What Is Sanctification?

David Finkbeiner  and J. Brian Tucker
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Election, regeneration, union with Christ, adoption, justification, Spirit baptism—it can all sound so heady, so triumphal. But the Christian’s day-to-day experience often feels the opposite, as we find ourselves struggling with sin in our lives. We resonate with the description of believers this side of glory as simultaneously saint and sinner. As believers in Christ, our status and relationship with the Father, Son, and Spirit are secure, and our future glory is assured. But in the meantime, we battle with sin, falling into our old patterns rather than living out our true identity in Christ. Yet this time of battle with sin is not simply a gap in God’s work of salvation, an oversight in His otherwise perfect plan. It is an important part of what God is doing in believers’ lives. We call this phase of God’s saving work “sanctification.” Sanctification is the process in which the believer is set apart from sin to Christlikeness. If justification is about legally declaring believers righteous through Christ’s righteousness, sanctification is about making them righteous in their actual lives.

The Three Phases of Sanctification

Biblically speaking, there are three phases of sanctification. It begins with positional (or objective) sanctification (Acts 20:32; 26:18; 1 Cor. 6:11). By being united with Christ at conversion, the believer is fundamentally set apart in holiness to God. For this reason, believers are called saints—holy ones (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2). To be sure, believers are already holy in God’s sight because we are justified. But positional sanctification focuses on the reality that believers from the beginning have been changed in regeneration (Titus 3:5; 1 John 3:9) and freed from sin’s dominating power (Rom. 6). The sanctification begun at positional sanctification continues as believers become increasingly more Christlike throughout their lives, though never perfectly. This is called progressive (or subjective) sanctification (Rom. 6:12–13, 19; 12:1–2; 2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 3:12–14; Col. 3:9–10; Heb. 12:1, 14). The process of sanctification is completed when all vestiges of sin are removed from believers and they are made completely like Christ at His return. This is called final (or perfected) sanctification (Rom. 8:28–30; 1 John 3:2).

Most discussions of sanctification focus on progressive sanctification, since this is the phase of sanctification that pertains to our Christian life this side of heaven. Progressive sanctification has five significant features. The first is that its goal is Christlikeness (Rom. 8:28–30; Eph. 4:13; 1 John 3:2). Sometimes Christians think sanctification is simply about outwardly conforming to a set of rules, as if this constitutes holiness. God’s agenda in our lives is far grander than that. He wants to make us like His Son, holy and righteous from the inside out, including thoughts, attitudes, and motivations as well as actions.

Another feature of progressive sanctification is that it is, as its name indicates, a progressive work. Scripture uses several images like growth (1 Peter 2:2; Eph. 4:11–16), a race (Heb. 12:1–4), or a battle (Eph. 6:10–20) to describe it. The expectation is that the longer we are Christians, the more we grow in maturity toward Christlikeness (Rom. 6:19; Heb. 5:11–6:3; Eph. 4:11–16). Yet we must remember that the process of growth will never be completed in this life; we will not be conformed fully to Christ until final sanctification. Some Christians, however, deny this, claiming that it is possible to achieve sinless perfection in this life. But the New Testament teaches that indwelling sin will continue to remain in us this side of heaven (1 John 1:8–10; 3:2; Rom. 6; Gal. 5:16–25).

A third feature of progressive sanctification is that it is God who sanctifies us in Christ (1 Thess. 5:23; 1 Cor. 1:30; John 15:1–5). In particular, we are sanctified by the Holy Spirit (2 Thess. 2:13; Gal. 5:16–25). We are not able to change ourselves; only God can do that. By His grace, He “has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3 ESV). For this reason, some Christians argue that the Christian’s role in sanctification is purely passive. They maintain that we should “let go and let God” sanctify us by getting out of the Spirit’s way in His sanctifying work; our own efforts in our sanctification are fruitless exercises in self-dependence. This view rightly recognizes that only God can sanctify us, and that we must always firmly rest in His gracious provision and entrust ourselves to Him in order to grow (Rom. 6:13, 19; 12:1–2). But it fails to take into account the active role given to believers in the New Testament for their sanctification.

A Fourth Feature of Sanctification

This leads to a fourth feature of progressive sanctification. Believers must cooperate with God’s sanctifying work in their lives. As we have just seen, Peter declares that God has given us all the provision we need for spiritual growth (2 Peter 1:3–4)—but then he immediately tells us “to make every effort” to grow in godliness in light of this provision (vv. 5–11). Similarly, speaking of our sanctification, Paul tells us in Philippians 2:12–13 to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”—but then why this is possible: “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure”. Indeed, Scripture repeatedly exhorts Christians to grow in godliness in light of divine provision (e.g., Heb. 12:14; Rom. 8:13; 1 Cor. 6:18; 2 Cor. 7:1; 1 Thess. 4:3; 2 Tim. 2:22).

But how do we cooperate with God’s sanctifying provision? Here we come to a fifth feature of progressive sanctification. Believers must avail themselves of various gracious means that the Spirit uses to sanctify us. We should not think of these as mechanistic processes that force the Spirit’s hand whenever we practice them. Instead, they are our regular practices that He graciously uses to help us grow. In fact, we should not expect to grow if we forsake these means. But they must always be accompanied by trust in God’s power and provision to sanctify us, lest we fall into the trap of thinking we are sanctifying ourselves. These means include prayer (Acts 2:42; Eph. 6:18; Phil. 4:6–7), worship (Acts 2:42; Eph. 5:18–20), reading and meditating on Scripture (John 17:17; 2 Tim. 3:16–17; Heb. 4:12), active obedience (Gal. 5:16–25; John 15:10), self-discipline and denial (Titus 2:12; 1 Cor. 9:24–27), endurance in suffering (James 1:2–4; Rom. 5:3–5), and true fellowship with other believers in the church (Acts 2:42; Eph. 4:11–16; Heb. 10:24–25).

The wise Christian will not treat progressive sanctification as if it were optional. Those who seek to grow in godliness glorify God in their lives (Matt. 5:16); help others to grow (Eph. 4:11–16); experience blessings in this life, such as the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23); and anticipate pleasing their Master when they meet Him face to face (2 Cor. 5:9–10; Rom. 14:10–12). Those who profess to know Christ but forsake progressive sanctification give evidence that they really do not know the Lord they claim (1 John 2:3–6; Rom. 6:1–2). True believers—imperfect, sinful, frequently failing though they may be—continue to fight sin in their lives until Christ calls them home.