A production of Sola Media
White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

Making Necessary Distinctions: The Call to Discernment

Release date:

January 18, 2012


Life Issues Wisdom

Some distinctions are pedantic, part of that “craving for controversy and for quarrels about words” that Paul warned against (1 Tim 6:5). Yet where would we be without those crucial distinctions between essence and persons in the doctrine of the Trinity, or between person and natures in Christ? I’ve been struck by how frequently John Calvin invoked the Chalcedonian maxim “distinction without separation” not only for the doctrine of Christ but as a rule for a host of other theological topics—including justification and sanctification, law and gospel, and the earthly signs (water, bread, and wine) and the reality (Christ with his benefits).

Our problem today is more often the erosion—or even ignorance—of crucial distinctions and categories. As Robert Godfrey often says, “We like to reinvent the wheel, and it’s never round.” Sometimes we treat contemporary controversies as if we were the first to encounter them. Unaware of the discussions and debates that forged Christian consensus in the past, we often treat controversies as if we were the first to encounter them. Starting from scratch, we often end up with our own lopsided confusion of things that ought to be distinguished and separation of things that ought to be held together.

In recent debates over the application of redemption, especially union with Christ, justification and sanctification, there is a tendency on the part of some to view classic Reformed distinctions with suspicion. Are they a bit of Aristotelian logic-chopping, the product of an over-active scholastic imagination? Or are they valuable—and more importantly, grounded in Scripture?

Here are a few categories that are helpful in guiding our own reflection today on some of these important questions:

History of Salvation / Order of Salvation

When were you saved? I’ll never forget the day the answer hit me between the eyes: “Two thousand years ago.” My pastor (who was not Reformed) looked puzzled. I didn’t know it then, but I was talking about the history of salvation (historia salutis) and he was thinking about the order of salvation (ordo salutis). In reality, though, “salvation” in Scripture encompasses both. Jesus Christ accomplished my redemption at the cross and in his resurrection, but the Spirit applies it when he calls me effectually through the gospel and unites me to Christ.

The order of salvation is of crucial significance and may be drawn from many clear passages, including Romans 8:29-30: “Those he predestined he called; those he called he justified, and those he justified he glorified.” We were chosen in eternity and redeemed at the cross. We have been justified the moment we trusted in Christ alone for our salvation. We are being sanctified. And we will be glorified.

In one and the same act of faith we receive the whole Christ with all of his gifts: justification and adoption, sanctification, and glorification. Now, some tend to absorb the history of salvation into the order. This is what happens when “getting saved” means the experience of personal conversion. Others make the opposite mistake, assimilating the order to the history, as if “salvation” meant only what Christ accomplished objectively, for us, not what he accomplishes in us by his Word and Spirit. This can also be done by making union with Christ such a controlling motif that there is no need for an order of application at all. Because we receive everything in union with Christ, there is no logical connection between justification and sanctification, for example. Like spokes of a bike’s wheel, every gift of this union has its source in Christ, but the gifts don’t have any real sequential dependence on each other.

Reformed theology has not accepted this false choice. To be united to Christ and his history is indeed to receive all (not just some) of his benefits; yet at the same time, sanctification has its basis in justification.


Here also there is a danger in either confusing or separating. God’s Word has two parts: the law and the gospel. The law commands and the gospel gives. The law says, “Do,” and the gospel says, “Done!” Equally God’s Word, both are good, but they do different things. The law issues imperatives (commands), while the gospel announces indicatives (a state of affairs).

Two further distinctions on this point are helpful.

First, our older theologians spoke of the law and the gospel in the wider and narrower sense. In the wider sense, the law is everything in Scripture that commands and the gospel is everything in Scripture that makes promises based solely on God’s grace to us in Christ. In the narrow sense, the gospel is 1 Corinthians 15:1-3-4: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures…” The content of the gospel is not our justification or sanctification, but the announcement that Christ was crucified and raised for our salvation in fulfillment of the scriptures. However, another way of stating this “narrow sense” is Romans 4:25: “He was crucified for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.”

At the same time, the gospel includes God’s gracious fulfillment in Christ of all of the promises related to the new creation. That’s why Paul can answer his question, “Shall we then sin that grace may abound?” with more gospel: Union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection, so that we’re no longer under sin’s dominion. The gospel isn’t just enough to justify the ungodly; it’s enough to regenerate and sanctify the ungodly. It’s not just justification. However, only because (in the narrower sense) the good news announces our justification that we are for the first time free to embrace God as our Father rather than our Judge. We have been saved from the condemnation and tyranny of sin. Both are essential to the “glad tidings” that we proclaim.

