Sanctification is not about progress

Well, sanctification is not primarily about progress—but I thought I’d get you with the title!

I dislike how so much evangelical discussion speaks of sanctification primarily in terms of progress in holiness.

By contrast, the New Testament is abundantly clear that ‘positional’ sanctification is primary and prior to ‘progressive’ sanctification. Let me make my case.

Exhibit 1 regarding contemporary sanctification language (that emphasizes the ‘progressive’ aspect) is the New City Catechism, question 32:

Q. What do justification and sanctification mean?

A. Justification means our declared righteousness before God, made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection for us. Sanctification means our gradual, growing righteousness, made possible by the Spirit’s work in us. [My emphasis]

The New City Catechism commentary on question 32 makes a strong disjunction between justification and sanctification: the former is “legal”, the latter, “physical”; the former “righteousness without us”, the latter, “holiness wrought in us”; the former, “instantaneous and complete”, the latter, “progressive and perfecting by degrees”.

Exhibit 2 is Tim Challies’ influential blog. Recently he delivered his 15th instalment on essential theological terms: sanctification.

Here’s how he defined it:

In Christian theology, the term sanctification is used most often to describe the setting apart or making holy of Christians. After being justified and adopted by God, Christians begin a process in which, through the power of the Holy Spirit, they are incrementally transformed in every aspect into the likeness of Jesus Christ.

The single text he cites as his clearest example is 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, where Paul prays that God might “sanctify you completely” (ESV, HCSB). In an earlier post, Challies cited JC Ryle (in his classic work, Holiness) as indicating that the key characteristic of true sanctification is habitual effort, endeavour and desire to live in obedience to God’s will.

Now to be fair, Reformed systematic theology has often used sanctification in the ‘progressive’ sense of a Christian’s habitual growth in godliness, along the very lines taken by the New City Catechism and Tim Challies.

However, this common use of sanctification in systematic theology frequently omits or marginalizes the ‘positional’ aspect. By contrast, in the New Testament, sanctification is ‘positional’ before it is ‘progressive’.

Think of how 1 Peter 2:9 picks up and applies Exodus 19:6 (where their holiness is to be based on what God has done in rescuing them): his readers are a holy nation—they are not becoming a holy nation.

Think of 1 Corinthians 1:2, where the Corinthian Christians are spoken of as already sanctified, especially given that in 1 Corinthians 1:30 Paul points out that Jesus has already become for us wisdom from God. Paul expands this as including not only our righteousness and redemption but also our sanctification!

1 Corinthians 6:11 famously reminds them and us that despite our habitual sinful past, Christians have been washed, sanctified and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (This has sanctification as an entire, completed event on view.)

And note that in both 1:30 and 6:11, sanctification and justification are mentioned entirely in parallel, apparently as the status conferred on Christians through the work of Christ on the cross.

In Hebrews 10:10, it is said that “we have been sanctified” through the “once for all” (i.e. unique, unrepeatable) sacrifice of Jesus’ body. Then Hebrews 10:14 goes on to say that by this one sacrifice Jesus “has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified”.

This last reference is a reminder that there are a number of Scriptures that speak of holiness in progressive terms—as something to become, or grow in, or live out. But by my reckoning, those Scriptures that focus on growth in holiness are in the minority in the New Testament.

Fundamentally, I have demonstrated how three different New Testament authors make it clear that ‘progressive’ sanctification must be based on ‘positional’ sanctification. And such sanctification is completely and utterly won for us by Christ’s atoning work, applied to us by the Spirit, only on account of God’s grace.

Yes, live out your new identity. Be holy (by the ongoing power of the Spirit) because God has made you holy (by the power of the Spirit in initially applying to you the work of Christ, in whom you trusted).

But surely, wherever possible, we ought to use biblical words and concepts in ways that reflect the weight of biblical use. Because there must be dangers in putting all the emphasis in sanctification on what we increasingly think, do and become, so that in practice the ‘progressive’ overshadows or even becomes detached from the ‘positional’.


Providentially, as I was first reflecting on this, I came across a quote from Jerry Bridges. As we think about pursuing holiness day by day, this is a perspective we must never forget:

Is God pleased with me? Is he smiling on me with fatherly favour?

The answer to that question is an unqualified yes. God is smiling on you with fatherly favour. He is pleased with you because he sees you as holy and without blemish in Christ. Do you want to talk about performance? Then consider that Jesus could say matter-of-factly and without any pretentiousness, “I always do the things that are pleasing to him” (John 8:29).

When our Father looks at us, he does not see our miserable performance. Instead, he sees the perfect performance of Jesus. And because of the perfect holiness of Jesus, he sees us as holy and without blemish.

I like the translation of Ephesians 1:6 in the King James Version: “To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.” Or to be more direct, God has made us acceptable to himself through our union with Christ. You will never be accepted in yourself. You can never, to use a figure of speech, “scrub yourself clean”.

We never reach the point where we can look inside ourselves to find the holiness we need to stand before a holy God. But God in his grace has provided a perfect holiness in the person of his Son. Through our union with him we have been made holy.

9 thoughts on “Sanctification is not about progress

  1. I agree with what you say, but your title contradicts it! It should read “not JUST about progress”. Some Reformed folk stress the positional aspect so much, that they become spiritually smug to the point of inertia and make no progress whatsoever, denying the motto of the Reformation: semper reformanda – always in need of reformation!

    • Hi Nigel, and you are correct that my title falls into the category of “naughty titles” because it is deliberately misleading, in order to grab attention, in order to make the point. A kind of hyperbole.

      You are certainly spot on with the warning to avoid the opposite problem, that the position means growth in godliness and maturity is unimportant! What a disaster that would be.

  2. Thanks. Great insight which I would have missed had you not pointed it out.
    Eph 1.17 f, the prayer of Paul for the Ephesians, asks that we may have the eyes of our heart enlightened that we may know the hope…” So there is movement in the Christian life – perhaps the movement is to become more aware of our position as God’s people.

    • Yes, Jim, an increasing grasp on our position ‘in Christ’. Growth in depth of knowledge (in a personal and not just ‘head’ way).

      But also a growth in holiness (and righteousness) lived out, by the power of the Spirit.

      Or since you helpfully cited from Ephesians 1, I might add Ephesians 2:8-10. These verses don’t pick up holiness language. However they make it clear that (i) we are totally saved by God’s grace alone (vv8-9), but (ii) he then has good works for us to walk in, prepared by him for us (v10).

  3. The fact that Paul calls all Christians “saints” is in itself enough to confirm what Sandy says. Romans 5-8 is a great help in seeing our position in Christ.

    I have sometimes heard the two aspects of justification called “objective” and “subjective”, both important but the first one being primary.

  4. It has been most helpful for me to think of sanctification in light of Ladd’s “already and not yet” language. This captures both aspects of what you describe.

  5. Pingback: Using biblical words in biblical ways | The Briefing

  6. I think most people hold to the philosophy that the definition of a word is dependent upon how people use it. Therefore shouldn’t we be saying that as ‘sanctification’ has come to mean ‘progressive sanctification’, in the instances where the NT authors are referring to ‘positional sanctification’ a different word should be used in the translation? (The difficulty is of course what word to use – ‘justification’ is the most obvious, but that would presumably lead to other problems.)

    • Hi Peter, this is certainly the problem.

      Sometimes, the solution can be a re-claiming of a word.

      Thoughtful Christians are certainly capable of learning the ‘proper’ i.e. primary, biblical meaning of a word.

      For example, we often need to do that with ‘church’ to remind people it’s not the building or denominational institution, but the assembly of those around Christ.

      But it’s not easy pulling against the tide of popular usage.

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