Progressive Sanctification

An old farmer frequently described his Christian experience by saying, “Well, I’m not making much progress, but I’m established!” One spring when he was hauling some logs, his wagon wheels sank down to the axles in mud. Try as he would, he couldn’t get the wagon out. Defeated, he sat atop the logs, viewing the dismal situation. Soon a neighbor who had always felt uncomfortable with the farmer’s worn out testimony came along and greeted him, “Well, brother Jones, I see you’re not making much progress, but you must be content because you’re well established!” In a certain sense, a Christian may be “established” in his sanctification, but if he is “stuck,” he’s not very productive. Many Christians are like that farmer; they are not making much progress and, tragically, they are content in that “stuck” position. R. C. Sproul, in commenting on this said, “A static Christian is a contradiction in terms. Christ demands growth growth to maturity, greater service, and obedience.” The Bible is filled with exhortations to the Christian to grow in his Christian life. This growth includes such things as growth in understanding the great truths of Scripture, growth in knowing and obeying the ethical commands of God, and growth in using one’s particular gifts for God.


The process of sanctification contains a negative element and a positive element. On the negative side, we are commanded to put off the characteristics of the old sinful nature. On the positive side, we are to put on the characteristics of the new nature in Christ. Colossians 3:8-10 addresses this idea of our sanctification: “But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him. . . .”

It is important to interpret these exhortations in light of the concept of definitive sanctification. As we observed in the last chapter, Romans 6 declares that the believer has participated in the death and resurrection of Christ. Romans 6:6-7 states: “Knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.” The old sinful nature, as a principle for life, is done away with when a person comes into spiritual union with Christ. Definitive sanctification is that which makes possible real progress in putting off the characteristics of our old life in sin. John Murray, in tying together the concepts of definitive and progressive sanctification, writes concerning Colossians 3:9-10: “Paul is not exhorting believers to put off the old man and to put on the new. He is urging them to desist from certain sins, sins which are indeed characteristic of the old man, and the reason he adduces for such abstinence is that they had put off the old man and have put on the new man. Since this is the case, Paul is saying in effect, do not practice those sins which are after the pattern of the old man but behave as new men, as indeed you are. Besides, the figure which Paul is using, namely, that of having put off and of having put on, does not agree with the idea of being both an old man and a new man at the same time. For in that event the figure would require that we are clothed with both at the same time.”1 Robert Reymond concurs with John Murray: “It should be noted that both of these admonitions to put to death the evil deeds of the body [citing Romans 8:13 and Col. 3:5] follow immediately upon Paul’s insistence that the believer has died to sin (Rom. 6-7; Col. 3:3). Clearly, Paul expected the Christian to conform his processive experience with sin to his definitive death to sin.”2

The rest of Colossians 3 gives specific ethical commands concerning putting off characteristics of the old man and putting on characteristics of the new man in Christ (See also the parallel passages in Ephesians 4:17-5:33, Galatians 5:16-26, 1 Peter 2:1-2, Rom. 12:1-2). Some of the specific things that we are to put on are tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering, bearing with one another, and forgiving one another. I encourage you to read prayerfully through Colossians 3 and the parallel passages. Therefore, the concept of Christian growth contains the negative idea of putting off the influences of the flesh and the positive idea of growing in the knowledge and character of Christ.


In seeking to put on the new man in Christ, the Scriptures do not leave us without instruction concerning a pattern for our growth. Three standards or patterns for our sanctification are set forth in Scripture: the ethical holiness of God, God’s preceptive will (his law), and Christ himself.

First, the holiness of God himself is a pattern for our growth. Peter, in quoting Lev. 11:44-45 and 19:2, sets forth this pattern: “. . . but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Pet. 1:15-16). In our salvation, we are recreated by grace according to God’s image in righteousness and holiness. Ephesians 4:24 states: “. . . and put on the new self which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (see also Col. 3:9-10). Scripture also gives the admonitions: “you are to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (in speaking of having his mercy) (Matt. 5:48; Luke 6:36) and “forgiving. . . just as God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13).

