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Belgic Confession Article 24: Man’s Sanctification and Good Works

Article 24🔗

We believe that this true faith, worked in man by the hearing of God's Word and by the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man. It makes him live a new life and frees him from the slavery of sin.

Therefore it is not true that this justifying faith makes man indifferent to living a good and holy life. On the contrary, without it no one would ever do anything out of love for God, but only out of self-love or fear of being condemned. It is therefore impossible for this holy faith to be inactive in man, for we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls faith working through love (Galatians 5:6). This faith induces man to apply himself to those works which God has commanded in His Word. These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable in the sight of God, since they are all sanctified by His grace. Nevertheless, they do not count toward our justification. For through faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do any good works. Otherwise they could not be good any more than the fruit of a tree can be good unless the tree itself is good.

Therefore we do good works, but not for merit. For what could we merit? We are indebted to God, rather than He to us, for the good works we do, since it is He who is at work in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). Let us keep in mind what is written: So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10). Meanwhile we do not deny that God rewards good works, but it is by His grace that He crowns His gifts.

Furthermore, although we do good works, we do not base our salvation on them. We cannot do a single work that is not defiled by our flesh and does not deserve punishment. Even if we could show one good work, the remembrance of one sin is enough to make God reject it. We would then always be in doubt, tossed to and from without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be constantly tormented, if they did not rely on the merit of the death and passion of our Saviour.

Why good works?🔗

DeBrès and his congregation lived in an environment where emphasis was laid on doing good works as a means to becoming right with God. In previous articles DeBrès had made clear that one‘s depravity makes it impossible to earn God‘s favor; instead, one became right with God only through the atoning work of Jesus Christ – a work made yours through faith in Him.

This gospel of redemption by grace alone raised questions about the place and value of good works. If good works did not earn you points with God, why bother doing good works? If you were right with God on account of the finished work of Jesus Christ, why not live it up? In Article 24 DeBrès answers questions as these. He was insistent: ''... we do good works, but not for merit. For what could we merit? We are indebted to God, rather than He to us, for the good works we do, since it is He „who is at work in us both to will and to work for His good pleasure.‟ ... Furthermore, although we do good works, we do not base our salvation on them.''


To make clear why the Christian does good works and at the same time does not earn anything through the good works he does, DeBrès explains the doctrine of sanctification. The term 'Sanctification' literally means 'to make holy' (derived from two Latin words meaning 'holy' and 'make'). Terms as 'conversion', 'regeneration', 'recreation' and 'born again' are all essentially synonyms of the term sanctification.

Back in Article 22 DeBrès had discussed the justification of fallen man. In the fall into sin all mankind had rejected God and joined the devil‘s side. As slaves of the devil, fallen man was dead in sin and reflected what the devil was like. In mercy the Lord God chose a certain number of fallen mankind to salvation in Christ, and so delivered them from bondage to Satan and restored them to God‘s side (see Figure 24.1). Though God was fully aware of their sins, God declared these sinners Not Guilty, righteous, for Christ‘s sake, so that these elect enjoy peace with God. This was justification.

But what happens now to the sinner who has been justified, brought back to God (person 'A' in Figure 24.1)? Does he remain dead in sin? Now that he has been restored to God‘s side, is he still inclined to image the Devil?

No, he does not remain dead in sin. Justification does not change the nature of the sinner; justification changes his legal standing before God – he is now innocent, not guilty, justified.
As it is, though, God does not leave the justified sinner in his deadness; God rather changes his nature. This change is known as sanctification (see Figure 24.2). Those whom God in His good pleasure justifies through the blood of Christ He also sanctifies through the Spirit of Christ. You cannot be justified by the blood of Christ, and at the same time not be sanctified by the Spirit of Christ. All who benefit from justification are also sanctified. Though justification and sanctification are two different acts of God in the life of the sinner, these two cannot be separated. God does not sanctify a person still in bondage to Satan and hence destined for hell, nor does God let a person restored to Him remain dead in sin. All those who are justified receive sanctification and all who are sanctified have also been justified.

