Is Sin Really All That Bad?

One would expect any Christian to answer the question posed in the title with an affirmative and immediate, “Yes!” However, the daily decisions we make often tell another story.

We’re quick to recoil when we hear of horrific acts committed against children, marital infidelity, cold-blooded murder, or, you know, other really bad sins–especially, the sins of others. Yet, it’s our own day-to-day living, in both the major and the mundane, that we are often slow to consider. At times, we fail to measure the words we speak, the attitudes we choose, or the media we consume against the standard of God’s Word. It’s often in the name of cultural engagement that we capitulate to content that has no place in the life of a follower of Christ. After all, it’s much easier to row with the current of our culture than paddle upstream.

While preparing to teach at our church’s young adult community, I was reading through Ralph Venning’s The Sinfulness of Sin. Venning, a Puritan and English non-conformist, had a steadfast desire that Christ be exalted and that any measure of sin be–as it should–abhorred. Here are a few of his remarks that struck me as I read:

“One may suffer and not sin, but it is impossible to sin and not to suffer.”

“Sin can do, without the Devil, that which the Devil cannot do without sin, and that is, undo men [and women].”

“Sin is an evil beyond the skill and power of all creation to cure and to cleanse.”

It is clearly evident that Venning has considered carefully what divine Scripture reveals in no casual terms–that sin, in any measure, is utterly and totally evil.

Contemplate the words of Christ in Matthew 5:29-30

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

Jesus makes it clear that sin is not be tolerated (see esp., Eph. 5:3, 11). Sin must be dealt with swiftly and severely. Think of it…if I were to deal with sin as seriously as Christ commands above, others would surely take notice and likely consider me both foolish and fanatical. The question is, are we willing to be obedient, or is our greater concern what others will think?

Friend, every decision you make either serves to edify or erode your heart, and must be made with the utmost care (see Prov. 4:23-27). There is no such thing as the “neutral” Christian life. You’re either, by grace, pursuing “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Or, because any measure of sin is being tolerated, grievously, you’re moving backward.

Believer, in all of this, remember that you stand securely before the throne of grace solely on the merits of Christ by faith. Indeed, it’s in recognizing the putrid nature of our sin that allows us to view Christ in all his glorious sweetness. Therefore, in view of God’s rich grace toward us in Christ Jesus, let us make it our daily practice to make choices that will stir our affection for Christ, making no room for sin. Or, as John Owen has said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”

Venning’s The Sinfulness of Sin is available for free, in PDF format, here.


Obedience…Not “Victory”

Jerry Bridges, in his classic The Pursuit of Holiness, offers some convicting and clarifying words relating to the process of Christian growth:

“It is time for us Christians to face up to our responsibility for holiness. Too often we say we are “defeated” by this or that sin. No, we are not defeated; we are simply disobedient! It might be well if we stopped using the terms “victory” and “defeat” to describe our progress in holiness. Rather we should use the terms “obedience” and “disobedience.” When I say I am defeated by some sin, I am unconsciously slipping out from under my responsibility. I am saying something outside of me has defeated me. But when I say I am disobedient, that places the responsibility for my sin squarely on me. We may, in fact, be defeated, but the reason we are defeated is because we have chosen to disobey. We have chosen to entertain lustful thoughts, or to harbor resentment, or to shade the truth a little. We need to brace ourselves up, and to realize that we are responsible for our thoughts, attitudes, and actions. We need to reckon on the fact that we died to sin’s reign, that it no longer has any dominion over us, that God has united us with the risen Christ in all His power, and has given us the Holy Spirit to work in us. Only as we accept our responsibility and appropriate God’s provisions will we make any progress in our pursuit of holiness.”

(From The Pursuit of Holiness – Chapter 8)

Forgiveness and the Fear of God

I’m grateful to be a part of Cornerstone Church of LincolnWay.  Our pastor, Arvid Svendsen, leads a Bible study on Friday mornings, at the McDonald’s on Maple St/Lincoln Hwy, in New Lenox, IL.  (If you’re in the area, join us at 6AM…it’s open to anyone!).  This morning we considered the relationship between “the fear of the Lord” and “progressive sanctification”.  In the course of our study, I began to think of a somewhat peculiar passage in Psalm 130

“If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,

O Lord, who could stand?

But with you there is forgiveness,

that you may be feared.”

(Psalm 130:3-4, ESV, emphasis mine)

It seems rather counterintuitive that forgiveness would lead to fear.  My first thought would be that forgiveness would lead to comfort, joy, and relief…but fear?  Yes, fear.

