The doctrine of sanctification is back on the frontburner of discussion in the Bible-believing Christian community. We live in a time of happy renewal of the Gospel accent, grace focus and Christ-centeredness of the preaching in our theological neck of the woods. This is a wonderful thing, for which we rejoice. The superficial practicality and ossified moralism that this emphasis replaces has been a plague on the well-being of Christians and churches.
But this new emphasis brings its own challenges. What do we do with sanctification (growth in grace, maturity and obedience in the Christian life)? How do we preach the law (is the law to be considered only as that which convicts of sin and leads us to Christ, but not as a rule of life)? How do we handle the prolific oughts and shoulds and musts and commands of the New Testament (do we categorize them as “law” rather than “gospel” and exclusively warn people not to build their justification on them)? If we say that Christianity proclaims “Done” not “do” (which is a wonderfully true statement about our redemption and justification), how do we relate that to the “do” of our sanctification?
Two passages help us enormously in knowing how to explain and apply the Bible’s copious teaching about sanctification. First, there is Paul’s wonderful benediction in 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 “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.”
Paul’s purpose here is to encourage us in the Christian life. In this brief blessing Paul articulates three massive truths. 1. Your sanctification, your growth in godliness, is the work of God in you. Notice what he said: “may the God of peace himself sanctify you.” He did not say ‘may God aid you in your quest for sanctification’ or ‘may God help you sanctify yourself.’ No, your God is at work in you for your progress in holiness. And just as your gracious God is more desirous to forgive you than you are to be forgiven, so also God is more interested in your sanctification than you are. What ought to be our response to this realization? To be committed to and encouraged about progressive sanctification. The logic works this way: if God is so committed to this in my life, then I should be committed to this in my life.
2. The God who is at work in you is the God of total well-being and blessing. Notice what Paul calls God here: “the God of peace himself.” He is drawing attention to the significant truth that our God is the God of peace or shalom, that is, total well-being, comprehensive blessing. This is incredibly important, because Satan’s oldest lie is the assertion to Eve and Adam that if they wanted to enjoy blessing and satisfaction and fulfillment they could only find it in disobeying God. He was essentially denying that God was really the God of all blessedness and the only one in whom that blessedness can be enjoyed. Satan argued that freedom and blessedness would only be found in rebellion, but Adam and Eve soon discovered the bitter truth. Sin did not bring freedom and blessing but the opposite: bondage and curse. The only place freedom and blessedness can be enjoyed is in the sphere of obedience to God, who is blessedness and peace in and of himself. And that is precisely what progressive sanctification is meant to do – increase our present enjoyment of God’s peace and blessedness. Sanctification is for our joy! Your total well-being, your happiness, your satisfaction is inextricably connected to sanctification, and that’s why the God of total well-being is irreversibly and indefatigably committed to your sanctification – because he wants your total well-being, happiness and satisfaction.
3. It is God’s purpose to make you completely perfect in the end and to begin that work now. Paul puts it this way “may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely” “may your whole spirit and soul and body . . . blameless.” Paul is praying for the comprehensive sanctification of believers – starting now. He looks for believers to be finally, completely perfected (not in this life of course, see his words “at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ), but he looks for that work to begin in this life and to foretastes of its final reality to be enjoyed in this life. To paraphrase John Newton “We are not what we ought to be, might be, wish to be, hope to be, nor what we one day will be, but, by the grace of God, we are not what we once were, and we are what we are.”
In a second great passage Paul emphasizes both God’s sovereignty and our responsibility in sanctification. Philippians 2:12-13 – “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.” This is one of the most important passages in all of the Bible about sanctification
First Paul highlights our responsibility: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” What in the world does Paul mean? Does he mean that we must somehow save ourselves by our works, or efforts, or doings our goodness? NO! Look at the context? What is it about. It is about our following Jesus’ example, not so that we will be converted or justified, but so that we will be more like Jesus! Paul’s argument is that we are to pursue godliness because God is at work in us for godliness. He is giving you an encouragement from God that you can and you will make progress in driving sin from your life. Paul’s teaching is not God accepts you therefore no change is necessary, but that God accepts you and therefore change is now possible.
Note the flow of argument of Paul’s argument: 1. Continue to obey – “as you have always obeyed . . . .” Notice Paul asserts here that obedience is a vital, normal and essential part of the Christian life. 2. Let your salvation show in the way you live, demonstrate it in your life – “Work out your own salvation . . . .” Whatever else Paul means here, he clearly expects us to be active, and not merely passive, in living out the Christian life. 3. Because God is at work in you – “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Paul is stressing the sovereignty of God in our sanctification here! His point is that we are to be encouraged precisely because God is at work in us. And, according to Paul, God’s work in us is not to lead us to laziness and inactivity but to exertion.
If I may paraphrase John Piper, Paul’s point is: the sovereignty of God in our salvation and sanctification is not permission for passivity, but a reason to hope. The sovereignty of God makes us hopeful that change is possible, not passive as if no change were necessary.
And that’s why sanctification is good news. There is hope. And where there is hope, there is joy.
Dr. Ligon Duncan is the Chancellor/CEO and the John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. From 1996-2013 he served as Senior Minister of the historic First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi (1837).