Consider the following table:

The cross of Calvary is most certainly the high point in the history of salvation. That Christ by His suffering and death on the cross bore God‘s wrath against my sins on my behalf gives me much cause for thankfulness. But I may not consider the work of Christ on the cross as the sum total of what He did for me, for His work continued after Calvary. At Pentecost Christ poured out His Holy Spirit so that I could be a new, changed person. In our thinking, then, we also need to move past Calvary (justification) and come to grips with the reality of Pentecost – sanctification. Christ‘s work on Pentecost is life renewing, and this work of Christ must be reflected in the way I live.

Scriptural evidence for Sanctification🔗

Although sanctification is a New Testament term, we find a description of it in both the Old and New Testaments.

  • Deuteronomy 30:6: Here we read that should the Lord need to carry out His punishment of exile on a disobedient covenant people, He would let them return from exile if they showed evidence of repentance. But the Lord promised to do more than let them return to the land of their fathers. We read, ''And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.''

The phrase 'circumcision of the heart' describes the concept of regeneration (= sanctification).

  • Jeremiah 31:31-33: ''Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.... But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their heart; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.''

The phrase 'put My law in their minds, and write it on their heart‘ describes the concept of regeneration.

  • Ezekiel 36:26: ''I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.''

Here is an accumulation of phrases, each in turn describing something of the notion of sanctification, regeneration, conversion.

  • John 3:3: In His conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus describes regeneration as being born again.

Said Jesus to Nicodemus, ''... Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.''

  • Ephesians 2:4-5: ''But God, ... even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.''

To be regenerated, sanctified, converted, implies that one was dead and is made alive again.

From the above, it is evident that regeneration, sanctification, is a work of God: ''The Lord your God will circumcise your heart.'' Said God, ''I will put My law in their minds; I will give you a new heart; I will put My Spirit within you.'' In his letter to the Ephesians Paul, too, emphasizes that being made alive to God is God‘s work: ''But God made us alive'' (2:5).
It cannot be otherwise, for I am by nature dead in sin, and the dead can do nothing. No more than Lazarus could contribute to his rising from physical death can we contribute to our rising from spiritual death. The Canons of Dort describe sanctification this way: ''regeneration is a supernatural, most powerful...work…, not inferior in power to creation or the resurrection of the dead'' (Chapter III/IV, Article 12). As God‘s work in Genesis 1 was a miraculous display of His power, and as His work in raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11) was again a miraculous display of His power, so His working in regenerating sinners, making spiritually dead people alive, is a miraculous display of His power. Let no one say that 'miracles' no longer happen!

Regeneration: it has a beginning and is ongoing🔗

1. The beginning of regeneration🔗

The change known as regeneration (or sanctification) begins at a particular point in time. An unbeliever becomes a believer, and at that point his lifestyle changes on account of that powerful work of the Holy Spirit in his heart. Paul the persecutor was arrested by the Holy Spirit on the road to Damascus, and became a new man so that he noticeably ceased persecuting the church. Here is a parallel to life itself; each person living on earth has a beginning when his life began.

Through borrowing words from many of the texts quoted above, the Canons of Dort speaks this way about the beginning of regeneration, ''By the efficacious (= effective) working of the same regenerating Spirit He also penetrates into the innermost recesses of man. He opens the closed and softens the hard heart, circumcises that which was uncircumcised, and instils new qualities into the will. He makes the will, which was dead, alive; which was bad, good; which was unwilling, willing; and which was stubborn, obedient. He moves and strengthens it so that, like a good tree, it may be able to produce the fruit of good works‖ (Chapter III/IV, Article 11). At a particular point in time, then, God the Spirit makes changes in a person. It is when the Spirit penetrates the heart of a person that the person is born again, changed, begins a new life as a Christian.

