The Freedom of Sanctification

Matt Perman

I. Throughout this study, the danger that comes from false views of sanctification will become evident to us. I think that most of us, myself included, have been suffering under much false (or, at least inadequate) teaching on sanctification. I hope that the truth will set us free.

A. "There is so much false teaching on sanctification today that it would take an entire volume just to record the various theories. And let [us not] think that false views of sanctification are harmless. One great problem in modern missions is the staggering number of missionaries who quit after or before their first term is completed on the mission field. A good number of those returning seek psychiatric help. Why is there such a large turnover of missionaries? Why do many zealous, sincere missionaries develop tremendous psychological problems? [Because of] inadequate and defective views of the Christian life, i.e., sanctification....And it should not be assumed that only missionaries can suffer mental and physical damage due to false teaching on sanctification. The same problems are evident in pastors, laymen and even in Seminary and Bible school teachers."[1]

II. Definition: Sanctification is the gracious work of God by which He makes us holy that is, more and more like Christ. It is most specifically the work of the Holy Spirit, involving our participation, by which He delivers us as justified sinners from the pollution of sin, renews our entire nature according to the moral image of God, and enables us to live lives pleasing to Him.[2]

III. We are active, not passive, in sanctification.

A. I'm sure you've heard the common phrases, "Let Christ do it through you," "Do it in God's power," and "Let go and let God." I find these phrases extremely unhelpful and terribly vague if they are not defined biblically. What in the world does it mean to "Let Christ do it through you"? Does that mean that I am supposed to be inactive? Does leading a Bible study, for example, in Christ's power mean that I just sit here and be silent so that Christ can do it instead of me? Or does it mean that I don't use my mind to think about what I'm going to say, but just "empty my mind" and expect Christ to manipulate me like a puppet, causing me to speak and lead apart from the normal operations of my humanity? Does fighting lust in Christ's power mean that I am supposed to "get out of the way" by ignoring the lust and expect Christ to take care of it automatically, apart from my own personal effort?

B. Absolutely not!!! It is common for people to use phrases such as "Let Christ do it through you" to mean that our role is simply to "give the task to Christ," and then He will do everything else while we remain passive and watch on. In opposition to this, the Bible teaches that Christ's power works through our efforts, not apart from our efforts. Christ empowers us to act!

1. We are to be zealous to take action in sanctification.

a. We are to run: 1 Corinthians 9:24, 26; Hebrews 12:1.
b. We are to labor: 1 Corinthians 15:10. What do you notice from this verse on the relationship between God's power and our activity?
c. We are to press on: Philippians 3:14.
d. We are to work out our salvation: Philippians 2:12-13. According to these verses, what is the relationship between God's activity and our activity? Does God stop working when we work? Are we to stop working when God works?
e. We are to strive: Colossians 1:29.
f. We are to pursue righteousness: 2 Timothy 2:21.


C. Thus, living in Christ's power doesn't mean that we stop acting so that He can start acting. It is not "Let go and let God" but "Trust God and get going." Letting Christ live through you doesn't mean that you aren't the one who strives and acts, but that He empowers your efforts. It means:

1. Make sure that you are acting in response to His will revealed in Scripture. It is helpful to even claim specific promises.
2. Admit that apart from Him you can do nothing.
3. Ask Him for power and to reinforce in you motives of love (1 Cor. 16:14) and His glory (1 Cor. 10:31).
4. And then act with joy, knowing that it is His grace empowering you as you do. 5. Thank Him for His grace.

D. " biblical standards [the] passivity frame if reference is altogether wrong, for the Holy Spirit's ordinary way of working in us is through the working of our own minds and wills. He moves us to act by causing us to see reasons for moving ourselves to act. Thus our conscious, rational selfhood, so far from being annihilated, is strengthened, and in reverent, resolute obedience we work out our salvation, knowing that God is at work in us to make us "....both ...will and for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13). This is holiness and in the process of perfecting it there is, properly speaking, no passivity at all."[3]

E. "Souls that cultivate passivity do not thrive, but waste away....[passivity is] hostile to Christian maturity."[4]

F. Does this mean that "God does half and we do half"? In other words, that God only does so much, and then the rest ultimately depends on me to make God's efforts successful? No, of course not. God is sovereign and brings about all things. But He causes our holy actions, as Packer says, by causing us to move ourselves to act. God sovereignly acts so that it is certain that we will actively (not passively) do what He has determined.

