If you talk to any Christian who has a biblical understanding of the doctrine of salvation, they will tell you that a saved person is a regenerate person. To be regenerate means that we are given life. This is what God does in the elect when he illuminates us to the truth of the gospel and puts faith and life in a recalcitrant corpse. They might then go on to say that it is this new life that enables the believer to obey God’s truth and work in step with the Spirit as we grow in holiness. In this way they might say that justification (being made right with God through faith in Christ) is a work that is all of God and all of grace, but sanctification (growing in holiness) is a work of the regenerate believer in step with God.
We might immediately find reason to agree with this. After all, Peter wrote, “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.” (2 Pet 1:5-7). At first glance we might look at a verse like this and agree with the statement that sanctification is a work of the regenerate believer as he/she “supplement’s faith” in step with God using it to grow us in holiness. Does this supplementing of faith necessitate attributing the believer with a partnering achievement in resulting sanctification? Is it not possible that the very supplementing is only possible through faith in the complete reliance and power of the Spirit? Was there any cooperative effort outside the power of the Spirit working in tandem so that he might sanctify? Perhaps other Scriptures will shed light on this.
These are deep questions that theologians have argued about through the centuries. Two passages that stubbornly hold me captive on this matter are Galatians 3:3 and Philippians 2:12-13. In Philippians 2:12, Paul talks about a salvation that the Philippians clearly already possess. He talks about working out that salvation in fear and trembling. “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.” Isolated from verse 13 we might again agree that the ongoing working out of our life as believers is a matter of our own effort. Verse 13 clarifies how this all happens. “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
In the Galatians passage, Paul’s main subject is justification by faith in Christ and not by works of the law. Even as Paul talks in the context of justification, he makes an extraordinary statement about our continuing life in the Spirit. “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). Paul was writing to a church who were being led astray by thoughts that they needed to add their own work of circumcision and law keeping to Christ in Justification. Even so, their ongoing confidence in the Christian life has nothing to do with their own ability. If this doesn’t at least point toward the process of sanctification I don’t know what does.
Why should we care about whether sanctification is God in tandem with the believer or the believer living by faith in the power of the Spirit? Isn’t it possible we all mean the same thing? Why is it worth chewing over? In both justification and sanctification, the mystery of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are equally present. For me, wording is important because it comes down to the issues of confidence and glory.
1. Paul seems to attribute confidence for both justification and sanctification to God in the same way. We are certainly called and responsible to repent and believe in Christ for Justification and yet we understand that we can only do so because of God’s grace alone. In this way we would all agree that justification is all of God and all of grace. In Sanctification there is again human responsibility to obey the imperatives of Scripture as we seek to grow in holiness. Surely we would also say that we cannot do so except by God and his grace. Why then are we not willing to say that sanctification is all of God and grace? Having begun by the Spirit are we now being perfected by the flesh? I think Paul is telling us that we cannot attribute human works in either situation. We rely completely on God for all including our ability to fulfill human responsibility. My confidence is in God alone in everything I think, say and do. At the very least this should make me more prayerful and reliant upon God and his word every day as I seek to live in Christ and in obedience to his word.
2. The second aspect is glory. There is never a situation where I can claim my own glory. We shut the door on this when it comes to justification, but should we not do the same for sanctification? Should we not again drop to our knees in utter praise both for God’s justifying grace and sanctifying grace in our life? He works in us both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Regardless of the debate about sanctification, I believe all orthodox Christians would agree that when we stand before God, we won’t be thanking ourselves for anything. Thank God for his sanctifying work in our life. Thank God that he both gives us a new nature through faith in Christ and equips us to live according to that nature through faith in Christ. He is always active in our life. That’s a thought worthy of daily consciousness.