Prof. Russell Dykstra, pastor of Byron Center Protestant Reformed Church in Byron Center, Michigan and professor emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary

Doctrine and life

The serious-minded Christian lives out of his or her beliefs. Ideally, what one believes should determine how one thinks and lives. Reformed theology, therefore, should shape the thinking, attitudes, lifestyle, and choices of a Reformed Christian.

This is especially true when a Christian experiences adversity. When he encounters deep sorrow, pain, loss, hardship, disappointment or discouragement, his faith carries him through. This faith stands on the Rock which is Christ. This faith relies on God’s strength. This faith believes something or rather, believes in Someone. And what the Christian believes will shape his response to the adversity. That leads to the question, how will the doctrine of justification by faith alone direct a suffering believer in adversity?

Consider that question also from the perspective of the Reformed pastor. The Reformed pastor’s preaching is grounded in the doctrine of justification. If every sermon does not specifically mention justification by faith, and it will not, the sermon must set forth Christ crucified, and that is justification. Will this vital doctrine also guide the counsel he gives to those who mourn, suffer emotional and/or physical pain, are anxious, or are rebelling?

My answer is, It ought to. The rest of this article is devoted to demonstrating how and why justification by faith is a proper ground of pastoral work.

The confidence of the pastor

First, justification by faith alone gives the pastor hope in his working with each sinner/saint. Let it be clear at the outset that the pastor’s hope and confidence is always and only in the Bible and in the Spirit’s application of God’s Word. His confidence is never in himself, in his experience, or in previous “successes.” Never. In fact, the pastor, conscious of his weaknesses and of his failures in pastoral work, hesitates even to take on counseling. But if there will be any help given, any improvement, any advance, it will be by the Word of God that the Spirit uses. Without the Word of God the pastor has nothing to bring.

The doctrine of justification by faith alone gives him confidence in pastoral work partly because of the relation between justification and sanctification. Justification is well defined and explained in other articles in this issue, but what is sanctification? Sanctification is God’s work in and upon an elect, justified sinner, that delivers the sinner from the power and corruption of sin, makes him to be holy, and makes him sincerely willing and able to live unto God in all good works.

Justification and sanctification are inseparable. Justification is the ground of sanctification. Because Christ paid for the sins of His chosen people, He has the right also to free them from the bondage and corruption of sin. And He does, for Christ is a complete Savior. He saves from the guilt of sin and its punishment, but also from its power and corruption.

That is why justification and sanctification go together always. Those whom Christ justifies He also sanctifies. Both of these works of God are “by faith.” The Belgic Confession, after clearly explaining justification by faith alone, immediately makes the connection to sanctification in Article 24, entitled “Man’s Sanctification and Good Works.” The article begins,

We believe that this true faith, being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God and the operation of the Holy Ghost, doth regenerate and make him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin.

The Confession adds that “it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man” and that this “faith that worketh by love…excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word.” Sanctification by faith inevitably follows justification by faith.

The Belgic Confession follows the clear teaching of the great Reformers like John Calvin. Calvin wrote,

Christ justifies no man without also sanctifying him. These blessings are conjoined by a perpetual and inseparable tie. Those whom he enlightens by his wisdom he redeems; whom he redeems he justifies; whom he justifies he sanctifies…. Though we distinguish between them, they are both inseparably comprehended in Christ. Would you then obtain justification in Christ? You must previously possess Christ. But you cannot possess him without being made a partaker of his sanctification: for Christ cannot be divided.1

This knowledge is tremendously important for the pastor. The justified sinner in his study is also sanctified. The Spirit of Christ is in him or her. The old man of sin is crucified with Christ.

The crucial importance is obvious because virtually all pastoral counseling deals with sin in some form—sins committed by the man in the study, or sins against him. Sin in marriage, sin in single life; sins of children; sins of addictions, abuse, bitterness and rebellion, being overwhelmed by troubles and sorrows emotionally and spiritually like Jacob—“all these things are against me” (Gen. 42:36). Sin. If there were no sin in the world, no one would ever appear at the pastor’s door for counseling.

Sin connects pastoral work to justification. Justification is all about sin, consisting as it does in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.2 The Reformed pastor does well to ground his counseling on this vital doctrine. Let us examine how justification by faith alone can be of such help and comfort in counseling, not only for pastors, but for all believers who give biblical counseling to hurting fellow believers.

Gratitude and obedience

In his counseling, the pastor’s goal is that the one living in sin forsakes the sin and walks in obedience. Guilt is an important matter to discuss, because guilt is part of the Spirit-worked conviction of sin. Guilt is a significant motivator for forsaking sin. But guilt is not the motivation for obedience. Rather it is gratitude that motivates the believer to a life of obedience. As the Heidelberg Catechism states in answer to the question of why believers must do good works, “…so that we may testify by the whole of our conduct our gratitude to God…” (Q&A 86).

