13th
July 2016

by Dylan Budd, Daniel Sanchez

A Consensus Re: Sanctification

The topic of sanctification has been a point of theological tension, and in some cases contention, for centuries. The tension usually comes about when biblical churches are reading the Scriptures deeply and discover what appears to be conflict between the “already and not yet” reality of the Christian. For instance, the Bible teaches that we are right now perfectly sanctified and seated with Christ in the heavenlies (Heb. 10:10, Eph. 2:6), yet at the same time Scriptures reveal that the presence of sin still exists in the life of the believer, and we are called to make every effort to fight against sin and live holy lives (1John 1:8, Rom. 6:19).

So which is it? Are we already sanctified or are we being sanctified? And if we agree that both are true, what is our role in the “being sanctified” process? Is Christian effort in opposition to grace? Isn’t legalism a dangerous thing? What about the law? The following is a consensus among the elders at Roots Community Church regarding the theology of sanctification.

 

A Quick Note

We don’t know everything. We are still learning, growing, and maturing in our understanding of Holy Scripture. Second, this treatment of sanctification is in no ways exhaustive! We will not be able to scratch every itch on the topic. Hundreds of books have been written on the topic, and we would be foolish to try and summarize every perspective surrounding sanctification. Finally, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that sanctification is not merely a theological category to be casually explored, but instead this is holy ground whereby God has invited us to see how He works the miracle of salvation in His elect. If we try to oversimplify God’s salvific work by placing this theology in a neat box and tie it off with a bow, we are bound to experience some cosmic pushback! Maybe you have experienced this resistance. Therefore, we must take our sandals off when we talk, read, and think about all of Christian theology, which of course includes sanctification.

 

Definitions Matter

What do we mean by sanctification? Well, let’s start with the word itself. The Greek word for sanctification in the New Testament is ἁγιασμός (hagiasmos). The term hagiasmos is derived from the verb ἁγιάζω (hagiazō, “to make holy”) and occurs throughout the NT. It can refer to the process of becoming holy, often translated as “sanctifying” or “sanctification.” It can also refer to the state of holiness, the result of being sanctified.[1]Depending on the context and structure of the text, sometimes the same word hagiasmos is translated “holiness” or “consecration”. The idea throughout the Bible is God Himself setting aside something or someone for His own holy purposes. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 35), 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.”

 

Sanctification Belongs to the Lord

It’s vitally important to note that all of salvation (Justification, Sanctification, and Glorification) belongs to the Lord (Psalm 3:8, Jonah 2:9). Salvation is God’s decisive and gracious act in and for His people!

Listen to Paul’s farewell to the Thessalonian church:

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. -1Thessalonians 5:23

Hear Jesus praying to the Father for our sanctification:

I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. –John 17:15-19

The good news for the Christian is that God is always doing for you what you can’t do for yourself. That means, in this sense, the Christian is always a passive recipient of God’s sovereign grace. God is always working to produce what He commands. In other words, “God calls His children to holiness, and graciously grants what He commands.”[2] Therefore, sanctification along with all of salvation belongs to the Lord.

 

 We are Active in Sanctification

In conversion we were completely passive (John 3:5, 1Peter 1:3, 1John 5:1). We were totally dead and unresponsive because of sin but through the awakening power of the gospel we were made alive in Christ. Paul says it this way to the Ephesians:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…-Ephesians 2:4-6

Now that we have been made alive, we’re alive! Alive people are not passive, they are active. Luther called justification (our righteousness before God) “passive righteousness” and he called our participation in sanctification “active righteousness” [3] because the Christian (through sheer grace) has been awakened to the pursuit of holiness (hagiazō), never to earn favor with God but precisely because the Christian already possess favor with God. Therefore we are not saved by our good works, we are saved for good works.

Now, this “active righteousness” does not mean (in any way) that the Christian, because we’ve been made alive, somehow graduates from our ongoing dependence upon Christ. Quite the opposite! Dependence upon God in Christ actually increases throughout the life of the believer. The more we live, grow, and understand ourselves in light of what we’ve been made to see about the holiness of God and the present indwelling reality of sin, the more that urgent dependence upon Christ increases! We’ve been graciously made to see just how needy we are.

So what exactly is my role in sanctification? As Scripture testifies, all of our salvation belongs to the Lord. As such, God has granted to us one role– believing. Faith is the only instrument that God has ordained as the means of our salvation both initially in our justification and in our ongoing sanctification.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.Ephesians 2:8-9

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord,are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.2 Corinthians 3:18

When the Lord Jesus was asked specifically, “What must we do to be doing the works of God?” He responded, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29)

Faith in Christ isn’t a requirement that is necessary only for our justification, but rather the necessary means by which God keeps us and sanctifies us. Since the faith God grants to the elect is a genuine faith, it is also an enduring faith. This faith is the initial and ongoing declaration of total dependence on Christ for all things. It is indeed a sheer work of God’s free grace that saves us, keeps and transforms us.

