Sanctification: A Process or an Experience? Part 1

archivedBy Dr. Dave Burggraff
First appeared at SI on July 20, 2005. Original article and discussion thread.


As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance. But as He which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all conversation; Because it is written, “Be ye holy; for I am holy.” (1 Pet. 1:14-16)

“I have found in many books many different ways of going to God and many different practices in living the spiritual life. I began to see that this was only confusing me…” (Brother Lawrence, seventeenth-century writer)

Visit your local Barnes & Noble bookstore, scan the shelves of a Christian bookstore in your city, or simply look at the covers of the past year’s Newsweek and Time magazines and you will see a resurgence of interest in “spirituality” within our Western culture and a renewal of interest in “Christian spirituality” amongst Christian believers. This has led Don Carson to point out that, “the current interest in spirituality is both salutary and frightening”—salutary because in its best forms this interest in spirituality is to be preferred over the philosophical materialism that governs the lives of so many people, frightening because “spirituality” has become such an ill-defined, amorphous entity that it covers all kinds of phenomena an earlier generation of Christians would have dismissed as error. Similarly Robert Rakestraw points out, there is a “crying need for a robust, Biblical theology of the Christian life that will refute and replace the plethora of false spiritualities plaguing Church and society.”

Over the past decade-and-a-half we have witnessed a flurry of popular writing and teaching on spiritual formation, and in that time evangelical theologians have authored a number of books advocating diverse and even divergent perspectives on the work of sanctification. Herein lies the confusion: at a time when the topic of sanctification generates enormous interest, which of the competing models—if one is even able to identify each of the competing models—best “fits” scripture? This study will briefly survey the multiple views of sanctification offered today, and then focus on the two views of greatest interest to us—the Reformed view (often associated with conventional Calvinism) and what for a lack of a better term might be called the Augustinian-Dispensationalist view.

The Difficulty in Discussing Sanctification

There is a good deal of confusion surrounding the doctrine of sanctification. I will focus on two problem areas: the problem of location and the problem of definition (i.e., the goal of sanctification).

The Problem of Location

In his discussion of sanctification, Steven Porter states that “the doctrine of sanctification is tricky.” Why? First, because we are faced with the question, Where does sanctification fit? Under Christian living, soteriology, Christology, pneumatology, etc.? The doctrine of sanctification is often one of the smallest chapters in our systematic theology textbooks. Typically this is because all of the main issues of sanctification are handled under other theological categories. Sanctification is a complex doctrine in that it is the culmination of conclusions reached in just about every other theological category. Nearly every one of the categories of systematic theology is engaged in the discussion of sanctification (e.g. theological anthropology, harmartiology, soteriology, Christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, etc.). Secondly, it is a doctrine about which thinkers in other disciplines besides theology have something to say (e.g. counselors, psychologists, etc.).

The Problem of Definition

All of us understand that sanctification refers to spiritual maturation from the time of regeneration to the time of glorification.

1. Terms from Scripture. What the righteousness of God is to justification the holiness of God is to sanctification. The Latin words from which the English words “sanctify” and “sanctification” are derived, namely, sanctus, “holy,” and facere, “to make,” help to make evident such a linguistic and conceptual relationship.

The Hebrew verb qadas or qades, “to be holy” or “to be clean,” is used chiefly in the OT in stems other than the kal stem. In the niphal stem Yahweh is repeatedly said “to be sanctified” (Num 20:13; Is 5:16; Ezek 20:41; 28:22; 38:16; 39:27). The piel stem is used to express the sanctification or consecration of various objects: the Sabbath (Gen 2:3; Deut 5:12); firstborn males (Ex 13:2); the people of Israel (Ex 19:10; Josh 7:13); the Levites (2 Chr 29:5); the tabernacle (Ex 29:44; 40:10-11). In the hiphil stem various objects are said to be sanctified: the temple and its contents (2 Chr 7:16, 20; 29:19); one’s own house (Lev 27:14-15), and the like. In the hithpael stem the people of Israel are called to sanctify themselves (Lev 11:44; 20:7).

