Soteriology Spirituality

Is sanctification a duty?

Among Reformed scholars, we hear a great deal of discussion these days about the law and the gospel. Getting this right is important, but it is not as simple as it sounds. In a recent blog post, Paul Helm had some thoughts which I found helpful and I pass them on for your consideration.

Helm begins his post with some astute reflections about the intentions of Andrew Fuller when he spoke about faith as a duty. That is an interesting section which you can read in his post, if you wish. But my interest here is in what he has to say about sanctification.

Helm on sanctification and duty

 Paul HelmThere is a parallel situation in the case of sanctification, much-discussed at present. Is sanctification required? This is one question. But the inseparability of sanctification from justification, and it’s being required, is (I think) often confused with the question, is sanctification a duty? It is required, but is it a duty? Two different questions. One has to do with a logical requirement, the other with a legal requirement, or a moral requirement, or with both. If someone says that being justified, there is no need for sanctification, they fail to see the requirement of sanctification. And in saying this they have not only misunderstood sanctification but justification too. For each is inseparable from the other, the two-fold gift of Christ to his people. But to say that sanctification consists in keeping commands hasn’t quite struck the note and emphasis of the NT.

If I think that justification is all that is needed, or that Christ is imputed to a sinner for sanctification as he is for justification, what’s the mistake? It is the mistake of thinking that as a justified sinner there is nothing more to do. But the NT is full of imperatives to the people of God. For example, Paul said to the Ephesians, be renewed in the spirit of your minds. (4.23) But this, it seems to me, is a kind of command that can only be obeyed indirectly. It involves putting on the new man (as Paul says), and as a consequence living in a certain way. This way can often be mapped on to  the commands of God, or the commands on to it, yet such living is not simply a matter of obeying these commands, but first of understanding what it means to profess regeneration. In other words, we leave the world of simply endeavoring to keep the commands of God, and seek to understand  a life that is lived from the inside out. There are various ways the NT has of depicting such a life—living as those who are alive from the dead, living as children of God, walking in love. The emphasis follows on having a new life and a new outlook, and bearing fruit, growing in grace. Living in disregard of the commands of God is a sign of failure, but it does not follow that keeping the commands of God is a sign of success.

Immanuel Kant contrasted the sense of duty with what he called ‘a holy life’. If we do certain acts as duties, dutifully, the requirements in question bear down upon us. We feel pressured to do what a part of us, perhaps the whole of us, does not want to do. We have to do it. Our action is (Kant said) heteronomous. If, somehow, we have internalized the norms we discern in the commands, if we want to do them in the core of our person, then, Kant also said, we possess (in his sense) a holy life. We act autonomously. We no longer have any duties. Or to the extent that we internalize the norms, in this sense we possess a holy life. (I don’t think Kant said this bit, on reflection, but he may have.) We do the substance of what are duties but not as duties. (‘Whose service is perfect freedom’.)

Paul’s habitual way of teaching us how to behave is to emphasize that Christians are new people – ‘How can we who died to sin still live in it?’ , ‘Put off the old self….be renewed in the spirit of your minds….put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness’….’If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things which are above, where Christ is’….’For we are all children of light, children of the day…so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober….’And he writes of gifts, graces, and Peter of virtues. Lists of them.

If we ask, how should we then live, the answer is, by the norms and values as expressed in the Decalogue, what Calvin called ‘the eternal law’, expressed, he thought, in the Golden Rule. But (ideally) not as duties, even though in our present far-from-perfect state, expressing such norms in living—as distinct from talking about them—may be irksome and difficult. But for new men and women in Christ ‘doing our duty’ is not quite the best way of expressing this, is it? Yet if all else fails then duty it had better be.

May God give us a passion to keep his commands but, better yet, may he so transform us by his Spirit, that keeping his commands will become natural to us, so that his law will be our delight and the burden of doing our duty will feel light.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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