Some Errors Avoided by a Right Doctrine of Sanctification

Phil_NewtonArticle by Phil Newton (original source here)

Phil planted South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee in 1987 and continues to serve as senior pastor of that congregation. He previously pastored churches in Mississippi and Alabama. He received his education at the University of Mobile (B.A.), New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Fuller Theological Seminary (D.Min.), and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Ph.D.). Phil and his wife Karen married in 1975, and have five children and seven grandchildren.

My sermon betrayed the gospel. I was young, a-theological, and gripped by legalism. That toxic mix led to a litany of don’ts with no hint of the power of the cross, standing with Christ, or certainty of the believer’s sanctification. Instead, it left the hearers with more stuff to do if they desired to be right with God but no hope in the gospel. Unfortunately, that was not the only time that my failure to understand sanctification blurted out in gospel-betraying sermons.

Nor was I alone in that kind of preaching. Not that many intend to undercut the gospel while preaching supposedly Christian sermons, yet it happens when we fail to see sanctification in the redemptive work of Christ.

A right doctrine of sanctification liberates and motivates the church as a holy people. Let’s think about this subject by sketching a biblical understanding of sanctification and then identifying some of the errors that it helps us to avoid.

Just What is Sanctification?

Short posts can only overview sanctification. Yet most discussions on sanctification transpire in brief snippets. How do we briefly explain it? Sanctification has to do with holiness. Hagiasmos—“sanctification, consecration, holiness”— has its roots in hagios—“holy.” While countless theological works expand upon it, holy is holy. Sanctification, then, acts on the holy status of someone in the actual practice of holiness.

Since the Lord God is holy, he also carefully instructed his people in the Old Testament to be holy (Exodus 19). If they belonged to him then they were to mirror his holiness in personal life, marriage, relationships, and worship (Lev 11:44–45). The New Testament teaching doesn’t backpedal at this point but rather secures holiness in Christ. As David Peterson notes, “Holiness cannot simply be acquired by human effort. It is a status or condition which God imparts to those whom he chooses to bring into a special relationship with himself through covenant and redemption.”[1] If God imparts sanctification, then it cannot be worked up by our initiative. J. I. Packer reminds us: 1. God’s purpose in election was to secure a people through Christ to be holy (Ephesians 1:4); 2. Jesus died to sanctify His people (Ephesians 5:25); 3. The gospel that calls and saves also summons to holiness (Titus 2:11–12).[2]

Through the redemptive work of Christ, God imparts holiness. “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14, ESV). The present passive verb, “being sanctified,” indicates the certain and ongoing action of God to make believers holy, not only in status, but also in practice. God does not simply deposit holiness into static people. Paul explains, “For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13, NASB).

At just this point enters confusion surrounding sanctification, as if it is primarily our work while God gives us a little boost here and there. Yet that’s a critical misunderstanding. Christ’s redemptive work secures our sanctification—both in status as holy people and in actions by holy living (John 17:17–19). Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 6:9–11. Since our status with God has changed through the work of Christ, so also have our values and practice.[3] If not, then our profession is spurious (1 John 2:3–6).

Yet this view of sanctification never allows for passivity. “God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works,” wrote John Murray concerning sanctification. “Neither is the relation strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result. God works in us and we also work. But the relation is that because God works we work.” Which means, as Murray further notes, “The sanctified are not passive or quiescent in this process.”[4]

Sanctification, then, “is a status that carries with it particular responsibilities.”[5] In that sense, sanctification describes us as holy people while also making certain holy living. Or as Peterson helpfully explains, “Sanctification is about being possessed by God and expressing that distinctive and exclusive relationship by the way we live.”[6] So we have no room to boast that we’ve achieved higher standing or fret that our failures in holy living reduces our status with God. Our confidence, instead, is in the grace shown to us in Christ and His redemptive work, and regularly applied by the Holy Spirit. Then how does that help us to avoid errors regarding sanctification?

Avoiding Errors Concerning Sanctification

While the reader may add to this list, I want to identify three errors that a right view of sanctification corrects.

