Sanctification: Clark, Robbins, and Piper

Monergists [mon (one) + erg (work)] hold that God works alone as the effective agent of man’s regeneration. Synergists [syn (together) + erg (work)], on the other hand, hold that man’s regeneration is a cooperative effort—a working together—of God and man. Gordon Clark, like all other Calvinists, was, naturally, a Monergist.

Yet when we move on from the doctrine of regeneration to the doctrine of sanctification, we see that Clark held that man’s works have a certain role. He writes,

Let us be quite clear on the fact that the Bible does not teach salvation by faith alone. The Bible teaches justification by faith alone. Justification then necessarily is followed by a process of sanctification, and this consists of works which we do. It consists of external actions initiated by internal volitions. We must therefore work out our own salvation; and this, in fear and trembling because we must depend on God. What then does God do in our process of sanctification? The verse says God works in us. … First he so works in us that we do the things that produce sanctification. God works in us so that we sing a psalm, or comfort the sick, or apprehend a criminal, or preach the gospel. These are things we do because God works in us to do them. … God not only works the doing in us, but he first works the willing in us. God works in us both to will and to do.” – Clark, Predestination, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987, p. 120-121.

Even more clearly, Clark used the term “synergism” in reference to the doctrine of sanctification:

But there is a difference between regeneration and sanctification. As to the former “we are altogether passive therein.” In the latter we struggle. One must not deny either the Spirit’s power or our activity. The two of us must cooperate. You see there is no synergism in regeneration, but there is in sanctification. … God is the source of our abilities and the effective determiner of how we use them. But it is we ourselves who must fight the good fight and run the straight race through God’s good grace.” – Clark, “Sanctification” Audio Lecture (read from the text of The Holy Spirit, p. 47-48.)

Though “monergism” and “synergism” are historically applied solely to the doctrine of regeneration, it is not impossible to use the terms in regards to other doctrines such as justification and sanctification. The terms used however are relatively unimportant compared to the meanings associated with the terms. Thus, while Clark’s ascribing of “synergism” to sanctification is fairly novel, his purpose for doing so and the meaning associated with what he is saying is not novel – many, probably most, Reformed theologians have held essentially the same view.

One of his main reasons for holding to a type of synergism in sanctification comes from his exegesis of Philippians 2:13-14. The text reads:

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” – Philippians 2:13-14

Monergists (in regards to regeneration) understand that the “working out your own salvation” in this passage must refer to those good works of sanctification, and not any works that contribute to regeneration. Clark’s important point is that these works are done by God through man. On Philippians 1:11, Clark writes,

“The first phrase, ‘being filled with the fruit of righteousness’ surely refers to the character of the Philippian Christians. That some of this is connected with his concern for others is not to be denied, but the main idea is entirely subjective. Indeed the next phrase, through Jesus Christ,’ enforces this view. The sanctification of the Christian is controlled by him who began the good work.” – Clark, Philippians, 23.

And again,

“The most important phrase for exegesis is, ‘work out your own salvation.’ And not only work it out, but work it out in fear and tremblings. … Lenski says, ‘The danger for the saved is ever that they grow otiose, secure, and thus through their own fault lose the salvation bestowed on them by God.’ Lenski is a good Lutheran. The Arminians are worse than the Lutherans, on this point any way. … Yet like Lenski, they would still assert that the verse teaches the possibility of losing one’s salvation. To which we reply they have read only half of the sentence. The remainder of the sentence, to express it in chaste, academic language, packs a wallop. 2:13 … for it is God who works in you both to will and to do, of his good pleasure. – Clark, Philippians, p. 69-70.

While Clark uses the term “synergism” in regards to sanctification, it must be noted that this synergism is quite different from the type of synergism Arminians hold to in their doctrines of regeneration and justification. That is, in that Arminian type of synergism the contribution that man supposedly adds towards his justification is INDEPENDENT of God’s work in salvation. But in the “synergism” of sanctification man’s works are DEPENDENT on God working in him. Here God alone is the effective cause of salvation in all its aspects: regeneration, justification AND sanctification. And thus it is God alone who deserves the glory.

