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Whatever Happened to Sanctification? (2): Truncating the Gospel…and How to Fix That

We began our series on sanctification with a little personal testimony as to why I think this subject is important. In short, this is not your average theological discussion with ethereal, “pie-in-the-sky” approaches leading to issues of no real consequence. How we view the sanctifying work of God in us as believers is a subject of utmost importance to us for reasons which I trust to be apparent. It is with that in mind that of late, I have been (quite frankly) deeply concerned with a teaching that is flying around in the theological camp I would loosely consider myself a part of.

In Reformed circles, it has become ‘trendy’ (for lack of a better term) to fold our sanctification into our justification. The inadvertent result, dear friends, in that you end up with a lot of talk about justification and/or “the Gospel” and little to no talk of the work of the Gospel in and through us in sanctification.  Camden Bucey, part of the team at Reformed Forum, nails it in a video he did a while back:

(As an aside, much of this confusion stems from a hermeneutical grid that I find more and more alien to the Scriptures the more I read them – that of “law and Gospel”. While I accept the idea of a distinction between law and Gospel, I think the definitions of law and gospel presented are enforced on the text, rather than gleaned from the text. I will discuss this in a future part of the series so I will hold back on that topic for now.)

At this point, I wish to put forward a definition for sanctification that encapsulates both the realities that sanctification is grounded in God’s grace and God’s grace actually is at work in transforming our corrupt nature. It comes to us from the Westminster Shorter Catechism (it is also produced in the Baptist Catechism) in question 35 in the section dealing with the benefits of salvation. The Catechism writes:

Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace by which we are renewed throughout in the image of God and are enabled more and more to die to sin and live to righteousness.[1]

Now please note the following:

  1. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace – this is not a moralistic exercise on our part that seeks to “improve ourselves” or “become a better us”
  2. It is a work in which we are renewed in the image of God (Ephesians 4:24, Colossians 3:10)
  3. It is a work in which we are being enabled more and more to do two distinct things:
  • To die to sin – or to use the classic Puritan term, “mortification”. We’ll come to this in our series towards the end.
  • Live to righteousness – we are actually being brought to the place daily where we are being brought to life in righteousness, not just statically but dynamically in our everyday lives.

I’ll lay my cards on the table at the start – in my opinion,that does far more justice to the Bible’s teaching on sanctification than a view which simply considers folds justification and sanctification into a vague indistinguishable mass where one supersedes another with ease.

At this point, I wish to put to death (no pun intended) some rather annoying generalizations through a number of “this does not mean” statements:

  1. This does not mean we get to a place where we need Jesus less and less. Some systems of sanctification might lead you there but I am convinced that the Reformed and (more importantly) Biblical understanding of sanctification doesn’t.
  2. This does not mean that justification is unimportant in the Christian life. The NT is very much filled with the idea that we work out what God has worked in. I am arguing that the working out is as important as what God has worked in.
  3. This does not mean a “treadmill” mentality of constantly working to get and/or keep God on-side in the drudgery of the Christian life.

What it does mean is this – holiness is actually possible for the child of God. Not angelic perfection but a real living out of the divine nature every believer became a partaker of in regeneration! (cf. 2 Peter 1:3-4). Before we get there, there are a number of key theological concepts we need to nail and we’ll start that process next time.

To be continued…

Whatever Happened to Sanctification? (1): My Personal Story

At the moment, if you were to ask me for a theological label, I would say “theological mutt”. By that I mean that at the present time, I am a weird mix of committed Calvinism with a twinge of dispensational thinking. As my friend The Squirrel so aptly notes, “When [I’m] with our dispensational brethren, [I’m] in the minority as a Calvinist and when [I’m] with our Reformed brethren, we’re in the minority as dispensationalists. ”

One thing I love about the Reformed side of my faith is its robust, practical doctrine of sanctification. I came out of a traditional Pentecostal background with strong Word-Faith tendencies. The Pentecostal side of things especially came to the fore with a belief called entire sanctification. To quote the statement of faith of my old church growing up:

Entire Sanctification is a definite act of God’s grace, subsequent to the New Birth, by which the believer’s heart is purified and made holy. It cannot be attained progressively by works, struggle or suppression, but is obtained by faith in the sanctifying blood of Jesus Christ. Holiness of life and purity of heart are central to Christian living. Luke 1:74,75; John 17:15-17; 1 Thessalonians 4:3,7,8; 5:22-24; Ephesians 5:25-27; Hebrews 2:11; 10:10,14; 13:11,12; Titus 2:11-14; 1 John 1:7; Hebrews 12:14, 1 Peter 1:14-16. 

In other words, sanctification is not a process but an event that happens post-conversion in which (to quote another phrase from my upbringing) “the root of the Adamic nature” is taken out, allowing the believer to walk in holiness of life. You can only imagine the complete nightmare it made the Christian life on the one hand for the one who didn’t have this experience and the smug self-satisfaction that it engendered on the other hand for the one who claimed to possess it.

Then, I came to embrace the doctrines of grace in my late teens. The doctrine of justification – that God has declared me righteous in Christ, not on the basis of my own righteousness but Christ’s – became an immense comfort. I can still remember reading with joy the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s classic definition of this glorious doctrine:

Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.

Yet I still had some niggling questions. If this is true, what about sanctification? Is it an event like I heard and was encouraged to pursue as I grew up? Was it a process and if so, does it come to an end in this life or is it ongoing but never fully done? Where do my works factor into that grand equation?

Thankfully, in God’s providence, this zealous but incredibly ignorant teenager wasn’t alone. I had the privilege of being discipled by a retired Presbyterian minister who worked with me through the relevant Bible texts and pointed me to the vast riches of the Reformed tradition on this doctrine and so I came to embrace a view of sanctification that steered well clear of the “Let go and let God” theology I had heard growing up and the weird legalism I had also seen as folks tried hard to walk the straight and narrow in their own strength.

But alas, that was five years ago and since then, I’ve noticed a weird trend in evangelical, “gospel-centred” (read: reformed) circles. But I’ll save that for Part 2.

To be continued…