When I first began serious study of Hebrews, I was surprised to learn that its  perspective on sanctification was different from commonly held views: Jesus accomplished the sanctification of his people in his sacrificial death (10:10, 29; 13:12). Although the writer encourages his readers to ‘pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord’ (12:14 NRSV), that is not the main thrust of his teaching about sanctification.

Exploring the rest of the New Testament, I discovered that there were other important expressions of what is called ‘positional sanctification’ or ‘definitive sanctification’ (e.g. Acts 20:32; 26:18; 1 Cor. 1:2, 30; 6:11; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 12). I found an article by John Murray (Collected Writings [Carlisle PA; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977], 277-93) that helped me think through through these issues more carefully, and began to question the relationship between positional sanctification and the challenges of the New Testament to be holy or to pursue holiness.

At the same time, I was confronted by a number of pastoral situations in which Christians were lacking assurance of their relationship with God. They were driven by a desire to ‘become more holy’ that was not being realised in their experience. They were overwhelmed by sin and failure. The teaching they had received about progressive sanctification was not related in any way to New Testament perspectives on sanctification in Christ.

When I was invited to give  the Annual Moore College Lectures in 1994, I took the opportunity to work on these issues. Exegeting key New Testament passages in the light of biblical theological teaching, I sought to challenge a variety of approaches taken by writers in the field of Systematic and Pastoral Theology. Subsequently, my work was published as Possessed by God, the first in a series called ‘New Studies in Biblical Theology’, edited by D. A. Carson. Note also my article on ‘Sanctification’  in T. D. Alexander & B. S. Rosner (ed.), New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Leicester: IVP, 2000).

There were a number of encouraging reviews of my book. But several reviewers indicated that sanctification in their denominational contexts or theological traditions is configured in ways that are beyond dispute. I have been disappointed that people holding different views from my own have not entered into any serious debate with the position I have argued.

Recently, however, James M. Howard has written Paul, the Community, and Progressive Sanctification: an Exploration into Community-Based Transformation within Pauline Theology (Studies in Biblical Literature 90; New York: Lang, 2007). He stresses that the believing community is an essential part of an individual’s spiritual formation, interacting with my own work and that of others in the field. I look forward to reading this book and writing a review for this website.


7 thoughts on “Sanctification

  1. D Camp

    I certainly agree that there is a strong, if not predominant, element of definitive sanctification in the NT. But some are saying you deny a progressive element as well. Seems pretty clear that there are both; both who we are in Christ, as well as what we are becoming as a more faithful or consistent reflection of His character.


    1. I certainly agree that there is a progressive element in NT teaching about our relationship with Christ. I have expressed this in Possessed by God chapters 4-6 and more fully in my book Transformed by God. But the terminology of sanctification is not used in this connection, as it is in Systematic Theology. Other terms such as transformation, renewal, and growth are used in the NT. It is important to employ the terminology as Scripture does because of the OT background to NT usage and because the definitive or positional meaning of sanctification is so easily obscured or lost. More positively, the challenge is to work out how a clear understanding of definitive sanctification is an empowerment for godly living and Christ-likeness.


      1. D Camp

        Appreciate the comment. But it seems to me that the broader semantic context of sanctification/holiness as it applies to the progress of Christ likeness is reflected in the NT in places like Roman 6:22, 2 Cor 7:1, and 2 Tim 2:21.


  2. The critical question is this: what language is used in the NT to describe our growth our maturation in Christ and how is this related to the definitive sanctification accomplished for us in Christ? There is a moral expression of holiness demanded of those who are already ‘saints’ in Christ, and as we respond to the challenge of passages like Colossians 3:5-15 God works in us the transformation he desires.


  3. Zack

    I think scripture encourages us to live out the sanctified life we already have in Christ rather than us trying to become or build on what Christ has already accomplished. We’re not building on the holiness we already have in Christ as we’re growing and maturing spiritually in God’s Truth. We are simply learning to live in what He has already accomplished and has provided for us through Grace. And so by Grace He reflects His Holy Character through me as I live by faith in Him. And Christ is the Author and Perfecter of my faith.


  4. Godliness is progressive; sanctification is not, it’s permanent. Christ has become my righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.m, thus I am set apart (sanctified) by His work, not my own. From this position, I live – I don’t live in order to arrive at my position.

    Love what you are teaching! Just discovered you!


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