“You shall be holy, for I am holy.” - 1 Peter 1:16
"Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God." 2 Cor 7:1
"...we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." Hebrews 10:10
Recently I have come across a number of people online who declare that we cannot become more sanctified ...and we cannot become more like Jesus because we are already perfect in him, so, they reason, that all calls to be holy are wrong.
I write this piece because I want to point out how important it is to make distinctions, especially when the Bible does so. In doing so we shall attempt to answer the question(s): Does Christ having made us holy once for all do away with the concept that we are to become more like Him? or does the fact that He has perfected us through the body of Christ once for all (Heb 10:14) contradict the idea that we are to be growing in holiness? How are we to understand all this?
Perhaps this matter of definitive vs. experiential sanctification can be illustrated and better understood by a story I once heard from a friend.
When I was living overseas for 10 years a friend of mine who was raised as a missionary kid in Africa told me the true story about his missionary father, who while on the road one day, encountered a man who had a young boy chained to him as his slave. His father was moved and offered to purchase the boy out of slavery. The man accepted his price and so the boy went home with his new father who adopted him and raised and loved him as his very own son. The gospel picture in this story should be obvious as we too have been purchased by our Lord out of slavery and have been adopted as children of God. Now, like the boy whose chains were broken and now belonged to a new family, as children of God we don't go back to our life of slavery but now find our newfound identity in the life of our new family and we conform our lives around that new status, not in order to become children but because we are God's children. That status of being children cannot be improved upon but we conform to the likeness of our new family, and we work out experientially that which we already are legally. We do so not to earn our status, but because it is our status. The Bible says, "Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness." (Romans 6:19b)
As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said:
"Holiness is not something we are called upon to do in order that we may become something; it is something we are to do because of what we already are."
Now that you are holding that concept in your mind lets flesh this out theologically:
Definitive sanctification, refers to the the accomplished fact that believers "have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." (Hebrews 10:10) ..an irreversible event wherein Christ's single offering has perfected for all time those he came to save. This means that our standing before God can neither be lost nor improved upon. Our obedience, or failure to obey, cannot change the fact that we are God's children. As defined by John Frame, it is "a once-for-all event, simultaneous with effectual calling and regeneration, that transfers us from the sphere of sin to the sphere of God’s holiness, from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God." Definitive sanctification marks us out (or separates us) as God’s chosen people – His treasured and covenantal possession (Acts 20:32; Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; 6:11). So too, definitive sanctification redeems (or frees) us from the dominion (or slavery) of sin by uniting us to Christ, particularly in His death, resurrection and ascension. Sanctification, in this sense, refers to a decisive and radical break from the power of sin.
Experiential sanctification, on the other hand, refers to the work of God in and through man which makes us more and more like Christ in our day to day lives. We are sanctified by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace corporately lived out in the fellowship of the church. The Bible declares that as we behold God's glory we are being transformed into the image of Christ from one degree of glory to another. (see 2 Cor 3:18)." According to John Frame, "We can think of [experimental] sanctification as the outworking of the new life given in regeneration." It involves the gradual, incremental and Spiritual work of both putting to death the remains of "indwelling sin" as well as putting on the likeness of Christ. While we work out the salvation given to us, it is God who works in us, both to will and to work for His sovereign good pleasure.(Phil 2:13). We are sanctified in Christ and so our obedience flows out from the cross.
From these definitions, we should be able to make a distinction between two separate, but related, concepts. When we are commanded to be holy the Bible is not referring to our positional holiness (we are eternally and unchangeably "holy" in Christ) but to our experiential day to day holiness. It is to understand that a saint is one who, by God's grace, will endeavor to be holy, but his experimental holiness, (however much or little he exhibits in his life), does not make him a saint. No he is a saint because because he has been set apart by God, and that is now his eternal standing in Christ. The call to be holy is a call to act like one.
