J.C. Ryle on Justification and Sanctification: A Response to Pastor Phelps

Back in December 2012, Pastor Tony Phelps briefly discussed (here) a quote by J.C. Ryle, commenting on Luke 7:35-50, that he claims supports the idea that justification has “priority…in our sanctification.” Now, I’m not sure what he means by this, but given the quote I suppose he means something like this: Sanctification is the result of the preaching, teaching and personal contemplation on justification by faith. Stated differently, Christians should be less concerned with their “performance” and more concerned with their status as justified in Christ. Expanding and deepening one’s perspective on the reality and status of justification in Christ is the means of sanctification.

The context of the Ryle quote seems to suggest, however, that Ryle is more interested in the order in salvation, not so much the means and cause. In the context, writes: “Forgiveness must go before sanctification. We shall do nothing until we are reconciled to God.” And this explains what he means by “We must work from life, and not for life.” But I do admit that a small portion of Ryle’s statements seems, at first glance, to support his contention. However, if Pastor Phelps is correct about Ryle’s intended meaning, then Ryle clearly contradicts himself in his book Holiness, as the following quotes show (all quotes from the Introduction).

As to the phrase “holiness of faith,” I find it nowhere in the New Testament. Without controversy, in the matter of our justification before God, faith in Christ is the one thing needful. All that simply believe are justified. Righteousness is imputed “to him that worketh not but believeth.” ( Romans 4:5.) It is thoroughly Scriptural and right to say “faith alone justifies.” But it is not equally Scriptural and right to say “faith alone sanctifies.” The saying requires very large qualification. Let one fact suffice. We are frequently told that a man is “justified by faith without the works of the law,” by St. Paul. But not once are we told that we are “sanctified by faith without the deeds of the law.” On the contrary, we are expressly told by St. James that the faith whereby we are visibly and demonstratively justified before man, is a faith which “if it hath not works is dead, being alone.” * ( James 2:17.)

That faith in Christ is the root of all holiness; that the first step toward a holy life is to believe on Christ; that until we believe we have not a joy of holiness; that union with Christ by faith is the secret of both beginning to be holy and continuing holy; that the life that we live in the flesh, we must live by the faith of the Son of God; that faith purifies the heart; that faith is the victory which overcome the world; that by faith the elders obtained a good report– all these are truths which no well-instructed Christians will ever think of denying. But surely the Scriptures teach us that in following holiness the true Christian needs personal exertion and work as well as faith. The very same Apostle who says in one place, “The life that I live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God,” says in another place, “I fight–I run–I keep under my body;” and in other places, “Let us cleanse ourselves–let us labour, let us lay aside every weight.” ( Galatians 2:20; 1 Corinthians 9:26; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Hebrews 4:11; Hebrews 12:1.) Moreover, the Scriptures nowhere teach us that faith sanctifies us in the same sense, and in the same manner, that faith justifies us! Justifying faith is a grace that “worketh not,” but simply trusts, rests, and leans on Christ. ( Romans 4:5.)

Again it would be easy to show that the doctrine of sanctification without personal exertion, by simply “yielding ourselves to God,” is precisely the doctrine of the antinomian fanatics in the seventeenth century (to whom I have referred already, described in Rutherford’s Spiritual Antichrist), and that the tendency of it is evil in the extreme.–Again, it would be easy to show that the doctrine is utterly subversive of the whole teaching of such tried and approved books as Pilgrim’s Progress, and that if we receive it we cannot do better then put Bunyan’s old book in the fire! If Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress simply yielded himself to God, and never fought, or struggled, or wrestled, I have read the famous allegory in vain. But the plain truth is, that men will persist in confounding two things that differ–that is, justification and sanctification. In justification the word to address to man is believe–only believe; in sanctification the word must be “watch, pray, and fight.” What God has divided let us not mingle and confuse.

In these sentences, Ryle is clearly arguing that dwelling and striving to expand and deepen one’s perspective on his justification by faith is not a sufficient condition for sanctification. It might be a necessary condition, which accounts for Pastor Phelps quote, but it is clearly not a sufficient condition for sanctification. Nor is Ryle simply calling for Christians to strive for good works; he is calling for them to actively strive toward progression in their sanctification. Christians, according to Ryle, are to be active in perfecting holiness, for without holiness no man shall see the Lord.