The Greek verb hagiazein, “to make holy” or “to sanctify,” is used more than two dozen times in the NT. The noun hagiasmos, “separation” or “sanctification,” is used five times (1 Thess 4:3, 4; 2 Thess 2:13; 1 Cor 1:30; 1 Pet 1:2), and the plural noun hagioi is used more than sixty times.

Thus, from Scripture, the primary meaning of sanctification is dedication or consecration. It involves a set-apartness that is basic to qadas and to hagios. The entire biblical conception of sanctification is rooted in the truth that God is “holy” and affirms that humans need to become “holy.” The set-apartness inherent in sanctification is intended to lead ultimately to Godlikeness. We understand that sanctification follows regeneration as growth follows birth; therefore, it is spiritual maturing following spiritual impartation.

2. Terms popular today. Numerous new terms are on the theological and popular scene today and are partly responsible for the confusion present in the current discussions of sanctification. Whereas terms such as spiritual growth, discipleship, sanctification, or Christian living were formerly used, today we speak of Christian spirituality, spiritual transformation, character formation, and spiritual theology.

3. Telos of sanctification. But the confusion surrounding sanctification is more than mere terminology. The greatest confusion may stem from the problem that there is often no agreed-upon answer to the goal (or the telos) of sanctification. What is the goal of spiritual maturity and growth?: freedom from sin, victory over temptation, service to God, righteousness, experiential awareness of God, evangelism, being filled with the Spirit, intimate relationship with God, holiness, union with Christ, doing God’s will, walking in the Spirit, glorifying God, Christlikeness, being in the Word, etc. As Steven Porter observes:

What is the telos of sanctification? Is it Christlikeness, and if it is, does that mean becoming like Christ in one’s actions, internal life, relationship with the Father, or all of the above? And if the latter, how do these concepts relate to one together? Or should we really see the goal as a certain kind of relationship with God, and Christlikeness as the means towards or perfect exemplification of that relationship? How then would the emphasis on moral transformation fit in? If one becomes holy or righteous or godly, then does not one also become Christlike? So perhaps moral transformation is our aim. Though, once again, is this primarily about our external behavior, our thoughts, our passions, our will, or our character? And what about the Holy Spirit? Are we not supposed to live, walk, and be filled with the Spirit? Is this a distinct process from the others, is it the same, is there overlap? Then again,…perhaps service to others is the overarching goal, and Christlikeness, moral transformation, intimacy with God, and Spirit-filled living are distinct means to this ultimate end?

The pivotal element in one’s doctrine of sanctification will be the goal (telos) of sanctification. There is no easier path to works righteousness and legalism than to have a mistaken or confused notion of the goal of spiritual growth. And if the goal is unclear, then any treatment of the object, agents, means, and dynamics of sanctification will inevitably be unclear as well. The goal of sanctification is what orders and organizes the other essential elements of one’s understanding of Christian growth and maturity.

The Different Views of Sanctification

Orthodox Christians have always understood that God calls His people not only to believe the truth He has revealed but to live according to that truth. When people place their trust in Jesus Christ, they are given a new nature and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who empowers them to live lives that honor God. God’s holy character, revealed in Scripture, is the standard against which all behavior is judged. The process by which believers come to live a God-honoring life we call sanctification. Beyond this common understanding that believers are called to live holy lives, there is much disagreement among Christians. The disagreements arise primarily over the relationship between justification and sanctification. All agree that believers are justified by grace through faith. But what then does sanctification accomplish? Does it in any sense make one more holy? Is it a necessary part of salvation? And how are Christians to grow in it? The options (seven different options) considered in this section offer various answers to these questions. Each view proposes a theological interpretation of the promise, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14).

Lutheran View—Sanctification as a Declaration by God

The Lutheran perspective defines sanctification as living in the faith that one has already been justified. According to this view, justification and sanctification should never be considered apart from one another. Sanctification is nothing over and above living out the faith that one is already perfectly holy and righteous for Jesus’ sake. Lutherans teach that while sinners remain sinners throughout their earthly lives, they are, nevertheless, at the same time declared righteous and holy by faith on the basis of what Christ has done. Hence, sinners are declared righteous and holy before God through faith alone in the atoning work of Christ (Rom. 4:4-5).

