Models of Sanctification
A model of sanctification is a view about how Christians mature as Christ-followers. Christians hold different models of sanctification.
A model of sanctification is a view about how Christians mature as Christ-followers. Christians hold at least five different models of sanctification: the Wesleyan view, the higher life (or Keswick) view, the Pentecostal view, the Chaferian view, and the Reformed view. The Bible teaches the Reformed view.
A model of sanctification is a view about how Christians mature as Christ-followers. Christians hold different models of sanctification. This article explains five of the major views and argues that the Bible teaches the Reformed view.
But first it is important to clarify that when Christians talk about models of sanctification, we are referring to progressive sanctification. A Christian can say, “I am sanctified, I am being sanctified, and I will be sanctified.” The Bible presents three tenses of sanctification:
- Past. Definitive or positional sanctification occurs when God sets people apart for himself at the moment they become Christians (e.g., Acts 20:32; 26:18; Rom 1:7; 6; 1Cor 1:2; 6:11; Eph 1:1; 5:3; Col 1:2, 12; 3:12; 2Thes 1:10; Heb 10:10, 14; Jude 3; Rev 13:7).
- Present. Progressive sanctification is the ongoing, incomplete, lifelong maturing process in which a Christian gradually becomes more holy (e.g., John 17:17; 2Cor 3:18; 7:1; Phil 1:6; 1Thes 4:3–4, 7; Heb 12:14; 2Pet 3:11).
- Future. Ultimate sanctification corresponds to glorification (e.g., Phil 3:21; 1Thes 3:13; 5:23; Jude 24). This happens after death when God sets his people apart from sin’s presence and possibility.
The charts directly under the next five headings attempt to clarify five major views at the risk of oversimplifying them. Note:
- The cross in each chart represents the point of a Christian’s regeneration and conversion.
- The dotted arrows in the first three charts depict that a person may repeatedly lose and recover the resultant state from the crisis experience.
The first four views chronologically separate the time a person becomes a Christian from the time progressive sanctification begins.
The Wesleyan View of Progressive Sanctification
John Wesley (1703–1791) is the father of views that chronologically separate the time a person becomes a Christian from the time progressive sanctification begins. Wesley taught “Christian perfection,” which as he qualifies does not refer to absolute sinless perfection. Christian perfection is a type of perfection that only Christians can experience—as opposed to Adamic perfection, angelic perfection, or God’s unique, absolute perfection. The way Wesley qualifies Christian perfection hinges on how he narrowly defines sin as “a voluntary transgression of a known law.” He limits sin to only intentional sinful acts.
The essence of Wesley’s Christian perfection is perfectly loving God with your whole being and, consequently, perfectly loving fellow humans. Christian perfection occurs at a point in time after you are already a Christian. Wesley labels this second work of grace as not only Christian perfection but salvation from all sin, entire sanctification, perfect love, holiness, purity of intention, full salvation, second blessing, second rest, and dedicating all your life to God.
When Wesleyan perfectionism blended with American revivalism in the late 1830s, the holiness movement emerged. Methodist perfectionism emphasizes the crisis of Christian perfection more emphatically than Wesleyan perfectionism. Oberlin perfectionism views sanctification as entirely consecrating a person’s autonomous free will to obey the moral law. These views influenced higher life theology.