Clark notes,

“Paul wrote, ‘But we are bound to give thanks always to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.’ One verse is not much, but it sheds at least a minimum of light on the agreement of Peter and Paul in their inspired description of God’s methods. And it also enforces the previous and important point that God’s foreknowledge does not center in any merit in man. Man’s sanctification is the work of God’s Spirit and is not the basis of God’s choosing to bless any individual with saving grace.” – Clark, New Heavens, New Earth, p. 92.


“Justification is a forensic act usually ascribed to the Father, and the same for all the elect. Sanctification is a subjective change of character in the individual, in different degrees for different persons. The former is instantaneous; the latter is temporal and lasts a lifetime. The agent is the Spirit and the topic belongs right here.” – Clark, The Holy Spirit, p. 41.

It is also important to note that the question is NOT “DOES man have a role in each of these aspects of the ordo salutis” (regneration, justification, sanctification)—for even an entirely passive role is a role—but rather the question is “what IS man’s role in each of these aspects of the ordo salutis.” Man’s role in sanctification differs from his role in regeneration. In regeneration man is being acted upon by God. In sanctification man is being made to act by God. Noting these roles may be clearer than using the terms “monergism” and “synergism.”

Clark, to be consistent with his view of synergistic sanctification, should also say that justification is synergistic in a certain way. Whereas in regeneration man is entirely passive, in justification man does something—he believes, he has faith—even if that faith is given to him. And this is “synergistic” in the same way that Clark’s view of sanctification is “synergistic”—where man does the good works even if man is led by the Holy Spirit to do so. But in regards to both of these “synergisms” of justification and sanctification it is again important to note that God is the only effective cause, He deserves all the glory, and man is entirely dependent upon God for faith and good works.

To summarize, we should say that regeneration is entirely monergistic. Man’s only role in regeneration is passive. Justification is monergistic in the sense that God is the only effectual cause of it. However, justification is synergistic in the sense that man does something active—he believes—and this is still active even if it is an action led by the Holy Spirit in us. Likewise, sanctification is monergistic in the sense that God is the only effectual cause of it, and sanctification is synergistic in the sense that man does something active—he does good works—and these are works he does even if the Holy Spirit in man leads man to do the good works.

Robbins’ Critique
When the Trinity Foundation reprinted Clark’s Predestination, John Robbins added a lengthy footnote arguing that “Dr. Clark errs in two ways.” Robbins noted “First, the Bible emphatically teaches salvation by faith alone.” He then quoted a number of scripture verses and argued, “We see in these verses that justification is not an aspect of salvation on par with other aspects, but is so identified with salvation that the terms are interchanged repeatedly. To be justified – to be declared righteous because of the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness – is to be saved. All else – sanctification, good works, glorification – flow from that.” [It is interesting to note however that in none of the verses Robbins quoted on this first point does the word “salvation” occur; but only the word “saved.”] Robbins’ footnote continued, “Second, Dr. Clark errs when he says that sanctification ‘consists of works which we do’ and “of external actions initiated by internal volitions’ and that ‘we do things that produce sanctification.’ All these statements are in error. Sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit, it is not something we do, nor is it the result of something we do.”

When Clark made his original point (that the Bible teaches justification by faith alone and not salvation by faith alone) he was using the term “salvation” to encompass all the aspects of the ordo salutis (including: justification, regeneration, sanctification, and glorification). Clark writes,

“It must also be noted that salvation has several aspects. Some people say, “I was saved on December 31 at 6:05 p.m.” If the statement is true, it can mean only that they were regenerated at that time. But sanctification and eventually glorification are also parts of salvation. Therefore, when Paul says, “work out your own salvation,” thereby indicating a process, he is referring to sanctification not regeneration. Once again this ties in with God’s beginning a work that proceeds to completion. In this process, as is absolutely not the case in regeneration or justification, we have some work to do. And God works in us, not only to do such work, but beforehand to will to do such work.” – Clark, Philippians p. 74.