Sanctification, then, is simply trusting that God has taken charge of the matter. Nothing can, nor needs to be, added to justifying faith. All human efforts-no matter how moral or well intentioned-are excluded. What matters is that God has unconditionally promised righteousness and holiness to sinners through faith in Christ. As Paul promises, sinners find not only “wisdom,” “righteousness,” and “redemption” but also “sanctification,” in Christ alone (1 Cor. 1:2, 28-31).

For the Lutheran, the Christian life is not a matter of moving toward a goal but rather having a new life supernaturally arise in us. Progress or growth in the Christian life lies in beginning again, and beginning again means being continually captivated by the unconditionality of the grace of God. It is a matter of accepting the fact that if we are to be saved, it will be have to be by grace alone. We are sanctified when we come to trust that God will in the end have His way with us—independently of our spiritual achievements.

Contemplative View

The Contemplative view does not deal so much with sanctification as with spirituality. However, since sanctification deals with the living a God-honoring life, there have been those throughout history that have used the contemplative approach to pursing after God. Moreover, the contemplative approach is gaining a following across all theological traditions. For that reason it is included as one of the views of sanctification.

Contemplation has to do with loving attentiveness to God. In the first few centuries, contemplatives developed a scheme concerning a path to perfection. It is a fundamental conviction of contemplatives that we may see God or be united with God, though fleetingly, while we are still living in this present state of existence. How is this attained? The desert Fathers observed early on that the key lies in purity of heart (citing Jesus, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” Matt. 5:8). What can we do to attain purity of heart? The answer to this is: surrender, abandon ourselves, submit, yield, humble ourselves, give ourselves over to God. If we surrender, love will come in and cleanse and purify and transform. The German and Dutch mystics understood this in terms of Jesus’ call to discipleship, “If anyone will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk. 8:34). When we deny ourselves, we then open ourselves to an invasion by the love of God that purifies and recreates us in the image of God.

At the heart of the contemplative approach is communion, communion or conversation with God—prayer. Prayer may take a variety of forms, beginning with vocal expression and extending all the way to the ecstasy of union with God. Contemplatives often speak of three stages. The first stage consists of a mental exercise wherein a person seeks to know God cognitively through reason, human learning ans study of the Scriptures. The second stage uses the heart more than the head. Here persons of limited learning may surpass scholars, for grace begins to lend greater assistance. The final stage of prayer is what Hugo of St. Victor labeled “contemplation.” At this stage, the contemplative knows and loves God perfectly, with pure mind and heart. The Holy Spirit enters with “a soft, sweet burning love” and unites one with God. Contemplatives normally speak about this mystical union as a momentary experience.

In recent years, contemplatives have vigorously disputed the validity of their view of spirituality. Perhaps the most outspoken proponent has been Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Merton would write that “very often the ordinary active and ethical preoccupations of Christians make them forget this deeper and more contemplative dimension of the Christian way.” Pursuit of his views turned Merton’s eyes Eastward to study oriental wisdom. One of Merton’s contributions to contemplative spirituality was to show that contemplation does not necessitate a cloistered life. “When action and contemplation dwell together, filling our whole life because we are moved in all things by the Spirit of God, Merton remarked, “then we are spiritually mature.”

There are numerous problems and concerns over the contemplative view: it is not theologically monolithic (it crosses into all traditions, with aspects gaining popularity); it employs a quasi-mystical language in the contemplative’s search for knowledge of God’s essence; it has a faulty view of the gospel (the gospel is not “God loves You. Love God back.” as Hinson suggests of the contemplative tradition); we are summoned to believe and obey, not give ourselves primarily to contemplating.

