Five Questions About Sanctification and Good Works: Can We Fulfill the Law Absolutely in this Life?

Throughout this week I will be walking through the five questions Francis Turretin tackles in his chapter on “Sanctification and Good Works” (Seventeenth Topic). Here are the five questions, slightly modified for ease of understanding:

  1. How does sanctification differ from justification?
  2. Can we fulfill the law absolutely in this life?
  3. Are good works necessary to salvation?
  4. Can justified believers do that which is truly good?
  5. Do good works merit eternal life?

Today’s question is the second one: Can we fulfill the law absolutely in this life?

Of the five questions, this one has been the least controversial in recent Reformed discussions. As far as I can tell, the leading voices on all sides are agreed that the “perfection of sanctification” is not possible for fallen human beings on this side of heaven.

Interestingly, Turretin does think certain kinds of perfection are possible. The question about fulfilling the law absolutely is not about the perfection of sincerity (serving God with a whole heart), nor the perfection of parts (being sanctified in body and soul), neither is it about comparative perfection (that some believers would be more advanced than others), nor evangelical perfection (whereby God in paternal forbearance perfects our works with his grace).  Turretin affirms “all these species of perfections,” noting that the Bible often speaks of believers being “perfect” and “upright.” The question for Turretin is not about these things, but about legal perfection (XVII.ii.4).

Here’s Turretin in his own words:

The question returns to this–Can the renewed believer so carry on his own sanctification as to attain perfection (not only as to parts, but also as to degrees); and can he fulfill the law (not only mildly and evangelically, but also strictly and legally) and so copiously satisfy the divine law as to live not only without crime, but also without sin; and the law have nothing which is can accuse and condemn in him, if God should enter into judgment with him? The opponents affirm; we deny. (XVII.ii.7).

That we are unable to fulfill the law absolutely can be seen from several realities taught clearly in Scripture: the remains of sin in the believer in 1 John 1, the struggle between flesh and the Spirit in Romans 7, the unbearable yoke of the law in Acts 15, the command to pray daily for the remission of sins in the Lord’s Prayer, and the example of the saints throughout the Bible (XVII.ii.10-26). There are many ways in which the Bible does talk about the believer being obedient, righteous, and holy, but we must not understand any of these to imply that we can so fulfill the law that God has nothing proper against us were he to judge strictly and legally.