No series on walking with God would be complete without some explanation of the Biblical doctrine of sanctification. The Biblical word comes from the same root word as “holiness” and “saints.” It basically means to be set apart. Although sanctification has been discussed and debated as long as the church has been around, there is still much disagreement over its various aspects. Yet there is a larger problem with the doctrine today. Kevin DeYoung, in his book, The Hole in Our Holiness, says, “The hole in our holiness is that we don’t really care much about it. Passionate exhortation to pursue gospel-driven holiness is barely heard in most of our churches.”1 He adds, “There are a hundred good things you may be called to pursue as a Christian. All I’m saying is that, according to the Bible, holiness, for every single Christian, should be right at the top of that list.”2
DeYoung is correct, of course, because sanctification is very much a Biblical word and doctrine. Jesus prayed to the Father, “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth” (John 17:17). Paul wrote, “For this is the will of God, even your sanctification” (1 Thes. 4:3). Peter wrote, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts” (1 Pet. 3:15). The writer of Hebrews wrote, “For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one” (Heb. 2:11). And Jude opened his epistle with, “to them that are sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ, and called” (Jude 1).
The Bible sets sanctification in at least three different perspectives (which I will explain more fully later) that have to do with the security of our salvation, the ongoing struggle against sin, and our future complete holiness when we are resurrected. Sanctification must also be understood in the light of our justification, that is, that we are secure in Christ entirely because of His death and resurrection. Whereas we were dead in our sins, now as believers, we have Christ in us and it is only through Him that we have the power to live a victorious Christian life. In fact, our life is actually His life in us. “For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3).
As with any Biblical doctrine that has been taught and practiced in the church for the last two thousand years, there are variations of views as to how this works in us, and there are extremes on the right and left. Most have characterized these extremes as legalism and license and most of us have been accused of being one or the other or both. I have often characterized these two extremes like this: legalism happens when we place too much justification in our sanctification. License happens when we place too much sanctification in our justification. When we practice sanctification we are not in any way adding to our justification which is entirely by the grace of God. But because we are justified by God’s grace and secure in Christ, this does not mean that we do not struggle against sin and strive to live holy lives. The consensus of theological history is that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone without any work of our own. But once we are justified, because we still have a body of flesh and an old nature in Adam, we still sin though not to any detriment to our salvation.
Though legalism will always exist in various forms, license has become more dangerous in our fast-paced world. In 1985 Erwin Lutzer, then pastor of Moody Memorial Church in Chicago, wrote a book titled, How in the World can I be Holy? Responding to the changing morality of that time he wrote, “Even among non-Christians a generation ago, there was more agreement regarding right and wrong, or, at least, between what was considered right and wrong. Today, many of these views are being questioned and even rejected. . . . Someone has observed that time is the great sanctifier. The ‘sin’ of today becomes acceptable tomorrow.”3 This is why the doctrine of sanctification must be constantly taught.
It is not my purpose in this article to become too detailed in the history or even current thought of this doctrine.4 Traditionally sanctification has been seen in three modes or aspects.5 The past aspect of sanctification is the mode in which we are positionally, or judicially, sanctified in Christ Jesus. Notice all the past tenses in reference to sanctification in 1 Cor. 1:2, 30; 6:11; Acts 20:32, 26:18. It is often noted that this saved us from the penalty of sin. The present aspect is the mode in which we are being sanctified in this life: “Sanctified and meet for the Master’s use” (2 Tim. 2:21). This is the removal of the power of sin. The future aspect will happen when we are resurrected and live eternally in God’s presence: “at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thes. 5:23). Then we will be removed from the presence of sin.
The current discussion is regarding the present aspect of sanctification in the believer. Why do we have to continually fight against sin? How is the power of sin removed from us? Do we ever get to a place where we have victory over sin? How is this a matter of pleasing God? At this point it is good to remember four additional facts about our present sanctification.
Sanctification is basically separation since the root meaning is to be set apart. McCune writes, “Simply, soteriological sanctification means to be separated from sin and set apart unto God. While there is a positional aspect to the doctrine, in the practical Christian experience sanctification is the progressive outworking of the spiritual life received in regeneration as it transforms the believer into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29).”6 Jesus did no sin living in this world and the believer is instructed to become more like Him.