Octavius Winslow, in a sermon on Psalm 130:4, entitled “Forgiveness and Fear”, brilliantly illustrates and explains this seemingly peculiar and paradoxical relationship.

Winslow states:

“But there remains a clause in this verse of the psalm pregnant with the deepest and holiest instruction: “There is forgiveness with You, that You may be FEARED.” “How can this be?”, exclaims the unreflecting mind. Fear, the fruit and effect of pardon! It is an incongruity—a paradox! And yet such is the word of God, and as such we believe and accept it. How, then, are we to interpret the clause? A holy, filial, loving fear of God is ever the effect of His full and free forgiveness of sin; it is the natural, spontaneous and blessed result. All fear, if apart from a sense of pardoned sin, is legal, servile, and slavish; it is not the fear of a forgiven sinner, of a pardoned child. The pardoned soul sees in the grace of the act, such a display of God’s holiness and hatred of sin, such an unfolding of His grace and love, as at once inspires a holy, reverential, and child-like fear of offending Him. Never did the believing soul see sin’s exceeding sinfulness, love’s amazing greatness, and grace’s fullness and freeness, as when first it saw and felt it in a sense of God’s pardon. Oh, there is no human act which has such a tendency to melt, subdue, and win the whole being as that of forgiveness, be it judicial or parental, human or Divine. A heart that has become hardened in crime and steeped in sin, whom no reasoning could convince and no discipline could subdue, has at length been melted by mercy, conquered by forgiveness, and enchained by love. I quote an illustration of this truth.

A soldier was brought before his commanding officer for a misdemeanor frequently committed and as frequently punished. He had been tried, flogged, and imprisoned; but, imperative and stern as military discipline is, all to no purpose. He was an old and incorrigible offender, whom no threats could dismay, and no infliction reform. As the officer was about to repeat his punishment, the sergeant stepped forward, and, apologizing for the liberty he took, said, “Sir, there is one thing which has never been done with him yet.” “What is that?” enquired the officer. “He has never been forgiven.” Surprised at the suggestion, and yet struck with its force, the officer meditated for a moment, then ordered the culprit before him. “What have you to say to the charge?” “Nothing, sir, only I am sorry for what I have done.” “Well, we have decided to inflict no punishment on this occasion, but to try what forgiveness will do.” The criminal, struck dumb with astonishment, burst into tears, and sobbed like a child. And what was the effect? From that moment he was another and a changed man. No longer the inveterate and hardened offender- a plague to his regiment and a dishonor to the service he became one of the most well-behaved and orderly men that ever wore the uniform or bore the standard of his sovereign. Forgiven, he became loyal and obedient: respect for military rule, and the fear of dishonoring the service and degrading himself, henceforth became to him a law and a shield.

A similar incident in the life of Dr. Doddridge illustrates the same truth. Believing that there were extenuating circumstances in the case of a condemned criminal awaiting execution in Northampton Jail, Dr. Doddridge waited upon George III, and petitioned for his life. It was granted. Hastening back to his cell, he read the king’s order of reprieve. The pardoned criminal rose, fell at his feet, and, clasping his person, exclaimed, “Oh, Sir! I am your servant, your slave for life! For you have purchased every drop of my blood.” And shall a human forgiveness thus conquer, thus win, and thus inspire the fear of offending? O Lord, “there is forgiveness with You; for You have cast all my sins behind Your back, that I may serve You with reverence and godly fear all the days of my life, and henceforth to be Your servant, Your child forever!” Oh what a corrective of sin, what a motive to fear, what an incentive to obedience is God’s forgiveness! “There is FORGIVENESS with You, that You may be FEARED.”

That which gives us the clearest, deepest, and most solemn view and conviction of God’s holiness and love, inspires the most effectually a holy, filial, loving fear to offend Him. And where shall we find such an awful display of His holiness, and such overpowering demonstration of His love, as in the cross of Christ? Men do not fear God because they have no view of His holiness, no sense of His mercy, and no experience of His love. But God’s forgiveness of sin furnishes the believer with the most convincing argument and with the most persuasive motive to live a pure, a holy, and a godly life. “The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ”(Titus 2:11-13).” (emphases mine)

If you’re interested in reading more of Winslow’s work, consider Soul Depths and Soul Heights: Sermons on Psalm 130 and No Condemnation in Christ Jesus.

The Fittest Tools for Fighting Sin

While we’re on the topic of killing sin in the life of the believer (see last post), I thought I’d pass along a deeply encouraging passage from one of the greatest sermons ever written on the expulsion of sin from the Christian’s heart.