The second pattern for our sanctification is the moral law of God. The law provides us with an understanding of what the character and ethical holiness of God entails. The law of God gives us a revelation of God’s moral will. Christians are not set adrift in a sea of ethical relativity; they are given specific universal and abiding commands of God concerning right and wrong. Care should be taken in examining the ethical commands of the law that they are not isolated from a relationship with God through faith in Christ. Robert Reymond writes: “The doctrine of justification by faith alone relieves . . . the charge of legalism. Still, an ethical position might ‘savor’ of legalism if it failed to give adequate attention to union with Christ as the ethical dynamic of the Christian life (see Rom. 6:1-14) and to the enabling work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification. Such is not the case with the Westminster Confession of Faith, which affirms the necessity of ‘the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely, and cheerfully, which the will of God, revealed in the law, requireth to be done’ (XIX/vii). A truly biblical ethic is concerned with obedience to God’s precepts made possible by the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:4).”3

The use of the law as a pattern for our sanctification and Christian ethics is often referred to as the “third use of the law.” In classic terminology the first use of the law is that its ethical standards serve as a basis for civil righteousness; the second use of the law is that the law shows us our sin and drives us to Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 3:19-20; Gal. 3:24).

Some have rejected this use of the law fearing that it will lead to legalism. Some Lutherans, in holding to a strict construction of a law-gospel paradigm reject the third use of the law. However, both Luther and Melanchthon used the law in this manner and the Formula of Concord, Art. VI upholds this use of the law.4 The Formula of Concord, Art. VI.4 states:

For the explanation and final settlement of this dissent we unanimously believe, teach, and confess that although the truly believing and truly converted to God and justified Christians are liberated and made free from the curse of the law, yet they should daily exercise themselves in the Law of the Lord, as it is written, Ps. 1, 2; 119:1: Blessed is the man whose delight is in the Law of the Lord, and in His Law doth he meditate day and night. For the Law is a mirror in which the will of God, and what pleases Him, are exactly portrayed, and which should [therefore] be constantly held up to the believers and be diligently urged upon them without ceasing.

It is important to emphasize the point that sanctification flows out of our justification and it is God who gives the desire and ability to do anything which he commands. Philippians 2:12-13 states this clearly: “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, 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” (NASB). It is also important to note that every command from God in Scripture is given in the context of his covenant relationship with his people. For example, the ethical commands in Paul’s epistles usually follow a proclamation of the gospel and what God has done in Christ. Based upon what God has done for us in Christ, ethical commands are given with the understanding that it is God who provides the will and power to obey.5

Dispensationalists also reject the law of God as a pattern for sanctification. For example, Lewis Sperry Chafer states that Christians are not obligated in any way to the Decalogue (Systematic Theology, 4:209). However, the New Testament does not abrogate the Ten Commandments as a basis for Christian ethics. The ethical commands in the New Testament either directly reiterate a command of the Decalogue or apply an ethical principle drawn from the Decalogue.

Paul calls the law holy, just, spiritual, and good (Rom. 7:12, 14, 16; compare Rom. 12:-12) and states that it is through the law that he came to know sin (Rom. 7:7). In his indictment of man’s sin, he says that all the world is accountable to God because all men are “under the law” (Rom. 3:19-20). He argues that justification by faith alone does not abrogate the law, but rather establishes the law (Rom. 3:31). The standard of Paul’s ethic is God’s revealed preceptive will or law. For example in Romans 13:9-10, Paul states: “For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law.” In this statement, Paul summarizes the second table of the law. He specifically cites the sixth, seventh, eighth, and tenth commandments and then adds the phrase, “and if there is any other commandment.” Paul’s use of almost the whole second table of the law affirms that Paul considered the law to be the basis of Christian ethics. It is the law of God that gives concrete instruction as to what comprises the law of love. Because of this, the “law of love” is not ambiguous, but contains clear ethical commands, commands which are based on the Ten Commandments. This is the same summary Jesus gives of the second table of the law (see: Mark 12:31; Matt 7:12). On this point see also: Rom. 7:7; 8:4-13; 12:1-2; 1 Tim. 1:8-11; Eph. 6:2-3; Eph. 4:25, 28; 5:3, 5; Col. 3:5, 9; 1 Cor. 6:9-10. Robert Reymond writes:

. . . the New Testament writers allude to every commandment in one place or other in their letters to the churches: the first three commandments lie behind many of the statements in Romans 1:21-30; 2:22, 1 Corinthians 6:9, Ephesians 5:5, Colossians 3:5, James 2:7, 19, and Revelation 21:7; the fourth commandment behind the designation of the first day of the week – the Christian day of worship – as “the Lord’s day” (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor. 16:2, and Rev. 1:10; see Isa. 58:13); the fifth commandment behind states in Romans 1:30, Ephesians 6:2-3, Colossians 3:20, and 1 Timothy 1:9; the sixth commandment behind statements in Romans 1:29, 13:9, 1 Timothy 1:9-10, James 2:11, 1 John 3:15, and Revelation 21:8, the seventh commandment behind statements in Romans 2:22, 13:9, 1 Corinthians 6:9, Ephesians 5:3, 1 Thessalonians 4:3, 1 Timothy 1:10, James 2:11, Revelation 21:8; the eighth commandment behind statements in Romans 2:21, 13:9, 1 Corinthians 6:10, Ephesians 4:28, 1 Timothy 1:10; the ninth commandment behind statements in Romans 13:9, Ephesians 4:25, Colossians 3:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, and Revelation 21:8; and the tenth commandment behind statements in Romans 1:29; 7:7-8, 13:9, 1 Corinthians 6:10, Galatians 5:26, Ephesians 5:5,Colossians 3:5, and Hebrews 13:5. In addition, the two great Old Testament love commandments – to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18), which are beautifully New Testament as well in scope and concept, are declared to be summary statements of the Ten Commandments (see Matt. 22:37-40; Mark 12:29-31; Rom. 13:8-9). Surely the Christian is to obey these commandments! Indeed, Jesus said to his disciples: “If you love me, you will obey what I command (John 14:15), and again, “You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:14). And John declared: “We know that we have come to know him if we keep him commandments” (1 John 2:3), and then actually defined love for God in terms of obedience to his law: “This is love for God, that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:3).6

The third pattern for our sanctification is the life of Jesus. Since Jesus was perfectly obedient to God’s law, his life is a pattern of our sanctification. It is important not to fall into the liberal theological trap of reducing the life of Jesus to a mere moral example. Christ’s active and passive obedience has a particular reference to our salvation. However, Scripture does admonish us to have the qualities of Jesus’ life in our lives. For example, Philippians 2:5, in commanding certain Christian attitudes, states, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus. . . .” In John 13:15, Jesus said, “For I have given you an example that you should do as I have done to you.” 1 Peter 2:20-23, in addressing a Christian attitude toward persecution and suffering says, “For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow in His steps: ‘Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth’; who when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, he did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously. . . .” Ultimately the goal of our sanctification is conformity to the image of Jesus. Rom. 8:29 says, “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren” (see also: 1 John 3:1-3).


The agents of our sanctification are God and the Christian himself. It is important to affirm that Christians cannot, by themselves, sanctify themselves any more than they can justify themselves. There are direct Scriptures that speak of God as the one who brings growth or sanctification to the believer’s life. 2 Corinthians 3:18 says that the Holy Spirit changes us from glory to glory: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.” As we behold God, the Spirit changes us from glory to glory. John 17:17 states: “Sanctify them in the truth; Thy Word is truth.” Similarly 1 Thess. 5:23 states: “Now may the God of peace sanctify you entirely. . . .” Even though growth in grace is empowered by God, the Christian is not passive in regard to sanctification. Philippians 2:12-13 shows that ultimately God is the author of our growth, but we are not passive in this process: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own 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” (emphasis mine). This verse is not speaking of our justification and somehow implying that we contribute merit to our initial salvation; it is speaking of our Christian growth. Philippians 2 is addressing issues of Christian growth.

