Lesson 5 – Sanctification


Survey Studies in Reformed Theology

Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
Bob Burridge ©1996, 2006, 2010, 2012

Subjective Soteriology – Lesson 5: Sanctification
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©1998, 2010, 2012

Lesson Index
The Work of Sanctification
The Means of Sanctification
The Process of Sanctification
The Extent of Sanctification
The Error of Perfectionism
The Error of the “Carnal Christian” Doctrine

Westminster Confession of Faith XIII: Of Sanctification

I. They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them: the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.
II. This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.
III. In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

Shorter Catechism: Q35: What is sanctification?

Answer: 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.

The work of Sanctification

A person who is justified by the application of the work of Jesus Christ is declared to be morally innocent judicially, but he is not at that same moment rendered fully free from sin in his thoughts, words, and deeds. He continues to struggle against the remains of sin in his soul. But in that struggle there is a progression in personal righteousness. The believer grows more and more into conformity with the image of Christ. Sin lessens in his life and spiritual life is seen to increase evidenced by the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

The word “to sanctify” means to set something apart in a special way. This is done either by designating it for special use, or by actually making it special by changing its nature, in the moral sense by purifying a person from moral pollution.

In the sense of mere designation without actual purification, Jesus said he was sanctified by the Father and sent into the world (John 10:36). Certainly Jesus did not have to be made holy or purified. Yet he was sent forth to a special task by his incarnation. In Matthew 23:17 Jesus spoke of the Temple sanctifying the gold. The gold was not made morally pure, nor did the Temple remove any of its natural impurities. These are things declared to be special (sanctified) because of their assignment to some special use or purpose.

When we speak of the sanctification of the believer, the word is usually intended in the second sense of actual moral transformation. We are not merely set apart as special by designation, we are also changed to become more and more free from personally sinning. In a sense, believers are also declared to be holy when they are regenerated and the righteousness of Jesus Christ is credited to them. This is associated with the declaration of innocence which is the act of Justification. In most cases, however, when we speak of sanctification we use it in the sense of the actual spiritual maturity of one regenerated by grace.

Sanctification has its origin in the decree of God. Before all events relating to created things, God knew certain persons as his own. He predestined them to be sanctified, conformed to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29). The judicial foundation making that conformity possible for fallen persons is the work of Jesus Christ who made atonement for his people. The work of Christ is applied when new life is infused into the dead soul, and the sinner is justified. This new life shows itself and grows until the person if finally glorified in Christ in the resurrection to glory.

While regeneration is an immediately complete act of imparting life to those justified, sanctification is a process that continues all through the believer’s life. Justification changes his legal standing before God. Sanctification is the change that takes place as the enlivened soul takes on more and more the life which is imparted. Some progress in sanctification at a faster rate than others, but all will reach perfection only when their life here is over.

Sanctification is a work of God upon the believer. Aside from his grace to both impart life and to sustain it, we would neither be able nor desire to be obedient to God. (1 Thessalonians 23-24, Philippians 2:13, Hebrews 13:20-21). The whole Trinity is at work to purify us morally. The Father has decreed it. The Son secured its legal grounds, gave his word, and sent the Holy Spirit by which the church and its members are sanctified to himself (Ephesians 5:25-27; Titus 2:14, 2 Thessalonians 2:13).

1 Thessalonians 5:23-24. “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.”

Philippians 2:13, “for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”

Hebrews 13:20-21. “Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

Ephesians 5:25-27, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless.”

Titus 2:14, “who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.”

2 Thessalonians 2:13, “But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.”

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God works both mediately and immediately
The mediate workings of God are when he makes use of secondary means. They operate according to the fixed laws which God purposed for them. This is the ordinary providence of God. The immediate workings of God are when he does not remain within the limited powers of secondary means. Instead of using just the natural abilities of his created beings and things he acts directly to effect his will. In every working of our Lord he sustains and directs all things toward certain ends along absolutely certain paths.

In sanctification the Holy Spirit uses the inspired word, prayer, the encouragement of other believers, and outward circumstances as means, but the effectual power which conforms us to Christ is due to his supernatural work. Therefore there is no ground for boasting in our growth or good works. The counselor may know answers to lay aside our excuses, and may skillfully present persuasive arguments for godliness, yet it is the Holy Spirit that causes the message of God’s word to become effectual in our growth in grace.

The world counterfeits what it cannot know or enjoy of the things mentioned in God’s word. Even fallen man may be motivated to change evil habits because of his feelings of guilt, pending danger, to gain respect of others, or to advance in power, wealth, and pleasure. While mere resolutions or moral determinations have their temporal benefits, there can be no eternal benefit or merit before God because of them.

