holy Spirit puts us to work, and in our life of obedience there is also freedom for individual believers to apply the deeper life of love to their own circumstances and contexts. Both the adiaphora and the counsels of perfection must be seen within the unity and universality of the moral law. A legalistic double morality often leads to perfectionism and works righteousness.