Progressive Sanctification: A Divine Co-op

Who lives your Christian life, you, or God? That may sound like a trick question, but it really is not. It is a question to help the believer reckon clearly and biblically with one of the most pertinent and foundational doctrines of the Christian life. Sanctification is a doctrine that is clearly different from justification[1], though the two are inextricably linked together—one is not present without the other. While justification is an instantaneous declaration by God, sanctification is the ongoing work demonstrating that initial work of grace. So in this series of three articles, seeks to parcel out how much effort is involved on the part of the believer and in what part God is involved.

Justification is accomplished solely by God: man plays no part in it. While sanctification is equally a work of God, we are expected and commanded to participate in it; yet we can only engage in it because of God’s previous work of justification. Since the main issue is our trying to understand our role in the process, let us consider that particular dynamic.

We hold to the mystery that God has commanded true converts to grow in holiness, yet we admit that there is also a supernatural component to any conformity to Christ, which takes place in this life.

This mystery is like many other paradoxes (seeming contradictions) in Scripture.[2] While Scripture never contradicts itself but remains consistent with its teachings, some truths are beyond our comprehension.

Thus, in the paradox of progressive sanctification, the believer is commanded to “work out your salvation” (that’s the imperative responsibility to engage oneself), knowing concurrently that “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13-14).

Remember, this is not a call to performance-based theology. We do not work ourselves into God’s favor and could never work enough to remain in His favor. His Son is the One in whom He is well-pleased. Milton Vincent adds a refreshing, Gospel-centered reminder:

The gospel encourages me to rest in my righteous standing with God, a standing which Christ Himself has accomplished and always maintains for me (Rom 5:1-2; 1 Jn 2:1-2). I never have to do a moment’s labor to gain or maintain my justified status before God (Rom 4:5; Heb 4:3; Matt 11:28). The gospel also reminds me that my righteous standing with God always holds firm regardless of my performance, because my standing is based solely on the work of Jesus and not mine (Rom 5:18-19). On my worst days of sin and failure, the gospel encourages me with God’s unrelenting grace towards me (Rom 5:20-21; 6:1; 1 Jn 2:1-2). On my best days of victory and usefulness, the gospel keeps me relating to God solely on the basis of Jesus’ righteousness and not mine.

The righteousness of God, credited to me through Christ, is not merely something I rest in, but is also the premier saving reality by which God governs me. According to Romans 6, when I obeyed the gospel call I was both declared righteous and “became a slave of righteousness” at the same time (Rom 6:17-18). Quite literally, the righteousness that God credited to me became my master on the day I was converted! And now I am daily called by God to surrender the members of my being as slaves to do whatever this righteousness dictates (Rom 6:19).[3]

Notice that the imperative (to obey) is based upon the indicative (the state of reality).[4] God is at work in the lives of those who have been born again, but it is not apart from willing submission, subjection, obedience, and active pursuit.

Sanctification is accomplished through the active discipline of the Christian while trusting the Holy Spirit to keep him in obedience and conformity to Christ (Rom 6:15-22).[5] Believers are exhorted to do in practice what has already been done in principle. So progressive sanctification is the continuing work that God Himself began at the instantaneous one-time event that occurred at the moment of salvation. Still, in this aspect, God and man cooperate, each playing distinct roles.[6]

This active pursuit of the disciplined Christian life—one that lives in conformity to God’s Word—has another dimension to consider. It includes not only the positive “put-ons” in habits of righteousness but also the “putting-off” of sin (see Eph 4:22-24.[7] Herein is briefly stated the biblical process of change. Though it is clear what God requires, it is also a difficult struggle. It is a fight to the death; a war if you will (Gal 5:16-17). It is a constant struggle that will consistently characterize the Christian until sin is done away with, and we are with our Lord.


[1] “Comes from a Greek concept meaning ‘to declare righteous.’ It is a legal act wherein God pronounces that the believing sinner has been credited with all the virtues of Jesus Christ. Whereas forgiveness is the negative aspect of salvation meaning the subtraction of human sin, justification is the positive aspect meaning the addition of divine righteousness.” (Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, 639).

[2] For instance, did God write the Bible or man (see 2 Tim 3:16; Rom 16:22)? Can all come to Christ or only those whom the Son chooses (see Matt 11:28, 27)? Why pray if God has already determined the outcome of everything (see Lk 18:1; Isa 46:10)? And while man is held responsible to receive Christ, when people become children of God, it is said that this reception is of God (Jn 1:12-13).

[3] Milton Vincent, A Gospel Primer, (Focus Publishing, 2008), 20-21.

[4] For an edifying study of this dynamic see George Zemek, A Biblical Theology of the Doctrines of Sovereign Grace (Wipf & Stock, 2002), 215-19.

[5] This is just one of many NT passages in which God’s commands to believers are also accompanied by His enablement through the Spirit (2 Pet 3:18; 2 Cor 7:1; Heb 12:14; 1 Pet 2:11; Rom 8:13; 13:14; Eph 5:18). Furthermore, mirroring God’s holy character is not a requirement unique to this age. He also required it of Israel (Lev. 11:44; cf. 19:2; 20:7-8, 28.

[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), 746.

[7] For a helpful resource on this biblical practice, see Armand Tiffe’s Tranformed Into His Likeness, (Focus Publishing, 2005).

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