2. Regeneration is ongoing🔗

At the same time, regeneration is a continual, daily process in the life of the Christian. As a person at birth is not full grown, so a person at rebirth is not full grown in his regeneration.
NOTE: the instantaneity of Paul‘s conversion on the road to Damascus is no more a norm for all conversions than Adam‘s instantaneous adulthood is a norm for us (for Adam, let us recall, was a mature adult of, say, 30 years old, when God created him). God is mighty to call into existence an adult person out of dust, and mighty too to call into existence an adult believer on his road to Damascus. But what God is mighty to do (and once has done) does not describe what God daily does. As He commonly gives adult life through a process of birth and growing up, so He commonly gives spiritual adulthood through a process of coming to faith and growth thereafter. For that reason we ought not to be disappointed when we cannot recount a 'conversion story'; as it is no surprise that I cannot recall the moment of my birth, it is no surprise either that I cannot recall the moment of my rebirth. Yet I am fully persuaded through the things I do that I was born, and am equally persuaded through the things I do that I am reborn.

Lord‘s Day 33 speaks of this ongoing regeneration. Q & A 88 mentions that ''true repentance or conversion of man is the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new.'' Note that the Lord‘s Day does not say that conversion takes place when the old nature 'died' and the new 'came' to life. No, 'dying' and 'coming to life' are written in present progressive tense. In other words, conversion is not a once-off, never-to-be-repeated occurrence in the life of the Christian, but is rather an ongoing process. That is why Q & A 89 explains the dying of the old nature as a ''heartfelt sorrow that we have offended God by our sin, and more and more to hate it and flee from it.'' The person justified by the blood of Christ is truly and radically changed, is spiritually born again. However, this changed heart is not immediately perfected. This is a life long process by which one is made to grow in the Lord daily, 'more and more.'


What are the implications of this for me? The Lord in His grace has declared me Not Guilty of my sins, justified through Jesus‘ blood. Since you cannot separate justification and sanctification (as if you can have the one and not the other), all who are justified may say with conviction that they are also sanctified, changed, converted, born again. This delightful state of affairs, however, allows for no complacency, as if I may assume that my regeneration means that 'I have arrived'. For those who are born again, sanctified, are not instantly perfected. There needs on my part to be daily growth. Daily I need to see to it that I keep putting my old nature to death and living according to the new nature. Daily I need to fight against sin and strive to do the will of God. Sanctification has a beginning, but it is also an ongoing process, and therefore growth in faith and holiness must be evident in my life. It is because there needs to be evidence of such growth that the elders in their annual home visits also inquire about whether I have grown in the last months.

Turning to God and turning away from sin🔗

It is imperative that we understand these two aspects of conversion and what they mean for us individually. Conversion, regeneration, means to be turned away from Satan and turned towards God. Conversion means that our focus is 'God-ward.' Before we were justified we focused on Satan, but conversion means we are made to do a 180-degree turn (as it were). As a result God now becomes the center of our attention and life. The following table helps to illustrate these two aspects of conversion.

Some passages from Scripture make clear that conversion (= regeneration, rebirth, sanctification) involves both turning from sin as well as turning to God.

  • Deuteronomy 30:1-3: Israel is warned that, if they should refuse to place God in the center of their attention, God will send them into exile. Yet God also tells Israel what it is that He will do should they come to repentance. ''Now it shall come to pass, when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among the nations where the LORD your God drives you, and you return to the LORD your God and obey His voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul, that the LORD your God will bring you back from captivity, and have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the nations where the LORD your God has scattered you.'' Here God

Himself makes the connection between being turned towards God and being turned away from sin (obeying Him). Israel had only two options:

  1. be turned towards God and receive God‘s blessing or
  2. be turned away from God, focusing instead on sin and disobedience, and consequently being separated from God, exiled.
  • 1 Samuel 7:3: God had permitted His ark to be taken from Israel because of the people‘s sin. After the ark had come back to the Promised Land, Samuel said to Israel, ''If you return to the LORD with all your hearts, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths from among you, and prepare your hearts for the LORD, and serve Him
    Israel was called to make that 180-degree turn away from idol-centered worship to God-centered worship. Here are the two aspects of true conversion: turn from sin and turn to the Lord.

Repentance: A broken heart on account of sin🔗

That this change also involves sorrow for sin is evident from Israel‘s response to the call for repentance. We read in 1 Samuel 7:6, ''So they gathered together at Mizpah, drew water, and poured it out before the LORD. And they fasted that day, and said there, We have sinned against the LORD.‟'' From Leviticus we know that water played the symbolic role of the washing away of sin. Fasting designated a broken spirit, a sense of humility. In their repentance, then, Israel sorrowed on account of sin, was broken hearted, as they turned away from sin in order to seek the Lord. Such grief and sorrow is characteristic of repentance from sin.

