Sanctification and its Means

Some concerns have been raised in regards to my last article “Sanctification: Clark, Robbins, and Piper.”

Any concern there over the use of the term “synergism” in reference to the doctrines of sanctification and justification I believe I have adequately addressed in that article, and so shall not do so further here. Only, I should say as I did before, don’t let the use of the term deceive you into thinking it has anything to do with Arminianism.

Another concern that has been raised, however, is one that I did not adequately address in the original article. This concern is in regards to the question of whether God sanctifies man through means, particularly through the means of the good works He does in us. This follow-up article intends to address that question.

The question more generally might best be asked in two parts.

1: “Is Sanctification immediate or mediate?”


2: “By what means does God sanctify man?”

In this context, by “immediate” it is meant “without means” and by “mediate” it is meant “via means.”

[Note that there is another, possibly more common, way in which the term “immediate sanctification” is used. That is, it is often used in the sense that one is sanctified without time having passed after first becoming a Christian. Thus, this “immediate sanctification” is contrasted with the “progressive sanctification” that occurs over time. This type of “immediate sanctification” should not be confused with the use of the term in this article]

Charles Hodge, who Gordon Clark considered “by far the best of all American theologians,” well explains the answer to both questions in a concise way. He writes,

“The Spirit renders the ordinances of God, the word, sacraments, and prayer, effectual means of promoting the sanctification of his people.” – Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume 3, Eerdmans, Reprinted 1975, p. 231.

Hodge is clear: Yes, God effectually uses means for sanctification. Hodge then gives a list—albeit not an exhaustive one—of those means: the word, sacraments, and prayer. The Westminster Larger Catechism, Question and Answer 154 lists these same means. It reads:

“The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation.

Sanctification surely is included in the “benefits of his mediation” when the catechism (Question and Answer 57) notes “Christ, by his mediation, hath procured redemption, with all other benefits of the covenant of grace.” (See also Q&A 69 which includes sanctification among that which “members of the invisible church” partake in due to “the communion in grace.”) Therefore, these “ordinary means” can rightly be called “means of sanctification.”

The Word and Sanctification
The first of the means of sanctification Hodge (and the catechism) notes is the Word, the Scriptures. That the Scriptures are a means of sanctification is most clear in John 17:17 – “Sanctify them through thy word: thy word is truth.”

Hodge further notes,

“The sacred writers, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are exuberant in their praise of the Word of God, as its power was revealed in their own experience. ‘The law of the Lord’ says the Psalmist, ‘is perfect, converting the soul.’ (Ps. xix. 7.) By the law of the Lord is meant the whole revelation which God has made in his Word to determine the faith, form the character, and control the conduct of men. It is this revelation which the Psalmist pronounces perfect, that is perfectly adapted to accomplish the end of man’s sanctification and salvation. ‘Thy word, he says, ‘is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.’ (Ps. cxix. 105.)” – Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume 3, Eerdmans, Reprinted 1975, p. 467-8.

and he concludes,

“There can, therefore, be no doubt that the Scriptures teach that the Word of God is the specially appointed means for the sanctification and salvation of men.” – Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume 3, Eerdmans, Reprinted 1975, p. 468.

The Scriptures, therefore, as Hodge notes, are very clear that God uses at least this one means—the Scriptures themselves—to effect sanctification. The Word is the primary means, the “specially appointed means” for sanctification.

The Sacraments and Sanctification
The second of the means of sanctification Hodge (and the Catechism) notes is the sacraments, baptism and holy communion.

The sacraments, along with the Word, are often called “the means of Grace.” The means of Grace are not themselves the cause of sanctification (nor of justification). Rather they are the channels through which faith is strengthened and Grace is effected.

About the sacraments the Westminster Larger Catechism, Question and Answer 162 notes,

“A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ in his church, to signify, seal, and exhibit unto those that are within the covenant of grace, the benefits of his mediation; to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces; to oblige them to obedience; to testify and cherish their love and communion one with another; and to distinguish them from those that are without.”

That is, according to the catechism, there are ends (to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces; to oblige them to obedience, etc.) to which the sacraments (the means) are intended. That the sacraments are a means of grace is affirmed in that the catechism includes in the purposes of the sacraments “to strengthen their faith, and all other graces.”

Prayer and Sanctification
The third of means of sanctification Hodge (and the catechism) notes is prayer.

