While the language of sanctification in theological terminology has focused on the progressive aspect of growing holiness in the Christian life, the Bible uses the term sanctification to point towards the status as consecrated and holy that we have in Christ through our union with him.
In theological language, the term sanctification has largely referred to something that we do, normally our growth in holiness. However, the Bible uses the term sanctification in a more definitive way, indicating the holy status that we have already through our union with Christ. This consecrated status forms the foundation from which we grow in holiness and godliness in our lives and relationships; we strive to be what we are. However, because in theological discussion these categories have merged, theologians often call the status of holiness that we have in Christ “definitive” or “positional” sanctification, while our pursuits of Christian virtue and personal godliness are called “progressive” sanctification. The danger is that Christians often forget the definitive nature of sanctification and only focus on the progressive aspect of daily life.
Various Christian denominations and groups have their distinctive “models” of sanctification. There is the Pentecostal Holiness model, the Reformed model, the Fundamentalist model, the Higher Life model, and so on. For all the differing distinctives among them, they all have one major point in common: sanctification is something you strive by God’s grace to obtain. For one it may be perfection(ism), for another it may be progress, for another it may be surrender, and for another it may be a given experience. But virtually all sides understand sanctification in terms of something we do.
By contrast, the New Testament writers overwhelmingly use the “sanctification / holiness” terminology in terms of what we are and have in Christ. It is a certain status and relationship we enjoy in Christ: in him we are consecrated to God, “saints” (1 Cor. 1:2) made his for his possession and use. Christ is our sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30). Christians are people who have been “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:2; 6:11; Acts 20:32; Heb. 10:10, 14; 1 Pet. 1:2). We are “holy” by virtue of God’s calling and our faith union with him.
In other words, our theological discussions of sanctification are not always tied tightly to the biblical usage of the terms. We have not always used the sanctification terminology in quite the same way the biblical writers do. In theological discussion, sanctification usually denotes something we do or strive to obtain—personal godliness, the process of becoming increasingly godly, and so on. But in New Testament usage, the sanctification terminology overwhelmingly has to do with a status we enjoy in Christ.
At some level, of course, this consecrated status entails reform and personal godliness; we must strive to be what we are. This is reflected, for example, in 2 Corinthians 7:1: “Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.” That is, our consecrated status must be evident in real life; “be what you are,” as we like to say (cf. 1 Pet. 1:16). But the New Testament writers generally address this matter of personal godliness in other categories—they use the terminology of renewal, transformation, being like Christ, being godly and pure, living out what God has worked in us, even the now/not yet experience of glorification (2 Cor. 3:18), and so on.
To summarize, in New Testament usage, “sanctification” language is used to describe our consecrated status in Christ. Personal godliness is usually spoken of in other categories, whereas in theological discussion all this is usually just lumped together.
Now then, because in theological discussion these categories have merged, theologians have had to add descriptive terms to differentiate. And so they speak of “definitive” or “positional” sanctification to describe what the New Testament writers mean by the term, and then they speak of “progressive” sanctification to describe our pursuits of Christian virtue and personal godliness. What in the New Testament is spoken of as “sanctification” and “renewal,” in Christian theological discourse is “definitive” and “progressive” sanctification, respectively.
This, in turn, raises the question of progress. In 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24, the apostle Paul does pray that God would sanctify the Thessalonians “wholly” and keep them blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus. But this is simply a plea for God to bring about the consecration of every aspect of their lives to himself in the present. The New Testament does not tend to speak of “sanctification” as progressive transformation culminating in glorification. “Sanctification” is a status we have in Christ.
So, the biblical writers can speak of progress, but it is not tied to the “sanctification” terminology. Instead, they speak of increasing faith (2 Cor. 10:15), increasing corporate church stability (Eph. 4:11–12), knowing Christ (presumably with increasing acquaintance; Phil. 3:10), increasing in love (1 Thess. 3:12), growth in grace (2 Pet. 3:18), and so on. “Holiness” and “sanctification” remain something we have and are in Christ.
Again, odd though it is, in theological discourse it is this personal-experiential-godliness dimension that dominates discussions of “sanctification,” even though this is not how the word is used in the New Testament. This is not a major crime, of course. After all, the pursuit of personal godliness is at some level an entailment of our consecrated status (“sanctification”) in Christ, and this is a deeply important aspect of the Christian faith and life. But this subtle turn does have one unhappy consequence: it can move—and almost inevitably has move—our attention away from what the New Testament means by (definitive) sanctification, and we therefore fail fully to appreciate the blessing of our consecrated status in Christ. If when we speak of sanctification virtually all our attention is given to what we do, what becomes of what we are? What about what we are in Christ is important to know in order for us to be godly people?
This confusion of categories persists in theological discussion, and it is probably impossible, at this point in theological history and tradition, to correct Christian vocabulary entirely. But it is important to recognize these distinctions.
At the very least we must keep in mind that all New Testament exhortations to personal godliness rest on a “definitive” work God has done for us and in us, in Christ. God has made us his, consecrated us in Christ to himself; he has broken sin’s former dominion, rendering us free to live unto him. And so we now obey God because we can. As many like to say, the imperative (what ought to be) rests on the indicative (what is); we are called to be what we are.
That is to say, union with Christ carries with it not only judicial implications (justification) but moral and ethical implications also (transformation). There is in Christ a definitive break with the sin-slavery of the past—a marvelous theme the apostle Paul unpacks for us in Romans 6, among other places. Being “led of the Spirit” we are now free to live unto God and able to defeat sin.
Here is a suggested agenda for profitable reading on the doctrine of sanctification.
Step 1: Sanctification
- David Peterson, Possessed By God
- David Peterson, “Holiness” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, pp. 544–550
- David Peterson, Using Biblical Words in Biblical Ways
- David Peterson, Why Is Positional Sanctification Important?
- David Peterson, Why Is Definitive Sanctification Important?
- David Peterson, Sanctification, Regeneration, and Renewal
- John Murray, Collected Writings, vol.2
- John Murray, Definitive Sanctification
- John Murray, The Agency in Definitive Sanctification
Step 2: Sanctification and Personal Godliness
- John Murray, Definitive and Progressive Sanctification
- Michael Horton, The Indicative & the Imperative: A Reformed View of Sanctification
- Sinclair Ferguson, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification. See this author interview and this book summary.
- Sinclair Ferguson, The Reformed View of Sanctification. See this summary outline.
Step 3: Pursuing Godliness
- Andrew David Naselli, No Quick Fix. See this author interview.
- David Powlison, How Does Sanctification Work? See these video interviews: 1, 2, and 3.
- Jerry Bridges, Gospel-Driven Sanctification
- Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness
- Jerry Bridges, The Transforming Power of the Gospel
- Jerry Bridges, Transforming Grace: Living Confidently in God’s Unfailing Love
Step 4: The Mortification of Sin
- Chris Lundgaard, The Enemy Within
- Derek Thomas, Putting Sin to Death
- John MacArthur, The Mortification of Sin
- John Owen, The Mortification of Sin in Believers. See this review, this summary-review, and this summary.
- John Owen, On Temptation. See this summary.
- John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation: Three Classic Works by John Owen
- Sinclair Ferguson, The Practice of Mortification