There is an ongoing sort of debate on the subject of so-called “Progressive Sanctification”. The usual question goes something like this:
“Is our Progressive Sanctification strictly accomplished by God (monergistic),
or is our sanctification dependent on our own efforts and obedience (synergistic)?”
But is that really the right question?
A Typical Definition
Often “progressive sanctification” is not even defined by those who argue one side or the other. But for our purposes here, Wayne Grudem’s definition will do:
a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives
(of course that definition has the defect of including the work of both God AND man “by definition”, but we can ignore that for the time being — the key parts are “more free from sin” and “like Christ” in our actual lives).
First A Theory
Before making several observations below, let me propose a theory:
You know the old saying, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail”?
Well my theory is that so-called Progressive Sanctification is a somewhat phony idea developed by Legalists. To a Legalist, everything looks like SOMETHING TO DO! (something to obey, something to strive for, something to work at, or work for — you get the idea).
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that there IS nothing to do. It’s that DOING is not the Alpha nor the Omega, the beginning nor the end. It’s not the foundation, it’s not the FOCUS. Except to the Legalist.
The Legalist sees his mission (and more importantly YOURS!) as Progressive Sanctification, which he defines in his mind, if not on paper, as GETTING BETTER AND BETTER. Or as he might also think of it, BEING HOLIER, or where the rubber meets the road, WORKS, LAW, PERFORMANCE! They are Law-oriented because that’s how you measure performance.
He doesn’t really grasp that the Alpha and Omega is the Lord Himself. He Himself, and what He has already done, should be the FOCUS.
There are several problems with that essentially Legalistic view of Sanctification, as reflected in the following observations:
1) Our flesh cannot get better. In Romans 7:18 Paul wrote, “For I know that NOTHING good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh…” Your flesh cannot be improved. Flesh is flesh, and spirit is spirit.
2) Our new nature, on the other hand cannot get better, because it has already been made new and perfect through regeneration. We have been given a “new heart” (new nature, or new spirit), and not a defective one, which would be absurd. This new spirit has been made “one spirit with Him” (1 Corinthians 6:17), such that when we “walk according to the Spirit” (i.e., the Holy Spirit), we also walk according to our own new spirit.
3) Those who deal with Sanctification by zeroing in on so-called “Progressive” Sanctification as the main point of Sanctification, are at best in Kindergarten.
Because a simple word-study of Sanctification will make it obvious that the PRIMARY EMPHASIS OF SCRIPTURE is on the fact that WE ARE ALREADY SANCTIFIED! I don’t want to belabor the point, but it’s important, so I’ve listed some verses below that show not only that we are already sanctified, but that it’s been done by God Himself! Here are some relevant verses:
“SANCTIFY them in the truth; Your word is truth.” – John 17:17
“so that He might SANCTIFY her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,” – Eph 5:26
“Therefore Jesus also, that He might SANCTIFY the people through His own blood,” – Heb 13:12
“by the SANCTIFYING work of the Spirit,” – 1 Pet 1:2
“which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are SANCTIFIED.” – Acts 20:32
“that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been SANCTIFIED by faith in Me.” – Acts 26:18
“SANCTIFIED by the Holy Spirit.” – Rom 15:16
“to those who have been SANCTIFIED in Christ Jesus, saints by calling,” – 1 Cor 1:2
“Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were SANCTIFIED, but you were justified” – 1 Cor 6:11
“For both He who SANCTIFIES and those who are SANCTIFIED are all from one Father;” – Heb 2:11
“By this will we have been SANCTIFIED through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” – Heb 10:10
“For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are SANCTIFIED.” – Heb 10:14
“the blood of the covenant by which he was SANCTIFIED,” – Heb 10:29
“But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in SANCTIFICATION,” – Rom 6:22
“Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and SANCTIFICATION,” – 1 Cor 1:30
“God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through SANCTIFICATION by the Spirit” – 2 Thess 2:13
Moreover, you will find that any verse referring to sanctification that has not yet been accomplished, is actually just referring to our APPROPRIATING what is already done, in such a way that we ACT outwardly like that which we already are inwardly in spirit.
For example, “Be holy” (“holy” is the same basic Greek word as “sanctified”) doesn’t mean you’re not already holy. You are. “Be holy” simply means ACT in your behavior like what you already are in your spirit and in your relation to God.
4) To the degree that we “walk according to the Spirit”, we will not “fulfill the lust of the flesh”, but the fruit of the Spirit.
Conversely, to the degree that we “walk according to the flesh”, we WILL fulfill the lust of the flesh, or what Galatians 5 calls the “works” of the flesh.
5) Now here’s where it gets tricky and why teaching the “Progressive” concept can actually do a DIS-SERVICE to believers. Simply this: a brand new believer can walk by the Spirit and exhibit the fruit of the Spirit to a lovely degree — and a believer who has been saved for 60 years can “fall off the wagon”, walk by the flesh, and exhibit the works of the flesh to an amazing degree, OUTWARDLY or INWARDLY.
A serious and honest discussion with an old Saint who has walked with the Lord for many years will reveal the truth — that however they may have “progressed” in some ways, the flesh is still the flesh and the spirit is still the spirit.
And when that old Saint is honest, he will readily admit that he isn’t “better” after all.
You may consider that sad, but you shouldn’t. It merely verifies the truth of Scripture that the new nature (spirit, heart) can’t get better because it’s already made new — and the flesh can’t get better, because there is no good in it.
