Paul’s Golgothic Doctrine of Sanctification

Was there a more un-sanctified and immature congregation of which we have an apostolic record than the Corinthian congregation? From a reading of Paul’s two canonical letters to them they were beset by power struggles and schisms within, tolerant of gross immorality, besotted with flowery rhetoric, and unimpressed by the very gospel message itself among other things.

The Dismal History of A Notorious Congregation

Post-canonical church history confirms that the Corinthian church was a mess. One of the earliest post-canonical writings we have is a lengthy letter known to us as 1 Clement. We do not know who actually wrote it or exactly when it was written (probably in the late AD 90s or very early 100s) but it was written to address some of the very same issues that Paul had addressed four or five decades prior. Then, perhaps five decades after that letter, we have the oldest post-canonical Christian sermon aimed at the Corinthians (2 Clement, c. AD 150).

The Corinthian congregation was one of those congregations about which pastors say (among themselves or perhaps to themselves), “I probably would not have taken that call.” It must have required a very strong sense of an internal vocation to agree to try to shepherd them. Every classis or presbytery has one or two of such congregations where, for whatever reason, there are always problems and the people (and sometimes the leadership) just do not seem to mature.

No one who reads either of the canonical letters to the Corinthians or the post-canonical letter and sermon to them could doubt that the Corinthian Christians lacked sanctification. What should interest us more, however, is how Paul addressed it. He knew that they lacked sanctity. Did he respond by telling them to be more sanctified? Did he preach to them about the necessity of obedience? Did he leave them with the impression that they were under a covenant of works and that they had better perform or else?

Paul’s Surprising Response

The two canonical letters that we have from Paul were probably part of a stream of correspondence between the Apostle and the Corinthians. We have either 1st and 3rd or 2nd and 4th but we speak of First (One) and Second (Two) Corinthians.1 The first of several presenting issues appears in 1 Cor 1:11. Paul explained, For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers (ESV).

Quarreling in the church reveals a lack of maturity and sanctification, i.e., a lack of Christlikeness. Some of them (perhaps more) are not esteeming others more highly than themselves. They are not, in important ways, dying to self and being made alive in Christ.

Paul’s first reply to their lack of sanctification is not to tell them to be more sanctified. It is to point them to the cross. Why? Because the road to sanctification is not a straight line. It crosses Golgotha. Instead of yelling at them, because they were un-sanctified, Paul begins talking about the cross because they were acting like pagans. The church is the embassy of the Kingdom of God, it is a theater of grace but the Corinthians had turned it into a boxing arena or a wrestling match. Paul wrote, For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor 1:18; ESV). The Corinthians, who professed faith in Christ, whom Paul addressed in light of that profession, were acting like pagans. They were confused about whose wisdom they should be following. They thought that they were wise but what is truly wise is the cross. They were impressed with the debater of this age and the wisdom of this world (1 Cor 1:20).

Do you see how Paul addresses sanctification? He goes through the cross, as it were, but he speaks to the way they think. They do not think like Christians, at least not consistently. They are not beginning with the cross, with the death of Christ for us, but with power and glory in this world. They are not theologians of the cross, as Paul was, but theologians of glory. That is why they were not impressed with Paul’s rhetoric and message.

More profoundly, their lust for power, for eloquence, for things that this age values they were missing the most important thing of all: Christ. Paul explains, For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe (1 Cor 1:21; ESV). The starting point of sanctification is not obedience. It is faith, trust, confidence in the Christ who was obedient for us sinners. Paul calls the gospel foolishness because that is how it seems to pagans. What has the death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and return of a Jewish rabbi to do with power, success, and influence in this world? From the perspective of this age, nothing at all. That is why unbelieving Jews demand signs (v.22) and pagan Gentiles seek “wisdom.” These are manifestations of power. Martin Luther warned about the the theologian of glory in part because it is what Mike Horton called a power religion. It is a religion that is practical for getting things done in this world. This is one reason why it became the religion of the Modernists in the 19th and 20th centuries and part of the attraction of the social gospel.

Paul’s message is eminently practical but not in the way some in the Corinthian congregation wanted. What the Corinthians wanted was the stuff of this age but what they needed was to grasp and believe is that the path to true, Holy Spirit-ual power is through death. It is, in the first instance, through the death of Christ and faith in him. It is, in the second instance, as a consequence, through death to self and to sin. That is true power. That is the path to sanctification. It is something that, according to Paul and according to later Christian writers, the Corinthians struggled to accept for at least a century. Their long struggle with sanctification tells us something about the nature of progressive sanctification in this life. Nevertheless, the slow, gradual nature of sanctification, which Paul observed in the Corinthians in his life, did not tempt him to cut corners, to try to draw a straight line from the law to sanctification. He got to the normative use of the law but he did so through the gospel.


