Chit Chat on Justification, And Sanctification with Federal Vision

The following is a discussion with a good friend who is influenced by Federal Vision categories, even if he came by these categories quite apart from the Federal Vision movement.

HI writes,

“In any discussion about justification the phrase “faith alone” will generally be used to describe the idea that justification takes place without any contribution by the person being justified. That is, the idea of faith alone excludes any possibility of a works program that somehow earns privileges with God. St. Paul lays out this concept in his letter to the Romans.

However, there are some people — and I am one of them — who choose not to use the words faith alone to describe the idea that justification is God’s work without any additional activities from man to complete the process. Salvation is God’s grace alone. It is a ‘gift of God, lest any man should boast.'”

Bret responds,

1.) Note the seeming confusion here. The author roundly affirms that Salvation is God’s grace alone but he is uncomfortable with the idea that this Grace alone salvation should be characterized by a Justification that is by faith alone. Is it possible to have a grace alone salvation that doesn’t include a justification by faith alone? Are we to believe that grace alone Salvation is possible without a faith alone justification?

2.) That word “However” leading off the second paragraph is huge. With that “However” the author has informed us that he is going to take exception to the idea of “justification by faith alone.” Now, it is true enough that the author will insist that what he is offering instead is also gracious but keep in mind that every theology that excuses itself from “justification by faith alone,” also insists that their theology is gracious. I grew up and studied in the Arminian scheme of theology and they will tell you that their soteriology (doctrine of salvation) is gracious. They will speak of salvation by grace alone but when they finish defining their salvation by grace alone it is synergistic through and through. The same is true of Lutherans, Reformed Baptists, Roman Catholics and unfortunately even some Reformed folks. For all of them there is a point of synergism in their soteriology.


When you read the Scriptures you only find the words faith alone together in one place, and that’s in the book of James (2:24): “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Here you see the phrase is used negatively: you are not saved by faith alone.”


1.) Romans 4:5 teaches that faith alone justifies the person. James 2:24, in context, is teaching that works justifies a person’s claim to faith. St. Paul teaches that a living faith, that reveals it’s aliveness by resting in “Christ alone,” is the kind of faith that justifies. St. James teaches that a living faith, that reveals it’s aliveness by working out salvation in fear and trembling, is the kind of faith the demonstrates the presence of a living faith that has justified. What is not being taught by James is that our justification is contingent or dependent upon our meritorious or our non-meritorious works.

2.) It is interesting to note that all non Reformed people immediately run to the James passage to prove that “justification by faith alone” is not true. And that passage does prove that “justification by faith alone” is not true as long as you take it out of the context of Jame’s reasoning in that passage.


“For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”


Here is Calvin’s treatment of Romans 2:13 cited above,

13. For the hearers of the law, etc. This anticipates an objection which the Jews might have adduced. As they had heard that the law was the rule of righteousness, (Deuteronomy 4:1,) they gloried in the mere knowledge of it: to obviate this mistake, he declares that the hearing of the law or any knowledge of it is of no such consequence, that any one should on that account lay claim to righteousness, but that works must be produced, according to this saying, “He who will do these shall live in them.” The import then of this verse is the following, — “That if righteousness be sought from the law, the law must be fulfilled; for the righteousness of the law consists in the perfection of works.” They who pervert this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works, deserve most fully to be laughed at even by children. It is therefore improper and beyond what is needful, to introduce here a long discussion on the subject, with the view of exposing so futile a sophistry: for the Apostle only urges here on the Jews what he had mentioned, the decision of the law, — That by the law they could not be justified, except they fulfilled the law, that if they transgressed it, a curse was instantly pronounced on them. Now we do not deny but that perfect righteousness is prescribed in the law: but as all are convicted of transgression, we say that another righteousness must be sought. Still more, we can prove from this passage that no one is justified by works; for if they alone are justified by the law who fulfill the law, it follows that no one is justified; for no one can be found who can boast of having fulfilled the law


In his disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church, Luther correctly saw that there was a problem with its view of justification. Selling indulges was just a crass, money-making program that effectively promised easy salvation as a consequence of doing very little. But it was a works-based system that required man’s active cooperation with God to make salvation complete. It had an implicit view that somehow sin would be forgiven because of the payment of money. Luther made sure the whole world knew this was a wrong view of what the Bible taught.

In his efforts to hold to the what he would later call “passive righteousness,” Luther was adamant the essence of man’s sin was the idea that he was somehow capable of saving himself, even if he did need a little help occasionally from God to make good. Luther would allow no contribution to the graciousness of God. All glory to him alone, and that glory could not be shared.

