Becoming Holy with Richard Hooker


Richard Hooker, by Alfred Drury, 1907

By Matthew J. J. Hoskin

A while ago, I met a newcomer at the Free Methodist Church I attend who was very excited about John Wesley. Wesley’s teaching matched what he saw in the Bible. Additionally, a few years before, he had undergone a powerful conversion, and his experience of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling convinced him that his works contributed to his growth in holiness. He believed the Bible corroborated his experience—but the churches he had attended taught the opposite. He had been taught that nothing we do can make us holier, and that any progress in holiness was purely the work of the Spirit. Wesley, on the other hand, believed in growth in holiness. As I listened, Richard Hooker’s Learned Discourse of Justification Works, and How the Foundation of Faith is Overthrown immediately came to mind. Hooker articulates a Reformed position affirming the place of works in sanctification in contrast to some other Reformed Christians that my acquaintance had met. Because of this, understanding Hooker’s Learned Discourse is crucial for pastors, and it can calm troubled hearts and reinvigorate the spiritual disciplines.

Richard Hooker (1554-1600) was a founder of the Anglican tradition in theology. He is often rightly contrasted with the Puritans, against whom he wrote his magisterial Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, although he was firmly on the side of the Reformation and did not think of himself as seeking a via media between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.[1] It is in his Learned Discourse of Justification, though, that Hooker deals with the relationship between works and sanctification at length.

“Hooker articulates a Reformed position affirming the place of works in sanctification . . . Because of this, understanding Hooker’s Learned Discourse is crucial for pastors, and it can calm troubled hearts and reinvigorate the spiritual disciplines.”

The Learned Discourse is a series of sermons preached in 1585 in response to those who attacked Hooker’s claim that God mercifully saved thousands who lived under the papacy prior to the Reformation. Hooker discusses justification by faith alone, areas of agreement and disagreement with Rome, and how a person can believe heresy yet still be saved by God’s grace. Hooker’s argument, put crudely, is that justification is accomplished solely by the grace of God and received by our faith alone; sanctification is performed solely by the grace of God operating in our deeds; our works cannot merit grace and cannot provide satisfaction for our sins, contrary to the teaching of the Roman Church. The Learned Discourse also spends a great deal of time explaining how it can be that the Roman Church overthrows the foundation of faith while, nevertheless, people who are ignorant of the true doctrine of justification by faith may be saved through their faith in Jesus. Hooker notes several times that we are all in peril if imperfect faith is enough to condemn someone to Hell.

Hooker is clear that we contribute nothing to the righteousness that comes from Christ. It is granted solely on the basis of faith and so can be neither diminished by our sins nor increased by good works. In sum, justification by faith teaches as follows:

Such we are in the sight of God the Father as is the very Son of God himself. Let it be counted folly, or phrensy, or fury, or whatsoever. It is our wisdom and our comfort; we care for no knowledge in the world but this: that man hath sinned and God hath suffered; that God hath made himself the sin of men, and that men are made the righteousness of God. (CCEL ed., p. 6)

Hooker acknowledges that we have a duty to live holy lives, but we are so far from perfect that none of our good deeds can merit anything. He writes:

Let the holiest and best thing that we do be considered: we are never better affected unto God than when we pray: yet when we pray how are our affections many times distracted! How little reverence do we show to the grand majesty of that God unto whom we speak! How little remorse of our own miseries! How little taste of the sweet influence of his tender mercy do we feel! Are we not as unwilling many times to begin, and as glad to make an end, as if God in saying, “Call upon me” had set us a very burdensome task? … The best things we do have somewhat in them to be pardoned. How then can we do anything meritorious and worthy to be rewarded?” (CCEL ed., p. 8)

Hooker nevertheless makes an important distinction between the imputed righteousness of Christ and the inherent righteousness of sanctification. He balances the statements of Romans that point to the righteousness that comes from faith with those of 1 John that speak of the righteousness that comes by works. The righteousness of justification, as seen above, is received by faith, and we contribute nothing to it. The righteousness of sanctification comes through God “working Christian righteousness in us” (CCEL ed., p. 17). The righteousness of sanctification enables us to live holy lives because the Holy Spirit lives in our hearts. It consists of the virtues, the fruits, the works, the operations of the Holy Spirit. This righteousness does not exist apart from what we do, as should be obvious. Hooker refers to this as “actual righteousness…the righteousness of good works” (CCEL ed., 17). Because Hooker teaches two righteousnesses, both of which are from God, his theology can account for for my acquaintance’s experience of growing holier because of what he does.

