Progressive Sanctification: A Divine Co-Op Part 2

Posted On April 28, 2020

One of the many errors which come from ignorance of this struggle and which must be avoided is perfectionism. This misnomer came from John Wesley and John Fletcher and manifests itself in Methodism, Nazarenes, the Salvation Army, and the Holiness Movement. It is a view that holds that one can place his faith in Christ as Savior and live a non-sanctified life until he experiences some “second work of grace,” which propels him into a state of sinless perfection. Yet, this is only once he totally surrenders to the Lord. Notice their disconnect between sanctification and justification. They teach that at the point of “rededication of life,” a sort of “2nd blessing”, the Christian reaches a point where he does not willfully sin[1] against God (citing Matt 5:48; 6:13; Jn 3:8 for support). It is here that the struggle between good and evil ceases.[2] Against this unbiblical idea of an unsanctified life was the inimitable Princeton professor B.B. Warfield who countered with:

The whole sixth chapter of Romans…was written for no other purpose than to assert and demonstrate that justification and sanctification are indissolubly bound together; that we cannot have one without having the other; that, to use its own figurative language, dying with Christ and living with Christ are integral elements in one indisintegrable salvation. To wrest these two things apart and make separable gifts of grace of them evinces a confusion in the conception of Christ’s salvation which is nothing less than portentous. It forces from us the astonished cry, Is Christ divided? And it compels us to point afresh to the primary truth that we do not obtain the benefits of Christ apart from, but only in and with His Person; and that when we have Him we have all.[3]

A similar nuance is the Keswick or Deeper Life movement, which has been promoted by Hannah Smith, Andrew Murray, and Watchman Nee. It gives the probability of a Christian living a defeated life until he learns to consecrate his life and “let go and let God” handle the issue of sanctification. At that point, he will experience the victorious Christian life.

Unfortunately, both skewed views fail to recognize that sanctification is inextricably linked to the moment of justification. They also fail to recognize sanctification as progressive growth and working out the fruit of a redeemed life until life in the body is ended. It is part and parcel of salvation unto good works (Eph 2:10). This false doctrine of perfectionism stands in direct contradiction to such passages as Philippians 3:12-16 and 1 John 1:8, to name just a couple. Perfection in this life is merely a goal but never an achievement. Though we wrestle and strive in this life, the prize is only attained in Glory (Phil 3:12, 14). The battle against sin and our own wicked hearts (Jer 17:9) is only won and ceased when we are conformed unto His likeness (Col 1:28; Rom 8:29; Phil 1:6).

There must be a recognition that while God calls sinful men and makes them holy saints through grace (this becoming their new state in life; holy ones; set apart; positional sanctification—Col 3:12; Heb 3:1), they are responsible to shun uncleanness and manifest their sanctified state progressively (Jn 17:17; Heb 2:11; 10:14).

Sanctification is positional before it ever becomes progressive (1 Cor 6:11; Phil 1:6). Thus, when discussing the issue of sanctification, one must think clearly of which stage or aspect is being spoken of; positional, experiential (which is progressive throughout life), or ultimate.[4] Sanctification is begun at salvation and is solely the work of God. It progresses throughout the life of the believer and is never completed until the end of life. As Millard Erickson so aptly puts it, it is:

The continuing work of God in the life of the believer… Sanctification is a process by which one’s moral condition is brought into conformity with one’s legal status before God… It designates not merely the fact that believers are formally set apart, or belong to Christ, but that they are then to conduct themselves accordingly. They are to live lives of purity and goodness.[5]

Yes, sins are forgiven, and God lavishes his grace upon those whom He sets free. But freedom cannot become an excuse for sin. That is Paul’s whole point in Romans 6-8. The believer is dead to sin and alive to God, yet there is a conflict between what he desires to do and what he constantly does. He loves the Lord and hates sin but still indulges in it. When he does sin and does not pursue righteousness; he is at odds with that contradiction, that his practice does not back up his position. He cannot feel at home with sin nor have a clean conscience when he fails to pursue spiritual disciplines, gospel graces, and Christian virtues. Though free, he is in “bondage” to serve his new master, the Lord Jesus Christ. And that is his joy and passion. He is compelled to honor his Savior. This is a sense of owing Him who set us free from the curse of the law. It is an obligation, an internal compulsion of what we ought to do. Disciplining ourselves unto godliness is the “ought” of the Good News that not only frees us from sin’s penalty but also empowers us to obey out of love for our Redeemer. There is aggression and active pursuit of godliness in the life of the Christian life. The Puritans called in “holy sweat.” Unfortunately, too many Christians have not been well-equipped in discipleship and counseled biblically toward how to apply the biblical process of change to their lives.

In practice, Christians act like they believe the Wesleyan and Keswick views. They constantly await the “holy zap” to take away the strong impulses of sin and to eliminate the need for concentrated self-discipline. Many do not even practice the spiritual discipline of confession of sin. At best, this passivity fails to put into practice the Word (Jas 1:22), and at the worst, it is disobedience to the clear commands to the contrary (Ps 32; Matt 6:12). Calvin, in his 2 Peter commentary, stated:

It is an arduous work and of immense labour, to put off the corruption which is in us, he bids us to strive and make every effort for this purpose. He intimates that no place is to be given in this case to sloth, and that we ought to obey God calling us, not slowly or carelessly, but that there is need of alacrity; as though he had said, ‘Put forth every effort, and make your exertions manifest to all.’”[6]

Those who disregard obligation toward holiness and a life of obedience abuse their Christian liberty and pursue a lawless lifestyle. While flaunting their freedom in Christ, they claim that they are not obligated to the law of God because of grace. To refute such flagrant violation of liberty and the lack of understanding of law and grace, Luther reminded believers of his day:

We, too, who are now made holy through grace, nevertheless live in a sinful body. And because of this remaining sin, we must permit ourselves to be rebuked, terrified, slain, and sacrificed by the Law until we are lowered into the grave. Therefore before and after we have become Christians, the Law must in this life constantly be the slaying, condemning, accusing Law.[7]

[1] It is important to define “willful” on God’s terms and not ours. For instance, the writer to the Hebrews mentions this in 10:26. A believer might know what he is about to do when he acknowledges in his heart he is about to give way to temptation and does it anyway. That is not what is warned against. The apostasy that the writer warns of here and in the other warning passages of Hebrews is a knowing, habitual repudiation of the truth. The sin written of, and connected to the previous exhortations, and written in the present tense, is not the act of sin or any number of acts that could be repented of and blotted from their record, but the state of sin. He is talking of an unbroken pattern of sin, not acts of sin punctuated by repentance. It is not merely deliberate, but an established way of life, a permanent renunciation of the Gospel and continual rejection of God’s grace.

[2] Melvin Dieter, Five Views on Sanctification (Zondervan, 1987), 17.

[3] Benjamin B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, (Baker Book House, 2000), viii: 568-69.

[4] See Peter Enns, 329-30 and/or Grudem, 747-753.

[5] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, (Baker Books, 2002), 967-969.

[6] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, (Baker Books, 1999), xxii: 372.

[7] As cited in Steve Lawson’s A Long Line of Godly Men Profile: The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther, (Reformation Trust, 213), 71.

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