If the sinner’s salvation is partly his work, and his righteousness before God is based in part on his good works, he may be grateful for what God had done, but the gratitude is muted, even nullified, by pride in his own contributions. On the other hand, if a sinner truly sees the horribleness of his sins (guilt), and then comes to know and believe that they are forgiven entirely because of and in the cross of Christ—what gratitude will flood his soul. “I am justified—forgiven and declared right before God—not because of anything I have done, but only by faith in Christ!” Right then and there, the pastor directs the sinner/saint to the “new and holy life” he promised to live when he made confession of his faith in Christ. Live gratefully.

Desire to forgive

So much of pastoral counseling involves not only sins committed but sins inflicted upon a member in the church. One sees this in all marriage counseling. Husbands sin against wives, and wives against husbands. But this is true in many other instances as well. Gossip, unchristian treatment, and harsh words wound. Believers struggle with forgiving those who have sinned against them. Justification by faith alone gives the heartfelt desire to forgive, and when repentance and confession are made, freely to grant forgiveness.

Jesus illustrated this in response to Peter’s question, “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? til seven times?” (Matt. 18:21). The parable of the unmerciful servant demonstrates that those who have received the mercy of God in the forgiveness of their many and horrible sins will exhibit the same mercy to others who sin against them by forgiving them when they ask for it. In short, those who know their own forgiveness, their full justification by faith in Christ, will be eager to forgive others who sinned against them.

Personal value

A pastor also shares heartaches with members who are beaten down, despised, and ridiculed. The pastor grieves when he sees that the member despises herself and thinks of herself as being of no value to anyone and of no value in the church. The pastor shows that the person’s value is not based on athletic ability, looks, intelligence, wealth, or any important activity in the church or in the world. Her value is that she is one of God’s chosen. God has loved her from all eternity. And what is the incontrovertible proof of that love? Jesus was willing to die for her. Her sins made her worthy of eternal damnation, but Christ endured the humiliation, the agony, the terrible wrath of God on the cross for her. Not because of her works, or anything in her, for she is justified by faith alone in Jesus Christ.


With heavy troubles and trials members can become emotionally and spiritually depressed. All can seem dark and hopeless. Psalm 42 expresses the depth of despair to which a believer can descend. “My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God?” (v. 3)

When a member is in such a low state, the pastor desires above all to give hope. The Holy Spirit led the psalmist to that as well: “Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted in me? Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance” (v. 5).

For the depressed and troubled saint, God is her only help and hope. Ultimately, it is the hope of heaven itself. And that hope is based squarely on justification by faith alone. There is no hope in the sinner; there is no hope that all of life will suddenly become full of light and joy. But there is the certain knowledge that she will live in the joy of heaven, not because of anything she has done or will do, but alone because Jesus Christ paid for all her sins. Justification by faith alone gives hope.

Despair in bondage

Bondage to sin is a horrible slavery. Believers, beguiled by Satan and their own sinful flesh, can become addicted to sins in so many ways—alcohol, drugs, pornography, lies, stealing, and more. To the believer in the shackles of sin, struggling to get out, it can seem as though there is no hope of deliverance. He may well lament, “My sin is too great! I am too evil. I will never be delivered from this bondage.”

The comfort of the gospel is that believers will never earn forgiveness nor make themselves worthy of being forgiven. Any and all sin make each person worthy of being cast away from God’s presence. But full and complete forgiveness is in Jesus alone, in His cross. This must be an important message to the one struggling to overcome addiction: There is forgiveness for your sins. This brings relief for a believer who can confess with the apostle Paul, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (I Tim. 1:15). And that saving work of Jesus includes powerful sanctification. Genuine (Spirit-worked) repentance and forgiveness is the start of the deliverance from addiction. Then the Spirit continues His work of sanctification—deliverance from the grip of sin.


The believer’s final enemy is death. Oftentimes the believer is weak physically as he approaches the moment of death. If he lives consciously knowing that the end is near, he thinks on his life…and he sees his sins. And Satan attacks. “How can you possibly be on your way to heaven? Your entire life has been characterized by sin. You sinned in every relationship, and sin polluted every task, every worship service, every prayer.” The devil seeks to ruin the joyful hope of the dying saint by robbing him of his assurance.

The dying saint’s only hope is justification by faith alone. It cannot be expressed any better than by the Heidelberg Catechism:

…though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.

The believer lives and dies happily only because he knows that he belongs to Jesus, “who with His precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins.” The dying saint looks at himself and despairs. But he looks at Christ’s full satisfaction and His perfect obedience and says, by the gift of God, through faith, “That’s mine!”

The Reformed pastor will encounter many sorrows and sins in the lives of Christ’s sheep. Everyone knows that the pastor cannot simply teach justification by faith alone, and all the troubles will melt away. He will need to apply the Word of God in many ways and give instruction from many different passages. In all these situations, because he is dealing with sin, the Reformed pastor teaches and grounds his counseling on the blessed truth of justification by faith alone. He has hope, and he gives hope.

1 Institutes, 3.16.1, from H. Beveridge ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrikson, 2008).

2 See Calvin’s Institutes, 3.11.2.