The second fact is also included in McCune’s quotation, that is, that present sanctification is progressive. We grow more and more like Christ as we go through our Christian experience. The One Who “began a good work” in us will perform it “until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). The third fact is not unlike the second, that is, that sanctification is ongoing. Not only do we continue to grow more like Christ, we will not arrive at such in this life but will continue that growth until the day we die. Paul said, “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which I am apprehended of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12).
The fourth fact about our sanctification is that it is a joint venture. This is important because the two extremes of legalism and license both deny it. Legalism makes sanctification (or acceptance with God and therefore really our salvation) depend primarily on oneself and our ability to perform well. License makes it depend totally on God, claiming that any human effort is legalism. But present sanctification involves our work for Christ after we are saved. This is not work for salvation but because of it. Wayne Grudem says, “It is also a work in which God and man cooperate, each playing distinct roles. This part of the application of redemption is called sanctification.”7 Charles Ryrie says, “The human and divine are joined in the matter of walking in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16). The life that does not fulfill the lusts of the flesh is the life that walks by means of the Spirit, and yet it is I who am commanded to walk by means of the Spirit.”8 These truths are crucial to remember as we endeavor to walk with God in sanctification.
The failure of legalism
We ought to be careful with the use of the word legalism. It has become far too easy to label anything we don’t like with this term. In a very basic way legalism is that teaching that salvation must be obtained by the inclusion of some effort by man. Most commonly this is seen in the Jews who insisted that keeping the law of Moses, or part of it such as circumcision, was necessary for salvation (Acts 15:1, 5). Paul always adamantly denied this saying that we are saved by faith alone (Gal. 2:16). There are still legalists of this sort around today who include human works for salvation whether that be baptism, speaking in tongues, sacraments of the church, or just plain being good.
Though I would rather reserve the term legalism for any works-type salvation, it is used these days in other ways as well. One way is to think that though we are saved we are not totally “accepted in the beloved” (Eph. 1:6) without good works. This is a fine point but it must be remembered that the believer is always accepted and secure in Christ even when we sin. Even though we do strive in our good works as Christians, it is not to earn acceptance with God but to be more like Christ with a thankful attitude for what He has already done for us.
Another and more common (yet far lesser) form of legalism is to place extra-biblical requirements on Christians for their sanctification. Given that there is room for disagreement in Biblical application, this often takes place. The Roman church might insist that its members not eat certain foods at certain times. The charismatics may insist that one must seek a second blessing evidenced by speaking in tongues. Conservatives may insist on rules that can be punished by the church. At this point there may be disagreement among us. Many things in our day were not mentioned in the Bible such as movie going or smoking or specific dress codes, or use of specific Bible translations. Other things are obviously implied in the Bible such as drinking and drugs, immodesty, or cursing. One person may abstain from them all (of which I think most are wise) and another person may do some of these. We can disagree as to whether we should or should not do them, but this is not legalism until we say they must be done (or avoided) to gain favor with God. A local church has the right to ask its members to handle these in any way the congregation wants for its by-laws or covenant. No one is forced to be a member of a local church but when we do voluntarily join, we are agreeing to the documents that were there before us. Honesty says we should keep them. In addition, a local church has the mechanism to change the documents if they so choose.
The Bible does say that we should “please” God (Col 1:10; 1 Thes. 4:1; 1 Jn 3:22). This is different than the term “gaining favor” with God. As a believer I cannot increase the “favor” that is bestowed upon me in Jesus Christ. My salvation is complete in Him and I am “accepted in the Beloved” regardless of what I do. But I can do things that do not please God as my Father and for which I should immediately ask forgiveness (1 Jn. 1:9). I draw the line on “legalism” at this point. Those who practice license use “legalism” as an indictment on anyone who has a rule of conduct. The presence of rules is not legalism. The New Testament is full of commandments which are God’s rules.