1. "God's working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Nor is the relationship strictly one of co-operation as if God did His part and we did ours....God works in us and we also work. But the relationship is that because God works, we work."[5]


IV. An error related to the passivity described above is called Quietism.

A. This is the error that "you cannot do anything that pleases God till, over and above the directives of Scripture and common sense and the calls to action issued by knowledge of your neighbors' needs, you have a specific inward urge from the Spirit to make a move. Without this, they [say], you should never attempt anything of spiritual significance at all; not read Scripture, not pray, not go to church, not give to God's cause, not render service of any kind. Passive inaction is the only right course till the Spirit stirs you."[6] This seems to be very close, if not identical, with what is taught by the authors of the popular series Experiencing God.

B. In contrast to this, we should follow John Wesley's biblical guideline: "Do all the good you can," guided by wisdom and done in prayer and Christ's power.


1. The Scriptures we saw above which command us to be active also imply that we ought to take initiative.
2. Romans 1:8-15. Did Paul take initiate and make plans?
3. Romans 15:22-33. Did Paul base His plans on inward impressions and direct communication from God, or wisdom?
4. 1 Thessalonians 3:1. Why did Paul send Timothy to the Thessalonians?
5. Proverbs 3:13-20; 4:5-9; 7:4. How does it seem that God will guide our decisions?
6. Romans 12:2: Is it biblical to think that God bypasses our mind in sanctification? Is it unspiritual to use our minds in decision making?
7. Quietism seems to squash zeal and foster immature decision making. Rather than being guided by the wisdom of the Spirit of God for guidance, it seems to depend upon feelings for guidance.
8. Refer to the study on God's will for a further refutation of this view.


V. Sanctification is never perfect in this life. We will never become sinless before we die.

A. What would you say to someone who claimed that they have entered upon a higher life of Christianity where they no longer sin? Do you think that this is possible?


1. Ecclesiastes 7:20. Are there any righteous people who never sin?
2. 1 Kings 8:46. Notice, again, that it is in the present tense and includes all people.
3. Proverbs 20:9. What is the implied answer?
4. Matthew 6:12. Do you think that a teaching which renders it unnecessary to pray for something that Jesus told us to pray for, is dangerous? "Just as the prayer for daily bread provides a model for a prayer that should be repeated each day, so the prayer for the forgiveness of sins is included in the type of prayer that should be said each day in a believer's life."[7]
5. James 3:2.
6. 1 John 1:8. What is the case if we think that we are sinless?
7. Philippians 3:12. Is Paul perfect?
8. Colossians 3:13. Does Paul expect that Christians will be perfect?


B. Not only do all Christians sin, but all Christians have sin dwelling in them, in their hearts. That is the reason that we still sin.


1. 1 John 1:8.
2. Romans 8:13.


C. Thus, we will never achieve total and perfect victory over sin in this life. However, that does not mean that we can be satisfied with having sin in our lives. We must continually fight sin and progress in holiness. Although we will never be perfect this side of heaven, God's mandate is that we continually pursue holiness.


1. Hebrews 12:14. What does this verse say on the necessity of sanctification?
2. 2 Peter 3:18. What would you say to someone who thought that God didn't want them to grow, so they weren't going to seek it?


VI. A paradox that is crucial to resolve: Paul says that Christians have died to sin (Romans 6:2) and that our body of sin has been done away with (Romans 6:2). Why then does he tell us that we must continually resist sin (Romans 6:12) and continually seek to put to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13)? How can we reconcile the fact that Paul says that we have died to sin, yet we must keep fighting sin?

A. The solution is in the distinction between definitive and progressive sanctification. In one sense sin is gone, in another sense it remains. When Paul says that we are dead to sin, He means that we have made a decisive break with sin. It no longer dominates us, but rather we are free to pursue righteousness. This is called definitive sanctification. But while definitive sanctification dethrones sin as the ruler of our lives, it does not totally eradicate sin. Thus, we must progressively continue to put it to death remaining sin. This is progressive sanctification. Definitive sanctification is the basis for our progressive sanctification we are able to progressively sanctify ourselves because we have already been definitively sanctified and thus broken with sin.

VII. Definitive sanctification: God's action once for all, at our conversion, when He dethrones sin in us through Christ's death, causing us to make a decisive break with it, and makes us become alive to righteousness, causing us to make a decisive turn towards it. This aspect of sanctification is not a process, but a once for all event that has continuing results.

A. This is why sanctification is sometimes spoken of in the past tense.


1. 1 Corinthians 1:2; 6:11. What tense is the word "sanctified" in?
2. Acts 20:32; 26:18.


B. There are two aspects of definitive sanctification: God makes us die to sin, and makes us alive to righteousness.


1. We are made to die to sin.

a. Romans 6:2, 6, 17-18.
b. Colossians 3:3.

