The Doctrine of Sanctification: Some Introductory Thoughts & Recommended Resources
Fred G. Zaspel
Various Christian denominations and groups have their distinctive “models” of sanctification. There is the Pentecostal Holiness model, the Reformed model, the Fundamentalist model, the Higher Life model, and so on. And for all the differing distinctives among them, they all have one major point in common: sanctification is something you strive by God’s grace to obtain. For one it may be perfection(ism), for another it may be progress, for another it may be surrender, and for another it may be a given experience. But virtually all sides understand sanctification in terms of something we do.
By contrast, the New Testament writers overwhelmingly use the “sanctification / holiness” terminology in terms of what we are and have in Christ. It is a certain status and relationship we enjoy in Christ: in him we are consecrated to God, “saints” (1Cor.1:2) made his for his possession and use. Christ is our sanctification (1Cor.1:30). Christians are people who have been “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1Cor. 1:2; cf. 6:11; Acts 20:32, Heb. 10:10, 14; 1Pet. 1:2; etc.). We are “holy” by virtue of God’s calling and our faith union with him.
In other words, our theological discussions of sanctification are not always tied tightly to the biblical usage of the terms. We have not always used the sanctification terminology in quite the same way the biblical writers do. In theological discussion, sanctification usually denotes something we do or strive to obtain – personal godliness, the process of becoming increasingly godly, and so on. But in New Testament usage, the sanctification terminology overwhelmingly has to do with a status we enjoy in Christ.
At some level, of course, this consecrated status entails reform and personal godliness: we must strive to be what we are. This is reflected, for example, in 2 Corinthians 7:1, where we are commanded, “let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.” That is, our consecrated status must be evident in real life: “be what you are,” as we like to say (cf. 1Pet.1:16). But the New Testament writers generally address this matter of personal godliness in other categories – they use the terminology of renewal, transformation, being like Christ, being godly and pure, living out what God has worked in us, even the now/not yet experience of glorification (2Cor.3:18), and so on.
To summarize, in New Testament usage the “sanctification” language is used to describe our consecrated status in Christ. Personal godliness is usually spoken of in other categories, whereas in theological discussion all this is usually just lumped together.
Now then, because in theological discussion these categories have merged, theologians have had to add descriptive terms to differentiate. And so they speak of “definitive” or “positional” sanctification to describe what the New Testament writers mean by the term, and then they speak of “progressive” sanctification to describe our pursuits of Christian virtue and personal godliness. What in the New Testament is spoken of as “sanctification” and “renewal,” in Christian theological discourse is “definitive” and “progressive” sanctification, respectively.
This, in turn, raises the question of progress. In 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 the apostle Paul does pray that God would sanctify the Thessalonians ‘wholly’ and keep them blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus. But this is simply a plea for God to bring about the consecration of every aspect of their lives to himself in the present. The New Testament does not tend to speak of “sanctification” as progressive transformation culminating in glorification. “Sanctification” is a status we have in Christ.
And so the biblical writers can speak of progress, but it is not tied to the “sanctification” terminology. Instead, they speak of increased faith (2Cor.10:15), increasing corporate church stability (Eph.4:11-12), knowing Christ (presumably with increasing acquaintance; Phil.3:10), increasing in love (1Thes.3:12), growth in grace (2Pet.3:18), and so on. “Holiness” and “sanctification” remains something we have and are in Christ.
Again, odd though it is, in theological discourse it is this personal-experiential-godliness dimension that dominates discussions of “sanctification,” even though this is not how the word is normally used in the New Testament. This is not a major crime, of course. After all, the pursuit of personal godliness is at some level an entailment of our consecrated status (“sanctification”) in Christ, and it is a deeply important aspect of the Christian faith and life. But this subtle turn does have one unhappy consequence: it can detract – and almost inevitably has detracted – our attention away from what the New Testament means by (definitive) sanctification, and we therefore fail fully to appreciate the blessing of our consecrated status in Christ. If when we speak of sanctification virtually all our attention is given to what we do, what becomes of what we are? What is there about what we are, in Christ, that is important to know in order for us to be godly people?
This confusion of categories persists in theological discussion, and it is probably impossible, at this point in theological history and tradition, to correct Christian vocabulary entirely. But it is important to recognize these distinctions.
At the very least we must keep in mind that all New Testament exhortations to personal godliness rest on a “definitive” work God has done for us and in us, in Christ. God has made us his, consecrated us in Christ to himself; he has broken sin’s former dominion, rendering us free to live unto him. And so we now obey God because we can. As many like to say it, the imperative (what ought to be) rests on the indicative (what is) – we are called to be what we are.
That is to say, union with Christ carries with it not only judicial implications (justification) but moral and ethical implications also (transformation). There is in Christ a definitive break with the sin-slavery of the past – a marvelous theme the apostle Paul unpacks for us in Romans 6, among other places. Being “led of the Spirit” we are now free to live unto God and able to defeat sin.
With all this in mind, here is a suggested agenda for profitable reading on the doctrine of sanctification.
Step 1: Sanctification
David Peterson’s Possessed By God is certainly the most significant book given to examine and expound the NT understanding of the “sanctification” terminology in depth. John Murray’s brief essay on “Definitive Sanctification” is deservedly landmark also.
- David Peterson
- John Murray
Step 2: Sanctification and Personal Godliness
Of particular note here is Sinclair Ferguson’s exposition and application of the “imperative-indicative” nature of the Christian life. He writes – as he preaches – with delightful pastoral warmth coupled with theological and exegetical precision.
- Sinclair Ferguson
- John Murray, Definitive and Progressive Sanctification
- Michael Horton, The Indicative & the Imperative: A Reformed View of Sanctification
- Jerry Bridges
- John Piper & David Mathis (eds), Acting the Miracle
- Andrew David Naselli, No Quick Fix
- David Powlison, How Does Sanctification Work?
Step 3: The Mortification of Sin
Finally, if personal godliness is to have any meaning whatever, it must be marked by the practical-experiential defeat (“mortification”) of sin. No one has expounded this biblical doctrine more pointedly and compellingly than the Puritan giant, John Owen. Kris Lundgaard’s The Enemy Within delightfully brings Owen to a very popular level.
- John Owen, The Mortification of Sin in Believers
- John Owen, On Temptation
- Chris Lundgaard, The Enemy Within
- Carl Trueman, “The Mortification of Sin”
- John Piper
- Sinclair Ferguson, The Practice of Mortification
- D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Mortification of Sin
- John MacArthur, The Mortification of Sin
- Derek Thomas, Putting Sin to Death