Christian sanctification is normally understood as the on-going spiritual growth of a believer where that believer is more and more conformed into the image and likeness of Christ. The moment a person believes in Jesus and thereby becomes one with Him, the Spirit of Christ enables and works within the believer to grow in Christlikeness; he grows in godliness. Reformed Christians have historically made a distinction between Definitive Sanctification and Progressive Sanctification. The description above is expressing the latter and this article will address the relationship between Progressive Sanctification and Eschatology.
Now eschatology, simply understood, is the study of last things. But in a more profound sense eschatology is really the study of all redemptive history since Genesis 1 until the final consummation. The entire Bible is an eschatological symphony; God bringing to an end all his redemptive purposes. To be a little bit more precise, the Old Testament is concerned with looking forward to the end, while the New Testament is concerned with living in the end.
What becomes clear in the New Testament is that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the climactic crescendo moment in this grand symphony. It was the event which marked and ushered in the end of the end, otherwise known as the last days, last times, or last hour (see Hebrews 1:2; 2 Timothy 3:1; 2 Peter 3:3; James 5:3; Acts 2:17; 1 Peter 1:20; Jude 1:18; 1 John 2:18). Distinct from the Last Day (1 Corinthians 3:13, cf. 4:5 and 5:5; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11), a Day which we are told no one can know the day or hour of its coming (Matthew 24:36), these current last days constitute the time span between Christ’s ascension and Christ’s return. It is what many theologians refer to as the “now and not yet”, an inaugurated period in which the end has truly begun.
What does this have to do with a believer’s sanctification? Turns out, quite a lot! For instance, Paul is quite clear in Romans 6:1-11 that the believer, united as he is to the resurrected Jesus Christ, now participates in that same resurrection power! And not simply in a “you’ll one day be physically resurrected from the grave like Jesus was” way (that comes in Romans 8), but in a very present, “you’ve been born again and are now enabled to live a new godly life” kind of way. For Paul there is no sanctification without the resurrection.
But also, for Paul, the resurrection of Christ isn’t just this pragmatic tool through which heretofore spiritually dead people are now enabled to be spiritually alive people. No, the resurrection of Christ is the literal (though spiritual) inbreaking of heaven into this old, dying world. In Jesus, a new creation has dawned. “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:18-20).
It’s out of this cosmic paradigm shift where we see individual sanctification come into clearer focus. Sanctification is not just believers being enabled to become better people, folks who are less sinful. No, sanctification within a believer is the evidence, the fruition and flowering, of this new inaugurated creation. Consider Paul’s striking words in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
What’s staggering is that Paul grounds this new creation in the resurrection of Christ! In context, Paul says that “the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:14-17).
The overriding point Paul is making here is that Christ’s resurrection has inaugurated a new creation out of the old. When Christ got up out of the grave it wasn’t just his person that arose. No, there was an entirely new cosmos trailing behind him, a new creation which emerged with and began to spread out of and around him.
But where, you ask? Where do we see this new creation? Paul’s answer is clear: for those who are in Christ, i.e., believers united to the risen Savior by faith, they are the shining evidence and first fruits of this new creation. Which means that their lifestyle, their actions, their mode of thinking – being controlled by the love of Christ, or no longer living for themselves, as Paul describes – all of this is God’s work in establishing a new creation, a renewed but better Eden where God can again walk in the cool of the day with his people. This is sanctification.
To be sure this new creation is only an inaugurated one. As we’ve already stated it is “now and not yet.” But the resurrection of Christ has made it abundantly clear that this present world is doomed to pass away in judgment (see Acts 17:30-31). Which means that the sanctified Christian can have full assurance of escaping the doomsday death knell of this passing world. It will decease but we cannot. As the Apostle John puts it, “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life —is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:16-17).
Sanctification then is enfleshed eschatology; the embodiment of Christ’s established new creation. And though we presently fight against the old corruptions of the old world still present in the old man of sin, we look with assured hope to the day when the seventh angel will blow the last trumpet and “The kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).
Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.