Fourteen Theses On Sanctification

Lately, I’ve been seeing people on Facebook taking various sides in a current debate about the nature of sanctification and the role of the Law (or commandments) in it, so I thought, why not jump in. My view is that if we define sanctification properly, the Law has no role in it whatsoever. Sanctification is entirely a work of God’s grace in which we human beings only participate by being its subjects. In other words, while sanctified people obey, obedience is not the same thing as sanctification, and sanctification is never the result of obedience. I have written an article presenting my view with biblical support. It’s a little long to post here, so click here if you want to read it. The paper elaborates the following Fourteen Theses:

1. Sanctification is that saving work of God’s grace by which he sets a person or group apart for his exclusive use.

2. Sanctification is a definitive work of God, a change of status imparted by God’s laying claim to his people.

3. Sanctification has an already-not yet aspect.

4. Sanctification is an aspect of salvation and, therefore, should never be described as a work of man.

5. The present work of sanctification, therefore, must always be framed as merely an application of our definitive sanctification, grounded in the gospel, and appropriated by faith.

6. Even “progressive” sanctification is definitive.

7. The obedience of the sanctified life depends on the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

8. Sanctification is progressive only in the sense that Christians progress in their experience and outward demonstration of their definitive sanctification.

Sanctification and the Practice of Discipleship

9. Sanctification cannot be separated from the fellowship of the body of Christ.

10. The proclamation of the gospel is the heart of discipleship.

11. Worship should be framed in terms of presenting ourselves to God as living sacrifices, confessing our sanctification, not making it.

12. The commandments of scripture must be exposited, but should always be empowered by the exaltation of Christ as the object of our faith, hope, and love.

13. Our growth in Christ is not a matter of our own exertion but depends on the power of the Holy Spirit, so we should operate at all times in a posture of prayer.

14. Understanding the definitive nature of sanctification and properly relating it to Christian life and growth has the effect of simplifying our concept of discipleship.


4 Replies to “Fourteen Theses On Sanctification”

  1. Need to take the time to read the full exposition, but I must admit on the onset I disagree. We are called throughout Scripture to walk worthy, put on the new self, dwell on what is good, love your neighbor, etc. there are hundreds of verses and passages that are implicit and explicit to the Christian’s role in this life. I see people writing books making excuses. I’m convinced totally and the Scripture supports Christian liberty, but some borders on antinomianism. Certainly not an issue to divide fellowship, but sanctification is a two way street, justification is one way. Love you Doug and am glad you are pastoring a church. I always enjoyed teaching with you, discussing theology (like this), and taking council.

    1. Dave, I think when you read the article, you will discover that we don’t disagree much. The key phrase in my post is “if we define sanctification properly.It is common to think of sanctification as growing in obedience. I find that understanding impossible to square with the very definition of the biblical words. Sanctification is a binary category change from “not set apart for God’s exclusive use” to “set apart for God’s exclusive use.” When the Bible exhorts people to sanctify themselves or to be holy, it is exhorting us only to recognize and confess the pre-existing reality of God’s claim on us in Christ. This is an act of faith alone, though it inevitably results in obedience to God’s commandments. I find it extremely helpful—nay, essential (especially if I am to simultaneously avoid both legalism and antinomianism) to sharply distinguish between sanctification (a saving act of God) and the obedience which results from it.

  2. Right on, Doug. We are dealing with the same controversy in our church here in Mozambique. True sanctification cannot come from the flesh, only from the Spirit. We need to recognize this and teach it. Much of the teaching on sanctification gives folks the idea that rules can accomplish what only the Spirit can accomplish.

    But because this same argument is often used by Christians who are NOT sensitive to the Holy Spirit, who do not follow His promptings, but rather extinguish the Holy Spirit within them by their licentiousness, I have taken to including clarifications to help protect Christians from stumbling on this principle. I mention that if we are indeed following the Holy Spirit, we will demonstrate a righteousness and concern for pure living that EXCEEDS that of the Law. Like Christ’s exposition in the Sermon on the Mount, if we are living out our doctrine, we will be going beyond the Law in our practice, not falling short of it. The proper doctrine of sanctification (as I perceive it and as you described it) is unfortunately taught not infrequently by people whose practical righteousness falls considerably short of the “weaker” brothers who “depend on” or use rules and rituals for sanctification. That is not helpful in winning people to our side. If I preach the position you and I both advocate, I have to be extra careful about my conduct and avoid living like the folks in Corinth and Rome who trampled on the scruples of others in the name of Christian liberty, and who in fact were the ones Paul had to upbraid in the controversy. If our doctrine is correct, we ought to be the most sanctified folks in the discussion, and that is something we have to remember.

