What is sanctification?

This is the process of becoming morally pure.


What does it mean to say something is moral?

This means that a given choice is consistent with the will of God or, to say the same thing, consistent with the law of God.  An immoral act is a choice that is not consistent with God’s will.


Is sanctification something we do or is it something God does within us?

Sanctification involves both our effort and God’s effort.


How does this fit with the other parts of our salvation?

Scripture teaches us that we have a threefold problem.  We have a bad heart, a bad record, and a bad life.  To this threefold problem, God brings us a threefold solution.  He gives us a new heart, a new record, and a new life.  The theological terms used to refer to these different parts of our salvation are:

For each of these, it is important to understand the role human effort plays.

  • In getting a new heart, human effort plays no role at all.  Regeneration is purely a one sided work of the Holy Spirit.  Our own efforts do nothing.  Sometimes the word monergism is used to refer to this reality.
  • In getting a new record, there is only one human act required and that is faith.  We are justified by faith in Jesus and not by our obedience to the law.  Sola fidei is an often used expression which captures this idea.
  • In getting a new life, a great deal of human effort is required.  The process of discipleship is long, arduous, difficult, and marked by many set backs and defeats.


Are there some who deny that any human effort is required for sanctification?

Yes, consider this teaching from Trumbull (bottom of p1):

Just remember this: any victory over the power of any sin whatsoever in your life that you have to get by working for it is counterfeit. Any victory that you have to get by trying for it is counterfeit. If you have to work for your victory, it is not the real thing; it is not the thing that GOD offers you.  On the train this afternoon I was reading a letter from a woman who is at this Convention, and she said, “I am trying to live the victorious life,” and so I did so and so under certain circumstances that Christian friend may be in this audience tonight; but if she is, I cannot refrain from saying that as long as she keeps on trying to live the victorious life, she won’t live it. If any of you are making the mistake of trying to live the victorious life, you are cheating yourself out of it, for the victory you get by trying for it is a counterfeit victory. You must substitute another word; not try, but trust, and you cannot try and trust at the same time. Trying is what we do, and trusting is what we let the LORD do.

Also, Tyerman records (p302) and incident from the ministry of Wesley where some Christians began to teach that the means of grace were worthless.

Wesley was at his wits’ end; numbers came to him every day, once full of peace and love, but now plunged into doubts and fears. Just at this juncture, his brother printed his fine hymn, of twenty-three stanzas, entitled “The Means of Grace,” and circulated it “as an antidote to stillness.” “Many,” said Charles, “insist that a part of their Christian calling is liberty from obeying, not liberty to obey. ‘The unjustified,’ say they, ‘are to be still; that is, not to search the Scriptures, not to pray, not to communicate, not to do good, not to endeavor, not to desire; for it is impossible to use means, without trusting in them.’ Their practice is agreeable to their principles. Lazy and proud themselves, bitter and censorious towards others, they trample upon the ordinances, and despise the commands of Christ.”


What is wrong with this teaching?

First, note what is right about it.  The making of a full surrender of ourselves to the grace of God and yielding ourselves to the Holy Spirit is clearly the first and most important part of our sanctification.  There can be no progress without it.  To use Trumbull’s words, trusting is of the very first importance and trying second.  Trumbull makes the dreadful error of thinking that some how trusting cancels any need for trying.  The Bible teaches the contrary.


If the above author believes that sanctification comes without any effort on our part, how does he understand sanctification?

He does not understand sanctification to be a process involving a great deal of self-discipline but an event.  It’s a victory which God gives in a single moment.  He writes in the same chapter as above:

I read not long ago some extracts from a sermon by a well-known preacher, and they were something like this: “We all of us need to do weeding, rooting up the bad weeds in the garden of our own life. The thing to do is to give your attention to some weed, some sin that has taken root in your life, and with prayer and effort dig it up. It may take you a long time, but keep at it day after day, week after week, month after month if necessary, till you have weeded that sin out.  After you have gotten rid of that sin, take another, and keep at that till you have weeded it out.  And then another and another of the sins of your life, till you have made your garden what it ought to be.”