The Means of Sanctification

The inward means of sanctification is faith. Dr. A. A. Hodge defines this as “that act of the regenerated soul whereby it embraces and experiences the power of the truth, and whereby the inward experiences of the heart and the outward actions of the life are brought into obedience to the truth.” (The Confession of Faith page 195).

The outward means is the use of inspired Scripture, the faithful use of the sacraments, regular and proper prayer, and the gracious discipline of God by his church and providence. The regenerated soul alone is enabled to co-operate with the work of the Holy Spirit toward sanctification. Yet even this co-operation is a work of grace. It is not a shared ability. Grace produces the faith and the obedience that flows from it. It is only co-operative in that both the person and the Spirit are active.

The Process of Sanctification

The believer must be encouraged in this life as he struggles with the remaining influences of sin and his own imperfections. God has provided many lessons in his word to help us in this battle.

By Christ’s atonement the condemnation of sin is removed, the bondage to sin as our master is removed and a new principle of spiritual life is infused. However the believer prior to the resurrection is not yet set free from the power of sin and the failings of his imperfect soul.

This process of sanctification is detailed by the Apostle Paul in Romans chapters six, seven and eight. There, and in a few other passages in his epistles, he sets forth the struggle and the promises that ensure our ultimate victory in Christ. A thorough exegetical review of these texts is essential to the understanding of the work of sanctification. (Particularly Romans 7:13-25, Galatians 5:16-26 and Ephesians 4:22-24. To that we add the entire First Epistle of John.)

Romans 7:13-25
No one has to be told that all humans have an on-going struggle with sin. Our own experience, and the direct statements of the Bible confirm that even the redeemed in Christ struggle with the continuing influence of a fallen nature. This struggle leads some to doubt their salvation and fall into discouragement. It makes some give up the battle and become careless about their war with sin. It instigates others to devise strange remedies of mystical awakenings and insights. They behave as if sin could be conquered by just the right attitude, experience, or knowledge. These are tragic errors that mislead and hurt people who truly care about their spiritual condition. Paul deals with this problem in these middle chapters of Romans. There is a right way to engage the enemy of holiness as the war goes on.

Paul had just explained that before he was regenerated by God’s grace he had lived superficially. He thought he was able to keep the law well enough to earn God’s blessings. Of course only a very shallow view of God’s law could lead to a conclusion like that. He saw himself as very much alive spiritually, and innocent before God. He was completely blind to the sin that condemned him and that made all his pious deeds worthless.

Then something revolutionary happened in his soul. The Holy Spirit came and changed his heart. The Spirit used the law of God to show Paul that he was not as good as he supposed. Sin was thriving in places he had not expected to find it. Not only was it wrong to steal or to commit adultery, the law now showed him that it was wrong even to covet what God had entrusted to others.

With his spiritually opened eyes he saw the inner, spiritual nature of the law of God. What he thought was proof that he was spiritually alive, proved the opposite. When the law came in its real meaning sin revived and he found himself to be spiritually dead.

Then the Holy Spirit made the gospel known to him. Once he saw his own depravity he could appreciate the wonders of the work of Jesus Christ. Jesus was God’s promised Messiah! He died in place of his people to remove their guilt and restore them to fellowship with God.

The law took on a whole new meaning for him. Instead of thinking of it as a way to earn God’s blessing, he saw it as showing him how to express his thankfulness to God for salvation. He found that the law was not a way to life. It was a way of life, a way he could not keep aside from the gracious and active work of the Savior.

Paul begins this next section of Romans 7 with a question:

Romans 7:13. “Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.”

The law works a wonderful achievement in the sinner touched by God the Holy Spirit. He is humbled before God to see things as they really are. He sees the depth of his own sin and is driven in repentance to the Savior. There he finds great comfort and peace as the weight of his guilt is lifted. The law does not cause death. It reveals the death that is already there and points to the true state of things. It exposes our sin, and provides a continuing guide for grateful and victorious Christian living.

Paul explains the struggle that is so real to believers:

14. For we know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.
15. For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.
16. But if I do the very thing I do not wish to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that it is good.
17. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me.
18. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.
19. For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish.
20. But if I am doing the very thing I do not wish, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.
21. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good.
22. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man,
23. but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.

This can be a difficult passage, but its basic meaning is very simple and obvious. Paul is dealing with our agonizingly familiar struggle with sin. However, some want an easier way. They invent ways to explain away the conflict revealed to us in this passage.

This is not a struggle for unbelievers.
Some suggest that Paul is only talking about the struggle of unbelievers. Since he uses himself as an example, they imagine he’s speaking of his life before he was a Christian. But the unbeliever does not really struggle against sin in the way described here. In the previous section (6:1-7:12) Paul explained how he felt about sin before the Lord changed him. Back then he was a leader among the Pharisees. He saw no spiritual problem in his life. He imagined himself to be spiritually alive and good. It was not until the Spirit opened his eyes by the law that he realized sin was the enemy within. It’s only the regenerated believer who struggles in this way against sin. The unbeliever has no inner love for the law of God. Therefore this section cannot possibly refer to the struggle of the unbeliever.

