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Aggressive Sanctification

Part 6: Distinguishing Two “Sanctifications”

Much of the problem with the popular discussion of “gospel-centered sanctification” stems from a one-dimensional understanding of the biblical word “sanctification”. Yet the Scripture clearly uses the word “sanctification” in two distinguishable ways.

The English words “sanctification”, “sanctify”, “sanctified” and “sacred”, which appear in our English translations of the New Testament are all derived and translated from the root word “holy” (hagios) found in the Greek New Testament. The core non-technical meaning of this word refers to something that has been or is being “set apart” or “separate”. It can rightly refer to God himself, who is “set apart” in a variety of ways from every other being. It can refer to things that are “set apart” for some special use, as in the case of the temple’s furnishings. And it can also refer to Christians – in two distinct ways:

1) Christians, positionally, at justification have been “set apart” to be God’s own possession;

2) Christians, practically, are being increasingly “set apart” from sinful actions and associations.

Notice for instance, when Paul enlists the analogy of marriage to both instruct and illustrate Christ’s relationship with the church. He writes, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (Eph.5:25-26). Here “sanctify” speaks to the “setting apart” of Christians to be Christ’s bride. This takes place positionally for each regenerate individual of the church when he or she is justified by faith in Christ.

To the Thessalonians, on the other hand, Paul writes, “Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1Th.4:1-3). Here “sanctification” speaks to the “setting apart” of a Christian’s life. It speaks of Christians moving away from their sinful activities and progressively participating more-and-more in God-pleasing behavior.

Forms of the word “sanctification” are used in these two distinct contexts throughout the New Testament. The first context is a once-for-all forensic and legal reality, which describes our status as God’s people who have been purchased, adopted and redeemed. The second is a progressive and ongoing reality, which describes our practice as people who are becoming increasingly holy, godly and Christlike. To distinguish these two, the first is often designated “positional sanctification” or sometimes “definitive sanctification”, while the second is usually designated “practical sanctification” or “progressive sanctification.”

When the word “sanctification” is used by Tchividjian in Jesus + Nothing = Everything he is presenting to us a way to understand our progressive sanctification. The book is about contrasting ways to approach our daily, practical sanctification – either by “resting” and “relaxing” (which he advises – pp.11, 46, 120, et al.) or “working” (which he labels “legalism” and “anti-gospel” pp.45ff.). The problem is that much of his advocacy throughout the book for what he calls “gospel-based sanctification” (pp.191, 207) is constructed on biblical references which include the word “sanctification” or “sanctify”, but are clearly referring to our “positional sanctification” (i.e., our justification). You can see examples of this conflated use of the word “sanctification” throughout Tchividjian’s book (e.g., pp. 46, 83, 102, 140, 172).

This is a widespread problem in the entire discussion concerning this topic on blogs and in other recent books. We cannot look to passages which refer to positional sanctification and treat them as though they are referring to the same reality as progressive sanctification! That results in an odd assumption, namely that what is revealed in the Bible to be “progressive” is in fact already complete. What the Bible is calling for us to work at (i.e., our progressive sanctification) is now wrongly castigated as sinful effort because we are told in essence that our “progressive sanctification” is in reality the same thing as “positional sanctification”.

Because the Bible uses the word “sanctification” in two distinct ways we should always be careful to not confuse the meaning of what we are intending to talk about. It is because of this potential risk of confusion that Protestant evangelical discussion has usually employed the word “justification” to represent and include the idea of “positional sanctification”, and has left the word “sanctification” to refer to our “progressive sanctification”. Or, as has been the practice of most Christians, there is the simplified talk of “being saved” (being set apart by God to be his adopted child) and “growing” (being increasingly set apart in holy behavior).

With that in mind we could return to more of J. C. Ryle’s classic, historic, and soundly biblical distinctions between Christian “justification” (positional sanctification) and Christian “sanctification” (progressive sanctification).

“Justification is the reckoning and counting a man to be righteous for the sake of another… Sanctification is the actual making a man inwardly righteous…”

“The righteousness we have by our justification is not our own… [it] is imputed to us… The righteousness we have by sanctification is our own… imparted [to us]”

“In justification our own works have no place at all… In sanctification our own works are of vast importance…”

“Justification is a finished and complete work… Sanctification is an imperfect work…”

“Justification admits no growth or increase… Sanctification is eminently a progressive work…”

“Justification… is not easily discerned by others. Sanctification… cannot be hid in its outward manifestation from the eyes of men.”

(J. C. Ryle, Holiness, Sovereign Grace Publishers, 2001, p.19).

So then, let us always remember that just because we are regenerate Christians, who have already been set apart as God’s own possessions at the point of conversion (i.e., we have been positionally sanctified), it does not mean that all of today’s choices will set our behavior apart from the sinful behavior of the world around us (i.e., making progress in our practical sanctification). Positional sanctification is something every Christian already has, while progressive sanctification is something every Christian is called to diligently pursue.