Progressive sanctification is the process from the time of conversion till death. It involves dying unto sin more and more and living to righteousness. Only those who have been effectually called and definitively sanctified are progressively sanctified. All of them are sanctified.
The Shorter Catechism gives an excellent summary of progressive sanctification:
Q. 35. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.
Work of Grace
Unlike justification, adoption and definitive sanctification, progressive sanctification is a work not an act. It takes place over a period of time, usually a long period, rather than happening in a moment. Sanctification is ‘through virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection’. It is of grace freely bestowed for the sake of Christ’s work on the cross. It is not based on our merit. It is not our work but God’s and yet we have a role. We are to exercise faith in God for our sanctification as well as for our justification. All glory must be given to God.
Sanctification and the Word of God
Sanctification takes place through the Word. ‘Sanctify them through thy truth, thy word is truth’ (John 17:17). The law of God is vital. It has three uses.
- The law tells society how to live.
- The law convicts the sinner of sin and lostness and closes out all other hopes but Christ.
- The law is the rule of life for the Christian. We are told what is right and what is wrong. We are warned of chastisement and punishment. We are given promises and encouragements for obedience.
He is called the Holy Spirit not because He is holier than the other persons of the Trinity, but because His work is to make us holy. He applies to us the Word of God. He convicts us of our sins. He stirs up our consciences. He gives us grace to turn from sin to God. He lives in our hearts uniting us to Christ. ‘If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body ye shall live’ (Rom. 8:13). It is only by the Spirit that we can overcome sin and make progress in holiness.
Weakening and enlivening
Sin dominates the unbeliever. Its rule is broken by definitive sanctification. Yet it is still there. Like a field or garden where the ground has been turned over, there may not be a weed in sight. Yet after a few days weeds begin to show again. The roots of the old nature remain. It is a life-long activity keeping the garden clean and rooting out the old sins. We are to ‘mortify the deeds of the body’. Colossians 3:1-5 challenges us, ‘Seek those things which are above ... set your affection on things above ... Mortify your members which are upon the earth: fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence and covetousness which is idolatry’. There is to be a killing of sinful desire and a striving to live for God.
Renewing in the image of God
Man was created in the image of God especially in knowledge, righteousness and holiness (Col. 3:10, Eph. 4:24). That central part of the image was totally lost. However with conversion and sanctification there is a renewing in the image of God. We are made like God again. We are conformed into the image of Christ (Rom. 12:2).
There are various forms of perfectionism taught in different churches. Often this false teaching is drawn from passages such as Romans 6. For example the Keswick Movement taught that by faith one could attain to a ‘higher Christian life’. Their favourite catch phrase was, ‘Let go and let God’. Believe for sanctification. Their idea was that the Christian life should not be a struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil but simply a believing and a relaxing and then you will attain perfection. John speaks against all perfectionism when he states: ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us’ (1 Jn. 1:8-10). The idea of a second blessing leading to perfection or something like it is totally unscriptural.
Confession and Scripture
While the Shorter Catechism and the Westminster Confession provide us with a good summary of Bible teaching yet the Scriptures are our final authority. We believe the truths in the Confession only because they are taught in Scripture. We shall therefore consider Romans 7:14-25 but concentrating especially on verses 22-23.
Delight in the law of God
Some argue that Romans 6 describes victory over sin. The Christian has died to sin. Therefore when they come to Romans 7:14-25 they argue that what we have there is an unconverted man. They ask, How can the Christian be described as a wretched man? How can a true believer who has died to sin say, ‘I am carnal, sold under sin’ (v.14)?
First, it has to be pointed out that in vv. 1-13 Paul is using the past tense. In vv. 7-13 Paul is giving some of his autobiography. He speaks of the work of the law in his life and the conviction of sin which he experienced. However, when he comes to vv. 14-25, he uses the present tense.
Second, it should be noticed that what we have in vv. 14-25 is true Christian experience. Only the Christian delights in the law of God after the inward man. The Pharisee keeps the law out of duty and for self-righteousness but has no delight in it.
