[Editor’s Note: The issue of sanctification has been much discussed in Reformed circles recently. I’ve participated in some of those conversations, but I think this article of mine from a decade of so back still provides a helpful summary the doctrine. It was originally published as “Sanctified by Faith,” ARP Magazine (March 2001): 6-8.]
If the vast number of books, seminars, videos, and other services marketed in the evangelical world today is any indication, progress in the Christian life is a profound concern for many. There is seemingly no end to the list of books and seminars that purport to give guidance on how to overcome temptation and bad habits, how to reach a deeper level of intimacy with God, how to strengthen one’s marriage, and so forth. That is to say, issues relating broadly to transformation of life, or what we call “sanctification,” are “front burner” for many Christians today. But if these concerns are not to degenerate into a mere baptized version of our secular culture’s preoccupation with therapeutic “self-help,” it is also necessary for us to think biblically and theologically about the nature of sanctification and how it takes place.
What Is “Sanctification”?
The central importance of sanctification quickly becomes apparent as we read Scripture. Ephesians 1:4 declares that “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” In other words, a key purpose of our existence as Christians is that we might glorify God through lives that are more and more transformed into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 2:10). Moreover, sanctification, or transformation of life, is in a very real sense necessary for the Christian. Paul and the other New Testament writers repeatedly declare that apart from this transformation one cannot enter the Kingdom of God (Gal. 5:19-21; Heb. 12:14). Finally, the integrity of the Church’s witness before the world depends upon this transformation of life. Paul calls upon his Philippian readers “to be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:14). Only as Christians behave differently from the world can they be light and salt in that world.
But how are Christians sanctified? The title of this article suggests that we are sanctified by faith, but this statement is really a sort of theological shorthand. More properly, we should say we are sanctified in Christ by faith. According to the New Testament, all the benefits of salvation are to be found in Christ. Christ is, Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 1:30, “our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (see also 1 Cor. 1:2). Furthermore, we learn that this union with Christ is by faith and by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 15:45; Eph. 3:17). Believers, then, experience sanctification through their union with Christ. A key passage for this truth is Romans chapter 6, where Paul unfolds the mystery of sanctification in Christ in considerable detail. Through this union with Christ, the believer has been crucified with Christ and so has died to sin (vv. 4-7). In other words, the power of sin has been broken in a decisive way for the Christian. Furthermore, just as Christ did not remain in the grave, but rose triumphant over sin and death, so also the resurrection power of Christ is now at work in the life of the Christian (vv. 4, 8-11; see also Eph. 2:1-10).
Up to this point, Paul’s teaching sounds remarkably optimistic. The Christian has died to sin, the power of sin has been broken, and the resurrection power of Christ is at work. Some might conclude from this that the task of sanctification is complete, but Paul also stresses that this is not the end of the story. Having underscored the new situation of the Christian, Paul then exhorts his readers not to let sin reign in their lives. Christians are not to yield to temptation and sin, but instead are to yield themselves to God (Rom. 6:12-13). Theologians often speak of this as the “indicative/imperative” structure of Paul’s thought. In essence, Paul says, “You have died to sin and the power of sin has been broken (the indicative); now press on and act like it (the imperative)!” Note that Paul here speaks of sanctification in two ways. First, there is the decisive break with sin. The power of sin has been broken, and because of this progress in the Christian life is indeed possible! This is what theologian John Murray has termed “definitive sanctification.” Second, there is the ongoing struggle against sin, often called “progressive sanctification,” that takes place throughout the lifetime of the believer. As we have seen, Paul often reasons from the indicative of “definitive sanctification” to the imperative of “progressive sanctification.”
In dependence upon these biblical teachings, Calvin and the Reformed Confessions speak of sanctification as involving the “mortification of the flesh and the vivification of the spirit” (see Calvin, Institutes III.3.8). That is to say, sanctification entails the progressive dying to the old way of life (the “flesh”) and the coming alive to a new mode of existence that is empowered by the work of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, the Westminster Shorter Catechism declares: “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”
At this point a critical question emerges: Is it possible for the Christian to reach a state of sinless perfection in this life? Throughout Christian history there have been those who have argued that perfection is achievable. They point to the “definitive sanctification” passages noted above, as well as to passages that speak of perfection as the goal of the Christian life (e.g., Matt. 5:48; 2 Cor. 7:1), and they argue that if Christ commands perfection then it must be possible. Such people will suggest that this perfection can be achieved if Christians will but try hard enough, or if they will only yield themselves completely to God. But despite the surface plausibility of perfectionism, the Reformed tradition has rightly resisted such ideas. Scripture clearly teaches that those who claim perfection are, knowingly or unknowingly, simply not telling the truth (Eccl. 7:20; James 3:2; 1 John 1:8). Moreover, those who teach such perfectionism generally redefine sin in reduced and limited terms as involving only conscious and deliberate acts. John Wesley, for example, spoke of sin as only “a voluntary transgression of a known law of God.” But in speaking of the reality of our sinful nature and our “unwitting sins,” the scriptural writers recognize that the problem of sin is much deeper and more intractable than perfectionists will admit. Moreover, modern psychology, with its recognition of the role of the subconscious, underscores the fact that the problem of sin simply cannot be reduced to a matter of conscious and deliberate acts.