3 replies on “J.C. Ryle on Justification and Sanctification: A Response to Pastor Phelps”

  1. Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for your interaction with my post from Dec 2012. Let me try to explain what I mean by the priority of justification, and how I think the quote from Ryle supports that. But first, let me clarify what I don’t mean. I do not believe we are sanctified by “getting used to our justification.” I do not believe that preaching justification is the sole means of sanctification. Rather, I believe that apprehension of our free justification by faith alone in Christ alone has significant pastoral priority in our sanctification. By “pastoral priority,” I mean our justification is a primary source of comfort and strength in the warfare of sanctification.

    Exegetically, I derive this from Romans 7:13-8:4. I hold to the traditional, Reformed exegesis (e.g., as held to by the Westminster divines) that Paul here describes his Christian experience – the abiding reality of the flesh despite a true delight in the Law of God in the inner man. If not for the present reality and future hope of the Gospel, we would be driven to despair (“Wretched man that I am!”). Instead, Paul is comforted by the future hope of ultimate deliverance (glorification) and the present reality of gratuitous justification (“There is therefore now no condemnation…”).

    From a confessional perspective, I believe this pastoral priority of justification is found, for example, in WLC 97, where the moral law “shows [the regenerate] how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead…”, and we are thereby provoked to “more thankfulness, and to express the same in [our] greater care to conform [ourselves] thereunto as the rule of [our] obedience.” I also note that immediately after a robust exposition of the Ten Commandments, WLC 149-154 reminds us of our inability to keep the Law perfectly, degrees of heinousness to sin, what sin deserves, why we need Christ’s blood, and how we can escape the wrath & curse due to us for sin by repentance toward God, faith toward Christ, and a diligent use of the means of grace (word, sacraments, and prayer). I think this demonstrates the pastoral wisdom of the divines, as they point us back to Christ’s work for us and the means of grace when we see our sin in light of God’s good and holy Law.

    Another confessional example would be Belgic Confession, Article 24, “Man’s Sanctification and Good Works.” This section asserts the fruitfulness of faith, and that justifying faith is necessary if we are to do anything out of true love for God instead of out of self-interest or fear of damnation. Faith works through love, and excites us to do good works. Our works which proceed from the root of faith are graciously accepted by God, but do not count towards our justification. The tree must be good before it can bear good fruit. Our good works do not merit favor from God, but instead God’s reward is by grace as “He crowns His gifts.” Finally, BC 24 reminds us that all our works are polluted by our flesh and worthy of punishment. Notice how it concludes: “Thus, then, we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be continually vexed if they relied not on the merits of the suffering and death of our Savior.”

    I believe all of the above is in line with the Ryle quote I originally shared. He is talking about the experiential, pastoral application of justification as necessary in our sanctification (“to know and feel that Christ has pardoned our sins,” “the heart which has experienced the pardoning love of Christ”).

    To be clear, I do not believe that sanctification is by faith alone, or solely by the contemplation of our justification. I believe we actively participate in our sanctification by grace-enabled repentance toward God, faith in Christ, and the diligent use of the Word, sacraments, and prayer. Further, we are always responsible to actively perform all the duties required of us in God’s commandments. But since the Law addresses not only our outward duties, but also exposes our still sinful hearts, we must always resort to the sweet comfort of Christ’s blood and righteousness in the midst of the warfare of sanctification.

    I hope the above serves to clarify what I mean when I speak of the pastoral priority of justification in our sanctification, and how Ryle’s quote reflects that. As John Gerstner once said, “I don’t mind dying for what I believe; but I’d rather not die for what I don’t believe!”


    1. Pastor Phelps,

      Thank you for your reply. I placed your post on Ryle in the context of your other posts, especially your post here. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that. As to your comments above, I largely agree with you. No one, to my knowledge, would question that justification has a unique and significant pastoral priority in the warfare of sanctification. As we strive to conform to the image of Christ (the embodiment of the Law, in a sense) we recognize our deficiencies, our falling short and our heinous sin. In this way, we flee to Christ our perfect substitute, the only one who ever met the righteous demands of God. This is a useful pastoral way of dealing with sanctification, but I would like to continue the discussion by addressing some other things you’ve written.

      The issue, given your other posts on sanctification, Lutheranism, and good works, is what I see as a failure to make an important distinction. While it is true that there is a strict dichotomy between Law and Gospel with regard to justification (that is, one’s ultimate right standing before God), there is no such dichotomy between Law and Gospel with regard to sanctification. Zacharias Ursinus touches on this when he says, “The law alone, without the gospel, is the letter [that kills]… But when it is joined with the gospel, which is the Spirit, it also commences to become the Spirit, which is effectual in the godly, inasmuch as those who are regenerated commence willingly and cheerfully to yield obedience to the law.” So, in other words, there is a sense in which the Law as spiritual (not just as condemnatory) is contained in the concept of the Gospel itself. This is an important distinction to make, and I’ve seen many Lutherans and Lutheran-minded Calvinists fail to make it: The law, in the relation to the covenant of works, only condemns, but the law in relation to the sanctification is part of the gospel life, part of the good news. In sanctification, there is no law/gospel dichotomy.