The failure of license
License, or antinomianism, is just that, the absence of law. This happens when (as I have said) one’s sanctification is totally wrapped up in justification. That is, a person’s position in Christ is seen in a way that there really is no sin for the believer because it is already forgiven in Christ. All effort or striving for the believer becomes a form of legalism. This is a distortion, of course, because justification ought to produce sanctification not eliminate it. DeYoung writes,
“Legalism is a problem in the church, but so is antinomianism. Granted, I don’t hear anyone saying, ‘let’s continue in sin that grace may abound’ (see Rom. 6:1). That’s the worst form of antinomianism. But strictly speaking, antinomianism simply means no-law, and some Christians have very little place for the law in their pursuit of holiness.”9
Erwin Lutzer compares legalism with antinomianism and writes,
“Since no rules—including the moral law—can produce spirituality, some Christians conclude that it is unnecessary to be subject to any restrictions. This attitude is often found among those who have been delivered from excessive legalism. They finally realize that spirituality does not come by the law, so they have a ‘liberated syndrome’ which makes them disdain all restrictions. . . So when they (the supposedly liberated Christians) finally see that spirituality is produced by submission to the Holy Spirit, they misuse their new freedom.”10
When Paul concluded Romans chapter 5 on justification, it was logical that some Jewish legalists would object to salvation by faith alone without the law. Wouldn’t this produce a freedom to sin? Chapter 6 begins with that very objection, “What shall we say then? Shall we sin that grace may abound?” And Paul answers, “God forbid” (Rom. 6:1-2a). No, justification will not produce antinomianism. Shedd writes, “St. Paul teaches, with great cogency and earnestness, that trust in Christ’s atoning blood is incompatible with self-indulgence and increasing depravity. The two things are heterogeneous, and cannot exist together.”11 And yet, though Paul destroys the thought in the rest of the chapter, the danger for that very thing is always there. There were those at Corinth who had already insisted to Paul, “All things are lawful unto me” (1 Cor. 6:12, 10:23). This is true only in the narrowest sense that we are not saved by law nor are we kept by law. But it is not true in the antinomian sense that the believer is free to live however he or she wants. Myron Houghton writes, “While grace in the form of Gospel does not make demands, grace as guidelines for managing a believer’s life does make them.”12 The believer is “not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21, NKJV).
The New Testament epistles constantly remind the reader that justification by faith alone does not open the door to license. “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). “Not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God” (1 Pet. 2:16). “For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of God into lasciviousness” (Jude 4). The danger has always been there.
Many progressive thinkers today blame legalism more than license for antinomianism. Tullian Tchividjian says, “We find it harder to see that it’s just as wrong to worship morality, like everybody in the church seems to be doing.”13 Yet his own progressive view could not keep him from moral sin in his life. Demas, who traveled with Paul and was taught by him, forsook Paul, “Having loved this present world” (2 Tim. 4:10).
There have been spiritual and moral failures on both sides of the sanctification debate. Whenever this happens it hurts the testimony of Christ before the world because they don’t make any distinctions among Christians. It should always grieve us when a brother or sister falls into outright sin and the snare of the devil. However, I believe that license leaves the Christian much more susceptible to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 Jn. 2:15) than does legalism simply because it is by nature a letting down of one’s spiritual guard. Solomon asked, “Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned?” (Prov. 6:27). In what I think is the saddest passage in the Bible, Solomon failed to follow his own advice, “But Solomon loved many strange women . . . and he had seven hundred wives and princesses, and three hundred concubines: and his wives turned away his heart. And it came to pass when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not right with the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father” (1 Kings 11:1-4).
The old nature that still remains in us will naturally gravitate to lasciviousness not to holiness. The “self” would rather have looseness than strictness because the flesh “wars against the soul” (1 Pet. 2:11) and “every man is drawn away of his own lust and enticed” (James 1:14). Only the grace of God understood in a proper way can direct us.
In the next issue we will take a second look at sanctification and propose a conservative reset that resists both extremes of the debate.
- Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2012) 10.
- Ibid., 20.
- Erwin Lutzer, How in the World Can I be Holy? (Chicago: Moody press, 1985) 15.
- For further reading on current issues I recommend Gary Gilley’s recent articles at Think on These Things Ministries (TOTTministries.org).
- See Rolland McCune’s Systematic Theology, vol. III (Detroit: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2010) for a good review of these three modes.
- McCune, 57.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994) 746.
- Charles Ryrie, Balancing the Christian Life (Chicago: Moody Press, 1973) 65.
- DeYoung, 54.
- Lutzer, 101-102.
- William G.T. Shedd, A Critical and Doctrinal Commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans ( Minneapolis: Klock & Klock, 1978) 145.
- Myron Houghton, Law & Grace ( Schaumburg: Regular Baptist Press, 2011) 120.
- Tullian Tchividjian, Jesus + Nothing = Everything (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2011) 47.