Why are there some folks who insist that believers cannot grow in holiness, or become more transformed into the image of Jesus? Thankfully we agree that it is true that we were sanctified once for all .. so I can only reason this idea which is against calling people to holiness came about as an over-reaction to a kind of legalism which says we must bear our own load to work toward our holiness as the only way to please God. While it is true that such a danger clearly exists and we are to flee from all such false, moralistic teaching ... but we should not throw out the biblical imperative to be holy in order to correct a human error. Instead we ought to teach that the biblical imperatives (commands) are all grounded in the indicatives (what God does for us in Christ). Those who oppose the biblical teaching that we are to grow in grace and be holy end up doing is something similar to what some in the Tullian Tchividjian school of sanctification had a tendency to do, which was to equate salvation entirely with the IMPUTATION of Christ' righteousness (which is not something God does in us but outside us) while mostly ignoring the biblical teaching of the IMPARTATION of the Holy Spirit and regeneration (which is what God works IN US), uniting us to Christ and conforming us in our daily life to the image of our righteous standing. In light of this, Sinclair Ferguson said,
"This, then is the foundation of sanctification in Reformed theology. It is rooted, not in humanity and their achievement of holiness or sanctification, but in what God has done in Christ, and for us in union with him. Rather than view Christians first and foremost in the micro-cosmic context of their own progress, the Reformed doctrine first of all sets them in the macrocosm of God’s activity in redemptive history. It is seeing oneself in this context that enables the individual Christian to grow in true holiness."
This position I am espousing is completely consistent with the Reformed teaching we find in the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
"Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness." (Shorter Catechism Q. 35).
Calvin likewise when commenting on the command to be holy in 1 Peter, said:
"He who hath called you is holy He reasons from the end for which we are called. God sets us apart as a peculiar people for himself; then we ought to be free from all pollutions ... In bidding us to be holy like himself, the proportion is not that of equals; but we ought to advance in this direction as far as our condition will bear. And as even the most perfect are always very far from coming up to the mark, we ought daily to strive more and more. And we ought to remember that we are not only told what our duty is, but that God also adds, "I am he who sanctify you.""
In his Institutes Calvin further said,
"Ever since the Holy Spirit dedicated us as temples to the Lord, we should make it our endeavor to show forth the glory of God, and guard against being profaned by the defilement of sin. Ever since our soul and body were destined to heavenly incorruptibility and an unfading crown, we should earnestly strive to keep them pure and uncorrupted against the day of the Lord." John Calvin, Institutes 3.6.3
Notice how Calvin in both of these quotes sets our present actions toward what we will be in glory.
Does the Bible teach that we are becoming more like Jesus?
In 2 Cor 3:18 states
"And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit."
"...have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator."
Phil 1:6, 3:12
"And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ ... Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own."
These texts show that we are both called to grow and are being transformed into his likeness even though we know our standing before God is already holy and sealed... How can both of these truths be true? It can be true when we make clear the biblical distinctions between imputation and impartation: What God definitively declares about us to be true vs. What God does in us experientially. Our righteous standing before God is a settled matter in Christ which cannot be improved upon. But now that we are accepted into the family, the fact is we still sin, so we are not experientially living in complete conformity to our true identity. Not unlike a child who disobeys his parent. His disobedience does not change the fact that he is their son, but he is not living up to his family's name. For those who are fully sanctified in Christ, we who still sin on earth are being changed when the eschatological (what we will be in glory) breaks into the present and begins forming us into the persons we will become ... not to save us, for we are already saved, but that we might experientially become more like him, from glory to glory.
J. C. Ryle is worth quoting at length here:
"When I speak of growth in grace, I do not for a moment mean that a believer's interest in Christ can grow. I do not mean that he can grow in safety, acceptance with God, or security. I do not mean that he can ever be more justified, more pardoned, more forgiven, more at peace with God than he is the first moment that he believes. I hold firmly that the justification of a believer is a finished, perfect, and complete work and that the weakest saint (though he may not know and feel it) is as completely justified as the strongest. I hold firmly that our election, calling, and standing in Christ admit of no degrees, increase, or diminution. If any one dreams that by growth in grace I mean growth in justification, he is utterly mistaken about the whole point I am considering. I would go to the stake (God helping me) for the glorious truth that, in the matter of justification before God, every believer is complete in Christ (Col. 2: 10). Nothing can be added to his justification from the moment he believes and nothing taken away.