Now this is what most Christians say they accept as what the Bible teaches , but not all Christians agree on the best way to describe this theological position. Luther added the word alone following the word “justification” to his German translation of Rom. 3:28., but later it was withdrawn. By adding the word alone, Luther turned his translation at this point from a direct word-to-word (dynamic) translation to what is now called a “dynamic equivalent.” That is, the translation is an explanation of the text rather than a direct translation. Now that’s fine so long as you know the difference. The demand for a dynamic translation, however, required the word alone to be taken out of the text because it was never a part of the original language.

1.) It is true that not all Christians agree on the best way to describe the graciousness of grace. As one example, theologies that insist that Christ died for all men without exception, will talk about the graciousness of grace but the minute the question arises as to why Christ’s death is effective for some men’s justification and not effective unto justification for other men then suddenly we discover their understanding of grace is not so gracious.

2.) It makes no matter to me if one wants to say we are justified by faith alone, or if one wants to say we are justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. Saying either is to say much the same.


But this poses an important question. If St. Paul in writing his letter to the Romans (chapter 3) never used the word alone, what word did he use? Read his text and see what he does. Follow Paul’s argument very closely:

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

Did you notice what he said in v. 27? “What becomes of our boasting?” What boasting is he talking about? The boasting that attributes justification to some worthwhile act of the justified person. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul claims, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”[1]

And so what you see in his letter to the Romans, Paul is eliminating self-aggrandizement in justification not by using the word alone, but by explaining the real meaning of the law, the Torah. The real Torah is a Torah of faith, not a Torah of works. Stern’s translation (Complete Jewish Bible) makes this clear when he translates “law of works” as “a law that has to do with legalistic observance of rules.” The alternative? “A Torah that has to do with trusting.”


1.) The solution offered here is merely semantic, or it might be called equivocation or redefinition. All that has been done is change the name, or redefined what it is that man must obey “in order to” gain justification. There is synergism here as there is no justification apart from the action of man. Even if that action required is labeled as “non-meritorious” the very fact that justification doesn’t happen without that act means in point of fact that there is something in our acting that is causative of justification. As such there is also here a tacit denial of depravity. Men who are dead in sin and trespasses do not fulfill any requisite law whether it be a Torah of works or a Torah of faith.

2.) What looks like to be happening here is that faith is being turned into a work. Is there a misunderstanding that faith, in justification, is totally receptive and not contributory in any sense? Is there a misunderstanding that we only have faith because that faith was won for those Christ justified in His Cross work 2000 years ago? Is there a misunderstanding that men are only justified in the present because justification was accomplished in the past and that that past justification was accomplished for elect sinners completely apart from their keeping the Torah of Faith? The point is that men trust (have faith) not in order to gain an otherwise uncertain justification but rather that men trust (have faith) because of a certain justification accomplished.


A lot of people then — and now — held the view that if a person kept the Torah he would be justified on this basis. But Paul here, and in his letter to the Galatians, shuts the door on this possibility. In Galatians he says the Torah, given years after the promise, did not annul the promise. Salvation was on the basis of God’s sovereign promises, not on how well a person kept the law.

17. This is what I mean: the law, which came years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. 18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.[2]

Now how does Paul explain the real meaning of the Torah in his Romans letter? In answer to the question, “what becomes of our boasting,” he replied, “It is excluded.” Paul is adamant: there is no possibility that there are cracks in the idea of justification to allow boasting. It is excluded. How? Paul asks, “What kind of ‘law’ excludes boasting?” Does a “law of works” prohibit boasting? He does not even pause to answer that question. He jumps straight to his answer, that boasting is excluded by “the law of faith.”

Only now is he ready to make his grand conclusion: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Works of the law are out when it comes to justification. This is why there is no boasting. It is because justification is by faith.

1.) If I keep the “law of faith” that yields a non-meritorious contribution to my justification can I then boast in the keeping of that law? If the response to that question is that, “no you cannot boast because you only were able to keep the law of faith by grace,” my retort is that such a answer indicates that justification is being based on the renewal that happens within me as opposed to God’s declaration in heaven’s courts of my righteousness as imputed due to the finished work of the faith of Jesus Christ. It is because I have been justified, I am being sanctified. The arrangement that is being advocated by HI looks an awful lot like because I am being sanctified I will be justified.

2.) Works of the law are out when it comes to Justification but the works of faith are in when it comes to Justification?


The initial recipients of St. Paul’s letter could now breathe a sigh of relief. Because earlier in his letter he had written, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”[3] What is that? Doers of the law justified? Does this mean Paul thought that works were a necessary component of being justification? If so, that would mean actions could somehow be “meritorious” and allow “boasting”. It would allow the sinner to say that if not all, at least a part of his justification was based on his own activities.

But now you can see how St. Paul shut the door on a works-based salvation. He did it not by saying “faith alone” but with his explanation of the law, contrasting the law of works with the law of faith. One of these Torahs allowed boasting; the other didn’t. One of these was the true Torah of God, the other wasn’t. Both Torahs required obedience because they were Torah — law. But one of them was drastically different when it came to justification.

