Author(s)Michael Hayden
Date 23 November 2023
Category LLF resources

There were many speeches made in favour of the Prayers of Love and Faith at the November session of the General Synod which raised my eyebrows. The prize for the most ludicrous, however, goes to Simon Butler. In arguing that it is revisionists who truly stand in the historic inheritance of faith, Butler made the claim, "salvation by works has now become an evangelical doctrine." This was backed up by Miranda Threlfall-Holmes: "Rather, like Simon, I'm baffled by the more Protestant colleagues among us seeming to argue for a theology of salvation by works." What they are saying is that in talking about salvation in the context of the sexuality debate, in pointing out that the Bible explicitly says that people who practice various kinds of sexual immorality will not inherit the kingdom of heaven, we are departing from the doctrine of the Reformation and returning to a theology of salvation by works. We are apparently teaching people that in order to be saved, in order to be justified, they must make themselves good in God's sight by not being gay. It's a serious charge, albeit one made with much glee on their part.

It's also nonsense—as anyone with even a basic understanding of Reformation soteriology could understand.

The Reformers' Doctrine of Justification

In contrast to the Roman Catholic tradition, which at times has displayed little-to-no interest in the doctrine of justification, the early Reformers poured a lot of energy into getting it right. For them, justification was what it was all about. Luther said that justification is "the first and chief article of Christian theology." Calvin famously described it as "the main hinge upon which religion turns." The intense Reformation debates centred on whether we are saved, justified, by the good works that we ourselves do, or whether our justification comes from the righteousness of Christ, displayed on the cross, given to us through faith. Do we save ourselves, or does Christ save us?

For the Reformers, it was clear. Calvin defined it in Book 3, Chapter 17 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion:

"the sinner, received into communion with Christ, is reconciled to God by his grace, while cleansed by Christ's blood, he obtains forgiveness of sins, and clothed with Christ's righteousness as if it were his own, he stands confident before the heavenly judgment seat." (Emphasis added)

This is the teaching of the Church of England. As we read in Article 11 of the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion:

"We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification."

So as Protestants, as Anglicans, our doctrine is that we are not justified, we are not made right in God's sight by our own works. Are Butler and Threlfall-Holmes right, then? In talking about salvation in the context of the sexuality debate, have we abandoned our Reformation heritage? Are we all unwitting Papists, now?

No, I don't think so. There is some imprecise language used in the speeches quoted above. Both Butler and Threlfall-Holmes accuse of us teaching "salvation by works". What we're talking about here, however, is justification. And that's a vital distinction. To reduce salvation to justification is to miss the point. The end of salvation is not merely for us to be declared righteous. That's a step towards the ultimate end: God's glorified, transformed people standing before him, praising him for our redemption. There's a whole lot between justification and glorification. What comes between is sanctification, the process of the Holy Spirit transforming justified people more and more into the likeness of Christ, more like the people Christ died for us to become.

For Calvin, the effects of faith were twofold: justification and sanctification. Faith unites us to Christ, and by that union we receive both justification and sanctification. This "double grace" must be properly distinguished, but cannot be separated. Justification and sanctification must always come together, much as the heat and light of the sun's rays are always found together.

There is great irony in the modern revisionists trying to appeal to the Reformers in their defence, for the Reformers vociferously defended themselves against the charge that justification by faith makes how we live irrelevant! Today's antinomians are appealing to the Reformers, when the Reformers stridently rebutted the charge of antinomianism.

Those who would appeal to Article 11 to say that we shouldn't talk about repentance would do well to read on to Article 12:

"Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God's Judgement; yet they are pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch they by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit."

Or perhaps the Homily Of Faith might clear things up:

Some may soon deceive themselves and think in their own imagination that by faith they know God, love him, fear him, and belong to him, when in actual fact they do no such thing. For the proof of all these things is a truly godly and Christian life.  The one who feels their heart set to seek God’s honour, and studies to know the will and commandments of God, and to frame their lives accordingly, and does not lead their life in pursuit of the desire of their own flesh, to serve the devil by sin, but sets their mind to serve God for his own sake, and for his sake also to love all their neighbours, whether they are friends or adversaries, doing good to everyone (as opportunity serves) and willingly hurting no one: such a person may well rejoice in God, perceiving by the course of their life that they sincerely have the right knowledge of God, a lively faith, a steadfast hope, a true and unfeigned love, and fear of God.

But those who cast away the yoke of God’s commandments from their neck, and give themselves to live without true repentance, pursuing their own sensual mind and pleasure, not caring to know God’s word, and much less to live according to it: such a person clearly deceives themselves, and does not see their own heart if they think that they either know God, love him, fear him, or trust in him. (Emphasis added)

We are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone—and yet salvation does not end at that point. Then comes sanctification, freeing us from our sin and causing us to better reflect the perfect image of Christ. That is the doctrine handed down to us by the Reformers.

Faith Without Works

Whenever I teach on the doctrine of justification, I look at Romans 3:28, "we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law", alongside James 2:17, "So faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." And there is no contradiction here; we need not "so expound one place of Scripture that it be repugnant to another" (Article 20). The faith that brings justification will also bring sanctification.

If we are to preach the whole gospel, and if that is to be good news for everyone, including for those who live with same-sex attraction, then we must get our soteriology right and in its proper order. It's not sufficient just to say that 'this is a salvation issue'—that may only lead to confusion. We need to specify that this is a sanctification issue. Issues of identity and sexuality fall within the category of sanctification, and therein it is right and proper to call people to repentance and amendment of life. Part of what sanctification looks like, for all of us, is learning not to live according to the sinful desires of our flesh, but rather according to the holy pattern of Christ.

Cheap grace

If we don't talk about this as a sanctification issue, we sell people a cheap gospel. As Bonhoeffer argued in The Cost of Discipleship:

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks' wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church's inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits.


Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

A cheap gospel is one that reduces the gospel to justification and glorification, and misses out everything in between.

The Beautiful Story

The biblical gospel, as understood by the Church catholic, is a far better story than that being offered by the revisionists in the sexuality debate. Dead sinners, enemies of God, being united to Christ and clothed in his righteousness, washed by his blood, transformed into his likeness bit-by-bit until the day he presents the Church to himself without spot or blemish (Ephesians 5:25-27)—that story is beautiful and exciting.

We are not teaching salvation by works when we teach that all forms of sexual immorality are to be repented of and mortified. We are teaching the biblical gospel, the gospel that spans the whole golden chain of salvation. In teaching about sexuality and identity, let's teach the full, beautiful, Biblical gospel—the gospel that both justifies and sanctifies us, that we may be glorified with Christ.