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Sanctification: Definitive, Progressive, Eschatological

Sanctification: Definitive, Progressive, Eschatological

By Bruce Atkinson PhD
Special to Virtueonline
January 6, 2015

In our present study of sanctification, we first need an understanding of the word. We will start with a dictionary definition of sanc•ti•fy:
1. To set apart for sacred use; consecrate.
2. To make holy; purify.
3. To give religious, moral, or social sanction to a person, place, thing, or activity.
4. To produce holiness or spiritual blessing in a person.

The word 'sanctification' occurs five times in the King James Version of the New Testament (1 Cor. 1:30; 1 Thess. 4:3,4; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2), translated from the Greek word αγιασμος, from the root άγιος which means holy or sacred. It happens when God makes someone or something holy, setting them apart for a special, divine purpose. In Christian theology, sanctification is something only God can do. All of the elect children of God are sanctified.

In John's gospel, chapter 17, we hear Jesus explain the primary means of sanctification as He prays for His disciples: "I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified" (John 17:14-19).

All believers enter into this state when they are born again from above. "And by that [divine] will, we have been made holy [sanctified] through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Hebrews 10:10). Sanctification is a state of separation unto God and from the world and sometimes even from other people for divine purposes. Although the sanctified are unified with Christ, that also means "in the world but not of it."

Jesus set Himself apart (sanctified) for the purpose for which He was sent to earth. Likewise, His sanctification makes ours possible because we too are now sent into the world by Him. As John 17 makes clear, the sending and the sanctifying are inseparable.

As part of his own definitive sanctification on the Damascus Road, the Lord called Paul and sent him "to open [the Gentiles'] eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me [Christ]"(Acts 26:18). Note that the hearers would be sanctified in turn by their own divine call (faith in Christ) as a result of Paul's words. The truth of the gospel and the resulting faith is what sanctifies those who "have ears to hear."

Theologian John M. Frame's Systematic Theology (2013, with a Forward by J.I. Packer) addresses sanctification (p. 986-988) like two sides of the same coin, juxtaposing the "definitive" with the "progressive" aspects of sanctification.


Definitive sanctification is a once and for all event that breaks our bondage/slavery to sin and transfers us from the sphere of sin by being "crucified with Christ" to the sphere of God's holiness, or living by faith in Christ. We suddenly "belong to Christ" through our redemption and by our believing in the efficacy of what He accomplished at the Cross in our place. In a definitive event, we are born-again and adopted as children of God. Thus, through the historical past event of the Cross and then through the definitive events of our first faith and baptism, we can say that we are justified, saved, and regenerated. The seed of the Spirit has been planted. This is the "already" of the "already but not yet" reality of salvation.

But the "not yet" is very real as well. The Kingdom of God has entered into the world but it has yet to be fully realized. As for each of us, we are not yet fully mature or perfected. We have yet to physically die, to fully enter the heavenlies, and to receive a resurrected body like that of Jesus. But for the elect of God, these future events are a foregone conclusion.


Definitive sanctification is contrasted by Professor Frame with "progressive sanctification" which may be defined as the continuing work of God in us, a process in which He calls us to cooperate. This second usage of the word sanctification is probably the most common; it means the process of spiritual growth toward maturation in Christ. J.W. Hayes, Anglican priest and theologian, put it this way (1924): "It is the alteration of heart and affection from the desire of sin to holiness, the gradual renovation of our nature by the abiding influence of the Holy Spirit if we submit; and, it must be remembered that God only sanctifies those that are already justified."

The process requires our battling the world, the flesh, and the devil, and ultimately triumphing over them (through the Word of God, faith, and the power of the Holy Spirit). It recognizes that temptations and even sin will not be totally absent from our lives but that our hearts no longer really want to sin. Therefore, we gradually progress toward Christlikeness as we continue to "reckon" ourselves dead to sin and alive to Christ, and as we live in His Word and Presence. Progressive sanctification also refers to the practical produce of this process such that God's work in us results in our "bearing much fruit" (John 15: 4,8).

Dr. Frame clarifies with abundant scripture references: "So sanctification is not only a past event, but also an ongoing process. It begins in regeneration, and we can think of sanctification as the outworking of the new life given in regeneration. In that ongoing process, God works in us (1 Thess. 5:23; Heb. 13:20-21) but he also calls us to work out our own salvation (Phil 2:12-13). It is all of God, for all things are of God. Sanctification is a work of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:16-18, 22-23; 2 Thess. 2;13; 1 Peter 1:2) on the basis of Christ, who is our sanctification (1 Cor 1:30). So as we see ourselves growing in grace, we should thank and praise God. It is by his grace that we are able to grow at all. [John 15]

"Nevertheless, we should not wait passively for God to sanctify us... so [we have] the paradox: "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" (Phil 2;12b-13). God does it all, but he does it (as he often does) by the use of human effort (cf. 2 Peter 1: 5-11).

