Sanctification — Its Duration
. . . He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ . . . Phil. 1:6.
The doctrine of sanctification has relevance only to this life. The angels and those redeemed ones who are already in heaven do not need to be exhorted and often reminded to practice charity, patience and self-control. Of course, they will always experience development, and their capacity to love and appreciate God will ever expand. But this is not the process of sanctification. Sanctification is a continual cleansing and separating from sin as much as it is a continual growth in the attributes of the divine character.
There is no point in this life where it will not be appropriate to exhort the saints to the life of Bible sanctification. Said the apostle Peter, ". . . I think it meet, as long as I am in this tabernacle, to stir you up by putting you in remembrance . . ." 2 Pet. 1:13. And as long as we are in this tabernacle, we will need to read what Peter says about sanctification. This fact presupposes that in this life we will never arrive at a sinless state, for sinless creatures, being fully sanctified, have no need of the doctrine of sanctification. For them a very large portion of the Bible would be irrelevant.
The Scriptures clearly teach us that sanctification will never be complete until glorification (see Rom. 8:17-25). "Sanctification is glory in the seed, and glory is sanctification in the flower." — Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (London: Banner of Truth, 1970). None of the prophets or apostles claimed to be without sin. Said the apostle Paul:
Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. — Phil. 3:12-14.
In this life there is no stopping place, no point to which we may come and say, I have fully attained. The law of God still stands to demand a holiness greater than any saint has to give. No matter how high he may climb the alpine heights of holy living, the law stands above him, demanding, Holier yet! Thus, ". . . by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20) — and so it ever will be in this life.
The basic, inescapable fact that sanctification is always called for in this life, that the process must continue until glorification, is sufficient to cut off all aspirations of perfectionism. There is no such thing as arriving at a great "second blessing" of complete sanctification, unless that "second blessing" is understood as the New Testament "second coming" and glorification.
It is the strangest anomaly that some Christians who practice the ordinance of footwashing in conjunction with the Lord's Supper have been the most prone toward the doctrine of perfectionism. Christ's feet were not washed, because He was without sin. The reason why the disciples needed their feet washed was because they were still sinners — even though they were disciples of Christ. What meaning can footwashing possibly have today unless it is accompanied by confession of personal sinfulness and confession of need of the continual cleansing of Christ?
Why Sanctification Needs to Be Urged Throughout Life
Many evangelical teachers have allowed the preaching of sanctification to languish through false reasoning on gospel premises. They have said, "If you lift up the cross of Christ, talk about the love of God and salvation by free grace, sanctification will come naturally. When people accept the gospel, they will be so full of gratitude that they won't have to be urged or admonished to a life of holiness."
What shall we say about this sort of advice? St. Paul certainly was not content to preach the gospel and leave sanctification and a life of good works to take care of itself. In his letters he reminded the redeemed community what had happened and what had been given to them in the gospel. But he did not stop there. He used the gospel as the basis for very concrete appeals for godly behavior.
There is a fundamental reason why the church needs to be diligently taught and often reminded what constitutes the life of holiness. That reason is the sinfulness of human nature. The best of God's people still have a heart bent to backsliding, and they are prone to forget God's love and man's duty.
In the time of the German Reformation, John Agricola contended that the preaching and urging of Christian duty was unnecessary. "Hang Moses and the Ten Commandments!" he cried. He thought that the preaching of God's love and Christ's cross was all that was necessary. This was the spirit of antinomianism, and Luther and Melancthon would have none of it.
Luther wrote more about sanctification and the necessity of good works than many people suppose. He knew the reason why no teacher of the gospel can take this matter for granted. Said he:
But St. Paul also knows that although Christians have begun to believe and are in a condition in which the fruits of faith should appear, this result is nonetheless not so quickly attained and realized. Therefore it will do no good to think and to say: The doctrine has been presented. This certainly is enough; for where the Spirit and faith are found, fruits and good works will follow of their own accord. For although the Spirit is present and, as Christ says, is willing and is also at work in believers, still the flesh, weak and indolent, is opposed to Him. Then, too, the devil does not cease his efforts to bring to ruin, through temptations and allurements, that feeble flesh. Therefore we must not let people go on, as if it were not necessary to admonish and urge them through the Word of God to lead a good life. No, you dare not be negligent and remiss in this matter . . .
What, then, would happen if such admonishing and urging were discontinued and we simply went on thinking (as many secure religionists are doing): Why, I myself am well aware of what I should do; I have heard it so often and for so many years, yes, have even taught it to others. I hold that if we were to stop preaching and admonishing for a year, we would become worse than any heathen. — What Luther Says, ed. Ewald M. Plass (St. Louis: Concordia, 1959), Vol.2, p.659.
We hope that these remarks may move some preachers to start declaring the whole counsel of God. What we see everywhere is a tendency to pervert the message of grace into an easygoing benevolence. But as Luther warned, people will become secure and lazy by the continual preaching of grace. Those who neglect the doctrine of Bible holiness may have their head in the clouds, but their feet are not on the earth; and this has done great damage to the church.