Chapter 4 of One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation Paperback by Marcus Peter Johnson
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. - ROMANS 8:29
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. - JOHN 15:5
In evangelical theology, the doctrine of sanctification has enjoyed little of the status or attention afforded the doctrine of justification. Whereas justification is often equated with salvation itself, sanctification is sometimes pushed to the periphery of our understanding of soteriology, as if it were an afterthought in God’s redemptive plan. We tend to rejoice in the fact that God declares us righteous in Christ, forgiving our sin and imputing Christ’s righteousness to us, assuming that this wonderfully good news constitutes the whole of our salvation. But in this rejoicing, it is easy to neglect or overlook the fact that God is also making us holy in Christ, that the gospel of our salvation is incomplete without God’s glorious work of sanctification (from the Latin sanctus + facere: “to make holy; to set apart”). In other words, we often fail to appropriately and appreciatively rejoice in the good news that Christ is both our righteousness and our holiness. Thus, while justification is often equated with “the gospel,” sanctification is often equated with “the Christian life” or the “spiritual disciplines,” suggesting that sanctification has at least been terminologically, if not conceptually, divorced from salvation.
So, in an attempt to provide holiness with a soteriological “home,” sanctification is sometimes thought of as our response to the saving work of Christ rather than as an integral part of that work. Similarly, we often conceive of our holiness as rooted in our attempt to manifest our gratitude to God for forgiveness, rather than as a manifestation of our new life in Christ.1
I cannot help wondering, further, whether the parsing of the person and work of Christ in conceptions such as these is reflected in the similar parsing of the persons of the Trinity in the familiar phrase “Jesus saves us and the Spirit sanctifies us” and similar refrains. This idea may strike some as theologically tidy, but it is barely biblical. Jesus Christ does not “hand over” the work of sanctification to the Spirit and absent himself after he has “saved” us; Jesus Christ is our salvation, and therefore our sanctification, through the Spirit.
Finally, and most problematic of all, is the notion that sanctification is essentially an optional exercise reserved for spiritually mature Christians, for those who graduate from “believer” to “disciple.” This notion suggests that there are Christians who are not experiencing the sanctifying power of Christ’s death and resurrection in their lives.
Notions such as these—which are an almost inevitable consequence of an objectified view of salvation—convey the impression that one benefit of Christ, such as justification, is available to us apart from another, such as holiness. This is a sure indication that Christ’s work has been severed from his person and rendered a soteriological smorgasbord for our selective taking.
I would point to two factors that may help explain why sanctification has a somewhat ambiguous and peripheral status in our understanding of salvation. The first is a failure to reckon fully with the comprehensive effects of our sin condition. In Chapter 2, we noted the widespread agreement among evangelical Reformed theologians that there is twofold catastrophe resulting from our union with Adam: (1) we are declared guilty and condemned to death, and (2) our nature is corrupted or depraved. Justification is the triumphant gospel answer to the former problem: we are declared righteous in Christ. If this were all that our condition required as a solution, we might well rest satisfied that justification exhausts the gospel. But there is the remaining problem of our depravity; we have corrupted natures that seek out, and take pleasure in, sin. The biblical doctrine of sanctification makes clear that God has made provision for this aspect of our fallen condition as well, and it too is part of the salvation we experience in Christ. God not only declares us righteous in Christ, he also makes us righteous in Christ. Sanctification tells us that God will not leave us in our polluted, depraved condition, for he has promised us that he hashealed us, and will heal us, in Jesus Christ. God’s beneficence extends to every area of our brokenness, and this is good news indeed!
The second, and more decisive, reason for the lack of clarity on sanctification is what I have referred to as a tendency toward soteriological reductionism. When we parcel out Christ’s benefits in abstraction from the wholeness of his saving person, we are bound to have difficulty relating one benefit to another. We may even begin to imagine that one of Christ’s benefits—for instance, justification—makes the others superfluous or redundant: “If we are justified, what is the urgency or necessity of sanctification? If we are already forgiven, are we not already saved?” Again, this kind of soteriological reductionism implies that salvation is something like a smorgasbord, where we choose that which most suits our tastes. But, blessedly, God knows that we are beggars, not choosers. He has given us, and is giving us,everything that we truly need, and he has done so by uniting us to Jesus Christ, who is our “righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). To be in union with Christ is to experience all that he is to us in the utter fullness of his saving person.
To experience all that Christ is to us means that we are not only forgiven and accounted righteous in him, but that we are made holy in him; in our union with Christ, he sanctifies us. Thus, sanctification is not merely a byproduct of salvation, it is part of what it means to be saved. In other words, there is no such thing as being saved without being sanctified, precisely because Jesus Christ cannot be other than who he is to us, namely our righteousness and our holiness. To be in union with him is to be crucified, buried, and risen with him—to participate in the sanctifying power of his death and resurrection in our very lives. Indeed, God has predestined us to the end that we might be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ, the embodied holiness of God. This is what sanctification is all about.
As a foundation for what follows, I define sanctification thus:
Sanctification is that benefit of our union with Christ in which God, through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, delivers us from our depraved natures by transforming us into the holy image of Jesus Christ through our participation in his death and resurrection.
The chapter will unfold by first explaining how sanctification is rooted in our union with Jesus Christ, and how this helps us to properly locate sanctification in the gospel. Second, it will explore the richness of sanctification in terms of its definitive and progressive aspects. To be sanctified, in other words, means that we are both already (definitively) sanctified in Christ and continually being (progressively) sanctified in Christ. Third, it will demonstrate that sanctification consists in our conformity to and transformation into the image of Jesus Christ. This means that sanctification can never be confused with moralism, and neither can it be reduced to a life of gratitude or imitation. It is, rather, God forging us into the likeness of Christ through our participation in his death and resurrection. Finally, the chapter will conclude with a section about what it means to say that we are called to participate in our sanctification. Here I look at the means that God uses, and that we are therefore called to use, as he transforms us into the likeness of his Son.
Union with Christ and Sanctification
In order to re-establish sanctification as an integral part of the good news of our salvation in Christ, let me first remind you of the basic thesis of this book: the central reality of our salvation is that through faith, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we enter into a vital, personal, and profoundly real union with the incarnate, crucified, resurrected Savior, Jesus Christ, through whom all the blessings of salvation flow to us. In light of this, we should ask: Is sanctification one of the blessings we receive in our union with Christ? Do we have good biblical reason to say that Jesus Christ is our sanctification or that we are sanctified “in him”?