"Just as God told the children of Israel in Exodus 19 that they were already his holy people, but also commanded them to be holy as he is holy in Leviticus 19, so in definitive sanctification he tells us that we are his holy people, and then he commands us in progressive sanctification to become holy as he is holy.

"So, as in many other contexts, divine sovereignty and human responsibility are not opposed. The former works through the latter (as well as sometimes working above and beyond it). The latter [human responsibility] always depends on the former [divine sovereignty]. But our role in sanctification is never passive. [As Paul teaches] our work is to fight, to run the race, to pursue holiness."

And as Jesus himself taught, we must pick up our cross and follow him... to die to self... and then we can expect to be resurrected. J.I. Packer reminds us: "God's method of [progressive] sanctification is neither activism (self-reliant activity) nor apathy (God-reliant passivity), but God-dependent effort (2 Cor. 7:1; Phil 3:10-14; Heb. 12:14). Knowing that without Christ's enabling we can do nothing (morally speaking) as we should and that he is ready to strengthen us for all that we have to do (Phil 4:13), we "stay put" (remain, abide) in Christ, asking for his help constantly-- and we receive it (Col 1:11; 1 Tim 1:12; 2 Tim 1:7, 2;1)."

Professor Frame continues: "God does not give his commands in Scripture merely as occasions for repentance, or even as occasions to turn to the cross. He gives his commands for us to obey. So Scripture commands us to yield our lives to God (Rom 6:19; Phil 3:13-14; Col 3:10; Heb 12:1), to strive for holiness (Rom 8:13; 2 Cor 7:1; 1 Thes 4:3; Heb 12:14; 1 Pet 1:15; 2 Pet 1:5; 1 John 3:3), to don the whole armor of God in order to fight against Satan (Eph 6:10-20) and to put to death our sinful dispositions (Rom 8:13; Col 3:5). We can win this battle, not by the [physical] sword, but by truth, righteousness, the gospel, faith, salvation. Our only offensive weapons are the Word of God and prayer...[and] God's weapons are more powerful than anything in the mockers' arsenal."


The word sanctification in Scripture is also referred to in a third sense which is future-oriented and eschatological. In this sense, not only are we sanctified, we are glorified. Paul told the Colossians of "the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel (1:5). God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory" (1:27) and "when Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (3:4). This glorified state will be our ultimate separation from sin, our being totally sanctified in every aspect. John writes: "... now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2).

To summarize our understanding of 'sanctification', we can say that it is a separation from the mundane for divine purposes. For Christians, first and definitive, it means a separation from sin and the world "into Christ" at our salvation (first faith, baptism). For the elect of God, it is instant, positional, and permanent. Second, there is a progressive and practical holiness which develops in the believer's life. Third, ultimately we will be changed into His perfect likeness -- holy, sanctified, and glorified ... and completely separated from the presence and influence of evil and its consequences (temptation, suffering, death).


Sanctification all starts and ends with knowledge of God. "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (John 17:3). So, of all the things we pray for, knowledge and understanding of God (through an intimate relationship with Christ) should be at the top of our list. Paul writes: "... I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord ... I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead" (Philippians 3:7-11).

Remember again what Jesus prayed for his disciples: "Sanctify them by the truth; your Word is truth" (John 17:17). "The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life" (John 6:63). If we want to know Christ, we must immerse ourselves in His words and in all of the scriptures.

Paul taught: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Romans 12:2). Scripture can 'program' our souls with the mind of Christ: "We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. 'For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?' ... But we have the mind of Christ" (1 Cor 2:12, 16). As Jesus said, "All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you (John 14:25-26)... when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth..." (John 16:13). We have the Holy Spirit within to interpret the scriptures as needed and He instructs us as we prayerfully interact with Scripture, truly making God's words a part of who we are and re-charging our spiritual batteries.


Sanctification is about God's faithfulness, His commitment to us. Only God has the power to get us to our divine destination; we just need to keep saying "yes" to Him, submitting to His will on a daily basis, and perceiving our old selfish selves to be crucified with Christ on the cross. The Lord does the sanctifying, causing us to become holy, mature, and at the end, perfect. As we experience the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) and as our lives reflect obedient service, we have the encouraging confirmation that He is working in us toward the ultimate destiny of being with Him forever in glory.


Frame, John M. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Forward by J. I. Packer. P & R Publishing, 2013.

Hayes, J. W. Five Fundamentals of the Faith. [Anglican doctrine], Church Society, The Church Book Room 1924. See the second fundamental: "Sanctification."
Packer, J. I. Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs. Tyndale House, 1993.

Dr. Atkinson is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with a doctorate in clinical psychology and an M.A. in theology. He is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Atlanta and also works as a clinical supervisor training Christian counselors for Richmont Graduate University. He is a founding member of Trinity Anglican Church (ACNA) in Douglasville, Georgia

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