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What is Sanctification?

The topic is sanctification is important for all Christians because it explains the application of God’s grace to the whole of the Christian life. Sanctification is what it means for the Christian to live the Christian life in this world. So, what is sanctification? The Shorter Catechism defines it as “a 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” (WSC 35). In short, sanctification is the renewal of our whole person in the image of God and the enabling of that person to live a holy life.

Our sanctification is the result of God’s covenantal relationship with us. The Father has willed and elected us into this covenant. The Son has merited and secured our righteousness. The Spirit has applied this salvation to us and empowered us to walk in it. Sanctification, as all the other benefits of redemption, is thoroughly Trinitarian. Scott Swain describes it this way, “Sanctification is the covenant friendship and fellowship with the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, wherein we behold and reflect his glory and receive and respond to his grace.”

Occasionally, the topics of justification and sanctification get confused or muddled together. They are inseparable, in that you cannot have one without the other. But they are not indistinguishable. In justification faith is passive and receptive (Gal 2:16). It is a punctiliar act in time (WSC #33) in which sinners are the recipients of the benefit of forgiveness and righteousness. We are counted righteous in Christ. This is apart and separate from any work we could offer. In sanctification faith is active (Eph 5:3-21, Col 3:5-11). It is a distinct moment in time but is also progressive. Believers are called to work out the reality of God’s free grace in their lives. We are to work out our salvation for it is God who works in us (Phil 2:12-13). Our justification, therefore, is logically prior to sanctification. Both are necessary and essential to our salvation. There is not one without the other. But our sanctification flows from our Union with Christ, not our justification. Justification does not cause sanctification. Christ causes our sanctification.

The problem with confusing or conflating these two results in one of two common problems; antinomianism (against or without a law) or legalism (a works-based faith). The antinomian conflates justification and sanctification when he says the Christian need not ever apply effort to living the Christian life because works do not save. The result can be a life lived as if the law of God does not matter. The legalist confuses justification and sanctification by living as if one’s works merit a righteousness before God.

William B. Evans argues that these and other faulty views of sanctification come from a desire to find the “silver bullet” of sanctification. The end result has been the dismissing of legitimate biblical imperatives. The pietistic and holiness theologians of the 2nd Great Awakening implored people to somehow attain a second work of grace. And the Keswick revivalists argued for a “let go and let God” mindset. Neither of these are biblical (or even particularly helpful). The more modern version of this in some churches is the admonition that sanctification is just really “believing your justification.” Conflation or confusion of the two can result in a dangerous spiritual immaturity.

Pastor Rick Phillips mentions the helpful biblical picture of sanctification that is given in Psalm 1. He calls it the “paradigmatic statement of the Christian and sanctification. The Christian ‘is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers’ (Ps. 1:3).” Sanctification is being rooted and nourished by Christ and producing prosperous fruit. Those who argue that sanctification is just believing our justification see this Psalm 1 prospering and growth in holiness as rejecting a need for God’s grace. To them it is a rejection of God’s grace because to add any effort or work strikes them as trying to work for grace. A proper understanding of sanctification, however, defuses this accusation. We are not saved by works, but we certainly are saved for works. When we preach about grace we are quick to turn to Eph. 2:8-9 (and rightfully so), but we would be well served to continue on to verse 10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

The aspiration to spiritual growth and doing good works is not legalism. In fact, this is the point of so much of Paul’s writing. Romans 6:1-14 gives us the picture of sanctification as a result of Christ’s union with the believer (vv. 1-5). Paul then lays out the indicatives of the believer’s freedom from the enslavement of sin (vv. 6-11). And finally Paul directs the believer to the imperatives of their progressive sanctification (vv. 12-14). Because you are united with Christ you are no longer enslaved to sin so that you not only can but should exert effort toward sanctification (cf. Rom. 12:1, Gal. 5:16, Eph. 4:1, 1 Thess. 4:1, and Tit. 2:12 to name a few…).

So what are we to do? How do we exert effort toward our sanctification? The Puritan Walter Marshall wrote that “our first work is to learn the powerful and effectual means by which we may attain to so great an end (i.e. our sanctification)” (Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification). This means that we are to learn the means which God has appropriated to believers for their growth in holiness and obedience. This is where the role of the law interacts with the process of sanctification in our lives. Our gospel-fueled obedience to the commands of God will result in the progressive growth in our reflecting the image of the Triune God, mortifying sin, and living unto righteousness. God’s Word is the inspired means to the great end of God’s glory in our lives.

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