This is not a struggle for just a certain class of believers
Others suggest that Paul is speaking of different classes of believers. They imagine that there are some believers who know Christ as Savior, but not as Lord. That somehow they are saved from the guilt of sin, but not changed within. To them this section is only speaking of those carnal Christians who have not yet discovered the secret of moving up to being spiritual Christians.

The problem with that is the Bible never speaks of different classes of believers. Either you are redeemed by Christ and changed, or you are not redeemed at all. All who are redeemed struggle with sin in this life, and each progresses differently. No one gets a special rank that elevates him above the others. Only the spiritually proud would imagine themselves to be a special class within the body of Christ. When Paul says he is carnal, and calls the Corinthians carnal in his letter to them, he is not saying they need to obtain some second work of grace. He is just saying what we all know to be true, though we are born again and released from our condemnation, we still struggle with sin.

There is no simple and quick solution to our struggle. Instead of trying to explain away the battle, we need to learn how to fight battle.

Paul shows us that there are two opposing principles at work.

On the one hand there is the principle of righteousness.
The believer is assured that the guilt of his sin is paid for by Christ. He understands that his guilt is real, but is paid for by the life and death of Jesus. The Savior took on his deserved penalty so that the sinner could be forgiven without violating justice. Also the holy life of Jesus is credited to the believer so that God views him as innocent before the Divine court. Therefore the believer wants to thank God for that grace by living an obedient life. Once our fellowship with God is restored by Christ, an inner change takes place. Our sin is no longer defended. We begin to want to live obediently. This engenders a sincere though imperfect love for the law and a desire to honor God by it. Clearly Paul shows that inwardly he wants to do what is right. Though he does evil he does not wish to be a sinner (7:19). “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man” (7:22). God’s law is spiritual. It is applied by the Holy Spirit to the inner part of man, his soul. In contrast Paul still struggles with the outward man, the former ways of sin.

The other is the principle of evil present with him (7:22)
Though the believer wants to do right he finds that he does not always do it. The remains and habits of sin are not gone and are hard to overcome. Paul sees himself caught in a struggle, a true spiritual war (7:23). But the war is not just an external one. He finds that it is also in his own heart. The believer, though redeemed and regenerated, is in one sense still struggling with sin. The imperfection of our souls will never be removed until we are united with Christ in glory.

Different kinds of bondage
Obviously there are different ways in which we are in bondage here. Bondage is always specific. It rarely includes everything imaginable. For example:

Israel was in “bondage” in Egypt. But even as slaves they were free to pray. God used their prayers to end their slavery through his deliverance by Moses. Their bondage was only outward.

Satan is said to be bound in this age (Matthew 12:22-29, Revelation 20:1-3). But that does not mean he is inactive. Far from that! He is only said to be locked up in bondage so that he will no longer deceive the Gentiles. When the Gentiles started becoming a main part of the church, it proved that Satan no longer held them in his deception as a whole group.

So also, the bondage Paul speaks of here and in the previous section is limited. Therefore in one sense we are free from bondage to sin. In another sense we are bound to sin.

We are in one sense set free
In the last section Paul told us that we are set free from bondage to sin. But he did not mean free from ever sinning again. That much is obvious. He made it clear that we are no longer under sin as our master in two ways:

1) We are free from the condemnation of sin which is demanded by God’s justice. The law explains that sin demands the death of the sinner. Jesus paid that price in place of his people. Believers are set free from the horrors of damnation which they deserve.

2) We are also set free from the disposition that always inclines us away from honoring God. In our lost condition we are unable to do anything truly good (Romans 3:10-12). No unredeemed person is motivated by a love of the true God, nor is his life directed to God’s glory. However, in Christ we are set free from that evil master, and bound to a love for righteousness. We are made able to do truly good things for God’s glory as we are enabled and empowered by grace.

We are in another sense still bound
Here, just a few verses later, Paul says we are in bondage to sin. He obviously means it in a different sense. In this section he is neither writing about the legal debt of sin, nor about the spiritual deadness of our hearts. Here he is talking about the on-going influence of sin in our lives. Clearly no one can claim that we are totally set free from ever sinning when we come to Christ. The Apostle John put it this way in 1 John 1:8-10, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.”

Since sin is our continuing enemy we had better know how to fight the battle! We need to fight sin as believers in Christ, not as those who fight it in unbelief. The unbeliever fights against the consequences of his sins, not against the sins themselves. He wants to avoid the bad outcome for himself. He does not fight because he knows that it is wrong and offends God.

