For the last several decades there has been a significant decline in the church’s understanding of how our efforts in progressive sanctification play a role in the Christian life. When I use the term “progressive sanctification” I mean the Christian’s growth in grace towards Christlikeness in this life. This is a Spirit-wrought process whereby we are becoming more like Jesus in our thinking, words, and actions. On the other hand, we also believe the Bible teaches that there is positional sanctification that is enjoyed by believers. This is the Christian’s position as one who has been united to Christ in His death, resurrection, and current reign in Heaven (Rom. 6:5; Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1). There is no progress to be made here. It is our current standing before God as blood-bought, Spirit-sealed children of God (Eph. 1:13). At some point in our personal history we belonged to the kingdom of darkness, but, at the moment of salvation by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone, we were transferred to the kingdom of His beloved Son (Col. 1:13; 1 Pet. 2:9; 1 Thess. 5:4, 5).
What I would like to touch on is the progressive sanctification of the believer and the role of work (not “works”). The idea that Christians must work or put forth effort as part of their maturity in the faith has fallen on hard times in many evangelical circles. Some believe that it is enough to simply recognize and believe that they are “in Christ”. This belief will be all that is necessary for the Christian to cease from sinning. The struggle with particular sins will come to an end if we simply believe and preach the gospel to ourselves on a daily basis. This line of thinking leads to a “resting in Christ” that will somehow cause all of our battles to result in victory over sin.
There is no doubt that the Bible teaches us that we are in Christ, that we have been transferred to the kingdom of light, that we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places. But that’s not all it teaches. The reality is that for the Christian to grow there is genuinely hard work involved in growing in holiness. There is blood to be spilled, sweat to be had, and tears to be shed in fighting the good fight. Here are a few passages that address this very issue:
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Cor. 15:10)
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12-13)
Therefore, since you have been raised with Christ, strive for the things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. (Col. 3:1)
For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. (1 Pet. 1:5-7)
Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Heb. 12:14)
Paul, Peter and the author of Hebrews made it very clear that Christian growth does not happen by osmosis. It isn’t just something that happens to you while you take a passive role. It happens when we take the Word of God, understand what it says, and seek to intentionally apply its principles and commands to our lives day in and day out.
Our position in Christ as those who are united to Him by faith serves as the foundation for our on-going struggle with sin. This is WHY we can engage in the battle for holiness “without which no one will see the Lord.” Our position in Christ affords us the power to conduct a persistent campaign against the remaining sinfulness that we are to mortify because we are indwelt by the third Person of the Triune God, the Holy Spirit Himself. Our confidence in prayers for victory over sin comes from knowing that the Spirit of Christ helps us in our prayers and gives us the strength to do battle. Make no mistake about it: We are called to fight, to put forth effort in our daily struggle towards holiness. Our positional sanctification (being in Christ) serves to empower our progressive sanctification (being Christlike).
Dear Christian, do not rob yourself of victory in Jesus and do not disparage the glory of Christ by refusing to “work out your salvation” under the guise of not wanting to be legalistic. Instead, avail yourself of the power of the Spirit of the living God that dwells within you due to your position in Christ and seek holiness. This is not about meriting and seeking favor with God. You already have His favor, love and acceptance. You have already been justified and reconciled to God by the cross. Christ already took care of that. But the call of the Christian does not stop there. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matt. 5:8) The call is to mortify sin, grow in holiness, and persist till the end, by the grace of God in Christ.
I found this panel session at the 2014 Together for the Gospel conference to be very helpful. Although it is geared toward preachers, I found that it would be helpful for all believers.