An excellent place to begin answering these questions is 1 Corinthians 1:30, where Paul tells us that because of God we are “in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Of the many blessings that Christ is to us, one is sanctification. Especially worthy of note in this passage is the assertion that Jesus “became to us . . . sanctification,” a phrase that suggests that he is more than merely our sanctifier—he is himself our sanctification.
Although it may at first be difficult to imagine how or why Jesus “became” sanctification to us if he was already perfectly holy, we should remember that he took on our human nature in order to present us holy before the Father: “For their sake I consecrate [or “sanctify”] myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:19). Thomas F. Torrance refers to this as the self-sanctification of Christ in the incarnation:
The holiness of the church is derived from God through Jesus Christ, through his self-sanctification or self-consecration in life and death on our behalf. He sanctified himself in the human nature he took from us, that we might be sanctified through the Word and truth of God incarnated in him.2
Again, this understanding points to the significance of the incarnation. Christ is uniquely our sanctification because in him alone the sanctification of our human nature has taken place by union with his divine life. What unholy humanity so desperately needs is union with the Sanctified One. As Anthony Hoekema has aptly put it, “If Christ is indeed our sanctification, we can only be sanctified through being one with him.”3
A cluster of biblical passages further establishes that sanctification is one of the salvific blessings of being united to Christ. Paul designates believers as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:2). This designation takes a number of similar forms throughout his letters: “the saints” (2 Cor. 1.1), “the saints . . . in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:1), “the saints in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:1), “the saints and faithful brothers in Christ” (Col. 1:2), and those “sanctified . . . in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 6:11). It is axiomatic for Paul that those joined to Christ are indeed the sanctified ones. It could hardly be any other way if Jesus has become sanctification to us (1 Cor. 1:30). There is no other way in which we can have sanctification, or become sanctified, than through and in Christ.
Our sanctification in Christ derives from the newness of life we have in him. We read that we are created anew in Christ: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). To be in Christ is to have a newness of life founded in him. In Ephesians 2:10, we find that “we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Our new life, our holiness and sanctification, and our good works are all bound up with our being “in Christ.” It is no wonder, then, that Paul can write that God has predestined us “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29).
Paul’s teaching on being sanctified in Christ is surely an echo of what he heard from his Savior, perhaps something very similar to the striking words we find in John’s Gospel:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (15:4–5)
This passage is perhaps the clearest of all the biblical teachings that our “fruit-bearing,” which I take to be an integral part of what it means to be sanctified, comes about as a result of our being grafted into Jesus Christ, who is the source of our holiness. Apart from him, there is no possibility of our bearing fruit, for we are totally dependent on his life-giving nourishment.
Even if Martin Luther will forever be associated with the doctrine of justification by faith alone, his comments on this passage show that he also had a robust doctrine of sanctification by faith alone:
My holiness, righteousness and purity do not stem from me, nor do they depend on me. They come solely from Christ and are based only in Him, in whom I am rooted by faith, just as sap flows from the stalk into the branches. Now I am like Him and of His kind. Both He and I are of one nature and essence, and I bear fruit in Him and through Him. The fruit is not mine; it is the Vine’s.4
Luther’s words nicely summarize the teaching of Scripture on the relationship between union with Christ and sanctification, which relationship I wish to emphasize here. One of the benefits we receive in being joined to Jesus Christ is a newness of life through which we bear holy and righteous fruit. Sanctification therefore is not an addendum to salvation, and neither is it a quality of life that we can bring into existence, anymore than we can forgive our own sins or impute to ourselves Christ’s righteousness. Sanctification, like any other soteriological blessing, is a direct result of being joined to Christ in the glorious fullness of who he is.
This does not mean that we cannot, or should not, distinguish between the benefits we receive in Christ. We cannot and should not blur the distinction, for instance, between justification and sanctification; they are distinguishable benefits of being joined to Christ that bless us in unique ways. The same goes, as we shall see in the next chapter, for the blessing of adoption. Adoption should not be confused with either justification or sanctification, for it has its own unique privileges. Being joined to Christ does not make of salvation a mass of indistinguishable blessings. It helps us to see, rather, that Christ himself is the sum of all blessings to us. Thus, when we are united to him, we receive all that he is to us, never one blessing without the others.
The implications of this for how we think of sanctification are immensely significant. To put it as starkly as possible, there is no such thing as a Christian who is not sanctified in Christ, because Christ is himself our sanctification. We can no more fail to be sanctified in Christ than we can fail to be justified or adopted in him.5 Trying to separate justification from sanctification, John Calvin argued, is like trying to separate the heat of the sun from its light. The benefits of the sun can certainly be distinguished (they perform different functions), but they just as certainly cannot be separated; the one always accompanies the other.6 The same goes for the benefits of the Son: justification and sanctification can be distinguished (they perform different soteriological functions), but they cannot be separated; the one always accompanies the other. The reason they cannot be separated, Calvin argued, is because that would be equivalent to dismembering Christ:
Although we may distinguish between them [justification and sanctification], Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces. . . . Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. Thus it is clear how we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness.7
Here Calvin paints a graphic word picture that clearly communicates the fullness of sharing in Christ. If we share in him, we share in all that is his, because Christ’s saving benefits cannot be divorced from his person. Conversely, if we do not share in him, we share in nothing that is his, because “he cannot be divided into pieces.” The primary gift we receive in salvation is not this or that benefit; it is Jesus Christ in the fullness of his saving person.
As I noted in the previous chapter, evangelical Protestant thought has been marked by perennial debates over the relationship between justification and sanctification. The debates stem from an ambiguity about the relationship of Christ’s saving benefits to his person, a fissure between christology and soteriology. Such debates are sure to continue unabated so long as Christ’s benefits are thought of as separable from his person and so long as salvation is thought of as primarily something other than union with him.