The Higher Life (or Keswick) View of Progressive Sanctification
Higher life theology is another type of second-blessing theology. Christians experience two “blessings.” The first is getting saved, and the second is getting serious. The change is dramatic. Higher life theology refers to these two distinct categories of Christians in various ways:
|Category 1||Category 2|
|Justified but no crisis of sanctification||Justified and crisis of sanctification|
|Justification actual (factual); sanctification possible||Sanctification actual and experiential (functional)|
|Received Christ by faith as your righteousness||Received Christ by faith as your holiness|
|Free from sin’s penalty||Free from sin’s power|
|First blessing||Second blessing (followed by more blessings)|
|First stage||Second stage|
|Constant defeat||Constant victory|
|Expect defeat, surprised by victory||Expect victory, surprised by defeat|
|Life in the flesh||Life in the Spirit|
|Not abiding in Christ||Abiding in Christ|
|Have life||Have life more abundantly|
|Spirit-indwelt||Spirit-baptized and Spirit-filled|
|Christ is Savior||Christ is both Savior and Lord|
|Out of fellowship/communion with God||In fellowship/communion with God|
|Headship: “in Christ” positionally||Fellowship: “in Christ” experientially|
|The self-life (Rom 7)||The Christ-life (Rom 8)|
|Spiritual bondage||Spiritual liberty|
|Restless worry||Perfect peace and rest|
|Experientially pre-Pentecost||Experientially post-Pentecost|
|No power for service||Power for service|
|Virtual fruitlessness||Abundant fruitfulness|
|Lower life||Higher life|
|Shallow life||Deeper life|
|The life of struggle/works||The life/rest of faith|
|The unsurrendered life||The life of consecration|
|The life lacking blessing||The blessed life|
|Liberated from Egypt but still in the wilderness||In the land of Canaan|
|The Christian life as it ought not be||The Christian life as it ought to be|
Christians experience the second blessing (i.e., they move from category 1 to category 2) through surrender and faith: “Let go and let God.” There are two steps:
- Step 1 is surrender: “Let go.” It is at this point that Christians completely give themselves to Jesus as their Master. “Letting go” includes surrendering to God every habit, ambition, hope, loved one, and possession, as well as oneself. Victory over sin that involves effort is merely a counterfeit victory.
- Step 2 is faith: “Let God.” After this step, God is obligated to keep believers from sin’s power.
Let go + let God = consecration. The key is trusting, not trying, resting, not struggling.
When you experience a crisis of consecration, you are Spirit-filled. Continuing to be Spirit-filled is the only way to spiritually grow and to avoid relapsing back to category 1. The way to remain Spirit-filled is to continue to let go and let God.
The Pentecostal View of Progressive Sanctification
Pentecostalism, according to most church historians, began on December 31, 1900. According to Pentecostalism, believers should experience Spirit-baptism after conversion and initially demonstrate this by speaking in tongues.
Pentecostals are divided regarding whether Spirit-baptism happens at the sanctification crisis or at a later time. Thus, some call Spirit-baptism “the second blessing” and others “the third blessing.” The three blessings are (1) the crisis of conversion for salvation, (2) the crisis of sanctification for holiness, and (3) the crisis of Spirit-baptism for power in service.
The Chaferian View of Progressive Sanctification
Three theologians have been most influential in spreading the Chaferian view, and they are each connected with Dallas Theological Seminary: (1) Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871–1952) cofounded Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924; (2) John F. Walvoord (1910–2002) served in leadership roles at Dallas Theological Seminary from 1935 until his death; and (3) Charles C. Ryrie (1925–2016) taught systematic theology at Dallas Theological Seminary (1953–1958, 1962–1983). (Most professors at Dallas Theological Seminary today do not hold the Chaferian view.)
Like higher life theology, the Chaferian view identifies three categories of people: (1) natural (unconverted), (2) carnal (converted but characterized by an unconverted lifestyle), and (3) spiritual (converted and Spirit-filled). Unlike higher life theology, the Chaferian view insists that Spirit-baptism occurs at conversion for all Christians. Spirit-baptism is a once-for-all-time act at conversion, and repeated Spirit-filling is the key for a Christian to live as a spiritual person instead of a carnal one.
(The Chaferian view of progressive sanctification is directly related to the so-called Lordship salvation controversy. See the article “Must Jesus Be Lord?”)
The Reformed View of Progressive Sanctification
What fundamentally distinguishes the Reformed view from the other four is that the Reformed view does not create two categories of Christians. The other four views divide Christians into two distinct categories (e.g., carnal and spiritual).
All Christians are both justified and being progressively sanctified (Rom 5–8). Justification and progressive sanctification are distinct:
|Quality||Instantly declared righteous||Gradually made righteous|
|Objective, judicial (non-experiential): legal, forensic position||Subjective, experiential: daily experience|
|External: outside the believer||Internal: inside the believer|
|Christ’s righteousness imputed, received judicially||Christ’s righteousness imparted, worked out experientially|
|Instantly removes sin’s guilt and penalty||Gradually removes sin’s pollution and power|
|Does not change character||Gradually transforms character|
|Quantity||All Christians share the same legal standing||Christians are at different stages of growth|
|Duration||A single, instantaneous completed act: once-for-all-time, never repeated||A continuing process: gradual, maturing, lifelong|
Justification and progressive sanctification are distinct, but they are inseparable. Faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is never alone. God’s grace through the power of his Spirit ensures that the same faith that justifies a Christian also progressively sanctifies a Christian.
