"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)


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  • « Understanding Mark 11:23 | Main | The Wonderful Cross By Isaac Watts »

    Sanctification via Union With Christ

    God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord." (1 cor 1:28-31)

    I often think that our sanctification is very much like our original conversion experience. The more we grow in grace, the more we lose all confidence in ourselves. It seems, somewhat ironically, that as Christ works sanctification in us, the greater is our recognition of our own sinfulness. And it seems this is done for a purpose, for as we come face to face with our own corruption, we are driven to Christ as our righteousness, holiness and redemption, our all in all...our only hope before God. So sanctification is not so much about our own spirituality as it is about Christ and Him becoming greater. Christ commanded us to partake of Communion "till He come" and perhaps the reason for this is to continually focus our eyes less on what we do for Him, and more on what He has done for us and relish it. What we do in response to Him is only penultimate or secondary. The most critical error we make as believers is to look in ourselves for something that can only be found in Christ.

    The principal means of the believer’s sanctification is union with Christ. We are united to Christ in his death and resurrection in which He, as its first fruits, inaugurated the new creation. The Age to come presses in to this Age in such a way as to bring kingdom benefits to those united to Him. We do not grow in our sanctification when we are overly focused on our own spirituality. It comes as we gaze on the beauty and excellency of Christ. We are united to Him in such a way that his death is viewed as our death and his resurrection ours. (Rom 6:1-11) The identification is complete in Christ, who is our life! We must, therefore, never separate the Benefactor (Jesus Christ) from benefits of redemption, including our sanctification.

    Dr. Sinclair Ferguson explains that "Union with Christ in his death and resurrection is the element of union which Paul most extensively expounds...if we are united to Christ, then we are united to him at all points of his activity on our behalf. We share in his death (we were baptized into his death), in his resurrection (we are resurrected with Christ), in his ascension (we have been raised with him), in his heavenly session (we sit with him in heavenly places, so that our life is hidden with Christ in God), and we will share in his promised return (when Christ, who is our life, appears, we also will appear with him in glory) (Rom. 6:14; Col. 2:11-12; 3:1-3). This, then, is the foundation of sanctification in Reformed theology. It is rooted, not in humanity and their achievement of holiness or sanctification, but in what God has done in Christ, and for us in union with him. Rather than view Christians first and foremost in the microcosmic context of their own progress, the Reformed doctrine first of all sets them in the macrocosm of God's activity in redemptive history. It is seeing oneself in this context that enables the individual Christian to grow in true holiness."

    As long as we live in this world of sin, we should let it drive us to Him. The Scripture clearly states that Christ is our sanctification. The whole of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension have provided to us a deposit of His own sanctified life, from which all our needs can be supplied. So we feed on Him in the Eucharist as a visible gospel, where He communes with us in a spiritual way. Because of our union with Him, we partake of His resources. That is why he can "become for us" sanctification, just as he is also our wisdom, righteousness and redemption (I Cor. 1:30).

    With this in mind, John Calvin once said:

    "We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ [Acts 4:12]. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is ‘of him’ [I Cor. 1:30]. If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; if purity, in his conception; if gentleness, it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects [Heb. 2:17] that he might learn to feel our pain [compare to Heb. 5:2]. If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross [Gal. 3:13]; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection; if immortality, in the same; if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom, in his entrance into heaven; if protection, if security if abundant supply of all blessings, in his Kingdom; if untroubled expectation of judgment; in the power given to him to judge. In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from the fountain, and from no other."(2.16.18.)

    We grow in grace by looking to Christ, not ourselves for our spiritual nourishment. We would exhaust oursleves very quickly on our own resources. God requires holy perfection from us but we always fall short. Since all we do has mixed motives and we seldom if ever love others as we should, we can confidently say that we do not bring anything of additional worth to our relationship with God. He is fully satisfied in Christ. Yes, as Protestants, we all should know that we are declared righteous because of our union with Christ but few consider that we are also sanctified in the same way. The gospel not only justifies us but is what we run back to in order to sanctify us. Justification, where God has already fully accepted us based on Christ's alien righteouness is what he has done for us, but sanctification is what He progressively does in us. This is also a gift of grace appropriated by faith. The difference in our standing before and after salvation is that we have the Spirit indwelling us constantly newewing our affections which delight in His law and drive us to feed on Christ.