They also spoke of the law in what I have called the redemptive-historical sense and as the covenantal principle of inheritance. Borrowing on our first distinction, we might correlate this with the history of salvation and the order of salvation. Sometimes the law is referred to as the whole Old Testament—specifically, the part of the Bible called “the Law and the Prophets.” The history of salvation moves from promise to fulfillment, from shadows to reality. In this sense, the law is not opposed to the gospel. Yet when it comes to how we receive this gift—how redemption is applied to us by the Spirit, we are saved apart from the law. Law and gospel are completely opposed in this sense, since they are two different bases or principles of inheritance. We are saved by Christ or by our own obedience, but we cannot be saved by both. Interestingly, Paul includes both senses in Romans 3:21: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law [justification in the order of salvation] although the Law and the Prophets [i.e., the Old Testament writings] bear witness to it.”

Finally, following Melanchthon, Calvin and others in the Reformed tradition distinguished (without separating) three uses of the law: the first (pedagogical), to expose our guilt and corruption, driving us to Christ; the second, a civil use to restrain public vice, and the third, to guide Christian obedience. Believers are not “under the law” in the first sense. They are justified. However, they are still obligated to the law, both as it is stipulated and enforced by the state (second use) and as it frames Christian discipleship (third use). We never ground our status before God in our obedience to imperatives, but in Christ’s righteousness; yet we are also bound to Christ who continues to lead and direct us by his holy will.

Passive/Active Righteousness

Under this crucial distinction may be found others: faith and works, justification and sanctification; regeneration and conversion. In regeneration we are utterly passive. God finds us “dead in trespasses and sins.” “Yet while we were dead he made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 1:2, 5). In conversion, however, we are alive. We turn from sin, death, Satan, and self to Christ—this is repentance and faith. We are the ones repenting and believing, but we do so only because these have been granted as a free gift on the basis of God’s unilateral grace in Christ, by his Spirit.

Faith receives Christ for everything: not only for salvation from judgment, but for the fruit of good works. However, in justification faith is passive: receiving, resting, clinging to Christ alone for an imputed righteousness even while we are still ungodly. This same faith, in sanctification, is active in good works. Having received everything in Christ, faith goes to work in love and service to our neighbors. There is no justification by works. However, there is no genuine faith (and therefore justification) that fails to bear the fruit of good works. Faith is passive with respect to God (receiving rather than giving), but active toward our neighbors (giving without demanding anything in return).

Related to this, then, is the distinction between faith and works. In determining the basis for our relationship with God, faith and works are completely opposed. However, the justified are free finally for the first time to pursue good works out of love for God and neighbor. Fear is no longer in the driver’s seat, so love can flourish. The proper order is the Word (specifically the gospel), then faith (created by the Spirit through the gospel), then love (which expresses itself in good works).

With this distinction between passive and active righteousness in mind, we can distinguish without separating justification and sanctification. Both gifts are given in union with Christ. At no point is either something that we attain by cooperating with God. He gives it all, in Christ, through faith alone. Even in sanctification, we are passive receivers of God’s grace in Christ, mediated through his Word and sacraments. However, in sanctification we are also active in good works. Faith expresses itself in love.

There are many other important distinctions that are critical to Christian reflection. Reformation theology applies the magisterialministerial distinction when it speaks about the authority of the Word over the subordinate authority of the church, reason, tradition, and experience. These “ministers” or servants have their important role, but they stand under the Word.

Similarly, we distinguish between the invisible and visible church. Many confuse them, as if the visible church were identical to the full number of elect and regenerate—as if everyone who is baptized is united to Christ even apart from exercising faith in Christ. Others separate them, as if the visible church were merely a “man-made” organization unrelated to the spiritual church of the “truly saved.”

We distinguish without separating sign and reality, applied to the church and the sacraments. Some confuse them, as if the water, bread and wine were transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Others separate them, as if the signs only point to but do not convey Christ and his benefits.

With respect to eschatology, we distinguish between the “already” and “not yet.” Some Christians believe that the kingdom is fully present already, while others believe it is entirely future. However, like the maxim, “simultaneously just and sinner” in relation to believers, Reformation theology affirms concerning the kingdom that it is present in grace but not yet consummated in glory. Consequently, it distinguishes between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdoms of this age, but without separation. The two kingdoms are under Christ’s ultimate authority, but the one through his providence and common grace in the world and the other through his miraculous saving grace in the church. The church is both a divinely ordained organization and a Spirit-empowered organism, with special offices (pastors, elders and deacons) and the general office (prophet, priest, and king) shared by all believers equally.

Distinctions should not be endlessly multiplied. On the other hand, there is a kind of “biblicism” that discourages making any distinctions that are not found explicitly in Scripture. Of course, that would spell disaster for the doctrines of the Trinity, Christology, and a host of other core Christian convictions. Good distinctions are an act of discernment. It is the wisdom to recognize things that are required by Scripture even when they are not directly expressed in Scripture. While we must avoid “quarrels about words” (1 Tim 6:5), we must also “follow the pattern of sound words” (2 Tim 1:13).

Now how many controversies in the church today can you think of where these distinctions could be practically relevant?