Thursday, February 16, 2012

Progressive Sanctification - Are We Sanctified By Works?

The Debate

There is an ongoing sort of debate on the subject of so-called "Progressive Sanctification".

The usual question goes something like this:

"Is our Progressive Sanctification strictly accomplished by God (monergistic), or is our sanctification dependent on our own efforts and obedience (synergistic)?"

But is that really the right question?

A Typical Definition

Often "progressive sanctification" is not even defined by those who argue one side or the other.  But for our purposes here, Wayne Grudem's definition will do: 

"a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives" (of course that definition has the defect of including the work of both God AND man "by definition", but we can ignore that for the time being -- the key parts are "more free from sin" and "like Christ" in our actual lives).

First A Theory

Before making several observations below, let me propose a theory:

You know the old saying, "To a hammer, everything looks like a nail"?

Well my theory is that so-called Progressive Sanctification is a somewhat phony idea developed by Legalists.  To a Legalist, everything looks like SOMETHING TO DO! (something to obey, something to strive for, something to work at, or work for -- you get the idea).

Don't get me wrong, it's not that there IS nothing to do.  It's that DOING is not the Alpha nor the Omega, the beginning nor the end.  It's not the foundation, it's not the FOCUS.  Except to the Legalist.

The Legalist sees his mission (and more importantly YOURS!) as Progressive Sanctification, which he defines in his mind, if not on paper, as GETTING BETTER AND BETTER.  Or as he might also think of it,  BEING HOLIER, or where the rubber meets the road, WORKS, LAW, PERFORMANCE!  They are Law-oriented because that's how you measure performance.

He doesn't really grasp that the Alpha and Omega is the Lord Himself.  He Himself, and what He has already done, should be the FOCUS.

6 Observations

There are several problems with that essentially Legalistic view of Sanctification, as reflected in the following observations:

1) Our flesh cannot get better.  In Romans 7:18 Paul wrote, "For I know that NOTHING good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh..."  Your flesh cannot be improved.  Flesh is flesh, and spirit is spirit.

2) Our new nature, on the other hand cannot get better, because it has already been made new and perfect through regeneration.  We have been given a "new heart" (new nature, or new spirit), and not a defective one, which would be absurd.  This new spirit has been made "one spirit with Him" (1 Corinthians 6:17), such that when we "walk according to the Spirit" (i.e., the Holy Spirit), we also walk according to our own new spirit.

3) Those who deal with Sanctification by zeroing in on so-called "Progressive" Sanctification as the main point of Sanctification, are at best in Kindergarten.


Because a simple word-study of Sanctification will make it obvious that the PRIMARY EMPHASIS OF SCRIPTURE is on the fact that WE ARE ALREADY SANCTIFIED!  I don't want to belabor the point, but it's important, so I've listed some verses below that show not only that we are already sanctified, but that it's been done by God Himself!  Here are some relevant verses:

"SANCTIFY them in the truth; Your word is truth." - John 17:17

"so that He might SANCTIFY her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word," - Eph 5:26

"Therefore Jesus also, that He might SANCTIFY the people through His own blood," - Heb 13:12

"by the SANCTIFYING work of the Spirit," - 1 Pet 1:2

"which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are SANCTIFIED." - Acts 20:32

"that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been SANCTIFIED by faith in Me." - Acts 26:18

"SANCTIFIED by the Holy Spirit." - Rom 15:16

"to those who have been SANCTIFIED in Christ Jesus, saints by calling," - 1 Cor 1:2

"Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were SANCTIFIED, but you were justified" - 1 Cor 6:11

"For both He who SANCTIFIES and those who are SANCTIFIED are all from one Father;" - Heb 2:11

"By this will we have been SANCTIFIED through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." - Heb 10:10

"For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are SANCTIFIED." - Heb 10:14

"the blood of the covenant by which he was SANCTIFIED," - Heb 10:29

"But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in SANCTIFICATION," - Rom 6:22

"Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and SANCTIFICATION," - 1 Cor 1:30

"God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through SANCTIFICATION by the Spirit" - 2 Thess 2:13

Moreover, you will find that any verse referring to sanctification that has not yet been accomplished, is actually just referring to our APPROPRIATING what is already done, in such a way that we ACT outwardly like that which we already are inwardly in spirit.