Pentecostal View

Holiness Pentecostals believe that a second work of the Holy Spirit sanctifies a believer in a crisis experience whereby original sin is removed entirely. Other Pentecostals (e.g., Assemblies of God) claim that believers who have already received new life by the Spirit (at salvation) later receive an empowering baptism of the Holy Spirit that begins a life of spiritual growth in them. This latter work by the Spirit is continual, and not a single crisis experience.

  1. God’s part. God produces a baptism in the Spirit (the initial work of sanctification) to produce growth. The blood of Christ also purifies us from sin continuously (1 John 1:7). The Word of God also produces sanctification in the believer.
  2. Man’s responsibility. Man must cooperate with the Holy Spirit, presenting himself to God (Rom. 12:1-2). This involves putting to death sinful things that belong to our earthly nature (1 Thess. 4:3-4).
  3. Effects of sanctification. Sanctification is both positional and progressive. Positional in that sanctification instantaneously sets the believer apart from sin unto God (Col. 2:11-12). Sanctification is also progressive in that God keeps cleansing us from sin (1 John 1:7).
  4. Extent of sanctification. The goal of sanctification is “entire sanctification,” whereby the believer attains the “wholehearted desire and determination to do the will of God.” However, the believer is still tempted and still retains his old nature throughout one’s entire earthly life.

Wesleyan View—Entire Sanctification as Perfect Love

The Wesleyan view of sanctification begins with the insight that in the Bible the concept of holiness centers on a relationship with God. Therefore, sanctification begins at conversion when a person responds to God’s prevenient grace for salvation.

A right relationship with God entails cleansing from sin. The focus of cleansing is the removal of the cause of our defilement, namely, inbred sin (Ps. 51:7). The thorough cleansing from the pollution of inbred sin makes possible a relationship of unbroken fellowship with Christ. The promise of unbroken fellowship is reinforced by the biblical vie of sin. Sin is not a thing, like a decayed tooth, but an attitude of the heart—a disposition of pride that God promises to cleanse from the life of the consecrated believer. But if sin is a matter of the heart, and if the heart is cleansed from inbred sin, a believer can be perfect in attitude or heart even though his or her external actions may, at some point, be defective. This gift of God’s grace, through the Holy Spirit, that cleanses the heart from inbred sin and fills it with the love of God is available to every believer following conversion. Wesley called this gift entire sanctification (1 Thess. 5:23).

According to the Wesleyan view, the first gift of grace is forgiveness of sin through the Son. Entire sanctification is the second gift of grace. Wesleyans take seriously the scriptural texts that call believers to a higher life of Christian devotion, to having their hearts entirely cleansed from sin (1 Thess. 5:23; Heb. 9:14; 10:22). For them, the word entire does not denote a quantitative measurement, rather it refers to a quality of being. In other words, it refers to the quality and purity of love, not to the degree of love. Thus a believer may experience the forgiveness of sin through the Son and then subsequently enter into the empowerment of the Spirit, who cleanses the heart from inbred sin and fills it with the love of God.

Wesley described the experience of entire sanctification as heaving “the mind of Christ,” as “walking as Christ walked”; it is “to have a heart so all-flaming with the love of God…as continually to offer up every thought, word and work, as a spiritual sacrifice, acceptable to God through Christ.”

  1. God’s part. Sanctification is a work of God’s grace. The Holy Spirit works to regenerate the believer’s heart from one of rebellion to one of wholehearted love. After salvation, God gives man sanctifying grace to enable him to avoid willful sin.
  2. Man’s responsibility. Man is obliged to follow God’s will. He must be holy and put on the “new self” (Eph. 4:22, 24). One can lose his salvation by continued disobedience to God.
  3. Effects of sanctification. The Holy Spirit communicates God’s nature to believers and imparts a life of love to them; giving them a new heart, causing them to love God instead of disobeying Him.
  4. Extent of sanctification. The Christian should reach a point where he does not willfully sin against God (Matt. 5:48; 6:13; John 3:8). At this point the struggle between good and evil ceases. This is the state of entire sanctification. Only at Christ’s second coming will the believer be perfected in terms of unknown shortcomings.

