If you were seeking a succinct definition of the biblical doctrine of sanctification, you would be hard-pressed to find a better one than that found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. In the answer to Question 35, the Westminster divines wrote, “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.” Although this is an accurate definition of the progressive nature of sanctification, Scripture sets out several other important aspects of sanctification that are necessary for us to gain a full-orbed understanding of this benefit of redemption. Consider the following five things:
1. Christ is the source of sanctification.
Believers are sanctified by virtue of their union with Christ. He is the singular source of sanctification insomuch as He supplies His people with all that they need to grow spiritually as they abide in Him by faith. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “You are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30, emphasis added). To become the source of sanctification for His people, Jesus had to sanctify Himself in the work of redemption (John 17:19). Though He had no sin (2 Cor. 5:21), He consecrated Himself for His people by perfectly obeying the law of God as well as the mediatorial commands of God (John 10:17–18). Geerhardus Vos explained, “This . . . is not to be understood as a change in the Savior, as if this sanctification presupposes a previous lack of holiness, but as the consecration of His life in mediatorial obedience (passive and active) to God.” In addition to His obedient life, Christ was sanctified for us when He died on the cross. Since the sins of believers have been imputed to Christ, and He bore them in His body on the tree, they were judicially purged when He fell under the fiery wrath of God.
2. Regeneration is the fountain of sanctification.
Since justification is a legal benefit of redemption (i.e., a once-for-all act), sanctification more properly flows from the transformative blessing of regeneration. The implementation of a new nature (i.e., regeneration) into the lives of believers at the beginning of their Christian experience begins the process of sanctification. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states, “They who are . . . regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified . . . [and] through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome: and so the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (WCF 13:1, 3).
3. Sanctification has a definitive aspect to it.
John Murray, late professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, rightly distinguished between definitive sanctification and progressive sanctification. Regarding the New Testament passages that speak of believers having been sanctified (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:2; 6:11; Heb. 10:10), Murray wrote, “In the New Testament the most characteristic terms used with reference to sanctification are used not of a process but of a once-for-all definitive act . . . it would be, therefore, a deflection from biblical patterns of language . . . to think of sanctification exclusively in terms of a progressive work.”
Definitive sanctification involves a radical breach with the power of sin in the life of believers. This breach with the power of sin occurred when Jesus died to sin on the cross (Rom. 6:10). As Murray explained:
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.
When a believer is savingly united to Christ in time, this aspect of the work of redemption is realized in his Christian experience.
4. Faith and love are the dual instruments of sanctification.
Whereas the justification of believers (i.e., their being accepted as righteous before God) is by faith alone, the process of sanctification occurs in the lives of believers by “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Believers are sanctified by the same faith in Christ as that by which they were justified. However, in the experience of believers, faith actively works together with love to bring about growth in grace. There is a harmony between what God is doing in the lives of His people and what they are called to do in response. The Apostle Paul captures these joint operations when he writes, “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).
5. God has appointed certain means to help believers advance in progressive sanctification.
Though sanctification is based on what Christ accomplished in His death and resurrection and is experienced in the lives of believers by the power of the Holy Spirit, God has appointed certain means to assist believers in the pursuit of growth in grace. The believer’s progressive sanctification will be commensurate with his employment of the means of grace. The central means that God has appointed for the sanctification of His people are the Word, sacraments, and prayer. In His High Priestly Prayer, Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17). The Apostle Paul referenced the grace of the Lord’s Supper when he spoke of “the cup of blessing” (1 Cor. 10:16). The ministry of the Word, sacraments, and prayer are the central elements of corporate worship. Therefore, being gathered in Lord’s Day worship with the saints is vital to our progressive sanctification.
This article is part of the 5 Things You Should Know collection.