Dear friends, you do not find anything of this sort in GOD’s Word. A victory gained in that way, by a gradual conquest over evil, getting one sin after another out of our life, is counterfeit victory.  No, the LORD JESUS does not offer to give us any such gradual victory over the sins of our life.

and later again:

No! the victorious life, the life of freedom from the power of sin, is not a gradual gift. There is no such thing as a gradual gift. And victory is a gift. It is not a growth. “Thanks be to God, which GIVETH us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” How long does it take you to grow into your birthday presents? On your birthday, when you come downstairs, and find them there on the table with your name on them, how long does it take you to grow into those gifts?  One minute a gift is not yours, though it is labeled with your name. The next minute it is yours.  Why? Because in that minute you have taken it. You did not grow into it; in an instant you took it. Victory is a gift which we take in exactly the same way.

Please do not misunderstand me as saying that in the victorious life there is no growth. That would be absolutely false; wholly untrue to the Word of GOD. But we only begin to grow normally, grow as GOD wants us to grow, after we have entered into victory. Then we have the chance to grow for the first time as we ought to grow. And then we can “grow in grace” in a thousand and one ways; grow as long as we live, learning more of the LORD all the time, and of His Word, and growing as He wants us to grow; but not growing in freedom from the power of sin. For we can have that victory today as completely as we can ever have it in this world. If JESUS is not able to do it for us today, then He will never be able to do it for us. But, praise GOD, He is! And He is “the same yesterday, and today, and forever.”  Victory is not fighting down your wrong desires.


What does the Bible say about this?

Note how Paul draws exactly the opposite conclusion from God’s grace.  In Ephesians 2 and 3, Paul writes at length about the grace of God and the marvelous work He does both for and in His people.  Then he begins chapter four with these words:

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3)

Note that Paul understands God’s work of grace, described in the previous chapters, to be the very reason and motive for the Ephesian believers to walk in humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance, and working for unity.  That’s why he starts this verse with “Therefore…” Many Christians are taught that their own effort some how cancels or calls into question God’s grace.  Paul has exactly the opposite understanding.  To the Colossians, Paul writes:

Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.  For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)

Note that Paul does not argue here that since your life is hidden with Christ in God, any victory over sin which you obtain by your own effort is counterfeit.  On the contrary, he calls for human effort, namely seeking the things above, and bases this command for human effort on the very fact that they had been raised up with Christ.  Again, Paul has exactly the opposite reasoning from the teaching given above.


Human Choices


Above, you said that sanctification is the process of becoming morally pure.  What does the word moral mean?

Morality is a concept used to understand the choices we make.  A moral choice is a choice that conforms to a given standard or rule.  An immoral choice does not conform to this rule.


Are only human choices moral?

Yes, since only human choices are free.


Are animals able to make free choices?

They do not since they are driven by instinct and not by reason.


Are only those choices free which are moved by reason?

Yes, a free choice is when the individual is under no external compulsion to choose the way he does.  He makes the choice for his own reasons.  Edwards writes (p163) that a person is said to be free when he acts as he pleases.  In other words, there is no “hindrance or impediment in the way of doing, or conducting in any respect, as he wills.”


What is reason?

In this context, reason refers to a person’s intellect or understanding or mind.  Our mind assesses what is good, and our will makes the choice to take it.  We use the word “motive” to refer to those reasons which the mind presents to the will and which move the will to choose one thing as opposed to another.


If we were to dissect a human choice, what would we find?

A human choice consists of two parts:

  1. what is done or the object of our choice;
  2. why it is done or the motive of our choice.

Thus for instance, the difference between a homicide and a murder is not in what was done but why it was done.  A person’s motive is the answer to the question why a person acted the way he did.


How can we know if a given act is moral or immoral?

