Last Sunday, I pointed out a distinction the Bible makes between progressive sanctification and positional sanctification. As we learn together, I thought it would be helpful to highlight the distinction for you again and then show you why this distinction matters for your Christian walk.

Sanctification as Position & Process

First, let me highlight the distinction again. The biblical authors use “sanctification” and “holiness” language to describe:

(a) the position of the believer, and

(b) the process bound up with our salvation.

Positional Sanctification

On the one hand, sanctification appears in a once-for-all sense. It describes the believer’s position in Christ that is effective at conversion. It describes the present status with Christ effective at conversion. In this sense, sanctification describes that Christians are set apart for holy service to God.

The idea stems from the way the holiness language appears in the Old Testament. That is to say, God himself is holy; and if he was to use someone or something, they/it had to be set apart as holy, as exclusively for God. And this, of course, involved the blood of one bull and a couple rams being spilt and sprinkled on the altar and applied to the priests themselves, so that they might be set apart exclusively for God’s holy service (e.g., Exodus 28:41; 29:1; 40:9; Leviticus 16:19).

In the same way, when the blood of Christ is applied to the believer, he/she is set apart exclusively for God’s holy service. We saw this use on Sunday in Jesus’ prayer for his disciples (John 17:17, 19). With the Father’s revelation and the Son’s redemption in mind, Jesus prays the Father set the disciples apart for God’s holy service. The same language appears in the writings of Jesus’ apostles. For example,

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints [or ‘holy ones’] together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours (1 Corinthians 1:2).

…thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:10-11).

Consider also Acts 20:32; 26:18; 1 Timothy 4:5; 2 Timothy 2:21; Hebrews 13:12.

Progressive Sanctification

On the other hand, the biblical writers also use sanctification to describe God’s ongoing process which increasingly makes us holy. Over time, God works the character of Jesus in us. He gives us the will to abstain from sin and fleshly desires. Consider again a few examples:

I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification (Romans 6:19).

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality… (1 Thessalonians 4:3).

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

See also Romans 6:22; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; Ephesians 5:26; Hebrews 10:14 [although note the difference between the ESV and NASB]; Hebrews 12:14; and possibly 1 Peter 1:2.

Why the Distinction Matters

Now let’s turn to why the distinction matters so much.

Guards Us from Self-Righteous Perfectionism

For starters, recognizing that sanctification is a process keeps us from self-righteous perfectionism. We have not arrived at moral perfection on this side of the kingdom. Rather, we are all daily being conformed into the image of Christ, and that process will finally display the brilliant beauty of God on the final day of Christ Jesus.

Keeps Our Confidence in Christ’s Righteousness Alone

Recognizing that sanctification is a process also keeps us from placing any confidence in our own righteousness to save us. Our own striving toward Christ-likeness in sanctification could never serve as the ground for our justification before God (and linked with justification, our vindication on the Last Day). Rather, we will stand or fall on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, an alien righteousness which has been imputed to the Christian through a faith-union with Jesus (Romans 3:26; 4:3, 25; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:10-14; Philippians 3:9).

Spurs Us On to Pursue All that Is Holy

However, that does not mean we should neglect speaking of our sanctification as something completed at the moment of our conversion, the instant we are justified (e.g., 1 Corinthians 1:30; 6:11). In fact, our sanctification as a once-for-all position is so closely linked with our justification, that one could hardly say that he is justified if he also shows no evidence of inward transformation. One could hardly say that he is justified without evidence of a decisive break with the old life and a welcoming pursuit of the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). To put it differently, being set apart for holy service to God means we pursue all that is holy and turn from all that is unholy.

Gives Us Hope for the Future

At the same time, it is again our sanctification as a once-for-all position that gives the believer hope that God, who has already set him apart for himself as holy, will also complete his holiness in us for the Last Day (Ephesians 1:4; Philippians 1:6; Titus 2:14; Jude 24-25). Stated differently, whose we are in the present—positional sanctification—determines who we will become in the future—progressive sanctification.

Therefore, let us work out our salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in us to will and to do according to his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13). You can lay hold of the pursuit of holiness today, because God has already set you apart for holiness when you trusted Christ for salvation. God put his Holy Spirit in you to change you from what you were and still are into Christ’s image and grace and glory. If God has already fit you to be his holy dwelling place in this age, then he will ensure that he fits you for his holy dwelling place in the age to come, when we see him face-to-face.

Sanctified in Christ and being sanctified with you,