The Relationship between grace and works in Justification and Sanctification

by Robert Tarr


This paper expresses a view about a weakness in Protestant Evangelical Christianity. This view has grown inside of me to the point that I want to teach it. I believe that many/most Evangelical Christians are stunted in their growth because of a confusion surrounding grace and works. I am calling this weakness the Achilles heel of the Evangelical Church.

By “Evangelical” I mean any church or system that considers itself “Bible Believing”. These are Protestant Christians who can trace their core beliefs back to the Reformation. These systems can be Word oriented, Charismatic, visitor friendly, outwardly evangelistic, inwardly focused, preaching centered, seeking social justice, Spirit filled or any other similar variation and still fall into what I mean by “Evangelical” as long as they are teaching the main message of justification by faith. Thus they teach and practice an adult conversion to Christ through a new birth. That is, a person is “born again” by receiving the finished work of Jesus in his incarnation, atoning death and resurrection. The person then gains the forgiveness of sins, which causes him/her to become a child of God. The person “believes on Jesus” and is changed by this faith. Such a conversion is initiated by God Himself (though the person might have a season of seeking that leads up to finding the truth of the Gospel), is a free gift and is not earned by being good or trying to obey God. This conversion is real, inwardly bringing life, mirrored in Baptism, after which the person can be said to “know Jesus”, have the Law of God written on their heart, and now love God, being forgiven of sins, made alive, born again, etc. Any group or church that has this foundational teaching is what I mean by “Evangelical”.

I think that these Evangelicals attempt to get peace from God, and bear fruit for God, but for the most part fail to do so because of confusion surrounding grace and works. Growth is stunted because the truths about grace and works are confused to the point that it results in a chronic inability to have peace or bear fruit for (in/from) God.

I want to look at this confusion about grace and works in the context of 2 concepts: Justification and Sanctification.

JUSTIFICATION: Here is the definition of justification given in Easton's Bible Dictionary:

"A forensic term, opposed to condemnation. As regards its nature, it is the judicial act of God, by which he pardons all the sins of those who believe in Christ, and accounts, accepts, and treats them as righteous in the eye of the law, i.e., as conformed to all its demands. In addition to the pardon (q.v.) of sin, justification declares that all the claims of the law are satisfied in respect of the justified. It is the act of a judge and not of a sovereign. The law is not relaxed or set aside, but is declared to be fulfilled in the strictest sense; and so the person justified is declared to be entitled to all the advantages and rewards arising from perfect obedience to the law (Romans 5:1-10).

It proceeds on the imputing or crediting to the believer by God himself of the perfect righteousness, active and passive, of his Representative and Surety, Jesus Christ (Romans 10:3-9). Justification is not the forgiveness of a man without righteousness, but a declaration that he possesses a righteousness which perfectly and forever satisfies the law, namely, Christ's righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21 ; Romans 4:6-8 ).

The sole condition on which this righteousness is imputed or credited to the believer is faith in or on the Lord Jesus Christ. Faith is called a "condition," not because it possesses any merit, but only because it is the instrument, the only instrument by which the soul appropriates or apprehends Christ and his righteousness”. (Romans 1:17; Romans 3:25 Romans 3:26; Romans 4:20 Romans 4:22; Philippians 3:8-11; Galatians 2:16).

Now, there is no confusion here. Justification comes by believing God, believing that Jesus is the Christ. Works do not play a role in this definition. As we will see, some people want to expand this definition and say that a person needs to repent in order to gain justification. That is, they must decide to obey Jesus at the time of believing or they are not justified. That is not right, not Biblical, and not the experience of many people, who will tell you that they were not seeking Jesus, did not even know about repentance, but when they heard the good news of forgiveness they believed and changed at that moment. They gained a whole new life, with a new point of view, a new set of desires and a new capacity to know God. They were adopted into the family of God in an instant, converted, given a new heart; and in fact were born again and became a new person. With this, justification by faith alone, I completely agree.

SANCTIFICATION: Here is a common definition of sanctification:

  1. To make holy; set apart as sacred; consecrate.
  2. To purify or free from sin: Sanctify your hearts.
  3. To impart religious sanction to; render legitimate or binding: to sanctify a vow

Now, notice in the above definition that sanctification can include a human exercise of the will, or it can exclude any human effort.

