The Mystery of Sanctification

The intricacy of LEGO products has changed immensely since I was a child. I remember the basics of rectangle and square blocks, thin flat pieces that work as a ceiling or something, and the occasional exciting hinge piece to mount a door. As I unpack my new LEGO kit, I’m astounded by the sorts of pieces they make today. Clearly, skilled engineers were involved, planning out how very small details mount up to the big picture that far surpasses what I can see at the outset of my process of assembling the pieces. Because I can’t see how it all fits together, I follow the instructions, trusting those who know better.
Preachers may have the first opportunity for sanctification as we think about that connection between doctrine and its fruit of holiness. Throughout the centuries, not only have theologians been baffled by how the proclamation of free grace could produce good works in God’s people, many have decided that we need to teach that good works are necessary to secure our everlasting state, otherwise, God’s people wouldn’t be holy. If sanctification is submission to God’s Word, then preachers get the first stab at submitting to it. Preachers not only need to submit to Scripture in the passage that they are expounding but also to its principle that God has engineered the link between the announcement of free salvation by the gospel and its fruit of growth in the Christian life.  Teachers must first grow in trusting the Lord that he knows how the pieces fit together as a whole even when we do not.

The link between gospel proclamation and increasing sanctification highlights perhaps one of our most important points: our sanctification is a gift from God. Yes, we are meant to open up the LEGO kit of godliness to use it by getting on with our task of assembling the pieces. Nonetheless, we cannot forget that the whole kit is a present given to us by our gracious Father in heaven.

Reformed theology has historically referred to “the benefits of Christ.” The point here is to underscore that the benefits are plural. In Christ, we are reconciled to God, justified, adopted, have all the other benefits that do accompany or flow from these blessings, and have the guarantee of glorification. Among these gifts given to us is our sanctification. Too many like to say that justification is 100% God’s work, but sanctification is 50% God and 50% us. The impression is that God has given the free gift of a legal status, now we need to get cracking on our part. Although the Christian life certainly requires discipline and effort, we diminish sanctification’s importance, value, and meaningfulness if we forget that it too is God’s work of free grace, writing within us the newness of life that springs forth in our actions of setting aside sin and walking in righteousness.

We need a good reminder of the sweet news that holiness in our lives also flows from God as his gift to us. As Paul wrote to those who fell prey to the error of the Judaizers: “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3) Sanctification, as much as justification, is a precious gift for our cherishing.

This mindset of sanctification as gift helps us discard antinomianism and legalism. Too many think that the response to antinomianism is to impose the idea of final justification or final salvation on the basis of a consideration of our works. Another version of this mistake is to motivate Christians to holiness with rewards in heaven in exchange for their obedience. God will reward his people in his everlasting kingdom, crowning us with his own gifts of grace. But the thoroughgoing antinomian would just dismiss the idea, saying, “getting to heaven will be enough, so I don’t need rewards.” The carrot doesn’t really entice those who don’t understand the value of carrots.

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Harrison Perkins | “A Skilled Engineer: The Mystery of Sanctification” | April 28th, 2023


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  1. It’s a common resort, when we don’t see how the connections we assert are supported as to whether true, to fall back on them being a mystery. But mystery is co-extensive with all the working of God, categorically, because of His ways not being ours. When is any work of God regarding the salvation of the individual completely understood? His ways are past finding out.

    So it does no good when making an unsupported statement, to say “how it does this, is a mystery” as a substitute for having nothing sufficient for why we think it’s true. This is the RCC “implicit faith” resort: the asking us to believe something unsupported, on the “mystery” claim resort.

    “God has engineered the link between the announcement of free salvation by the gospel and its fruit of growth in the Christian life. Teachers must first grow in trusting the Lord that he knows how the pieces fit together as a whole even when we do not.” The pieces, even we know, or if we know much more before glory how they fit together, will still be mystery, won’t they?

    • Larry,

      There are undeniable mysteries in the Christian faith: God is one, in three persons. Christ is one person with two natures. Grace itself is a mystery. Why did God choose to love sinners in Christ from all eternity? Why did God the Son become incarnate? Why would the Holy Spirit sovereignly, freely sanctify sinners? How he exactly does the Spirit sanctify us? How does Christ feed us believers, through the elements, on his true body and blood? These are mysteries. This is not a sloppy refuge to mystery. It’s an acknowledgement of a basic Christian truth.

