The third view of sanctification that will be examined is the Reformed view. In this view, sanctification is “that gracious and continuous operation of the Holy Spirit, by which He delivers the justified sinner from the pollution of sin, renews his whole nature in the image of God, and enables him to perform good works.” The Reformed view includes several different elements. First, sanctification is related to but distinct from justification, and is dependant upon “other steps [in the order of salvation] such as effectual calling, regeneration, justification, and adoption. All of these bear intimately upon sanctification.” While justification is a one-time event, sanctification includes both a definitive and progressive aspect. Definitive sanctification is a moral change in which Christians are set free from the power of sin and have become new creatures, with new desires of the things of the Spirit rather than things of the flesh. Progressive sanctification is the process for the Christian of being renewed in the image of God and becoming more like Christ that continues throughout life, and is not completed until glorification. Since verses for these aspects have been given in the discussion of Lutheran sanctification, they will not be repeated here. Secondly, union with Christ is an essential element. Ferguson notes, “Two features are central to sanctification: Jesus Christ himself is our sanctification or holiness; and it is through union with Christ that sanctification is accomplished in us” (48).” Without being in union with Christ, change (in the biblical sense) cannot occur. Thirdly, unlike justification, both God and man cooperate in sanctification, and the Christian’s responsibility is to use the means that God has given him or her, including Scripture, prayer, church community, and the ordinances. Murray explains, “God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relationship strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction of co-ordination of both produced the required result. …the relationship is that because God works we work.” Fourthly, justification looks the same for all Christians, but sanctification has different results in some than in others.
One strength of the Reformed view of sanctification is that the imperatives and commands in Scripture are dealt with in a way that takes the text seriously. For example, Rom. 8:13 and Col. 3:5 speak of the putting to death the deeds of the body, while Col. 3:19 and Eph. 4:24 speak of putting on the new self. The Reformed view of sanctification does not see these verses as “remembering justification,” or waiting for a second experience of the Holy Spirit to help, but rather as what Christians are to actually be doing by the power of the Holy Spirit. In Matt. 5:29, where believers are to take radical measure in fighting sin such as, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away,” the Reformed view sees these verses as having real meaning (symbolic-not literal), and would call Christians to practical and active fight against sin rather than a passive waiting upon God. In Phil. 3:17 and 4:9, Paul has no problem with telling the Philippians to imitate and follow his example and teaching. Hansen points out here that, “Paul’s command [4:9], put into practice, challenges his readers to move beyond contemplation to action. The imperative calls for them to ‘bring about or accomplish something through activity. The time has come to get out of the chair of theoretical reflection about Christ and the Christian life and press on towards the goal.” The Scripture then calls for believers to do more than “remember their justification.” The Christian and his or her whole being are actively involved in the change process.
A second strength of the Reformed view of sanctification is that sanctification is shown to affect the whole person, and not just a part. Colossians 3:10, Phil. 1:9, and Rom. 12:2 each speak of the mind and knowledge being renewed, a process rather than an instantaneous event. Related to these verses, 2 Cor. 10:5 also gives encouragement to take thoughts captive, which is an active rather than passive process. Besides the mind, other parts are to be sanctified as well, such as the emotions. Grudem writes, “growth in sanctification will affect our emotions. We will see increasingly in our lives emotions such as ‘love, joy, peace, patience.’” The will (Phil. 2:13), spirit (2 Cor. 7:1), and physical body (Rom. 6:4; 1 Thess. 5:23) are all to be changed to be more like Christ.
A third strength is that the texts that speak of God’s work in sanctification and the texts that speak of the Christian’s work are both taken into account. The Reformed view of sanctification emphasizes that both God and man work together, so that texts that refer to both aspects are reconciled in a way that is most faithful to Scripture. Texts such as Heb. 13:20-21; 1 Thess. 5:23; and Phil. 2:13 emphasize God’s role in sanctification, while texts like Phil. 2:12; Rom. 12:1; Heb. 12:1, and Col. 1:29 show the Christian’s role. When both these aspects are properly understood, then there is no need to explain away passages for fear of undercutting grace. As a result, real change in the life of the Christian can happen because they are not neglecting the aspect of Scripture that shows God’s work, nor the aspect of Scripture that shows their part. In terms of the role that the Christian plays in sanctification, it is not a “grit it out by one’s own power” kind of role. Both a passive and active aspect is involved. In the passive role, Christians are to “trust God or to pray and ask that he sanctify us.” This is not a “let go and let God” approach, but rather a diligent seeking of God’s grace and help to change and become more like Christ. In the active role, Christians specifically put off sinful actions, thoughts, etc. and put on righteous actions, thoughts, etc. Jesus does not obey for Christians, but rather Christians obeys Jesus by the grace that he has given them to do so. Philippians 2:12-13 shows this relationship, where Paul says “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, 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.” On this passage, Hansen notes:
God’s working in believers precedes and empowers their work, but it does not obviate the
need for their work. Paul is not telling Christians to ‘let go and let God’ or ‘get out of God’s
way so God can do it.’ Such slogans for the Christian life express a passivism not
consonant with Paul’s call to the persistent obedience of working out salvation in the life of
the church. Nor is Paul advocating a God of the gaps: ‘Go as far as you can, then leave the
rest for God’ or ‘God helps those who help themselves.’
A fourth strength of the Reformed view of sanctification is the emphasis on the means that God uses in the sanctification process. Without community in the local church, God’s Word, prayer, and spiritual disciplines, the sanctification process will not be as effective or fruitful as it could be. Scripture is rich in describing these various aspects like prayer, reading God’s Word, and fellowship, and clearly calls God’s people to use these means (cf. Heb. 10:25).
