Is sanctification progressive? Do I get more sanctified over time? Another way to ask this is am I being made more holy or righteous as time goes by? Am I holier or more sanctified today than I was last year or last month or yesterday? Will I be holier and more sanctified next year at this time than I am right now? Do I slow, hinder, or stall my sanctification when I sin or by making bad decisions? Is sanctification progressive?
Many of us have been taught that it is. I inherited and embraced the idea of progressive sanctification when I became a believer for the simple reason that everyone around me did too and I didn't know enough then to know better. I held on to that belief for many years and it wasn't until my understanding of grace and the New Covenant gospel gripped me in a new way, that I started to see sanctification as a work of the Holy Spirit that happened one time when I believed. My time in Bible college reinforced the idea of sanctification being progressive as a way to work with God in becoming more set apart as time marched on and life happened. As a former pastor, I held this same belief for quite some time and would teach others that progressive sanctification could be a barometer of sorts of the genuineness of one's faith. If your behavior wasn't looking more sanctified it could cast a large shadow of doubt on the validity of your faith.
What is Sanctification?
I suppose we should start with a definition of sanctification before we go much further. Simply stated, sanctification means something set apart, made holy, or purified.
A Tale of Two Sanctifications
A wrong view of sanctification will tell us that in this life we can never be fully sanctified so God had to get creative in order to see us as sanctified even though we're really not all that sanctified. It does this by dividing sanctification into two categories of positional sanctification and progressive or personal sanctification.
By progressive or personal sanctification they mean how our lives actually look day-to-day with all of the messiness that can accompany it. This is defined as our boots-on-the-ground daily grind of personal or progressive sanctification. Until our performancein this life rises to the same pristine level as our positional sanctification in Jesus (and we're told it never will), we remain unqualified, inadequate, incomplete, or just plain lacking. So in the meantime, we're sanctified or holy positionally in Jesus but not in real life. Progressive or personal sanctification is a lifelong process wherein we get to participate with God and in cooperation with him, we become progressively more sanctified, more holy, more righteous, more set apart, and more forgiven each and every day unless we have a setback. Sounds exhausting!
By positional sanctification, they mean how God views us here and now in spite of our inconsistent performance. The reasoning goes that since personal sanctification is a progressive lifelong process and we'll never be fully sanctified in this life, God views us as positionally sanctified in Jesus and that makes things okay. God developed a way to fake himself out into seeing us as sanctified even though our progression toward full sanctification is incomplete. In other words he sees us as we one day will be when we die and we're with him. That teaching means that when God looks at us in the here and now he sees Jesus instead and since we are positionally in Jesus, our lack of complete sanctification is okay (*wink-*wink). He sees us, we're told, through some sort of Jesus lens so that when he
looks at us he sees Jesus instead. Jesus is running interference
for us in regards to holiness or sanctification because until we're
with Jesus in heaven, there's always going to be something dirty or
lacking in us that requires the Jesus lens to keep the Father happy. You may have heard this in terms of "now, but not yet."
What Does Scripture Say?
Thankfully, the notion of progressive and positional sanctification is a product of misguided theological tradition that is unsubstantiated in the pages of the New Covenant scriptures. As part of the New Covenant gospel of grace, our sanctification was a free gift given to us that was instantaneous and complete the moment we believed. In talking about the New Covenant sacrifice of Jesus for our holiness or sanctification, the writer of Hebrews said,
"And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." (Hebrews 10:10, ESV, Emphasis mine)
Did you catch that? Believer, you and I have been sanctified (past tense!) once for all! It's finished. It's done. There aren't categories of now but not yet or progressive and positional. You and I have been sanctified, set apart, and made holy ONCE and for all! This is foundational to the New Covenant gospel of grace and while it's something each of us has already experienced, it's also much more than an experience. It's our identity! You are sanctified. You are holy. You are pure. You are righteous. You are! Right now! Not some future version of you. Not gradually or progressively, but once for all!
You might be thinking, "Yeah but I don't feel that way. I've had a bad attitude for days now and I've said and done some things that have hurt those closest to me." I get that. We all have times like that where we feel like a complete failure and God must be disappointed in us. But that's not our identity. Who we are isn't wrapped up in the kind of day, week, month, or year that we're having. I woke up justified this morning and when my head hits the pillow tonight, I'll be just as justified, regardless of the kind of day I had. That's because my identity isn't tied to my performance in any way. Believer, you have been sanctified regardless of your performance today. Your sanctification is a New Covenant gift, not a burdensome duty you're supposed to pull off. If anyone was messed up, it was the Corinthians. Problems abounded there beyond measure and yet Paul reminded them of their unchanging identity when he said,
"And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." (1 Corinthians 6:11, ESV, Emphasis mine)
You and I were washed. You and I were sanctified. You and I were justified. This is our identity now and we will never lose that identity, nor will it ebb and flow depending on our performance. Our sanctification is complete and behind us, and along with the other rich truths mentioned in that passage, are a definition of who we are now. Our sanctification, just like these other New Covenant truths, was something gifted to us when we first believed, not something we have to pull off every day in hopes of becoming more sanctified. Paul opened this letter to the Corinthians in the same way:
"To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:" (1 Corinthians 1:2, ESV, Emphasis mine)
To be in Christ is to be completely set apart or sanctified and this comes from outside of us. There are no degrees or levels of sanctification in the New Covenant. In the phrase called to be saints, the words to be are not there in the Greek text. As part of their identity in Jesus, they are simply called saints (holy ones). But Paul's not done,
"And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, 'Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.'" (1 Corinthians 1:30–31, ESV, Emphasis mine)
Religion confuses sanctification with performance, our identity with our doing. And in so doing, boasts in our accomplishments, calling them sanctification. But the reality is Jesus himself has already become our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. The work of our sanctification is done. It's a gift we receive that we walk in. So if there is any boasting to be done, let's boast in the Lord and what he has done for us. Does this affect our behavior? Absolutely! But we dare not confuse our identity with what occurs in the hearts of those who have been sanctified. Those are two different things. One is the free gift that's been given to us apart from works and the other is a fruit of that free gift. We already have everything we need in Jesus. He himself is our righteousness, our sanctification, and our redemption. We had nothing to do with that.
We Lack Nothing
According to Peter we already have everything we need (see 2 Peter 1:3) and it was given to us by Jesus. We've already been made partakers of the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:4) apart from what we do. If my sanctification is up to me to complete, how do I know when I'm done? How do I know when I've done enough? Am I ever done? What is the standard of completion?
Finally, if it wasn't truly finished and there was something lacking in my sanctification, would Jesus have sat down (see Hebrews 10:12)?