      I think that you fail to make this distinction in your post cited above. You said: “So stop looking into the mirror of the Law for God’s approval. You will either deny the ugly, sinful reflection you see staring back at you – or you will once again despair of ever pleasing God with your ugly mug. Look instead into the mirror of the Gospel and see the perfect righteousness of Christ staring back at you. You are justified in Him. He is your righteousness. God is well-pleased with you, as you are united by faith to His Beloved Son. As a result, you are free. You can forget about yourself, and quit your narcissistic obsession about how you look before God and others. You can begin to give yourself more fully to your neighbor in love – to the glory of God. And lo and behold, by means of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit generates the fruit of self-giving love – the essence of God’s holy Law.”

      It seems to me that you’re conflating issues here. We are not to look at our works for God’s approval in relation to the covenant of works (that is, the strict law/gospel dichotomy), because we will never measure up. We will never meet God’s approval with regards to the covenant of works apart from the work of Christ. Justification by faith, as the instrument by which God imputes the righteousness of Christ, fulfills that demand. But we should be very clear: the gospel is not to be reduced to justification alone. When one becomes a Christian he enters a new relationship with the law; the law is now spiritual to him, for he is essentially spiritual. With regard to the Christian’s sanctification there is no law/gospel dichotomy. And God has told us not only that we must be holy but that true Christians will be holy. This means that with regards to sanctification, one must look into the mirror of the law for God’s approval to see whether or not God is pleased with us with regards to our progression in perfecting holiness. We should not forget about ourselves or quit our “narcissistic obsession” about how we look before God. Of course, God is ultimately pleased with us by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, but there is a sense in which God has condescended to be pleased with our feeble works. Wayne Grudem writes, “God’s favor is often directly related to our obedience — obedience which has been made possible by Christ’s great salvation and his power at work within us.” Ryle writes: “Your endeavors to do good to others, however feeble, are written in His book of remembrance. The least cup of cold water given in His name shall not lose its reward. He does not forget your work and labor of love, however little the world may regard it.” So, again, there must be a distinction between God as ultimately pleased by our justification and God as pleased by our striving in sanctification. The former is a demand of righteous perfection and the latter is a demand for a feeble, though active, attempt at perfect holiness; and this holiness is a condition of final salvation.

      There are many verses that state, quite explicitly, that God is pleased with good works despite them being tainted with sin:

      The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord . .
      how to be holy in body and spirit. (1 Cor. 7:32, 34)

      . . . try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. (Eph. 5:10)

      . . . it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil. 2:13)

      . . . I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God (Phil. 4:18).

      . . . walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Col. 1:10)

      Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. (Col. 3:20)

      . . . we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. (1 Thess. 4:1)

      [Grateful prayer] is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior. (1 Tim. 2:3) But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God (1 Tim. 5:4).

      . . . Now before [Enoch] was taken he was commended as having pleased God (Heb. 11:5).

      And without faith it is impossible to please him . . . (Heb. 11:6; cf. Rom. 8:8-9, which implies that believers who are not “in the flesh” can please God)

      Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Heb. 13:21)

      And whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. (1 John 3:22)

      Children, obey your parents in everything for this pleases the Lord. (Col. 3:20) Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Heb. 13:16

      and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. (1 John 3:22)

      But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents for this is pleasing in the sight of God. (1 Tim. 5:4)

      And there are verses stating that God accepts our works:

      I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable [Gk. euarestos] to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable [Gk. euarestos] and perfect. (Rom. 12:1-2)

      Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable [Gk. euarestos] to God and approved by men (Rom. 14:18)

      . . . let us offer to God acceptable [Gk. euarestos, the related adverb] worship, with reverence and awe. (Heb. 12:28)

      John Owen wrote: “If any such there are, or ever were, who maintain such an imputation of the righteousness of Christ unto us as should render our own personal obedience unnecessary, they do overthrow the truth and holiness of the gospel. And to say that we have such supplies of internal strength as to render the imputation of the righteousness of Christ unto our justification unnecessary, is to overthrow the grace of the gospel and the new covenant itself. But this alone we say, There is grace administered by the promises of the gospel, enabling us to perform the obedience of it in that way and manner which God will accept.”

