What is the biblical view of sanctification? How is it that we become more like Christ? Does it happen all at once or is it a gradual process that takes place throughout our whole lives?
There are three predominant models of sanctification. As we go through these, see which one you may be holding.
1. The Wesleyan View
This view is also referred to as the Nazarene view, or Christian Perfection. In this view a person can live for years going through a sporadic patterns of spiritual peaks and valleys, in which he or she will make progress towards Christlikeness only to take a few steps backward toward the old self.
However, after a heavy spiritual experience, which may take the form of strong biblical teaching, a “second work of grace” catapults the person to a state of Christian perfection, also known as “entire sanctification”. A person in this state is considered sinless. The Wesleyan view defines sin as a willful transgression of the known law of God. Any unintended transgression or a transgression about which the person was ignorant is considered a “mistake”, rather than a sin. After the second work of grace, the person will continue to make mistakes, but there will be no willful sins. Once this state is achieved, there is no more spiritual growth per se – the person just increases in good works.
2. The Keswick View
This view is also called the Higher Life or Deeper Life. Similar to the Wesleyan view, the Keswick view teaches that a person can spend much of life in an ongoing struggle against sin, characterized by many spiritual peaks and valleys. These peaks and valleys can come in the form of a spiritual high obtained at a Christian camp or revival followed by the waning of that spiritual excitement. At the next spiritual event, the person “rededicates” his or her life and the cycles goes on and on.
Finally, a super spiritual experience leads the believer to a unique commitment or enlightenment in which the person yields and surrenders his whole life to the Lord. This experience occasionally will be expressed by “He was my Savior, but now He’s also my Lord.” This view is also associated with the phrase “let go and let God.” This surrender effectively let’s go of the struggle with sin and allows God to do all the heavy lifting of sanctification, so that dramatic spiritual growth takes place, and the spiritual peaks and valleys are significantly smaller and generally trend upward. The person is still capable of sin, but there is no longer an intense struggle with sin.
3. Biblical Progressive Sanctification
This view is also referred to as the Reformed View. Biblical Progressive Sanctification teaches that sanctification is a lifelong cycle of sin, repentance, renewal, and growth that is only completed when we go to be with the Lord (Rom 6-8). It is accomplished through the believer’s active, intentional discipline of himself, trusting that the Holy Spirit is empowering his efforts (Phil 2:12-13). In other words, the believer works and the Holy Spirit works. There is no singular experience by which the person is catapulted to a higher level of sanctification. There is simply a slow, methodical upward trend to Christlikeness.
Like the Keswick view, there is a surrender to God. However, this surrender is not a one time thing, but takes place repeatedly in the daily decision to yield to God’s revealed will. Then the believer determines to walk in obedience, trusting in the Holy Spirit’s power.
While I think most of us at PBF would say that we hold the Biblical Progressive Sanctification view, it is possible that we are living our lives according to the other two views. When we wait for some super spiritual experience to take away our strong desires for sin and remove the need for habitual self-discipline, we are living according to both the Wesleyan and Keswick views. But 1 Tim 4:7b says, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness (NAS). There is no Scriptural evidence that during this life our struggle with sin will be anything less than a struggle. The Christian life is to be one of discipline and effort.
There is another way in which we practice something different than what we say we believe. What do we typically do when we want to overcome a certain sin? We pray about it. Certainly that is important, but if that is all we do, we are practicing a “let go and let God” theology. Phil 2:12-13 tells us …work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Work! We’ve got to actually do something. We’ve got take action against our sin rather than expecting prayer alone to fix the problem. We must struggle with sin.
Another way in which we show a practical belief in Wesleyan sanctification is in how we view sin in our lives. We have problem calling sin sin. We fail to call it what it is and we rarely confess it as sin. How many times do we sin in one day? How many times do we confess it? We may deny it, but we live as if our sin is more akin to a Wesleyan “mistake”. That may be why we don’t seem to progress more than we do in our struggle against sin. If we don’t recognize it for what it is, how can we war against it?
1 John 1:9 says, If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. This is not true only at conversion. Our sin after we are saved still interrupts our fellowship with God. We are to continually confess our sin to God so as to maintain a right relationship with Him.
We also practice a “let go and let God” Keswick mentality when we think that the mere intake of Biblical teaching alone without our practicing it will change us. We can listen to great sermons and Bible lessons 24 hours a day, but it will do us no good if we do not then obey what we have heard. James warns us against being merely hearers of the Word and not doers of the Word (1:22). If we listen without obeying, we are deceiving ourselves. We think we are growing spiritually, but the only thing growing is our pride (1 Cor 8:1).
Our response to any biblical preaching should be to ask ourselves, “what do I need to do in response to this truth? What needs to change in my life? What is my plan to apply this?” One good sermon with that kind of response is far better than 100 sermons with no response at all.
Let’s approach sanctification understanding that it is a lifelong struggle with sin. It requires us to recognize sin for what it is, to confess it as sin, and to act against it. We must exert effort in our war against sin, trusting in the Holy Spirit to empower us for obedience.
Next week, we’ll begin to look at how to kill sin in our lives.