How Are Saints “Farther Sanctified”?

If you are already holy, can you be made more holy?  So far in this series, we’ve seen that a biblical view of sanctification sees the doctrine under two distinct-yet-inseparable aspects. Sanctification is initial and definitive in the moment we are saved, and we see this especially in the way the New Testament describes what happens in conversion. Yet this sanctification is also incremental and progressive in believers. Its inception is not its completion, as the 1689 LBCF clearly articulates:

They who are united to Christ, effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, are also farther sanctified, really and personally, through the same virtue, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts of it are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of all true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord (13.1).

The Fact of Progressive Sanctification

The word “sanctification” in various forms is used to refer to an initial sanctification, but it is also used to refer to something that is ongoing and progressive. For example, in John 17:17, Jesus is praying for his disciples, “Sanctify them by Your truth.” Is He praying for the initial definitive sanctification that occurs at conversion? No, those for whom He is praying are envisioned as already being Christians. They have already undergone an initial definitive separation from evil and from the world and a consecration to God. They are already described in this prayer as those who have kept your word (v. 6); those who have believed that you sent Me (v. 8); those who are hated by the world (v. 14), and those who are not of this world (v. 16). He is praying for those who are viewed as already converted and He prays that they might be sanctified. In one sense, they are sanctified, but they still need to be sanctified more and more. 

We see the word used this way in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 where Paul prays for the Thessalonian Christians, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely.” They still need to be sanctified more and more. They were not yet sanctified completely and he prays that, ultimately, they will be. In 1 Thessalonians 4:3, while warning them about sexual sin, he writes, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification, that you should abstain from sexual immorality.” Not only have they been sanctified, but they need to be further sanctified. They need to know how to possess their bodies in sanctification, verse 4. “For God did not call us to uncleanness but in holiness,” or in sanctification, verse 7. Hebrews 12:14 says, “Pursue peace with all people and holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Sanctification is not only something that occurred in our conversion, but it is also something we are to continually pursue. So, the word is sometimes used to refer to that which is still ongoing and progressive in the life of the Christian.

The Pattern of Progressive Sanctification

Not only is the word itself sometimes used to refer to something ongoing and progressive, there are passages that describe the Christian life in terms of a two-sided pattern of growth and development. This pattern involves the progressive mortification of sin and the progressive cultivation of spiritual graces and Christ-like virtues. Notice how the Confession references this pattern of progressive sanctification. It says that “the whole body of sin is destroyed,” which is definitive sanctification, “and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified, and they are more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of all true holiness” which is progressive sanctification. Sin has received its mortal blow but the several lusts thereof still war within us. Thus, this progressive sanctification has both a negative and a positive side to it.

First, there is the negative weakening and mortification, or putting to death, of remaining sin. Romans 8:13, “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die: but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” The verb is in the present tense and may be read as, “If you by the Spirit are putting to death the deeds of the body.” This is an ongoing activity of dealing with remaining sin. Colossians 3:5, “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Colossians 3:8, “But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.” 1 John. 3:3, “And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself [lit. “is purifying himself”], just as He is pure.” 2 Corinthians 7:1, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit.” The assumption in all of these texts is that there are still remaining sinful tendencies, remaining defilement and corruption, adhering to the believer and this necessitates that we must actively be engaged in cleansing ourselves from that defilement

Second, there is an emphasis upon the positive enlivening, strengthening and cultivation of every spiritual grace. Again, 2 Corinthians 7:1, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit.” But it doesn’t stop there. We then have the positive, “perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” The negation of Romans 12:2, “do not be conformed to this world,” is followed by the positive, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Or as 1 Thessalonians 4:1 states, “Finally, then, brethren, we urge and exhort in the Lord Jesus that you should abound more and more, just as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God.”

We have this language of process, progression, and growth. 1 Peter 2:2 describes believers as “newborn babes” who must “desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby.” Peter doubles-down in his second letter, calling Christians to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). With all diligence, the Christian is called to “add to [his] faith virtue, to virtue knowledge; to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love” (2 Peter 1:5ff).