The unbeliever knows that if he steals he might go to jail, but if he keeps the extra money when he’s overcharged he finds a way to justify keeping what is not his. He knows he should not murder because of the bad results if he gets caught, but he justifies his pure hatred of some people. He is willing to kill unborn babies rather than control his sexual urges or face the responsibilities children bring. He knows that if he is unfaithful to his wife he might get thrown out of the house, not be able to visit his children, or have to pay alimony. He avoids abuse of alcohol and drugs because it might cost him his job. He knows he should not lie because people might not trust him anymore. If he can keep out of trouble or get away with it he will gladly mislead and deceive. He knows he should worship and go to church because he fears his idea of hell and damnation, or because he wants others to see him as religious. But he wants worship to be entertaining, worth his time, and for the sermon to stay away from pointing out sin and responsibility too clearly.

The reason he is so hypocritical is that he is still in bondage to the guilt of his sins, and his disposition remains inclined toward self-interests as opposed to the glory of the true God. The unbeliever has not only the principle of evil in him, but in place of the principle of righteousness he has a principle of un-righteousness. He battles sin only so that things will go well for him in his conscience and for personal gain.

The believer looks on the battle with sin very differently. He wants to do right because he knows that sin offends the God who has redeemed him. The principle of un-righteousness has been replaced with the principle of righteousness. When he sins he grieves because he knows that his loving Shepherd is grieved. As Paul explains here in verse 22 that he has learned to “… joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man”. He wants to do good for God’s glory, not for harps, halos, or a home in the clouds. His sin bothers him greatly. He confesses it most sincerely, and by the power of the Holy Spirit in his heart he works hard to overcome it.

There are important promises for the believer.
The believer has the power of the living Savior at work in him to enable him to do what is truly God honoring. He has the assurance that when he sins, his guilt is paid for and grace overwhelms him. While he will do battle all his life to grow to be more Christ-like, yet he cannot lose the forgiveness and new birth he has by God’s grace. The remains of sin are not the chains of sin.

There will not always be a steady and clear improvement
Sometimes the believer will sin most disappointingly and grievously. To him the inner-sins seem so much more offensive now that he is redeemed. His awareness of his sin increases. Yet in the overall view of things he is growing in Christ.

How is it then, that in 7:17 Paul says, “So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me”? Obviously he isn’t excusing his sin as if he was not to blame, or that another person in him did it. As one who has come to love God’s law, he is conflicted about his sin. He is not altogether behind it. While he sins most willingly, yet part of him is deeply upset by it for God’s sake. So it is not the whole person that is running after sin as it was before his redemption. It is that sin part in him, his yet unsanctified remains of sin, that drive him to do wrong.

Finally Paul cries out in an agony that has a solution:

24. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?
25. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.

He finds relief, comfort, and hope in the promise of his living Savior. The battle with sin is not a mystical clash of forces that pull us against our will. It is a simple matter of us who are yet imperfect fighting by the power of Christ in us, using the means God has prescribed, so we will grow in Christ-likeness. It is truly a war. The enemy lies within. It is a battle we each will fight all our lives.

There is no easy escape. We need to keep in mind that we have all the weapons we need and the power of Christ to wage the war.

One day, when the moral struggles of this life are over we will enjoy complete victory. For the rest of eternity that struggle with sin will be over! Imagine what heaven will be like!

Heaven is far more than a tranquil resort for harp loving cloud dwellers. That pagan view of glory has little appeal to the true believer. But imagine this — One day each of us will know what it is like to not be at battle with indwelling sin any more! There will be no more habits of evil to overcome or to fight off, no more offenses of which to repent and nothing over which to weep because we have grieved our God. We will live in a sin-free state in the glorious presence of God for all eternity.

Meanwhile, we ought not to lose heart. By using all the means God has given you, keep up the battle resting in the power of Christ.

Galatians 5:16-17
This same conflict is also evident in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In 5:16-17 he compares walking by the Spirit with carrying out the desires of the flesh.

16. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.
17. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.

The context shows that Paul is speaking of the Holy Spirit, not our own human spirit. For example in 5:18 he speaks of being led by the Spirit, and in 5:22 he speaks of the fruit of the Spirit. It is God the Spirit indwelling believers which guides them contrary to the desires of the flesh.

Walking by the Spirit is the conducting of our lives according to the Spirit’s leading. As shown elsewhere that leading is both by enabling the soul, and by illuminating it to perceive and desire what pleases God. This illumination of the mind is not direct, but is by means of the revealed word of God, the inspired Scriptures we call the Bible.

Paul sets these two principles against one another as opposites. Therefore the corresponding principle to the leading of the Holy Spirit would be the principle of evil that remains in the believer in this life, the remnants and habits of sin. This is perfectly consistent with the principles at war within us as described in Romans 7.

