SanctificationIs sanctification the “process” of being made holy?

Or is it a term that refers to our position as belonging to God?

That’s the question at the heart of David Peterson’s Possessed by Goda book I summarized yesterday. (Start there to get the gist of Peterson’s proposal.)

Today, I want to follow up with some thoughts on how Peterson’s book plays out in day-to-day ministry.

What Is Sanctification: A Process or Position?

Possessed by God is a good contribution to the ongoing discussion on the nature of sanctification and the pastoral wisdom of knowing where to put the emphasis when discipling believers.

Peterson admits that sanctification can be conceived of as a process, but he argues that the New Testament emphasis (building on Old Testament examples) is on sanctification as a position, a status bestowed on us at conversion. He warns against focusing more on the process than the position because such an approach can actually work against the progress that a believer wants to experience.

In surveying the sanctification debates, it appears that some Christians focus on the motivations for growth in holiness and seek to measure the progress that takes place in this life, while other Christians believe one should focus more on the definitive aspect of our sanctification that comes with salvation, believing this emphasis will motivate us to live out the identity that has been bestowed upon us in Christ.

What Do You Emphasize?

When pressed, pastors and scholars on all sides of this conversation generally affirm the statements and teachings of others. The difference lies in where the accent should be placed and the potential consequences of getting the emphasis wrong. Peterson is squarely on the side of emphasizing the definite nature of our being consecrated, set apart for God as his people.

The strength of Peterson’s work is his ability to engage various biblical texts without ever losing sight of their wider context. In fact, it is an appeal to context that leads him to disagree with J. C. Ryle’s interpretation of Hebrews 12:14 (a verse that says “without holiness, no one will see the Lord”). Peterson and Ryle are not far from each other, but Peterson’s approach sees holiness as an expression of our “once-for-all” sanctification and Ryle sees holiness more as “proof” of our salvation.

At the risk of oversimplification, we might put it this way: Peterson believes stressing the positional aspect will lead to the expression of the progressive aspect, whereas Ryle believes stressing the progressive aspect will lead to evidence of the positional.

Or to look at it from the other side: wrongly emphasizing the progressive will lead to an obscurity of the positional and to doubts of salvation (according to Peterson), whereas wrongly emphasizing the positional will lead to apathy and lack of incentive to faithfully pursue a holy life (according to Ryle).

In pitting Ryle and Peterson against each other, I do not want to give the impression that their differences are quite as stark as presented here; neither is it true that Peterson uses Ryle as his primary foil (he engages with a number of scholars, both living and dead). But I find it helpful to simplify the discussion as a way of facilitating further conversation among pastors and counselors who genuinely want to see people growing in holiness and yet disagree as to the best way to biblically motivate them to obedience.

Concluding Thoughts

The strength of Peterson’s proposal is his reliance on eschatological categories and the doctrine of our union with Christ. It is refreshing to see the sanctification debate placed in the wider context of eschatological realities, a move that incorporates the outlook of various New Testament passages (including, but not limited to Romans 6-8) and also keeps us firmly in the soil of the biblical narrative and worldview, not in the miry debates between systematic theologians through the years.

Peterson’s work is careful and nuanced, making him a needed voice in the conversation about how Christians grow in obedience.

Anyone interested in the ongoing (sometimes heated) discussions about sanctification should consult Possessed by God. He ably incorporates biblical exegesis, systematic insights, and historical analysis into his study, such that the reader comes away with a greater appreciation for God’s work in justifying and sanctifying us in the past, and a stronger desire to manifest God’s work in our obedience in the present.