  2. It seems as if the author is saying that we can thwart or hinder or sanctification. If that is the case, that would make sanctification an act of our works rather than God’s grace. Ephesians 2:10 (NIV) states: “ For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” If sanctification is just as much a work of grace as justification, is it possible for us to thwart or hinder justification. At the end of our life, aren’t we as sanctified as the Lord has ordained?

    • Bob,

      Can you say more precisely how Harrison does this? Aren’t you missing a significant passage in the quotation?

      The link between gospel proclamation and increasing sanctification highlights perhaps one of our most important points: our sanctification is a gift from God. Yes, we are meant to open up the LEGO kit of godliness to use it by getting on with our task of assembling the pieces. Nonetheless, we cannot forget that the whole kit is a present given to us by our gracious Father in heaven.

      Did you follow the link to the rest of the article?

  3. Dr. Clark: Yes, I read the whole article. The author gives with one hand and takes away with the other. If sanctification is by grace, then explain this quote from the article: “ Our focus has been on the gospel gift of sanctification, thinking about our need to see it as a gift so that we don’t leave it in the package without ever using it.” Unless sanctification is works-dependent and not by grace, how exactly would we “leave it in the package”?

    • Bob,

      Sanctification produces a response, does it not? It it “works” when we confess:

      70. What is it to be washed with the blood and Spirit of Christ?

      It is to have the forgiveness of sins from God through grace, for the sake of Christ’s blood, which He shed for us in His sacrifice on the cross;1 and also, to be renewed by the Holy Spirit and sanctified to be members of Christ, that so we may more and more die unto sin and lead holy and blameless lives.

      We are being renewed by the Spirit to an end. We do respond. We also make use of the due use of ordinary means. That making use isn’t “works” in the sense in which you’re using it.

      Thus we confess:

      86. Since then we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why should we do good works?

      Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and also that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof; and by our godly walk win also others to Christ.

      Do these constitute “works” in your sense?


      89. What is the dying of the old man?

      Heartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more.

      90. What is the quickening of the new man?

      Heartfelt joy in God through Christ, causing us to take delight in living according to the will of God in all good works.

      We do learn to hate sin and to take delight in God’s law.

      Then this:

      114. Can those who are converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?

      No, but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with earnest purpose they begin to live not only according to some, but according to all the Commandments of God.

      We are not automatons. We do respond to divine grace. We do obey, in union with Christ, in the Spirit, as a result of sanctification.

      We even say God only gives his gifts to those (believers) who ask:

      Because it is the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us; and because God will give His grace and Holy Spirit only to those who earnestly and without ceasing beg them of Him, and render thanks unto Him for them.

      Are you sure that you’ve understood Harrison’s article? Could you be finding problems that don’t exist?

  4. Dr. Clark: Can one who is redeemed fail to persevere until death? Can one who is redeemed fail to do the works of sanctification which the Lord has prepared in advance for him to do? Can one who is redeemed fail to produce fruit? No, we are not automatons but is the certainty of fulfilling our destinies in any doubt? If it is then that doesn’t sound like Good News to me.

    • Bob,

      Do you think that I would publish an article that contradicted not only the Word of God as confessed by the Belgic Confession and the fifth head of doctrine of the Canons of Dort but decades of my own writing & teaching?

      That seems unlikely. Doesn’t it seem unlikely to you?

      You seem to be ignoring the passages from the catechism that I provided.

      Perhaps you have misunderstood Harrison and perhaps we’re talking past one another?

      To answer your questions directly:

      None of the elect will ever fall from a state of grace. Ever.

      Because of these remnants of sin dwelling in them and also because of the temptations of the world and Satan, those who have been converted could not remain standing in this grace if left to their own resources. But God is faithful, mercifully strengthening them in the grace once conferred on them and powerfully preserving them in it to the end (Canons of Dort 5.3).