All Christians are spiritual; none are permanently carnal (1Cor 2:6–3:4). Paul describes people as natural, spiritual, and carnal (or “of the flesh”). The issue is whether those are three distinct categories. Natural refers to “the person without the Spirit,” and spiritual refers to “the person with the Spirit” (NIV). All humans are in one of two categories:
|Category 1||Category 2|
|natural (does not have the Spirit)||spiritual (has the Spirit)|
Paul rebukes the Corinthian believers for not acting like who they are (3:1–4). Although they were people who had the Spirit, they were acting like people not having the Spirit because people having the Spirit characteristically live a certain way. Christians may temporarily live in a fleshly way in some areas, but Christians by definition live in a characteristically righteous way.
Paul does not teach that there is a permanent category called “carnal Christians” in which fruitless, fleshly professing believers may remain throughout their entire “Christian” life.
All Christians are Spirit-baptized (1Cor 12:13). Spirit-baptism is Christ’s judicially placing Christians in the Holy Spirit when God regenerates them, thus placing them into the body of Christ. The New Testament never commands or exhorts Christians to pursue or receive Spirit-baptism because they are already Spirit-baptized.
Bad theology dishonors God and hurts people. That applies to views of the Christian life that chronologically separate the time a person becomes a Christian from the time progressive sanctification begins. They are well-meaning quick-fix approaches to Christian living. But their quick fix to your struggle with sin will not result in a higher life, deeper life, victorious life, more abundant life, or anything other than a misguided, frustrated, and/or disillusioned life. There is a better way. (See the articles “Sanctification,” “The Mortification of Sin,” “The Christian Life,” “Enjoying God,” “Trusting God,” “Serving God,” “Cultivating Practical Godliness,” “Overcoming Temptation,” and “Confession of Sin.”)
- Jerry Bridges
- John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Bunyan masterfully portrays how progressive sanctification requires active effort. For some versions that my family enjoys, see here.
- D. A. Carson’s writings. Here’s a handful to start with:
- For the Love of God: A Daily Companion for Discovering the Riches of God’s Word, volume 1 and volume 2
- The Cross and Christian Ministry: Leadership Lessons from 1 Corinthians
- “Reflections on Assurance,” ch. 10 in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace
- Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus
- Praying with Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation
- William W. Combs, “The Disjunction between Justification and Sanctification in Contemporary Evangelical Theology.”
- Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness.
- Sinclair Ferguson
- “The Reformed View,” in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification (pp. 47–76)
- In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel-Centered Life
- Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (see pp. 746–809, 840–50).
- Anthony A. Hoekema, Saved by Grace (see pp. 19–27, 47–67, 192–256). This revises and expands Hoekema’s “The Reformed Perspective,” in Five Views on Sanctification.
- John Murray
- Redemption: Accomplished and Applied (see chaps. 7–8)
- “Part V,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume 2: Select Lectures in Systematic Theology (pp. 277–317)
- Andrew David Naselli
- “Holiness,” in NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible (pp. 2364–65)
- No Quick Fix: Where Higher Life Theology Came From, What It Is, and Why It’s Harmful (This article condenses that book.)
- Andrew David Naselli and J. D. Crowley, Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ.
- Stephen J. Nichols and Justin Taylor, eds., Theologians on the Christian Life series.
- Barbara Hughes, Disciplines of a Godly Woman
- R. Kent Hughes, Disciplines of a Godly Man
- John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation.
- J. I. Packer
- John Piper’s writings, sermons, and podcasts. I suggest starting with these books:
- John Piper and David Mathis, eds. Acting the Miracle: God’s Work and Ours in the Mystery of Sanctification. See especially the chapters by Piper (pp. 29–41, 127–38) and DeYoung (pp. 43–64).
- Jonathan R. Pratt, “The Relationship between Justification and Spiritual Fruit in Romans 5–8.”
- David Powlison, How Does Sanctification Work?
- R. C. Sproul, Pleasing God: Discovering the Meaning and Importance of Sanctification.
- Milton Vincent, A Gospel Primer for Christians: Learning to See the Glories of God’s Love.
- Benjamin B. Warfield, Perfectionism, vols. 7–8 in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield.
- Donald S. Whitney
This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.