That is, for example, a person could make a golden drinking vessel and “sanctify” it by using it only in the taking of communion. Such a vessel would be “chosen” for a Holy task and would not be used for “common” drinking such as drinking a Cola drink while watching television. It would be wrong to use a sanctified vessel for a common purpose. The golden drinking vessel is passive; it does not have a choice in the matter or a role in becoming sanctified. Likewise, God can choose a person for His family and for His service and thereby the person is “sanctified”. A vessel created by God for a Holy purpose. The person is “set apart”, by God’s choice, without the person’s effort, or “works”. That is, sanctified without the person’s cooperation, and without the person exercising their will or making any choices relevant to being sanctified. Therefore, in this case, sanctification, like justification, is by grace alone.

There are many places in the Old and New Testaments where this sort of “election” is taught. Here are only 2 examples:

  1. Jeremiah 1:5. Before I formed you in the belly I knew you; and before you came forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.
  2. Hebrews 10:10. By His will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Now, on the other hand, sanctification can also refer to a progressive purification that requires human effort in order to be completed. Here are a few examples:

  1. 2 Timothy 2:21. If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honor, sanctified, and meet for the master's use, and prepared unto every good work.
  2. 2 Chronicles 29:15. And they gathered their brethren, and sanctified themselves, and came, according to the commandment of the king, by the words of the LORD, to cleanse the house of the LORD.

There are also passages that combine the ideas that God chooses and does the work but that humans play a role by using their will to cooperate with God:

  1. Phillipians 2:12+13. Wherefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.

Therefore, when it comes to sanctification, we have to look at both works and grace.

WORKS AND GRACE IN SANCTIFICATION: In this paper I will refer to the first kind of sanctification, the one that is independent of human effort, as “Imputed Sanctification”, and the one where humans play a role by exercising their will to cooperate with God as “Visible Sanctification”.

Now, the word “imputed” is a legal term, defined as follows: “to ascribe to or charge (a person) with an act or quality because of the conduct of another over whom one has control or for whose acts or conduct one is responsible”. That is, God is responsible for our imputed sanctification, not us. Of course these 2 divisions of sanctification are interrelated. That is, God chooses a person and sets them apart, but it may not at first make a visible change in the person; but as the person, now Justified, now Sanctified, (both of which are imputed) uses the will to cooperate with God then visible changes occur in the person.

Imputed Sanctification occurs by God’s will alone. Like Justification it is independent of works, except perhaps the exercising of faith. It is a gift and not earned. No amount of “works” can convince God, or force God, to give Imputed Sanctification. Furthermore it is instantaneous and permanent and not progressive. It is immediately complete.

Visible Sanctification, on the other hand, being dependent on the human choosing to cooperate with God, is imperfect and progressive. That is, we become more and more holy, more and more Christ like, as we become visibly sanctified. Furthermore, it is reversible and thus a person can progress or regress in visible sanctification. This is the meaning of Romans 6:19.

“I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness”.

That is, we used to be getting worse, progressively less holy and more sinful before we were born again. While we were “yet in the flesh” we were progressively obeying the lower nature, and Satan, and thus getting worse as we got older. But now we are using our will to cooperate with God and yield ourselves to His ways and thus becoming progressively holy, or visibly sanctified.

In later sections of this paper we will have extensive discussion of the use of the will under the Old Covenant versus under the New Covenant. Suffice to say here that the mere use of the will, the unaided human will, without the means of grace available to the born again person, will not produce visible sanctification.

So what does the term “works” mean? To say that someone is working usually implies two things: effort and wages. Effort goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Toil and sweat. A person works in order to gain something. People work to gain a reward: food, a paycheck, a reputation, recognition, respect, a college degree, etc. “Works” in the Bible can refer to working for God. For example:

  1. Matthew 5:16. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
  2. Matthew 16:27. For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.

Our “works” for God are not done in order to gain entrance into His family, or to have our sins forgiven, or to be born again, etc. These, as explained above, are imputed states.

It is useful to use the Biblical division between “Good Works” and “Dead Works”.

  1. Hebrews 6:1. Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God.
  2. Hebrews 9:14. How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?

The entire teaching of Paul, especially in the book of Romans and the book of Galatians, is an exposition of how attempting to obey the Law of God (the Law given to the Israelites through Moses), using merely the unaided human will, brings death.

  1. Romans 3:20. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
  2. Romans 3:28. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.
  3. Romans 10:5. For Moses describes the righteousness which is of the law, that the man which doeth those things shall live by them.
  4. Romans 7:14. For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.
  5. Romans 7:5. For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.