That being said, radical dependence is not antithetical to Christian works, but rather exactly what allows us to be active instruments in God’s work. Genuine faith necessitates genuine works. James in his epistle writes, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17)

Paul continues:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. –Ephesians 2:8-10

Christian obedience, understood biblically, should never be viewed as antithetical or opposed in any way to the gospel. Instead, Christian obedience is a trophy to God’s transforming grace. Jesus says it this way:

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. –Matthew 5:16

Therefore active Christian obedience in sanctification exists to glorify God because obedience is the fruit of God’s transforming grace. The goodness of the fruit testifies of the goodness of the tree. Jesus explains:

So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. –Matthew 7:17-20

Finally, as it relates to our activity in sanctification, the NT epistles (for the most part) order their content with this paradigm: “doctrine and duty” or “theology and practice”. The first half of the epistle is heavy doctrine (this is what God in Christ has accomplished for His glory and for your joy) and then the second half of the letter zeros in on what these truths produce in the practical life of the believer. There are many examples, but perhaps Colossians is the clearest example of this paradigm. After chapters 1 and 2 (incredible theology) Paul begins to explore what this theology produces among those who believe it:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. –Colossians 3:1-8

Unfortunately, many have drawn from this paradigm the wrong conclusion that since the focus of the letter turns chronologically from doctrine to practice, that the latter must be where the emphasis falls. But the Scriptures testify to the contrary. The Apostle Paul regards the gospel as the matter of “first importance” (1Cor. 15:3-4) and the author of Hebrews exhorts the church to press on to maturity by building their lives on the foundation of the primary doctrine of Christ (Heb. 6:1).

It is absolutely true that right doctrine must produce right practice, and so we must keep right doctrine at the center of all things to ensure that all of our doing is not in vain, a haunting lesson taught by the Lord Jesus:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” –Matthew 7:21-23

As good as the fruit of our lives may look to others, it is not only our fruit but also the root that must pass the test of God’s perfect judgment.

The tendency to be discouraged with the quality and quantity of our fruit or the uncertainty of our motives is a real and ongoing struggle, but as in all cases, the gospel is our hope.

In John 15:1-17, Jesus gives us what may be the clearest picture we have in the Scriptures of the relationship between Christ and the Christian relating to obedience and works. The analogy of the True Vine and branches that can do nothing without abiding in the Vine is a familiar one for most and at times this illustration can be as discouraging as it can be encouraging if we wrongly believe that the burden of abiding and fruit-bearing is left to us and the strength of our resolve. Amid the word-pictures and commandments we often miss the foundational truth that Jesus points to as the power of this fruit-producing endeavor:

You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” –John 15:16a

Now some have concluded from the vine metaphor in John 15 and from the Fruit of the Spirit laid out in Galatians 5 that Christian sanctification is therefore utterly passive. But again, this understanding fails to see the divine dance between indicatives and imperatives. Any attempt to tear these two realities apart will only end in frustration when you read the whole of scripture. When we use the phrase “divine dance” we have in mind the dynamic relationship between the indicatives and the imperatives found in God’s word.  Most of us have had the opportunity to enjoy the fluid beauty of a newly married bride and groom celebrating their God-ordained union in their first dance. The husband gently, but unmistakably leads his willing and happy wife through twirls and turns as she keeps perfect step and follows the queues of her husband. We find in the scriptures this same kind of seamless relationship between the things God declares for us and the things that God, in light of His declarations, calls us to obey. To continue the metaphor, depending on your vantage point, at times during the dance you may have a more clear view of either the bride or groom, but regardless of the prominence of either partner, there is only one that leads. The indicatives of God’s word always lead in the divine dance, and the imperatives are an ever-present and willing partner even when one may be more in focus than the other.

So again, grace is not opposed to effort or work in the life of the believer. Instead, by grace, faith is granted to trust in Christ initially and continually so that the salvation purchased for the believer by Christ would be evident through the ongoing transformation of the believer. Properly understood then, active Christian obedience is a testimony to God’s active work in and for the believer as a result of the gospel. Paul sums up the divine dance for us here:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.–Philippians 2:12-13

 

 Union with Christ

Perhaps no greater reality shapes our view of sanctification than the doctrine of union with Christ. This gospel-purchased reality changes everything! Paul says it dramatically this way:

 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. –Galatians 2:20

Something fundamentally changes when the miracle of rebirth occurs in the believer. Your position dramatically changes from being “outside” of Christ to being “in Christ” and “with Christ.” Union with Christ results in common sonship, relation to God, character, influence, and destiny.[4] Systematic theologians have made every effort to organize NT scriptures that communicate this new position for the Christian.

