What We Believe


Alan D. Strange

New Horizons: June 1997

The Fear of Man

Also in this issue

The Fear of Man: When People Are Big and God Is Small

Home Run

A friend of mine, along with several other Orthodox Presbyterians, attended a revival meeting at a local Baptist church some years ago. During the service, each person was requested to stand up on the day of the week when he was "saved," while the congregation sang, "Saved on Monday, saved on Tuesday...." The perplexed Presbyterians glanced nervously at one another, not knowing when to stand. (I later remarked that they could have stood on each day, since believers are saved all the time.) Presumably, the Baptists equated conversion with salvation.

Full Salvation

Many of us are unable to say when we were converted. But that should not trouble us, for we do not equate salvation in its fullness merely with conversion. Salvation is the comprehensive work of God, whereby the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit bring a chosen people from death in sin to life in glory (Eph. 1:3-14). The Father predestines us in Christ according to his good pleasure. The Son accomplishes salvation entirely by his active and passive obedience (in his life and death). The Holy Spirit applies all the benefits of Christ's work to his own people. This is salvation in its cosmic dimension.

We may also speak of salvation in its personal aspect—not only in our past, but also in our present and in our future. If we are believers, the Holy Spirit gave us a new birth, after which we repented and believed and were subsequently justified (that is, declared righteous, because of the righteousness of Christ put to our account). We may call this salvation past, in which the penalty of sin was paid. We also enjoy salvation present, in which the power of sin is being broken. This is sanctification, the subject of this article. And, finally, we shall be delivered from the presence of sin itself. This is salvation future, the consummation of God's saving work in glory.

Definitive Sanctification

Sanctification itself has a twofold sense. We speak of definitive sanctification and progressive sanctification. John Murray was helpful in calling our attention to the new sphere in which the believer dwells, as a result of there having been "a once-for-all definitive and irreversible breach with the realm in which sin reigns in and unto death" (Collected Works, vol. 2, p. 279). As Paul puts it in Romans 6:2, we "died to sin." Because we have died to sin, we are commanded: "Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin" (vs. 11). Progressive sanctification is based upon the definitive breach with sin accomplished in definitive sanctification.

Progressive Sanctification

Sanctification in its progressive sense is what we ordinarily mean when we speak of sanctification. The Shorter Catechism, Q. 35, defines such sanctification as "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." Sanctification is a work of the Holy Spirit in which the whole man is renovated, both negatively and positively. The negative aspect of the Spirit's work is dying unto sin. The positive aspect is living unto righteousness. Man was made upright, and glorified man will be upright.

Dying and Living

During our pilgrimage on this earth, the Holy Spirit works in us so that we might die to sin, but our dying to sin does not obliterate our personalities. Such obliteration is an Eastern mystical conception of "absorption into the One." But God, as the Trinity, has personality (three persons in one Godhead—diversity in unity). Our sanctification in his image, then, does not destroy us as persons, but brings our personalities to full development. Thus, sanctification, negatively and positively, means not that we become robots, but that we become our truest selves—not less human, but more fully human. Sanctification means dying to all that is opposed to God (sin) and living to all that is from God (righteousness).

The Mystery of Sovereignty

Sanctification, as a work of God's Holy Spirit, involves an element of mystery, as does all the working of the sovereign Spirit. Legalists act as if the work of sanctification were entirely up to us, thus denying the necessity of the work of God's Spirit in us. Antinomians believe that we have nothing more to do with sanctification than we do with regeneration. It is true that we are passive in regeneration. But we are not passive in sanctification. Philippians 2:12-13 sets forth a dynamic in sanctification in which God's sovereignty does not swallow up man's responsibility, nor does man's responsibility negate God's sovereignty. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling in the confidence that it is God who works in us both to will and to do for his good pleasure.

Human responsibility and divine sovereignty do not conflict. Rather, our responsibility is meaningful only in the context of the order established by a sovereign God.

The Means of Grace

The work of sanctification proceeds by the Spirit's infusion of grace, through the means of grace. God ordinarily works by the Spirit's accompanying the ministry of the Word (the Scriptures read, studied, meditated upon, and, particularly, preached), the right administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper), and prayer, carried on in the corporate life of the church. God is sovereign here, because grace is conferred to whom it belongs among those participating in the means of grace. And man is responsible here, because he must use the means of grace faithfully, both publicly and privately.

It is important to remember, though, that the means of grace are just that: means. They are to lead us to Christ himself. A person may be engaged in the outward exercise of these means and be devoid of the inward reality that they are intended to communicate. Religiosity does not guarantee sanctification. On the other hand, one who is irreligious and neglects the public and private means of grace is certainly lacking in sanctification. A heart fully engaged to be the Lord's in and by the means of grace is what we should seek.

