Gordon Clark “Sanctification”

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Book Review by Felipe Diez III

“Sanctification” was published posthumously in 1992 by The Trinity Foundation

This blog post will include some thoughts and quotes from Gordon Clark in his book simply entitled “Sanctification.” What follows is what I believe to be his teachings on the subject in the context of a review of the book itself, including quotes I found to be important. For Clark,  Sanctification is by and through propositional knowledge. Although Clark does not negate the role of sensation in the whole of the acquisition of knowledge, as a part of his Scripturalist system, one can only know a sensation propositionally, and one is able to formally know at all through Christ, who enlightens everyone that comes into the world (John 1:9). This post will not concentrate on Clark’s Scripturalist system although his teaching on Sanctification (Which is based on standard Calvinism) includes traces of his epistemological system implicitly peppered throughout much of his writings, including this 100 page plus tractate.

Clark is a monergist and postulates man’s total passivity in God’s Sovereign act to save a person in time, as any good Westminster Calvinist will no doubt assert. This quote follows his short assertion concerning regeneration:

“Co-temporaneously, God does something else that is not a change in man at all. Justification is an instantaneous judicial act of acquittal. Sanctification, however, is neither instantaneous, nor is a man passive therein. It is not instantaneous because it is a time-consuming, subjective, life-long process. Nor is it an act of God alone, but it is also the activity of the regenerated man. Both God and man are active. Sanctification is the Christian life.”

Here, Clark is not teaching a cooperative sanctification where God does His part and man follows with his own part. Clark is assuming that Sanctification is not Monergistic in the same sense as regeneration and justification are. Man is not passive in sanctification since it entails a progressive process. Clark teaches that God removes sin and causes a man to persevere. God does not “persevere” for that man, yet God does not leave the man to autonomously perform his act in cooperation with God, as is present in many Arminian and Roman systems. Clark supplies us with these verses pertaining to Monergistic conversion by knowledge of the law unto believing and doing the law (yet not justification by law):

Psalm 19:7 – The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul.

Psalm 51:13 – Then I will teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners shall be converted unto thee.

Isaiah 6:10 – Make the heart of this people fat…lest they understand with their hearts and convert.

Clark continues: “These three OT verses indicate that turning to the Lord, or conversion, depends on understanding his laws. If a person does not understand, his fatty heart will not turn.” Clark marshals yet another verse, Matthew 13:15 “This people’s heart is waxed gross…and their eyes have they closed, lest at any time they…should understand with their heart and should be converted.” Then Clark states that “…unless a person understands – not botany or mathematics, but theology – he cannot be converted.”

A person may at first retort: “Is Clark teaching doctrinal regeneration? After all, Clark’s definition of saving faith is ‘assent to propositions’ so is God’s mysterious converting work being here ignored?” This, however, is not so. Clark never teaches that saving faith is a simple autonomous understanding, but that it is a Sovereign work of God. Without God’s changing the heart of the sinner, nobody will “assent to any theology” because Clark’s view of “assent” implies a supernatural work of God, unlike the ability to assent to a mathematical problem. One must then not charge Clark with teaching doctrinal regeneration (also known as doctrinal neo-gnosticism). In a Trinity Foundation website downloadable lecture, I heard Clark speak about the simplicity of faith wherein there are no strong minimum requirements to know in order for a person to be converted (such as knowledge of the Trinity). I did not know much about the Trinity when I was converted, but I grew in knowledge and agreed with it. Clark’s view of saving faith is therefore not that of the doctrinal regenerationists.

When Clark states “unless a person understands…theology – he cannot be converted,” he, as a Calvinist, assumes that God has done a sovereign work in a person logically prior to her or him being able to understand theology. The opposite would be a non-believer who seems to understand a theological proposition but does not obey or truly believe the Bible. One can question if they truly understand or just seem to understand. To clear things up, in lectures and books, Clark teaches that Saul of Tarsus, prior to his conversion, understood what the Christians were saying, but did not believe it. Had Saul not understood, he would not have become so angry at their teaching. Later, during conversion, Paul believed. So what Clark means in his book “Sanctification,” is that one must believe theology to be saved. (It would have been better if Clark had been consistent with himself and used the term “believe” as he does in other writings and speeches). To reiterate, his teaching that regeneration (conversion) is “believing theological propositions” assumes that God has done a monergistic work. Therefore, Clark cannot be charged with “easy believism.”

But let’s go back to Matthew 13:15. A person might object that “understand with their hearts” denotes a deep existential experience – a mystery. Clark replies that the phrase “understand with their hearts” is not taken to mean “faith” because: “If the phrase “understand with their hearts is taken to mean faith, the conclusion will be that faith temporarily precedes regeneration. But the verse says no such thing. First of all, note that God may, but need not, use means to accomplish His ends.” He explains further, “a condition preceding faith is an understanding of the propositions to be believed. No one can believe that of which he knows nothing.” In other words, Clark is teaching that faith is not a nebulous existential emotional experience devoid of understanding of theological propositions. Also, in a logical sense, regeneration precedes faith, and regeneration gives is the ability to believe, and “belief” is not devoid of content. It seems, at times, that Clark is undermining the emotional aspect of regeneration. He does not do so explicitly for the sake of being a rationalist. Clark is simply reacting to a common charismatic and Arminian understanding of faith, especially when touted by Christian existentialists. Clark does accept that regeneration is not a robotic experience. One truly feels relief from being forgiven, and a person’s quality of life may improve, causing them to feel happy. But “feeling” is not anti-propositional. One must know what one feels in order to feel it. Faith is believing what one understands, and one understands the theological propositions. Faith will then cause one to obey. Conversely, a philosopher or theologian may understand a theory that he does not hold to.