Here are 7 examples:

1. Crucified together with Christ—Gal. 2:20.

2. Died together with Christ—Col. 2:20.

3. Buried together with Christ—Rom. 6:4

4. Quickened together with Christ—Eph. 2:5

5. Raised together with Christ—Col. 3:1

6. Sufferers together with Christ—Rom. 8:17.

7. Glorified together with Christ—Rom. 8:17.

Another amazing summary is to listen to the Apostle Paul list out (at least 10!) examples of how (because of the gospel) the Christian is now “in Christ” in Ephesians 1:1-14. There is in fact, no sanctification apart from Christ. Therefore “union with Christ secures to the believer the continuously transforming, assimilating power of Christ’s life,—first, for the soul; secondly, for the body,—consecrating the believer from eternity, in the present, and in the future raising him up in the likeness of Christ’s glorified body.”[5]

Calvin powerfully articulates this reality:

“We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ [Acts 4:12]. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is “of him” [1 Cor 1:30]. If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; if purity, in his conception; if gentleness, it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects [Heb 2:17] that he might learn to feel our pain [compare to Heb 5:2]. If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross [Gal 3:13]; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection; if immortality, in the same; if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom, in his entrance into heaven; if protection, if security, if abundant supply of all blessings, in his Kingdom; if untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given to him to judge. In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain, and from no other.”[6]

We often say at Roots that, “If you have Christ, you have enough.” If this statement is true, then it is true of sanctification. Therefore, “the dynamic for sanctification, indeed for the whole life of the Christian, is to be found in union with Christ.”[7]

 

What About the Law?

If one is to talk about sanctification, inevitably one has to make some conclusions as to how the law (moral commands from God) relate to those who are now “in Christ.” Here is another massive, multilayered topic that demands more than we can give in this article. But the heart of our question is, “In what ways, if at all, does the perfect law of God (present in the Old and New Testament) relate to the Christian?”

First, the NT communicates that if you are banking on your moral obedience to the Law for salvation, then you must fulfill it perfectly or you will be cursed. This is Galatians 3:10-

 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”

This verse is pretty clear! If you are going to use the law of God to be your vehicle for salvation then you must obey it perfectly. But thankfully Paul doesn’t leave us wondering if it’s possible to gain salvation via the law, he continues in verse 11 of Galatians 3 –

Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”

All throughout the NT, Paul and others testify with resounding clarity, “We are justified (declared innocent before God) apart from works of the law on the merits of Christ alone, and received through the gift of faith alone.”[7]Faith in what? Faith in the promise that Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Galatians 3:13).

Amen and amen! The curse has been lifted! How? Because Christ the sinless became a curse for us. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21)

For those who are in Christ, there is no curse, no condemnation, no guilt, no shame, no distrust, and no final judgment whatsoever. None. Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. God became a curse for sinners! This is otherworldly! That’s why it will take us all of eternity (and then some) to discover just how amazing grace really is.

Now, does the law go away? To use Paul’s words, “By no means!” We, with Paul, “uphold the law”. The law is “holy, righteous, and good.” (Romans 3:31, 7:12)

Psalm 19:7-10

The law of the Lord is perfect,

    reviving the soul;

the testimony of the Lord is sure,

    making wise the simple;

the precepts of the Lord are right,

    rejoicing the heart;

the commandment of the Lord is pure,

    enlightening the eyes;

the fear of the Lord is clean,

    enduring forever;

the rules of the Lord are true,

    and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold,

    even much fine gold;

sweeter also than honey

    and drippings of the honeycomb.

The law is all of these things because the law comes from the very nature of God Himself. And so, even though the law lost its condemning sting for those who are in Christ, the law is still very much alive and well and functioning in the life of the believer. The law functions for our good and for His glory.

One would be hard-pressed to limit the “uses” of the law to only 3, no doubt there are others. But in an effort to summarize the law’s main functions, the reformers held to what has come to be known as the “Threefold Use of the Law.” These would be the active functions of the moral law of God present in both the New and Old Testaments. The NT is clear that both the ceremonial laws and the dietary laws that governed the people of God in the OT are no longer binding on New Testament Christian because of the “once for all” sacrifice of Christ Jesus on the cross.[9] But the moral commands of God summarized in the 10 Commandments and exposited throughout the NT are still binding, not as a means for salvation, but as fitting spiritual worship (Romans 12:1-3).

Dr. R.C. Sproul is helpful in his summary of the “Threefold Use of the Law”:

The first function of the law is to be a mirror. On the one hand, the law of God reflects and mirrors the perfect righteousness of God. The law tells us much about who God is. Perhaps more important, the law illumines human sinfulness. Augustine wrote, “The law orders, that we, after attempting to do what is ordered, and so feeling our weakness under the law, may learn to implore the help of grace.” The law highlights our weakness so that we might seek the strength found in Christ. Here the law acts as a severe schoolmaster who drives us to Christ. [10]

A second function for the law is the restraint of evil. The law, in and of itself, cannot change human hearts. It can, however, serve to protect the righteous from the unjust. Calvin says this purpose is “by means of its fearful denunciations and the consequent dread of punishment, to curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice.”The law allows for a limited measure of justice on this earth, until the last judgment is realized.