From the practical aspect, the Reformed view of sanctification has the strength of helping Ernie truly change in his struggle of lustful thoughts. While Ernie would be reminded that he is a new creation, has been justified, and has been definitively sanctified so that he is no longer a slave to sin, Ernie would also be helped, in practical and specific ways, to deal with the lustful thoughts. For instance, Ernie would be helped to remember his position in Christ, but also to replace his lustful thoughts and desires with ones that glorify God instead. Ernie would be instructed to make changes in regards to the things he looks at or thinks about (“putting off”), repent where he has sinned against God, and helped to “put on” new thoughts, actions, and desires. For Ernie, this will be much more than simply praying that his lustful thoughts will be taken away by an “experience” or by a mere remembrance of his justification, although prayer will be involved. Sin will be called sin, and effort will be demanded of Ernie. In all this, Ernie will be pointed to the grace of Christ that enables him to follow and obey Christ. Ernie will also be reminded that sanctification is a lifetime process, and that he should not expect that his lustful heart will be changed instantly. In the change process, Ernie will be encouraged to participate in fellowship with a local church, meditate and feed on God’s Word, and pray for God’s grace to help him.
Despite the strengths of the Reformed view of sanctification, it is not without challenges or supposed weaknesses. Many challenges have been made against the Reformed position, and some of these have been addressed throughout the paper under the weaknesses of the Lutheran and Wesleyan views of sanctification. They will not be repeated in this section since they have been addressed earlier, however, two more challenges will be discussed here. One misunderstanding that can occur in the Reformed view happens when either God’s part or man’s part in sanctification is overemphasized or underemphasized. An overemphasis in the role of the Christian can elevate human works and minimize the necessity of grace, thus leading to legalism and a false sense of sanctification, thus undercutting the gospel. On the other hand, an overemphasis on God’s role can lead to spiritual apathy and frustration when change does not occur as it is thought that it should. Rather than dismissing the Reformed view on the grounds that this relationship is too complex and subject to misuse, the totality of Scripture regarding sanctification that shows God’s role and the Christian’s roles should be correctly emphasized and explained. For example, preachers or counselor should not be afraid to tell others to “do” what Scripture commands, but at the same time, must ground those commands in the power Christ gives to obey so that moralism is avoided.
A second challenge to the Reformed position is the idea that allows that sanctification can be completed in this life, in that Christians reach the stage of perfect love and maturity. The Reformed view, however, argues that sanctification will not be complete in this life. Those who argue for completed sanctification use 1 Thess. 5:23, which says, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This prayer does not say that the Thessalonians have been sanctified completely (that is only inferred by those who argue for completed sanctification), but rather asks God to continue working in them, so that when the Lord returns, they will be without blame (or faithful). This interpretation does not minimize the power and work of the Lord in believers in their sanctification, but recognizes the implications on sanctification that the Day of the Lord has. On this verse, Gary Shogren points out that, “It is theologically important to note that sanctification includes both the outer and inner person. As in 2 Cor. 7:1, Paul asks for the sanctification of the physical person; sin may also infect the inner person, whether termed soul or spirit. This truth overturns the misapplied Platonism that said the works of the body are not important…It also short-circuits the notion that the spirit is completely sanctified in this life.” Both Phil. 3:12-13 and 2 Cor. 3:18 can be used to show that sanctification in not complete in this life. Philippians 3:12-13 says, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” Hansen explains:
Although this is the only time that the verb ‘become perfect’ is found in Paul’s letters, the cognate adjective ‘perfect’ occurs seven times with a range of meanings. The adjective means ‘meeting the highest standard’ of goodness and virtue, ‘being mature, full grown,’ ‘being fully developed in a moral sense,’ and ‘being a cult initiate.’ The use of the adjective in 1 Corinthians 13:10 points to the future when ‘the perfect comes and what is in part disappears.’ In that context, Paul contrasts the present imperfection and the future perfection. This contrast comes very close to the point of Paul’s denial that he has ‘already become perfect’ in Philippians 3:12: precisely because he has not yet already fully grasped Chris, he has not already become perfect. Only when he sees Christ face to face will he be totally transformed by Christ’s power to be like him....Until then, he honestly admits his imperfections.
In short, Scripture presents sanctification as a process not being completed until the Day of the Lord. Christians are being changed from one degree of glory to another throughout life, and are waiting the day when they will like Christ. 1 John 3:2 says, “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” This is a future aspect, with present implications in living a life that puts off sin and puts on righteousness.
In conclusion, while both the Lutheran and Wesleyan views of sanctification have certain strengths, the Reformed view of sanctification best presents the biblical view of sanctification. Sanctification does involve effort on the Christians’ part and must be distinguished from justification. Sanctification is not an instantaneous event, and occurs over the lifetime of the Christian. To most effectively help Ernie and others like him, counselors should counsel using the Reformed view of sanctification.
Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 532.
John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 141.
Murray, Redemption, 148. See also Grudem’s explanation on the appropriateness of saying that both
God and man cooperate in sanctification in Grudem, Systematic Theology, 753.
See Grudem, Systematic Theology, 747.
G. Walter Hansen, The Letter to the Philippians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 300.
Grudem, Systematic Theology, 756.
Grudem, Systematic Theology, 754.
Hansen, Letter to the Philippians, 177.
Gary S. Shogren, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: 1&2 Thessalonians, ed.
Clinton E. Arnold (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 234.
Hansen, Letter to the Philippians, 251.