The Extent of Sanctification

The promise of complete personal conformity to the perfect demands of God’s holiness is not to be fulfilled in this life, but is reserved for the life of the believer after his death. During our time on earth we are bound to engage in this continuing struggle with the remains of sin. Dr. Charles Hodge explains, “A man raised from the dead may be and long continue to be, in a very feeble, diseased, and suffering state.” (Systematic Theology Vol. 3, p. 220)

As we grow in holiness we become more sensitive to the offense of our sin and may at times perceive that we are regressing rather than progressing in holiness. Dr. G. I. Williamson writes, “the greater progress one makes in sanctification the more will he be distressed by the sin that yet is present with him (Romans 7:24)”

It is also important to realize that the conflict as Paul describes it involves lapses into a particular sin even when one believes he has been victorious over it. This shows that the process of sanctification is not a steady upward slope, but is a jagged slope that sometimes moves in a negative direction, but over all it shows a continuing general upward trend.

The Error of Perfectionism

There are some groups of professed believers in Christ who claim that complete, subjective moral sanctification is possible in this earthly life. They believe that individuals are able to arrive at a point prior to death where they are completely free of any sinful thoughts, words or deeds.

That God is able to have decreed and then to accomplish perfection in believers at any point in their lives is not the question. The issue is this, is it his holy will to do so? There is nothing in Scripture rightly interpreted, and nothing in the experience of believers, that would lend any evidence to such a view. Yet there are some who have adopted various configurations of the doctrine of perfectionism.

The plain statements of Scripture leave us with no doubt that perfection is not attainable now. We have already cited 1 John 1:8-10 to show that all believers still sin. The denial of sin is in conflict with this portion.

Well into his active apostolic ministry Paul’s statement to the Philippian church rules out any imagined moral perfection in his own Christian life. Consider for example Philippians 3:12-14.

12. Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.
13. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead,
14. I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

The evidences in Romans 7 and Galatians 5 also demonstrate a continuing struggle between the two principles of evil and righteousness in the life of the believer.

Usually, professing believers who imagine themselves to be able to attain perfection in this life do so by adopting a low view of sin. This comes from a deficit view of the holiness of God. When the Prophet Isaiah saw the Sovereign King of Glory, he saw no moral perfection in himself.

Isaiah 6:5 Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.”

The following discussion is based upon the summaries of the various views by Dr. Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology Vol. 3p245ff, and by A. A. Hodge in his commentary on the Westminster Confession in the chapter on Sanctification.

Pelagian Perfectionism
The root of this view is the assumption that no one can be asked by God to do what he is not fully able to do in this life. All God commands of mankind can be done without any supernatural help from the Holy Spirit. This denies the doctrine of Total Depravity as it is presented in Scripture (See the syllabus on Objective Soteriology, the section on Original Sin in God’s Covenant With Man WCF 6).

The Pelagian sees man’s nature as uninjured by the fall. To him individual guilt only comes by personal voluntary transgressions. Both before and after the fall he sees man as being fully able to obey God’s law. Therefore a person, either Christian or heathen, is fully able to live his life without sin. Pelagius never claimed that anyone outside of Christ actually had done so, but he did affirm that many saved persons have.

He believed that this obedience was done in their own ability as assisted by the grace of God. Grace is defined by the Pelagian as the goodness of God enabling us so that by our own free agency we obey his law completely. This grace includes God’s revelation, his precepts, and the example of Christ. Grace pardons sins committed before conversion. It is the moral influence of truth and circumstances. Therefore the Pelagian form of grace “is simply to render obedience more easy” (Hodge p. 251). Sin must be re-defined in this system as merely the voluntary transgression of known law.

The Pelagians explain 1 John 1:8-10 as John’s expression of humility but not as admitting to actual remaining sin in his life. They say that no believer should apply to themselves the request in the Lord’s Prayer which asks to be forgiven for trespasses against God. The Council of Carthage (418) formally condemned Pelagianism as heresy.

Romanist Perfectionism
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that grace is infused into the subjects of Church baptism. The person is at that time elevated to a state of grace. Everything of the nature of sin is removed from the soul and the ability to perform perfect good works free of any stain of sin is acquired.

Along with the Pelagian, the Romanist teaching is that nothing can be required of man that is beyond his ability to accomplish. Therefore the demands of the law must be understood in a way that fits our present abilities. It is assumed in this system that there is a higher standard of moral perfection than that to which man is held responsible, or by which he will be judged. This is the law of perfect divine love. No one is held to this perfect standard since it is above his ability to attain fully. The only standard we are held to is the lower canon.

In the Roman system concupiscence (the remains of original sin) is not removed by baptism, but is not of the nature of sin in this sense. The venial sins are those which do not bring condemnation. They are transgressions of that higher law. No man is free from venial sins. From these we may pray to be forgiven.