For example, "Be holy" ("holy" is the same basic Greek word as "sanctified") doesn't mean you're not already holy.  You are.  "Be holy" simply means ACT in your behavior like what you already are in your spirit and in your relation to God.

4) To the degree that we "walk according to the Spirit", we will not "fulfill the lust of the flesh", but the fruit of the Spirit.

Conversely, to the degree that we "walk according to the flesh", we WILL fulfill the lust of the flesh, or what Galatians 5 calls the "works" of the flesh.

5) Now here's where it gets tricky and why teaching the "Progressive" concept can actually do a DIS-SERVICE to believers.  Simply this: a brand new believer can walk by the Spirit and exhibit the fruit of the Spirit to a lovely degree -- and a believer who has been saved for 60 years can "fall off the wagon", walk by the flesh, and exhibit the works of the flesh to an amazing degree, OUTWARDLY or INWARDLY.

A serious and honest discussion with an old Saint who has walked with the Lord for many years will reveal the truth -- that however they may have "progressed" in some ways, the flesh is still the flesh and the spirit is still the spirit.

And when that old Saint is honest, he will readily admit that he isn't "better" after all.

You may consider that sad, but you shouldn't.  It merely verifies the truth of Scripture that the new nature (spirit, heart) can't get better because it's already made new -- and the flesh can't get better, because there is no good in it.

6) Finally then, what CAN be changed, or improved, or made better?

The best way to answer that is from Romans 12:2, "BE TRANSFORMED BY THE RENEWING OF YOUR MIND".

Wonderful things happen when our minds are renewed by the Holy Spirit through His Word.

A Caution

But there's a big CAUTION here.  And this brings me full circle to the theory I started out with.  The Legalist tends to see everything in terms of WORKS or LAW.  They are Law-oriented because they are Performance-oriented.

And so here's the CAUTION -- Please get this:

If you renew your mind from the Scriptures with a Law or Rules or Performance orientation, you will actually be brainwashing yourself to quench the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Grace!  The Law actually becomes the very power of sin (1 Corinthians 15:56).

BUT -- if you renew your mind from the Scriptures with a GRACE orientation, you will be in step with the Spirit of Grace, and you will "be-being-filled" with the Holy Spirit, and you will facilitate communing with Jesus Christ, and you will facilitate walking by the Spirit, and thus facilitate "not fulfilling the lust of the flesh".

But here's a SUB-CAUTION:

This process can be fragile as you "progress".

The world, the flesh and the devil are continually seeking to deceive you; to pull you from the path of renewing your mind; to bring you into temporary "insanity"; to steal or cloud what you know, if only long enough to cause you to stray from the Word, and from prayer, and from Grace, and from gazing into the face of Jesus Christ.

Don't be discouraged.

"But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit." - 2 Corinthians 3:18

It's not "work to be better", though we "work out our salvation".  It's He who is at work in us both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12)

It's not "laboring and striving to be better", though "we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God" (1 Timothy 4:10).

"The man who has struggled to purify himself and has had nothing but repeated failures will experience real relief when he stops tinkering with his soul and looks away to the perfect One. While he looks at Christ, the very things he has so long been trying to do will be getting done within him. It will be God working in him to will and to do." - A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God

ADDENDUM (2/20/12):

Hoping it may shed some further light on the subject, here is a response I wrote to a friend in a recent conversation:
You wrote, "Grace saves & sanctifies. But in sanctification, grace is our teacher & we participate thru obedience (read Titus 2:12)."

1. Technically, of course, GOD saves and sanctifies (indeed He already has), BY Grace, but your point there is well taken.

2. It's not through OBEDIENCE that we "participate", it's through FAITH. Any so-called obedience that is not of faith is sin, even if it looks good (Rom. 14:23).

3. That FAITH by which we "progress" is a gift from God, by grace.

4. We are already sanctified, just as we are already holy (same Greek root). Many verses make this clear. Just do a word study of "sanctify", "sanctified", "holy", "holiness", etc.