The Christian is commanded to be active in pursuing the things of God, but this passage quickly mentions that any obedience we have is ultimately from God who gives us the will and the power to do His good pleasure. However, even though God is the source of our sanctification, we are involved in our growth. Another passage that addresses this issue is Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.” Notice again that it is by the Holy Spirit that we progress in any aspect of our Christian growth, but we are exhorted to be diligent and apply ourselves (see also 1 John 3:3; 2 Peter 1:1-10 – verses 2-4 speak of God’s work in us and verses 7-10 command us to be diligent). John Murray comments:

“God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result. God works in us and we also work. But the relation is that because God works we work. All working out of salvation on our part is the effect of God’s working in us, not the willing to the exclusion of the doing and the doing to the exclusion of the willing, but both the willing and the doing.”7


Finally, the Bible sets forth the instruments or means of our sanctification. These are commonly called the means of grace. The means of grace are the Bible, prayer, worship and fellowship with other Christians, Christian service, the sacraments (understood in a biblical way), and all the providences of life which God works together for our good. As we engage in the means or avenues of our growth, God brings change and growth to our Christian lives.

The Bible is an especially foundational means of grace. In Scripture, we have God’s revelation of truth. In Jesus’ prayer in John 17:17 he prayed: “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17 states that the Bible corrects us and provides a revelation for doctrine and instruction in righteousness: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work;” see also: Acts 20:32. Charles Spurgeon said, “If you wish to know God, you must know his Word. If you wish to perceive his power, you must see how he works by his Word. If you wish to know his purpose before it comes to pass, you can only discover it by his Word.”

We are to have a private life of prayer with God. Colossians 4:2 states: “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving.” Philippians 4:6 says, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Jesus often withdrew and prayed. If He needed to do that, how much more do we.

Worship and fellowship with God’s people are a crucial means of grace. Other believers encourage us and we worship God and hear God’s Word taught and preached and receive the sacraments of the church (baptism and the Lord’s supper). We are commanded not to forsake worship and Christian fellowship (Hebrews 10:24-25). It concerns me out lightly many Christians take this command of Scripture not to forsake worship and fellowship. Too often they are like the young man who poured out his heart’s devotion in a letter to the young woman of his dreams. He wrote: “Darling, I would climb the highest mountain, swim the widest stream, cross the burning desert, die at the stake for you. P. S. I will see you on Sunday, if it doesn’t rain.” Many professing Christian go to church only if there is nothing better to do. They don’t plan their weekend with worship in mind. Consequently, they perpetuate that attitude in their children through their example.

The celebration of the Lord’s supper brings us vividly back to the cross of Christ. Our baptism reminds us of and signifies the Holy Spirit bringing us into spiritual union with Christ (see: 1 Cor. 11:23-31; Acts 2:42-47).

God works all the providences of our life together for good with the goal of our being conformed to the image of Jesus (Rom. 8:28-29, 35-39).

God works through these means to change us and conform us to the image of Christ. If you neglect these means of grace and growth, you not only hinder your Christian growth and relationship with God, but you disobey God’s commands to his people.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes sanctification well: “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (Question 35). Robert Reymond writes, “It is plain from Scripture, from beginning to end, that God desires that his people walk in holiness before him. And his people will so walk. For just as there is no sanctification that is not preceded by justification, so also there is no justification that is not followed by sanctification. The Scriptural demand for and expectation of holiness in the Christian should stir the professing Christian in whom there is no hungering and thirsting after righteousness to examine himself to see if he is actually in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5)”8 We are not to be satisfied with our present level of Christian growth. We are to cultivate a vision toward knowing God more fully, growing in our understanding of his ethical commands, having greater obedience to God, and having our character conformed increasingly to the image of Christ.


Works Cited

1 Murray, Principles of Conduct, 214.
2 Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 769.
3 Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 771.
4 Observe the manner in which Luther addresses Christian ethics in his 1520 thesis The Freedom of the Christian.
5 This pattern is easily observed in Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians. See especially Colossian 3:1-5, 12).
6 Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 776-777.
7 Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, 148-149.
8 Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 781.

Next article in this series: The Perseverance of the Saints

About the author

Dr. Van Lees

Dr. Van Lees is the pastor/teacher of Covenant of Grace Church. He has been the pastor of the church since 1985 when it started. Dr. Lees has a M. Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary, a D. Min. from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Whitefield Theological Seminary.