Possessed By God

Different perspectives on sanctification and holiness have been adopted by Christians over the centuries.  For example, M. E. Dieter, A. A. Hoekema, S. M. Horton, J. Robertson McQuilkin, S. F. Walvoord, Five Views on Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1987) reveal the Wesleyan, Reformed, Pentecostal, Keswick and Augustinian-Dispensational approaches. D. L. Alexander (ed.), Christian Spirituality Five Views of Sanctification (Downers Grove: IVP, 1988) deals with the Lutheran, Reformed, Wesleyan, Pentecostal and Contemplative views.

Each position is critiqued by contributors from other traditions.  A fruitful dialogue is set up, in which points of agreement and disagreement are made clear.  Such books provide an excellent introduction to the subject, but suggest that, if any advance is to be made, there is more work to be done at the level of biblical interpretation.

A major failing of many treatments of this subject has been the lack of a thorough and systematic investigation of the relevant terms and their use in Scripture. The Bible has been used selectively in much of the literature on this subject.  So the teaching of Hebrews on sanctification is often ignored, though the writer’s exhortation to pursue the holiness ‘without which no one will see the Lord’ (12:14) is given great prominence.  Without explanation or reason, certain texts in the letters of Paul are also given much greater attention than others.  The assumption is generally made that sanctification is simply the process by which we become more and more holy.

In Systematic Theology, sanctification has become the basket into which every theme related to Christian life and growth has been placed.  Anthony Hoekema (Saved by Grace [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Exeter: Paternoster, 1989], 192) typically defines it as ‘that gracious operation of the Holy Spirit, involving our responsible participation, by which he delivers us from the pollution of sin, renews our entire nature according to the image of God, and enables us to live lives that are pleasing to him.’

In Possessed by God: a New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness (New Studies in Biblical Theology 1 [ed. D. A. Carson]; Leicester: Apollos; Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1995), I argue that this is an inadequate definition.  It obscures the distinctive meaning and value of the terminology in the New Testament, confusing sanctification with renewal and transformation.

Theologians are clearly bound to show how the doctrines of regeneration and renewal, justification and sanctification, spiritual growth and glorification, relate to one another.  But this can only be done in a satisfactory way when the particular contribution of each theme is isolated and understood in its biblical dimensions.

The foundational importance of definitive sanctification


6 thoughts on “Possessed By God

  1. Darin Lund

    Dear Mr. Peterson,

    Recently I finished reading your book Possessed by God; I thoroughly enjoyed it and really had a paradigm shift in my thinking about holiness, sanctification, etc. Thank you so much for blessing the Body of Christ with this work!

    In your book, I noticed that you never explicitly elaborated upon the idea of “indwelling sin”. Is the idea of “indwelling sin” a helpful and/or Biblical category to use? and if so, what does “indwelling sin” exactly mean?

    Also, is it Biblical for Christians to think of themselves as having a “sin nature”? I believe the NIV translates it this way while this phrase is translated “flesh” in the ESV in Romans 6-7; which you explain and elaborate on.

    Finally, as a Christian, made new with the indwelling Holy Spirit, and all the blessing that come with our union with Christ, what is the ultimate reason we still sin?

    Thanks again Mr. Peterson for you very helpful book! I hope my questions were clear and look forward to hearing what you think.


    – Darin


    1. Darin, I am sorry it has taken me so long to reply to your comment. I don’t check my website often enough!’Indwelling sin’ is mentioned in Romans 7:17 (‘sin living in me’). ‘Flesh’ (sarx) is the term mostly used by the apostle Paul and this has a variety of applications from fairly neutral (Gal. 2:20, ‘in the body’) to negative (Gal. 5:16, ‘the desires of the flesh’). But in Romans 7:8-25 sin is personified as a force at work in believers and this is closely related to the flesh in 7:18. Of course, there has been much debate about whether these verses apply to the Christian who is no longer ‘in the flesh’, as a controlling force, but ‘in the Spirit’ (Rom. 7:4-6). But I have expressed myself on this subject in ‘Possessed by God’ (pp. 105-109). Paul teaches that sin came into the world because of Adam’s disobedience (Rom. 5:12-14), but Christ’s righteous act resulted in the possibility of justification and life (5:15-21). Although we are free from the condemnation and demands of the Law as Christians, we still have to do battle with the flesh in the power of the Spirit (Gal. 5:13-26). Sin remains as a predisposition or tendency that is closely linked with the flesh. James 1:14-15 substitutes ‘desire’ (epithymia) for flesh in saying, ‘each person is emptied when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.’ I hope this helps. David.


  2. Dr. Peterson,

    I am currently reading through Possessed by God, and have been very helpfully challenged by it. Admittedly, I am not all the way through the book, so I apologize if this question gets answered later in the work.

    At the end of chapter 2 (p47), you draw out the implication that “Our essential identity as Christians is formed by Christ and the gospel, not by our own personalities, backgrounds, or achievements.” This is a great statement and a hope-filled view of our life in Christ.

    But one question remained in my mind as I read that sentence. How does our definitive sanctification, and therefore our identity essentially being in Christ, relate to our ethnic and cultural backgrounds? Much has been made over the last year in the importance of retaining our ethnic and cultural heritage in the church. Would you agree with that emphasis? Or does our ‘essential identity in Christ’ mean that we should not emphasize our ethnic and cultural background as much in the church today?

    Would love your thoughts on this or any direction you would have for me. Thank you!


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