MORTIFICATION AND VIVIFICATION
Among the reasons it is important to view the saving blessing of sanctification in the matrix of union with Christ is because doing so allows us to capture the full force of the biblical teaching that our sin-polluted existence is overcome through our participation in the death of Christ (mortification) and the resurrection of Christ (vivification). Christ assumed our flesh into his existence; thus, when we are joined to him, we are crucified, buried, and raised with him (Gal. 2:20; Eph. 2:6; Col. 2:12). In the previous chapter, we saw the benefits of this identification with Christ in terms of justification. When we are identified with him in his death and burial, our sins are forgiven and we are freed from condemnation. Likewise, when we are identified with him in his resurrection, we are vindicated and declared in the right. But we must not miss that the benefits of this identification with Christ in his death and resurrection extend also to our sanctification. In our union with him, Christ’s death and resurrection are the redemptive realities through which the dominion of sin is overcome in us and we are restored to newness of life. In other words, his death and resurrection are not to be thought of as merely historical events. They have present operative effects in the lives of those united to him.
Paul drives this point home in Romans 6, where he responds incredulously to an imaginary interlocutor who suggests that continual sinning by those who are justified might furnish the occasion for God to serendipitously manifest his grace: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (vv. 1–2a). Paul’s incredulity is directed toward an apparently fundamental misunderstanding of the reality of salvation and its far-reaching, existence-altering effects: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (vv. 3–4).
It is important to note what Paul does not say in order to appreciate what he does say. In response to the absurd notion that God’s free grace in justification provides the possible occasion for continual sin, Paul does not say, “Do you not know that we all owe God a debt of gratitude for the fact that he has justified us freely in Christ?” Neither does he say, “Do you not know that our justification produces in us the effect of sanctification?” No, Paul’s answer stretches back to a more all-encompassing reality: our participation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The questioner has not understood what it means to be united to Christ.
Paul’s extended answer encompasses essentially two main points. The first is that by being united with Christ in his death, “we know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (v. 6). The second is that by being united to Christ in his resurrection, we are enabled to “walk in newness of life” and to live as “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (vv. 4, 11). Our participation in Christ’s death sets us free from the enslavement of sin, and our participation in his resurrection makes us alive to God in righteousness: “Paul makes it clear, by the sequence in this paragraph, that we can live a holy life only as we appropriate the benefits of our union with Christ.”8
Because it is a given for Paul that believers are united to Christ in his death and resurrection, his incredulity is perfectly understandable. He is not expressing the hope that believers might respond to God’s grace in obedient gratitude or that God’s freely justifying grace might provide an incentive to lives of holiness. Rather, he is insisting on the more fundamental, inescapable reality that believers are the present beneficiaries of the sanctifying effects of Christ’s death and resurrection.9
A similar grounding of sanctification in the death and resurrection of Christ occurs in the book of Colossians. After establishing in 2:12–13 that we have in fact been buried and raised with Christ, Paul writes:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (3:1–5)
Again, notice that the reality of our participation in Christ’s death and resurrection is the ground for the actual holiness of our lives (cf. 2:20). Paul is no instructor in morals or teacher of virtue; his conviction regarding the righteous lives of Christians rests in our incorporation into Christ, from whose death and resurrection flow the power for holiness. Indeed, Paul’s exhortations to holiness originate in his conviction that believers have already died and risen with Christ. Thus, he does not enjoin us to “live holy lives because Christ has died and has risen,” but to “live holy lives because you have already died and been raised with Christ!”
The significance of Christ’s death and resurrection, usually relegated to discussions of justification, needs to be recovered as the primary paradigm for understanding sanctification as well.10 Intriguingly, there are some conceptual similarities between justification and sanctification that bear pointing out, and that might prove helpful in thinking through the theo-logic of sanctification. As I noted earlier, justification consists of both a negative aspect, namely, the remission of sin and condemnation through the death of Christ (Rom. 8:1), and a positive aspect, namely, the declaration of righteousness through Christ’s life and resurrection (Phil. 3:9). Sanctification may be thought of similarly. It would be fair to say that sanctification consists of both a negative aspect, the putting to death of our sin and sin-nature through the death of Christ (Rom. 6:6; Gal. 2:20; Col. 3:3–5), and a positive aspect, rising to newness of life and holiness through the resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:4, 11; Col. 3:1; Phil. 3:10). This way of conceiving the matter may provide a useful paradigm for appreciating the expansive, sanctifying effects of our union with Christ in his death and resurrection.
THE ROLE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
If I were following conventional theological wisdom for a chapter on sanctification, I would have highlighted the role of the Holy Spirit by now. Conventionally, the work of Christ is highlighted in doctrines related to atonement, salvation, and justification, whereas the work of the Spirit is emphasized in the doctrine of sanctification. It is customary to think of Jesus as the Savior and the Spirit as the Sanctifier. While there is no doubt that the role of the Spirit in the sanctification of the church is crucial, I think the popular conception needs to be refined. The role of the Spirit in sanctification needs to be precisely defined lest we begin to imagine that his work somehow eclipses or replaces the work of Christ in our sanctification. Jesus does not send the Spirit to the church in order that she might become holy in Jesus’s absence. Rather, Jesus sends the Spirit in order that he, through the Spirit, might be present as her holiness.
Thus, the principal significance of the Spirit in sanctification is to mediate the presence and power of Jesus Christ, who is our sanctification. The reason for this, as we saw in Chapter 1, is that our union with Christ occurs through the power and indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit—the Spirit brings us into communion with the Holy One. The indwelling Holy Spirit is the “Spirit of Christ” (Gal. 4:6; Phil. 1:19). Paul elaborates on this point in Romans 8:9–11:
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
The Holy Spirit is vital to the holiness of believers because by his presence we are assured of the presence of the holiness of Christ, through whom we are dead to sin and alive to God.
The relationship between the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ in our sanctification has been admirably captured by John Murray:
It is as the Spirit of Christ and as the Spirit of him who raised up Christ from the dead that the Holy Spirit sanctifies. We may not think of the Spirit as operative in us apart from the risen and glorified Christ. The sanctifying process is not only dependent upon the death and resurrection of Christ in its initiation; it is also dependent upon the death and resurrection of Christ in its continuance. It is by the efficacy and virtue which proceed from the exalted Lord that sanctification is carried on . . . it is by the Spirit that this virtue is communicated.11
The role of the Spirit as sanctifier is not diminished by this view. On the contrary, the Spirit’s role is brought to its full glory. As Jesus taught us in John 14, he sends the Spirit to dwell in us in order that we might be in Christ and he in us (cf. Eph. 2:22; 3:16–17). What greater honor could be accorded the work of the Spirit than this? We should go on to stress that the existence of the church herself is dependent on her communion with the Lord, brought about by the power and presence of the promised Spirit, who blesses the church with the inexhaustible riches of Christ. Through the Spirit we are baptized into Christ and become members of his body, equipped to love and serve each other in holiness with the gifts of Jesus Christ that come by the Spirit (Eph. 4:11; 1 Corinthians 12). The church reflects the image and holiness of Christ in the world through her participation in the Spirit of holiness who is the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 3:18).