      Nevertheless, the churches go on to say in the very next article:

      Although that power of God strengthening and preserving true believers in grace is more than a match for the flesh, yet those converted are not always so activated and motivated by God that in certain specific actions they cannot by their own fault depart from the leading of grace, be led astray by the desires of the flesh, and give in to them. For this reason they must constantly watch and pray that they may not be led into temptations. When they fail to do this, not only can they be carried away by the flesh, the world, and Satan into sins, even serious and outrageous ones, but also by God’s just permission they sometimes are so carried away—witness the sad cases, described in Scripture, of David, Peter, and other saints falling into sins.

      Believers can fall into serious sins and they do need, in the state of grace, in union with Christ, out of the sovereign, mysterious sanctifying work of the Spirit, struggle against sin.

      Nevertheless, Synod adds:

      For God, who is rich in mercy, according to his unchangeable purpose of election does not take his Holy Spirit from his own completely, even when they fall grievously. Neither does he let them fall down so far that they forfeit the grace of adoption and the state of justification, or commit the sin which leads to death (the sin against the Holy Spirit), and plunge themselves, entirely forsaken by him, into eternal ruin.

      For more on this. Please see my commentary on the Canons.

    • Bob,
      I’m not sure how it’s possible to read this article as saying anything other than what you said at the beginning by quoting Ephesians 2:10. It emphasizes that God is the one who creates new life and gives the gift of sanctifying us. And we walk in those works that he prepared in advance. Walking in those divinely appointed works is what I mean by taking it out of the package. I’ve no idea how anything I said remotely suggests that a believer wouldn’t persevere to the end. I’ve written emphatically elsewhere against such an idea. I never suggested that we could fail to do the works that God’s prepared or that we can fail to produce fruit. I said the opposite: God sanctifies us so we do those works.

  5. Harrison: How should I (we) react to pastors or lay Christians who insinuate that I (we) aren’t giving enough, volunteering enough, being busy enough? I simply refuse to worry about my sanctification because I don’t believe it is accomplished by the works and pet projects others have laid out for me.

    • Bob,
      You’re shadow boxing. I didn’t give any grounds for these concerns that you’ve named. Unless you deny that God’s work of sanctification produces good works in our life, there’s no reason to object to the essay.

      Ironically, you’re criticizing the integrity of my essay because it didn’t align well enough, in your assessment, with YOUR pet concerns.

  6. For me, I appreciate the back and forth here, as I’ve struggled with the issue of sanctification and the issues raised and the responses given. I can’t help but think Bob is being a bit of a “goad” for my benefit.
    For what it’s worth, thanks.

  7. Am I correct in guessing that the back & forth here in the comment section is primarily about what God’s role is in our sanctification vs. our role? What this looks like & how it is fleshed out on a daily practical level? That’s where I personally struggle. That distinction is further blurred by all the baggage of false teaching that seems to be in the air we breathe.

    • Diane,

      Perhaps but Bob has yet to make the actual grounds of his concern.

      You’re right that there’s a lot of confusion. Yet, the Reformed doctrine of sanctification is fairly clear.

      Q. 35. What is sanctification?

      A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness (WSC 35)

      Belgic Confession 24 is just as clear:

      We believe that this true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a “new man,”58 causing him to live the “new life”59 and freeing him from the slavery of sin.

      Therefore, far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary, so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned. So then, it is impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful in a human being, seeing that we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls “faith working through love,”60 which leads a man to do of himself the works that God has commanded in his Word.

      These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification—for by faith in Christ we are justified,
      even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place. So then, we do good works, but not for merit—for what would we merit?

      Rather, we are indebted to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he who “works in us both to will and do according to his good pleasure”61—thus keeping in mind what is written: “When you have done all that is commanded you, then you shall say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have done what it was our duty to do.’ ”62

      Yet we do not wish to deny that God rewards good works—but it is by his grace that he crowns his gifts. Moreover, although we do good works we do not base our salvation on them; for we cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment. And even if we could point to one, memory of a single sin is enough for God to reject that work.

      So we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior.

      58 2 Cor 5:17
      59 Rom 6:4
      60 Gal 5:16
      61 Phil 2:13
      62 Luke 17:10

      Sanctification is the gracious work of God in us, in light of our justification, as a consequence of our justification.

      Our good works are the fruit and evidence of our justification, which is what Dr Perkins wrote.

      There are resources here:

      I hope these help.

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