5. Verses that SEEM to indicate a progressive or growing holiness or sanctification are merely calling for us to ACT like or BEHAVE like what we already are.

This is a foundational principle for interpreting the New Covenant: "here's what's already done -- now walk in it".

6. Sanctification is distinct from justification as Fabarez points out, but both are already accomplished! And both are worked out in our actions as we UNDERSTAND and APPROPRIATE the truth of what is ALREADY DONE! 

7. For example, we are already righteous, declared so by God Himself (Justification by Faith). 

But we don't always WALK righteously. The better we understand and appropriate the New Covenant truths, including Justification, the better we will ACT like what we already are. 

8. This is similar to Romans 6, where we are clearly told that we are "dead to sin". (You may say, "I sure don't FEEL dead to sin!") We are then told to "consider" ("reckon", "choose to believe") ourselves dead to sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:11). 

Why? First, because it's true. Second, because then we are more likely to ACT like it.

9. We are already Justified (declared righteous) -- now LIVE like it! We are already a new creation with a new heart -- now LIVE like it! We are already Sanctified (set apart, made holy). Now LIVE like it!

10. It's all done! Our "obedience" can add NOTHING to it. That's a form of Legalism. "Having BEGUN by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" -Gal. 3:3

11. We "participate" by our faith (resulting in obedience) in the same way that we "participate" in our salvation by faith. But as biblical Calvinists, we realize that such faith is itself only the result of God's Spirit in regeneration. Likewise the faith that brings our obedience is God "working in us both to will and to do for His good pleasure".

12. In my blog post ( I used the Norman Rockwell picture of the boy measuring the "progress" of his height for the purpose of showing that our holiness or sanctification cannot be measured as "progress" in that way.

No one can rightly say, "I'm more holy or sanctified than I used to be." A brand new believer can truly ACT more holy than a believer of 40 years. This means nothing, except that the grace of God is given to him to have the faith for such actions.

13. Having said that, HUMANLY SPEAKING, we do have what are sometimes called the "means" of Grace -- primarily the Word of God and prayer. 

As we properly involve ourselves in these, we renew our minds and may very well "progress" in our understanding and appropriation of WHAT IS ALREADY ACCOMPLISHED in the New Covenant -- and the result will tend to be that we walk by the Spirit more, and by the flesh less.

14. But we don't need to be more sanctified, any more than we need to be more justified, or more dead to sin, or more forgiven, or have more of a "new heart", or any other provision of the New Covenant.



Aussie John said...


Good stuff!

Love that Torrey quote!

Pastor B. said...

Terry - what is the best book, other than the Bible of course, that you have read on the subject posted about here?

Terry Rayburn said...

Thanks, John. BTW, it's a Tozer quote.

I know, you're just seeing if I'm paying attention :)

Terry Rayburn said...

Pastor B,

I'd rather avoid your question :)

But I gotta be honest...I don't think the book has yet been written that biblically spells out the issues.

Aside from theological "perfectionism" or "entire sanctificationists", Christendom is almost universal in it's passing on the tradition of "progressive sanctification" (I'll use "PS"). I stress "tradition", because I don't think most would come to such conclusions from the Scriptures except to the degree that they are influenced by legalism of one variety or another.

Whether it's argued that it's "monergistic" (PS is completely done by God and we are passive), or "synergistic" (PS is accomplished by God doing His part and us active in doing our part) -- the real question of whether sanctification is "progressive" at all is hardly ever even addressed.

Any believer is AT THIS MOMENT sanctifying themselves in the sense of appropriating the sanctification that has already been done by God, and setting themselves apart from the world in a communion with Christ (albeit imperfectly, but I think you know what I mean).

And any believer who has been a believer for a long time is capable AT THIS MOMENT to lapse into an unholy life for an hour, week, month, etc., their "progress" a shambles -- particularly if they take their eyes off of Christ AND WHAT HE HAS ALREADY DONE.

Having said that I don't think the book has been written, I do think Tullian's new book has some hope, though I haven't read it yet. This hope is based on some things he has recently preached and blogged about re sanctification.