1. The deeper life. Deeper life adherents hold a range of views: the most extreme in perfectionism, the Keswick teaching of full surrender, and the Pentecostal and charismatic view of the second blessing, among others. If we lump them all together under the category of deeper life, their unwitting error is twofold.

First, Jesus and his redemptive work is not enough. It’s enough for dealing with God’s wrath but inadequate for daily living in the outworking of the gospel’s saving purpose and power. In their framework, sanctification becomes an additional experience sought through acts of full surrender or dying to self or “psychological passivity” or baptism of the Spirit leading to a deeper dimension of Christianity unknown by most.[7] Yet this extra experience falters at Paul’s declaration, “In Him you have been made complete” (Colossians 2:10).

Second, the Christian life is focused on a personal crisis experience by which a new level of spirituality is reached, instead of a continuing journey of obedience (James 1:19–25), exercising spiritual disciplines (1 Timothy 4:6–16; 6:11–16), utilizing the means of grace (1 Timothy 4:13), living out the gospel in community (Ephesians 4–5), and receiving God’s discipline (Hebrews 12:1–11) until Christ is formed in us (Galatians 4:19). While many godly people past and present hold aspects this view, it fails to rely upon the certainty of sanctification provided through Christ’s redemptive work and its application by the Holy Spirit pointing us to sufficiency in Christ.[8] It puts emphasis on an extra experience beyond faith in Christ, relying far too much on the level of one’s surrender or the intensity of his faith. One’s standing is elevated by the deeper life experience rather than forever settled in Christ.

2. Fundamentalism/legalism. Quite simply, while intending to give attention to obedience—which is assured in sanctification—legalism turns obedience into an external standard of acceptance. It shows unfortunate kinship with the Roman Catholic errors on sanctification.[9] The legalist measures his standing with God by the strictness of adherence to law—and what is added to law—rather than relying upon the righteousness of Christ alone (see Paul’s counter argument in Galatians). Legalism is performance driven. If one performs well, God is pleased; but slip-up, fail to meet the established expectations, then one falls into divine disfavor. Self-sanctification replaces the certainty of Christ’s sanctifying work by the Spirit. Instead of hope fixed on Christ, attention shifts to a sort-of fundamentalist targums—a brand of legalism as the standard for Christianity. But where is the sufficiency of Christ in the gospel? For all but the most self-righteous, it leaves a wake of guilt, despair, and fear.

3. Presumption leading to antinomianism. Sanctification in Christ does not exclude ongoing obedience (Ephesians 2:10; Philippians 2:12–13; Titus 2:11–14). Yet some presume upon sanctification in Christ and grace given as a license to indulge in whatever one desires. Paul tackled this problem in Romans 6, explaining that those who have become “obedient from the heart” have been freed from sin—as the controlling power in life—and now become “slaves of righteousness” (6:17–18). Consequently, those living in the grace of God have all the more reason to fight sin and to live as those alive from the dead (6:12–14). Instead of presumption, a proper understanding of sanctification leads to a spiritual warfare posture that recognizes the power of indwelling sin, while relying upon the effectiveness of Christ’s redemptive work in its application to daily life (Ephesians 6:10–20). That is the sanctified life.

Conclusion

Those “possessed by God” through Christ, to use Peterson’s phrase, are given the power and motivation to live in holiness. Their standing with God remains fixed in Christ. So their practice in sanctification doesn’t elevate them to a higher life. It cannot account them more righteous than they already are in Christ. It does not free them from the fight against sin and the discipline of obedience. Instead, slow but steady sanctification assures them, despite the struggles and battles along the journey, that Christ is bringing them to glory. That kind of sanctification teaching keeps us from adding stuff that distorts the power of the gospel.

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1. David Peterson, Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness (NSBT; ed. D.A. Carson; Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 1995), 23.
2. J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit: Finding Fullness in Our Walk with God (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 98–99.
3. Peterson, Possessed by God, 25, 44–47. See his summary on p. 62.
4. John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 148–149. Italics original.
5. Peterson, Possessed by God, 23.
6. Ibid., 48.
7. Packer, Keep in Step, 95.
8. See Packer, Keep in Step, 79–99.
9. Peterson, Possessed by God, 41. 10 One cannot improve upon John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Holy War to help clarify understanding on sanctification.