Sanctification – Progressive, Definitive, or Both?

If someone asked you to define the term sanctification, would you have a comfortable and confident answer? Most might discuss the process of becoming more like Christ. A focus on the works and fruit of being a Christian could be a topic of discussion. Would you be concerned that your attempt to explain what it means to grow more like Christ might be misheard as a works based religion? Could the listener hear sanctification as “the work you do after God saves you that helps you become a better Christian”? First we will examine progressive sanctification, which is a common argument for growth in Christ, then we will examine definitive sanctification and compare the two.

Progressive Sanctification

Today, the most common understanding of the term sanctification would most likely include the process following conversion. As mentioned in previous articles, a great way to delineate between these technical terms is to see them as:

Justification: I have been saved from the penalty of sin.

Sanctification: I am being saved from the power of sin.

Glorification: I will be saved from the presence of sin.

With these definitions in mind, the argument is being made for what is considered progressive sanctification, meaning each Christian is actively progressing in becoming more like Jesus.

J.C. Ryle attempted to correct the understanding of sanctification in his day through using “step” imagery. Ryle believed that one can “climb from one step to another in holiness, and be far more sanctified at one period of his life than another.”[1]

Definitive Sanctification

David Peterson believes the term sanctification has become “the basket into which every theme related to Christian life and growth has been placed.”[2] From his work, Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness, Peterson argues definitive sanctification is “a key to holy living and a way through the impasse created by much previous debate. God calls us and enables us in Christ to live as those possessed by God and empowered by his Holy Spirit.”[3] From his work, Possessed by God, Peterson argues:

  • sanctification in the New Testament is an integral part of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. It is regularly portrayed as a once-for-all, definitive act and primarily has to do with the holy status or position of those who are ‘in Christ’;
  • Christians are sustained in holiness by the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit and the trust that he gives in the finished work of Christ;
  • Christians are called to live out the practical consequences of knowing God in Jesus Christ and of being consecrated by his saving work; and
  • sanctification in Christ has to do with a profound re-orientation of values and behavior. Beginning with the ‘heart’ and reaching out to touch the life and witness of God’s people at every level, God’s work and God’s Spirit bring change and transformation. In us and through us, something of God’s holiness is revealed to the world.[4]

Progressive and Definitive Sanctification

Living in the “now and not yet” area of being a Christian makes it important for Christians to study and understand how Scripture defines being a follower of Christ. It is encouraging that Peterson has concern over Christians valuing themselves as having been set apart from the world. This reminder should help a Christian battling with making sanctification just a works based experience.

Several key takeaways from the definitive view of sanctification that provide value for all Christians is to remember:

  • A Christian’s essential identity is found in Jesus and the gospel, not by the Christian’s personality. Sanctification is about “being possessed by God and expressing that distinctive and exclusive relationship by the way we live;”
  • A Christian’s standing with God depends on grace alone and not “on the degree to which we live up to his expectations;”
  • Christians must see themselves as God sees them in Christ; and
  • Christians must learn to accept other believers as those already sanctified in Christ.[5]

These consequences of understanding the definitive aspect of sanctification is valid and crucial to a Christian understanding of their relationship to God, their self-value, their role in God’s plan, and the value of other people as they encounter people created in God’s image. A Christian should not just rest on being set apart and should also focus on allowing their lives to represent the ongoing change occurring in their lives. May we strive to live as set apart ones remembering the charge given by Paul in Romans 12:1-2, “Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.”


[1] Ryle, J.C. Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties and Roots, p. 20)

[2] Peterson, David. Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness, p. 13.

[3] Ibid, p. 14.

[4] Ibid, p. 24-25.

[5] Ibid, p. 48-49.

You Might Also Like