[The Holy Spirit] only is the Spirit of holiness, he only the Spirit of truth; and therefore it is only through his presence and power in the church that it partakes of the holiness of Jesus Christ. . . . Because the church is the body of Christ in which he dwells, the temple of the Holy Spirit in which God is present, its members live the very life of Christ through the Holy Spirit, partaking of and living out the holy life of God. Therefore their personal holiness and all the qualities of the divine life and love found in their lives, are the fruits of the Holy Spirit.12
The role of the Holy Spirit in the sanctification of believers needs to be emphasized, but never in a way that suggests that the Spirit is an alternative or substitute for the presence of Jesus Christ, who not only is our sanctification, but through whose death and resurrection believers find the power and efficacy of their death to sin and newness of life.13 The Holy Spirit is so very crucial to our sanctification because it is through his empowering presence that we are sanctified in Christ Jesus, who sanctifies the church and will present her “to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:26–27).
Definitive and Progressive Sanctification
Theologians, in an attempt to distinguish between justification and sanctification, have often maintained that while justification is a once-for-all completed action, sanctification is marked by its progressive nature; it is an ongoing process of overcoming sin.14 There is some truth in this assertion, particularly regarding justification, yet the truth is more complex and wonderful than that.
As we pay attention to the biblical witness to our sanctification, we find that it has two aspects: it is both a definitive, once-for-all reality, and also a progressive, ongoing, lifelong process. Murray is frequently cited on this matter: “It is a fact too frequently overlooked that in the New Testament the most characteristic terms that refer to sanctification are used, not of a process, but of a once-for-all definitive act.”15 In order to gain a properly comprehensive view of the benefit of sanctification, it is important that we pay close attention to both of these aspects, for together they tell us something very important about what it means to be sanctified in Christ. The fact that our sanctification includes both a definitive aspect and a progressive aspect is best explained by the corresponding fact that our union with Christ is both definitive (we have been decisively united to Christ) and progressive (we are continually growing in our union with him). We have been irrevocably, indissolubly united to the whole Christ, and for that reason we continue to grow into the fullness of Christ throughout our lives.16
DEFINITIVELY SANCTIFIED IN CHRIST
Paul often addresses the church in a way that is initially surprising if we are prone to think of sanctification or holiness in merely progressive terms. As we noted above, he addresses believers as already having been sanctified in their present state (1 Cor. 1:2; 6:11). Believers are referred to as “saints” in Christ (Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1) despite the persistent presence of sin in their lives. Many of us are conditioned to think of the sanctified state as the glorified condition of the believer in eternity, and to think of the designation “saint” as referring to one who has reached an elevated state of holiness achieved in a lifetime of good works. But we repeatedly run into Paul’s curious use of the past tense when referring to the sanctified state of believers and his startling habit of conferring sainthood on manifestly imperfect Christians.17 How do we account for these apparent anomalies?
We can do so only by referring back to the reality Paul assumes has taken place in the life of every believer—that every Christian has been united to the Sanctified One, Jesus Christ, and in this union has mysteriously and truly been crucified, buried, and resurrected with him (1 Cor. 1:30; Rom. 6:3–5; Col. 2:12; 3:1). In this union, our sinful nature has been put to death and we have been raised with Christ to newness of life. Even as we were dead in our trespasses and sins, God “made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:5–6). In order that we might be sanctified, God has definitively, decisively put our sinful nature to death in Christ’s death and has given us new life in Christ’s resurrection. Our sanctification in Christ is definitive in nature precisely because our union with Christ is definitive in nature; because we have already been united to Christ, we have already been sanctified in him.18 Our holiness is bound up with his, and because he is the Holy One, we are by consequence the holy ones (saints) in him. We could no more be denied the status of having been sanctified in him than we could be denied the status of having been justified or cleansed in him: “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” (1 Cor. 6:11).
What does it mean that we have been definitively sanctified in Christ? It means that believers have experienced an actual, decisive break with the power of sin through their participation in Christ’s death, and have experienced an actual, decisive newness of life through their participation in his resurrection. We are “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). This means that those in Christ have an actual newness of life; they have experienced a transformation or renewal of their very persons through their death-dealing and life-giving union with Christ.
This does not mean that Christians do not and will not struggle with sin or that they have entered into a state of sinless perfection. Such ideas flatly contradict biblical teaching. But we must insist that being sanctified in Christ means that we truly are new creatures in him: “Believers, therefore, should see themselves and each other as persons who are genuinely new, though not yet totally new.”19 This actual, new, sanctified existence that we have in Jesus Christ is the basis for a continual life of progressive holiness that culminates in our full and entire sanctification when we are glorified with Christ.
PROGRESSIVELY SANCTIFIED IN CHRIST
To be progressively sanctified in Christ means that believers experience the gradual, continual benefits of having already been sanctified in him. This means, most importantly, that we are being continually transformed, through a process of lifetime growth and struggle, into the likeness of Jesus Christ. “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” (2 Cor. 3:18).20
Why do we need continual, progressive transformation? It is because, as the Bible insists—and as our lives abundantly testify—we continue to struggle with and indulge our old sinful nature. We continue, inexplicably, to sin, despite the fact that we have been made holy in Christ. Indeed, if we should be brash enough to claim we have no sin, we only compound our sinfulness (1 John 1:8). Even after we are united to Christ, there remains within us a native desire to satisfy the passions of our fallen existence. In a titanic act of absurdity, we attempt to find life in the death-dealing corruption of our old existence in Adam. Wretched ones that we are! Who will deliver us from this body of death? (Rom. 7:24).