When the what and the why are consistent with the law, then it is a moral choice.  Jesus said that if a person acts righteously in order that other people would notice (Matthew 23:5), they are acting immorally. (Matthew 6:1)  The reason is that their motive (or the why) is not moral; their motive is not righteous. This shows us that both an action and its motives must be moral if an action is to qualify as a good work.


Are there circumstances to any given choice which can lessen or increase the degree of guilt that is incurred?

Yes, there are two knowledge and freedom.


How can knowledge reduce the guilt of an action?

Because a person cannot be held responsible for obeying a law of which he did not know.  Furthermore, sometimes a choice is made without as much knowledge as a person would like.  To give some examples.  A century ago, few people had the requisite medical knowledge to know the bad effects of smoking.  Thus, a man is more guilty for his choice to take up smoking today than he would have been a century ago when there was more ignorance of the effects of it.  Some ignorance if invincible and some vincible.


Clarify the distinction between invincible and vincible ignorance.   

This clarifies the issue of how much a person can be held responsible for his ignorance.

  • In a case of invincible ignorance, no amount of diligence or effort on the part of the person could have corrected his ignorance.  This person is not guilty for not knowing.  An example would be a child who uses profane language not knowing that it is profane.
  • In a case of vincible ignorance, however, the person is guilty for his ignorance.  If he had put forth a reasonable amount of effort, he could have known the law.  When a person is driving down a road, he has an obligation to know the speed limit.  He cannot defend his actions to a police officer by insisting that he did not know the speed limit.


How does freedom affect the guilt of a given action?

Because there are human emotions which lessen the freedom of a given choice.  A person who sees a man abusing a woman or a child may fly into such a rage as to kill the man.  His killing of this man may not have been justified, but the burst of rage, which sprang up within him, controlled him and rendered him less free.  He is guilty of murder, but the justified rage of this man will surely make his act less guilty.  Some people have trampled on others because they panicked and were fleeing from some perceived danger.  Again, they were so controlled by their terror that their choices could hardly have been said to be free.  For all that, they still bear some responsibility for the evil they committed.


The Law


What rules are given us to know whether a given action is moral or immoral?

God gives us these in His law; see here.


How does a person get sanctified?

In the first place, a person must be in a saving union with Jesus Christ.


Why is this so critical?

Because all the blessings of salvation only come to us as we are in this union.  Paul writes to the Ephesians:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, (Ephesians 1:3)

Notice that all the spiritual blessings God gives us come to us through our union with Christ or “in Christ.”


Where does the Bible teach this with respect to the blessing of sanctification?

Jesus teaches this in John 15 where He compares our sanctification to a vine bearing fruit.  Jesus identifies Himself as the vine and His father as the gardener. (John 15:1)


How do you know that “bearing fruit” in John 15 is the equivalent of our sanctification?

Several times in these verses, Jesus speaks of abiding in the vine which is a reference to our union with Christ.  Near the end of this section, He says:

If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. (John 15:10)

Thus, keeping Jesus’ commands is the way we maintain this union with Jesus or the way we “abide in Him.”  Keeping Jesus’ commands is the equivalent of becoming morally pure which is the goal of our sanctification.


If keeping Jesus’ commands is the way we maintain our union with Jesus, how then can our sanctification be the fruit or the result of our union with Jesus?

To understand this, take a closer look at these verses:

First, the truth is stated that God expects fruit from us.  Branches not bearing fruit are cut off and even fruit-bearing branches are pruned so they produce more fruit.  (John 15:2)

Second, Jesus states that His hearers are already attached to the vine.  He says, “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.” (John 15:3)  This is important since it shows that Jesus is not teaching here that people come to be attached to the vine by a process of discipleship.  They get attached to Vine by hearing and believing the word of the gospel.  To paraphrase the above verse, “You have already been cleansed from the guilt of sin and brought into union with Myself because you believed the word of the gospel which I preached to you.” (Ephesians 5:26; 1 Peter 1:22)  Hengstenberg notes (p246) that Jesus’ words  here assure His disciples that they belong to the latter class of people given in v2; i.e. those who are bearing fruit and are being pruned so as to produce even more.