      My point here is that there is a sense in which Christians, even in their feeble and sinful works, can please God (or displease God by falling under his “fatherly displeasure, WCF 11.5). So we must look ourselves in the mirror and see whether or not we are pleasing God by our works; and we must strive to please God by our works. In a very important sense, our performance matters to God. So we should be “obsessed” with how we look before God. John Owen even wrote: “[There is, through grace,] kept up in believers a constant and ordinarily prevailing will of doing good, notwithstanding the power and efficacy of indwelling sin to the contrary… In believers there is a will of doing good, an habitual disposition and inclination in their wills unto that which is spiritually good.” If Owen is right, then seeing our sanctification in the mirror is not only important to see whether we are pleasing God, but also whether we are believers at all. So, again, performance matters. How our sanctification looks in the mirror matters, both in pleasing God and in the assurance of justifying faith.

      You might say “amen and amen” to all this, but I don’t think it is that simple. John Calvin wrote: “Those whom the Lord has destined by his mercy for the inheritance of eternal life he leads into possession of it, according to his ordinary dispensation, by means of good works” (Institutes 3.14.21). John Davenant wrote: “Good works are necessary to the salvation of the justified by a necessity of order, not of causality; or more plainly, as the way appointed to eternal life, not as the meritorious cause of eternal life.” In the Reformed tradition, good works are a necessary condition of final salvation. So, again, performance matters. A justified child of God is a performer of godliness. One must, then, see himself before the mirror of God’s law with regards to sanctification (not the covenant of works) and”measure up” his life to see if God is working. If God is not working, there ought to be a legitimate fear of damnation.

      Thank you again for commenting on my post.



      1. Stephen, I’m looking at your post on Robert Traill and also your Facebook discussion there, as well as the discussion here.

        Are you familiar with Horton’s work “Covenant and Salvation”? (Volume 3 of his 4-volume set). Following Bavinck and Bruce McCormack, he says “To be sure, the Reformers and their heirs continued to use the language of new qualities infused. However, as Bavinck points out above, they gave such terminology a new meaning. With McCormack, I am suggesting that the terminology of infused habits should be abandoned” (pg 197).

        He makes this suggestion because of the obvious opportunities for confusion as to precisely what is meant by “infusion” or what it is that is being “infused”. I’ve not read Ryle, and don’t know what the connection is with Tullian (I like his characterizations, generally), and Scott Clark seems to like Tullian’s characterization.

        It seems as if Traill, at least, uses that language.

        I wholly agree that “holiness of life” becomes more and more the state of affairs with the believer. But I’m less sanguine about whether or not we can or should try to keep score, and I’m with Horton in wanting to ditch the “terminology of infused habits”.

        Horton later relates, “The indisputable point is that [the Reformers and Protestant orthodoxy both] regarded imputation as the judicial basis of the ordo salutis, refusing to collapse imputation into an essential union…” and “The indisputable point is that they understood imputation as the sole basis for their objective righteousness, regardless of how they spoke of the order.”

        “That being said, McCormack’s point (‘the terminology of infused habits should be abandoned’) seems all the more plausible. While the Reformers’ doctrine of justification ran against the grain of medieval ontology, placing the whole ordo salutis on an entirely different ontological map redrawn by forensic justification”, Horton suggests that the task of fleshing out this “ontological map” “remains an unfinished task even beyond the superb refinements of the Reformation and post-Reformation era”.

        You say here, “If God is not working, there ought to be a legitimate fear of damnation”. However, the message that Tony and Tullian seem to be making is that God will work this work of sanctification as well, whether or not we “look in the mirror” or how we judge what we see “looking in the mirror”.

        An article on this at Monergism.com says “The best understanding of [sanctification] from a biblical perspective, then, is that we need to, in light of the gospel, exert ourselves in prayer, evangelism, good works relying wholly on God for the reality of our new life in Christ.”

        It seems to me that the language of “infused habits” leads to some confusion, particularly over what “holiness of life” actually entails.

        You say, “My point here is that there is a sense in which Christians, even in their feeble and sinful works, can please God (or displease God by falling under his “fatherly displeasure”, WCF 11.5). So we must look ourselves in the mirror and see whether or not we are pleasing God by our works; and we must strive to please God by our works.”

        I would agree with most of that, except I would disagree that we are able genuinely to determine “whether or not we are pleasing God” with any given “work”, and that looking at it from that standpoint is bound to be frustrating for the believer.

        I genuinely think that this kind of disagreement that you are having here with Tony stems less from any genuine disagreement about what God actually effects (monergistically) and more from some of the language that’s used to characterize such things.


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