This is the first part of a series of posts adapted from a paper I pre­sented at a New Covenant The­ol­ogy think tank in upstate New York in July 2010.

For the apos­tle Paul, the Mosaic law – or any exter­nal com­mands not grounded in the indica­tive of the Spirit of God given to dwell in the believer – is anti­thet­i­cal to our growth in holi­ness; rather it is the Holy Spirit who is trans­form­ing the believer from “one degree of glory to another,” (). Paul’s teach­ing on the inabil­ity of the law to effec­tively com­bat sin in the life of the Chris­t­ian has been dis­torted by many, result­ing in an improper focus on law that con­tin­ues to enslave believ­ers in sin.[1] Per­haps Paul’s exas­per­ated excla­ma­tion and rhetor­i­cal ques­tions to the “fool­ish” Gala­tians is sum­mary enough of Paul’s view of the law:

[2] Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hear­ing with faith? [3] Are you so fool­ish? Hav­ing begun by the Spirit, are you now being per­fected by the flesh? [4] Did you suf­fer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? [5] Does he who sup­plies the Spirit to you and works mir­a­cles among you do so by works of the law, or by hear­ing with faith— [6] just as Abra­ham “believed God, and it was counted to him as right­eous­ness”? ()

Rembrandt's painting of the Apostle Paul, c. 1635

Rembrandt’s paint­ing of the Apos­tle Paul, c. 1635

“Hav­ing begun by the Spirit, are you now being per­fected by the flesh?” That antithe­sis – the Spirit and the flesh – draws the bat­tle lines for Paul between those who would have believ­ers con­tin­u­ing as slaves to sin instead of liv­ing as slaves to Christ and reap­ing the fruit of the Spirit. It is, as Paul tells the Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans, the will of God that they – that we – be sanc­ti­fied, “because God chose you as the first­fruits to be saved, through sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (). God did not choose believ­ers to be sanc­ti­fied by the law; God did not choose believ­ers to be sanc­ti­fied by their own actions, behav­ior mod­i­fi­ca­tion or self-help tech­niques; God chose believ­ers to be sanc­ti­fied by the Spirit of Christ via the gospel of Christ.

For the believer, there is an ini­tial posi­tional sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion: we have been set apart as holy by God at our regen­er­a­tion. There is also a final sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion, or glo­ri­fi­ca­tion: we will be holy and blame­less and spot­less. “And I am sure of this,” Paul writes, “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to com­ple­tion at the day of Jesus Christ” (). But what comes between? Thomas Schreiner describes the ten­sion between these two states and the believer’s exis­tence between these two states:

Believ­ers are already in the realm of the holy, but on the last day, they will be trans­formed so that they are with­out sin. Paul does not explain how this trans­for­ma­tion will occur; though it seems that it will take place when Christ returns. … A ten­sion emerges in Paul’s thought. One the one hand, it seems that the escha­to­log­i­cal com­ple­tion of holi­ness can­not be sun­dered from progress in holi­ness in this life; on the other hand, Paul rec­og­nizes that the work of holi­ness will not be accom­plished in this life. He uses a future tense to assure them that God will sanc­tify them com­pletely. … The already–not yet dimen­sion of Paul’s escha­tol­ogy pro­vides the most sat­is­fac­tory solu­tion. Believ­ers are in the process of sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion now, but they are not yet per­fect. They long for the day when God’s promise of per­fect­ing them in holi­ness will be con­sum­mated.[2]

Mar­tyn Lloyd-Jones describes that “process of sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion now” in this way:

So then, I sug­gest to you that this will do as a good def­i­n­i­tion of sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion: it is ‘that gra­cious and con­tin­u­ous oper­a­tion of the Holy Spirit by which He deliv­ers the jus­ti­fied sin­ner from the pol­lu­tion of sin, renews his whole nature in the image of God and enables him to per­form good works.’ Let me make that clear: ‘It is that gra­cious and con­tin­u­ous oper­a­tion of the Holy Spirit by which He deliv­ers the jus­ti­fied sinner’—the one who is already justified—‘from the pol­lu­tion of sin’—not from the guilt any longer, that has hap­pened. Jus­ti­fi­ca­tion has taken care of that. He is declared just and right­eous, the guilt has been dealt with. Now we are con­cerned more about the power and the pol­lu­tion of sin—‘renews his whole nature in the image of God and enables him to per­form good works.’[3]

Thus for the pur­poses of this series of arti­cles, we shall use the term “sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion” in the sense of a growth in holi­ness: what has tra­di­tion­ally been called “pro­gres­sive sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion.”[4] How­ever, because of the use of and the asso­ci­a­tion with the term “pro­gres­sive sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion” with those who would also advo­cate the “third use of the law” as part of that growth, we will not use that term here, but instead will use “sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion” – and its Greek ἁγιασμός (hagias­mos) – as inter­change­able with a “growth in holi­ness,” rec­og­niz­ing that this is the most com­mon use of the term in the New Tes­ta­ment.[5]

With that escha­to­log­i­cal tra­jec­tory in mind – our final com­plete holi­ness – we will focus on the sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion – the growth in holi­ness – that should be the life story of all Chris­tians, a life story that requires a fer­vent belief in the gospel and a trust in the Spirit for that sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion. It is God who jus­ti­fies and God who glo­ri­fies () and most assuredly, it is God who sanc­ti­fies by His Spirit  ().