There certainly are prayers for sanctification in the Scriptures (Psalm 141, 1 Thessalonians 5:23). When these prayers are answered they have functioned as a means of sanctification. To deny the mediacy of prayer is to deny its effectiveness.

Good Works and Sanctification
The catechism lists the Word, sacraments, and prayer as especial among the “ordinary means.” That is, other means may also be used by God. Might “good works” be included in these other means? Prayer is a good work and it is included even in the enumerated especial means. So at least some good works—prayers—can be means of sanctification. All three of the “especial means,” in fact, are included with other good works or “duties required” in Westminster Larger Catechism, Question and Answer 108. It reads,

“The duties required in the second commandment are, the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his word; particularly prayer and thanksgiving in the name of Christ; the reading, preaching, and hearing of the word; the administration and receiving of the sacraments; church government and discipline; the ministry and maintenance thereof; religious fasting; swearing by the name of God, and vowing unto him: as also the disapproving, detesting, opposing, all false worship; and, according to each one’s place and calling, removing it, and all monuments of idolatry.”

These other good works or “duties” (worship, church government and discipline, fasting, etc.) are less commonly used means of sanctification than the word, sacraments, and prayer, but means they still are.

The means of sanctification are not effectual causes of sanctification. Rather, they are secondary or instrumental causes, like how a plow turns over the soil when it is pushed by a farmer or a how pencil writes on paper when an author sets to his work. While God mediates His grace through instrumental causes it remains His grace itself that effectually causes sanctification. And so, Soli Deo Gloria!

Postscript: A survey of Reformed theologians in the past confirms the historic orthodoxy of understanding “good works” as among the instrumental causes of sanctification.

John Calvin (1509 – 1564):

“The origin and efficient cause of our salvation lie in the heavenly Father’s love; the matter and substance in Christ’s obedience; the instrument in the Holy Spirit’s illumination, that is, in faith; and the finality in the glory of God’s goodness. That does not prevent God from accepting works as less causes. But how does that happen? In his normal dispensation, he leads those whom in his mercy he has predestined to eternal life to lay hold of their inheritance through good works. – John Calvin [Institutes 3.14.20]

J. C. Ryle (1816 – 1900):

“Sanctification, again, is a thing which depends greatly on a diligent use of Scriptural means. When I speak of “means,” I have in view Bible-reading, private prayer, regular attendance on public worship, regular hearing of God’s Word, and regular reception of the Lord’s Supper. I lay it down as a simple matter of fact, that no one who is careless about such things must ever expect to make much progress in sanctification. I can find no record of any eminent saint who ever neglected them. They are appointed channels through which the Holy Spirit conveys fresh supplies of grace to the soul, and strengthens the work which He has begun in the inward man. Let men call this legal doctrine if they please, but I will never shrink from declaring my belief that there are no “spiritual gains without pains.” I should as soon expect a farmer to prosper in business who contented himself with sowing his fields and never looking at them till harvest, as expect a believer to attain much holiness who was not diligent about his Bible- reading, his prayers, and the use of his Sundays. Our God is a God who works by means, and He will never bless the soul of that man who pretends to be so high and spiritual that he can get on without them.” (Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots. p. 20-21)

W.G.T Shedd (1820 – 1894):

The believer cooperates with God the Spirit in the use of the means of sanctification. Sanctification is both a grace and a duty….. Regeneration, being a sole work of God is not a duty. It is nowhere enjoined upon man to regenerate himself”.

A. A. Hodge (1823 – 1886):

The evangelical doctrine of sanctification common to the Lutheran and Reformed Churches includes the following points: (1) The soul after regeneration continues dependent upon the constant gracious operations of the Holy Spirit, but is, through grace, able to co-operate with them. (2) The sanctifying operations of the Spirit are supernatural, and yet effected in connection with and through the instrumentality of means: the means of sanctification being either internal, such as faith and the co-operation of the regenerated will with grace, or external, such as the word of God, sacraments, prayer, Christian fellowship, and the providential discipline of our heavenly Father. (3) In this process the Spirit gradually completes the work of moral purification commenced in regeneration. The work has two sides: (a) the cleansing of the soul from sin and emancipation from its power, and (b) the development of the implanted principle of spiritual life and infused habits of grace, until the subject comes to the stature of perfect manhood in Christ. Its effect is spiritually and morally to transform the whole man, intellect, affections, and will, soul, and body. (4) The work proceeds with various degrees of thoroughness during life, but is never consummated in absolute moral perfection until the subject passes into glory. –

