by Peter Ditzel
Progressive Sanctification, View Three: Grace Alone, No Works
The advocates of this view teach that we are progressively sanctified entirely by the grace of God based upon the work of Jesus Christ, who is our Sanctification (1 Corinthians 1:30; Hebrews 10:10), through the application of the Holy Spirit. Some who teach this, however, speak of progressive sanctification as a “further” sanctification, which, as we’ll see, presents some problems. This view is found in Chapter XIII of the Westminster Confession of Faith:
I. They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them: the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.
II. This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence arises a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.
III. In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part does overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.
This chapter in the Presbyterian confession is framed by some distinguishing points. It avoids the confusion that can arise between trying to distinguish between regeneration and positional sanctification by not dividing sanctification into positional and progressive. It simply takes off from regeneration and goes immediately into progressive sanctification, but the confession doesn’t use that term. Further, it never attributes any part of sanctification to our works. It always places sanctification squarely upon “Christ’s death and resurrection,” “His Word and Spirit dwelling in [us],” and “the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ.” This certainly sounds like an improvement, and yet, it raises questions.
Notice that, although it doesn’t speak of positional sanctification, the chapter begins by implying it in saying that those with “a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally.” Since it says that we are further sanctified, the implication is clear that it is teaching that positional sanctification is incomplete and imperfect. Now, let’s read Hebrews 10:9-14, which speaks of Jesus Christ doing God’s will and taking away the first (Old) covenant and establishing the second (New) covenant:
…then he has said, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He takes away the first, that he may establish the second, by which will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Every priest indeed stands day by day serving and often offering the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, but he, when he had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down on the right hand of God; from that time waiting until his enemies are made the footstool of his feet. For by one offering he has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.
This plainly states that we have been sanctified by the offering of Christ once for all, and by His one offering He has perfected us forever (literally “in perpetuity”). Since the Holy Spirit applies this sanctification to us when we believe, and with such finality, perfection, and perpetuity attached to it, how can we possibly, as the Westminster Confession says, be further sanctified? Ah, you say, Hebrews 10:14 does use the phrase, “are being sanctified.” Surely that refers to a further sanctification in progressive sanctification. With all of the finality in these verses up to that point, I wouldn’t be so sure. Frankly, the passage would be contradicting itself.
Remember, Jesus Christ accomplished our sanctification at a point in time on the Cross. But the Holy Spirit applies that sanctification to each of us when we exercise saving faith. So, Jesus by one sacrifice took away our sins forever, sanctifying us once for all time with a perfect sanctification. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, then applies that perfect sanctification to which nothing can be added, to each of us “who are being sanctified” as we express faith in time throughout history.
Peter was sanctified, then the Ethiopian eunuch was sanctified, Paul was later sanctified, Timothy was then sanctified, you were sanctified, I was sanctified, and so forth through time. We were those “being sanctified,” there are now people “being sanctified,” and there are still people to whom the Holy Spirit will apply the sanctification earned by Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is applying sanctification to each elect individual as each comes to the saving knowledge of Christ in each year, decade, and century of this Gospel age in which we live. The “being sanctified” is covering a period of nearly two-thousand years.
This, I believe is the only possible explanation that fits with Scripture and ends the controversies surrounding progressive sanctification. What I am saying is that there is no such thing as progressive sanctification in the sense that it is normally thought of—that, after being positionally sanctified, the individual is somehow further sanctified. Instead, there is our continuing and generally growing experience of and outward show of the sanctification Jesus has perfectly wrought and the Holy Spirit has fully applied to us.
We must also be clear about another point. Since humans cannot make themselves holy, we must not take the credit for the outward results of God’s inner work. When we show love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control in our lives, we are displaying the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), not the works of man.