To show how Paul views this growth in holi­ness – this ongo­ing work of sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion before that final glo­ri­fi­ca­tion – this series will look at five propo­si­tions of Paul’s the­ol­ogy. First, is that the law can­not cope with sin. Sec­ond, the love that is intrin­sic to God and which flows only from God – the love brought by the indwelling Holy Spirit – ful­fills the law. Third, that it is the Spirit that pro­duces fruit in the believer while the law in our remain­ing sin­ful flesh can pro­duce only that which it has power to pro­duce: sin. Fourth, that sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion results from our union with Christ, exhorted by what it means to be Christ-like. Fifth, that while Paul gives us imper­a­tives, com­mands and exhor­ta­tions, they are not them­selves laws and are not given as laws or in the cat­e­gory of law, because they are imper­a­tives that are only achieved by the indica­tive of our reliance upon Christ and our posi­tion in Christ.

To sum­ma­rize, the bat­tle for our sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion is between the Spirit and the flesh. It is not – and can­not – be the law bat­tling against our sin­ful flesh. Using the law to com­bat sin pours gaso­line upon the sin­ful pas­sions of the flesh, a flesh we will inhabit until the day we meet Christ face to face and be raised like Him. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall cer­tainly be united with him in a res­ur­rec­tion like his” ().

That escha­to­log­i­cal, glo­ri­fied state is where we’ll begin next time.

Next: Com­pleted by the Spirit, Part 2: A Res­ur­rec­tion Like His


[1] This is a ref­er­ence to the “third use of the law,” the belief that the “Moral Law” or the Deca­logue remains a “per­fect rule of right­eous­ness” for the believer, such as is stated in the West­min­ster Con­fes­sion of Faith and its later deriv­a­tive, the 2nd Lon­don Bap­tist Con­fes­sion of Faith.

[2] Thomas R. Schreiner, New Tes­ta­ment The­ol­ogy: Mag­ni­fy­ing God in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Aca­d­e­mic, 2008), 374–5.

[3] David Mar­tyn Lloyd-Jones, God the Holy Spirit: Great Doc­trines of the Bible (Great Doc­trines of the Bible Series, Vol 2)
(Wheaton, Ill.: Cross­ways Books, 1997). 195.

[4] For exam­ple, Robert L. Rey­mond in A New Sys­tem­atic The­ol­ogy of the Chris­t­ian Faith (Sec­ond Edi­tion)
(Nashville: Thomas Nel­son Inc., 1998) defines pro­gres­sive sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion as one “under­stood neg­a­tively in terms of putting to death the deeds of the flesh which still remain in him and pos­i­tively in terms of growth in all sav­ing graces.” (p. 768–769). Rey­mond then goes on for 12 more pages defend­ing the use of the Deca­logue as the as “the moral law of God, which Chris­tians are to obey.”

Sim­i­larly, the West­min­ster Con­fes­sion of Faith quite sweetly posits that “They who are effec­tu­ally called and regen­er­ated, hav­ing a new heart and a new spirit cre­ated in them, are fur­ther sanc­ti­fied, really and per­son­ally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and res­ur­rec­tion, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the domin­ion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the sev­eral lusts thereof are more and more weak­ened and mor­ti­fied, and they more and more quick­ened and strength­ened, in all sav­ing graces, to the prac­tice of true holi­ness, with­out which no man shall see the Lord” (XIII/i). Yet that same con­fes­sion describes asserts that the law “doth for­ever bind all” (XIX/v), the words of Paul in Scrip­ture notwithstanding.

[5] William D. Mounce says of ἁγιασμός (hagias­mos) that the word, “is gen­er­ally used in the NT the moral sense, refer­ring to the process (or the final result of that process) of mak­ing pure or holy. It is like a grow­ing fruit that results in eter­nal life.” Mounce’s Com­plete Expos­i­tory Dic­tio­nary of Old & New Tes­ta­ment Words
(Grand Rapids: Zon­der­van, 2006). 338.

 


18 And we all, with unveiled face, behold­ing the glory of the Lord, are being trans­formed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (ESV)


Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hear­ing with faith? Are you so fool­ish? Hav­ing begun by the Spirit, are you now being per­fected by the flesh? Did you suf­fer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who sup­plies the Spirit to you and works mir­a­cles among you do so by works of the law, or by hear­ing with faith— just as Abra­ham “believed God, and it was counted to him as right­eous­ness”? (ESV)


13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, broth­ers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first­fruits to be saved, through sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion by the Spirit and belief in the truth. (ESV)


And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to com­ple­tion at the day of Jesus Christ. (ESV)


30 And those whom he pre­des­tined he also called, and those whom he called he also jus­ti­fied, and those whom he jus­ti­fied he also glo­ri­fied. (ESV)


13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, broth­ers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first­fruits to be saved, through sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion by the Spirit and belief in the truth. (ESV)


For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall cer­tainly be united with him in a res­ur­rec­tion like his. (ESV)