In other words, St. Paul is saying “Only doers of the law will be justified” . . . but it is doers of the law of faith who will be justified, not doers of the law of works, because justification is by faith, not works. And faith, he is saying, includes the Torah of faith, that is obedience to the law of faith that allows no boasting.

St. Paul sees one of these Torahs he refers to as a Torah of merit, and the other a non-meritorious Torah. The non-meritorious Torah excludes boasting, but it still required: ”For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”

Now that’s how St. Paul explains himself. And we are on very safe grounds if we stick with St. Paul’s argument.

1.) We are not on safe ground because what is being advocated here (via confusing and slippery language) is that our non meritorious works are contributory to our Justification. Now if our non meritorious works are contributory to our Justification then if those non meritorious works are not present then we can not be Justified and if we can not be Justified without our non meritorious works then Justification is synergistic and we are involved in self- justification.

2.) See above for Calvin’s treatment on Romans 2:13

3.) Do not miss that when HI says, “Both Torahs required obedience because they were Torah — law,” he is saying that our obedience is required in and for Justification. The only difference in HI’s mind is that the obedience required and rendered is an obedience that is of the non-boasting variety. Apparently, this kind of requisite obedience is like organic foods vs. processed foods. This kind of requisite obedience unto Justification is good for you because it doesn’t have that nasty food additive of “boasting.”


Sanctification by Faith

But we are not finished with this concept of “faith alone.” For Protestantism, to escape the idea of a works-based justification, has used the word sanctification as an explanation of the ongoing life of the believer.

Now here the same question arises. Are we sanctified by keeping the law, and therefore sanctified to variable degrees based on how well we keep the law, or is sanctification really by faith alone?


1.) We are sanctified as the Spirit of God works in us to conform to Him who was the incarnation of God’s law. Sanctification is all of grace, and that grace is a grace that works in the believing elect to esteem God’s Law-Word as a guide to life. Regardless of how sanctified God is pleased to work in me, when all that sanctification is finally completed I will say, “I am a unprofitable servant who only did what I ought.”

2.) Note here the creeping conflation of Justification and Sanctification so that very little distinction between the two is allowed. There is a danger in the Church today as we are being pulled, pillar to post, between two camps who have it very wrong. One camp seemingly wants to conflate Justification with Sanctification so that we are unable to distinguish them. The other camp seemingly wants to divorce Justification from Sanctification so that we are unable to see the intimate relationship between the two.


If we are not careful, we add into the Scripture a “law of works,” a law that allows boasting, thereby denying the law of faith, the law that denies boasting. Some people prefer to use the phrase “good works” rather than “law.” Is there a difference? Accepting the idea of “good works” is quite OK, but now we must ask, are our good works “good” because of how well we did them, or are they good because of of faith? In other words, are our “good works” meritorious or are they non-meritorious?


1.) Our good works in Sanctification are obviously not meritorious because there is nothing left to merit in terms of being right with God. Our good works in Sanctification are not a necessary condition for Justification but a necessary consequent to Justification.

2.) R. L. Dabney reminds us that “all the defects in evangelical obedience are covered by the Saviors righteousness, so that, through Him the inadequate works receive a recompense.” So, yes, we agree that since works are the consequence to justification they are normatively required for salvation, but we still insist that our good works are only good because they themselves are imputed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ.


The Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 91) asks, “What are good works?” then supplies the answer. Good works are “Only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to his glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations, or the institutions of men.”

“Good” works only proceed from faith, according to the law of God. Are these works meritorious, like some kind of heavenly rewards program? No, and the framers of the Catechism had a consistent use of the phrase “good works.” Earlier in the catechism (Q.87), the door is shut on the idea that works can be meritorious.

This means that the “good works” required of the Christian are non-meritorious good works. Everywhere the Scripture shuts the door on merit and opens the door of grace, unmerited favor.

And this is the faith that has been handed down through the ages.


This is not the faith that has been handed down through the ages but instead is a advocacy, by use of confused language, and muddled categories of thought, of a faith that is of fairly recent vintage.

There is a lack of understanding here that in terms of Salvation, taken as a whole, works are a sufficient condition, but not an efficient cause, or as I said earlier, works are the necessary consequence of a Justification that finds Sanctification present.


There are, of course, many well-meaning Christians who have trouble with the idea of non-meritorious works. But the Catechism is adamant that “good works” are necessary For some, it is “oxymoronic” to suggest that works can be necessary but not meritorious. For another, “if you don’t see works as meritorious it is you that have misrepresented yourself.” In other words, according to this view, works can only be meritorious and nothing else.

Yet that is the very notion taught in the Heidelberg Catechism on sanctification. And if “non-meritorious works” is valid in sanctification, it is just a valid in the idea of justification as well. How do we know? Because that is exactly what Paul is arguing in Romans chapters 2-3.

