Lutheran vs Reformed Sanctification

Lutheran and Reformed approaches to sanctification are often sharply distinguished. The clearest distinction between these two approaches is seen in their respective views on the role of the Law.

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According to the Lutheran view, the Law functions in two ways.

1. The Law Restrains Sin. By threatening evil doers with punishment and promoting safety and order in society, the Law serves to restrain evil and promote goodness.

2. The Law Condemns Sin. Paul teaches us in Romans 5:20 that the Law actually stirs up sin in the human heart. It creates its opposite. The Law is the proverbial mother telling her child not to grab the cookies in the cookie jar. And we all know that story ends.

The Law not only stirs up sin, it also exposes and condemns sin (1 Tim 1:8-11). Like an x-ray that diagnoses a broken bone, the Law diagnoses humanity as sinful and guilty before God. This diagnosis is fatal, and it leaves the sinner completely at the mercy of God to be saved. Only when the sinner has been driven to the grave in condemnation can Christ come to him in the one-way act of justification. Justification is 100-proof grace. It’s grace that is completely uncontaminated by human works. It is one-way love.

For the Lutheran, this second role is not merely meant to drive the sinner to Christ for justification at the beginning of the Christian life. Instead, it is the key to all real growth in the Christian life. Real Christian growth, for the Lutheran, isn’t the process of us learning more and more how to master the Law. Instead, real growth happens only as the Law continually drives us to grave where we experience the unconditional grace of Christ’s forgiveness and love. And it is this process, death and resurrection, over and over again, that teaches the believer to relate to God by grace and ends up producing within the believer what the Law commands. This is why Lutherans so often say that sanctification is nothing more than going deeper into justification. Or said another way, sanctification is the art of living justified before God.


The Reformed view is classically articulated in Calvin’s threefold use of the Law. According to Calvin:

  1. The Law Restrains Sin
  2. The Law Condemns Sin
  3. The Law is a Guide for Christian Living.

You will notice right away that the Lutheran and Reformed views agree on the first two uses of the Law. Where they disagree is in how they conceive of the so called third use of the Law.

On the surface, it’s hard to imagine how Lutherans could actually disagree with this third use. After all, John says that sin is lawlessness (1 Jn 3:4). And if sin is lawlessness, then isn’t the opposite of sin lawfulness? Similarly, Paul concludes in Romans 7:12 that the Law is holy, righteous, and good. It seems clear from scripture, then, that the Law reveals the righteous standards that God expects his people to obey. Furthermore, wasn’t the promise of the New Covenant that God would write his Law on believer’s hearts (Jer 31:33)? It would seem the the second and third uses are merely two sides of the same coin. One side for unbelievers (condemnation) and the other side for believers (guidance).

So why do Lutherans object to viewing the Law as a guide for Christian living?


Part of the answer is found in how Reformed believers typically understand the third use of the Law. The logic of most Reformed folks goes like this: Christians have been saved and indwelt by the Spirit who now empowers them to obey God’s will revealed in the Law.

Another way of stating the Reformed understanding of the Law would be to say that the Law drives us to Christ for justification, and Christ drives us back to Law (now with the help of the Spirit!) for sanctification. Of course, to be fair, Reformed believers are emphatic that this movement back to Law must be understood in the context of the believer’s justification by faith and union with Christ.

So what’s the problem?


The problem with a Reformed approach to sanctification, according to the Lutheran, is not so much in its description of what sanctification is. It is rather in its understanding of how sanctification happens.

Let me explain. Reformed theologians describe what sanctification is perfectly. Sanctification is God saving his people from the penalty of sin and progressively saving them throughout life from the power of sin. The Holy Spirit enables them to obey God’s Law and produces true affections of love for God and others in their hearts. The net result is that believers are conformed into the image of Christ. I might of missed some points, but you get the idea.

But how does this process happen? And here is the massive divide.

For the Reformed, believers are sanctified primarily by obeying God’s Law (summarized as love for God and neighbor) in the power of the Holy Spirit. For Lutherans, however, believers are sanctified primarily by the constant experience of the Law condemning them as sinners and Christ saving them by grace.

The issue is not about what sanctification is. Both sides agree. Sanctification is conformity to the image of Christ. The issue revolves around how sanctification happens. For the former, it happens by trying to obey the Law and succeeding by the power of the Spirit. For the latter, it happens by failing to obey the Law and trusting in Christ anew for salvation. And it is this constant reception of the one-way love of Christ, Lutherans argue, that produce within us very slowly the kinds of attitudes and actions the Law demand.

Question: What do you think about these two views of sanctification? Which one do you think is more biblical? Why?


  1. Reply
    Erik McEntyre says

    This article is so good for its clarity. Whats most interesting to me is that these two views on sanctification are often cited and mis-interpreted by each side, although I have to admit its usually the reformed guy. I’ve heard a few reformed friends and bloggers articulate sanctification in terms of Lutheran perspectives and actually quote folk in the Lutheran camp but claim it as strictly reformed. Interesting to see the divide clearer. Great writing!

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