What role does sanctification play in the Christian life? And specifically, is sanctification necessary for a Christian to ultimately be saved? Sometimes this issue can be confusing for Reformed Protestants who wish to maintain salvation by God’s saving grace from first to last, and yet also trumpet the need for holiness and good works. Even reading erstwhile helpful pastors and expositors can be confusing, as J.C. Ryle and Arthur W. Pink demonstrate. Consider their separate comments:
J.C. Ryle- “Holiness” pg.28-29
“Sanctification, in the last place, is absolutely necessary, in order to train and prepare us for heaven… Most men hope to go to heaven when they die; but few, it may be feared, take the trouble to consider whether they would enjoy heaven if they got there. Heaven is essentially a holy place; its inhabitants are all holy; its occupations are all holy. To be really happy in heaven, it is clear and plain that we must be somewhat trained and made ready for heaven while we are on earth. The notion of a purgatory after death, which shall turn sinners into saints, is a lying invention of man, and is nowhere taught in the Bible. We must be saints before we die, if we are to be saints afterwards in glory. The favorite idea of many, that dying men need nothing except absolution and forgiveness of sins to fit them for their great change, is a profound delusion. We need the work of the Holy Spirit as well as the work of Christ.; we need renewal of the hearts as well as the atoning blood; we need to be sanctified as well as to be justified. It is common to hear people saying on their deathbeds, “I only want the Lord to forgive me my sins, and take me to rest.” But those who say such things forget that the rest of heaven would be utterly useless if we had no heart to enjoy it! What could an unsanctified man do in heaven, if by any chance he got there? Let that question be fairly looked in the face, and fairly answered. No man can possibley be happy in a place where he is not in his element, and where all around him is not congenial to his tastes, habits, and character. When an eagle is happy in an iron cage, when a sheep is happy in the water, when an owl is happy in the blaze of noonday sun, when a fish is happy on the dry land– then, and not till then, will I admit that the unsanctified man could be happy in heaven.”
A.W. Pink, Spiritual Growth pg. 23-24
“Christian progress does not make us meet for heaven. ……Thousands have been taught to believe that when a person has been justified by God and tasted the blessedness of “the man whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” that much still remains to be done for the soul before it is ready for the celestial courts. A widespread impression prevails that after his justification the believer must undergo the refining process of sanctification, and that for this he must be left for a time amid the trials and conflicts of a hostile world; yea so so strongly held is this view that some are likely to take exception to what follows. Nevertheless, such a theory repudiates the fact that it is the new-creative work of the Spirit which not only capacitates the soul to take in and enjoy spiritual things now (John 3:3, 5), but also fits it experimentally for the eternal fruition of God.
“One had thought that those laboring under the mistake mentioned above would be corrected by their own experience and by what they observed in their fellow Christians. They frankly acknowledge that their own progress is unsatisfactory to them, and they have no means of knowing when the process is to be successfully completed. They see their fellow Christians cut off apparently in very varied stages of this process. If it be said that this process is completed only at death, then we would point out that even on their death-beds the most eminent and mature saints have testified to being most humiliated over their attainments and thoroughly dissatisfied with themselves. Thier final triumph was not what grace had made them to be in themselves, but what Christ was made to be unto them. If such a view as the above were true, how could any believer cherish a desire to depart and be with Christ (Phil. 1:23) while the very fact that he was still in the body would be proof (according to this idea) that the process was not yet complete to fit him for His presence!”
While both Ryle and Pink could use some less than felicitous language at times, I’d like to suggest that rather than trying to decide which one was correct, that they are both correct in the different senses of God’s redeeming work in people. Paul says in I Corinthians 1:2, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…” The present passive participle hagiasmenois (“who have been made holy”) is a bit difficult to render it in English, but the point comes through easily – its an already accomplished act. Though they are already sanctified, they are called to be saints. Later, Paul continues in I Corinthians 1:30, “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”
Doubtless, other texts could be enlisted, but the point is this: Ryle is arguing for actual (ontological) holiness, and Pink for experiential. The holiness without which no one will see the Lord is bought for us in Christ, and applied at our justification. Our actual sanctification (and justification) guarantees our continued, subjective, growing santicifcation. Therefore, what Christ began is brought to completion in us (Philippians 1:6). Ryle is on target: no one will enter the eschatological Sabbath without being sanctified. And Pink swings true: surely, the man who with his dying breath confesses Christ as Lord will that day be with Him in paradise, as a sanctified believer!
Ryle notes John Owen, who in turn cites John Calvin. Consider their remarks as well:
“There is no imagination wherewith man is besotted, more foolish, none so pernicious, as this– that persons not purifed, not sanctified, not made holy in their life, should afterwards be taken into that state of blessedness which consists in the enjoyment of God. Neither can such persons enjoy God, nor would God be a reward to them… Holiness indeed is perfected in heaven: but the beginning of it is invariably confined to this world.” Works III.575
And Owen relies on Calvin:
Meanwhile, by these two epithets, he points out what sort of persons ought to be reckoned among the true members of the Church, and who they are that belong of right to her communion. For if you do not by holiness of life show yourself to be a Christian, you may indeed be in the Church, and pass undetected, but of it you cannot be. Hence all must be sanctified in Christ who would be reckoned among the people of God.
Now the term sanctification denotes separation This takes place in us when we are regenerated by the Spirit to newness of life, that we may serve God and not the world. For while by nature we are unholy, the Spirit consecrates us to God. As, however, this is effected when we are engrafted into the body of Christ, apart from whom there is nothing but pollution, and as it is also by Christ, and not from any other source that the Spirit is conferred, it is with good reason that he says that we are sanctified in Christ, inasmuch as it is by Him that we cleave to God, and in Him become new creatures.
Commentary on Corinthians, Vol 1
I love that Calvin brings in the Spirit too, and does so in a manner that does not divorce the Spirit from declarative justification. Sinclair Ferguson is surely correct when he argues for Calvin truly being the theologian of the Spirit in sanctification (see Ferguson in Always Reformed by WSC).
This is a thorny issue: sanctification is absolutely necessary, yet God provides in Christ Jesus what He demands. Here are a few more works that can shed some light on the issue:
- Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity
- Horton, Christ the Lord
- Clark, Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry