For 2020, Remember: Sanctification Is a Process!

By Neil Earle

John Owen

There’s no doubt about it. Sanctification is a Biblical word no serious Christian can hope to evade. It or its allied terms appear more than 120 times in the Old and New Testaments.

But what does it mean?

“Sanctification is the purpose for our lives if we are Christ’s (1 Thess. 4:3). Sanctification is the universal renovation of our natures by the Holy Spirit unto the image of God, through Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).”

This is from the learned English Puritan John Owen in the 1600s.

And Owen was expert enough to be very definite about what it was not.

“It differs from that of Regeneration,” he wrote. “Regeneration is instantaneous, consisting in one single creating act…But this work of Sanctification is progressive, and admits of degrees.”

In his 1993 best-seller, Concise Theology, J.I. Packer echoes Owen. “Sanctification is an ongoing transformation…an ongoing cooperative process in which regenerated [i.e. born anew] persons, alive to God and freed from sin’s dominion (Romans 6:11) are required to exert themselves…in God-dependent effort (Philippians 3:10-14).

Note the careful phraseology employed – “God-dependent effort” i.e. not on our own steam. No not at all. These two great Bible expositors who lived three centuries apart are passing on some great good news for us here: God does not expect us to come up perfect people from the waters of baptism. Far from it. While perfection may be the goal (Matthew 19:21), both Packer and Owen knew there were many many slips and starts along the way. In Owen’s phrase this struggle “admits of degrees” which is a polite 1685 way of saying, It takes time.

J.I. Packer

An Experienced Christian

In the 1600s, Puritans who did not leave England for America suffered much harassment. Owen (1616-1683), an Oxford man, was one of them. Owen was first ejected from his pulpit by the Anglican church in 1637. But in 1654 he was made Oliver Cromwell’s chaplain for his well-known tolerance and moderation. In 1662 he was finally ejected once again when the Anglicans took over England for good. But the learned Owen stayed on in London to become one of the country’s foremost “divines,” a shining pulpit star among persecuted Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Independents.

The energetic Owen arranged for the first printing of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. He and his wife had 11 children – only one of whom lived to adulthood. Can you imagine what that was like? I can’t. Yet his God saw him through. His labored on his 9-volume Commentary on Hebrews for 16 years (1668-1684). So when Owen speaks about the role of the Holy Spirit in Sanctification and in the Christian life I, for one, am eager to listen. Here are excerpts drawn mostly from his “Discourse on The Holy Spirit.”

“Sanctification is [a] work of the Spirit of God on the souls of believers, purifying and cleansing their natures from the pollution and uncleanness of sin, renewing in them the image of God, and thereby enabling them to yield obedience to God (Titus 3:5)…it consists in a holy obedience unto God, by Jesus Christ, according to…the actual aid, assistance and internal operation of the Spirit of God (Zechariah 4:6).”

There’s just something about the bold straight-forwardness of these words that are very refreshing to the Christian caught in the toils of this world. It is a prod to renew the struggle.

The Spirit of Sanctification

With such respect for the indispensible work of the Holy Spirit, it is not surprising that Owen is a great source for answering What does the Holy Spirit do? The Holy Spirit was, he says, “the great legacy which our Lord Jesus Christ, departing out of this world, bequeathed unto his sorrowful disciples” (John 16:7-12). Here are things Owen saw the Holy Spirit doing in the life of Jesus our Forerunner:

  1. “The framing, forming, and miraculous conception of the body of Christ in the womb of the blessed Virgin was the peculiar and special work of the Holy Ghost (Matthew 1:20).
  2. The human nature of Christ being thus formed…it was by the Holy Spirit endowed with all grace…with all those extraordinary powers and gifts which were necessary for the exercise and discharging of his office on the earth…(Luke 1:80)
  3. By him was he guided, directed, comforted, supported, in the whole course of his ministry, temptations, obedience and sufferings (Matthew 4:1).
  4. He was positively declared to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead, [by] the powerful working of the Holy Spirit (Romans 1:4). It was the Holy Spirit who glorified the human nature of Christ, and made it in every way fit for its eternal residence at the right hand of God, and a pattern of the glory which in our mortal bodies we shall receive by the same Spirit (Romans 8:11).
  5. There is a work of God in us preceding all our good works…He first washes and cleanses our natures, takes away the heart of stone, gives a heart of flesh, writes his law in our hearts, puts his Spirit in us. In this the grace of Regeneration consists (Titus 3:5).”

“By Degrees”

John Owen was Packer’s hero, and no wonder. Both men subscribed to the Puritan conviction that summarizes Sanctification as “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.”

Richard Sibbes, who had instructed many pastors, expounded this note of comfort: “This victory is by degrees…Christ’s work in us often goes backward that it may go forward…Such is the goodness of our sweet Savior that he delights still to show his strength in our weakness.”

There is an honesty here that is refreshing. Without preaching “cheap grace” the leading Puritan thinkers knew God’s work in us was an ongoing transformation. “This conflict and frustration will be with Christians as long as they are in the body” concludes Packer. But even so “they will experience many particular deliverances and victories in their unending battle with sin, while never being exposed to temptations that are impossible to resist (1 Corinthians 10:13).”

Now that’s good news.