When I speak of growth in grace, I only mean increase in the degree, size, strength, vigor, and power of the graces which the Holy Spirit plants in a believer's heart. I hold that every one of those graces admits of growth, progress and increase. I hold that repentance, faith, hope, love, humility, zeal, courage, and the like may be little or great, strong or weak, vigorous or feeble and may vary greatly in the same man at different periods of his life. When I speak of a man growing in grace, I mean simply this: that his sense of sin is becoming deeper, his faith stronger, his hope brighter, his love more extensive, his spiritual mindedness more marked. He feels more of the power of godliness in his own heart; he manifests more of it in his life; he is going on from strength to strength, from faith to faith, and from grace to grace. I leave it to others to describe such a man's condition by any words they please. For myself, I think the truest and best account of him is this: he is growing in grace."
A few additional Quotes from the New Testament on experimental holiness:
To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be His holy people … (1 Corinthians 1:2a).
May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through (1 Thessalonians 5:23a). Experimental sanctification is God’s office, not yours ... something he is working out in your life.
"Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth" (John 17:17).
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life (Romans 6:22).
It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality … (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
Jesus said "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5:48-)
Sanctification by B. B. Warfield and A. A. Hodge
The Nature of Sanctification and Gospel Holiness by John Owen
The Reformed View of Sanctification by Dr. Sinclair B. Ferguson
Definitive and Progressive Sanctification by John Murray
God Glorified in Sanctification by Dr. Kim Riddlebarger
How to Grow in Grace (eBook) by Archibald Alexander
Does Holiness Come By Striving After it or By Resting in God? by Jerry Bridges
Causes and Cures by Sinclair Ferguson
The Indicative and The Imperative: A Reformation View of Sanctification by Michael Horton
On Glorying Only in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ by John Calvin
Spiritual Growth by Wilhelmus à Brakel
10 Things You Should Know About Sanctification by Sam Storms
What is Sanctification? by Nathan Bingham
Old Man, New Man; Dead Man, True Man by Nick Batzig
"I believe the more holy a man becomes, the more he mourns over the unholiness that remains in him." - C. H. Spurgeon.
On John 17:17 , Calvin writes: “we ought to infer from Christ’s words, that sanctification is not instantly completed in us on the first day, but that we make progress in it through the whole course of our life , till at length, God, having taken away from us the garment of the flesh, fills us with his righteousness”
In commenting on 2 Corinthians 3:18 Calvin writes: “…secondly, that it is not fitting that it should be a dead contemplation, but that we should be transformed by means of it into the image of God, and thirdly that that the one and the other are not accomplished in us in one moment. But we must be constantly making progress both in the knowledge of God and in conformity to his image….”
Calvin said, “But no one in this earthly prison of the body has sufficient strength to press on with due eagerness, and weakness so weighs down the greater number that, with wavering and limping and even creeping along the ground, they move at a feeble rate. Let each one of us, then, proceed according to the measure of his puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun. No one shall set out so inauspiciously as not daily to make some headway, though it be slight. Therefore, let us not cease so to act that we may make some unceasing progress in the way of the Lord. And let us not despair at the slightness of our success; for even though attainment may not correspond to desire, when today outstrips yesterday the effort is not lost. Only let us look toward our mark with sincere simplicity and aspire to our goal; not fondly flattering ourselves, nor excusing our own evil deeds, but with continuous effort striving toward this end: that we may surpass ourselves in goodness until we attain to goodness itself. It is this, indeed, which through the whole course of life we seek and follow. But we shall attain it only when we have cast off the weakness of the body, and are received into full fellowship with him” (Institutes, 3.6.5)
"Sanctification is always a progressive work (and in this daily process we must not become discouraged, remembering that) there is no holiness without a warfare." J. C. Ryle