“If Christians would be more particular in their use of words, they would escape many unnecessary misunderstandings. Salvation is a very broad term, and its phases are so diverse that what is true of one phase is not true of another. No doubt it is necessary on occasion to speak of salvation taken in its entirety, but it is more frequently necessary to focus attention on some part. For this reason the Christian should know—should have learned in Sunday School—the correct definitions of regeneration, justification, repentance, sanctification, and glorification. These are all parts of salvation, but not all have happened once for all. Regeneration is an instantaneous, subjective, moral change; justification is an instantaneous, objective, forensic change. Repentance and sanctification are subjective but not instantaneous.” – Clark, New Heavens, New Earth, p. 21. (see also p. 77)

Robbins, on the other hand, argued that salvation and justification are so intertwined that they are used interchangeably in the Scriptures. Since, as I noted before, God alone is the effective cause of salvation, and since the other stages of the ordo salutis necessarily follow that justification of God, it certainly is acceptable to say salvation is by grace alone / faith alone in such a way. That is, when one uses “salvation” to refer to justification, man’s salvation is by grace alone / faith alone. But when one uses “salvation” to refer to the entire ordo salutis it is not accurate to say “salvation is by grace alone / faith alone” because sanctification, which involves good works, is an element of the ordo salutis.

So, it seems to me, Robbins first disagreement with Clark is based merely on different use of the terms. And although justification and salvation are sometimes used interchangeably in Scripture, they are not always used so.

Robbins’ second critique of Clark (that sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit, it is not something we do) again seems to be based on a terminological difference between the two men. Perhaps if Clark had said “works enabled by sanctification” Robbins would have agreed.

But, if, as per Robbins, man’s good works are not part of the meaning of sanctification but only flow out of being sanctified by the Holy Spirit, how are we to “work out our own salvation?”

How does this view differ from John Piper?
Other than some terminological difficulties, Clark and Robbins essentially agree with each other. And I agree with them. But the position John Piper holds is quite different, and dangerously so.

Much of the present conversations about sanctification have arisen due in large part to John Piper’s recent blog article, “Does God Really Save Us by Faith Alone?” (
Of issue is that Piper wrote,

“In final salvation at the last judgment, faith is confirmed by the sanctifying fruit it has born, and we are saved through that fruit and that faith. As Paul says in Thessalonians 2:13, ‘God chose you as the firstfruits being saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.’”

He further notes,

“Paul calls this effect or fruit or evidence of faith the “work of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:11) and the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26). These works of faith, and this obedience of faith, these fruits of the Spirit that come by faith, are necessary for our final salvation.”

Each of these two quotes from Piper’s blog post makes works necessary to salvation.  This is where Piper diverges from Reformed orthodoxy which holds that works are not necessary for salvation. While works are ordinarily present in Christians and to be encouraged, works are by no means absolutely necessary for salvation, nor are they a cause of salvation. The thief on the cross is the go-to example. If works are “necessary for our final salvation” how can Jesus say that the thief on the cross—who had no opportunity to produce fruit—will enter paradise?

I strongly recommend Tim Shaughnessy and Timothy F. Kaufmann’s article here: They show that Piper’s recent misstep has been his position for a number of years, and that Piper seriously misunderstands the Bible’s teaching that good works merit future rewards, but do not merit justification.

20 thoughts on “Sanctification: Clark, Robbins, and Piper”

  1. Charles Hodge writes, “…although sanctification does not exclude all cooperation on the part of its subjects, but, on the contrary, calls for their unremitting and strenuous exertion, it is nevertheless the work of God..” (Systematic Theology, Volume III, Eerdmans, reprinted 1975, p. 226)

  2. Hi Douglas,
    Are you familiar with N.T. Wright’s view of works indicating salvation at the judgment? It sounds much like Piper’s view. I have not fully analyzed either Wright or Piper and am responding to what you have written. Piper’s stand seems related somewhat to Wright’s position but I would need to investigate further to determine the case exactly.