    The power of the Holy Spirit working in us is never to be the basis of our relationship with God because the imputation of Christ's righteousness already sees us as holy before Him. Thus when you long for His acceptance just look to Christ, whose blood of the covenant "reminds God" not to treat us as our sins deserve. You will never be holy enough, even for an instant, on your own. Christ alone is your righteousness.

    But each day subjectively the Spirit is also uniting you to the nourshment of Christ, who imparts life to you from the root. God desires that you grow in conformity to Jesus Christ. He even "predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son" (Rom 8:29) He purifies you so that you would be eager to obey and delight in Him. As we lose confidence in self, we gain confidence in Christ and the Spirit experientially imparts life to us daily so that we might see more of our own unrighteousness and be willing to forsake it in glad obedience to Him. This is as much a gift of grace as is our justification. We respond, yet the response is wrought by the life of grace that we now partake of in Christ. "His commands are not burdensome"(1 john 5:3) because in Christ we now view them as holy
    and good (Rom 7:12).

    The prophet Ezekiel, inspired by the Holy Spirit, expresses it thus:

    "And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules." (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

    The Word as a Means of Grace

    It is we who obey yet it is because of the new Spirit put in us that we have the heart to do so. The Holy Spirit has conquered our hatred of the light and moves within us to desire His law. To grow into His likeness more and more, let us constantly feed ourselves on the reading of the Word, and put ourselves before good exposition of the Word for this is the outward means the Spirit uses to bring us greater understanding. This means taking our eyes of of self and our own spirituality. Let us always pray that the Spirit removes our faithlessness and illumines our minds that we might to grow in out Knowledge of Him in the Revelation He has given us. Again John Calvin said,

    "Indeed the Word of God is like the sun, shining upon all those to whom it is proclaimed, but with no effect among the blind. Now, all of us are blind by nature in this respect... Accordingly, it cannot penetrate into our minds unless the Spirit, as the inner teacher, through his illumination makes entry for it." (Calvin's Institutes 3.2.34.)

    Only the Holy Spirit is equal to the task of sanctification in us. We are commanded and are indeed responsible to put on and act out Christlike character, but these are fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22). That means they work themselves out in us as the Spirit unites us to Christ, not through sheer willpower or exertion. While responsible to obey, we are also dependent on Him to obey. All spiritual blessings are ours in Christ (Eph 1:3)

    Now many persons have asked me if sancification is monergistic in the same way regeneration is. I am rather hestiant to say yes because the term monergism is used in regeneration because God alone acts upon someone who is dead. We do not respond to become regenerated, but are regenerated in order to respond. A believer already has the Spirit indwelling so He is in fact responding to somehting God does in him. God still initiates and moves us to obedience but we actually act. One of the classic texts for sanctification is, "work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure." Phil 2:12b,13.

    God makes us will and work in a particular direction, but Paul nontheless commands believers to act on it. There is never a command to be regenerated, as it is never spoken of in the imperative. The new birth is something God does and God alone.

    A. A. Hodge once said,

    "It must be remembered that while the subject is passive with respect to that divine act of grace whereby he is regenerated, after he is regenerated he cooperates with the Holy Ghost in the work of sanctification. The Holy Ghost gives the grace, and prompts and directs in its exercise, and the soul exercises it. Thus while sanctification is a grace, it is also a duty; and the soul is both bound and encouraged to use with diligence, in dependence upon the Holy Spirit, all the means for its spiritual renovation, and to form those habits resisting evil and of right action in which sanctification so largely consists."

    "Dependence" is the key word here. The more we depend on Christ, the less we do on self, and our own resources. So sanctificaiton is all about Christ becoming greater and we becoming less. It is worthwhile to rememeber that sanctification does not earn merit for us. Christ's merit alone is sufficient. He is "our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption."


    Posted by John on April 21, 2006 12:16 PM


    A breath of fresh air. While the law presses down upon us and whispers to us the necessity of right living in order to deem us worthy and righteous; I rejoice at the banner that waves, "He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption." The exaltation of overly-triumphant living despairs and I thank God for the reformed faith he has birthed in me. Thanks JWH for the post.

