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Sanctification: Positional, Practical and Progressive?

Michael Hardt

T&T 2015 - Q4

A number of articles in this issue have explained the two aspects of sanctification:

  • once-for-all (‘positional’): we are sanctified at new birth (1 Pet. 1:2), on the basis of the sacrifice of Christ (Heb. 10:10, 14);
  • ongoing (‘practical’): we are called to sanctify ourselves (1 Thess. 4:3–5) and to be holy (1 Pet. 1:15).

But, the reader may say, if this is the case then a number of questions arise, including the following:

1.    If Hebrews 10:14 speaks about our position why does it refer to ‘being sanctified’ (as some translations, such as the English Standard Version, put it)?

2.    How does practical sanctification occur or work in practice?

3.    Is there such a thing as a progressive sanctification (and if not, why do some respected Bible teachers appear to suggest the contrary)?

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

What does Hebrews 10:14 mean?

Hebrews 10:14 is a very important verse. It reads: ‘For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.’ The last part of the sentence could, at first sight, be taken to mean that an ongoing process is in view. This impression may be even stronger when looking at the rendering in modern translations: ‘those who are being sanctified’.[1]

The first key to answering this question is the context. A little earlier, in verse 10, it is stated that our sanctification occurred based on a ‘once for all’ event: ‘we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all’. Verses 11 and 12 reinforce this thought by bringing out the contrast between the ongoing activity of the Old Testament priests and Christ. The former ‘stand’ (because their work is never completed) and they are ‘daily ministering’ and ‘offering often the same sacrifices’ — yet never achieving a lasting result as these sacrifices ‘can never take away sins’. Christ, on the other hand, offered ‘one sacrifice’, not many, and has ‘sat down’ (because His work is completed), and has done so ‘in perpetuity’ — a lasting result indeed. Clearly, the verses leading up to verse 14 point to a single event with a lasting consequence.[2] There is no reference to an ongoing process, of an eradication of the old nature, or any such thing.

The second key is in the grammar, in particular the tenses used. The word ‘sanctified’ is a present participle.[3] Whilst this form is capable of describing an ongoing process (as you might say ‘these people are working’ to express that they are working right now), it can also be used to bring out what is characteristic (as the same phrase could be used to say that they are not yet retired). This is the sense here: sanctification is characteristic for believers; they are people who are sanctified. In line with this J N Darby translates the term as ‘the sanctified’.

The word ‘sanctified’ is used in the same sense (and tense) in Acts 26:18: ‘among them that are sanctified by faith in me’. Clearly, this is not an ongoing process but an event that occurred when the gospel was received; hence the Lord said ‘by faith in me’. In Acts 20:32 and Hebrews 2:11, ‘sanctified’ is used in the same tense. These verses further confirm this meaning (that is, ‘sanctified’ describing what is characteristic).

Another striking example is found in 1 Corinthians 1:2. Paul addresses himself to the Corinthians and calls them ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus’, reminding them what God had done in setting them apart for Himself (at conversion). Surely, Paul could not have meant that the Corinthians had attained to (or greatly progressed towards) a state of perfect practical holiness. If that were the case, the large measure of correction that follows in the rest of the letter would not have been necessary!

The examples above demonstrate that the use of ‘them that are sanctified’ (present participle) expresses what is characteristic as opposed to an ongoing process. This is further supported by the fact that the Holy Spirit uses a different tense in the beginning of the same sentence: ‘For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified’. The phrase ‘he hath perfected’ is written in the perfect tense which means that an action occurred in the past and has lasting consequences enduring at the present time. This precludes the idea of an ongoing process to some state of practical perfection effected through ongoing sanctification. The message is clear: God has perfected the believer (as far as his position before Him is concerned) once for all, setting him apart (which is what sanctifying means) for Himself on the basis of the death of Christ (‘by one offering’), not the life of the believer.

Going back to verse 10, we find further confirmation: ‘we have been sanctified’. Here, the inspired writer uses the word ‘sanctified’ in the perfect tense,[4] demonstrating that it refers to a point of time in the past but has lasting consequences. Those less familiar with Greek grammar will reach the same conclusion from the verse itself: ‘through the offering’ shows that sanctification has occurred on the basis of an event in the past while ‘once for all’ shows a lasting consequence.

It is instructive to see that a different tense again is used in verse 29: ‘the blood of the covenant, whereby he has been sanctified’. Here it speaks of a person with Jewish background who has professed to being a Christian but then abandons this profession and in this way has ‘trodden under foot the Son of God’. In this case the Holy Spirit uses neither the present participle (sanctification is not characteristic for this person) nor the perfect tense (no sanctification has been effected for him) but the aorist,[5] which, in the indicative mood, simply means that an event occurred in the past, but without implying a lasting consequence. It is the sad case of a person who made an empty profession, got baptised, and was thereby outwardly set apart but without lasting consequence.

Having considered the use of the word ‘sanctified’ in three different tenses, each time bringing out a new aspect, do we not marvel at the precision of Scripture?

How does practical sanctification occur or work in practice?

Having demonstrated that scripture teaches positional sanctification, we also have to recognise the importance of practical sanctification.

Positional sanctification is:

  • by the death of Christ (Heb. 10:10, 14) — its basis;
  • by the Spirit (1 Pet. 1:2) — how God brought it about in us; and
  • ‘by faith’ (Acts 26:18) — the way we receive or enter into it.

As other articles have shown, practical sanctification is by the word of the truth (John 17:17) and by the Lord Jesus sanctifying Himself for us (John 17:19). Let us look at these two points for a moment.