Keswick View—Sanctification as Resting-Faith in the Sufficiency of Christ

The higher or “deeper life” view of holiness is associated, though not exclusively, with the Keswick message. Keswick locates its historical origin in England (1873-1875). Keswick is a nondenominational conference that interprets the life of holiness principally through the lens of Paul’s teaching, encapsulated in Romans 6-8. The Keswick message was pointedly expressed in its first publication:

We believe that the Word of God teaches that the normal Christian life is one of uniform sustained victory over known sin…that a life of faith and victory, of peace and rest, are the rightful heritage of every child of God, and that he [she] may step into it…not by long prayers an laborious effort, but by a deliberate and decisive act of faith. The normal experience of the child of God should be one of victory instead of constant defeat, one of liberty instead of grinding bondage, one of “perfect peace” instead of restless worry…that in Christ there is provided for every believer victory, liberty, rest, and that this may be obtained not by a lifelong struggle after an impossible ideal but by a surrender of the individual to God, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

The death and resurrection of Christ have provided for every believer a life of victory over sin. Christ has conquered sin and only through union with Him through the Holy Spirit is His accomplished victory available to believers. They have no life or holiness except as they abide in Christ and Christ in them (John 15:4-5). Christ gains and keeps the believers’s heart, transferring His victory and His life to their spiritual needs. Christ meets the force of sin through the Holy Spirit to the extent that believers are no longer hindered in their spiritual progress or robbed of their peace.

Still, the sinful nature remains in the believer following conversion. Scripture affirms that there is a constant struggle within every believer between the old nature and the new nature or between the flesh and the Spirit. These two natures stand armed against each other, battling for control of the believer’s life. The consequence is a spiritual conflict, illustrated by Paul in Romans 7:15, 22-24. No matter how disciplined or determined the believer is in his or her natural self, the believer is powerless in the struggle against sin and the flesh.

Victory over sin, and consequently, a life of holiness require total surrender to God (Rom. 6:13). Total surrender, however, normally involves a crisis experience in which the believer comes to the realization of his or her total impotence in the presence of sin’s overwhelming power. The experience of spiritual victory emerges as the direct consequence of (1) total surrender to God, acknowledging that the natural self cannot overcome sin, and (2) resting-faith in Christ, who has conquered sin. This act of complete surrender to God and the indwelling Holy Spirit is analogous to the surrender of the believer’s life in faith to the justifying Christ. Upon the act of surrender, the Holy Spirit fills (takes control of) the believer, empowering him or her to resist sin and to live a life pleasing to God.

  1. Effects of sanctification. The “normal” Christian (being sanctified) should have sustained victory over known sin. The old nature is not eradicated but is counteracted by the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer. Sanctification is both positional (forgiveness, justification, regeneration) and experiential. Man is still influenced by sin but not necessarily under its control. Man has a new potential—the ability to choose right and do it consistently.
  2. Extent of sanctification. The believer will not attain to perfection in this life but should experience consistent success in overcoming sin. Total sanctification does not occur until Christ’s second coming.

Augustinian-Dispensational View

This view, as well as the Reformed view, will be discussed more fully in the next section of this paper. Four features will be briefly addressed here (likewise under the Reformed view).

The Augustinian-dispensational view teaches that once a person is saved, the spiritual state of that person includes a new nature and an old nature. That is, the believer still has an old nature—that complex of attributes with an inclination and disposition to sin; and the new nature, received at the time of the new birth.

Redeemed individuals cannot lead a holy life apart from divine help (e.g. the Holy Spirit). The old nature has a tendency to sin and the new nature a tendency to act in righteousness; hence, these two natures are in the struggle that is described in Romans 7:14-25. Moreover, just as the old nature cannot produce a righteous life, so also the new nature cannot in itself produce one either. Accordingly, the Augustinian-dispensational perspective holds that a holy life is possible only by the grace of God and the enablement that God has provided for every Christian.