“The Expulsive Power of a New Affection” by Scottish Presbyterian minister, Thomas Chalmers, is one of the most significant pieces ever written on the sanctifying power of the gospel.  Noting the futility of our efforts to kill sin simply by a moralistic, “try-harder” attempt to rid the heart of impurity, Chalmers offers a better way.

To summarize his message, he writes that in order to successfully put away a sinful affection, we must replace that affection with a new affection so great and glorious, it forces the sinful affection to be subordinated and obliterated.  Because the heart cannot move from a sinful affection to no affection at all, it will, by its very nature, move on to another.  We must choose then, by the power of the Spirit, to replace our old affections with the beauty and glory of the love of God demonstrated in the person and work of Christ.

Near the end of his sermon, Chalmers writes:

The object of the Gospel is both to pacify the sinner’s conscience, and to purify his heart; and it is of importance to observe, that what mars the one of these objects, mars the other also. The best way of casting out an impure affection is to admit a pure one; and by the love of what is good, to expel the love of what is evil. Thus it is, that the freer the Gospel, the more sanctifying is the Gospel; and the more it is received as a doctrine of grace, the more will it be felt as a doctrine according to godliness. This is one of the secrets of the Christian life, that the more a man holds of God as a pensioner, the greater is the payment of service that he renders back again. On the tenure of “Do this and live,” a spirit of fearfulness is sure to enter; and the jealousies of a legal bargain chase away all confidence from the intercourse between God and man; and the creature striving to be square and even with his Creator, is, in fact, pursuing all the while his own selfishness, instead of God’s glory; and with all the conformities which he labours to accomplish, the soul of obedience is not there, the mind is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed under such an economy ever can be. It is only when, as in the Gospel, acceptance is bestowed as a present, without money and without price, that the security which man feels in God is placed beyond the reach of disturbance—or, that he can repose in Him, as one friend reposes in another—or, that any liberal and generous understanding can be established betwixt them—the one party rejoicing over the other to do him good—the other finding that the truest gladness of his heart lies in the impulse of a gratitude, by which it is awakened to the charms of a new moral existence.

Salvation by grace—salvation by free grace—salvation not of works, but according to the mercy of God—salvation on such a footing is not more indispensable to the deliverance of our persons from the hand of justice, than it is to the deliverance of our hearts from the chill and the weight of ungodliness.Retain a single shred or fragment of legality with the Gospel, and we raise a topic of distrust between man and God. We take away from the power of the Gospel to melt and to conciliate. For this purpose, the freer it is, the better it is. That very peculiarity, which so many dread as the germ of antinomianism, is, in fact, the germ of a new spirit, and a new inclination against it. Along with the light of a free Gospel, does there enter the love of the Gospel, which, in proportion as we impair the freeness, we are sure to chase away. And never does the sinner find within himself so mighty a moral transformation, as when under the belief that he is saved by grace, he feels constrained thereby to offer his heart a devoted thing, and to deny ungodliness. To do any work in the best manner, we should make use of the fittest tools for it. (emphasis mine)

If you’re interested in reading more of Chalmers’ work, check out the Letters of Thomas Chalmers.

Packer on Personal Prayer (…and how it kills sin)

The 2012 Desiring God National Conference is entitled, “Act The Miracle: God’s Work and Ours in the Mystery of Sanctification”.  There are a handful of great videos previewing the topics and speakers for this year’s conference available HERE.

One video I found particularly interesting and helpful is that of J.I. Packer noting the sin-killing power of personal prayer in the life of the believer. In his book, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, Packer writes, “The activity by which the Christian directly secures the mortification of his sins is prayer.”  Packer expands on this in the brief video below…

(HT: Desiring God)

More Resources by J.I. Packer


Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs

Knowing God


A Grief Sanctified: Through Sorrow to Eternal Hope

Christian Living

Keep In Step With the Spirit: Finding Fullness in Our Walk with God


Yesterday, I posted my review of the first volume in the Lectio Continua Expository Commentary on the New Testament series: Galatians, by J.V. Fesko.  Today we have the privilege of interacting with Dr. Fesko, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary California.  Dr. Fesko kindly took time to answer a few questions about some of the major themes in the letter to the Galatians and his commentary.

KF: How would you summarize Paul’s main concern as he writes to the churches of Galatia?

JVF: Paul wanted the Galatian churches to know that Christ, alone, is the foundation for our salvation and that we cannot contribute any of our good works to that foundation. Paul’s concern is evident in his spine-chilling warning that anyone who teaches another gospel, even an angel from heaven, is liable to God’s curse (Gal. 1:8-9).

KF: What were the circumstances that led to the drift from the true, biblical gospel among the Galatian churches?  Can you cite any examples of modern false gospels that are prevalent in the church?  How can we avoid such error?

