Sanctification in the wider sense (as used, e.g., in the heading of the Third Article of the Creed in Luther’s Small Catechism) comprehends the entire work of the Holy Spirit, by which He leads the sinner unto eternal life, including the bestowal of faith, justification, sanctification as the inner transformation of man, perseverance in faith, and the complete renewal on Judgment Day. In its narrower sense, in which the term is commonly used, sanctification refers only to that part or phase of the Spirit’s work by which He incites and directs believers to live a godly life, that is to say, it designates the internal spiritual transformation of the believer which follows upon justification. It is in this sense that the word “sanctification” is used in this chapter.
As the Holy Spirit produces justifying faith in our hearts through His work of conversion, so also it is the Holy Spirit who produces holiness of life in us through His work of sanctification. Yet these two works of the Holy Spirit must be sharply distinguished and regarded in proper sequence in all our thinking, in order to avoid such confusion as would imperil and even destroy our Christian faith. Indeed the confounding of justification with sanctification, or placing sanctification before justification, is the chief root of error with regard to the way of salvation. Hence it behooves us to give careful heed to such passages as the following from the sixth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, in order that we may clearly grasp the Biblical order and relation of these two doctrines. In Romans 6:22 we read: “But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God” (namely, by justification), “ye have your fruit unto holiness” (sanctification). Again, in Romans 6:18, 19: “Being then made free from sin” (namely, by justification), “ye became the servants of righteousness. … Yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness” (sanctification).
There is, then, a most essential difference between sanctification and justification. With regard to justification it is rightly said: “All our righteousness is outside of us; justification is an action not in man, but with regard to man.” But sanctification in the narrow sense is in man, an inherent righteousness of life and works, in contrast to the imputed righteousness given in justification.
That sanctification does consist in such an inward moral transformation is shown by those Scripture passages in which man is described as the object of sanctification according to his essential parts (body and soul). In 1 Thess. 5:23 we read: “The very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body” (or: your whole spiritual being, with relation to both soul and body) “be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Again, in 2 Cor. 7:1: “Let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” So 1 Cor. 6:20: “Glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” Most significant and comprehensive of all is the great summary of the motivation and nature of sanctification in Romans 12:1, 2: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”
Thus we have seen that there is an inseparable connection between justification and sanctification. But that connection is always stated in such a way as to make it clear that sanctification is the consequence and effect of justification, never in the reverse order. The so-called “psychological connection” between justification, which is a judicial act of God outside of us whereby He graciously for Christ’s sake acquits us and pronounces us innocent in His sight, and sanctification, which is an inner transformation of our own hearts and lives, is very easily grasped if we bear in mind that God’s judgment of acquittal is published in the Gospel, “the word of reconciliation,” and that the justifying faith, wrought in us by the Holy Spirit, there grasps it and makes it our own. In this way our apprehension by faith of God’s great act of love, revealed in the good tidings of salvation, through Christ, produces in our believing hearts true love for God and the desire to do His will: “We love Him, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Thus “faith worketh by love” (Gal. 5:6). We have already said that the Holy Spirit works sanctification, as taught in Rom. 8:9: “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you.” Now, after what has been said concerning the relation of justifying faith to sanctification, we may state the truth of the divine agency in sanctification quite precisely, as follows: “The Holy Ghost, as the efficient cause of sanctification, works through faith as His instrument.”
The cart is placed before the horse by all who make “ethical” actions of man, human good works or holiness, a prerequisite for obtaining eternal salvation; whereas, according to Holy Scripture, God’s free gift of salvation, revealed in the Gospel and accepted by faith, is the cause and motivation of all works which are good in His sight. The perversion or reversal of this divine order is correctly explained in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, (III, Of Love and the Fulfilling of the Law), paragraph 144, Triglot, p. 197, as being due to the dream of natural human reason that human works merit remission of sins and justification: “This opinion of the Law inheres by nature in men’s minds; neither can it be expelled, unless when we are divinely taught.”