Pelagius

Clark takes both pelagianism and semi-pelagianism to harsh task in the book:

“Romanism holds that man was created morally neutral, but then God gave Adam an extra gift of righteousness. This hardly makes sin any more understandable. Whether righteousness was original or a later gift has no bearing on the matter. The paradox is how a perfectly righteous being could sin. The same problem occurs with the initial sin of the now fallen angels.”

The context of this quote is a response to the problem of how Adam could have sinned without a sinful nature. This is beyond the scope of this blog post, but Clark attacks the Pelagian and Romanist belief that Adam was created neutral. Pelagius militated against both original sin and federal headship in Adam. He taught that Adam’s body was mortal and that death was not (and is not) a punishment for sin. I wonder, though, how Pelagius and others would explain why infants die, if they hold to their position or to an “age of accountability.” Pelagius, negating that we sin because we have a sinful nature inherited from Adam since before we are born, attributes sin to a choice of our free wills. The problem lies in Pelagius’s definition of sin, which is “a voluntary transgression of the law.” Biblical theology, however, exemplified in the Reformed creeds, holds that sin is “any want of conformity to God.” This places a much higher bar on sin, righteousness, and sanctification (the topic of the book). Our wills are bound and unconverted humans are spiritually dead.

Clark continues his assault by citing problems with the document of the council of Trent and its anti-Augustinian theology. One problem with the consequences of Trent on sanctification is quoted here:

“By intention of the priest the holy water regenerates the infant. This has one distressing consequence. Since it is the intention of the priest that validates the baptism, the parents can never be sure if their child has been baptized.” Clark then touches upon the Roman theology of “works of supererogation” (extra merit of the blood of Christ among other things). Clark states:

“These so-called works of supererogation are deposited in the Treasury of the Saints and are later issued, by order of the Pope, to other sinners who have not done enough. In this way Rome teaches that although Christ’s sacrifice is necessary to salvation, it is not sufficient. Additional human merits must be added.”

This is why absolution, sacramental theology, and penance play a vital role in Roman Catholic sanctification – a practice that is neither biblical nor apostolic. A Roman Catholic apologist can emphatically state that the work of Christ is finished and sufficient, but their practical theology will negate this. It is only the Reformed view of sanctification that takes the whole bible into account and gives total hope for the sinner in sanctification. Clark then deals with Wesleyan views of sanctification (perfectionism and what seems like practical legalism) which form a part of how many Arminians view the Christian life. Consistent Arminianism poses a serious problem. Clark highlights this by providing an anecdote:

“Once I had a very friendly conversation with a college professor who was strongly Arminian. I remarked that one difference between Calvinism and Arminianism was that the latter denied the possibility of assurance. “Not so,” he replied, “I’m right now completely assured of my salvation. If I should die this moment, I know I would go to heaven. Of course,” he continued, “if I should live until tomorrow or next week, I do not know whether I shall be saved or not.”

Clark continues by stating that it is not psychological assurance of salvation that causes or persuades us to know we are saved, but it is a belief in the propositions of Scripture first and foremost. One is assured that the bible is true before one begins to attempt to examine personal fruits. He then attacks any notion of a believer being able to fall away from the faith with Psalm 84:5-7, “Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee in whose heart are the ways of them…They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God.” Psalm 94:14 states: “The Lord will not cast off his people, neither will he forsake his inheritance.” Psalm 125:1-2 states, “They that trust in the Lord shall be as Mount Zion, which cannot be removed, but abideth forever. As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord is round about his people from henceforth even forever.” These verses do not speak of the perseverance of nameless, faceless people that end up as “the elect” at the end of time whom God foresees will have faith, but did not predestinate.

A vital part of sanctification concerns the sacraments. The two sacraments are means of sanctifying grace, namely, baptism and the Lord’s supper. Presbyterian infant baptism (Clark is a Presbyterian) separates (sanctifies in the sense of separation) the infant and gives him the sign of the covenant promise – the sign of the ingrafting into the body (not the effectual union of ingrafting itself, which is a baptismal justification / regeneration not present in Calvinist theology). The child, however, is not always converted, and there are some Esaus among the baptized covenant children. The Jacobs (predestined to be converted) are converted and then sanctification (the Christian life) takes place after regeneration. Those are the two aspects of sanctification usually discussed in Presbyterian circles, namely, the separation (covenant promise), and what happens in the Christian life post-conversion. An “Esau” (non-elect), however, obviously will not experience the Christian life since he would not be regenerated at all. Clark discusses Calvin’s view of the Lord’s supper and distinguishes justifying grace from sanctifying grace. Non-sacramental means include the fellowship of the saints, sitting under preaching, personal and group devotions, etc. God uses all these means of sanctification to accomplish the sure end – that all of those that He predestined would be glorified infallibly.

In the conclusion section of the book, Clark finalizes his thesis: “Chapter XIII of the Westminster Confession emphasizes the fact that we are sanctified by God, not by our own efforts [I will add not even by God plus our own efforts]. Our imperfect obedience to the moral law is a result of that sanctification [wrought by God], not because of it.” [brackets mine].

Here is that chapter of the confession:

I. They who are effectually called and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened, in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.

II. This sanctification is throughout in the whole man, yet imperfect in this life: there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part, whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.

III. In which war, although the remaining corruption for a time may much prevail, yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome: and so the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

The final verse of the book is most appropriate: “Sanctify them by your truth. Your word is truth.” (John 17:17)

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