In justification, God declares the believer righteous because of the righteousness of Christ, which is accounted to the believer. Justification is the act of a judge. It removes from sinners the condemnation that is deserved because of their guilt. Sanctification is more the act of a priest and deals with the pollution of sin. The doctrine of sanctification is a process that begins at our new birth in Christ and is completed in heaven, whereas justification fully happened at our new birth and is always referred to in the past tense for believers.
Paul says, “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified” (1 Thess. 4:3). God will guide us in career choices and decision making, but the primary will of God is that we become like Him, which is the process of sanctification. Sanctification is the gracious work of God by which He progressively delivers the justified believer from the pollution of sin, transforms their character to be like Him, and enables them to bear fruit to the glory of God. We are called to be holy just as God is holy (1 Pet. 1:15). To be sanctified means we are to be set apart from sin and sinful behavior and to be righteous and live a righteous life.
Sanctification like salvation can be a difficult doctrine to understand unless you know that both are referred to in Scripture in past, present, and future verb tenses. We have been saved (Eph. 2:4,5,8; 2 Tim. 1:8,9), we are being saved (1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15), and someday we shall be fully saved from the wrath that is to come (Rom. 5:9,10; Heb. 1:13,14). Even though we haven’t experienced all that salvation will bring, God wants us to have the assurance of salvation (1 Jn. 5:13), and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives is our guarantee. “Having believed you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:14).
In a similar fashion, we have been sanctified (1 Cor. 1:2; 6:19, Acts 20:32), we are being sanctified (Rom. 6:22; 2 Cor. 7:1; Heb. 12:14), and someday we shall be fully sanctified in heaven (Eph. 5:25-27; 1 Thess. 3:12,13; 5:23,24). When sanctification is referred to in the past tense, it has been commonly called positional sanctification. Present tense uses are referred to as progressive sanctification.
It is counter-productive to our growth process to emphasize one aspect of sanctification over another. If we consider sanctification only in the past tense, then sanctification is a completed action and it could lead some to think they are perfectly righteous when they are not. If we consider only progressive sanctification and dismiss positional sanctification as only positional truth, then we try to become somebody we already are.
Positional sanctification is the basis for progressive sanctification. We are not trying to become children of God, we are children of God who are becoming like Christ. Progressive sanctification is the process of working out our salvation (Phil. 2:12) and making real in our experience our new life in Christ.
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