In the proper divine order, however, as revealed in Scripture, the regenerate and justified child of God does cooperate, howsoever weakly, yet (according to the new man) willingly, with the Holy Spirit in sanctification. The Holy Spirit, who without any cooperation whatsoever on our part converted us, prompts our cooperation in sanctifying us. Conversion is a purely divine work, instantaneous and not admitting of degrees, in which God gives life to the spiritually dead; sanctification is a divine work, progressive in its nature, in which God works in and with those upon whom He has conferred spiritual life. Thus the question as to who effects sanctification receives a threefold answer: a). God produces sanctification by His infinite power, as we see from 1 Thess. 5:23,24: “The very God of peace sanctify you wholly.… Faithful is He that calleth you, who also will do it.” b). The Christian cooperates in sanctification, as we see from 2 Cor. 6:1: “We, then, as workers together with Him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain.” c). The working of God and the working of the new man are not coordinated, but the latter always subordinated to the former, as we see from 2 Cor. 3:5: “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God;” and John 15:5: “Without Me ye can do nothing.” Therefore our Formula of Concord (Th. D., II, para. 66, Triglot, p. 907) is careful to warn us: “This is to be understood in no other way than that the converted man does good to such an extent and so long as God by His Holy Spirit rules, guides, and leads him, and that as soon as God would withdraw His gracious hand from him, he could not for a moment persevere in obedience to God. But if this were understood thus, that the converted man cooperates with the Holy Ghost in the manner as when two horses together draw a wagon, this could in no way be conceded without prejudice to the divine truth.”
We next inquire as to the “inner motions,” or what actually takes place, in the process of sanctification, both in its negative and positive aspects. By faith in Christ a “new man” has been born; but in this life the Christian retains his sinful nature, the “old man.” Sanctification consists in the putting off of the old man and the putting on of the new man. Eph. 4:22, 24: “That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man; … and that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.” Col. 3:9, 10: “Seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created him.”
The means by which sanctification is effected, strictly speaking, is only the Gospel, not the Law. “The Law is said to be written into the hearts in sanctification (Jeremiah 31: 33), but the Law is not said to write anything. The writing takes place through the Gospel alone. By the same means by which alone we are regenerated, by it also we are renewed. Now we are regenerated by the Gospel alone. Therefore we are also renewed by the Gospel alone. This does not deny that the Law renders some service in sanctification” (Carpzov, quoted by Dr. Pieper). The Law, however, never motivates sanctification, but it serves only in a secondary and auxiliary capacity — by keeping alive in us the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20), for where the knowledge of sin ceases there also faith in the forgiveness of sins has come to an end; by serving as a guide and rule for a God-pleasing life, for God can be served only in the works which He has commanded (Matt. 15:9); and by keeping the flesh, which tends to hinder our sanctification, in subjection (1 Cor. 9:27).
Much discussion has taken place on the necessity of good works. That good works are not necessary for salvation is evident already from the fact that salvation precedes any possibility of doing good works, and that we are justified by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, without the works of the Law (cf. Rom. 4:6–8; Eph. 2:8, 9). Also the plea that good works, though not necessary to obtain salvation, are necessary to retain it, or necessary to the preservation of faith, is contrary to Scripture. While it is true that evil works may destroy faith (1 Tim. 1:18–20; 2 Tim. 2:16–18, etc.), it is not true that good works preserve faith. On the contrary, good works do not sustain faith, but faith sustains good works (1 Peter 1:5). However, although good works are not necessary unto salvation, they certainly are necessary. Who would dare to assert that what God wills is unnecessary? But “this is the will of God, even your sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3). The new man does God’s will freely and gladly from the heart, but this willingness and freedom from the coercion of the Law does not in any way detract from his acknowledgment of the necessity of obedience to God’s command. “And this is His commandment, that we should … love one another, as He gave us commandment” (1 John 3:23).
