Personal View of Sanctification
By Wesley C. McCarter
When approaching the doctrine of sanctification (that is, the process of becoming holy) one must first consider putting on paper a clear and concise definition of sin. Another major task that must first be contemplated is the subject of justification, specifically what justification incorporates. Every Christian is a theologian in his/her own right, and holds deep convictions on these two subjects based on knowledge of Scripture and even from experience. The chief authority for the content of this paper will be the Christian Scriptures. Experience may be referenced, but only as a complement to the biblical passages on these subjects. These two questions will first be discussed, and then three phases of sanctification will be outlined. The three parts are positional sanctification, experiential sanctification, and eschatological sanctification. As these three phases already begin to demonstrate, the Christian’s sanctification is a process.
First, what we believe to be sin must be clearly defined. Sin is literally missing the mark. In this context, it is missing God’s mark with which we are concerned. It is falling short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23) by rebellion, selfishness, and unbelief. Sin is the transgressing of boundaries declared in divine revelation. It immediately builds a barrier in the relationship between man and God. Its end is death (Rom 6:23), both spiritually and physically. The Bible, and especially the New Testament, is clear that all have sinned, all are under sin, all are slaves to sin, and all will collect the wages of sin (death) apart from Christ. There is a sin nature that all have inherited as descendents of the first Adam (Eph 2:1-3; Rom 5:19). Christ is put forward as God’s one and only answer for the problem of sin.
Second, justification is that initial declaration of God that a man is forgiven in his sight. It occurs when someone puts their faith in Christ (Rom 3:26; 5:1; Gal 3:24). What is included in the initial faith experience that is called justification? It can be argued that Christians are not made completely holy at that time, but are considered holy in the sight of God. Christians are called what they are not; just, righteous, holy, blameless, and above reproach. This is not the case in the eyes of the world, but only in the eyes of God. The sovereign God of the universe calls those things which do not exist as if they did (Rom 4:17b). Though believers are far from holy, they are called and considered holy by God. Justification is the legal declaration of God that believers are righteous. It was the knowledge of this doctrine that propelled the Protestant Reformation, and the reformers declared that Christians are justified by faith alone.
Now we may turn our attention to the parts of sanctification. We will begin with positional sanctification which occurs immediately after justification. This part may actually be deemed part of an initial faith package along with justification. This is the time when the believer really gets started with sanctification. The question may be asked, does this not mean that justification and positional sanctification are the same thing? No, there is a difference. The declaration of justification must come first. Then immediately the Christian is positionally sanctified by his union with Christ. Ideally, one will hear the Gospel (Rom 10:14, 17), repent of his sin (Matt 3:2; Acts 2:38; 3:19), put his faith in Christ (Mark 1:14; Rom 1:16-17), be declared just in God’s sight (Rom 3:26; 5:1; Gal 3:24), and be immersed (Acts 2:38; Rom 6:4; Gal 3:27). Why would immersion be the ideal point of positional sanctification? Immersion is that point in the believer’s life when he has a definite break with the old man and becomes new. It is a definite break with sin and the beginning of a new life with Christ. The New Testament is clear that of all the events of a believer’s life, baptism is the time when they put on Christ, and are absolutely associated with him. There is no more wonderful phrase in the New Testament than the concise statement that the believer is “in Christ.” This phrase and picture of positional sanctification are found throughout the epistles, but three specific references are outstanding, Rom 8:1-2, Eph 1:3-14, and Col 1:21-23. Each passage makes great statements about the initial position of the believer after justification. Christians are told that the position that they occupy is free from condemnation. They have been freed from the law of sin and death. Christians have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places precisely because of their position in Christ. They are now holy, without blame, and above reproach in the sight of God if they continue in the faith, that is, if they continue to occupy their place in Christ by faith. Believers are in the first place given a position in Christ of redemption through his blood and forgiveness of sins.
Next we can consider experiential sanctification. This phrase has also been called progressive sanctification. This is the part where the Christian is actually made into the image of Christ. It is one thing to be united with Christ; it is another to actually be made into his image. It is one thing to be called holy; it is another to actually be made holy. Experiential sanctification begins to match the believer’s life with his position. If we are to name one goal of sanctification in this life, then it is Christian maturity which produces fruit (combining the two seems to be appropriate). Christians are urged throughout Scripture to be mature and produce fruit (John 15:1-18; Rom 6:22; Rom 7:4; Gal 5:22-23; Eph 5:8-10). Experiential sanctification may be viewed as a column. The bottom is apostasy and the top is Christian maturity. The farther up the column a Christian is taken by the cooperation of the Holy Spirit and the human spirit, the farther one separates himself from the things of this world. A Christian who progresses in sanctification can never relapse into apostasy, if he continues in that progression. There is a regression that can take place if one does not continue to progress in the faith, that is, if they do not continue to be sanctified (1 Thess 5:19; Eph 4:30; Heb 6:1-6). A Christian may mature (be sanctified) to the point that it may be nearly impossible for him to turn away from the faith. It is difficult to measure someone’s sanctification, thus we should be careful to say that someone may reach a level of maturity where they are untouchable by sin and this present wicked age. The primary means by which a believer may progress in the area of experiential sanctification in this life is through the word of God. The Christian must immerse himself into the Scriptures in order to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself prayed to the Father in John 17:17-19, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth.”
Lastly, we may contemplate our eschatological sanctification. Whereas most perspectives title the end phase of sanctification something like entire sanctification, we may call this last phase eschatological because entire sanctification is only attainable in the glorified state. This will come about when the Lord Jesus Christ returns to the earth. Therefore, complete sanctification is not attainable for the Christian in this life, but only in the eschaton, the time of ultimate glorification. This is where many denominations differ in opinion. Some claim that there is a second work of grace that provides for the sanctification process to be completed in this life. Those perspectives become very ambiguous as they claim that Christians may still sin, but there is no deliberate transgression of God’s know will. The truth of the matter is that Christians do continue to have the ability to sin, are frequently tempted by sinful desires, and often fall short of the glory of God. The New Testament shows, by the accomplishments of Christ, how Satan is defeated, but not completely; how Christians are saved, but not yet; and how we are sanctified, but not entirely. Entire sanctification is an eschatological sanctification. It will be given to us when Christ returns. We will be changed and glorified at the end of the age (1 Cor 15:35-57).