JVF: The false teachers taught the Galatians that circumcision was necessary for salvation in addition to believing in Christ. The false teachers taught a faith + works = salvation view of things. In the case of the Galatians it was circumcision but in our own context we bring different things to the table, such as our own sense of self-worth or even something that is biblical, but misused, such as good works. A person can think, “I’m saved by grace, but I know that since my doctrine is orthodox, this commends me more than the person next to me who has incorrect doctrine.” This is an inflated sense of self-worth. We can also think, “God will look upon me more favorably because I try to love my neighbor.” We are commanded to love our neighbor, but not as the means by which we curry God’s favor but rather as the fruit of the salvation we have already received in Christ.

How do we avoid such errors? We must constantly seek Christ—in Christ alone we find redemption. As we read of the law’s condemnation of sin and behold ourselves in the mirror of the law, we can see how frequently we fall short and how desperately we need Christ. We can flee to Christ by faith, not only for our entry-point to salvation but also throughout the entirety of the Christian life—until we die or Christ returns. In so doing we realize that who we are in Christ, and the benefits that we receive in him, chiefly justification and sanctification, among other benefits, we find redemption and a safe haven from false idols. As the Westminster Confession states, “The principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace” (WCF XIV.ii). And we seek Christ through his appointed means, Word and sacrament. That is, we find the grace of the gospel in the preached Word, either audibly to our ears, or to our other senses through the sacraments—through water, bread, and wine.

KF: How important is the Old Testament to Paul’s discourse as he writes this letter?  Would you briefly touch on some of the more prevalent OT motifs that Paul incorporates, and how they enrich our understanding of the redemptive work God has done for us in Christ?

JVF: Paul’s Bible was his Old Testament. If you were to ask him to quote the Bible, he would have undoubtedly quoted the Old Testament. If you pricked his finger, he bled Old Testament Scripture, themes, and its narratives. At a number of points Paul cites a series of Old Testament texts in his discussion of justification by faith alone, such as Deuteronomy 27:26, Psalm 143:1, Habakkuk 2:4, Leviticus 18:5, Deuteronomy 21:23, Genesis 12, 15, 17, 22, Joel 2:28, and Isaiah 32:15 (Gal. 3:10-14). He cites at least seven different Old Testament texts, if not more, in the span of five verses. Paul also refers to the Genesis narrative with his appeal to Hagar and Sarah as types that represent Mt. Sinai and Zion (the Jerusalem above) (Gal. 4:21-31). And at key points Paul employs language that is evocative of Israel’s Old Testament exodus and wilderness wanderings when he characterizes the law as something that held Israel in captivity and bondage (e.g., Gal. 4:8ff), but through Christ they have been set free to “walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16ff). In a word, the reader of Galatians really has to know his Old Testament to appreciate fully Paul’s epistle.

KF: You cite, on several occasions, that our faith is “extraspective” in nature.  Can you explain what is meant by that term?

JVF: I believe John Murray coined the term, but extraspective is the antonym to introspective. When we are introspective we look within but when we are extraspective we look without, outside of ourselves. Far too many are introspective when it comes to their salvation—they seek salvation by themselves—looking within to something they themselves can do to somehow scale the heights of heaven. But Paul, by contrast, presents salvation as an extraspective reality—we must look outside of ourselves to what Christ has done on our behalf. Hence, faith is extraspective because it looks outside of a person to Christ as the author and finisher of our salvation.

KF: One of the emphases that may set this commentary apart is your discussion of the new creation motif within the letter.  Why is this theme of new creation so important to Paul as he addresses the Galatians?

Dr. John V. Fesko

JVF: Paul explains that Christ suffered the curse of the law so that the blessings of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, “So that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:14). The Old Testament promised that the Spirit would be poured forth and would renew the creation—the Spirit would bring forth the new heavens and earth and it would be abundantly filled with fruit. But literal fruit was not in view, rather Isaiah was prophesying about the fruit of righteousness filling the earth (e.g., Isa. 32:14-17). So when Paul unpacks the fruit of the Spirit, he has in view the long-promised work of the Spirit. In other words, with the advent of Christ the clock of redemptive history has been irreversibly pushed forward—the new creation has dawned with the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, and he has poured out the Spirit upon the church (e.g., Acts 2:33). This means that the fruit of the Spirit that believers manifest (Gal. 5:22-24) is evidence that the new creation has dawned. The hour-hand has advanced and now reads, “the time of the new creation.”