Therefore trying to get right with God through attempting to obey His commands, using only human will power, is doomed to fail because human will power is corrupted by sin within us and we cannot actually keep the law. Hence, “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified”. That is, “the letter kills” means that we cannot just keep rules and follow the written commands of God. Thus, Dead works are those efforts that we do to earn God’s forgiveness and love, and those efforts that rely on mere will power.

Now, on the other hand, Good works refers to our obedience, using a new power, beyond mere will power, after we have been justified by faith and have been born again.

  1. Romans 8:3+4. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

That is, after we have been justified, after we have received an imputed sanctification, then we have “the law written on our heart”, and we have a new ability to obey God, a new zeal to obey God, a victory over our sin nature, and we are able to do the work of God. Hence Paul’s assertions that “you are dead to sin…and it shall no longer dominate you…and you are no longer it’s slave…and you don’t owe the flesh anything…so resist it.”

It is precisely in this realm, the realm of the Spirit, both in action and thought that we do good works. Good works are reflected in a growth of obedience, morality, self control, service, confidence, peace and loving others; thus declaring the gospel through our “good works”. It is in our need to do good works while avoiding dead works where confusion reigns in the Christian Evangelical Church.


There are as many verses in the New Testament on good works as there are on grace. These take the form of commands, spoken to Christians, telling us to use our will to obey God in order to obtain visible sanctification:

Galatians 5:16-24: This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.

Notice that the word “flesh” in this passage (quoted from the King James Version) does not mean the body, but rather the lower nature. In other passages this lower nature is also called the “sin nature”, “body of sin”, “old man”, “carnal man”, “natural man” or “sin”. In all the multitude of passages, some of which are shown below, where these terms are used, the idea is that Christians have a dual nature, after conversion, and that their lower nature is in conflict with the higher nature. The Christian must “put to death”, “crucify”, “mortify” and “resist” the workings of the lower nature. For example:

Ephesians 4:22: That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts.

Romans 8:13: for if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.

1 Corinthians 3:3: For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?

Romans 6:12: Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof.

A thorough study of the New Testament reveals an enormous volume of similar passages, all of which tell us that we must fight a war within us, and that we must decide to do so. We must engage our will in this battle. Failure to do so will stop a person from gaining visible sanctification. This must be a whole hearted effort. “He who loses his life will find it”.

Now, there are several things we need to say at this point:

  1. These are living works, not dead works. That is, they are not done to gain justification or imputed sanctification. They are done in order to do the living works of conversion.
  2. The effort involved is directed both to turning from sin and to turning to God. We must turn from sin by denying our desires, resisting temptation and making life style changes; but we must also turn to God in confession and prayer. We need the Spirit’s help in resisting the lower nature.
  3. There is still effort and sacrifice needed in turning to God. For example, taking time away from distractions and entertainment in order to spend time with God.
  4. Repentance and contrition are often slow processes. We need God to deeply convict us of the extent of our sinfulness (that is, the extent to which our old nature is still ruling us). We need a revelation of who we are outside of Christ. That is, who we are on our own, and who we are “in our flesh”. This takes time with God. It includes meditating on the Word of God, but it also includes listening prayer, in silence and solitude.
  5. When we measure our lives by the example and command of scripture then we see ourselves. When we let God speak to us and personally apply the Word to our actual lives, then we make progress in visible sanctification.
  6. As we apply our effort to both repentance and to seeking God we eventually also see who we are in Christ. We begin to see that we “are free from sin”. We become able to resist temptation and improve in visible sanctification.
  7. We gain the peace that comes from a good conscience and in pleasing God. This peace gives us confidence and fruitfulness in God’s Kingdom.

A failure to apply our will to living works results in a lack of both peace and fruitfulness. Many Evangelical Christians have come to believe that they do not have to work to please God and to grow in grace. They believe that since justification and imputed sanctification are by grace alone then there is no need to do living works.

This is a tragic situation summed up best by James in James Chapter 2: “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law. So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath showed no mercy; and mercy rejoices against judgment. What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show you my faith by my works. Thou believe that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? See how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which says that Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”

Now, how are we going to explain the book of James? We could say that it is not really part of the Word of God. We could say that it should not be in the Bible. Some Christians have believed this and have wished they could get rid of this book. These people also want to get rid of many parts of the letter to the Hebrews as well as parts of Peter and John’s letters. They want to get rid of anything that interferes with their teaching that since justification is by faith alone then works should not be pursued. They will admit that good works are real, but they will insist that good works are the product of an instantaneous new birth and are not the responsibility of the believer. They don’t want effort to degenerate back to dead works, so they minimize effort.