    1. Unfortunately I am all too familiar with N. T. Wright, his “New Perspective on Paul” and the similar error of “Federal Vision.” It is a denial of the gospel and called a heresy by R. C. Sproul, Michael Horton, and others.
      I think you are right that Piper’s view sounds somewhat like Wright’s. The irony is, I think that Piper has critiqued Wright’s view in the past.

      1. Along this regard about the New Perspective, I hope to get a transcript of Charles Lee Irons presentation at Phoenix Seminary. Will you tune in or look forward to hearing about his talk?

  3. “Although growth in grace is divinely energize, I would not suggest for a moment that the Christian is to be passive in his spiritual growth. To the contrary, he is to be fully and consciously engaged in his sanctification. Peter calls upon the Christian to be ‘diligent to make his calling and election certain.’ by practicing moral excellence, self-control, perseverance, godliness, and brotherly kindness (2 Peter 1:5-10), and Paul counsels Christians ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2:12). We could fill several passages with passages with this same emphasis (see for example, Rom. 12:1-3, 9-21; 13:7-14; 2 Cor. 7:1; Gal 13:1-9; James 1:19-27; 2:14-26; 3:13-18; 1 Peter 1:13-25; 2:11-17; 2 Pet. 3:14-18; 1 John 2:3-11; 3:17-24). But in the very context where Paul urges the Philippian Christian to work out his salvation, Paul reminds him that he does so ‘because it is God who is working in you, both to will and to to work in behalf of his good pleasure.” – Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2nd edition, p 779.

  4. A. A. Hodge, in agreement with his father Charles, writes, “It must be remembered that while the subject is passive with respect to that divine act of grace whereby he is regenerated, after he is regenerated he cooperates with the Holy Ghost in the work of sanctification. The Holy Ghost gives the grace, and prompts and directs in its exercise, and the soul exercises it. Thus while sanctification is a grace, it is also a duty; and the soul is both bound and encouraged to use with diligence, in dependence upon the Holy Spirit, all the means for its spiritual renovation, and to form those habits resisting evil and of right action in which sanctification so largely consists.”

  5. “many people confuse regeneration and sanctification. Regeneration is exclusively God’s work, and it is an act of His free grace in which He implants a new principle of spiritual life in the soul. It is performed by supernatural power and is complete in an instant. On the other hand, sanctification is a process through which the remains of sin in the outward life are gradually removed . . . It is a joint work of God and man” – Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination , 172.

  6. Doug, thanks for your article. It is clear to me if one reads Clark on this point of sanctification, there is no confusion. Clark went to great links to be clear with the language he used. Salvation is never complete in this life until we are glorified. I wonder if Robbins was afraid that some of the language Clark used may lead to a denial of Justification by faith alone? I for one will not read any of Clark’s works that have been edited by John Robbins. He should have left Clark’s book on Predestination alone and simply wrote a review or critique if he did not agree. Of course, Clark clearly believed in justification by faith alone, but there is a link between both justification and sanctification, which completes the believers salvation. As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, there is still error over the doctrine of salvation, even among Protestants.

    1. I would only say to this: Read the Bible like the ploughboy, not the scholar. Dr. Robbins gets the ploughboy perspective entirely correct and understands the scholars to correct or refute them.