I think far too many believers look at the fruit of the Spirit merely as a part of their own sanctification rather than as one smaller part in the greater whole of the unfolding narrative of redemptive history. Hence, believers should not only ask, “Who am I in Christ?,” to which we should answer, “A new creature.” But we should also ask, “What time is it?,” to which we should answer, “It is nearly the end of all things as Christ has inaugurated the new heavens and earth in his ministry.”

KF: You note, concerning the fruit of the Spirit in the life of the believer, that some may think that, having been justified by Christ, this fruit is now produced simply through concentrated moral effort.  Would you explain what Paul considers to be the source of this Spirit-wrought fruit?  

JVF: I have addressed this question in my previous answer, but I can restate my answer in these terms, which hopefully give another view upon this vital issue. All too many Reformed Christians believe that there is a distinct Reformed doctrine of justification but that everyone agrees on the doctrine of sanctification. But such an idea is not true—there is a Reformed doctrine of sanctification as well. In other words, people can have unbiblical ideas about the doctrine of sanctification.
If we are saved by grace through faith in Christ (e.g., Eph. 2:8-10), then the grace of the gospel is not only vital for our entry-point into salvation (such as with our justification) but also for the entirety of the Christian life (in my sanctification). There is no point in the Christian life where we are not totally and utterly dependent upon Christ’s gospel. The way in which we will manifest the fruit of the Spirit, therefore, is not through concentrated moral effort but rather through drawing near to Christ through the means of grace. And in drawing near to Christ, we become like the one we worship. Like Moses’ face aglow with the glory of God merely by being in God’s presence, so we are transformed more and more into the holy and righteous image of Christ as we draw near to him in worship. In drawing near to him, then, we are transformed and enabled and equipped to manifest the fruit of the Spirit, grow in our sanctification, and feed our faith so that it might work through love (Gal. 5:6).

KF: As a pastor, professor, scholar, and one who has rigorously studied the letter to the Galatians, and many of Paul’s motifs therein, how did this particular sermon series and the writing of this commentary most impact your life, ministry, and understanding of the gospel?

JVF: I think it has reminded me to two chief things, among many others. First, how desperately we, individually and corporately, need Christ and his gospel. There is no hope without it. And second, it struck me how quickly the Galatian churches abandoned the gospel even though Paul himself planted these churches. It gave me solace to know that Paul faced false teaching and so the false gospels we see in our own day are nothing new. It was also a reminder that the greatest threat to the gospel comes, not from without the church, but within. The Judaizers were wolves in sheep’s clothing. False teaching comes dressed as light, not as the darkness it truly is. I think that far too many think greater threats to the church’s well-being lie outside the church. This is a constant reminder to me in my own ministry to pray that Christ would keep me close and in his grip so that I would not spread false teaching. But it also causes me to pray the same for the church—that we would collectively pray for fidelity to Christ and his gospel.

My sincere thanks to Dr. Fesko for taking the time for this interview.  I trust it’s been as insightful and edifying for you as it has been for me.  If you haven’t already done so, take time to check out my interview with Dr. Jon D. Payne, the series editor of the Lectio Continua commentary.  Great stuff there as well!

Lastly, for more information regarding Dr. Fesko’s commentary on Galatians, and to pick up a copy for yourself or your pastor, CLICK HERE.


Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine (P & R, 2008)

The Fruit of the Spirit is… (Evangelical Press, 2011)

Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism (Reformation Heritage, 2010)

Last Things First: Unlocking Genesis 1-3 with the Christ of Eschatology (Christian Focus/Mentor, 2007)

REVIEW: Galatians (LCECNT) by J.V. Fesko

Dr. J.V. Fesko, Academic Dean, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary California, and minister at Geneva Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is the first commentator to be published in the new expository commentary series from Tolle Lege Press, The Lectio Continua Expository Commentary on the New Testament (LCECNT)As an expository commentary, the volume is composed of 22 of Dr. Fesko’s sermons on Galatians.  Preaching through the entirety of the letter to the churches in Galatia, Fesko aims to unpack the Apostle Paul’s defense of the true gospel against the false teachers in Galatia.


At the outset, Fesko paints a broad picture of all that is to come with a helpful introductory chapter where he identifies the main themes of Galatians as justification, sanctification, and eschatology (the study of last things).  Additionally, touching upon the historical background and circumstances that arose at the time of composition, Dr. Fesko gives the reader an accessible understanding of the contextual issues at hand without being over-technical.