God already has delivered us by including us in Jesus Christ, through whom we already have died to sin and risen to new life. And God certainly will deliver us by completing what he began in us, transforming us more and more into the image of his Son (Phil. 1:6; Rom. 8:29). This gradual transformation in holiness happens only because, through the Spirit, we benefit more and more from our union with Jesus Christ and his holiness. We grow more and more into our Christ-existence. We are, therefore, to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15). This progress in holiness is the gradual destruction of our corrupt natures, a day-by-day, year-by-year, lifelong process in which God fulfills his promises in Christ Jesus to us: he will not leave us in our sin.21
Just as our definitive sanctification in Christ does not render our progressive sanctification redundant, neither does our progressive sanctification in Christ render our definitive sanctification unnecessary. Quite the contrary, for to think so would be to misunderstand the nature of our salvation in Christ. Just as we have already been united to Christ and so are justified, sanctified, and adopted, so we grow in ever-increasing intimacy with him: we are continually being forgiven, growing in holiness, and more closely bearing his likeness as his children. He is, after all, the constant source of our nourishment—the bread of life, the living water, and the life-giving vine. Having been sanctified in our union with him, we are to continue to live out the implications of that sanctifying union; we are to live in the reality of having been crucified and resurrected in Christ:
So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. (Rom. 6:11–13)
The “therefore” in this passage is all-important, for it tells us that our progress in holiness is grounded in our already having been united with Christ in his death and resurrection; we are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ. A similar argument appears in Colossians 3, where we read that on account of our death and resurrection in Christ, we are to “seek the things that are above” and “put to death . . . what is earthly in [us]” (vv. 1–5). In sum, when we were included in Christ, we actually died to sin through his death and actually rose to new life in his resurrection. Thus, we are to die to sin and present ourselves as alive to God. God’s plan of salvation is so wide and deep that he not only has made us new, but also is even now making us new through Christ.
We must insist, then, that sanctification is a work of God in Christ thought the Holy Spirit. God sanctifies us, for we cannot sanctify ourselves.22 Does this mean that we effectively play no role in our sanctification? It does not. I shall say more below about what it means that we are called to be holy, that we are consistently exhorted to live holy lives, and about how we are to pursue holiness. Let it suffice for now to say that God actively involves our whole persons in responsible participation in his act of making us holy. We are not called to make ourselves holy; we are called to live out the holiness he is working in us. And this, too, is our salvation: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12–13).23
Sanctification Means Reflecting the Image of Christ, Not Moralism
God is performing a beautiful re-creative act when he sanctifies us in Christ Jesus. To get to the heart of this amazingly good news, we must return to the beginning. The creation of humankind is accompanied by these sublime words: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). The fact that humans were created as images of God himself is the most blessed honor accorded humankind.24 While there has not been widespread agreement about what exactly this image consists of,25 theologians in the orthodox Christian tradition have resolutely affirmed two things: humans were created in the image of God, and that image in humans has been distorted or even lost. It is in this distortion that the great tragedy of sin lies. In our fallen state, we no longer truly reflect the image of God; we are something less than what we were created to be—we are less than authentically human in our self-contradiction. We witness the horrifying effects of the distortion or loss of the imago Dei (“image of God”) on the first pages of the Old Testament and throughout the course of human history.
Amidst this tragedy of broken images—and the resultant bloodshed and deceit, faithlessness and shattered lives—a most extraordinary thing begins to be said about the One who bears our flesh:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (Col. 1:15)
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature. (Heb. 1:3a)
If anything were good news to those of us who dwell in bodies of flesh, surely it would be this: someone exists among us who is the perfect image of God, and he is the Son of God and God himself; furthermore, he dwells in our flesh and is inviting us to partake of him and be united to him. Is it possible that God, in his mighty, patient, gracious, creative, and (literally) self-giving love, is actually re-creating us through Jesus Christ in order that we might truly be the blessed images of God again? It is, for that is exactly what God tells us: “For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29).
To restore us to the imago Dei we were originally created to be—to restore us to our authentic humanity, in other words—God himselfbecame that which he created. In the incarnation, God disclosed himself perfectly through the Son; Jesus Christ is the fully human being, the perfect image of God. To restore us to our blessed state of true humanity, God joined us to his true image, and so we begin again to be who we were created to be. And this astounding, breathtaking turn of events lies at the root of our holiness: the essence and goal of our sanctification is reflecting the image of Jesus Christ.
We must firmly and vigorously reject, therefore, all notions of sanctification that can be reduced to “morality” and “ethics,” which notions are usually nothing more than self-styled righteousness. We also must reject, with equal firmness and vigor, the notion that God is pleased with our “moral goodness” or “virtuous character.” God, quite frankly, is not interested in our morality or virtue; he is interested in our reflecting his holiness. In fact, he contests our ability to determine right from wrong and good from evil.26 That is why sanctification is not, at bottom, a matter of psychology, physiology, or sociology (although it may involve any or all of these); it is a matter of christology. To put it another way, sanctification is not a matter of constructing ethical systems for the improvement of us or of our society; it is our participation in the holiness of Jesus Christ, who is “the exact imprint” of God’s nature. God is re-making us into his image, and he is doing so by uniting us to the One who is that image. Our sanctification is too precious, and sin is far too serious, to be hijacked by superficial notions of morality.27
In sanctification, we come face to face with the awe-inspiring reality that we are being “transformed . . . from one degree of glory to another” and that “Christ is [being] formed in [us]” (2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 4:19). Of the many crucial ramifications of this reality, the following are a sample:
(1) Sanctification is a work of God. The primary reason that sanctification transcends moralism is that, while we may be able to achieve our moral programs, sanctification is received, not achieved. Our new life in Christ and all it entails—our re-creation, the crucifixion of our sinful nature, our definitive holiness—is given to us in our union with the Firstborn of all creation (Col. 1:15). We cannot become those who we are not. This is why the exhortations toward holiness in the New Testament are not exhortations to achieve holiness; they are exhortations to live out the holy existence we already have: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:1–4). We are not enjoined to make ourselves holy; we are enjoined to be who we already are in our union with the Righteous One. “It is a remarkable sentiment,” Calvin wrote, “that believers live out of themselves, that is, they live in Christ; which can only be accomplished by holding real and actual communication with him.”28
