1 Those who are united to Christ, effectually called and regenerated, have a new heart and a new spirit created in them through the efficacy of Christ’s death and resurrection.1 Furthermore, they are also really and personally sanctified2 through the same means,3 by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them.4
2 1 Th 5:23, Ro 6:19, 22
3 1 Co 6:11, Ac 20:32, Ro 6:5-6
4 Jn 17:17, Eph 5:25-26, Eph 3:16-19, Ro 8:13
There is a progressive element to our sanctification, but our growth in holiness begins with a definitive, once-for-all sanctification that takes place at the beginning of our Christian life. Paul often speaks of believers as those who have been sanctified or made holy (Acts 20:32, 26:18, Rom 15:16, 1 Cor 1:2, 6:11). This points to an accomplished reality already present in our lives. This change takes place when God gives us a new heart and new spirit that love him and his law. The effect of this change is that the governing principle in the saint’s life is no longer sin, but God’s law written on his heart. There is, in other words, a radical change in the believer’s moral and spiritual life. Paul deals extensively with this change in Romans 6 where he says we have died to sin (vs 2) so that we are no longer its slaves (vs 3). We can count ourselves dead to sin (vs 11) and grow in holiness only if we have died to sin with Christ.
Sanctification is the continuation of God’s work in us that is begun in effectual calling and regeneration. It continues the nurture and development of that new nature which is made possible by God’s effectual call that leads to salvation and is brought into being by regeneration. Regeneration and definitive sanctification initiates the moral change that progressive sanctification enlarges and continues. While sanctification requires a continuing struggle on our part, our progress in sanctification, like our once-for-all justification, is due entirely to the work of Christ in his death and resurrection. It is only as the Spirit, working through the Word, applies the power of Christ’s perfect life and sacrifice to our hearts that we are able to grow in holiness. Paul says, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil 2:13). This is how what seems to be such a struggle demanding our energies can be considered the work of God.
The power of every part of the body of sin is destroyed, and its various lusts are increasingly weakened and put to death, and saving graces are increasingly brought to life and strengthened in them so that they practice true holiness5 without which no one shall see the Lord.6
6 Heb 12:14
Sin is no longer master over use because we are no longer under the law (Rom 6:14). The power of sin is the law (1 Cor 15:56) because it causes sin to awaken, and rather than restraining sin actually causes it to increase (Rom 5:20). This happens not because the law is sinful, but because we are sinful. Our sinful nature uses the law as a starting point for bringing what is forbidden to mind. “By holding up the commandment to man as the end of his liberty and by promising him life in the transgression of the commandment, sin draws man under its enchantment. It promises him just that which the law appears to take away, and leads him thus into death.” Furthermore, “when sin has once gained control of man the law is no longer able to deliver him from that control” (Ridderbos, 144, 145). Believers, however, no longer see doing God’s will as a threat to their freedom and joy, but rather as a path to those blessings. And since we do not need the law to deliver us from the control of sin, this having been given us as a gift in Christ, we are left free to use it as a guide for pleasing the Lord simply because we want to. The weapon sin used to hold us under its dominion has been stripped of that power over us. Sin is still present, but its power over the believer is broken and the desires to which it gives birth are gradually weakened so that what once greatly appealed to us becomes less and less enticing.
Knowing that our freedom from the law and from sin has been made certain by the death of Christ, we are encouraged in our practice of holiness. Holiness is no longer an impossible chore that we know can never be achieved, but is a goal towards which we move with the conviction that it will certainly be ours. There is great comfort in this doctrine, but there is also an implied warning we should not forget. Where there is no practice of true holiness, where there is no progress in sanctification, there is no hope of seeing the Lord. Those who hold that we can be justified and never grow in our desire to know and serve the Lord do not understand the nature of the salvation God gives, a salvation which includes sanctification.
2 This sanctification extends throughout the whole person, yet it remains incomplete in this life. Some remnants of corruption still remain in every part,7 from which arise a continual and irreconcilable war,8 the flesh desiring what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh.8
8 1 Co 9:24-27, 1 Ti 1:18, 1 Ti 6:12, 2 Ti 4:7
9 Ga 5:17, 1 Pe 2:11
Total depravity means that sin has corrupted man in every part of his being: intellect, emotion and will. Sanctification, God’s answer for total depravity, likewise extends to every part of man. In his ability to reason about the things of God, in his feelings and desires and in his ability to will and do righteousness the man who is being sanctified is growing more and more Christlike. The saint does not develop an emotional attachment to God apart from a willingness and ability to live a holy life. Sanctification is not a piecemeal sort of an operation, but it does remain incomplete in this life. Sin continues as a corrupting influence, though not the controlling principle, in the life of the saints. Our mind never becomes so free of sin’s influence that we can think, feel or act in a godly fashion without the correction offered by the Spirit through Scripture. The warfare between the Spirit and the flesh is an constant struggle. Sanctification simply ensures that the fight will go on and that we will not give up to return to our former estate apart from Christ.
3 In this war, the remaining corruption may often predominate for a time,10 yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part gains the victory.11 So believers grow in grace, moving towards mature holiness in the fear of God, pressing on towards the heavenly life in gospel obedience to all the commands which Christ as Head and King has prescribed for them in his Word.12
Sin may be present in the life of a believer, but there is a big difference between surviving sin and reigning sin. Hitler’s forces suffered a decisive defeat as a result of the D-Day invasion, a defeat from which they never fully recovered. Despite this victory it was still over a year before the Germans surrendered. Similarly, though sin continues to put up a fight it has been defeated and its demise in our lives is a certainty. It may even gain the upper hand sometimes, but the inexhaustible supply of our infinitely powerful God ensures that victory will be ours. In our struggle we are constantly growing in grace and holiness as we pursue a life of obedience to our Lord’s commands (Mt 28:20). Growth is inevitable because it is a matter of God’s grace. God’s work of grace does not make our work unnecessary but only makes it certain. Strength for this warfare comes through the Spirit by means of the Word, prayer and discipline.
The tension between the Spirit’s work and our work in sanctification has sometimes been misunderstood. Some have taken Paul’s words “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11) and “yield yourselves unto God as those that are alive from the dead” (6:13) as a formula for being sanctified apart from any effort on our own. They teach that sanctification is a gift we receive by faith and can no more be the result of our efforts than justification. All we need to do is trust God and yield ourselves to him. Numerous Scriptural exhortations addressed to believers to pursue holiness and righteousness contradict this idea though. The Spirit’s work gives us the encouragement we need to press on in our struggle against sin, but we must nevertheless stand and fight. This is not a matter of adding works to faith, but of faith expressing itself in love so that we continue to strain forward in the race we run (Gal 5:6-7, Waldron).