The sin from which we can be perfected is that which brings condemnation. So perfectionism in Rome is not freedom from moral faults, but freedom from that which brings judgment under the law. We are now only held to the moral law in a summary form which is alone binding on man in his present state. The demands of the law are accommodated to the condition of man in this life.

Since there is a higher standard of good than that to which we are held accountable, God’s people may not only keep the law expected of them entirely, but they may go beyond its requirements. By this obedience a believer can earn a greater supply of grace than he needs. Perfection then is relative. It is not freedom from all sin, but only from such sins as merit condemnation.

Arminian Perfectionism
The Arminian also holds that perfection is attainable in this life. To him it means complete conformity to the law, freedom from sin, and perfect obedience to all our duties.

The Arminian must also redefine that holiness which God requires of us. He sees God’s law as adapted to our present state and circumstances. He calls it the law of the love of Christ, or “gospel obedience”. It is a “mitigated law suited to the debilitated state of man.”

Episcopius defines perfection as, “keeping the commandments of God with a perfect fulfillment, or loving God as much as we ought to love him, according to the requirements of the Gospel…”

Perfection is therefore proportioned to the powers of each individual. It is the desire to make continual progress. It is not sinless or absolute obedience. It is that which consists of a deliberate action of sincere love and habit of piety.

Wesley explains, “Perfection is the loving of God with all the heart, mind, soul and strength. This implies no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words, and actions are governed by love.” He taught that sin is the voluntary transgression of the known law, all unholy temptation, self-will, pride, anger, and sinful thoughts. From these we can be perfectly free. Mistakes and infirmities are not sin. “A person filed with the love of God is still liable to these involuntary transgressions. Such transgressions you may call sins, if you please, I do not.” (Plain Account pages 62-67). These transgressions do not need atonement because they do not condemn.

Perfection of this sort is thought of as a supernatural work of grace because it is on account of the work of Christ that God lowers the demands of the law for the believer. Therefore it is a “gospel obedience.”

Oberlin Perfectionism
The Oberlin Theory arose at the Oberlin University of Ohio. It teaches that holiness consists in “disinterested benevolence.” It is a willingness that God should do whatever is the highest good of what the universe demands. If a man has this willingness he is perfect. Sin is only the voluntary transgression of known law. The familiar presumption of all perfectionism is stated this way, “Every man has plenary ability to fulfill all his obligations.”

This perfection in holiness implies a full and perfect discharge of our entire duty to God, an entire absence of selfishness and includes the presence of perfect love. Finney writes, “By entire sanctification, I understand the consecration of the whole being to God…. a state of devotedness to God…”

Again, the standard which God expects believers to obey is lowered. The law to which we must be perfectly conformed is the original moral law given to Adam, but that demands no more than what each man in his inward state and outward circumstances is able to render.

The more grace, knowledge and strength he has, the more the law demands of him. Less is required of those with less knowledge, culture, moral susceptibility, and strength.

Finney says that our required service to God is “regulated by our ability … It is a first truth of reason that moral obligation implies the possession of every kind of ability which is required to render the required act possible.”

Summary of these various views
There are major areas of agreement between all these views. Sin is redefined lower than perfect conformity to the moral standards of the Creator. It is modified by our abilities and circumstances in one way or another. The presumed principle that supports this set of views is that ability conditions responsibility. In various ways, God is seen as setting the level of that responsibility to accommodate the abilities of man.

Rome stresses the work of the sacraments in bringing about its form of perfectionism. The Arminians say it is conditioned by a grace given to all men which if “duly improved” by the individual secures more grace and enables them to become “perfect”. Rome also sees merit in our works toward eternal life, while the evangelical Arminians do not.

Charles Hodge observes, “If the law of God can be relaxed in its demands to suit the state of its subjects, then there is no limit to be assigned to its condescension. Thus perfectionism has sometimes … lapsed into antinomianism.” (p. 258)

The Error of the “Carnal Christian” Doctrine

One of the concerns every believer faces is how to understand the remains of sin in his heart after he is regenerated by grace and set free from sin as his master. Many have tried to design models that remove the burden of striving for holiness as defined by God’s word. The perfectionists lower the demands of God, or re-define sin.

There is another tragic error that remains popular among some groups. It divides our being saved from the guilt of sin, from our becoming bound to the mastery of Jesus Christ as Lord. The invention of the Carnal Christian as a third state of the human soul is harmful to the struggling believer and deeply offensive to the truth God has made known in his word. The biblical concept of carnality is addressed in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, chapter three.

1. And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to babes in Christ.
2. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able,
3. for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men?
4. For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men?
5. What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one.
6. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.
7. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.
8. Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor.
9. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.
10. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But let each man be careful how he builds upon it.
11. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
12. Now if any man builds upon the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw,
13. each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work.
14. If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward.
15. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.

