Sanctification: According to the Reformed Tradition and in Particular G.C. Berkouwer

This paper was written during Chalcedon Term A.D. 2019 for the graduate Reformed Systematics course at New St Andrews College.


The purpose of this paper is to firstly provide an overview of the doctrine of sanctification according to the Reformed tradition. After establishing this definitional groundwork, we will take a look at the unique (yet not unprecedented) work of the Dutch Reformed dogmatician, G.C. Berkouwer, on sanctification and two interlocutors he engages with, namely Roman Catholics and Perfectionists. 

Sanctification Defined

The modern English words ‘sanctify’ and ‘sanctification’ are used to translate the Greek words ‘hagiazo’ and ‘hagiasmos,’ which can be found in multiple New Testament epistles and which carry connotations of holiness, consecration, dedication, and purification.[1] Swiss theologian and student of Amandus Polanus, Johannes Wollebius, succinctly and thoroughly defined sanctification as, “the gratuitous act of God by which He delivers believers, ingrafted in Christ by faith and justified by the Holy Spirit, more and more form their native viciousness and renews them after His own image, in order that they may be rendered fit to glorify Him by good works.”[2]

Louis Berkhof concurs and in his Systematic Theology lists multiple ways in which Scripture speaks of sanctification: (1) It is a work of God, as seen in 1 Thess. 5:23a, “now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely.” (2) It is a fruit of the union of life with Jesus Christ, who says, “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me” (Jn. 15:4). (3) It is a work that is wrought within man and therefore not the work of man, as Paul prays that the Ephesians would be “strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man” (Eph. 3:16). (4) Lastly, it is manifested in Christian virtues, such as the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5:22.[3]

A Summary of Sanctification in the Reformed Confessions

We will begin our exploration of the Reformed confessions on the topic of sanctification with the Belgic Confession, published first in 1562 and chiefly authored by the Dutch martyr, Guido de Bres. Article 24, The Sanctification of Sinners, lays out the context of sanctification by beginning with a statement regarding how faith and regeneration, produced by the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearing of God’s Word, “makes us new creatures, causing us to live a new life and freeing us from the slavery of sin.”[4] Therefore, according to the confession, this justifying faith “moves people to do by themselves the works that God has commanded in the Word” when otherwise they would have been “cold toward living in a pious and holy way.”[5] This sanctification, according to Article 29 of the confession, while an inward work, produces outward marks of true Christians, who we can recognize by their fleeing from sin and pursuit of righteousness, their love for the true God and neighbor, and their crucifixion of the flesh and its works as they fight by the Spirit all the days of their life against the “great weakness” that remains in them.”[6]

Next we will consider the catechism used by the Continental Reformed church, The Heidelberg Catechism, which discusses different aspects of sanctification on Lord’s Day 32 and 33 (86-91). When asked why good works are a necessity for the Christian who is saved by grace, it gives four reasons. First, Christ renews us “by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our while life we show ourselves thankful to God.” Second, that Christ may be glorified through us, third, that we ourselves may have evidence and assurance of our faith, and lastly that by our lives way may win others to Christ.[7] On the next Lord’s Day, the catechism defines conversion and true repentance as “the dying of the old man, and the making alive of the new.”[8] This means “heartfelt sorrow for sin” and “heartfelt joy in God through Christ.” This deep sorrow and joy causes us to hate sin and turn from it “always more and more” (sanctification), and to delight in “living according to the will of God in all good works.”[9]

Moving on 83 years ahead and traveling across the North Sea, the Westminster Shorter Catechism defines sanctification as “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”[10] According to The Westminster Confession of Faith, this sanctification occurs believers “really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection.”[11] According to the confession, this gracious sanctification destroys the dominion of sin in man and continually mortifies sinful lusts while likewise strengthening him to the practice of true holiness.[12] While this sanctification occurs throughout the whole man, it is imperfect in this life, which makes warfare by the Spirit against sin necessary for all of life as “the saints grow in grace.”[13]

G.C. Berkouwer and Sanctification

Now that we have explored the place of sanctification in the Reformed confessions broadly, we shall turn to consider Dr. Gerrit Cornelis Berkouwer’s contribution to this subject. G.C. Berkouwer was an eminent modern Dutch Reformed theologian, who taught systematic theology at the Free University in Amsterdam. Berkouwer can be described as “a man of immense learning” with a “rare combination of historical and theological awareness on the one hand with well-honed exegetical instincts and biblical rootedness on the other.”[14] The late R.C. Sproul studied under Berkouwer, and prominent Reformed systematicians today are still influenced by him, such as Dr. Michael Allen and Dr. Scott Swain, whose New Studies in Dogmatics series “follows in the tradition” of Berkouwer’s 18-volume Studies in Dogmatics.[15] In Dr. Allen’s own contribution to the series, he cites Berkouwer’s Faith and Sanctification (1952) as one of the most influential modern works for his own thought on sanctification.[16]