Strive as we may to increase in sanctification, it remains imperfect in this life. Justification is always perfect, admitting of no degrees; but sanctification is progressive. Holiness of life is not the same in all believers; not even in the same person does it always continue on the same level. The righteousness of faith, which is the imputed righteousness of Christ, is perfect, but the righteousness of life, inhering in the believer, is imperfect. St. Paul in his Epistle to the Philippians exhorts that “as many as be perfect, be thus minded” (Phil. 3:15), as he himself was minded, namely: “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: … but this one thing I do, … I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3: 12–14). If anyone should delude himself that he had already attained perfect sanctification in this life, he would thereby have abandoned the Christian faith, which is faith in the forgiveness of sins. Scripture brands perfectionism as a lie, especially in 1 John 1:8, 10: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.… If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His Word is not in us.” Nevertheless sin must not “reign” over the Christians, that they should “obey it in the lusts thereof” (Rom. 6:12), for that is incompatible with their state of grace, and would drive out the sanctifying Spirit, who will not permit the flesh to predominate over the new man in the hearts of those whom He inhabits and controls. Thus Rom. 6:14 states emphatically: “Sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.” And 1 John 3:9 describes the Christian according to the new man (“whosoever is born of God”) as maintaining dominion over the old man. The fact that sanctification in this life will always be imperfect must not be put forward as an excuse for the neglect of sanctification. The true Christian strives for perfection, as in the passage quoted above from Philippians, in which “perfection” is taken in the sense of “striving after perfection.”
The subject of the quality and quantity of good works, which necessarily belongs to a complete discussion of sanctification, can (in order not to exceed the limits of this chapter) be treated here only in outline form:
1. The quality of Christian good works is seen particularly in two characteristics:
a). They are done according to the norm of the divine Law (Matt. 15:9; Mark 7:7).
b). They are done out of a willing spirit, from love to God and our neighbor (Rom. 13:10; Matt. 22: 37, 39; Rom. 12:1).
2. In comparing the quality of Christian good works with the so-called “good works” of unbelievers, we find that the latter are mere “civil righteousness” which has no value in the spiritual sphere. Hence:
a). Unbelievers, though they “do by nature the things contained in the Law” (Rom. 2:14), yet remain “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1) and “alienated from the life of God” (Eph. 4:18), “having no hope, and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
b). Good works of Christians, on the other hand, though deficient both as to conformity with the Law and as to willingness of spirit, are yet highly praised in Scripture (e.g., Col. 1:4). The reason for this praise is that Christians continually receive by faith remission also for those sins which taint their good works (1 John 2:1,2: “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and He is the Propitiation for our sins”).
3. The quantity of good works according to God’s will (Gal. 6:9, 10; Titus 3:8, 14; 1 Tim. 6:18, etc.), in contrast with the deficiency in our actual practice, is a constant admonition to repentance, as well as an incitement to strive for growth in sanctification. Legal specifications, such as one-seventh of our time, one-tenth of our income, etc., having ceased in the New Testament, the higher goal as to the quantity of good works is that to which “the love of Christ constraineth us” (2 Cor. 5:14). Cf. 2 Cor. 9:6, 7; 1 Cor. 16:2.
The reward promised to the good works of Christians, both for time and for eternity (1 Tim. 4:8) is strictly a reward of grace. Dr. Pieper well says: “He who hands in a bill to God on the basis of his works, thereby hands in his request for dismissal from the Kingdom of God, since in the Kingdom of God only grace counts.” On this whole subject of the reward of grace study the conversation between the Lord and Peter in Matt. 19:27–30, and the illustrative parable, Matt. 20:1–16. The good works produced by the Holy Spirit in the life of Christians are of great value, for: 1). they are done according to the norm of God’s will; 2). God is the real Source of them (Phil. 2:13; 2 Cor. 3:5; 1 Cor. 12:6–11; Eph. 2:10; 1 Cor. 15:10); 3). they are external testimonies of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts (Luke 7:47; 1 John 3:14); indeed, 4). they are worth more than heaven and earth (Rev. 14:13; Matt. 5:12; 19:29; 10:42; Gal. 6:9); and therefore, 5). Christians are so earnestly admonished to perform them that Scripture presents the performance of good works as the ultimate purpose of our life on earth (Gal. 6:10; Eph. 5:16; Col. 4:5; Titus 3:8, 14; 1 Tim. 6:17ff.).
Three special topics in connection with sanctification, which are well worthy the study and contemplation of all Christians, cannot be entered upon at this time, namely, the Christian’s cross, the place of prayer in the Christian life, and that glorious hope of life eternal which gives to the Christian life on earth its goal and its deepest significance.
Finally, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:1,2).