  7. “So long as the false and narrow idea prevailed that a man was justified after conversion on the ground of his apparent holiness, justification could not precede sanctification, but must follow it. Then man becomes first holy, and, as a reward or as a recognition of his holiness, he is declared righteous. Hence sanctification is first, and justification second; a justification, therefore, without any value, for what is the use of declaring that a ball is round?
    The Scripture refuses to acknowledge a posterior justification. In Scripture, justification is always the starting point. All other things spring from it and follow it. “Christ was made unto us wisdom and righteousness,” and only then “sanctification and redemption.” (1 Cor. i. 30) “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we also have access.” (Rom. v. 1)
    “Being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. iii. 24) And, “Whom He called, them He also justified; and whom He justified, them He also glorified.” (Rom. viii. 30)
    For this reason the Reformation made justification by faith the starting-point for the conscience, and by this confession bravely and energetically opposed Rome’s justification by good works; for in this justification by good works that priority of sanctification found its root.”
    Abraham Kuyper

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  10. Here is an additional quote of Clark’s showing that he uses the term “salvation” at times to refer to the entire order salutis.
    “Salvation has several elements, including regeneration, justification, sanctification, glorification. But they are different elements. What is true of one may not be true of another.” – “Concerning Justification” Christianity Today, Mar. 16, 1973.

  11. WCF 14, 1: The grace of faith, whereby the elect ARE ENABLED TO BELIEVE to the saving of their souls, IS THE WORK OF THE SPIRIT OF CHIRST in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.
    The confession properly teaches both (1) that faith is the work of God, and (2) that man is made to believe; that is, man believes. God does not believe for man, but enables man to believe.

  12. “The title Salvation is doubtless too broad as an accurate indication of this chapter’s contents. But it is not so narrow as one of its common uses. Some untutored people use the term as a synonym for regeneration. They speak of someone or themselves as being “saved” at a certain time, without having in mind any notion of justification or sanctification. Salvation, however, includes these. It is regeneration plus all the spiritual blessings that succeed upon it. For this reason salvation is incomplete without resurrection and glorification in heaven.” – Gordon H. Clark, Salvation, Introduction to the Theology.

  13. “If Christians would be more particular in their use of words, they would escape many unnecessary misunderstandings. Salvation is a very broad term, and its phases are so diverse that what is true of one phase is not true of another. No doubt it is necessary on occasion to speak of salvation taken in its entirety, but it is more frequently necessary to focus attention on some part. For this reason the Christian should know—should have learned in Sunday School—the correct definitions of regeneration, justification, repentance, sanctification, and glorification. These are all parts of salvation, but not all have happened once for all. Regeneration is an instantaneous, subjective, moral change; justification is an instantaneous, objective, forensic change. Repentance and sanctification are subjective but not instantaneous.” – Gordon H. Clark, “Peter Speaks Today,” 1967, p. 15.

  14. “Here in 2:2 Peter says we grow into salvation. Frequently in colloquial English salvation is used as an equivalent of regeneration. Since regeneration is not a growth, but the absolute beginning of a new life, it is obvious that these two usages of ‘salvation’ are different. And because what is true of one meaning is not true of another meaning, people are often confused by careless Bible teachers who dislike accurate definitions. It is of course impossible at this date to remake the English language, but each Christian for himself can avoid confusion if he will use the terms regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification, and refuse to use the term salvation except when intending to include all these phases of salvation under one concept. Then he can see that regeneration is instantaneous, but salvation is a process; justification is by faith alone, but salvation requires works, and yet salvation is all of grace, for God bestows the life and strength to do the works.” – Gordon H. Clark, “Peter Speaks Today,” 1967, p. 74-75.

  15. “The next instance of Eudokia is in Philippians 2:13 where Paul tells us to work out our own salvation. If this command seems strange to us because we are so conscious that salvation is of grace, we must remember that justification issues in sanctification and sanctification is a process of mortifying the inclinations of the flesh and striving after personal righteousness. All this is something we do, with much effort, as John Bunyan described so well in Pilgrim’s Progress. Nonetheless it is all by grace for as we work out our own salvation it is God who works in us. God’s work here consists of two parts: he enables us to do good deeds, but first he enables us to will those deeds; and both of these divine workings are of his good pleasure, as he sees fit, but his sovereign decree.” – Gordon H. Clark, Predestination, p. 73.

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