    The second clarification that I make is that, because this teaching on Spirit-dependent sanctification can lead to an entirely subjective view of what is right or wrong that may in fact arise from our own flesh or wisdom rather than from the Spirit, Christians DO need the Law, not as a binding regulation on their conduct, but as a way of constantly checking back to see if our impression of how the “Spirit” is leading us to live squares with the mind of God as revealed through the Law. The Law is important, even to advocates of our position, though not binding. Without this check, errant subjectivism can wreak havoc in our lives and churches.

    Beyond this, I have several analogies and observations that I have not yet seen in print that illustrate for me the differences between the two predominate views of sanctification under debate among Reformed Evangelical churches. But one thing I much appreciate is a concern, not about the doctrine of sanctification, but about truly being sanctified regardless of how one describes his doctrine. I am far more helped and convicted by my brothers, whether they hold to the traditional Covenantal view of sanctification or the New Covenant view or the Pentecostal view or the Keswickian view or the Wesleyan view – I am far more helped just by seeing people who really long to live close to Christ and to mortify sin, than by sterile discussions on the doctrine of how it happens.


  3. @ david- thank you for your post. you would be in the camp of the majority out there right now. and the disagreement bears logic for sure. both sides would agree that justification is one way and sanctification is 2 ways when forced to define under the conditions you laid out.

    however, here’s the real question: what exactly happened to the “new man” that was created at regeneration. the bible say we were dead and now alive. what exactly does alive mean? this is the debate.

    your camp would say that we have a “new will of man” that we can keep all the commandments now. the other camp would say the will of man is made new by the inner dwelling of the holy spirit operating in us and against our flesh….that the will of man (flesh) that hasn’t been snuffed out yet….and the snuffing out of the flesh has nothing to do with “what we do.” “what we do, if good is all by the working of the spirit in us subduing the fleshly will of man.

    It is a war inside of us that is impossible to understand metaphysically (unless you can define the soul, will of man, and heart of man metaphysically.)

    We all know the imperatives of Christ. we all know we are called to be perfect as our father in heaven is perfect. we all know we are called to holiness- without which we won’t see the Lord Heb 12:14. But Heb 12:14 is referring to the loving discipline of the Lord (through various means including the helper in us) towards those whom he loves in Christ.

    we all know that man is different after regeneration. we all know that the holy spirit gives us a new desire we didn’t know before. what we don’t exactly know is exactly how we are different when describing it in human terms.

    But we DO know the sinful flesh is still there and we need God’s continued grace 100% to grow in holiness or simplified be loving to God and others.

    the only chance we have to be holy is by God’s continued saving grace on us. Back to point #3 the already-but-not-yet aspect of both justification and sanctification. I really like this post diving into that for gotten aspect:

    Instead of asking, “How are justification and sanctification different?”; let’s ask, “How are justification and sanctification similar?” They are similar in that both are one whole entity with two aspects – a present and a future.

    Justification or righteousness is a present reality (Rom. 3:24; 5:1, 9, 17, 8:30; 9:30; 1 Cor. 6:11; 2 Cor. 5:21) that waits for a future consummation (Rom. 2:12-13; 3:20, 30; 5:19; Gal. 5:5).

    Sanctification or holiness is a present reality (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2), yet these “saints” are exhorted to grow in holiness (e.g., Rom. 6:19-22; 2 Cor. 7:1; Col. 1:22; 1 Thess. 4:3-8; 1 Tim. 2:15; 1 Pet. 1:15-16). If believers were already perfectly holy, then these exhortations to holiness do not make much sense. Since Christians need exhortations to holiness, it reveals all believers have further to go (cf. Phil. 3:11). Nor is growing in holiness optional (cf. Heb. 12:14). The future aspect of holiness is seen in 1 Thess. 5:23-24. The consummation of holiness will be on the last day (1 Thess. 3:13, Eph. 5:26-27; Col. 1:22).

    Paul’s metaphors to describe our salvation are presented as one whole entity with two aspects – a present and a future. Paul does not think in the categories of systematic theology (note the order of the text in 1 Cor. 6:11), Paul thinks in the two stages of redemptive history – this age and the age to come. When we talk about “salvation,” we must keep in mind the NT’s eschatology of the-already-but-not-yet. When we fail to grasp the-already-but-not-yet, we open ourselves up to making many mistakes.

    (See chapter two in the book “The Race Set Before Us” by Schreiner and Caneday for an instructive presentation of the-already-but-not-yet.)

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