But more likely than the idea that James’s letter is not really from God is the idea that God wants to show us the true nature of justification, sanctification and salvation and so He used more than one person to write His book. Paul’s letters are difficult to understand (even Peter thought so, see 2 Peter 3). To try to understand God using only Paul’s letters, and ignoring the rest of the Bible, has led to the Evangelical confusion between works and faith.

James clearly believes in an instantaneous imputed justification and new birth. For example: 1:18 “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” He knows that dead works will not please God. James was a leader in the Jerusalem church and we don’t read in Acts that he was considered a heretic. But he is indeed reacting to the idea that faith without works can really lead to salvation. He is saying that justification, even though instantaneous (“Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”), must be “fulfilled” by works. Faith alone (without good works) is dead. Furthermore, he is not merely saying that a person who is born again will automatically do good works, he is telling Christians (who are already born again) to turn from sin and turn to God. James 4: “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.”


While it is true that our motivation to serve God ultimately comes from God, through the new birth, and while it is also true that our love for God is our main motive, there are quite a few motivations for good works presented in scripture that are neglected by the Evangelical Church:

  1. To please God. Standard Evangelical teaching is that God is pleased by faith and not by works. They cite a verse like Hebrews 11:6: “But without faith it is impossible to please him.” But then they ignore the rest of the verse: “for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him”. God rewards those who diligently seek Him. It is part of faith. Like James said, if we want to please Him we must be doers of the Word, not hearers only. “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you”. Who is drawing near first here? Living faith requires works, and those works require our decision to pursue them. “Zealous for good works”. Diligent. Are you diligent? Become diligent and you will please God.

    Here is a verse to ponder: 1 John 3:22: “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.” Is this the word of God? Wasn’t John the disciple that Jesus loved? Isn’t his gospel intimate and wise?
  2. To gain reward. The idea that we work to gain reward is particularly opposed by Evangelical teaching. The reason for this, once again, is because Evangelical teaching confuses dead works with living works. Look again at Hebrews 11:6. “He is a rewarder of those that diligently seek Him”. Who? Those that have faith. This diligent seeking gains a reward.

    1 Corinthians 3: 10-14: “According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let every man take heed how he builds thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.” This is Paul talking. And he is talking to Christians. He is telling them to “take heed” and do works worthy of reward. Good works will be rewarded, and this reward is one motivation for our effort.

    Matthew 6:6: “But you, when you pray, enter into your closet, and when you have shut the door, pray to your Father which is in secret; and your Father which sees in secret shall reward you openly”. Do the work of praying in silence and solitude. You will be rewarded.
  3. To avoid punishment. Nothing bothers Evangelical teachers as much as the idea that God punishes sin and that turning from sin prevents punishment. 1 Corinthians 10+11. “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord's table, and of the table of devils. Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not…For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as often as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord's death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world”. Are you examining yourself? Are you judging yourself? We need to. Now note that the “damnation” mentioned here is not “losing your salvation”, it is a chastening from God to purify the person so that they do not lose their salvation. Do you want this sort of punishment in your life? Then turn from sin and avoid it.
  4. To aid our prayers. This is another odious teaching in Evangelical circles. But the Bible clearly teaches that our works influence our prayers. 1 Peter 3:7 “Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honor unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.”

    Here again is 1 John 3:22: “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight”.

    John 14+15. “He that hath my commandments, and keeps them, he it is that loves me: and he that loves me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him… If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you. Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples. As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love.” We must exercise our will and obey God; when we do He draws close, we see Him, and we know His will and we pray according to His will and He answers our prayers.

The sum of the matter: Confusion between dead works and good works has hindered Evangelicals from applying themselves to good works. This neglect has stunted Christian growth and made for weak disciples. We need to apply our will to both resisting sin and to yielding to God. We need to turn from sin and turn to God. These actions take effort, cause pain and are difficult. We need to use the motivations provided by God in order to have the determination and energy needed to obey God. When we do these works we gain rewards and grow in grace, with increased holiness, peace and fruitfulness. Faith without works is dead.


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