Our efforts are not our sanctification. Just look at some of the Scriptures that teach that Jesus Christ is our sanctification: “But of him, you are in Christ Jesus, who was made to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30); “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the assembly, and gave himself up for it; that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word” (Ephesians 5:25-26); “May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23); “For both he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one, for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brothers” (Hebrews 2:11); “by which will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10); “For by one offering he has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14); “How much worse punishment, do you think, will he be judged worthy of, who has trodden under foot the Son of God, and has counted the blood of the covenant with which he was sanctified an unholy thing, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?” (Hebrews 10:29); “Therefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people through his own blood, suffered outside of the gate” (Hebrews 13:12); “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, to those who are called, sanctified by God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ” (Jude 1:1).
Do we work? Yes. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, that no one would boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:9-10). God has prepared our works. But they are the result of our sanctification, not the cause of it. This is what Philippians 2:12-13 is describing: “So then, my beloved, even as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure.”
Our works are the natural result of the sanctification Christ earned on the Cross and the Holy Spirit applies to us when we believe. Because we are still in the flesh, although Jesus has perfectly sanctified us, our carnal flesh often gets in the way of our showing our sanctification purely. It’s like resistance to electricity. Yet, we do grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus, and that growth is like turning up the electricity—we shine brighter in our works. This is why Jesus specifically prayed to the Father, “Sanctify them in your truth. Your word is truth” (John 17:17). The Word of God acts in conjunction with the Holy Spirit to feed our spiritual growth. I once heard a preacher ask, “Do you want to read the mind of Jesus? Read the Bible.” When we read God’s Word, the Bible, or hear it rightly taught, God’s thoughts begin to become our thoughts, teaching us how to outwardly show our sanctification.
Those whom we should be able to trust commonly teach that we are justified by faith and positionally sanctified by grace, but now we must be progressively sanctified by living a holy life of good works. This is legalism. The Bible says nothing of the kind. What it teaches is this: Because we are justified by faith, and because we are sanctified by grace, therefore, we are holy and good works naturally follow. That’s quite a difference. Of course, if this is new to you, it is natural that you will question it. But as you question it, please answer these questions: If we are justified by faith, meaning that God declares us as and sees us as not guilty, how can we ever again be guilty of a sin? (hints: Romans 8:1; 1 John 3:6-10). If God has sanctified us, how can we humans further sanctify ourselves so as to improve on what He has done? (hint: Romans 7:18-25; Hebrews 10:10, 14). If Jesus is our sanctification just as He is our redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30), wouldn’t trying to sanctify ourselves by works be a rejection of Him as much as if we had tried to redeem ourselves? (hint: Galatians 3:3).
We don’t work our sanctification. Jesus has already done that. We simply react to it. Jesus is the cause; our works are the effect. To put it another way, Jesus is our sanctification; our works are the result of His work.
It is so easy for people to become confused and think that sanctification is the work we do. Then they put this error in stone, so to speak, by putting it into creeds and confessions and preaching it from pulpits and writing books about it. But it’s a mistake! You cannot get around the fact that if our works were our sanctification, or if they caused our sanctification, then our sanctification would be by our works. Of course, some people freely teach this: Justified by faith, sanctified by works. Nonsense! If we are sanctified by our works, then we are at least partly saved by our works because sanctification is part of our salvation. We are trying to do the impossible—mix grace and works (Romans 11:6)—and we commit an effrontery to our Savior by denying that He accomplished all that He came in the flesh to do. It is a doctrine of antichrist.
We add nothing to our holiness, which is the sanctification God has already given us. What we do is experience it more fully as we go through our Christian lives, bringing the sanctification God has given us to fruition.
As you might have guessed by now, I believe that the various kinds of sanctification are merely artificial distinctions. There is really only one sanctification, the one sanctification Jesus earned on the Cross and that the Holy Spirit applies to us and that will in the future fully shine when we are removed from our corrupt flesh and this sinful world. When properly understood, we might find these distinctions helpful when we see them as parts of a whole or steps of one procedure. The various “sanctifications” are simply logical parts put under a microscope for our examination, but there is only one sanctification determined in eternity by God, accomplished by Christ on the Cross, applied to us by the Holy Spirit, shown outwardly as we grow and mature, and revealed in glory when we shed this corruption and bear the image of the heavenly.
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