Louis Berkhof (1873 – 1957):

“It is a work of God in which believers co-operate. When it is said that man takes part in the work of sanctification, this does not mean that man is an independent agent in the work, so as to make it partly the work of God and partly the work of man; but merely, that God effects the work in part through the instrumentality of man as a rational being, by requiring of him prayful and intellegent co-operation with the Spirit.” – Systematic Theology.
The Word and the sacraments are in themselves means of grace; their spiritual efficacy is dependent only on the operation of the Holy Spirit. – Systematic Theology.

J.I. Packer (b.1926):

“Regeneration was a momentary monergistic act of quickening the spiritually dead. As such, it was God’s work alone. Sanctification, however, is in one sense synergistic — it is an ongoing cooperative process in which regenerate persons, alive to God and freed from sin’s dominion”

R. C. Sproul (1939-2018),

“We remember also what the apostle instructed the Philippian Christians. He said to them: ‘. . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both tot will and to do for His good pleasure’ (Phil. 2:12, 13) In this passage Paul is not teaching that election is a joint enterprise between God and man. Election is exclusively the work of God. It is, as we have seen, monergistic. Paul is speaking here about the outworking of our salvation that follows our election. He is specifically referring here to the process of our sanctification. Sanctification is not monergistic. It is synergistic. That is, it demands the cooperation of the regenerate believer.” – Chosen by God, p. 158.

R. Scott Clark (b. 1961):

It is easy to imagine that sanctification is the result of an immediate action by God upon the soul. By “immediate” I mean that the Spirit is thought to act without using means. In the history of the church more than a few people have thought this. In the early church Christians began withdrawing from the world, first by themselves and then in communities to try to become holy. What they found is that they took the world with them. Other Christians have sought access to and information from God without means—we usually describe that as mysticism. … The Reformed confessions would have us think differently, however. The Heidelberg Catechism does not begin explaining sanctification in detail until after it has completed its doctrine of the sacraments and the ministry of the Word. From its beginning, the Westminster Confession casts the Christian life as one that involves “the due use of ordinary means” (1.7). Shorter Catechism 88 closely ties our salvation, including our sanctification, to the “outward and ordinary means” by which Christ communicates to us the benefits of salvation. –

Michael Horton (b. 1964):

I find it very hard to believe that a view that says that God is the one doing the speaking even through a sinful human being—God is the one who is speaking, Christ is the one who is reconciling sinners to his Father by being present with His Word—, I’m just summarizing Romans 10, how could that possibly be considered Arminian? –

William Hendriksen

The sheep are not passive. Indeed not! They listen: they follow. But the action results from the gift. (Commentary on John’s Gospel, 10:27,28)

John Robbins, whose comments in my last article were a source of concern regarding Gordon Clark’s views, even notes a distinction in the “The Means of Sanctification” (The Trinity Review, August 1997) between “primary means” (the Holy Spirit) and “secondary means” (God’s word, the sacraments) in sanctification. (He, like A. A. Hodge, seems to include even “the benefit of Christian community” as a means of sanctification, but is not explicit on that point.) He agrees that sanctification is mediated. But while prayer is also included in the Confession, and noted by Reformed Theologians in the past and present, Robbins inexplicably fails to mention it.

4 thoughts on “Sanctification and its Means”

  1. “Both Catechisms agree in saying that [Sanctification] is the work of God’s free grace, in which the believer actively co-operates, as he works out his own salvation, God at the same time working in him both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” – Francis R. Beattie, “The Presbyterian Standards”, 1896, p. 217.

  2. “As for regeneration, man takes no part at all. He does nothing. God does something to him. Human will has no role at all. In the cases of faith and repentance, man indeed does something. Faith and repentance are mental activities, combing the intellect and the will. The man must understand and believe. But though these are things the man does, it is God who causes him to do them, and without this causality man simply could not have this state of mind. Salvation is of the Lord.” – Gordon H. Clark, Predestination, p. 109.

  3. “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.” – Romans 6;22

  4. Pingback: GHC Review 47: Sanctification | A Place for Thoughts

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