Moving through the text, Fesko provides a section by section exposition of the letter.  As is one of the aims of the Lectio Continua series as a whole, the commentary avoids the technicalities of more academic commentaries, and without diminishing substance, provides the reader with a faithful explanation of the text.  Certainly, at this point, Dr. Fesko’s approach to exposition is a training manual of sorts for biblical communicators as it relates to the often difficult ability to interact with scholarship, historical voices, differing interpretations/objections, etc., and yet remaining articulate, balanced, coherent, and practical.  The textual commentary is thus edifying, engaging, and homiletically instructive.

In terms of the major themes addressed in the commentary and mentioned above, several points are worth mentioning.  Fesko’s understanding of the doctrine of justification is of the traditional Reformed perspective, specifically citing the Westminster Confession’s definition.  He briefly interacts with the New Perspective (NPP).

In regard to the doctrine of sanctification, Fesko offers substantial discussion concerning the Spirit’s role in the sanctification of the believer and the import of our union with Christ.  Fesko writes at one point, “Paul drives us to our union with Christ and the work of the Spirit.  As Paul explains, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).  In other words, both justification and sanctification come by faith alone in Christ.  We are no more sanctified by our good works than we are justified by them.  Rather, we look by faith to Christ alone and he saves.  As Paul makes clear, such an approach to redemption in no way mitigates the believer’s need to produce good works,.  Instead, Paul desires to have the Galatians recognize that Christ is the source of their salvation—both in justification and sanctification.”

Perhaps a mark which sets this commentary apart, and which is remarkably helpful, is the time which Dr. Fesko devotes to the importance of Paul’s understanding and use of the OT within his argument.  Drawing on several redemptive-historical, new creational and eschatological motifs, Fesko shows the immense importance of understanding the overall redemptive work of God in Christ.  Specifically, in regard to the fruit of the Spirit, “walking by the Spirit”, and the significance of circumcision, Dr. Fesko explains how each are foreshadowed in the OT and understood in NT perspective as they relate to God’s overall plan of redemption.


Dr. Fesko writes from a thoroughly Reformed perspective.  The redemptive-historical nature of Paul’s argumentation is explained clearly, and the incorporation of the significance of the OT text is both noted and explained throughout.  Dr. Fesko concludes that “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6 is indeed the church as he states that, “only those who belong to Christ are properly called Israel.”  Regardless of where you may come down on this interpretation, the explanation that Dr. Fesko provides for his interpretative conclusion is wonderfully concise, theologically helpful, and practically encouraging.


In sum, Fesko’s volume is a largely helpful commentary on the book of Galatians.  Whether pastor, professor, or layperson, all will indeed benefit from this treatment of the Galatians text.  Overall, this commentary is soaked with gospel goodness.  It’s solid, simple, and straightforward.  Not only will it help you think more deeply about the gospel, but I believe those who read it will become better equipped at speaking more clearly and substantially about what God has done for us in Christ.  It certainly lives up to the aims of the Lectio Continua series in that it is, “rigorously exegetical, God-centered, redemptive-historical, sin-exposing, Gospel-trumpeting and teeming with practical application.”  Insofar as expository commentaries are concerned, it is superb.  I highly recommend it.


Read inside (PDFs):Sample Pages

Publisher: Tolle Lege Press
Author: Fesko, J. V.
ISBN-13: 9780983145776
Binding: Hardcover
List Price: $29.95
BUY NOW at Westminster Bookstore: $26.96 – 10% Off

NOTE: I was provided with a complimentary copy of this title from the publisher for the purpose of review, and was under no obligation to offer a positive review.


Two years ago, today, my beautiful wife, Susan, and I were married.  Over the past two years, the Lord has been working intensely upon our hearts through the gift of marriage; weeding out sin, and forming Christ in us.  Marriage has been both wonderful and difficult.  By God’s good grace, we bought a house, welcomed Gresham David Joseph Fiske, and, in sum, been blessed far beyond what we deserve. I love you, Susan (“my beautiful Berghen”).

Below is a quote that appeared on the back of our wedding program, and is a fitting reminder of God’s good design and gift in marriage:

As you first gave the ring to one another and have now received it a second time from the hand of the pastor, so love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God. As high as God is above man, so high are the sanctity the rights, and the promise of marriage above the sanctity, the rights, and the promise of love. It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison


“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Philippians 2:12-13, ESV

The topic of sanctification has been a hot one as of late.  How is the believer sanctified?  How is sanctification related to justification?  What role does the believer play in his or her sanctification?  Where must the believer’s focus lie in the process of sanctification?  These are a sampling of the questions on the table.  (You may read a few of the discussions here, here, and here.)

