Sanctification Is Not Progressive

This is from the seventh chapter of New Life in Christ Jesus

I learned of the doctrine of progressive sanctification in the early 1980’s. One of my former pastors believed in it, and he taught it to me through his sermons. To the best of my recollection, he presented progressive sanctification this way:

Every person comes to the point in his life when he must decide whether to accept or reject Christ. From that point of decision forward, each person’s life changes progressively depending on the choice he makes concerning Christ. If his decision is to receive Christ, then from that point forward, God changes him to become more and more like Jesus (this is progressive sanctification). If he rejects Christ, then from that point on, God hardens him, and he becomes more and more like the devil.

For Christians, the process of progressive sanctification is interrupted by periods of disobedience. When they fail to do all that they have been taught, then God does not reveal more truth to them until they repent (this is what I call progressive revelation), and their spiritual growth is stunted and may even retreat. When disobedient Christians repent and re-commit themselves to obedience, then God begins to show them new things, and they begin to grow again.

One way to tell whether you are growing spiritually is to evaluate yourself against the requirements of Scripture. Nobody is perfect, but if the gap between what you are doing and what is required of you is shrinking over time, then you are growing spiritually and becoming more like Christ. If the gap between what you are doing and what is required of you is not shrinking, then you need to repent and get right with God. If, over a very long time, you are not becoming more and more like Christ, then you need to think about the possibility that you are not really saved.

This may sound good, but trust me; it is not. I know by experience (because I was a good student) that it is a terrible mistake to judge your spiritual progress by measuring yourself against the requirements of the law. It is impossible to be honest before God and conclude that the magnitude and frequency of your sins (all of which come from the flesh) are shrinking over time or that the righteousness displayed in your conduct is approaching that of Jesus.

On the contrary, as we grow spiritually, we become more and more aware of the fact that the gap between our performance and what is required of us is infinitely large. As a result, as we grow spiritually, we become more and more cognizant of our need for God’s grace, and we become more and more thankful that He does not judge us according to our works. And we become more and more aware that our alignment with God’s will is not improving over time. Our alignment with God (i.e., our sanctification) is a state of being created when He made us new creatures in Christ with new hearts that are rightly aligned with Him.

Furthermore, if we understood sanctification properly, we would know that it is not progressive at all. The word itself means “holiness, i.e., dedication to the Lord, and/or dedication to moral purity” [Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Greek (New Testament) (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.]. In the New Testament, the meaning of sanctification is anchored by its use in the Old Testament. There, it is used most basically to describe objects, animals, or people who have been culled out and often segregated from a larger group of similar items, physically cleaned up, sometimes ceremonially cleaned up (by the sprinkling of the blood of an animal sacrifice), and dedicated wholly for service to God.

In the New Testament, when the word applies to man, sanctification is used in two contexts—sanctification by God and self-sanctification. Both uses carry much the same meaning as the word does in the Old Testament. In neither context do we find the concept of progressivity.

God’s sanctification of us is a one-time event in which God cleanses us of all transgressions by the blood of Jesus Christ and exercises His power of creation to create in us new spiritual lives that are truly holy and righteous (1 Cor. 6:11; 1 Thess. 5:23; Heb. 2:11; 10:10, 14). These new lives are sanctified thoroughly and completely, and they fit us for full-time service to God. There is no need to further clean them over time, because they are not stained by sin (1 John 3:9), and they are impervious to it (1 John 5:18).

Self-sanctification (2 Tim. 2:21; 1 Peter 3:15; Rom. 6:11, 13) is God’s calling for us to consider and act according to the truth that God Himself has sanctified us. We should consider ourselves set apart, culled us out, cleansed of our sins by the blood of Jesus, made one with Him by new life in Christ, and called into full-time service to Him. And we should present ourselves to God as such every day.

Our acceptance of the fact that we have true righteousness and holiness in Christ (Rom. 6:11), and our daily choice to present ourselves to God as people who are alive from the dead and as instruments to be used by Him for His glory (Rom. 6:13) has nothing to do with progressively putting away our sins. It only has to do with us making an identical choice every day to separate ourselves to God and to walk with Him in the newness of life (Rom. 6:4).

But if we choose to walk with God every day in the newness of life, some things will change. Our trust in God will increase (2 Cor. 10:15). Our knowledge of God will grow (Col. 1:10). Our discernment of good and evil will sharpen (Heb. 5:14). Our spirits will grow stronger (Eph. 3:16). Our love for one another will abound (1 Thess. 3:12). The fruits of our righteousness will multiply (2 Cor. 9:10). Our brethren with whom we interact will be strengthened (Acts 18:23). And our numbers will increase (Acts 16:5).

These things are not evidence of God cleaning us up over time or of us becoming more and more like Jesus over time. They are the fruits of walking in the Spirit. Their existence proves that God has given us new lives in Christ Jesus, that we possess everything we need for life and godliness, and that fruitful Christian lives happen only when we trust God and walk with Him—as He leads us, guides us, and directs us from the depths of our own hearts (Gal. 5:16–26).

Having been given this great opportunity, let us take full advantage of it.

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One Response to Sanctification Is Not Progressive

  1. Dominic says:

    Thank you for writing this article. I was wondering when I light come across someone who views sanctification as the Bible says it is. Rather then making salvation dependant upon works

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