Sanctification is a tough subject to define in the culture of 21st century thought. Thankfully God’s truth is transcendent and absolute, so therefore we need go no further than scripture to define it. On one hand, there are those who claim that sanctification is positional; that it was a finite declaration that happened in union with or shortly after justification and thus all Christians have liberty and freedom from the harsh damnation of the law through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. This is the antinomian leaning perspective. On the other hand, there are those that claim justification and sanctification should be distinctly separate, and thus sanctification is evidenced in the work that we do. This is the legalist leaning perspective and can be taken to the extreme where complete holiness can be obtained on earth (Wesleyan thought) or that works are actually a necessary element for salvation; not just an evidence of (Roman Catholic). My position and claim is that sanctification is both positional and progressive.
I will begin by defining what “sanctify” objectively means. Sanctify is defined as “to set apart or declare holy; to consecrate.” Therefore sanctification is the act of setting apart, declaring holy or consecrating. Within the broad spectrum of Christianity each definition applies, however, holiness is most often used. In the first place I will put forth the position that sanctification is a positional declaration. Whenever sanctification comes up in scripture, it is typically positional. It is positional because it is typically found in the past tense; i.e. “sanctified.” Let’s look at a few examples.
1 Corinthians 1:2
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: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 6:11
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.
But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers,
And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
Here we have some clear passages that point to the act of sanctification as a declared position the Father has made by the work of Christ through faith. These verses do not speak of an ongoing, progressive perfecting, but a declaration that the Christian is now declared holy (set apart) by the work earned by Jesus’ death and resurrection. This culminates in 1 Corinthians 1:30 where Paul writes,
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.”
So it looks pretty clear that our sanctification is in Christ. It is done, finished and completed upon the cross…right?
Yes and it is ongoing.
Sanctification is progressive in each Christian’s life because we bear fruits by walking in good works. These good works are evidence of our walk with Christ (James 2:14). These works are not performed to earn position with Christ, but to show forth the work of Christ in and through the Christian life. Good works are as simple as changing dirty diapers and providing for our families. Whatever vocation God has given us, we bear fruit by being good stewards of those gifts and blessings. Luther was once quoted as saying that even our best works would earn us damnation, and he is right. We are saved solely on account of Christ and his atoning work. Works contribute zero to our salvation. If you spend any time with a Lutheran you will hear the phrase “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does” and this is a true and right saying. The works we perform are God given. God uses them to minister to others. Does this mean that we are completely oblivious to our good works or that we are not cognizant of them?
Many times yes…
Sometimes we know that we are doing a good work and other times we will be oblivious until the final judgment (Matthew 25:33-40). As we go forth in the Christian life, we must be nurtured and fed. This comes to us through word and sacrament (hearing the the word (both Law & Gospel), partaking in the Lord’s Supper, repentance/absolution, and our personal study of the word). As we are nurtured and fed, we will begin to see how wretched and filthy we are, and realize our desperate need for Christ and his work. The best way to explain this is to use a dimmer switch as an example. At regeneration, the light switch is turned on, but the dimmer is at its lowest setting. We see a faint image of how filthy we are. In response we cling to Christ through his word and sacrament. As we are fed and nurtured through his word and sacrament, the dimmer switch goes up, ever so slightly, revealing how dirty, sinful and corrupt we really are. Our response is to once again, cling to Christ through his word and sacrament. Therefore our sanctification, or progression in holiness, is not centered on our works, but a clarifying agent that shows us what we really look like apart from Christ. If God were to show us all of our sin at once at the time of regeneration, it would truly be harsh act that would cast us into the throngs of a great depression and probably cause instantaneous death. God, in his grace and mercy, reveals our sinful state to us slowly throughout our lives as we continue to abide in Christ through his word and sacrament. The result of this action is that we begin to walk in good works. As I stated earlier, good works are as simple as taking care of your family. Good works are also choosing not to sin. Paul gives us many lists of sins that we as Christians must refrain from. These lists are found in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Galatians 5:19-21 and Colossians 3:5. As God reveals our sin to us, and we cling to him, we not only perform good works through our actions, but also through a lack of action as we choose not to sin. There is a cooperation that takes place here. We choose to submit ourselves to God’s law, not because it has any power to save us, but because through Christ and his work on the cross we are now able to cooperate in holiness. This doesn’t mean that we will perfectly keep the law; far from it. It does however mean that we have the power in Christ to say no to sin and yes to good works for the sake of Christ, not selfish ambition. We as Christians will continue to struggle with sin until Christ’s return because we are all simultaneously saint and sinner. This is the battle of the flesh. At regeneration we share in the paradoxical nature of Christ. Christ became 100% man while maintaining 100% of his divinity. He is not two partial sums that add up to 100%, but rather the full expression of both natures. Likewise at regeneration, we are “simul justus et peccator” which means simultaneously saint and sinner. We are not saints that still sin or sinners that are improving towards perfection; we are the fullest expression of both natures as a reflection of Christ. To simplify, I once heard it put this way by a listener of the Just & Sinner podcast by Pastor Jordan Cooper. “At regeneration we are a new creation in Christ and the result is that our sin nature (the old Adam) is both put to death, and continually being put to death. It both happened and is happening. Our new nature that God created in us is perfect and thus cannot improve. The old Adam that is dead and dying has been definitively killed, but is going down fighting as it continues to wage war against our new nature. This is the source of conflict within every Christian. Therefore, sanctification is not a self improvement continuum but a cognizance of the war within that yields an increasing desire to daily drown and kill the old Adam and embrace the perfect new life that we already posses in Christ.” This daily killing of our sin nature will haunt us until death or Christ’s return. When we receive our glorified bodies, the same type of perfected fleshly body that the resurrected Christ has, our old Adam is finally conquered and eternally destroyed.
To summarize, sanctification is both positional and progressive. Our work in sanctification is not efficacious in salvation as that is solely the work of Christ. Our work in sanctification is to grow in holiness by abiding in Christ through his word and sacrament, thus we are sanctified and Christ is continuing to sanctify us cooperatively (even though our cooperation is minimal). In addition, sanctification is only a work that we do inasmuch as we are capable to do good works by the work of Christ on the cross and his drawing us to himself. We only cooperate in sanctification because Christ made it available through his death and resurrection by consuming his word and sacrament. Thus Christ does good works through us that are unbeknownst to ourselves as well as us choosing to do good works because of our love from and for Christ. This is all understood within the parameters and framework of our dual nature of simul justus et peccator.