Progressive sanctification—What is it?Many Christians speak of the progression of justification, sanctification, and glorification. Justification happens at the moment of salvation. It is when we are declared positionally righteous before God based on the sacrifice of Jesus. That is to say that our sins are no longer held against us and we are declared as innocent. Sanctification is what happens during the Christian life. It is when we become righteous in practice. Though our sins are not held against us, we do still sin. In this life we live as innocent before God in our new nature in Christ, yet we still battle the sinful flesh. We still sin. Sanctification is the process whereby we come to sin less. It is the act of being conformed to the image of Christ. Glorification is what happens when we die (or are taken in the rapture). It is the time when we are both positionally righteous and righteous in actuality. The sin nature is gone and we are righteous in all ways.
The term progressive sanctification refers to the fact that sanctification is a process. It takes a lifetime to complete. We know that we are new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) and that in Him we are no longer slaves to sin but slaves to righteousness (Romans 6). However, we also know that we still continue to sin. As we grow closer to Jesus, we come to sin less and less. We also come to act righteously more and more.
The interesting thing is that we also begin to understand how deep our sin nature is, and thereby come to appreciate Jesus' work on the cross and the grace and forgiveness of God even more. We learn that it is not just our actions that need to be modified, but that our hearts truly need to be transformed. Romans 12:1–2 talks about being transformed by the renewing of our minds. As the Holy Spirit sanctifies us, we come to think differently. We examine not only our behaviors, but also our motives. And God changes our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). He teaches us who were slaves to sin and sought after it to be free in Christ and to seek after Him. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus speaks to the desires of the heart. We learn that godliness has to do not only with right action, but also with right desire. Similarly, James 1:14–15 talks about temptation beginning with desire. As we are sanctified, our desires begin to change.
It is not just that we get rid of old, bad habits or acts. We put on the new. Colossians 3 talks about putting on the "new self." In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke of going beyond the Old Testament Law and more actively loving one another. Rather than simply mete out fair justice, Jesus called people to love their enemies. Rather than give people what they are due, we are to extend God's abundant love. Galatians 6:9–10 tells us, "And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith."
Progressive sanctification takes place over a lifetime and in all aspects of our lives. We may give up sinful habits in one area. Then God may work on another area in our lives. Then perhaps return and do even deeper work in that first area. Our job in sanctification is to yield to the work of the Holy Spirit and be obedient to the things we know of God. When we sin, we seek His forgiveness (1 John 1:9), knowing that we are already secure in Christ. We also ask Him to continually renew and refine us. We long to be molded into His image to the praise of His glory. God is the one who does the work of sanctification. It is only by His grace and through His power that we can become righteous and be truly pleasing to our Father.
Second Corinthians 3:18 describes progressive sanctification well: "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."
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