  • Psalm 38:17-18: In anguish over his sins, David prays, ''There is no soundness in my flesh because of Your anger, nor any health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me (Psalm 38:3-4). ...
    I am troubled, I am bowed down greatly; I go mourning all the day long (Psalm 38:6)....
    For I am ready to fall, and my sorrow is continually before me. For I will declare my iniquity; I will be in anguish over my sin''.
  • Psalm 51:7-8: This whole Psalm of David exudes a spirit of brokenness on account of his sin with Bathsheba. In full awareness of Whom he sinned against, David prays in all humility, ''For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
    Against You, You only have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight (Psalm 51:3-4). ...
    Purge me … wash me ... make me hear joy and gladness, that the bones you have broken may rejoice''.
  • Jeremiah 3:21-25: God calls Israel to repentance, ''Return, you backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings.'' Israel replied, ''Indeed we do come to You, for You are the LORD our God.... Truly, in the LORD our God is the salvation of Israel.... We lie down in our shame, and our reproach covers us. For we have sinned against the LORD our God,
    we and our fathers….'' 
    Notice Israel‘s shame and humility.
  • Ezekiel 36:26, 31: Said God to Israel, ''I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh....
    Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good; and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight, for your iniquities and your abominations.''

    Repentance involves despising oneself on account of one‘s sin, turning away from sin and evil and directing oneself to God, striving to obey Him and to do His will.

We conclude: the Spirit‘s work of sanctification is a change in the self, whereby one turns in humility from sin to God with a heartfelt desire to deny self in favor of doing God‘s will. It means that one‘s whole focus in life is directed God-ward, with as result that one adopts a new lifestyle and a new attitude.

New lifestyle of the Christian: Walking in the Spirit🔗

What does this new lifestyle actually look like? How much different is it from the old style of living? Paul describes the practices that used to characterize the Corinthians before the gospel of Jesus Christ came to Corinth. Says Paul: ''Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God'' (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Paul‘s emphatic ''such were some of you'' leaves no doubt what sort of histories the saints of Corinth had. Paul‘s statement equally leaves no doubt that these saints have been radically changed so that they were fornicators and idolaters and homosexuals and thieves no longer. So effective is the powerful working of the Holy Spirit that these sinners are dramatically changed. The Spirit gives a new heart that in turn produces a new conduct. This change cannot remain hidden, but manifests itself in behavior one and all can see. It produces a new lifestyle, radically different from the previous manner of living.

Paul encouraged the believers at Rome to live in a fashion consistent with their sanctification.
The Holy Spirit does indeed work in us, but – in true covenantal fashion – we are also to busy ourselves with that work. In Romans 5 Paul had described justification, and in chapter 6 he goes on to say, ''What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?'' (vs 1). The argument is this: since we are justified by grace alone, should we not leave room for sin so that we might receive more evidence of God‘s grace – for He freely forgives our sins? Paul is adamant in his answer to this question. ''Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?'' He explains why we cannot live in sin: ''For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death (through baptism), certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection.... For he who has died has been freed from sin.... For the death that (Christ) died He died to sin once and for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord'' (Romans 6:2-11). To have died to sin and to have been raised with Christ in His resurrection means regeneration, sanctification. Paul knows: his readers have been made alive to God.

But since his readers have been made alive, sanctified, they need to be consistent and to live according to this reality. Says Paul in Romans 6:12,13, ''Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts.'' The reality of sanctification prompts the command to live as sanctified persons. So the ''saints'' of Rome (1:7) are told: ''do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.'' The sanctified sinner, born again as he is through the Holy Spirit, is not inevitably bound to give in to every sin that tempts him. Says Paul in verse 14, ''For sin shall not have dominion over you.'' I don‘t have to give myself to the sin that is dangled so enticingly before me. I can never say that 'I couldn‘t help it' that I fell for temptation. 'No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it'' (1 Corinthians 10:13). I am always one hundred percent responsible for my failure to resist temptation to sin, for I am born again, raised to a new life, enabled to resist sin. I am instructed by God to say No to sin, to hate it and flee from it. I believe my Savior has sanctified me through His Spirit, and so I am not to let sin have dominion over me.

