“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Philippians 2:12-13, ESV
The topic of sanctification has been a hot one as of late. How is the believer sanctified? How is sanctification related to justification? What role does the believer play in his or her sanctification? Where must the believer’s focus lie in the process of sanctification? These are a sampling of the questions on the table. (You may read a few of the discussions here, here, and here.)
When we speak of sanctification, of course, we must remember that there are two sides to the ‘sanctification coin’ as it were. On the one side, we have what theologians refer to as “definitive sanctification”. Definitive sanctification being the glorious reality in which, when a person is saved, by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, he or she is once for all set apart as holy to the Lord. That is, the believer in Christ is, in the truest reality, a saint (see 1 Cor. 1:2). The Christian is a saint, not because of anything they have done, but because of the faith which they’ve been granted to believe in the redemptive work God has accomplished in his Son.
On the other side of the sanctification coin we have what is referred to as “progressive sanctification.” Progressive sanctification being the process in which God, by his Spirit, through the means of grace, works sin out of the believer and forms the believer more into the image of Christ. Progressive sanctification is where much, if not most, of the discussions on the topic of sanctification have been focused. And the focus has been here for good reason, because when we think about progressive sanctification, the reality of becoming increasingly conformed to the image of God the Son, we must consider what our role is in this process.
Rather than rehash what has already been said (you can catch up by following the links above), I wanted to note two quotes that have been helpful to me in considering the doctrine and process of sanctification…
First, Jerry Bridges, in his new book, The Transforming Power of the Gospel, cites John Owen on the relationship between God’s grace and our duty in the process of sanctification. Bridges, citing Owen, writes:
“We need to consider our own duty and the grace of God. Some would separate these things as inconsistent. If holiness be our duty, there is no room for grace; and if it be an effect of grace, there is no place for duty. But our duty and God’s grace are nowhere opposed in the matter of sanctification; for the one supposes the other. We cannot perform our duty without the grace of God [i.e., His enabling power], nor does God give us His grace to any other end than that we may rightly perform our duty.”
[Jerry Bridges, The Transforming Power of the Gospel (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2011), 113.]
Bridges describes the process of sanctification as “dependent responsibility” which I find an incredibly helpful category.
Second, D.A. Carson in his brief exposition of 2 Tim. 3:1-4:8 entitled From the Resurrection to His Return: Living Faithfully in the Last Days, provides us with a full-orbed gospel, one which goes beyond simply the forensic declaration (which some overtly focus on when saying things such as, “sanctification is the process of simply getting used to your justification.”). Carson writes,
“…when the gospel comes to us it actually does change people. The gospel does not simply declare us to be just on the ground of what Christ has done, for salvation is more than justification. Salvation includes regeneration, Spirit-empowered transformation of life, such that Jesus himself can say, ‘By their fruit you will recognise them’ (Matt. 7:20).”
Though we as believers have been set apart as holy because of the atoning, redemptive work of Christ (definitive sanctification), we must continue as those who, having been justified (declared righteous by God, because of the work of Christ on behalf of the elect), are now indwelt and sealed by the Spirit of Christ, with new hearts and new minds, and are, by the Spirit, putting to death the deeds of the body (a la Rom. 8:13) and so continuing to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (progressive sanctification). In light of the indicative reality of God’s redemptive work in Christ, may we vigorously pursue a life of worshipful obedience to the gracious imperatives of Scripture, as those who have been brought into saving union with Christ!