Setting the Reformed Record Straight
The discussion over at Called to Communion on the post titled “How John Calvin Made Me a Catholic” has recently turned to the supposed absence of the notion of inward renewal and the need for practical holiness in Reformed thought. One commenter wrote:
[Contrary to what Reformed theology teaches], salvation must be a real deliverance from the power of sin and death and transformation in the Spirit. If it is not, then I will take my Hell with me wherever I am.
I immediately objected, citing the Westminster Standards to the effect that in sanctification God indeed infuses the believer with righteousness, that the law is our rule of life, and that there will be a final judgment according to works. Appeal was then made to Michael Horton’s recent video on the nature of the gospel as an announcement rather than something to be “lived out.” I’ll post my reply in full:
Let me just clarify Horton’s law/gospel schema (if for no other reason than to aid those who may not be familiar with it at all—so bear with me even if you already know this).
When the Reformed speak about the antithesis between the law and the gospel, we are speaking in the specific context of justification. Or, if the term “salvation” is used, we are referring to the meritorious cause of our salvation. How can a sinner pass from death to life? How can he be pardoned? It is in response to this specific question that we insist that works play no role whatsoever. We cannot get God’s attention by trying to be good. No, our salvation (by which I mean our being accepted by God and made his child) is by grace alone. “By grace you have been saved… not of works,” “Not by works of righteousness that we have done, but by his mercy he saved us….” etc., etc. You guys know the verses.
So when we use language that pits grace against works or law against gospel, it is ALWAYS in the context of how we are accepted by God and acquitted in his heavenly court. But the Reformed, and Horton in particular, also talk about what we call “the third use of the law,” which has to do with how the law of God functions as our rule of life. You can look at the Larger Catechism to see how meticulously we treat the ten commandments and how seriously we take their application to the Christian life today (again, no one can accuse the Puritans of advocating moral laxity). However, we insist that our Spirit-wrought obedience is offered as a response of gratitude to God because of the grace we have been given in Christ, and never as the cause of that grace.
So the picture looks like this: Guilt –> Grace –> Gratitude, and it’s in that third category that we talk about things like the infusion of righteousness, inner transformation, and holy living. We live godly lives because we have been made God’s sons through adoption, for “the grace of God… teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts.” That’s why Paul always begins his letters by telling his readers what God has done for them, then he says “Therefore,” and then proceeds to tell them how to live.
Hope that helps.