The third function of the law is to reveal what is pleasing to God. As born-again children of God, the law enlightens us as to what is pleasing to our Father, whom we seek to serve. The Christian delights in the law as he delights in God Himself. Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). This function of the lawserves as a path of righteousness for the believer.[11]

It seems necessary to clarify that the 3 “uses” of the law are not the various ways that a person may choose to use God’s law, but rather the ways that God uses His law in its various functions depending on the state and posture of a person’s heart and mind.

For example, God’s law functions in a restraining way even on the unregenerate who knows inherently that murder is wrong. For the believer overtaken with the sin of self-righteousness, the law acts as both a mirror revealing the lack of true righteousness apart from Christ and a rod of correction that leads to humble repentance and gratitude for the gospel.

By studying or meditating on the law of God, we attend the school of righteousness. We learn what pleases God and what offends Him. The moral law that God reveals in Scripture is always binding upon us. Our redemption is from the curse of God’s law, not from our duty to obey it. We are justified, not because of our obedience to the law, but in order that we may become obedient to God’s law. To love Christ is to keep His commandments. To love God is to obey His law, and this “love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5)

We don’t love the law because it saves us, it cannot. We love the law because the law shows us our ongoing dependence upon Christ, and the law graciously reveals to us the path of the life along which the gospel and the gospel alone propels the believer.

As Michael Horton has helpfully stated, “In both [testaments] the law reveals to us the righteousness of God, but it is only the gospel that reveals to us the righteousness from God.”

 

Sanctification is a Community Project

We simply can’t have a conversation about sanctification without bringing up the primary context through which Christian growth takes place: the church. The NT has no concept of carrying out the Christian life apart from the local church. On virtually every page there is an exhortation to love, serve, share, give, exhort, rebuke, correct, admonish etc. other believers. Another phrase you’ll hear a lot at Roots is, “The whole body needs the whole body.” The local church is the soil in which the Christian grows and matures in sanctification.

The author of Hebrews says it this way:

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.Hebrews 10:24-25

1Corinthians 12:12-26 illustrates the inseparability of the Christian life and the local church. Christians need each other in the same way our physical body needs its members to function properly and survive. Christian discipleship, pastoral care, church discipline etc. are all tools that God uses to sanctify the believer and transform them more and more into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18).

Paul develops this perhaps most clearly in Ephesians 4:15-16

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

The NT has no concept of Christian living apart from the local church. Therefore, pursuing holiness apart from the local church would be an exercise in futility. We can talk about all of the disciplines of grace being a means for sanctification, but meaningful fellowship in the context of a local church is the soil in which all the disciples are planted.

 

The Glory of God

We’ll end this article with the purpose and end of all things: the glory of God. The mission statement of Roots Community Church says, “We exist to celebrate the glory of God through lives transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.” That means the saving grace of God, the transforming grace of God, and the consummating grace of God all exist for the praise of His name. Therefore when we, His workmanship, experience victory over a besetting sin, have the desire to lay aside every weight and sin that ensnares us, read our Bibles with delight, and love our neighbor, all of this transformation is for the praise of His matchless name. Isaiah 48:9-11

 For My name’s sake I defer my anger,

for the sake of My praise I restrain it for you,

that I may not cut you off.

Behold, I have refined you but not like silver

I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.

For My own sake, for My own sake I do it,

for how should My name be profaned?

My glory I will not give to another.

When we stand before the throne of God clothed in Christ’s perfection, we will not for a moment believe we are there because we perfectly cinched up soterilogy or we perfectly understood the balance between doctrine and practice. Instead, we will be wonderfully distracted by just how amazing His grace really is. We will be preoccupied with the splendor of His glory for all of eternity. We exist for the praise of His name.

 

 

[1] (2014). Holiness. D. Mangum, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, & R. Hurst (Eds.), Lexham Theological Wordbook. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[2] Nathan W. Bingham

[3] Luther sermon: “Two kinds of righteousness” 1519

[4] Strong, A. H. (1907). Systematic theology (p. 803). Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society.

[5] Strong, A. H. (1907). Systematic Theology (p. 805). Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society.

[6] Calvin Institutes 2.16.19

[7] Sinclair Ferguson

[8] Romans 3:21-31

[9] Reference the book of Hebrews. And Acts chapter 10

[10] It may be noted that this view of the law is closely related to Luther’s “3rd use”.

[11] Excerpt from Essential Truths Of The Christian Faith by R. C. Sproul (Hosted through monergism.com)

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