6) Finally then, what CAN be changed, or improved, or made better?
The best way to answer that is from Romans 12:2, “BE TRANSFORMED BY THE RENEWING OF YOUR MIND”.
Wonderful things happen when our minds are renewed by the Holy Spirit through His Word.
But there’s a big CAUTION here. And this brings me full circle to the theory I started out with. The Legalist tends to see everything in terms of WORKS or LAW. They are Law-oriented because they are Performance-oriented.
And so here’s the CAUTION — Please get this:
If you renew your mind from the Scriptures with a Law or Rules or Performance orientation, you will actually be brainwashing yourself to quench the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Grace! The Law actually becomes the very power of sin (1 Corinthians 15:56).
BUT — if you renew your mind from the Scriptures with a GRACE orientation, you will be in step with the Spirit of Grace, and you will “be-being-filled” with the Holy Spirit, and you will facilitate communing with Jesus Christ, and you will facilitate walking by the Spirit, and thus facilitate “not fulfilling the lust of the flesh”.
But here’s a SUB-CAUTION:
This process can be fragile as you “progress”.
The world, the flesh and the devil are continually seeking to deceive you; to pull you from the path of renewing your mind; to bring you into temporary “insanity”; to steal or cloud what you know, if only long enough to cause you to stray from the Word, and from prayer, and from Grace, and from gazing into the face of Jesus Christ.
Don’t be discouraged.
“But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” – 2 Corinthians 3:18
It’s not “work to be better”, though we “work out our salvation”. It’s He who is at work in us both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12)
It’s not “laboring and striving to be better”, though “we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God” (1 Timothy 4:10).
“The man who has struggled to purify himself and has had nothing but repeated failures will experience real relief when he stops tinkering with his soul and looks away to the perfect One. While he looks at Christ, the very things he has so long been trying to do will be getting done within him. It will be God working in him to will and to do.” – A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God
Hoping it may shed some further light on the subject, here is a response I wrote to a friend in a recent conversation:
You wrote, “Grace saves & sanctifies. But in sanctification, grace is our teacher & we participate thru obedience (read Titus 2:12).”
1. Technically, of course, GOD saves and sanctifies (indeed He already has), BY Grace, but your point there is well taken.
2. It’s not through OBEDIENCE that we “participate”, it’s through FAITH. Any so-called obedience that is not of faith is sin, even if it looks good (Rom. 14:23).
3. That FAITH by which we “progress” is a gift from God, by grace.
4. We are already sanctified, just as we are already holy (same Greek root). Many verses make this clear. Just do a word study of “sanctify”, “sanctified”, “holy”, “holiness”, etc.
5. Verses that SEEM to indicate a progressive or growing holiness or sanctification are merely calling for us to ACT like or BEHAVE like what we already are.
This is a foundational principle for interpreting the New Covenant: “here’s what’s already done — now walk in it”.
6. Sanctification is distinct from justification as Fabarez points out, but both are already accomplished! And both are worked out in our actions as we UNDERSTAND and APPROPRIATE the truth of what is ALREADY DONE!
7. For example, we are already righteous, declared so by God Himself (Justification by Faith).
But we don’t always WALK righteously. The better we understand and appropriate the New Covenant truths, including Justification, the better we will ACT like what we already are.
8. This is similar to Romans 6, where we are clearly told that we are “dead to sin”. (You may say, “I sure don’t FEEL dead to sin!”) We are then told to “consider” (“reckon”, “choose to believe”) ourselves dead to sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:11).
Why? First, because it’s true. Second, because then we are more likely to ACT like it.
9. We are already Justified (declared righteous) — now LIVE like it! We are already a new creation with a new heart — now LIVE like it! We are already Sanctified (set apart, made holy). Now LIVE like it!
10. It’s all done! Our “obedience” can add NOTHING to it. That’s a form of Legalism. “Having BEGUN by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” -Gal. 3:3
11. We “participate” by our faith (resulting in obedience) in the same way that we “participate” in our salvation by faith. But as biblical Calvinists, we realize that such faith is itself only the result of God’s Spirit in regeneration. Likewise the faith that brings our obedience is God “working in us both to will and to do for His good pleasure”.
12. In my blog post I used the Norman Rockwell picture of the boy measuring the “progress” of his height for the purpose of showing that our holiness or sanctification cannot be measured as “progress” in that way.
No one can rightly say, “I’m more holy or sanctified than I used to be.” A brand new believer can truly ACT more holy than a believer of 40 years. This means nothing, except that the grace of God is given to him to have the faith for such actions.
13. Having said that, HUMANLY SPEAKING, we do have what are sometimes called the “means” of Grace — primarily the Word of God and prayer.
As we properly involve ourselves in these, we renew our minds and may very well “progress” in our understanding and appropriation of WHAT IS ALREADY ACCOMPLISHED in the New Covenant — and the result will tend to be that we walk by the Spirit more, and by the flesh less.
14. But we don’t need to be more sanctified, any more than we need to be more justified, or more dead to sin, or more forgiven, or have more of a “new heart”, or any other provision of the New Covenant.
Terry Rayburn lives in Clarksville, Tennessee, United States. He is the husband to Michele, dad to Michael, an armchair theologian and a businessman. Terry is also a long time and highly respected advocate for a greater understanding of the blessings we share in the New Covenant established through the blood of Jesus Christ at the Cross. Read more of Terry and Michele’s edifying articles through their blog at Grace For Life.