 It is to this book by Berkouwer that we turn. In this work, Berkouwer is seeking to explain the vital relationship between justification, faith, and sanctification. Berkouwer sees these doctrines as intimately connected (yet distinct), and claims that “the man who understands the relation between faith and sanctity… knows he can pave his way into real life only by keeping these connections intact.”[17] Or, put more poetically, our “muscles of sanctity” must stay “attached to the tendons of our faith.”[18] Berkouwer believes that the theological problems one encounters when dealing with the doctrine of sanctification “are bound up with the question of this ‘transition’ from justification to sanctification.”[19] Therefore, he seeks to address this relationship and defend the Reformed view (and his particular angle) of sanctification against both the Roman Catholics (who since the Reformation have cried out against the supposed antinomianism caused by sola-fide) and the Perfectionists (nomists who see both justification and sanctification as solely acts of God, and therefore perfect). 

Berkouwer’s main concern is that we never speak of sanctification “as if we are entering—having gone through justification—upon a new, independent field of operation.”[20] In other words, sanctification is not the next step after justification where we now pull ourselves up by our boot-straps (to put it crudely) and advance on our own strength. Because the “heart of sanctification is the life which feeds on justification”—this faith in the work of Christ as our justifier and sanctifier—frees us from “autonomous self-sanctification.”[21]

For Berkouwer, our sanctification is oriented toward our justification and the remission of our sins. Therefore, “justification never drops out of sight during the life of the Christian.”[22] Our sanctification occurs and progresses as we self-consciously reflect on and enjoy our justification.[23] Berkouwer is not alone in this approach. Herman Bavinck, the great Dutch Reformed theologian from a generation before, also viewed the tie between justification and sanctification in this way, stating that “faith is not only needed at the beginning in justification, but it must also accompany the Christian throughout one’s entire life, and also play a permanent and irreplaceable role in sanctification.”[24] Just we are justified by faith, “in sanctification, too, it is exclusively faith that saves us.”[25] But Bavinck notes that many who acknowledge that we are justified by Christ’s righteousness “act as if they must be sanctified by a holiness they themselves have acquired.”[26] For Berkouwer and Bavinck both, “the gospel is the food of faith and must be known to be nourishment.”[27]

Rome and Reformed Sanctification

As stated earlier, Berkouwer interacts throughout his book with mainly two opponents—Roman Catholics and Perfectionists. We will now consider how he overcomes their objections to the Reformed view of sanctification. 

Berkouwer believes that Roman Catholics “mutilate the ‘sola-fide’ doctrine” with their claims of it being antinomian, as if the Reformed view of justification “has no significance for the actual situation of the sinner.”[28]According to their doctrine, justification must be understood as the infusion of supernatural grace. But when this is held, “sanctification can have meaning only as the successive development, with the cooperation of a free will, of the grace implanted. Justification and sanctification are brought down on the same plane, while their interrelation becomes nowhere clearly visible.”[29]

Berkouwer refutes the claims of antinomianism by looking at both Leviticus and Luther. In Leviticus 20:7-8, the Israelites are commanded by God to “sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy: for I am the Lord your God. And ye shall keep my statutes, and do them: I am the Lord which sanctify you.” Here God himself makes Israel his holy people, not based on their own strength or piety, but solely based on his divine election. This grace of God does not leave them now with no command to be righteous or to obey, but the opposite. God appeals to them to “become and to remain conscious of the sanctity which he has sanctified them, and to walk and live accordingly. That is the sanctification of Israel, and therefore there can be no talk of antinomy.”[30]

When considering Luther, Berkouwer notes that as the story goes according to Roman Catholics, Luther had constructed the doctrine of justification by faith alone because he could not overcome his inner conflict with “the burning lusts of the flesh, and so he needed a view of salvation which would kindly release him from the guilt, though not from the corruption, of sin.”[31] Berkouwer balks at this slander, stating that to “anyone who has a whiff of Luther’s writings this conception is incredible.”[32] In Concerning Good Works, Luther makes his position very clear that his goal is to lead men away from works that are done without faith, the “false, pretentious, pharisaic, unbelieving good works” to “true, genuine, thoroughly good, believing works.”[33]