When we speak of sanctification, of course, we must remember that there are two sides to the ‘sanctification coin’ as it were.  On the one side, we have what theologians refer to as “definitive sanctification”.  Definitive sanctification being the glorious reality in which, when a person is saved, by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, he or she is once for all set apart as holy to the Lord.  That is, the believer in Christ is, in the truest reality, a saint (see 1 Cor. 1:2).  The Christian is a saint, not because of anything they have done, but because of the faith which they’ve been granted to believe in the redemptive work God has accomplished in his Son.

On the other side of the sanctification coin we have what is referred to as “progressive sanctification.”  Progressive sanctification being the process in which God, by his Spirit, through the means of grace, works sin out of the believer and forms the believer more into the image of Christ.  Progressive sanctification is where much, if not most, of the discussions on the topic of sanctification have been focused.  And the focus has been here for good reason, because when we think about progressive sanctification, the reality of becoming increasingly conformed to the image of God the Son, we must consider what our role is in this process.

Rather than rehash what has already been said (you can catch up by following the links above), I wanted to note two quotes that have been helpful to me in considering the doctrine and process of sanctification…

First, Jerry Bridges, in his new book, The Transforming Power of the Gospel, cites John Owen on the relationship between God’s grace and our duty in the process of sanctification.  Bridges, citing Owen, writes:

“We need to consider our own duty and the grace of God.  Some would separate these things as inconsistent.  If holiness be our duty, there is no room for grace; and if it be an effect of grace, there is no place for duty.  But our duty and God’s grace are nowhere opposed in the matter of sanctification; for the one supposes the other.  We cannot perform our duty without the grace of God [i.e., His enabling power], nor does God give us His grace to any other end than that we may rightly perform our duty.”

[Jerry Bridges, The Transforming Power of the Gospel (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2011), 113.]

Bridges describes the process of sanctification as “dependent responsibility” which I find an incredibly helpful category.

Second, D.A. Carson in his brief exposition of 2 Tim. 3:1-4:8 entitled From the Resurrection to His Return: Living Faithfully in the Last Days, provides us with a full-orbed gospel, one which goes beyond simply the forensic declaration (which some overtly focus on when saying things such as, “sanctification is the process of simply getting used to your justification.”).  Carson writes,

“…when the gospel comes to us it actually does change people. The gospel does not simply declare us to be just on the ground of what Christ has done, for salvation is more than justification. Salvation includes regeneration, Spirit-empowered transformation of life, such that Jesus himself can say, ‘By their fruit you will recognise them’ (Matt. 7:20).”

[Don Carson. From the resurrection to his return (Kindle Locations 114-116). Christian Focus.] NOTE: I’ll be featuring a review of Carson’s book as a part of a Christian Focus Blog Tour in March.

Though we as believers have been set apart as holy because of the atoning, redemptive work of Christ (definitive sanctification), we must continue as those who, having been justified (declared righteous by God, because of the work of Christ on behalf of the elect), are now indwelt and sealed by the Spirit of Christ, with new hearts and new minds, and are, by the Spirit, putting to death the deeds of the body (a la Rom. 8:13) and so continuing to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (progressive sanctification).  In light of the indicative reality of God’s redemptive work in Christ, may we vigorously pursue  a life of worshipful obedience to the gracious imperatives of Scripture, as those who have been brought into saving union with Christ!

On Justification & Sanctification…

Rick Phillips has contributed a very helpful post in light of the recent pastoral/scholarly attention given to the relationship between justification and sanctification as it pertains to faithful gospel preaching.  Below are his “Seven Assertions” along with a brief explanation of each, which were posted earlier today at Reformation21.

Phillips writes:

Some recent posts address the important discussion taking place together regarding the relationship of justification to sanctification (see here and here).  This topic is crucial to us getting the gospel right today while avoiding the deadly extremes of antinomianism (a lawless Christianity) and legalism (a works-oriented Christianity). In an attempt to give clarity to this topic, I would offer these six assertions regarding justification and sanctification:

  1.  Justification and Sanctification are twin benefits that flow from union with Christ through faith.
  2. Justification and Sanctification are distinct but simultaneous.
  3. Justification and Sanctification are both necessary and intrinsic to salvation.
  4. Justification is logically prior to progressive Sanctification.
  5. Justification does not cause Sanctification, but Christ both justifies and sanctifies his people.
  6. In Justification faith is passive and receptive (Gal. 2:16), whereas in Sanctification faith is active.
  7. The law of God functions differently with respect to Justification and Sanctification.

Let me discuss each of these briefly:

(Note: My Scripture references are not meant to be exhaustive, but to point to the main line of biblical support.)