Although Reformed Christians are sometimes accused of slighting sanctification in favor of justification, such a charge does not stick with respect to Calvin or the Reformed Confessions. In the 1559 edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin discussed sanctification before moving on to justification. He did so for at least two reasons–he believed that a true understanding of sanctification helps us to understand both the nature justification and the fact that justification and sanctification, while distinct, can never be separated (see Institutes III.3.1). First, when we recognize that sanctification is never complete in this life, and that even our best works are still tainted by sin, we come to see why our justification can never be based upon our sanctification. In other words, in this life we are never good enough to earn God’s favor, and we must always depend upon the finished work of Christ for our justification. Second, as we come to understand that both sanctification and justification are to be found only in Christ, we see that they can never be separated from one another. Those who are truly united with Christ will and must experience the transformation of life we call sanctification.
The Paradox of Sanctification
Another question presents itself: Is sanctification to be viewed as entirely a work of God, or does the Christian work together with God? On the face of it, the answer to this question is not immediately obvious. On the one hand, our sanctification is clearly the work of God’s grace–it is rooted in the triumph of Christ over sin and death and is actualized in our lives by the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, we are commanded in Scripture to press on, to work out, and to obey.
In response to this, some theologians have suggested that sanctification should be viewed as “synergistic,” that is, as a cooperative effort between God and ourselves (the term “synergistic comes from a Greek term meaning “work together with”). While the initial quickening of a person from spiritual death to spiritual life and the act of justification are entirely God’s doing, they maintain, sanctification involves our working together with God. While this approach to the matter attempts to do justice to legitimate biblical imperatives, it raises more problems than it solves. First, by suggesting that we to some extent sanctify ourselves, this synergistic approach runs counter both to the fundamental biblical and Reformational teaching that salvation is by grace alone (Eph. 2:8-10). Consistent with this biblical teaching, the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 35) defines sanctification as “the work of God’s free grace.” Second, such synergistic teaching often can have profoundly negative pastoral consequences. Those who struggle with issues of sanctification will only be told to “try harder,” and this can lead to a sense of hopelessness that despairs of any real progress in the Christian life. Conversely, those who sense progress within themselves will be tempted to pride. Such arrogance, furthermore, can tend to undermine the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone and lead to a sort of works righteousness. Doubtless there are many evangelical Christians who pay lip service to the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith, while secretly placing trust in their good behavior.
Others, recognizing that sanctification is by God’s grace alone, may fall into other difficulties. One persistent temptation is “quietism,” the belief that God will do it all and we need not expend any effort ourselves. Such thinking can even lead to indifference toward sin in our lives. Others are so suspicious of legalism that they regard any proclamation of biblical expectations, “oughts,” and imperatives as incipient “works righteousness.” Instead, they try to extract a doctrine of sanctification entirely from justification and adoption. The key to sanctification, they say, is to “preach the gospel to yourself” over and over again, to remind oneself of the unconditional Fatherly love of God toward His children. Here too, problems quickly become apparent. Scripture is filled with imperatives, with “oughts” and “go therefores,” and any doctrine of sanctification that obscures these Scriptural admonitions is at best incomplete. Moreover, the New Testament does not present sanctification as simply a matter of our receiving new information or of having a new point of view on things; rather, it is the working out of Christ’s death and resurrection in the life of the Christian.
The question, then, is how to affirm two equally scriptural truths–that sanctification is from first to last a gift of God, and that each believer is called to work. A key passage here is Phil. 2:12-13, where Paul combines the call to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” with the recognition that “it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” This is a matter of divine empowering of human action, not cooperation and synergism. The paradox of sanctification lies precisely in the fact that it is as we “press on” and “work out” that we come to realize our utter dependence upon divine grace. John Murray writes:
It is imperative that we realize our complete dependence upon the Holy Spirit. We must not forget, of course, that our activity is enlisted to the fullest extent in the process of sanctification. But we must not rely upon our own strength of resolution or purpose. It is when we are weak that we are strong. It is by grace that we are being saved as surely as by grace we have been saved. If we are not keenly sensitive to our own helplessness, then we can make the means of sanctification the minister of self-righteousness and pride and thus defeat the end of sanctification. We must rely not upon the means of sanctification but upon the God of all grace. Self-confident moralism promotes pride, and sanctification promotes humility and contrition (John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 147).
How can Sanctification be Furthered?
In closing, a few words must be said about the aids to sanctification that God graciously gives us. Unfortunately, the radical individualism of our contemporary culture can blind us to Scripture’s teachings on this subject. The scriptural challenge of sanctification is directed not just to individuals, but to the church as a whole, and the church as the body of Christ provides the most effective and fertile environment for sanctification to take place. Hebrews 10:24-25 rightly challenges us at this point: “and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” In light of this emphasis, the corporate means of grace that God has given to the church–the ministry of the word, prayer, and the sacraments–must be viewed as crucial to our sanctification.
Scripture also points to other helps to our sanctification. An ancient devotional theme–the imitation of Christ–has achieved much recent visibility with the WWJD (“what would Jesus do”) bracelets that young people wear. While Jesus is much more than an example, he nevertheless is an example for our lives, as Scripture makes clear (1 Cor. 11:1; Phil. 2:5-8; 1 Pet. 2:21). All believers, therefore, should become intimately familiar with the life of Christ as it is presented in the four Gospels. And this is not mere imitation: even as we reflect on the example of Christ, the Holy Spirit is implanting the life of Christ within us, and the pattern of Christ’s life–his death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-11; 2 Cor. 4:7-12)–becomes the leitmotif of the Christian’s life as well.
The example of other Christian’s lives can be useful as well. Paul urges his Corinthian readers to be imitators of himself (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1). In this, of course, Paul is not setting himself up as a paragon of virtue. Rather, he points beyond himself to the Christ whom he himself imitates and to the grace of God which transformed a former persecutor of the church into a mighty apostle. Let us remember that the same sanctifying grace that transformed the life of Paul is available to each of us today!