Renewal in God's Image

The goal of sanctification is to be renewed in the image of God, which means to be renewed in righteousness, holiness, and knowledge (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). What is the standard of righteousness, holiness, and knowledge? Where do we find these qualities defined? We do not turn to the philosophers. No, we turn to God's Word, "the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him" (Shorter Catechism, Q. 2). Since man's chief end is to glorify and enjoy God, there is but one rule to direct us—the Word of God. Sanctification is the Spirit of God conforming us more and more to God's Word, so that we enjoy and glorify God more and more. God is so gracious to his people! That which is for our own good is, in his great wisdom and love, also for his glory.

It is only when we are conformed to the Word of God that we are renewed in the image of God. And it is only as we are renewed in the image of God that we become what we were made to be. Only then do we have true fulfillment and freedom. Sin—all that which is opposed to God's Word—is slavery and oppression. Thus, as we are sanctified, then and only then do we enjoy God. Everyone ultimately glorifies God. Unbelievers glorify his justice and wrath. Believers glorify his grace and mercy. Only they can fulfill the chief end for which man was created. Believers do not enjoy God in their sin, but God never ceases to love his children, even though he does not smile upon them when they sin any more than we smile upon our children when they sin.

Growing in Grace

Sanctification is not simply "getting used to justification," as some would have it. To be sure, sanctification is as much a part of God's eternal decree as is justification (2 Thess. 2:13). God has decreed every aspect of our salvation, including "good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). The same work of Christ that provides for our justification empowers us unto sanctification.

Calvin saw clearly that sanctification involves a sensible growth in the grace and knowledge of our Lord, in which the believer actually is less and less in the grip of sin and more and more in the service of God. This is where Calvin's "third use of the law" came in. The law—that is, the Word of God—is the guide to living the Christian life. In sanctification, the Christian comes more and more to say, "O how love I thy law."

Many believers admit, though, that as time progresses, they become more acutely aware of their sin, not less. Precisely. Sanctification is growth in grace, not growth out of grace. Sanctification involves believers seeing more and more the vileness and wretchedness of their natural, fallen condition, so that they flee more and more from their corruption to the Lord. Sanctification involves an ever deepening awareness of the depth and treachery of one's sin, coupled with the understanding that one was not made to live that way.

The Reformed understanding of sanctification involves the whole man submitting himself on ever deeper levels to the God who loves his people and has given himself for them. Calvin's motto, "My heart I give to thee, O Lord, promptly and sincerely," is an apt picture of the sanctification of the believer. Sanctification is the believer ever being brought into greater conformity to the will of God, not contrary to his will, but because his will is being bent ever more toward God. Such sanctification occurs only with much fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).

Our Confession of Faith (5.5; 8.2, 3; 17.3; 18.3, 4) makes it abundantly clear that sanctification is no light or easy matter. Nor can we achieve it by following a simple formula. Contrary to some television preachers, there are not five things or seven things that one can do to be sanctified. It is a lifelong process.

Roman Catholic Error

Even more serious is the erroneous teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, which confuses sanctification with justification. Rome teaches that the believer receives grace through their seven sacraments, which, together with faith and good works, serve to sanctify. Scarcely anyone is completely sanctified in this life, and thus even good Catholics have to go to purgatory at death in order to pay the temporal penalty for whatever sins remain (the eternal penalty having been paid for by Christ). Only when a soul is really sanctified (thoroughly purged of sin) is one justified. The few who do die in a state of perfect sanctification and immediately attain the beatific vision are called "saints." In either case, however, one is justified in the Roman system only after one has been thoroughly sanctified.

Protestants have rightly insisted upon a distinction between justification and sanctification. In accordance with the Scriptures, we must not confuse the two (cf. Larger Catechism, Q. 77), as does Rome. Justification gives us a right standing before God; sanctification produces holiness in us who have been justified.

Our Need for Sanctification

On the other hand, we must not divorce sanctification from justification, as though one could be justified and never subsequently sanctified. This is the error of some evangelicals. God does not justify us and then fail to sanctify us. Christ's atoning work involves both propitiation and expiation. Why do so many of our evangelical brothers propound this notion that you can have Jesus as your Savior and, as you wish, have him or not have him as your Lord?

I believe this faulty thinking comes out of the revivalist and evangelistic practice of making a "decision for Christ" in order to become a Christian. But so many who have made such decisions give no evidence of being a follower of Jesus. The thought is that if folks claim to be Christians, then they must be Christians, even if they do not live like it, because God must save us if we are willing to let him. So, those who profess Christ, but live like the devil, must be people who have been justified, but not yet sanctified. These people, the thinking goes, must be encouraged to "make Jesus their Lord."

But Jesus is not the Savior of all, and the Lord of just his people. He is the Lord of all, and the Savior of just his people. Salvation is a package deal, and all that God has is applied to all who are his. Sanctification, then, is that aspect of the triune God's great salvation with which all believers are now involved. It is God working in them by his Spirit to make them more like him until such time as that work is brought to completion in glorification. Lord, hasten that day!

Mr. Strange is the pastor of Providence OPC in Glassboro, N.J. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 1997.

New Horizons: June 1997

The Fear of Man

Also in this issue

The Fear of Man: When People Are Big and God Is Small

Home Run

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