In this chapter Paul addresses the readers as babes in Christ. It is important to note that he is addressing believers. He calls them “the church of God at Corinth” (1:2), the recipients of God’s grace (1:4). He says that the “testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in” them (1:6), they were not lacking in any gift (1:7), that God will confirm them to the end as blameless before Christ (1:8). They are called of God into fellowship with Jesus Christ (1:9). He calls them brethren several times (3:1), and notes that they are “in Christ” (3:1).

Yet they were spiritually immature believers. When Paul first came to them he understood that they could only receive simple instruction. This is to be expected of new believers. They were just beginning the process of sanctification. They had little knowledge of the Bible. Peter made a similar comment in his first epistle. 1 Peter 2:2, “like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation.”

These new believers could not receive the meat of the word. They had to be given milk to drink not solid food. This does not mean that we teach young believers different doctrines as if some doctrines are only for theologians to know. It means that we must use different presentations, and expect different depths of understanding. But clearly this passage shows that spiritual growth was expected of them. The purpose of milk is to produce growth. Similarly the writer of the letter to the Hebrews comments on this in chapters five and six.

Hebrews 5:12-6:1 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. (13) For everyone who partakes {only} of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. (14) But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. (6:1) Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,

These new Christians were still living like natural men (3:3). They showed tragic evidences of spiritual immaturity. He calls them carnal (fleshly). They fed their fleshly desires and lived to satisfy their temporal needs according to man’s way, ignoring God’s way of satisfying human hungers. They were jealous of the success of others and coveted it. They were divisive, man-centered, divided into cliques, failing to see the Church as a body working together. They were slothful with regard to the word. Hebrews 5 shows that they ought to be progressing beyond the basics toward the magnificent truths of God’s gracious covenant.

The Larger Catechism, question 157, explains the obligation of believers to seek the word of God for personal growth.

“The Holy Scriptures are to be read with an high and reverent esteem of them; with a firm persuasion that they are the very word of God, and that he only can enable us to understand them; with desire to know, believe, and obey the will of God revealed in them; with diligence, and attention to the matter and scope of them; with meditation, application, self-denial, and prayer.”

There is a false interpretation that is often given to this text in 1 Corinthians. It is called the Carnal Christian Doctrine. It holds that there are two classes of believers: the Spiritual Christians and the Carnal Christians. When a person becomes a Christian, it is said that the guilt of his sin is removed and he is assured of eternal life, but there is no change in his nature. He may continue to live just as he did as an unredeemed sinner with one exception, he is no longer subject to the penalty of his sins. Only when one takes a second optional step of faith and voluntarily accepts Jesus as his Lord do changes begin to take place in his life. With that second act of faith the “Carnal Christian” becomes a “Spiritual Christian.”

This implies the following:

  • The reception of Jesus as Lord is a separate and second stage of spiritual growth.
  • Those redeemed may live as unbelievers live and still be saved from eternal damnation.
  • Sin may still hold believers in the chains of bondage as their master.
  • A Christian might never in this life progress in any personal sanctification at all.

This doctrine is based upon several assumptions which are not established in Scripture.
1. It presumes that fallen and redeemed men alike are ultimately in control of their own spiritual progress. They are not expected to do anything for their salvation or moral improvement beyond what they are able to do in their present condition.
2. It offers a false security of salvation to the mere professing Christian while he continues to live in a manner unchanged from his fallen estate.
3. Ultimately it also denies the sovereign workings of God to redeem and sanctify us by grace alone in Christ.

This view takes the whole Corinthian passage out of its context. It makes 1 Corinthians 3:8-15 refer to the judgment of the carnal moral works of believers which works are burned in judgment, while the believer himself is saved. (See notes in the Schofield Reference Bible, various booklets by Campus Crusade, the writings of Charles Ryrie, Bill Bright, and Major Ian Thomas.)

The details of this passage rule out that interpretation directly. If the elements of Paul’s argument are correctly defined, no such third class of believers can be established.

The workers spoken of here are not referring to the whole class of believers in Christ, but to the specially called messengers of the gospel. Paul says in 5:10, “I laid the foundation”, another builds. This implies that he is dealing here with those called of God to lay a foundation and to build upon it in establishing a Christian community. They are not the flock in general which would be the plants planted, the building constructed. The workers are the servants, planters, waterers, and fellow-laborers (5:4-9).