Tullian has some credibility, because he's not a wild antinomian "gracer" who, like a Facebook friend I responded to the other day, said "God no longer has any issue with sin" (I pointed out the absurdity of the statement, saying that it gives Grace a bad name).

But Tullian, just this last Sunday, preached that our only contribution to applying sanctification to our current holiness of lifestyle is our "faith" -- but that even that "faith" is a gift from God.

This I would wholeheartedly agree with.

The other reason I have hope for Tullian's book is the attacks I've seen toward it, from those whom I'm convinced don't understand sanctification.

Anyway, I'm adding to my blog post an addendum of some comments I made to someone in a Twitter conversation, since I think it may shed some more light on the subject.

Terry Rayburn said...

Sorry, I forgot to mention the name of Tullian's new book.

It's Jesus + Nothing = Everything

Also, Pastor B, in the 5th paragraph of my comment to you...

"Any believer is AT THIS MOMENT sanctifying themselves..."

should have read:

"Any believer is AT THIS MOMENT capable of sanctifying themselves..."

Andy said...

Dear Terry,
I found your "Grace For Life" only a few days ago, when I used the keywords 'Did Charles Spurgeon preach Legalism?' or
'Was Charles Spurgeon a Legalist?' Your audio files and blog posts (and your wife's) have been nothing short of the greatest blessing to me in my entire LIFE. Indeed, you are facilitating God's GRACE FOR LIFE. I had been caught between the DEADNESS of Legalism and Satan's lies (which I now realise the primary lie of whom IS Legalism), for a very long time. While deep down I've known the truth of God's Grace (by Faith) the whole time, 'letting go,' 'giving up,' 'submitting,' to God's Grace is the most difficult thing to 'DO'. It's a vicious cycle, then, when we 'TRY' to let go, because in 'TRYING' we are DOING SOMETHING, when all we have to 'DO', as you point out, is BELIEVE and KNOW all the wonderful things that Christ has already finished for and in us. After all these years I'm really only now starting to get a handle on what the FAITH of Christ really is, thanks to you! This after all the Spurgeon and Bunyan, etc. I especially appreciate you pointing out how the Grace of the New Covenant of Christ is not widely publicised as is the Law, because of the fear that the sheep will run wild. I don't know that this is always a conscious or deliberate thing on the part of preachers who preach with a Legalistic bent, but a result of Satan's deceptions (and the traditions of men). Whichever way, the fear of running wild has certainly been in me. I see now that Legalism is really diametrically opposed to Grace by Faith in Christ. The 'worm theology' has been beating me up for many a year.
Since finding your site, God is giving me glimpses of the Grace I first knew at Regeneration, and I pray, and ask that you pray for me, that God will build me up in Faith and be the strength to cause me to WALK IN HIS SPIRIT of Grace, and not just be a hearer of the Word.
Please Terry and Michele, don't stop what you're doing. I'm sure you are not only a blessing to me, but many, many people. Your audio files are like gold dust: extremely EDIFYING. THANK YOU.

Love from Andy in Australia

Terry Rayburn said...


Thanks so much, brother. It's a wonderful journey we're on with the Lord.


Andy said...

Dear Terry,
Just popped by to thank you for helping me clear up the mess I was in regarding "worthy" or "worthiness" in your audio messages, especially since it is so fundamental to God's saving Grace. It's impossible to get a handle on while being fed, or feeding upon, a steady diet of "worm theology."
The Love of God that Jesus the God-man demonstrated on the Cross when He died for my sin (to satisfy the Justice of God) proves beyond all doubt that God Loves me ABOVE ANYTHING in His entire Creation. I am WORTH more to God than ANYTHING He has ever Created. I am not worthy of God's Salvation, which is why I am WORTH more to God than anything in His Creation: because He HAS DONE IT! He will never retract His Love of us, no matter what we do. His Love of us is Eternal, as He is Eternal. Sure, we slip up here and there but we need not fear running wild because His Grace (God is Grace; the Love of God) KEEPS us. Amazing wonder of wonders!
Thank you so, so much for your Blessing, Terry.

Love from Andy in Australia

Terry Rayburn said...

Well spoken, Andy.

Aussie John said...