This does not mean that the Christian life is one of quietism, passive resignation, and waiting on God to do what we cannot. The Scriptures allow for no such misconception. Believers are commanded in the clearest possible terms to pursue holiness at all times and with all of their persons. But that is just the point: holiness is commanded for people who have been united to the Holy One, who have experienced the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:20–24). There is no passive resignation here, for we have been re-created to live in the power and freedom of Christ himself, and thereby to overcome our distorted images. John Williamson Nevin has captured this “passive activity” well:
The Christian is not called, either before or after his conversion, to form an independent holiness for himself; but only to receive continuously the stream of life that flows upon him from Christ. . . . And still this absolute passivity is at the same time the highestactivity; since Christ works, not without the man, but in the very inmost depths of his being, infusing into the will itself the active force of his own life.29
Neither can the sanctified Christian life be thought of, as it often is, as our response to God’s grace rather than as God’s grace itself. Such an idea leaves us in the precarious position of conjuring up incentives for holy living that simply cannot bear the weight of what God is doing in our lives. For instance, while it is true that Christians are to exhibit gratitude for God’s grace—thankfulness is indeed the proper posture of the saints—gratitude is not the foundation for our sanctification. After all, sanctification is itself something to be grateful for, and our consistent ingratitude is a state that needs sanctification! Even the imitation of Christ, a holy discipline in its own right, is not the sincerest form of flattery where God is concerned. Imitating Christ is not a way that we secure our holiness before God; it is the way we reflect our existence in Christ and as God’s beloved children (Phil. 2:1–5; Eph. 4:32–5:2).30
(2) Sin is a self-contradiction in the Christian life. When sanctification is understood as God’s act of re-creating us into his image through our union with Christ, we begin to see why sin in the church is handled (or should be handled) with deadly seriousness. Paul and John do not soft-pedal sin as if it were a mere moral lapse; they think of it as a contradiction of our existence. If we moralize sin, we will inevitably trivialize it, and having trivialized it, we will inevitably dismiss its seriousness altogether. We do more than transgress the law in our sin; we transgress the reality of our existence in Christ. We “de-create” what God has created and is creating.31
This explains the intense pastoral incredulity and exasperation we see in both apostles when they are confronted by habitual, blatant sin. They take for granted that believers have actually been united to Jesus Christ and have new life in him: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? . . . Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?” (1 Cor. 6:15, 19); “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3); “Do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2 Cor. 13:5); “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning” (1 John 3:6). Sin is horrific and incredible in the saints because it is an inversion of the reality that we have been re-created as holy images of God in Jesus Christ. We will never take sin seriously enough until we realize that it is an utterly absurd and outrageously foolish contradiction of reality.32
(3) Sanctification involves suffering. When sanctification deteriorates into the self-righteousness of morality, it leaves no room for the suffering and cross-bearing of the Christian. The Christian life is a “cruciform life” by reason of its conformity to Christ, who bore the cross in his own body. To be in union with Christ is to live as members of his body, and thus to be conformed in suffering to his image. Christ’s life was marked by suffering, cross-bearing, humiliation, and rejection, so the Christian should not be surprised (in fact, he may even find comfort) when his life also is marked by such trials. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12–13).33 Paul also strikes the consistent note in his letters that his suffering and trials are a sharing in the suffering and death of Christ, and proof that he belongs to Christ and is reflecting Christ:
For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. (2 Cor. 1:5)
. . . always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Cor. 4:10–11)
. . . that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Phil. 3:10–11)
Suffering, persecution, trials, and rejection are marks of the Christian life because they marked Christ’s own life. As Luther wrote:
The holy Christian people are externally recognized by the holy possession of the sacred cross. They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh . . . by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ.34
While the world may applaud our moral aspirations, our sanctifying conformity to Christ may invite its derision. “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18–19). Christ’s life and death are repulsive to the world because he perfectly reflects the holy image of God, and that image is an indictment of our perverted humanity. Just as God made himself known through the suffering, persecution, humiliation, and death of Christ, we can expect that God will continue to make himself known in the same way through Christ’s body, the church.35 His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). We are, after all, being transformed into the image of Christ.
Living in Light of Our Union with Christ
One of the greatest honors and blessings afforded the church is God’s invitation and command to participate in his re-creative, transforming work in our lives. By joining us to Christ our sanctification, he liberates us to delight in his holiness and to image Christ in the world. To these ends, God has instituted various blessed means that we are called to employ as we grow up into Christ.36
(1) Faith. Faith is not only the instrument through which we initially grasp and appropriate Christ; it is also the means by which we continually enjoy his sanctifying presence. As Calvin put it, “Not only does [Christ] cleave to us by an indivisible bond of fellowship, but with a wonderful communion, day by day, he grows more and more into one body with us, until he becomes completely one with us.”37 As we grow in faith, we are transformed into the fullness of Christ (Col. 2:6–7; Eph. 4:11–13). Because sin is so firmly rooted in our failure to believe what we confess, sanctification is, in large part, a matter of bolstering our faith so that we have assurance of who we are in Christ and the conviction to live what we believe: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). This is why the preaching of the gospel starts in the church.38
(2) The written Word of God. The church is nourished through the Word as we encounter Jesus Christ there, “clothed with his gospel.”39Jesus prayed to the Father, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). We study, meditate and reflect upon, and obey the Word, because “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). By attentively hearing and reading the Word, we grow in our knowledge of (not merely about) Christ, and live out the purpose for which we were created in him: holiness (Eph. 1:4; 2:10). We receive Christ through his Word and continue to live in him through his Word: “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught” (Col. 2:6–7).