1. The American custom is to say “First and Second Corinthians” but the British custom is to say, “One and Two Corinthians.”

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Another great post! It’s the Lords day today and what an amazing way to start the day with an article about the gospel! Thanks again Dr.Clark. Learning church history from this man I could only image would be the same as learning how to throw a spiral from Tom Brady. You da man Dr.
    -A bro from Bethlehem Bible church

  2. Dr. Clark, could you provide a citation (hopefully online) to the sermon you mentioned as “we have the oldest post-canonical Christian sermon aimed at the Corinthians?” Thanks.

    • Richard,

      It’s Second Clement. There are older translations online but the better translations are in published collections of the Apostlic Fathers, e.g., Holmes. The Apostolic Fathers (Baker). There’s a fine edition edited by Ehrman in the Loeb Classical Library too. Please don’t assume, however, that this sermon is a model of orthodoxy or a pattern to be followed. It simply happens to be what we have. It’s interesting an illuminating as a historical document and edifying in ways but it’s not necessarily to be imitated.

  3. Interesting to contrast Paul’s approach to the problems of lack of sanctity in the Corinthian church with the problems of those that infiltrated the church to pervert the gospel of justification by grace alone among the Galatians. Paul entreats the Corinthians with the message of the cross, reminding them of the love of God in Christ, as a motive to sanctification. In contrast, Paul’s address to the Galatians, who were in danger of accepting another gospel of adding works righteousness to the gospel, is a harsh and outright condemnation of their foolishness in tolerating false teachers. He reminds them that “a little yeast leavens the whole lump.”

  4. A common theme in scriptures and human civilization is earthly prosperity and prestige vs forgiveness of sins and eternal life. How many of us, even God’s own, have gotten this wrong and repeatedly need to be straightened out.

    Agree with the antidote …

  5. Thanks for this article, I have a question: someone at Ligonier once wrote this in an article:

    “Then, there is sanctification—a process whereby we are being delivered from sin’s power.”

    Is this Scriptural? I mean, it seems to go against progressive sanctification in the sense of 2 Corinthians 3:18.

    “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 by the Spirit of the Lord.”

    • It was my understanding that through Justification, we are delivered from sins power – which is death?
      Sanctification, although sinless perfection will not happen in this life is what continues throughout our lives, by the Spirit.
      Thank you in advance

      • Hi Felicity,

        At the Synod of Dort, the Reformed churches of Europe and the British Isles agreed:

        Those people whom God according to his purpose calls into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord and regenerates by the Holy Spirit, he also sets free from the reign and slavery of sin, though in this life not entirely from the flesh and from the body of sin (CD 5.1)

        Justification is the declaration that, by grace alone, through faith alone, Christ’s righteousness is credited to us and we are righteous before God. Here, however, we are talking about the definitive break with the power of sin or a consequence of justification, i.e., sanctification. It’s not perfectionism, as Synod hastens to add, but there is very real break. This is Paul’s doctrine in Romans 6 and in Romans 8 as well as Col 2:11–12.

        Tune into the next episode of the Heidelcast, where we’re dealing with this very section.

    • 1 Corinthians 15:55. Grave where is your victory? Death where is your sing? Those are the words Paul proclaims as the Christian’s saving triumph over the horror of the punishment of death for us because of Golgotha! Sanctification is the Spirit working in us as we gratefully live a life that is dedicated to pleasing Christ, our God and Saviour, out of love, so that more and more we will become confirmed to His image, do that at last we see Him face to face in eternity. In that way God saves us from the punishment of sin so that we will want a please him out of love and gratitude. 1John 3:2

  6. Death where is your victory, grace where is your sting? 1Cor. 15:55. Because the actual horror of death has been defeated at Golgotha in Christ’s suffering it for us, and He has obeyed perfectly in our place, we are justified. It is never about what we do because we can never do anything perfectly enough to stand before God.

    Sanctification is about how we are grateful and want to show our love to God for this great and perfect sacrifice of Christ by doing what is pleasing to Him. That is how love causes us to more and more overcome sin through the power of the Spirit, although we will never be perfect in this life. But thanks be to God!! Christ has provided perfect obedience and sinlessness for us through His righteousness that has been credited or imputed to us when we believe. We are justified because of what Christ has done in obeying the law perfectly, and suffering to atone for our sins, through faith in Him alone. Our grateful response is the way through which we are sanctified by the Spirit working in us to make us more and more like Christ although we will never be perfect in this life, so that finally, in eternity we will be like Him and see Him face to face. 1John 3:2

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