Sanctification is one of the principal benefits of the redemption purchased by Christ and applied by the Holy Spirit to believers. Those who believe in Christ are sanctified, or made holy, in their whole person by virtue of their union with Christ. Sanctification has both definitive and progressive—positional and transformative—elements to it. Definitive sanctification involves the radical breach with the power of sin and the positional status that believers have in their union with Christ. Progressive sanctification is the ongoing work of God’s grace whereby He enables believers to put sin to death in their lives and conforms them more and more to the image of Christ. The root of sanctification is regeneration. The goal of sanctification is Christlikeness. This is especially so with regard to the manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of believers. The Spirit is the agent of sanctification. The Word of God, the sacraments, prayer, church discipline, and suffering are the means by which God brings about sanctification in the lives of believers. Though sanctification is incomplete in this life, it will be brought to completion in the glorification of believers on the last day.
Sanctification is one of the benefits of the redemption secured by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Reformed theologians distinguish between the doctrine of justification and the doctrine of sanctification by addressing the dual problem of the guilt and corruption of sin. In His death on the cross, Jesus dealt with the guilt of believers’ sin. This is a central aspect of justification before God for the redeemed. Christ also dealt with the corruption and power of sin by His death. This is the chief element of His saving work that is applied to believers in the work of sanctification.
Sanctification, together with all other saving benefits of redemption (e.g., effectual calling, justification, adoption, and glorification), is grounded on the person and work of Jesus in the historia salutis (the historical accomplishment of salvation). Jesus is the sanctified One who, by means of His sinless obedience and suffering, is consecrated in the place of His people to be the source of their sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30). In His High Priestly Prayer, Jesus said, “For their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:19). Those who are united to Jesus Christ are already positionally sanctified. This aspect of the saving work of Christ establishes two aspects of the biblical teaching about sanctification: definitive sanctification and progressive sanctification.
In several places in the New Testament in which some variation of the Greek word for “sanctify” (hagiazō) is used, it has special respect to a past, definitive act of God by which believers are said to already have been sanctified (e.g., 1 Cor. .1:2; 6:11; 2 Tim. 2:21). The scriptural usage of the word hagiazō—and its various forms—carries the idea of “being holy,” “being in a state of holiness,” or “being made holy.” It is used to refer to a completed reality on the basis of the finished work of Christ. This is our definitive sanctification the decisive breach with sin, that believers have already experienced and our being set apart as God’s holy people. This flows from the work of Christ. When Jesus died on the cross, He died to the power and dominion of sin as the representative of His people (Rom. 6:10). This has consequences for believers, and it is why Paul tells those who have trusted in Christ that they are to “reckon themselves to be dead to sin.” Reformed theologian John Murray explains the teaching of Romans 6:6–22 in regard to definitive sanctification:
Death in sin means the service of sin as bondservants (Rom. 6:6, 16–17, 20); sin reigns in our mortal bodies (6:12); obedience is rendered to the lusts of sin (6:12); we present our members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin and as the bondservants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity (6:13, 19); we are free (footloose) in respect of righteousness (6:20); sin has dominion over us, and we are under law (6:14). Death to sin means that the old man has been crucified and the body of sin destroyed—we no longer serve sin (6:6); we are justified from sin (6:7); we are alive to God and live to him (6:10–11); sin no longer reigns in our mortal body and does not lord it over us (6:12, 14); we present ourselves to God and our members as instruments of righteousness to God, so that we are servants of righteousness unto holiness (6:13, 19); we are under the reign of grace (6:14); we render obedience from the heart to the pattern of Christian teaching (6:17); the fruit is unto holiness, and the end everlasting life (6:22).
While definitive sanctification is a once-for-all act of God in breaking the bondage of sin in believers’ lives, progressive sanctification is the ongoing work of God’s grace whereby the Holy Spirit enables the regenerate to put sin to death more and more in their lives. The Westminster Shorter Catechism offers the following succinct definition of progressive sanctification: “Sanctification is the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (Q&A 34). The goal of progressive sanctification is conformity to the image of Jesus Christ. When the Holy Spirit unites a sinner to Christ, He begins the progress of renewing the whole person. Because sin has affected every part of fallen mankind, sanctification affects renewal throughout the whole person. The New Testament especially highlights the fruit of the Spirit in the Christian life. In His Upper Room Discourse, Jesus spoke of imparting to His disciples His love (John 15:9–10), His joy (John 15:11; 17:13), and His peace (John 14:27). The fruit of the Spirit is the fruit of Christ being formed in the lives of His people by the Holy Spirit.
In justification, adoption, and definitive sanctification, God is the only acting agent. In progressive sanctification, believers have a role to play, though their actions are motivated and sustained by the work of God in them. As the Apostle Paul told the Philippians to “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” (Phil. 2:12–13). Believers are called by God to put sin to death in their lives by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:13; 13:12; Col. 3:9). The Holy Spirit is the agent of sanctification as He works in believers to make them willing and ready to put sin to death in their lives.
The Spirit of God works through God’s appointed means for the sanctification of His people. The central means of sanctification are the Word of God, the sacraments, and prayer. However, God has also appointed fellowship and church discipline to be means of grace and holiness. Believers are conformed to the image of Christ as they give themselves to a due use of the means of grace. The more believers pursue sanctified living by the power of the Spirit through the means of grace, the more they will delight in God and His goodness.
Progressive sanctification is an ongoing work of God’s grace because no believer will attain sinless perfection in this life. Recognizing the reality of indwelling sin and the war within between the flesh and the Spirit is vital to the engagement of this work of mortification. Spiritual warfare against the flesh is rooted in the fact that Christ has already overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil. In the nineteenth century—as in the early church—various forms of perfectionism began to take root in evangelical circles. The Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield wrote a significant refutation of perfectionism.
At the consummation, when Christ comes again, believers will be made perfect in holiness. For all eternity, those whom Christ has redeemed will dwell in the presence of God without any sinful imperfection. The Holy Spirit will secure them in perfect holiness, from which they will never be able to fall into sin. In the new heavens and new earth, believers will dwell together in unblemished holiness for all eternity.
It is by virtue of our having died with Christ and our being raised with him in his resurrection from the dead that the decisive breach with sin in its power, control, and defilement had been wrought, and that the reason for this is that Christ in his death and resurrection broke the power of sin, triumphed over the god of this world, the prince of darkness, executed judgment upon the world and its ruler, and by that victory delivered all those who were united to him from the power of darkness and translated them into his own kingdom. So intimate is the union between Christ and his people that they were partakers with him in all these triumphal achievements and therefore died to sin, rose with Christ in the power of his resurrection, and have the fruit unto holiness and the end everlasting life. As the death and resurrection are central in the whole process of redemptive accomplishment, so is it central in that by which sanctification itself is wrought in the hearts and lives of God’s people.
Calvin Theological Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1
The Christian life is about the imitation of Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). We are being molded into His image, so we are to strive to live as He lived. Our Lord was slandered and falsely accused of all kinds of offenses, but He opened not His mouth in protest (Isa. 53:7). Like a lamb, He accepted these vitriolic attacks, and, in the very moment of His passion, He prayed for the forgiveness of those who were attacking Him (Luke 23:34). This is how we are called to react to our enemies (1 Peter 4:13). Therefore, every false accusation, every slander, every ill word spoken about me is an opportunity for me to grow in my sanctification