The Three Tenses of Sanctification

I mentioned earlier that salvation for the believer is past (Eph. 2:8; 2 Tim. 1:8,9), present (1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:5), and future tense (Rom. 5:9,10; Heb. 9:28). In other words, we have been saved, we are being saved, and someday we shall fully be saved from the wrath that is to come. Salvation won’t be complete until we receive resurrected bodies and fully in the presence of God. Sanctification also occurs in Scripture in past (1 Cor. 1:2; 6:19; Acts 20:32), present (Rom. 6:22; 2 Cor. 7:1), and future tense (Eph. 5:25-27; 1 Thess. 3:12,13). In other words, we have been sanctified, we are being sanctified, and some day we shall fully be sanctified. The sanctifying process begins at new birth and ends in heaven, which we all look forward to.

Past-tense sanctification has commonly been called positional sanctification. Present-tense sanctification has been commonly called progressive or experiential sanctification. We must be careful not to overemphasize one tense at the expense of the other. The holiness movement has focused almost exclusively on positional sanctification leading some to understand sanctification as a done deal. One man looked me straight in the eye and said, “I haven’t sinned in twenty years.” I said, “Really, if I asked your wife if that were true, would she agree with your assessment?” Such a belief can lead to hypocrisy. "If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us" (1 Jn. 1:8). Caution, it is important to know that “having sin” and “being sin” are two totally different concepts.

The theology I learned was more Reformed and focused on progressive sanctification, which made the term almost synonymous with Christian growth or maturity. The tendency from this perspective is to refer to past-tense sanctification as just positional truth, as though it had no practical significance. That will result in some spending the rest of their lives trying to become somebody they already are. Positional sanctification is real truth and is the basis for progressive sanctification. As born again believers, 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 by faith, that which God has already worked in. It is becoming like Christ.

This is extremely important to know, because sanctification is God’s will for our lives (1 Thess. 4:3). He doesn’t give a holy grunt whether you are a carpenter, plumber, or engineer, but He does care what kind of carpenter, plumber, or engineer you are. He may guide you in such career choices, but His will is that you become like Him in whatever you do. If you are not on the path of sanctification, God may disrupt your plans in order for you to get back on track.

Dr. Neil

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