2. We are made alive to righteousness.

a. Colossians 2:12; 3:1.
b. Ephesians 2:4-6.
c. Romans 6:18.


C. When we were crucified with Christ and raised to new life?


1. Because of our union with Christ, we were objectively crucified and raised, 2,00 years ago when He died. This secured the next element:
2. Subjectively, we died to sin and were raised to new life at the point of our conversion.

a. Romans 6:1-3. Is definitive sanctification true of all Christians? This requires that it happens at conversion, for otherwise there would be some Christians of whom definitive sanctification is not true.

b. The implication of this is that there is no such thing as a wholly defeated Christian. More on this later.


VIII. Progressive sanctification: the continual process of putting sin to death and bringing righteousness to life. It complements definitive sanctification and is based upon it.

A. This is evident from the fact that there is always remaining sin in the believer (see verses above).

B. There are two aspects of progressive sanctification: We must put to death the sin we find in ourselves, and bring righteousness to greater life in us.


1. Mortification: our act of progressively putting sin to death.

a. 1 John 3:3. How does the future certainty of being holy encourage our continual seeking after holiness now?
b. Romans 6:12.
c. Romans 8:13. Who is the one who kills sin?
d. 1 Corinthians 15:34.
e. Colossians 3:5.

2. Vivification: our act of progressively bringing holiness to life.

a. 2 Peter 1:5-11.
b. 2 Peter 3:18.
c. 2 Corinthians 3:18. Does this verse emphasize God's role? What is the means, in this verse, by which we are transformed? What relevance does this have for learning about God?

3. Verses explicitly including both aspects:

a. 1 Corinthians 7:1.
b. Romans 6:11, 13, 19.
c. Romans 12:2. What is the role of the mind in sanctification? How does this relate to the error of quietism (discussed above)?
d. Romans 13:14.

4. While we must distinguish vivification and mortification, we should not separate them in the sense of trying to do only one at a time. Rather, there are elements of both in all of our actions. Can you think of examples? How do you think this understanding can help us be more successful in fighting sin and doing righteousness?


IX. An analysis of Colossians 3:1-5 on the relationship between definitive and progressive.

A. Verses 1-2 describe vivification.


1. Definite: "If then you have been raised up with Christ..." (v. 1).
2. Progressive: "...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" (vv. 1-2).


B. Verses 3 and 5 describe mortification.


1. Definitive: "For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God." (v. 3).

a. This verse starts with "For," indicating that it is a basis for what has gone before in verse two. How does it do this? How does this bring out the connection between vivification and mortification? Definitive and progressive?

2. Progressive: "...Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry" (v. 5).

a. This verse begins with therefore, indicating that it is a conclusion from what has gone before. What is Paul's argument? How does this bring out the connection between definitive and progressive?


X. The teaching Colossians 3:9-10 on definitive and progressive sanctification.

A. Where do you see the definitive aspect of sanctification? The progressive?

XI. Can you make sense of 1 Cor. 5:7 without the distinction between definite and progressive?

XII. Summary of definitive and progressive:

A. "Sanctification, therefore, must be understood as both definitive and progressive. In its definitive sense, it means the work of the Spirit whereby He causes us to die to sin, to be raised with Christ, and to be made new creatures. In its progressive sense, it must be understood as the work of the Spirit whereby He continually renews us and transforms us into the likeness of Christ, enabling us to keep on growing in grace and to keep on perfecting in holiness. One could think of definite as the beginning of the process and of progressive as the continual maturing of the new person who was created by definitive sanctification. While sanctification in its entirety is the work of God from beginning to end, particularly in its progressive phase the active participation of the believer is required."[8]

XIII. We are genuinely new, though not yet totally or perfectly new.

A. I used to wonder how it is possible for us to be new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17) and dead to sin (Romans 6), and yet still have sin indwelling us (1 John 1:8; Romans 7:20; 8:13) and thus have to battle with sin (Hebrews 12:4). But these verses and the biblical teaching we have seen above show us that while definitive sanctification creates a decisive break in our lives, it does not make us perfect. Definitive sanctification makes us genuinely new people, but not perfectly new. Thus, we have good hearts (because they have been made new) that nonetheless have a mixture of sin left in them (because they are not perfectly new yet). It is because definitive sanctification does not make us perfect that we continue battling indwelling sin but because of definitive sanctification sin no longer is master over us and we are able to defeat it and obey God. If we were made totally and perfectly new in definite sanctification, the Bible would not teach progressive sanctification.

B. Colossians 3:9 also teaches this. It says that our new self is being renewed. If it is being renewed, then it is not yet perfect.

