The Certain Progress of Sanctification
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.
Having been definitively sanctified, the Christian is being progressively sanctified, although not perfectly sanctified in this life. He or she will always battle with remaining sin. But, at the same time, the true Christian will not ultimately be destroyed. In the conflict he will never apostatize, and he will grow and increase in Christian virtue. This is the emphasis of the third and final paragraph of this chapter of the Confession:
In which war, although the remaining corruption for a time may much prevail, yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part does overcome; and so the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God, pressing after an heavenly life, in evangelical obedience to all the commands which Christ as Head and King, in his Word has prescribed to them.
A Progress That May Sometimes Experience Setbacks
“In which war, although the remaining corruption for a time may much prevail…”
Consider the experiences of Noah falling prey to drunkenness, Abraham lying about his wife Sarah and putting her in danger, Moses striking the rock, David falling into adultery, as well as covering his sin and delaying repentance for a time, and Peter denying the Lord and giving way to the cowardly fear of man. These are all examples of true believers in whom, for a time, remaining corruption prevailed.
A Progress That Will Ultimately Not Be Thwarted
In all of those examples just given, none of these saints remained in such a sad spiritual condition indefinitely. Each one of them eventually repented and renewed their faith and devotion to God. It is possible to lose a battle without losing the war. When walking up a long stairway, one may fall or even slide back a few steps, but still persevere and advance toward the top. Sometimes sanctification can give the same appearance of halting progress. But as the Confession goes on to say, “In which war, although the remaining corruption for a time may much prevail, yet through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome.”
The Agent and Essence of this Progress
It is through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ who indwells every believer that the believer is enabled to overcome.
The Confession says, “and so the saints grow in grace.” This is a concise way of describing progressive sanctification. The language is taken from 2 Peter 3:18, “but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Growing in grace is a common way of describing the gradual increase of those holy virtues that God works in His people through the indwelling Christ.
The Characteristics of this Progress
What does this growing in grace involve? The Confession mentions three interrelated characteristics.
First, it involves “perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). In other words, it involves becoming increasingly separated from sin and devoted to God in a spirit of godly fear. To the Christian, the fear of God is not that dread of God that marks the unbeliever and causes him to run from God or to try to suppress God’s voice in general and special revelation. Rather, the Confession is referring to a gracious fear of God which is one of the most common ways true godliness is described in the Bible. It is a fear of God that is joined to trust in our Father’s love and care for us in Christ, which at the same time counts our Father’s frown as our greatest dread and His smile as our greatest joy. We pursue holiness without and within not to impress men, but because we fear God who sees and knows every thought and intent of the heart and because we desire to honor and to please Him who loved us and gave His Son to redeem us.
Second, the confession says, “pressing after an heavenly life.” This progress in sanctification involves seeking to live on earth as a pilgrim-citizen of heaven, with your affections set upon heaven and seeking to do the will of God on earth as it is done in heaven.
Third, the confession says Christians do this “in evangelical obedience to all the commands which Christ as Head and King in his Word hath prescribed them.” This third characteristic might appear simply to be a part of the second. However, there is a comma between the two, so I mention it separately.
What is evangelical obedience? This is common language found in the Puritans but it’s a concept rarely heard of today. What does it mean? The term “evangelical obedience” includes several important ideas. It is obedience growing out of faith in the gospel, as opposed to a legal obedience that is seeking to obtain salvation as a reward of our efforts. It is obedience that arises from a regenerate heart and is, therefore, marked by a sincere desire to honor and glorify God and our Savior Jesus Christ. And finally, it is an obedience that, though it is not perfect, is also not satisfied with anything less than obedience to all that Christ’s commands. As the Confession says it aims after obedience “to all the commands which Christ as head and King in His Word hath prescribed them.” This is often referred to as universal obedience. Universal obedience is not perfect, sinless obedience. Rather, it is evangelical obedience which aims for complete compliance to all that Christ commands.
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This last paragraph teaches that in spite of all the ups and downs and conflict of the Christian life, and in spite of the fact that a Christian may backslide for a time and that remaining corruption may prevail, yet every true Christian will, ultimately, over the course his life, make progress in sanctification by means of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in His heart. Holiness will continue to be perfected in a climate of godly fear. He will continue to press after a heavenly life. And over time, he will grow in evangelical obedience to all the commands of Christ as he becomes aware of them. Some will make greater progress than others. But all of God’s true people will ultimately be found in the way of pursuing that holiness “without which no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
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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