(3) The body of Christ. As believers are united to Christ, they are simultaneously united to each other in a living, vital, organic fellowship (1 Cor. 12:12, 27). Our holiness is, therefore, wrapped up in the holiness of the other limbs and organs of Christ’s body. Sanctification is no individual affair, for our holiness (and unholiness) is affected by, and affects, the holiness of the body (1 Cor. 5:6; 8:12). If our union with Christ is in fact a profoundly real, personal union, then it follows that our union with each other is the same. We grow in holiness together: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15–16). Our participation in Christ is where sanctification happens, and that participation is a bodily affair.40
(4) The Lord’s Supper. Just as baptism is the sacrament through which we are included in the death and life of Christ,41 so in the Lord’s Supper we continue to receive, and be nourished by, the crucified, resurrected Christ. Our participation in the body and blood of Christ is an ongoing participation in his holy presence (1 Cor. 10:16). This is so true that our failure to recognize the reality of this participation is a profaning of the body and blood of the Lord (1 Cor. 11:27–29). Just as we received (and receive) Christ through the preached Word, we continue to grow into him, and with each other, through the visible word, the Supper: “Therefore, let it be regarded as a settled principle that the sacraments have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace.”42
(5) God’s law.43 There is some confusion about the role of the law in the life of the Christian; some believers even dismiss the Ten Commandments as unnecessary or irrelevant to life in Christ. Such a position is not consonant with the evangelical Protestant tradition.44 The law, to be sure, has been fulfilled in Christ and, as such, no longer stands against us as an indictment of our unrighteousness (Col. 2:13–14); Christ is our law-fulfilling righteousness (Rom. 3:21–24). However, we are freed from the death-dealing effects of the law through his death and resurrection so that we might live in the holiness of Christ. It is just here that we must remember that Christ is our sanctification, in part, because he is the fulfillment of the law (Matt. 5:17–18): Christ himself is the embodiment of that law. Our conformity to Christ is, thus, conformity to the law, which Christ loved (John 15:10) and the psalmists cherished (Psalms 1, 19, 119) precisely because the law is an expression of God’s holy character. So the church, freed from the threats of the law, cherishes, follows, and loves God’s law as a revelation of who God is.
Salvation is good news, not only because God justifies us in Christ, but also because he sanctifies us in Christ. To overcome our corrupt, sinful natures, God through his Spirit unites us to Jesus Christ—who is our sanctification—and includes us in his sin-destroying, life-giving death and resurrection. In and through the death and resurrection of Christ, we have already been made holy, and we are also being made holy, in order that we may be transformed into the very image of God himself, Jesus Christ. God calls us and commands us to participate in this astonishing, image-restoring, re-creative work by exercising our newfound freedom, power, and humanity in Christ.
Chapter 4 of One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation Paperback by Marcus Peter Johnson (Posted with permission)
1 One often hears comments like this: “Christ saves us, and we respond to that salvation in obedient gratitude.” John Piper’s caution against the “debtor’s ethic” is relevant here: “The debtor’s ethic has a deadly appeal to immature Christians. . . . The Christian life is pictured as an effort to pay back the debt we owe to God. The admission is made that we will never fully pay it off, but the debtor’s ethic demands that we work at it. Good deeds and religious acts are the installment payments we make on the unending debt we owe God. . . . God wants us to be grateful to Him for what He has done, but He doesn’t want us to thank Him by thinking it is our duty to try and work for Him, paying Him back.” (Brothers, We Are Not Professionals [Nashville: B&H, 2002], 34).
2 Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, ed. Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 386.
3 Anthony Hoekema, Saved by Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 62.
4 Martin Luther, in Luther’s Works, 55 vols., gen. ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1955–1975), Vol. 24, 226.
5 The Scottish Confession of 1560 is clear on this point: “For this we most boldly affirm, that it is blasphemy to say that Christ Jesus abides in the heart of those in whom there is no spirit of sanctification” (Article XIII) (cited in James T. Dennison Jr., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: Vol. 2, 1552–1566 [Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010]).
6 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics, Vols. 20–21 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 3.11.6.
7 Ibid., 3.16.1 (emphasis added).
8 Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 391.
9 The interpretation of Romans 6 by many commentators has suffered (in my view) from a failure to see that Paul does not refer his readers back to their justification to explain their sanctification, but back to their union with the crucified, resurrected Christ. As important as justification is to Paul’s thinking in general, and to his letter to the Romans in particular, the more basic soteriological category for Paul is union with Christ.
10 Calvin taught that sanctification consists of two parts, mortification and vivification: “Both things happen to us by participation in Christ. For if we truly partake in his death, ‘our old man is crucified by his power, and the body of sin perishes’ (Rom. 6:6), that the corruption of original nature may no longer thrive. If we share in his resurrection, through it we are raised up into newness of life to correspond with the righteousness of God” (Institutes, 3.3.9). Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza, taught similarly that sanctification is a direct result of the indwelling Christ, through whom we experience mortification, burial, and resurrection (see Beza’s Confession of 1560, in Dennison, Reformed Confessions, Vol. 2, 260–61). Not surprisingly, the Heidelberg Catechism ties together the renewal of our nature with our participation in Christ’s death and resurrection (Questions 43 and 45). Again, not surprisingly, we read the following in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 13: “They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them” (in Philip Schaff, ed., Creeds of Christendom, Vol. 3: Evangelical Creeds [Grand Rapids, Baker, 1966], 629, emphasis added). In the Westminster Larger Catechism, Question and Answer 75, the Spirit is said to apply the death and resurrection of Christ to God’s people in their sanctification. What is surprising is the relative difficulty one encounters in finding other authoritative sources that clearly articulate sanctification in such a manner. More often than not, even in otherwise excellent works, sanctification (or good works or holiness) is said to come from “faith” or the Spirit, with little or no mention of the fact that sanctification is the work of Jesus Christ for us and in us by the power of his death and resurrection.
11 John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 147–48.
12 Torrance, Atonement, 386–87.
13 Karl Barth asks, “Why is it that he is the Holy Spirit per definitionem? . . . The answer is staggering in its simplicity. He is the Holy Spirit in this supreme sense—holy with a holiness for which there are no analogies—because He is no other than the presence of Jesus Christ Himself” (Church Dogmatics, IV.2, cited in Andrew Purves and Charles Partee, Encountering God [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2000], 47–48).
14 Millard J. Erickson writes, “Justification is an instantaneous occurrence, complete in a moment, whereas sanctification is a process requiring an entire lifetime for completion” (Christian Theology [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998], 982).
15 John Murray, Collected Writings, 2:277, cited in Hoekema, Saved By Grace, 203.
16 It may be helpful, in this sense, to think of our salvation in terms of a marriage union. A marriage is both a definitive act of union and a union that ought to grow continually in intimacy, faithfulness, and self-giving.
17 When we reserve the title “saint” only for those whom we judge to be of exemplary holiness, or those whom we believe have “earned” the title by virtue of a lifetime of virtuous living, we do a serious injustice to the biblical teaching on sainthood.