    While it is true that our side of synergistic striving toward sanctification (and the epistles all do indeed describe it as striving with His power rather than as rest) "does not earn merit for us" as you conclude, it does earn reward. And the "staggering nature of the rewards promised" (as C.S. Lewis put it) throughout Scripture shall be based upon what we do or don't do as Christians in this life (e.g. 1 Cor 3:8,13, 2Cor 5:9-11, Eph 6:8, Col 3:24, 2Jn 1:8, Rev 22:12). An unmerited reward, but a gracious reward nonetheless based on works built on the foundation of Christ's finished work and dependent indeed on his Spirit. Since God emphasizes reward over and over again to us as a motivation toward our part in working out that sanctification, let us as good humble children not attempt to be too proudly 'holy' or 'moral' that we ignore how even men such as Moses ('he was looking ahead to his reward' Heb. 11:26) and Christ a few verses afterword ('...who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross Heb 12:) are exemplified as motivating themselves in the life of faith.

    Brother Steve:

    The reward is none other than Christ. What greater reward, what great motivator than Christ, the the ground of our motivation. There will never be any greater reward than to be in His presence, behold His glory, His beauty, excellency, and to fellowship with Him. Would you argue that such promises can be found apart from Him, that the reward is something other than Christ Himself? Our inhertance is the Lord. The joy that Christ had set before Him was the glory of God and the redemption of bride which he came to take for Himself.

    If Jesus is our sanctification and reward, I fail to see how it either ignores Moses or is proudly 'holy' and 'moral'. Quite the contrary. If our all our sanctification is found in Him, and we have no confidence in the flesh, but continually flee to Christ, glorying in Him Alone, and depending on Him ...and if He alone is our reward (just as He is our sanctifaction and redmeption), then there is no room for boasting.

    "I am your portion and your inheritance..." Numbers 18:20

    "This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent." John 17:3

    Enjoying God is truly our reward. Augustine said "He loves thee too little who loves anything together with Thee, which he loves not for thy sake", and I believe that sentiment applies to those things we would seek in the reward of the next life as much as this. What God exactly means by biblical language such as talking of ruling with Christ, inheritances, and judging angels we do not know in detail; but just as there are indications of a diversity of creation in the heavens that exist now even before the day of judgment (cherubim, seraphim) we can expect that in the new heavens and earth continuation of a diversity of creation and our roles in it that are distinct from God himself that can be enjoyed, insofar as they are enjoyed in a God-centered sense that brings appreciation and glory back to him. The dozens of New Testament verses motivating by reward rarely if ever feel need to simultaneously warn that the only reward is God himself.
    But no matter what one thinks of the 'nature' of the differing rewards we shall enjoy based on our efforts here (perhaps it will be absolutely nothing more than differing capacities to enjoy our direct view of God), my point was only to say it merits mention as a very primary motivation and result of our working with the Spirit. I do not disagree with anything said in your essay (perhaps you could have been a bit stronger than merely saying you are 'hesitant to say sanctification is monergistic'), but commenting on 'reward' as a chief biblical motivation in sanctification was worthwhile to balance your statement that we must not think our efforts merit anything additional and general discussion on reasons for our efforts in synergism. 100% of our focus on RESOURCES for striving center on God Himself, but we must know that our striving actually has effect, they make a difference in what we shall achieve and receive, and look to future reward as the motivating difference in sanctification. In justification, Christ's work and ALL work is finished, and we have no work to do. We just exult in thankfulness. In sanctification, God's work continues and we have MUCH work to do, and have chief biblical motivations such as reward that drive us to draw more strenuously upon infinite reserves of grace in order to accomplish that work. Much of the current Reformed fashionable discussion on sanctification purporting to be deep thinking and enlightenment announcing 'sanctification is ALSO by grace' (as if that were a profoundly novel emphasis) upon further study do not amount to much more than a step toward a Lutheran rather than Reformed view of sanctification (e.g., "its nothing more than getting used to justification", minimizing 3rd use of the law) that systematically downplay, ignore, or even mock our own discipline, self-control, striving, taking up "our OWN cross" daily as all being against the spirit of this 'grace awakening' rather than the pervasive biblical admonitions for sanctification they are in truth.
    Those are the reasons I bring up strivings and reward. My comments concerning those who would object that 'reward' is an ignoble motivation in sanctification were not directed your way specifically, but is my anticipated response to a common response downplaying reward, wherever such reaction may arise.