C. I will restate this to make sure that it is fully clear. The fact that we are made genuinely new shows that we have made a decisive break with sin, that sanctification involves a once for all aspect (definitive sanctification). The fact that we are not yet totally new because sin remains in us, shows us that sanctification must also be a continuing process (progressive sanctification). We must keep fighting sin and bringing holiness to greater intensity.

XIV. This allows us to answer a difficult question: Does the Christian have two natures?

A. One view holds that at conversion the believer receives an entirely new nature that begins existing alongside his old nature. On this view, the old nature is not changed, but is replaced. It is said to be completely evil and thus never does good. While it is dethroned, it will never change but will exist alongside the new nature until death, when it is fully eradicated. The new nature, on the other hand, is said to be completely good. It never sins, but is perfect. Thus, there are two parts of the believer one is totally perfect, the other is totally evil. I do not believe that this view is true, for the following reasons.


1. As Robert Morey asks, is forgiveness ever received? The old man is the one who sins, but he never asks for forgiveness because he is wholly evil. The new man, though, never sins and so never seeks forgiveness either. Who, then, is forgiven?
2. Morey asks, "The old man will never be saved while the new man doesn't need saving. Who then shall be saved?"
3. The best refutation of this view comes from the biblical evidence for another view, described below.


B. The true view seems to be that the old nature is our whole person dominated by sin. In conversion, a new, perfect nature does not come along side this old nature. Rather, our whole selves are made to die to sin and be alive to God. Thus, it is our whole selves, the same thing that was enslaved to sin, that is transformed and made new. The new person is our whole self which is now dominated by righteousness. That is what we saw under definitive sanctification. But this transformation does not make us perfectly unresponsive to sin or perfectly responsive to God. For that reason, sin continues indwelling us--though it is dethroned. It is not that part of me is perfect and part of me is totally evil. Rather, my whole person, which is now directed towards God and away from sin, is a mixture of good and evil. There is more good than evil, and it is the good that rules, but nonetheless stains of sinfulness remain.


1. John 3:6: Regeneration is described as making us into something, not as just giving us something.
2. 1 Cor. 2:14, 15: The whole person is said to be spiritual.
3. 2 Cor. 5:17: The whole person is a new creation. It doesn't say that we received a new nature, but that we become new creatures.
4. Colossians 3:10: Our new self is being renewed, and thus is not perfect.
5. It is no more warranted to speak of us as having an old nature and a new nature in the sense above (point A) as it is to speak of us as being both regenerate and unregenerate.


C. In what sense can we speak of the believer as having two natures?


1. If that is meant is that within us we have both sinful tendencies and righteous tendencies, in that sense it can be said that we have two natures. It is not that part of us is perfect and the other part is totally evil, but that our whole selves have been transformed and made good, but not perfectly good. The sin that remains indwelling us in this sense may be considered the "old nature." Sinfulness used to dominate us, but we have made a decisive break with it and it is therefore dethroned, yet still remains in some form.
2. In other words, Christians have the continuance of sin in some form and the eradication of sin in some form. This corresponds to the two natures. It is best to understand the "old nature" as the continuing rebel forces of sin still fighting in us.


D. Thus, we are no longer old persons but new persons who are being progressively renewed.


1. Application: "A believer deeply conscious of his or her shortcomings does not need to say, Because I am still a sinner, I cannot consider myself a new person. Rather, he or she should say, I am a new person, but I still have a lot of growing to do."[9]


XV. An analogy.

A. In regards to the old nature and the new nature: consider a country that is overrun and ruled by evil communism. Another country invades and overthrows the evil government. The members of that evil government see the error of their ways and repent, becoming good. The country that invaded them doesn't replace them, but says, "OK, we will leave you in you government, but now we want you to submit to our leadership, and follow our ways." The previously evil government agrees. Before this invasion and change, it was the Old government. Afterwards, it became the new government. But this was not a change in substance, but in direction. We could not even think of it now as being both an old country and a new country any more than the believer is both an old person and a new person. It is a new country no longer the old. In the same way, believers are not both an old person and a new person, but are truly new people. But just as this government still contains errors and tendencies from its past, the believer is not perfectly new either. In fact, the New Government will still have to endure guerilla uprisings in its country trying to overthrow them, and the members of the government may still have to fight a tendency to live out communist ways to some degree, which they will sometimes give into. This corresponds to the believer's continuing sins. . The old communist ways are defeated (i.e., "dead"), but haven't completely left they still try to hang around and fight and thus are still a threat. Thus, the president may say to his people, "we are a new country and dead to the evil communism, therefore keep fighting the guerilla uprisings. Their full defeat is certain, and they are already dethroned." That is what Paul says to Christians. We are new in the sense that the government is now good and directed towards righteousness. We are old in the sense that the tendencies from the old government still hang around to cause trouble. Though they have lost they aren't totally removed yet. Finally, remember that we aren't old and new to the same degree. We are more new than old.