The “work” Paul speaks of is not the good deeds or carnal deeds of believers in general. There is no mention of such things being judged in the whole flow of Paul’s reasoning here. The work is the product of the efforts of the gospel laborers, the fruit of their ministry. The Corinthian Church was the work of the God-blessed labors of Paul and Apollos. When the church where I pastored most of my career was first established it was called the St. Petersburg “work” in the denominational publications. Notice that this is exactly how Paul defines his own use of this term. In 3:9 he says, “You are God’s field, God’s building.” and later in this epistle (9:1) asks, “…are you not my work in the Lord?”

When Paul speaks of a man’s work being tested he speaks of it in the singular, the work established by those sent from God to Corinth. He does not speak of it in the plural which he would if he meant all the works which individual believers perform morally.

The Judgment mentioned here is not a time for the testing of the deeds of a person to see if they are good or carnal. The context shows that Paul is speaking of how the results of the ministry, the validity of the work of each gospel laborer, will be judged.

The context shows that each man spoken of in verses 8-15 is each laborer in the gospel. The “work” is the fruit of the gospel, the professed believers. The work will be tested with judgment fire. Some converts will be found to be only superficial professors of Christ. Their confession will not stand. The work of that gospel worker will be shown to have yielded only temporal professions of faith. This principle is also well attested in the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Matthew 7:23 “I will declare to them ‘I never knew you’…”

Matthew 25:32 “… He will separate them from one another as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats”

Matthew 13:24-43 speaks of how the wheat and the tares were allowed to grow together until the judgment. “first gather up the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.”

Though such a work of the minister will be burned with judgment fire, the laborer himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. It is tragic that the gospel is often received in the flesh with no evidence of spiritual fruit. Such claimed converts are only followers of men, not the redeemed of Christ. The minister’s work will be judged as fruitless.

In Corinth, Paul and Apollos preached the Gospel faithfully. He knew they were true believers, but at the moment were living in such a manner that was not consistent with their profession. The Apostle was warning them not to abandon the gospel by mixing it with carnal, fleshly, behavior that was only fitting for unregenerate men. He was admonishing them to live in that way which he taught. That alone is the mark of those who are alive in Christ, who were not still of the world. So in the next verse he adds, 1 Corinthians 3:16 “Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”

The warning was not that the Corinthians were a class of believers who would be saved in the judgment while their fleshly deeds would be burned up. He was bringing them to the sober truth that they, Paul’s work in the gospel, would not stand in the judgment if their present behavior continues to typify their lives. A faith without works is a dead faith if alone. James made the same warning in James 2:17. Such a person is not a lower class Christian. He is no Christian at all. The true believer will eventually show the truth of his faith by repenting of his continuing carnal behavior. He will strive toward holiness when admonished.

There are dangerous implications of the false Carnal Christian doctrine. If a change in life is not required then we are not new creatures in Christ by grace. It is as if we can cling to Christ with one hand and to our sin with the other. This directly contradicts Paul’s lesson in Romans 7:1-6 which shows that we cannot be joined to another (Christ) until the first bond with sin is broken. Repentance is changed into a mere change of mind about sin intellectually. To them it has nothing to do with bringing forth fruits confirming its genuineness (Luke 3:8).

This false doctrine assumes that unholy living is perfectly compatible with a person being regenerated by Christ. The believer is said not to be required to live differently than an unbeliever. In the Campus Crusade booklet Have You Made the Wonderful Discovery of the Spirit-Filled Life?, the life of the Carnal Christian is portrayed as being identical with that of the unsaved person. It shows that Christ is inside him, yet powerless to effect any change in that life. The change only comes when the believer decides to permit Christ to become his Lord.

So then, what is the purpose of Paul’s reference to the carnal believers in Corinth? He calls them babes in Christ. They are remaining like babies, new believers who are not progressing as they should. They should be maturing spiritually but are not. They were still giving too much value to fleshly things, the temporal pleasures of sin.

The struggle Paul describes in Romans 7:13-25 and Galatians 5:16-17 shows that every believer has elements of carnality in him along with his renewed spiritual life. These two principles battle with one another and will continue to do so in this earthly life. In some ways we all behave in worldly ways. Sanctification is not complete here, though it must be progressively evidenced to some degree in each believer’s life. In speaking of that sense in which sin remains while defeated as our condemning master, Paul says of himself in Romans 7:14, “I am carnal (of flesh)”.

The Corinthians were carnal in some ways that perhaps we are not. Perhaps they were spiritual in ways that we are not. The tragedy is that the Apostle had to speak to them as spiritual babies.

It is our duty to hunger for the milk of the word so that by it we will grow to crave and to be able to handle the solid food of God’s word. We ought to evidence the work of Christ in us by setting aside strife, jealousy and divisiveness, by working to mortify the fleshly ways of our lives. In place of such things we must put on the ways of Christ (Colossians 3:5-17).

[The means by which we grow in sanctification will be the subject of our study of WCF XVI – Of Good Works.]

Note: The Bible quotations in this syllabus are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.

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