  1. God’s part. At regeneration, God prepares the individual for experiential sanctification. The baptism of the Holy Spirit places the believer into the body of Christ, enabling the believer to have fellowship, receive spiritual power, bear fruit, etc. The Holy Spirit indwells all believers and also fills those who yield to Him. Because of the Spirit’s indwelling, the Christian can grow in sanctification.
  2. Man’s part. The believer is responsible to walk by the Spirit (continually depend on the Spirit’s power). Using God’s power, the Christian should avoid sin, which grieves the indwelling Spirit. We must be willing to follow God’s will and direction for our lives.
  3. Effects of sanctification. The Christian has two natures: the flesh and the spirit, which are opposed to each other (Romans 7:15-25). The two natures in man are parallel to the two natures of Christ (human and divine). The believer receives a “new self,” which is a new life springing from his new nature (Col. 3:9-10).
  4. Extent of sanctification. Christians will not receive ultimate perfection until they are in heaven (Eph. 5:25-27; 1 John 3:2).

Reformed View—Sanctification as Holiness in Christ and in Personal Conduct

The Reformed view of sanctification arises from the biblical exposition primarily advanced at the time of the Reformation. It is particularly associated with the writings of John Calvin. The Reformed view is anchored in the teaching that believers are united with Christ in His death and resurrection through faith and that from participation in Christ, holiness of life can emerge.

According to the Reformed view, Jesus has sanctified human nature in Himself so that those who believe in Him may share in that sanctification through union with Him by faith (1 Cor. 1:30). The sanctification Christ imparts to believers through the Holy Spirit is, on the one hand, definitive, and on the other, progressive. Definitive sanctification means that believers are sanctified in Christ and that no further sacrifices or rituals are needed. While Reformed teachers recognize that sanctification is a lifelong process, they note that the more characteristic teaching in the NT refers not to a process but to a once-for-all—never to be repeated—definitive act. Definitive sanctification, therefore, means that believers are sanctified through their union with Christ and that this sanctified state constitutes their permanent status before God.

Believers are genuinely new, though not yet totally new. John Murray expresses the Reformed view thus:

The newness of the new self is not static but dynamic, needing continual renewal, growth, and transformation. A believer deeply conscious of his or her shortcomings does not need to say, because I am a sinner, I cannot consider myself a new person. Rather, he or she should say, I am a new person, but I still have a lot of growing to do.

Believers are new persons who are being progressively renewed. They still battle sin and will sometimes fall into sin, but they are no longer slaves to sin.

  1. God’s part. God renews us in His likeness by conforming us to Christ (Rom. 8:29). It is a continual process, whereby the Holy Spirit works in us (2 Cor. 3:18).
  2. Man’s part. Believers should follow Christ’s example. They should put on the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5-11). Man must cooperate with God’s work in him, expressing gratitude for salvation.
  3. Effects of sanctification. The Christian no longer has his old self, which was crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:6). Through sanctification, the Christian is a genuinely new, though not a totally new person. Sanctification continues throughout life whereby the person is renewed. For instance, the person is able to resist sin. Also, God conforms the believer to His image (Rom. 8:29).
  4. Extent of sanctification. By sanctification, the believer becomes more Christlike. However, perfection is not attained in this life. The believer must continue to fight sin as long as he lives (Gal. 5:16-17).

Dr. Dave Burggraff is Chaplain and Professor of Systematic Theology at Shepherds Theological Seminary. He earned his PhD at Dallas Theological Seminary and also holds degrees from the Univ. of Minnesota, Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary and Maranatha Baptist Bible College.

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There are 3 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


This old series (that I didn't even know was in our database) is great stuff. My only gripe is that it's not footnoted. But I suspect this has to do w/formatting issues back in the day. I'll have to see if Dr.B has a footnoted version somewhere in his files.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Steve Newman's picture

Would this article be available someplace in its entirety?

Aaron Blumer's picture


We'll post part 2 next week. Is that what you mean by entirety?
It's also in the old SI archive. Here I believe:

If you're interested in getting part 1 and part 2 all in one piece for printing purposes, let me know. We can probably attach a .pdf to part two that includes both.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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