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Dear Pastor, Know Your Theology of Sanctification

Dear Pastor, Know Your Theology of Sanctification

The exact moment when I sensed the inadequacy of my understanding of sanctification is engraved in my mind. It occurred in a small-group meeting, while discussing the dynamic between our actions and the work of the Spirit in the process of becoming holy. As these conversations often go, people were sharing what helped them grow—or at least what they learned in church about what ought to help them grow—you know, reading the Bible, praying, etc. At the same time, everyone steadfastly maintained that the Holy Spirit actually did the work of sanctification. Finally an honest woman blurted out, “I don’t understand, how do I grow as a Christian?”

A bit of background. This woman had followed Jesus for many years, but had recently felt her growth stunted. She read her Bible, prayed, showed up for church every Sunday, but also felt bitterness toward others and said things she regretted. She understood that her sin grieved God. And, therefore, she knew that she couldn’t just relax and wait for God to sanctify her. But she was also beginning to realize that her sanctification wasn’t occurring in direct proportion to her own efforts. She was striving hard, but getting nowhere. Earlier that evening I had shared that if we approach the spiritual disciplines as the direct cause of our sanctification, the focus then shifts from the gospel of Christ to ourselves, and this undermines our growth. I could tell that this resonated with her, even as it scared her.

Yet I couldn’t answer her question because my understanding of salvation was fragmented. I understood no organic whole, so the various processes involved—like justification and sanctification—contradicted each other. I mumbled something incoherent for longer than anyone would’ve liked, and then we broke for refreshments. Nothing like boxed brownies to defuse awkward tension.


Now I don’t think a Christian must be able to articulate a theology of sanctification to be sanctified, any more than my wife and infant daughter need to understand the psychology of mother-infant bonding to bond. We can feed on Christ and grow just fine, even if we don’t understand how it happens. But, in keeping with this analogy, what if something goes wrong with the mother-infant bonding? I sure hope someone understands enough to help them.

And that’s why pastors need to know their theology of sanctification. Now, you might think, “Isn’t that the job of a biblical counselor?” Yes. But pastors—I’m thinking particularly of those who do the primary preaching and teaching—have the responsibility to preach a true theology of sanctification so that they are pointing their people in the right direction. Think about it, if you aren’t preaching with a view toward the holiness of your people, what are you doing? Surely, you don’t want to merely educate, or, worse, entertain. You want your people to be transformed. But do you have a paradigm for how that happens? If not, how do you know you are leading them in the right direction?


The dangers that derail sanctification are licentiousness and legalism. Legalism sees sanctification as a work that I do. Maybe I do works to earn my salvation. Or maybe I do them to earn more favor with God. I think, “If I can only stop doing X or start doing Y, I’ll be okay.” This is legalism because it’s obeying for a relationship with God rather than from a relationship with God.

The other error is licentiousness, and those who embrace it are called antinomians (anti-against; nomas-law). It stems from concentrating so much on what has already been accomplished by Christ that there’s no room left for our own work. Antinomians see the horrible failure that results when our effort is misapplied and (wrongly) conclude that we should stop applying any effort.

Let’s think about what happens without a clear paradigm for sanctification. We could be encouraging people to fight their legalism with their licentiousness and fight their licentiousness with their legalism. I remember a group of college students who wanted me to stop talking about the gospel because they were afraid it would undermine their drive for holiness. I know of other people who, if they are honest, take comfort in the fact that they sin because it proves they aren’t becoming legalistic. But this is not biblical sanctification, and we must not encourage this kind of thinking.

Promoting pseudo-sanctification is easier than you might think. I’ve heard good pastors impress upon their congregations everything they are supposed to do, but say nothing about the power to do it. I’ve heard sermons where grace is so disconnected from holy living that Paul’s question, “Shall we continue to sin that grace may increase?” would seem to be answered in the affirmative. Now, these problems are corrected with the approach to preaching that sees Christ at the center of every text. But we need a theology of sanctification so that we can take it one step further and ask, “When we get to Christ, how do we put on Christ and make no provision for the lust of the flesh?”

Now, I’m not saying every sermon requires a lengthy discourse on the doctrine of sanctification. It may show up in one sentence after we’ve gotten to Christ. Or maybe it’s evident in what you say to the person at the door who is troubled or a bit smug. The point is, if “putting on Christ” and “seeking the things above” are primary commands related to our sanctification, we ought to know what it means to obey them, and that ought to be clear in our preaching.


A cogent theology of sanctification, therefore, must be able to stress the need to grow without minimizing grace. And it must stress grace without diminishing the need to grow.

How do we do that? Here I’ll provide only a brief sketch. The real aim of this article is to get you to study sanctification. The first step is to see holiness as connected to salvation. We need to stop talking about being “saved” and being “holy” as if they are two different things that can be played off one another. We should be weary of quoting Ephesians 2:8-9—“saved by grace through faith, not of works”—without also quoting 2:10: “We are his workmanship, created for good works.” Salvation includes holiness—not as a condition for it, but as part of it. Pay attention: the Bible doesn’t have this tension between free grace and good works.

Why not?

That question brings me to the second broad point: salvation is union with Christ. Unfortunately, we often think of salvation as a giant pile of individually wrapped gifts. There’s the gift of “forgiveness,” “the Spirit,” “redemption,” just to name a few. The problem with this is that each gift takes on an independent existence, and the overemphasis of one gift often competes with the overemphasis of another. For instance, if I’m enjoying that great gift of forgiveness, do I really need to unwrap the one labeled “sanctification”? Or, if I make use of “sanctification,” must I still hold onto the gift of “imputed righteousness”?

In reality, salvation is about receiving Christ, who became for us everything we need for salvation. We are “in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Because every gift comes by receiving Christ, they perfectly cohere. We use forgiveness of sins and imputed righteousness, not to sit back and rest, but so that we can draw near to Christ and find help to live a holy life. And when we do live a holy life, we don’t ignore our justification; rather, we become so impressed with God’s holiness that we have a greater appreciation for Christ’s imputed righteousness, which is our legal standing before God. The Spirit binds the Christian life together as well; the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead “for our justification” (Rom 4:25) also unites us to Christ, fills us with fruit, and prays to God on our behalf.

In other words, growth in one aspect our salvation inevitably takes us deeper into the person of Christ and our spiritual union with him, which also connects us to every other benefit we have in him. We have every Spiritual blessing in Christ. When we look at our salvation as a package deal, we simply can’t play one benefit off another. Consequently, we won’t fight our legalism with our licentiousness. We’ll fight both legalism and licentiousness with Christ.


I’m grateful for the woman’s question because it provoked me to study sanctification. No matter how much of this truth we’ve grasped, there’s still more we need to understand—and infinitely more we need to experience. But even a basic paradigm for sanctification, if it is biblical, will help us lead our people deeper into Christ and, thus, deeper into holiness.

There’s a push in evangelical circles to understand justification. This is good. But let’s make sure we haven’t neglected sanctification.

*This article originally appeared at 9Marks.org and is reprinted here by permission.

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