18 Hoekema refers to both objective and subjective sides of our definitive sanctification. Because we were included in Christ before the foundations of the world, there is a sense in which we objectively died and rose with Christ in his historical death and resurrection: “Christ must never be thought of apart from his people, nor his people apart from him.” Subjectively, we experience the reality of this death and resurrection in our present lives when we appropriate Christ through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit (Saved By Grace, 204–5).
19 Ibid., 205 (emphasis in original). Hoekema makes an important distinction between positional and definitive sanctification. Some have held that our holiness in Christ is “positional,” in that the holiness of Christ is imputed to the believer in a legal, judicial sense. But this seems to conflate sanctification with justification. Definitive sanctification, on the other hand, allows sanctification to remain sanctification—it insists that the believer is genuinely, actually transformed by being joined to Christ.
20 Calvin called our gradual transformation into the image of Christ “the design of the gospel” (John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries [Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1844–56; reprinted in 22 vols., Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003], 2 Cor. 3:18).
21 I have always been comforted and encouraged by Calvin’s insight on the progress of our sanctification: “In this way it pleases the Lord fully to restore whomsoever he adopts into the inheritance of life. And indeed, this restoration does not take place in one moment or one day or one year; but through continual and sometimes even slow advances God wipes out in his elect the corruption of the flesh” (Institutes, 3.3.9).
22 As John Webster asserts, “The sanctifying Spirit is Lord; that is, sanctification is not in any straightforward sense a process of cooperation or coordination between God and the creature, a drawing out or building upon some inherent holiness of the creature’s own. Sanctification is making holy. Holiness is properly an incommunicable divine attribute; if creaturely realities become holy, it is by virtue of election, that is, by a sovereign act of segregation or separation by the Spirit as Lord” (Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003], 27, emphasis in original).
23 This leads me to recall Torrance’s refrain: “‘All of grace’ does not mean ‘nothing of man’, but the very reverse, the restoration of full and authentic human being in the spontaneity and freedom of human response to the love of God” (The Mediation of Christ [Colorado Springs, CO: Helmer and Howard, 1992], 95).
24 Herman Bavinck highlights the important idea that “a human being does not bear or have the image of God but . . . he or she is the image of God” (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2 [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004], 554–55). This means, first, that the image is not some virtue in God but God himself who is the archetype of man, and, second, that nothing in the human being is excluded from the image of God; the image extends to the whole person.
25 See Anthony Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 33–65, for an excellent historical overview.
26 “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’” (Gen. 3:4–5); “And a ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone’” (Luke 18:18–19). Christians do well to speak of “holiness” rather than “morality.”
27 The distinction I am making here between morality and holiness is exemplified by the fact that the religious/moral leaders of Jesus’s day (and ever since) were blind to the fact that Jesus was the embodiment of perfect holiness—they even thought he was demonic! This should give us pause: What was the moral/religious standard to which they were subjecting Jesus? As my doktorvater, Victor Shepherd, is fond of pointing out, the opposite of evil is not good; the opposite of evil is God. Good and evil are not philosophically generated ethical abstractions. Rather, they are theologically generated (or, better, divinely revealed) personal, relational categories. There is no knowledge of good and evil apart from knowing God—there is only morality, which is usually nothing more than self-styled righteousness. No wonder, then, that so many were offended at the Son of God.
28 Commentaries, Gal. 2:20.
29 John Williamson Nevin, The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist, American Religious Thought of the 18th and 19th Centuries, Vol. 20 (New York: Garland, 1987), 235 (emphasis in original).
30 We do not imitate Christ in order to first become like him; we imitate Christ because we are in him. For Luther, Christ is always a gift to be received before he is an example to be followed, and that order is crucial: while Christ’s example may be important, “this is the smallest part of the gospel, on the basis of which it cannot yet even be called gospel. For on this level Christ is of no more help to you than some other saint. His life remains his own and does not as yet contribute anything to you. In short this mode (of understanding Christ merely as example) does not make Christians but only hypocrites. . . . The chief article and foundation of the gospel is that before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is your own. . . . Now when you have Christ as the foundation and chief blessing of your salvation, then the other part follows: that you take him as your example, giving yourself in service to your neighbor just as you see that Christ has given himself for you” (“A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels,” in Works, Vol. 35, 119–20).
31 See Steve Jeffrey, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach, Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 110–117.
32 Cornelius Plantinga writes: “Sin is both wrong and dumb. Indeed, whenever the follies are playing, sin is the main event. Sin is the world’s most impressive example of folly” (Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 121). Plantinga notes that in the Prophetic Books sin is viewed as outrageous folly, “like pulling the plug on your own resuscitator” (125). Barth provocatively refers to sin as an impossibility: “[Sin] has no basis. It has, therefore, no possibility—we cannot escape this difficult formula—except that of the absolutely impossible. How else can we describe that which is intrinsically absurd, but by a formula which is logically absurd? Sin is that which is absurd, man’s absurd choice and decision for that which is not” (Church Dogmatics, ed. G. W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1966; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010], 4/1, 410).
33 Of course, only Christ’s death and suffering have atoning efficacy, but when we suffer in the name of Christ we are indeed sanctified.
34 Luther, “On the Councils and the Churches,” in Works, Vol. 41, 164. Luther believed that suffering was a true mark of the church.
35 Startlingly, Paul writes, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24). We need to make room for this in our doctrine of sanctification.
36 To this list we may have added many other sanctifying means, such as prayer, suffering, marriage, and self-denial.
37 Institutes, 3.2.24.
38 We must not overlook the fact that Paul was eager to preach the gospel to the church (Rom. 1:15), as well as to those outside the church.
39 Calvin, Institutes, 3.2.6.
40 See Chapter 7 for a more extended discussion on the living reality of the church.
41 See Chapter 8 for an elaboration of this point.
42 Calvin, Institutes, 4.14.17 (emphasis added). See Chapter 8 for further discussion of the living reality of the sacraments.
43 For the sake of simplicity and brevity, I have equated the law of God with the Ten Commandments here.
44 The catechisms of Luther, Calvin, Heidelberg, and Westminster (to name just a few) all contain expositions of the Ten Commandments, assuming the sanctifying function of the law in the life of the Christian.
Chapter 4 of One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation Paperback by Marcus Peter Johnson (Posted with permission)