In these verses, we clearly see a progressive sanctification that has both a negative and a positive side to it. We also saw this when we looked at Romans 6. In union with Christ, we died to sin and have been raised to newness of life (vv. 1-11). This is definitive sanctification. But it also speaks of progressive sanctification which is based on and grows out of that. “Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin [the negative], but present yourself to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God [the positive].” (vv. 12-13). We see the same the thing in Colossians 3:9-10, “You have put off the old man with his deeds . . . and have put on the new man.” This is definitive sanctification. That’s what happened at your conversion. But these indicative verbs are couched on both sides by imperative verbs. Notice the negative aspect in verse 8, “But now you yourselves put off all these: anger, wrath, malice” and so on. Verse 12 gives us the positive: “Therefore as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility” etc.

The New Testament clearly envisions the Christian life as one that involves progressive sanctification after the pattern described in the Confession, “the several lusts thereof are more weakened and mortified, and they are more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces.”

The Means of Progressive Sanctification

This first paragraph also mentions the means by which this progressive work of sanctification occurs in the life of the Christian, “are also farther sanctified, really and personally… by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them.” We have mention of both the instrumental means and the efficient means.

Let’s begin, first, with the efficient means. The term “efficient” means that which makes something effective. The Holy Spirit is the one who causes the work of sanctification in our lives to be effective. It is God alone working in us by the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us.  Without the Spirit we can never be sanctified. It is important to understand that. We must never think of holiness as something a man just decides to go in for, something he just decides to pursue of his own initiative and something that he does for himself and acquires by his own natural force of personality or energy. No, it is a supernatural work of God from beginning to end.

Therefore, no one can be sanctified who is not a Christian, who has not been reconciled to God by the death of His Son and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Sanctification is something that begins with the new birth and our union with Christ.

This also reminds us that truth alone will never sanctify a man. It is God by the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us by His truth. His Word is the instrument, but the Spirit is the one who makes it effectual in our hearts. This is why all of our interaction with the Word of God, whether listening to preaching or personal bible reading and bible study, must be joined with earnest prayer for the blessing of God upon it. The Word alone does not sanctify. It is the Spirit who sanctifies.

However, secondly, as the Confession notes, the Word is the instrument the Spirit uses in sanctification. The Word is the primary instrumental means. The Word is not the only means. God also uses trials to sanctify us.[1] But the Word is the primary means through which the Spirit works to enable us to become progressively sanctified.

Does this mean God’s Word should be used like a mantra, or in some kind of magical, mystical way through the mere repetition? Not at all. Rather, the Spirit works by the Word understood, applied, and acted upon. This sanctifying Word of God is full of doctrines to be learned and believed, and commands and exhortations to be obeyed. It is also full of exhortations to diligent effort and painstaking exertion in the living of the Christian life.

We do not remain passive as the Spirit sanctifies us. Rather, He so works in us that we work. His work in us is evidenced by our diligent application of ourselves to His Word and to what it tells us to believe and commands us to do. His work does not preclude our working. In sanctification the Spirit works and we work. His promised work in us is the basis of our hope of success in the pursuit of holiness. Our work in applying ourselves to God’s Word, learning what we are to believe concerning God, and what God requires of us and seeking to do it, is to be the focus of our deliberate effort. They are concurrent realities in the progressive sanctification of the Christian.

The Necessity of Progressive Sanctification

Sanctification is not an option. Notice how the confession, quoting from Hebrews 12:14, states that holiness is a quality “without which no one will see the Lord.” Sanctification, initial and progressive, is a mark of a true Christian. If we are not pursuing holiness in our lives as defined and described by the Bible, we will be lost in the end.

We do not earn salvation by sanctification, but salvation is evidenced in us by and through our sanctification. Indeed, sanctification, like justification, is an essential aspect of true salvation. Therefore, where there is no sanctification, there is no salvation.

Does this mean, then, that unless we are perfectly holy and sinless, we are not saved? No, and that leads us to a subject we will take up in our next post.

Editor's Note: This post has been adapted from A New Exposition of the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, edited by Rob Ventura, slated for release by Mentor Books in November 2022.

Jeffery Smith has been in pastoral ministry since 1990 and since 2009 has been serving at Emmanuel Baptist Church, Coconut Creek, FL. In addition to his regular pastoral and preaching responsibilities, Jeff serves on the governing board and as a lecturer for Reformed Baptist Seminary. He is the author of: The Plain Truth About Life After Death (Evangelical Press, 2019) and Preaching for Conversions (Free Grace Press, 2019). 

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[1] See, for example, Psalm 119: 67, 71; Romans 5:1-4; 2 Corinthians 4:17-18; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:6-7.