Instead of reflecting what Satan is like, my sanctification means that I can again reflect what the Lord God is like. So the fruit of the Spirit characterizes the Christian‘s life: ''love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control'' (Galatians 5:22,23).

Not Perfected🔗

True, it certainly happens that I fail to resist sin; though changed I am not at all made perfect already. Paul himself, God‘s chosen instrument to the Gentiles, confessed that ''I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do'' (Romans 7:14,15). That‘s why the church says in Lord‘s Day 44 of the Heidelberg Catechism: ''in this life even the holiest have only a small beginning'' of the obedience God requires. Sanctification does not mean perfection. As the saints of Scripture grieved over their sins, so I too must be bothered by my sin, repent, turn away from sin and turn back to God. But the fact that I cannot live the perfect Christian life does not mean I may be content with a mediocre Christian life!

Christ has done much for me (justification) and in me (sanctification). It is my duty to respond to Christ‘s work by producing evidence in my life. If those who observe me cannot see Christ‘s renewing work in me, if I am as adulterous and idolatrous and deceptive and thieving as those around me, then I have not been born again. Similarly, if those around me do not see in me such fruit of the Spirit as love and joy and peace and kindness and gentleness, then I have not been raised to new life through the mighty work of the Holy Spirit. If I am not born again, I am not justified either. Then I am still on Satan‘s side, and need to turn to God in repentance and faith. A tree is known by its fruits. Conversely, where those fruits of the Spirit abound in my life (though far from perfect!) I may be assured of both my sanctification and my justification – and hence of God‘s mighty grace upon me.

Salvation by Grace, not by Works🔗

DeBrès wrote Article 24 at a time when the church of his day taught that in order to be saved one had to do good works. DeBrès‘ response was No! My good works are so covered by sin that they are offensive to God (cf Isaiah 64:6). ''We cannot do a single work that is not defiled by our flesh and does not deserve punishment. Even if we could show one good work, the remembrance of one sin is enough to make God reject it. We would then always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be constantly tormented, if they did not rely on the merit of the death and passion of our Saviour'' (Article 24).

One does not become righteous before God through doing good works. Yet good works characterize the life of the Christian. How come? The Christian does good works not in order to be saved, but rather because he is saved. Those washed in the blood of Christ (justification) are also renewed through the Spirit of Christ (sanctification). The renewed invariably look renewed. A person made spiritually alive is radically different from a person dead in sin, just as Lazarus after his resurrection was radically different from those remaining in the cemetery.

I cannot gain anything from doing good works, for in Christ I already am heir to the world.
Rather, performing good works, obeying the law of God, is the inevitable consequence of regeneration. As Lord‘s Day 24 expresses it: it is impossible for those who belong to Christ to fail to bring forth fruits of thankfulness.

That I see such fruits in myself, then, becomes very much a reason to praise God. For ''God is at work in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure'' (Philippians 2:13). Such fruit of faith in my life prompts to greater praise and gratitude. Christ‘s work of salvation is complete, involves both justification and sanctification, Good Friday and Pentecost. How wonderful this God is!

Points for Discussion:🔗

  1. Do good works play a role in obtaining God‘s approval? Do good works play a role in maintaining God‘s approval? What, then, is the benefit of good works?
  2. Explain what sanctification is. Give some words that mean essentially the same thing.
  3. Are all justified persons also sanctified? Why?
  4. Sanctification has a beginning and a continuation. Explain.
  5. There are two aspects to sanctification. What are they?
  6. How does the renewing work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of God‘s people become obvious?
  7. Does this renewing work on the part of the Spirit involve a struggle on our part? If so, how? And why?
  8. Is it inevitable that you give in to a particular temptation? Explain.
  9. Is the Christian made perfect in this life? Conversely, can a Christian be content with a 'mediocre sanctification'?

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