XVI. There is no such thing as two class Christianity.

A. As we saw from definitive sanctification, all Christians, from the moment of conversion, have had sin dethroned in their lives and righteousness enthroned. Thus, we should not think that there are two levels of Christians the upper class who has "defeated sin and lives in victory" and the lower class who has "not yet defeated sin and lives in defeat." Instead, all Christians have defeated sin, yet they live out this success in varying degrees. There is therefore only one class of Christians. Thus, a more appropriate model is that of a road. All Christians are on the same road. There is no place to jump to a "higher road" or to sprout wings and fly above the road in an airplane. But some Christians are farther along the road than others. But even though not everyone is at the same point, they are nonetheless all on the same road.


1. But then how do we understand it when people suddenly "submit fully to God" and receive great blessing in their lives? They are not jumping to a higher road, but rather experiencing a large step of growth.

2. Further, the error is in thinking that one is either fully surrendered to God, or not at all. But since sin always remains with us, we are never perfectly surrendered. And since all Christians have made a decisive break with sin, there are no Christians who are not at all surrendered. Thus, we must recognize that there are degrees of surrender. As Anthony Hoekem has said, "We have surrendered to Christ as Lord, but we need to surrender ourselves more fully. We live a life of victory, but it is a qualified victory."


B. What about 1 Corinthians 3:1?


1. The carnal Christian is not a "lower class" of believer but an immature, and even rebellious, believer. But they must outgrow, not "concentrate out of," their carnality. A carnal Christian, if they are a true Christian, is one who is on the road and therefore traveling on it, but is for the most part acting as if he is not on the road at all.


C. What about Christians who are backsliden or walking like infants? Don't they need a decisive change, and doesn't that fit better with two stage Christianity? Yes, they do need a decisive change by repenting. But this is not an act of consecration that brings them tot he second level., but is a large step of growth on the one road of holiness that restores them to where they ought to be and once were. It helps to recognize that there are degrees of surrender. All Christians are genuinely surrendered (that is necessary for salvation), but none are totally or perfectly surrendered. Between genuine surrender and total surrender are many degrees. Growing in these degrees corresponds perfectly with progressive sanctification, while recognizing that in definitive sanctification was the decisive surrender. Following surrenders are not new surrenders, but growths of the initial one. The confusion comes in thinking that one is either not surrendered at all, or else is fully surrendered.

D. For more on this, see the upcoming article "Two Class Christianity?".

XVII. Means of growth.

A. There are no quick fixes. Prayer, fellowship, mediating on God's word, serving others, worship, evangelism are all things that help us grow as we pursue them in faith. Growth is a process, and is often gradual.

B. Faith in future grace.

1. The key is to not only pursue holiness, but to prefer holiness. The power of sin is the lie that it will make us happier than God. Fight sin with God's promise that He is more satisfying than sin, and that sin is ugly not alluring like it claims to be. As we come to prefer God over sin, we discover great power over sin the power of superior satisfaction in God. As John Piper has said, "You don't settle for sandwich meet when you can smell the steak sizzling on the grill."

a. Can you think of verses which reveal the ugliness of sin?
b. Can you think of verses that reveal the beauty of God?

2. The point: God is better than sin. Use God's promises day after day, and especially when you are tempted, to build in you this preference for God and hatred for sin.


XVIII. We have seen the first two phases of sanctification: the past phase is definitive sanctification and the present phase is progressive sanctification. The third future phase is entire sanctification, when we will be entirely free from the presence of sin.

A. Entire sanctification has two aspects.


1. When we die, our spirits are made sinless and to go be with Christ.

a. Hebrews 12:23.

2. When Christ returns, our bodies are resurrected imperishable and entirely pure. Then our sanctification is finished and we will be perfect in body and soul forever.

a. 1 Thessalonians 5:23.
b. Philippians 3:21.




1. Roberty Morey, Studies in the Atonement (Shermans Dale, PA: Christian Scholars Press, 1989), pp. 214-215.
2. Mostly taken from Anthony Hoekema, "The Reformed Perspective [on Sanctification]" in Five Views on Sanctification (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1987), p. 61.
3. J.I. Packer, Keep in Step With the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1984), p. 156.
4. Packer, p. 157.
5. John Murray, quoted in Hoekema, pp. 71-72.
6. Packer, p. 125.
7. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 751.
8. Hoekema, p. 77.
9. Hoekema, p. 82.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.


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