What has not been handed down is the “one explanation only” of this truth, the use of the words “faith alone” and it is quite appropriate to speak of “non meritorious works” just as it is appropriate to use the phrase “meritorious works.” What we cannot ever say is that our salvation or any part of it, justification or sanctification, is in any way based on meritorious acts of the believer. But in both justification and sanctification, works — keeping the Law, or Torah — are essential components.


Since justification happens outside of us and is about Christ’s work for us and His keeping of the law for us any performance on our part cannot and does not enter into the equation in any way when we are discoursing about Justification. Sanctification, on the other hand, is God’s renewal work within us wherein by the Holy Spirit He works in us what we work out by fear and trembling. This is why as Reformed people we NEVER EVER say that as “non-meritorious works” are valid in sanctification, they are just as valid in the idea of justification as well.

Such language, even though well intended, effects the shifting of our eyes from Christ’s meritorious works in our stead to our own non-meritorious works on our own behalf. In justification, even if the works that we do are non-meritorious, the outcome of such a “theology” that finds our own non-meritorious works necessary for right standing with God, is to take our eyes off of Jesus, the Author and FINISHER of our faith.

Author: jetbrane

I am a Pastor of a small Church in Mid-Michigan who delights in my family, my congregation and my calling. I am postmillennial in my eschatology. Paedo-Calvinist Covenantal in my Christianity Reformed in my Soteriology Presuppositional in my apologetics Familialist in my family theology Agrarian in my regional community social order belief Christianity creates culture and so Christendom in my national social order belief Mythic-Poetic / Grammatical Historical in my Hermeneutic Pre-modern, Medieval, & Feudal before Enlightenment, modernity, & postmodern Reconstructionist / Theonomic in my Worldview One part paleo-conservative / one part micro Libertarian in my politics Systematic and Biblical theology need one another but Systematics has pride of place Some of my favorite authors, Augustine, Turretin, Calvin, Tolkien, Chesterton, Nock, Tozer, Dabney, Bavinck, Wodehouse, Rushdoony, Bahnsen, Schaeffer, C. Van Til, H. Van Til, G. H. Clark, C. Dawson, H. Berman, R. Nash, C. G. Singer, R. Kipling, G. North, J. Edwards, S. Foote, F. Hayek, O. Guiness, J. Witte, M. Rothbard, Clyde Wilson, Mencken, Lasch, Postman, Gatto, T. Boston, Thomas Brooks, Terry Brooks, C. Hodge, J. Calhoun, Llyod-Jones, T. Sowell, A. McClaren, M. Muggeridge, C. F. H. Henry, F. Swarz, M. Henry, G. Marten, P. Schaff, T. S. Elliott, K. Van Hoozer, K. Gentry, etc. My passion is to write in such a way that the Lord Christ might be pleased. It is my hope that people will be challenged to reconsider what are considered the givens of the current culture. Your biggest help to me dear reader will be to often remind me that God is Sovereign and that all that is, is because it pleases him.

4 thoughts on “Chit Chat on Justification, And Sanctification with Federal Vision”

  1. Good work here, Bret! I think it is also helpful for those confused to consider who is the audience for the “justifications” spoken of by Paul and by Peter. Insofar as God is considering the state of the individual, justification depends upon God’s viewing the individual through the imputed righteousness of Christ, so that, in effect, the individual’s effort isn’t seen at all, but rather, Christ’s work on his behalf is counted. Insofar as the witnessing world (and in a slightly different way, the conscience of the individual) is concerned, the justification that one is indeed a recipient of God’s grace is viewed through its effect, i.e. the good works that God’s regenerative grace produces. Whereas God judges the heart, man judges the fruit. The justification that MAKES a man is that of the heart, which God accomplishes apart from the individual’s effort. The justification that REVEALS a man is that of the fruit he produces, which the Church judges in order to justify or question the profession of the individual (when it comes to things like ordination and discipline).

    Whereas the world (and Church’s) judgment of an individual’s fruit in order to evaluate his profession (and thereby justify his office or his status with regard to discipline) may be in error, God’s judgment of an individual’s justification is not.

    Federal Vision folks seem to want to protect a robust ecclesiology, by which the purity of the members is both rigorously evaluated and rigorously pursued. In doing so, their conflation of the necessity of works for the discipline of the church and the justification of individuals before God is a truly dangerous error.

  2. Bret,

    You wrote: “what is being advocated here (via confusing and slippery language) is that our non meritorious works are contributory to our Justification.”

    Now how can non-meritorious works contribute to our Justification? They are, after all, non-meritorious.

    1. How can our non-meritorious works be necessary to Justification if they are not contributory? What is the result if the Justified Christian does not produce these non-meritorious works?

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