When the Lord expresses the request ‘Sanctify them by the truth’ He adds a weighty comment: ‘thy word is truth’. The key is in the little word ‘thy’. The Lord is addressing Himself to the Father (see vs. 1, 5, 11, 21, 24, 25). Therefore, ‘thy word’ is the Father’s word. It is of course the Bible, but seen in the light of the full revelation of the Father and, therefore, in the light of the coming of the Son (Heb. 1:1) in the fulness of time (Gal. 4:4) when the shadow made way for the body, the substance (Col. 2:17; Heb. 10:1).

When a Christian reads the Old Testament he or she does so (or should do so) in the light of the full revelation of the New. Take the story of Joseph. For a Jewish reader it supplies a vital part of inspired national history including the origin of the nation of Israel and the explanation of how it ended up, at one point, in Egyptian slavery. The Christian reads the same chapters with different eyes. He knows (or should know) that Joseph is a beautiful type of Christ, hated by his brethren, sold to the nations, and yet the ‘Saviour of the world’, the man of God’s counsel. In other words, a Christian reads the same word of God but he reads it as ‘the Father’s word’. In doing so he is occupied with Christ, his heart is drawn to Christ, his affections are stirred, and in this way the things of the world lose attraction for him and he increasingly desires to live as set apart (‘sanctified’) by and for God.

The same applies to other parts of the Bible. All the prophets witness of Christ (Acts 3:24; 10:43). Not only this, but it was ‘from Moses’ that the Lord began showing ‘the things concerning himself’ (Luke 24:27). This was not only a matter of applying the Scriptures, but of directly ‘opening’ them (v. 32), including the entire Old Testament: ‘all that is written concerning me in the law of Moses and prophets and psalms’ (v. 44). The ‘Father’s word’ is a field of study that is as wide as it is wonderful.

But it is not only in the light of Christ’s incarnation and sacrificial work — wonderful as these are — that we read the Scriptures but also in the light of His place in glory. This is the second aspect of the practical work of sanctification: ‘and I sanctify myself for them, that they also may be sanctified by truth’ (John 17:19). It is not a set of doctrines only that we are occupied with and attracted to (important as doctrine is) but a living person in the glory. Our hearts are connected with Him, directed towards Him. He has gone to glory not simply to be with the Father but also to set Himself apart, to sanctify Himself, for us. The truth of the Father (‘thy truth’) connects our hearts with Christ. The more this is the case practically, the more we will love Him, and the more we will be weaned from the visible, ‘the things of time and sense’.

Is there such a thing as a progressive sanctification (and if not, why do some respected Bible teachers appear to suggest the contrary)?

The widespread notion of ‘progressive holiness’ has been examined and ably refuted in C H Mackintosh’s article ‘Sanctification: What is it?’, extracts of which have been re-published in this issue of Truth & Testimony. But the attentive reader will have noticed that another able writer does speak of ‘progressive sanctification’ in an article also published in this magazine (see the introduction by F B Hole). Further, some may have come across statements by J N Darby along these lines: ‘Scripture speaks as plainly as possible of progressive sanctification’; or ‘Scripture is plain enough on progressive sanctification’.[6] Are these expositors at loggerheads with each other over such an important point?

Our answer is ‘surely not’. It is a question of what is meant by ‘progressive’ sanctification. The notion C H Mackintosh refutes (as do the other teachers mentioned above) is the idea that a believer is first converted and then needs to become more and more holy, whilst always doubting whether holiness is reached, but trying to progress on the path to holiness so that in the end the flesh can no longer work (or is even assumed to be eradicated). This is the sort of ‘progressive sanctification’ doctrine that is not Scriptural and only leads dear souls into a tailspin of either perpetual doubt and desperation or conceit and presumption (depending on personal disposition).

So why, then, do others say progressive s anctification is Scriptural? Well, because they mean an entirely different thing. They speak about the fact that a Christian (hence a person sanctified once for all and having no reason whatsoever to engage in introspective analysis and doubts on the matter) should grow spiritually. As he does, his affection for Christ will increase, he will ‘follow … holiness’ (Heb. 12:14) and live in an increasing realisation that he is set apart for Christ.

This concept of progressive sanctification does not assume any eradication of the flesh, nor the idea that the flesh ever becomes less dangerous over time. And it certainly does not assume that the believer ever reaches a state of practical perfection and/or inability to fall into sin (so-called ‘sinless perfection’) while on earth. However, it may be wisest to avoid using the term ‘progressive sanctification’ unless it is made clear what is, and what is not, meant by it.

May the Lord use this brief analysis of the three questions to help us:

  • in realising the wonderful thing He did for us right at the outset, from the time of new birth, by setting us apart for Himself once for all;
  • in reading and enjoying the Scriptures with open hearts, as the Father’s word, fixing our eyes on Christ in glory, and being increasingly sanctified practically in this way.

Michael Hardt[7]


[1] This is the text in the English Standard Version. The rendering in the NIV (New International Version) is equally problematic: ‘those who are being made holy’. Similarly, the NKJV and others. Once again we see how important it is to choose a precise translation!

[2] It is true that the single event in view here is the death of Christ, not our sanctification. But the point is that our sanctification is based on this single event, not on a gradual improvement in our practical life (still less in our old nature).

[3] Greek: ‘ἁγιαζόμενοι’.

[4] Greek: ‘ἡγιασμένοι’.

[5] Greek: ‘ἡγιάσθη’.

[6] ‘Notes of Readings on 1 Corinthians’ (ch. 6), Collected Writings of JND vol. 26, p.223.

[7] I am greatly indebted to William Kelly’s work ‘Sanctification’ in his volume Pamphlets. His article is heartily recommended to all readers.