Think of the First Commandment: ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’. Only the true Christian loves God and delights in God with all his heart. The Second Commandment is concerned with worship. Many worship out of a sense of duty or come with worship that they enjoy and which makes them feel good. The true Christian wants to please God and worship only as He commands. The Third Commandment is concerned with the name of God. The True Christian loves the name of God and is concerned to think reverentially of God as well as not to swear. The Fourth Commandment requires us to give one day of the week to God. For the true Christian the best and most pleasurable day of the week is God’s day. The Fifth Commandment asks us to honour our parents. True Christians love and obey their parents even when they are unjust because they love God. They pay respect to all in authority from the heart not just outwardly. The Sixth Commandment not only condemns murder but also requires us to have no hatred in our hearts for anyone. It is natural to hate someone who hurts but it is not Christian. The Seventh Commandment not only condemns adultery but, as Jesus says, condemns adulterous looks and thoughts. This is very hard, but the Christian delights in this law. The Eighth Commandment requires scrupulous honesty. Christians are concerned and have a sensitive conscience. The Ninth Commandment condemns lies and hypocrisy and the true Christian deep down approves of that. The Tenth Commandment says that we are not to covet, to be jealous, or to be desirous of money and possessions. The world is full of covetousness but the Christian strives to be content with such things as he has.
Now the Christian hates sin, would love to be perfect, but is very far from perfect. However the Christian delights in the law of God deep in his heart and longs for the day when he will keep it perfectly. To him that in itself would be heaven.
The Christian has another law in him
Paul uses strange language here. He speaks of two laws. What does he mean? A law is a principle which commands and demands. It is powerful. God’s law commands us to obey God, but inside every Christian is another law which commands us to do the opposite. In fact it brings us into captivity which is a very strong term. Paul says ‘I am carnal’ (v. 14) with fleshly desires. I am ‘sold under sin’, an unwilling captive. This is quite different from selling oneself to sin as Ahab did. I have been freed from slavery, yet sadly seem so ready to go back to slavery. In v. 15 I find that I do what I do not want to do. In v. 16 I agree with the law of God that it is good, though I do not obey it. In v. 17 he states that it is his indwelling sin that disobeys. In v. 18 he admits that there is nothing good in him, yet he desires to do good. In v. 21 he writes that when he would do good evil is present. In v. 24 he cries that he is a wretched man doing the evil which he hates, yet he longs for deliverance.
The Victory of the Christian
The cry ‘O wretched man that I am’ seems like defeat. In our own experiences we feel that we have many defeats. Yet victory is sure. The cry, ‘Who shall deliver me?’ is followed immediately by ‘I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (v. 25). Sin has such a grip of us. The world, the flesh and the devil are powerful but I have also died to sin. Its reign over me has been broken. It is like a chained lion. The slave master is calling to us through the fence.
‘I thank God’. God the Father elected me from before creation. God the Son died for me on the cross. God the Holy Spirit came into my life through the effectual calling and regeneration. I have been united to Christ as a branch to the vine or a member to the body. I have been justified and adopted. I am being sanctified. God is doing it in me. One day I will be glorified and made perfect. It has all happened as a result of God’s eternal love and the atoning death of Christ. Our eventual glorification is dependent on the intercession of Christ going on now in heaven for us. ‘He is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them’ (Heb. 7:25).
‘So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin’ (Rom. 7:25). The rational thinking part of me serves the law of God, but the flesh, the indwelling corruption, serves the law of sin. So Paul asserts: ‘There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit’ (Rom. 8:1).
We must mortify sin
‘If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body ye shall live’ (Rom. 8:13). Depending on the Spirit we must act. We have a duty to be constantly putting sin to death. We must trample upon it. We must fight against it. It is a life-long activity. We must crucify it.
We must also seek to live for God, grow in grace, bear the fruit of the Spirit, do the work of God. The godly minister Robert Murray McCheyne said, ‘The greatest need of my people is my own holiness’. He also added that there is no joy like the joy of holiness. John Newton as an old man wrote: ‘I am not what I ought to be, not what I wish to be, not what I hope to be, but thankfully not what I once was’.