Last week I taught a Doctor of Ministry workshop to 24 of our Southern Baptist ministers and pastors on the topic of the doctrine of sanctification. They asked great questions and the discussion-time reminded me once again of what a blessing (and how much fun) it is to teach. Sanctification, as a doctrine, is one of the clearest areas where theology impacts a believer’s life and ministry. All God’s people hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt 5:6).
When it comes to holiness, Christians have held to a variety of competing positions that can be lumped together under two headings: the perfectionist view and the progressive view. Both of these views attempt to address these two questions: (1) how quickly (or gradually) is a Christian sanctified and (2) how thoroughly is he made holy? In other words, should a believer seek or expect a sudden experience which dramatically transforms him spiritually or is experiential sanctification a gradual process which occurs over the entire course of a believer’s lifetime? Is it possible for a Christian to cease sinning, and if not, why not? Generally, those who take a perfectionist approach argue that sanctification is able to occur in a great event or moment (similar to the moment of conversion) and that a spiritual ideal is possible in this life. The progressive approach (the view to which I hold) understands sanctification to be a gradual, lifelong process in which perfection is not reached until one stands before Christ after death (or His return).
Throughout the week we examined a number of perfectionist approaches—Roman Catholicism, Wesleyan holiness, and Keswick teachings as representative views. We saw that the traits of perfectionists views are: (1) the belief that a Christian can attain the spiritual ideal in this lifetime (maybe even sinless perfection); (2) the belief that a Christian experiences sanctification instantaneously (generally this experience is labeled the baptism of the Holy Spirit); and (3) the belief that a Christian can discern the moment of sanctification (generally by speaking in tongues).
I provided the class with a threefold response to the perfectionists views: (1) the word translated “perfect,” telios, can (and often does) mean “mature” or “complete” and does not carry with it the connotation of sinless perfection; (2) none of the passages cited by proponents of the sinless perfection position teach that the sin nature is eliminated in the Christian; and (3) the Bible recognizes that the struggle with sin is an ongoing reality for Christians and promises that provision is made for forgiveness and victory (1 Cor 10:13; 1 John 1:8–10).
Finally, we surveyed the progressive view of sanctification. The Bible presents sanctification in a twofold way: (1) as an objective, positional reality; and (2) as a subjective, ongoing experience. At conversion, God positionally sets the believer apart as holy, and the Christian experiences the liberating power of his sanctification when by faith he lives by this truth. We can experience the relative perfection of a progressing maturity while striving for the ideal perfection modeled for us by our Lord (Phil 3:12–16).
Sanctification is the focal point in the life of the believer of the “now—not yet” reality of salvation. Often the Bible presents the initial and the continual senses of sanctification as atension. For example, Paul greets the Corinthian believers thusly, “To those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:2). The apostle viewed them as saints (positionally) who need to be sanctified (experientially).
The “now—not yet” of sanctification means that believers live within the realms of two realities which interact as two opposing inclinations—the flesh and the Spirit (Rom 8:4–17; Gal 5:13–25). So the Bible makes clear that our spiritual advancement comes about in a context of effort (1 Cor 9:24; 1 Tim 4:10; Heb 12:1), struggle (Rom 7:15–23; Gal 5:17), warfare (Eph 6:10–18; 1 Tim 6:12), suffering (Rom 5:3; Heb 10:32–34), and divine chastening (Ps 119:71; Heb 12:5–11). As Dan Holcomb of NOBTS says, “God calls us to become what He declares we already are.”
So how is sanctification manifested within the believer? The Christian life is one of battle (Eph 6:10–18) and growth (2 Pet 3:18). Think of a ball bouncing down a stairway: though it goes up and down, its general direction is down. The Christian’s pilgrimage is similar, but in the opposite direction: our progress may go up and down, but the overall direction is up.
Thank you, class, for giving me the opportunity to study with you the ongoing work of salvation that God is doing in our lives!
This post is cross-posted at www.theologyforthechurch.com.