What role does sanctification play in salvation?


How important is this question? This is not an abstract question about theology; it is a down-to-earth issue for both evangelism and ministry. It is at the heart of one of the great plagues of evangelicalism—the unconverted church member. This question is at the root of the “Lordship Salvation” controversy as well as the so-called “Carnal Christian” conundrum, two intensely practical pastoral issues. Moreover, this matter relates directly to Christian parents who long for the conversion of their children. To phrase the question another way, can a person go to Heaven who doesn’t live like a dedicated Christian? If not, and we say that Christian living is necessary for salvation, aren’t we contradicting the Bible’s teaching on salvation by grace and not by works?

What is sanctification? According to question 38 of The Baptist Catechism, “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace (2 Thess. 2:13), whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God (Eph. 4:23, 24), and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness (Rom. 6:4, 6).” (This is identical to the Westminster Shorter Catechism question 35.) Regeneration is the new birth, sanctification is the growth that necessarily results from it. Justification is God’s declaration that a believing sinner is righteous because of the merits of Christ imputed to him. Sanctification is the believer leaving the courtroom where God has once and for all time declared him righteous, and immediately beginning the process whereby God’s Spirit enables him to increasingly conform to Christ’s righteousness, both inwardly and outwardly. Jonathan Edwards said of the Christian’s inevitable desire for sanctification, “‘Tis as much the nature of one that is spiritually new born, to thirst after growth in holiness, as ‘tis the nature of a newborn babe, to thirst after the mother’s breast.”* The process is progressive, but is never completed in this life. Sanctification is ultimately fulfilled in glorification.

In one sense we may say that sanctification has nothing to do with regeneration or justification, and yet it has everything to do with demonstrating that one has experienced them. (Notice statements similar to “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because . . .” in the letter of 1 John.) Sanctification alone doesn’t save, but there is no salvation without it. As Paul told the Thessalonian believers, “. . . God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.” (2 Thess. 2:13). The experience of salvation begins with regeneration and justification, continues with sanctification, and is fulfilled in glorification. All who are regenerated and justified are being sanctified. All who are being sanctified will eventually be glorified. While we may distinguish between regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification, we must not separate them. In other words, the person who truly experiences one will experience them all (and in the order listed).

So the old theological shorthand that “we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved” applies here. Sanctification isn’t included in the “we have been saved” part of salvation, but it is synonymous with the “we are being saved” part. And without sanctification, there is no “we will be saved.” For as Heb. 12:14 teaches, “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.”

How do I “Pursue . . . the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord”? Unlike regeneration, there is much Spirit-filled human effort involved in sanctification. On the one hand, “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Col. 2:13). “On the other hand,” we’re commanded in 1 Tim. 4:7, “discipline yourself for the purposes of godliness.” God uses means of grace to sanctify us, chief of which are the personal and corporate spiritual disciplines. In the personal realm, these include intake of God’s Word, prayer, private worship, fasting, silence and solitude, etc. These are balanced by disciplines we practice with the church: public worship, hearing God’s Word preached, observance of the ordinances, corporate prayer, fellowship, etc. And all along, our confidence is not in ourselves, but in God. As Paul put it, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).

Additional Reading:
Biblical: Galatians; 1 John
Theological: Jonathan Edwards, “Religious Affections”
Practical: Jerry Bridges, “The Discipline of Grace”

*Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2, Perry Miller, gen. ed., Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), page 366.

Donald S. Whitney

Donald S. Whitney is Professor of Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

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