Hooker goes on to argue that the fact that Christ is the sole foundation of our faith does not exclude works. He says:

all things [pertaining to salvation are performed] by him [Christ] alone. Howbeit, not so by him alone as if in us, to our vocation, the hearing of the Gospel; in our justification, faith; to our sanctification, the fruits of the Spirit; to our entrance into rest, perseverance in hope, in faith, in holiness, were not necessary. (CCEL ed., 34)

None of this, of course, means that our works merit anything. Time and again, Hooker repeats this. Our works, rather, are the instrumental means by which we bring to fruition actual righteousness. Or, rather, our works are the means by which God enables us to grow in holiness. Works are necessary “because our sanctification cannot be accomplished without them” (CCEL ed., 34). In the end, by teaching two kinds of righteousness, one imputed and one actual, Hooker makes room for us both to truly become holy and for our works to contribute to that holiness.

“By teaching two kinds of righteousness, one imputed and one actual, Hooker makes room for us both to truly become holy and for our works to contribute to that holiness.”

Applying these lessons today

What is the usefulness of this excursion into Richard Hooker? There are three major pastoral implications of the preceding discussion. First, for those of us rightly ill at ease with teaching that denies the possibility of becoming holy, Hooker reminds us that the grace that is at work in us to snatch us away from the penalty of sin is also at work even now to heal us from the wounds of sin.

Similarly, I have met several Christians over the years who fear that spiritual disciplines, in particular, are a form of “works righteousness.” People have said things along the lines of, “I used to fast sometimes, but I was afraid this was becoming works righteousness, so I stopped.” Richard Hooker assures us that the imputed righteousness of Christ comes purely by grace received in faith; none of our works can bring it about. He also teaches, however, that our works, only by God’s grace, accomplish our sanctification, which is to say, the actual righteousness of our souls. This teaching should clarify the relationship between holiness and works on the one hand and justification and faith on the other—all of which, of course, are accomplished only by God’s grace and unmerited favour towards us.

A clarified vision of the relationship between God’s grace and our works in terms of sanctification, and the difference between sanctification and justification, can bring renewed vigour to the spiritual disciplines. For over a millennium, the greatest writings about works were put to parchment by monks like St. Benedict of Nursia, but this work was carried on by our own Protestant tradition. Within the Anglican tradition of Hooker, two writers spring immediately to mind: Jeremy Taylor’s The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and Holy Dying and William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

Finally, the Anglican John Wesley, with whom we began, teaches in The Means of Grace that two main errors arose in the church in earlier days. One error was believing that simply performing the outward actions common to Christian piety was enough to secure salvation, even without the inward change of heart. The other was believing that our performance of works merited God’s grace. In Wesley’s day, however, the pendulum had swung too far, as Christians of England’s Reformation traditions sought to remedy the errors of the medieval church. Some people felt that there were no ordinances laid upon Christians, no good works to be done, now that we know we are saved by grace and free in Christ. Wesley argues that, in fact, there are means of grace, defined as “outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.” Concretely, they are as follows:

The chief of these means are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon;) and receiving the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men. (II.1)

Wesley believes that these means of grace operate in our souls only under the preconditions of our using them with faith and the operation of the Holy Spirit (II.2,3). None of these outward acts does any good apart from the movement of God’s Holy Spirit. But in faith, knowing all sanctification is by God’s grace, and with the intention of becoming holy, we can truly work towards sanctification.


Dr. Matthew Hoskin, the son of an Anglican priest, grew up in rural Alberta, Canada. He received his PhD in the History of Christianity from the University of Edinburgh in 2015, and he has since taught at the University of Edinburgh and the University of British Columbia. He is a firm believer that the Holy Spirit works to re-shape our hearts and minds through our engagement with the great tradition of the church, a view he promotes at http://thepocketscroll.wordpress.com and http://readthefathers.org. He lives in Ontario with his wife and two sons.

[1] Indeed, Roman Catholicism is the other great foil in his Laws.