Third, now Jesus gives the central point of this analogy,  i.e. that all sanctification blessings come to us only in so far as we are united to Christ.  Here the “blessings of sanctification” are the fruit and being united to Christ is the branch staying connected to the main vine. (John 15:4)

From this, we conclude that Jesus’ teaching here is not about how to come into a union with Christ for the first time, but having been already joined with Christ, how can we bear more fruit to God’s glory?  This is the question Jesus is addressing.


What do we receive from our union with Christ which makes our sanctification possible?

We receive a vast array of gifts which we will probably never fully comprehend.  As an example, consider again Jesus teaching in John 15:

If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (John 15:7)

Here Jesus gives His people the gift of prayer and a promise to hear their requests.


Do believers receive the Holy Spirit when they are united with Christ?

Yes, they do.  There is one text which says this explicitly, and several texts which lead us to believe this.  Consider the following:

  1. We know that Christ Himself is full of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 3:16; Luke 4:1; 4:14; John 3:34 Acts 10:38)
  2. We know that every believer receives the Holy Spirit when they believe the gospel. (Acts 2:38)  This is sometimes referred to as being baptized with the Spirit. (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 1 Corinthians 12:13)
  3. We have the teaching above that every spiritual blessing comes to us only as we are in union with Christ. (Ephesians 1:3)  It follows from this, that the Holy Spirit would also be one of those blessings which flows to us from our union with Christ.


What is the one text which teaches this explicitly?

Consider Paul’s word to the Ephesians:

In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation–having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory. (Ephesians 1:13-14) ἐν ᾧ καὶ ὑμεῖς ἀκούσαντες τὸν λόγον τῆς ἀληθείας, τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τῆς σωτηρίας ὑμῶν, ἐν ᾧ καὶ πιστεύσαντες ἐσφραγίσθητε τῷ πνεύματι τῆς ἐπαγγελίας τῷ ἁγίῳ, ὅ ἐστιν ἀρραβὼν τῆς κληρονομίας ἡμῶν, εἰς ἀπολύτρωσιν τῆς περιποιήσεως, εἰς ἔπαινον τῆς δόξης αὐτοῦ.  (Ephesians 1:13-14)

Consider both of the phrases in Him ἐν ᾧ.  If the first one is modifying “you were sealed,” then this verse teaches that our being sealed with the Holy Spirit is something that takes place as a result of our union with Christ.


What does Paul mean here by being sealed with the Spirit?

In Paul’s day, a package of goods were sealed to confirm to the recipient that they had not been opened and tampered with.  Owen writes (p215):

It is for the safe-keeping or preservation of that which a seal is set upon. So things precious and highly valuable are sealed up, that they may be kept safe and inviolable. So, on the other hand, when Job expressed his apprehension that God would keep an everlasting remembrance of his sin, that it should not be lost or out of the way, he saith, “his transgression was sealed up in a bag,” Job 14:17. And so it is that power which the Holy Ghost puts forth in the preservation of believers which is intended; and in this respect they are said to be “sealed unto the day of redemption.”

Deissmann (p238) agrees with this definition.  Owen goes on at length about this sealing and finally concludes that the above definition is not the correct one.


How does Owen understand the sealing referenced in Ephesians 1:13?

Owen insists that the sealing here must be referring to a single thing.  He recognizes that sealing in Greco-Roman culture referred to a variety of different actions and effects; but in this context, Owen says we must decide on which of these meanings is in the apostle’s mind.  Furthermore, he points out that the text does not say that the Holy Spirit seals us but that we are sealed with the Holy Spirit.  In other words, the Holy Spirit Himself is the seal.  To solve this, Owen notes that God the Father is said to have sealed Jesus. (John 6:27)  He then draws this conclusion (p216), “if we can learn aright how God the Father sealed Christ, we shall learn how we are sealed in a participation of the same privilege.”


















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