    Yes I heartily agree with your sentiments. They seem to be theologically sound. Good words! I would never want to give the impression of diminishing the third use of the law... And this use of the law has the function of continually revealing our pride and trust of self which should drive us back to Christ. The Law, which we now delight in as believers, still has the function of revealing our inadequacy in the face of Christ that we might go to Him for the faith and strenth to obey, and in beholding His glory we are transformed into His likeness. We we cannot do for ourselves Christ does for us. The Law then serves to remind us of our Union with Christ and, in Him, find our ability to live in accord with it.

    Indeed while our inheritance is Christ Himself, we will be resurrected and live on a renewed earth where there will be no tears or death ... and in that creation we will all indeed find endless enjoyments. But all things will be enjoyed in light of bringing glory to God in Christ. We will be sealed in righteousness and thus always delight in Him in all our activiity as the end of all we do, we will in fact love Him with all our hearts, so the creation can in fact be enjoyed without idolatry and without corruption. God will be it all in all.

    So if embraced with that in view I have no problem with delighting in the rewards of creation we will have.

    Sanctification is so hard to measure. How do you measure the epitome of meekness; joy; peace; kindness; faith; love; prayer; evangelism; love to Christ; Will I increase 3% each year of my life, will my knowledge of the "union with Christ" increase 3% each year? I have borderlined on mysticism in my approach to sanctification or else legalism, or else a despairing stoical paralysis.

    99% of the sheep will never be as studious as Calvin, Luther, Owen, Edwards; but do we attribute any of that to their discipline, instead of Grace; or do we say it is all grace, and thus we resign to our simplicities; I prefer to avoid resigning and bear the loathsome fact of my responsibility for negligence.

    Obviously, "Education" is not always "peity" but certainly neither is ignorance and sloth.

    We must avoid defining sanctification in the extremes of pragmatism of charity without theology, and also "books" without tangible benevolence.

    btw...I really love monergism and these blogs, thanks so much for your insights and labors;



    Thanks for your helpful comments. You said: >>>>"Sanctification is so hard to measure. How do you measure the epitome of meekness; joy; peace; kindness; faith; love; prayer; evangelism; love to Christ; Will I increase 3% each year of my life, will my knowledge of the "union with Christ" increase 3% each year?"

    I am in total agreement with your idea here. That is why I think Dr. Sinclair Ferguson once said:

    "The Christians who are most focused on thieir own spirituality may give the impression of being the most spiritual ... but from the New Testament's point of view, those who have almost forgotten about their own spirtuality because their focus is so exclusively on their union with Jesus Christ and what He has accomplished are those who are growing and exhibiting fruitfulness. Historically speaking, whenever the piety of a particular group is focused on OUR spirituality that piety will eventually exhaust itself on its own resources. Only where our piety forgets about ourself and focuses on Jesus Christ will our piety nourished by the ongoing resources the Spirit brings to us from the source of all true piety, our Lord Jesus Christ."

    This way we are not constantly testing our pulse to see where we are at, but are being renewed day by day as we communune with our Lord. Our eyes are on HIm not so much every moment on how we are doing or on how much we have progressed.

    2 Cor. 3:18 says "And we all, with unveiled face, reflecting 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." If my law-keeping transforms me to the next degree of glory, I'll NEVER reflect His glory!!

    Your comment,
    "It seems, somewhat ironically, that as Christ works sanctification in us, the greater is our recognition of our own sinfulness.".

    That is so true. But many, so called "evangelicals", don't believe that..and that sure isn't being preached from most pulpits.

    I have had many conversations with people who claim, "I basically don't sin anymore". They feel, wrongly, that the more they are sanctified, they can almost attain "perfection" on this earth. They don't have a true understanding of what exactly sin is. Whereas we are completely righteous in God's eyes, it is only because the work of Christ. Unfortunately, many believe, and are taught to put their assurance in their works, and by "basically being good", God will accept them. However, The apostle Paul himself called himself the chief of all sinners. When you understand that you are counted righteous only because of what Christ has done, it sheds light on exactly how sinful we are.

    Please step into the pastoral counseling office and tell me: If a person appears to be consistently falling prey to the same sins, what would be the appropriate counsel? I seem to be stuck - even untouched by God's Word. Can a person be damned and aware of his/her own damnation? The Church seems to be continually focused on methods, steps, and ideas from the self-help movement for change. What is the responsibility of the believer for change in the Christ-way? I am trying to avoid looking for a method (even though I must admit that is my bent) because the Scriptures don't appear to approach things that way.

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