It was I who wasn't taking notice. I have Tozers book, from which the quote came. Not sure how Torrey got into my comment.

Must be old age :)

Clark said...

So Nobody has ever written a good book on sanctification? Seriously? Terry, you said a lot of good helpful things in this blog, I appreciate them. I think its good to remind people that much of scripture refers to sanctification as past tense, accomplished work of Christ. I'm glad you also affirm that there is a such thing as sin.
It bothers me though, that you make being more Christ-like a result of wishful thinking. If that is incorrect please correct me, I'm just telling you what I got from your explanation.
So, now you have people afraid to read Spurgeon and Bunyan for their legalism? I'm thankful Tozer and Tchividjian are still OK.
But it also seems that you are the only one who truly understands these things.
Thats a little bit scary.

Terry Rayburn said...


Technically, I didn't say no one has written a good book on sanctification. What I said is no book that I know of has made the distinction between New Covenant sanctification (which is "done") and the so-called "progressive" sanctification, which implies that we get holier and holier as time goes on (a non-biblical concept -- and particularly that it is due to our own diligence, another non-biblical concept).

I don't believe I even mentioned Bunyan, but I don't lift up Spurgeon or Bunyan or anyone including myself as inerrant, so what's your real point. That we should not compare men's teaching against Scripture?

I notice, ironically, that you didn't even mention Scripture, let alone quote any. Should we not question men.

I will stand on this: question EVERYTHING and EVERYONE against Scripture, including me.

Your sarcasm re Tozer and Tullian, as well as your unfounded claims about me making people "afraid" to read Spurgeon and Bunyan are kind of silly.

They are just your own "spin", as opposed to your dealing with my actual points. I love you (sincerely). I hate spin.

Clark, brother, NEVER be afraid to compare what men (including me) teach against Scripture, no matter how exalted those men are in your eyes.

Sola Scriptura.

I'm 100% open to your correction on that basis.

Andy said...

I think Clark was referring to my reference to Spurgeon & Bunyan. I am in no wise saying that Spurgeon & Bunyan did not know the Grace of God, just that they were very heavy on the Legalism: the conviction of sin by the Law. They had a tendency to preach the Law BEFORE Grace. Perhaps 80% Law and 20% Grace. Such preaching can have a tendency to keep one in the pit of despair; the slough of despond.
Is it absolutely necessary in God's plan of Salvation to be convicted by the Law FIRST, before one can find Grace? Such preaching as Spurgeon & Bunyan had me believing it was so. And so I was led to believe that all those poor souls 'out there' in the world who had not been convicted by the Law as I had been, had no chance. I wondered how so many Christians could be enjoying the Peace of God's Grace apparently without having had the awful, crushing, conviction of the Law. I thought theirs must be a false peace, a false salvation, that they could not possibly know God's Grace.
I was being beaten incessantly (my choice) by Spurgeon's & Bunyan's predominantly 'worm theology' for a long time, when I entered the phrase 'Did Charles Spurgeon preach Legalism' into the Yahoo search engine. The result led me to Terry Rayburn's blog on Charles Spurgeon and depression. I thought that every one of Terry's hypotheses on Spurgeon were most likely 100% correct. Since then, Terry's blogs and audio messages have blessed me immensely. I'm certainly not on easy street, I'm still very much on the strait and narrow, but I've realised much of the error I was in. I knew I was in error, but I didn't know how. Terry has helped make things clear.
It's certainly not Terry who has made me fearful of Spurgeon & Bunyan. I already had reservations before finding Terry's website. Even now I think fearful is too strong a word; probably cautious or wary might be better. And I won't be going back to them anytime soon; but much later when new understanding might even help me see them in a different light. Again, I'm not saying Spurgeon or Bunyan didn't know the Grace of God, just that their style of preaching tended to keep my 'unhealthy'.

Cheers from Andy

michaeldkater said...

Thanks again for another great read Terry. This post explains a lot for me.
In a bible study a few years ago, we studied a book by J.C. Ryle called "Holiness". Now I understand why I had so much trouble keeping up in that study.
Michael D Kaster

Terry Rayburn said...

Thanks, Michael. I sure know what you mean :)