Michael Horton on Our Role in Sanctification

In this video, Michael Horton explains how and why our active role in sanctification, our growth in grace, is different from our passive role in the new birth and justification.


Below is a lightly edited transcript of the video above. Before quoting, please check the video to ensure accuracy.

It’s very important that we distinguish sanctification from two other aspects of our union with Christ. The first is regeneration, or the new birth. In the new birth, we’re not active; we’re acted upon. And that seems clear enough from a number of passages such as Ephesians 2.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved . . . . (Ephesians 2:1–5)

So it’s very important for us to recognize that the new birth is a gift. It’s being born from above. As John tells us in John 1:12–13, it’s not because of the will of the flesh or the will of man but because of God. It’s his gift; it’s his grace. Even the faith with which we believe is a gift of God.

But once we’re made alive in Christ by the gospel we respond. Now we’re not dead; however, sometimes people give the impression that even after we’re regenerated we’re still dead, that we still can’t do anything. They make it sound as if we can’t respond, almost as if we can’t even believe or repent. And that certainly is not the case because the whole purpose of the new birth is to give us that gift of repentance and faith in Christ.

Now that’s also different from justification. Sanctification is not only distinct from the new birth but also from justification. Some people think that because we’re declared righteous in Christ and, again, passive recipients of the gift, that there is nothing for us to do in the Christian life. This confuses sanctification with one of the other gifts. No, because we’ve been made alive in Christ and because we’ve been declared righteous in Jesus Christ now for the first time we love God and our neighbor. We can truly say, “Lord how I love thy law” (Ps. 119:97), and yet with the apostle Paul for that very reason lament that we don’t always follow it (Rom. 7:14–16). And so sanctification very definitely requires our engagement, our involvement.

Because we’ve been made alive in Christ and because we’ve been declared righteous in Jesus Christ now for the first time we love God and our neighbor.

There’s a difference between regeneration and conversion; in regeneration we’re passive, acted upon, and in conversion, we’re active in repentance and faith. There’s a difference between justification and sanctification; in justification, we’re declared righteous, and in sanctification we’re being made righteous.

Yes, even in sanctification, all is of God, all is of grace. It is because we’re united to Christ divine that we bear fruit. But we also are active for the first time in this process. It doesn’t depend on us but on God, who in his grace and lovingkindness has made us alive and decided not to do it without us.