1.   Justification and Sanctification are twin benefits that flow from union with Christ through faith.  Christ is himself the center of the gospel, and through faith we are saved in union with him (Acts 16:31Eph. 1:3).  Justification and Sanctification are distinct benefits flowing through union with Christ by faith alone.  Justification is a legal benefit of our union with Christ, granting us forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through faith alone (Rom. 3:23-26Gal. 2:16).  Sanctification is a Spiritual benefit* of our union with Christ, involving the believer’s transformation into the holy likeness of Christ (Rom. 6:1-14Eph. 4:20-24Tit. 2:12).

* I capitalize Spiritual to emphasize that it is the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.

2.  Justification and Sanctification are distinct but simultaneous.  Justification pertains to the legal problem of sin, providing Christ’s imputed righteousness once for all (Rom. 3:23-25).  A believer will never be more righteous than at the moment when he first believed, since he receives through faith Christ’s perfect and complete righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). Sanctification pertains to the spiritual and moral corruption of sin.  It is both definitive andprogressive.  Definitive sanctification refers to the believer being set apart for and to Christ at the moment of conversion (1 Cor. 6:15-17).  Progressive sanctification refers to the on-going process of becoming holy according to the likeness of Christ (Eph. 4:21-24).  At the moment of saving faith, the Christian is both justified and sanctified (1 Cor. 1:30), definitive sanctification immediately beginning the Spirit’s work of progressive sanctification (Rom. 6:1-14).

3.  Justification and Sanctification are both necessary and intrinsic to salvation.  While Justification and Sanctification are distinct, they are also inseparable in salvation.  A believer cannot be justified without being sanctified (Rom. 6:1-2Eph. 2:8-10).   Through faith alone, sinners are justified in Christ (Gal. 2:16).  But as faith brings us into union with Christ, the Holy Spirit also begins and continues sanctification (1 Cor. 6:15-17Eph. 5:1-211 Thess. 4:1-8).  In other words, while we deny that faith + works = justification, we insist that faith = justification + works (i.e. sanctification)(Eph. 2:8-10).

4.   Justification is logically prior to progressive Sanctification.  This is Calvin’s meaning in describing the doctrine of justification as the hinge on which the door of salvation turns.  By “logically prior,” we mean, for instance, that we will usually address an unbeliever regarding his need for justification before we call him to sanctification.  (Until the sinner is justified through faith, there is little point in discussing his or her sanctification.)  The logical priority of justification is seen in the Book of Romans, where justification is treated first (Rom. 3-5), after which Paul turns to sanctification (Rom. 5-8).  As another example, after the Fall God blocked the entryway to the Garden with the angel and his flaming sword.  This represents the forensic/legal problem of sin for which justification through faith is the answer.  Once passing through this barrier, the believer may eat of the tree of life and dwell in the presence of the Lord, which pertain to his sanctification.

5.  Justification does not cause Sanctification.  Sanctification, like Justification, is caused by union with Christ through faith (Rom. 6:1-14).  Just as Christ justifies, Christ also sanctifies his people (1 Cor. 1:30Col. 3:12-17).  For this reason, the idea that we need only preach justification in order to gain sanctification is contrary to the biblical pattern.  Paul, for instance, does not preach justification so that sanctification will occur, but rather he preaches sanctification itself (Rom. 6:12-1412:1-2, etc.).  Peter also declares “Be holy” (1 Pet. 1:15). This being the case, gospel preaching does not consist merely of preaching Christ for justification, but also consists of preaching Christ for sanctification.

6.  In Justification faith is passive and receptive (Gal. 2:16), whereas in Sanctification faith isactive (Eph. 5:3-21Col. 3:5-11).  In justification, sinners receive the grace of God for forgiveness and righteousness.  In sanctification, believers work out the grace that God works into them (Phil. 2:12-13).  Innumerable New Testament passages urge activity and obligation on the part of the believer in advancing his or her sanctification.  Generally, sanctification is empowered by Christ through the faithful employment of the means of grace: God’s Word, prayer, and the sacraments (Isa. 55:10-11Jn. 17:17Phil. 4:6-71 Cor. 10:16-17).

7.  The law of God functions differently with respect to Justification and Sanctification.  In the service of Justification, the primary purpose of God’s law is to convict us of sin (the law is Calvin’s mirror that shows us that we need the cleansing soap of the gospel; Rom. 2:12;3:23).  This is called “the first use of the law.”  In Sanctification, the primary purpose of the law is instructive: it is the guide for how believers live and honor Christ (Mt. 65:17-48Rom. 8:4;Eph. 5:3-5).  This is “the third use of the law.”  (The “second use of the law” is as a curb to restrain ungodliness.)  All of these uses of the law are legitimate and necessary.

(HT: Burk Parsons & David P. Murray)