Perfect Sanctification

Perfectionism is the doctrine that it is possible for Christians to attain perfection in this life prior to death and glorification.[34] Berkouwer believed that in Church history, Perfectionism was one answer to the perplexity of the ‘Militia Christ’: “why should continued warfare be necessary after achievement of victory?”[35] He finds the Perfectionist resolution to be quite noteworthy given the “observable facts” of our continued sins and sin nature.[36]But Berkouwer does not want to respond by simply saying that imperfection for the Christian is just the way things are. In response to this deeply erroneous view of sanctification, Berkouwer defends the view of Romans 7 as not the experience of the natural man, “but the believing child of God as by the grace of God he has learned to see himself.”[37] Here St. Paul’s cry is a confession of sin rather than an excuse for sin.[38] Berkouwer beautifully describes it this way: “Upon the fragments of [Paul’s] ruined self now rises the drama of perpetual conflict. And this psychic discordancy is a thing for which he thanks God and a sign, strangely enough, of a finally achieved peace.”[39]For Berkouwer, Romans 7 provides the incentives of humility and gratitude for the true ‘Militia Christiana’ to wage war.[40]

In agreement with this understanding of Romans 7 and hostile to Perfectionism is The Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 44, which asks, “Can those who are converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?”[41] While Perfectionism replies “Yes,” the Reformed answer is, “No; but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so that with earnest purpose they begin to live, not only according to some but according to all the commandments of God.”[42]


In conclusion, we can see that G.C. Berkouwer’s approach to sanctification accords with the confessions and confessors of the Reformed tradition, while providing necessary corrections to erroneous views. That said, it is important to note that Berkouwer’s understanding of sanctification is much broader than what is presented in this paper, and at points even controversial (specifically regarding what progress in sanctification looks like for a Christian). For an appreciative critique of other aspects of Berkouwer’s doctrine of sanctification, Dr. Dane C. Ortlund’s paper is commended. Yet nevertheless, Berkouwer’s exhortation to enjoy our salvation in Christ as the means for growing in holiness ought to be a helpful encouragement to all believers. 

[1] New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries: Updated Edition (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation).
[2] Heinrich Heppe. Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House), 565.
[3] Louis Berkhof. Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co), 532-533.
[4] Belgic Confession (Reformed Church in America,
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] The Heidelberg Catechism (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth), Lord’s Day 32.
[8] Ibid. Lord’s Day 33.
[9] Ibid.
[10] The Shorter Catechism (Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications).
[11] The Westminster Confession of Faith (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth), Ch. 13.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Dane C. Ortlund. “Sanctification by Justification: The Forgotten Insight of Bavinck and Berkouwer on Progressive Sanctification.” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 28, no. 1 (Spring 2010).
[15] Michael Allen. New Studies in Dogmatics: Sanctification (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
[16] Ibid. 52.
[17] G.C. Berkouwer. Studies in Dogmatics: Faith and Sanctification (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co), 12.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Michael Allen. New Studies in Dogmatics: Sanctification (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 170.
[20] G.C. Berkouwer. Studies in Dogmatics: Faith and Sanctification (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co), 42.
[21] Ibid. 93.
[22] Ibid. 78-79.
[23] Dane C. Ortlund. “Sanctification by Justification: The Forgotten Insight of Bavinck and Berkouwer on Progressive Sanctification.” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 28, no. 1 (Spring 2010).
[24] Herman Bavinck. Reformed Dogmatics Vol. IV: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic), 243.
[25] Herman Bavinck. Reformed Dogmatics Vol. IV: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic), 243.
[26] G.C. Berkouwer. Studies in Dogmatics: Faith and Sanctification (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co), 22.
[27] Herman Bavinck. Reformed Dogmatics Vol. IV: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic), 96.
[28] G.C. Berkouwer. Studies in Dogmatics: Faith and Sanctification (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co), 27-28.
[29] Ibid. 27.
[30] G.C. Berkouwer. Studies in Dogmatics: Faith and Sanctification (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co), 23.
[31] Ibid. 28-29.
[32] Ibid. 29.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Ibid. 49. 
[35] G.C. Berkouwer. Studies in Dogmatics: Faith and Sanctification (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co), 48.
[36] Ibid.
[37] Ibid. 63.
[38] Ibid. 48.
[39] Ibid. 61.
[40] Ibid.  63.
[41] The Heidelberg Catechism (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth), Lord’s Day 44.
[42] Ibid.

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