Herman C. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The problem of progressive sanctification is always a troubling one for the saints. Does the regenerated and sanctified child of God become, throughout his life, progressively more holy? May he, in the midst of the battle of faith, expect growth in sanctity and piety? increasing victories in the battle against sin? May he, on the basis of the Word of God, expect that as he grows older he will become more and more virtuous and that he will live in greater and more frequent good works?
Or, to put the question in another form: When God, through the Spirit of Christ, performs the work of sanctification in the hearts of His people, does God so work that that sanctification is a process which significantly and noticeably makes the child of God a more holy person? Does God continually cleanse from sin so that sin more and more is defeated and holiness more and more dominates in the life of the one redeemed in the blood of the cross of Christ?
This question can be considered from two different viewpoints. It may be considered from the viewpoint of the doctrine itself, i.e., does Scripture teach such progress in sanctification? Or it may be considered from the viewpoint of the personal experience of the child of God, i.e., in the heat and struggle of the battle against sin, may a Christian expect that, through God’s grace in His heart, he will increasingly subdue the sin in his flesh and more and more live a life of holiness? Put in this way, the question becomes an intensely personal one. The opposite is, after all, bitter to contemplate. It may be that in the battle the child of God knows only retreat, that sin increases its strength and force, that evil gains more and more power over him. Sometimes it seems that way to God’s people. They speak rather sorrowfully of the fact that the older they become, the more sinful their lives are. As they reach old age, they see more and more sin, more corruption in their evil nature which they struggle against all their life long and greater evil present in them.
But even if the battle is a kind of spiritual “stalemate,” the life of the believer takes on a rather dark hue. It is always true, of course, that the believer looks forward in hope and anticipation to the time when the battle will be over and the victory will be won. But while he continues in this life the struggle remains, from the viewpoint of his own experience, indecisive.
When we turn to Scripture and the testimony of the Reformed Confessions on this question, it appears at first glance as if the teachings found there are contradictory.
On the one hand, there is no question about it that the Scriptures emphatically teach and emphasize growth and progress in sanctification. We have the space to cite only a few evidences of this strong emphasis in God’s Word. The Bible speaks often of spiritual growth. Ephesians 2:21 speaks of growing unto a. holy temple, and the same figure is used by Peter in I Peter 2:5 where the saints are compared to living stones, i.e., stones which, because they live, also become increasingly fit to occupy a place in the holy temple of God. In the second verse of this same chapter, Peter urges upon the saints to desire as newborn babes the pure milk of the Word “that ye may grow thereby.” And in the very last verse of his second epistle, Peter admonishes the saints to “grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18). In II Corinthians 7:1 we are exhorted to perfect our holiness in the fear of God; in Hebrews 12:14, we are told to follow after sanctification without which no man may see the Lord; and in II Thessalonians 1:3 Paul tells the members of that congregation that their faith grows exceedingly and that the love each one has for the other abounds. Repeatedly Scripture, presses upon us the calling to increase in holiness, for we are called to be holy even as our Father in heaven is holy (I Peter 1:15, 16).
On the other hand, another picture is drawn in Scripture of quite a different kind. It is a picture of people of God on their knees with tears streaming down their faces, crying out in the agony of their sin. David, after his sins of murder and adultery, confesses that he was conceived and born in sin (Psalm 51:5); Job, when confronted with the great majesty of God, complains, “Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee?” (Job 40:4). And again, “I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). The Psalmist complains that his sins rise up against him,prevailing day by day, (Psalm 65:3) and this is only one of many plaintive cries repeatedly made in the Psalms concerning the great burden of sin.
The New Testament sounds the same note. Paul speaks of ,the good which he would., but does not, and the evil which he would not, but which he nevertheless does, because he is carnal and sold under sin; and he ends his deep confession of sin with the anguished cry: “O wretched man that I am” (Romans 7:14-24). Not the Pharisee in the temple, who boasted of all his holiness, went home justified, but the publican who could only smite on his breast, fearful to lift his eyes to heaven, and who pleaded, “God be merciful to me, the sinner” (Luke 18:9-15).
Our creeds echo these truths of Scripture. Our Heidelberg Catechism speaks of even the holiest of men having but a small beginning of the new obedience (Lord’s Day LXIV, 114) and of our best works as being imperfect and defiled by sin (Lord’s Day XXIV, 62). And, in praying for the forgiveness of sins, the Heidelberg Catechism speaks of our confession as being that we are poor sinners and that our transgressions and depravity always cleave to us (Lord’s Day LI, 126).
Over the years various solutions to this problem have been proposed. Generally speaking, they have divided themselves into two camps, the camp of the perfectionists and the camp of the antinomians. Both attempt to solve the problem by going in differentdirections.
The perfectionists are proud to speak of such great advances in sanctification that they attain to a state of perfection in this world. Dr. Abraham Kuyper, e.g., once spoke of a minister whom he heard who announced one Sunday to his congregation that he had succeeded in living for an entire year without sin. The Pentecostalists are eager also to speak of this kind of perfection which comes with the second blessing. But such a notion is not only contrary to the Scriptures, it inevitably falls into the trap of Arminianism. Such have a very moralistic view of goodness: they have no conception of the bitter struggle against sin which goes on in our members, and they reduce piety to some outward observance of the law of God. They separate the work of sanctification from grace and, while speaking rather piously of justification only through faith, nevertheless leave sanctification in our hands and make it our work. They fall into the dreadful trap of relying upon works, an evil against which our Belgic Confession warns so seriously when it says, “Moreover, though we do good works, we do not found our salvation upon them; for we do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable; and although we could perform such works, still the remembrance of one sin is sufficient to make God reject them. Thus then we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences continually vexed, if they relied not on the merits of the suffering and death of our Savior” (Article XXIV).
The antinomians, on the other hand, want to deny the work of sanctification altogether. They speak of our righteousness in Christ, of the fact that our holiness is only in Christ (but not in us), that good works are forever impossible because of the continuous corruption of our natures, that all good works are done for us by Christ (while denying that they are done in us by the Spirit and power of Christ.) Emphasizing our perpetual and unrelieved depravity, they have no room in the life of the believer for being the branches of the vine, for living in Christ and out of Him, and for bearing good fruit in union with Christ. So often a practical antinomianism raises its ugly head in the church by becoming an excuse for sin and a plea to tolerate sin because the justified sinner is unable to do anything else but sin. Hence, it becomes nonsense to speak of progressive sanctification simply because no holiness is present in the justified sinner at all and nothing exists which can possibly grow into something stronger and better. All awaits the day when the elect sinner goes to heaven. Lord’s Day XLIV (a Lord’s Day we have referred to earlier, but now question 115) points the way of Scripture’s answer to this question. It relates for us the need for a strict preaching of the law of God to sanctification. The whole question and answer reads:
Why will God then have the ten commandments so strictly preached, since no man in this life can keep them?
First, that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin, and righteousness in Christ; likewise, that we constantly endeavor and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we may become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at the perfection proposed to us, in a life to come.
Several elements are emphasized here, each of which is important. The Heidelberg Catechism is asking the question: Why, in the light of our inability to keep Gods commandments, does God want the perfection of His law constantly brought to our attention? Why a call to perfection when perfection is, in. this life, out of reach?
The first answer given is that we may all our lifetime learn more and more our sinful nature. That pointed and powerful answer surely speaks directly to the consciousness of the sin-burdened believer. As he grows older, he learns more and more about the depths of the depravity of his sinful nature, about his capacity for sin and for every vile corruption, of his inability to do anything right in Gods sight. But, and this needs so much to be stressed, that very lesson which he learns is progress and growth in sanctification. It is the “more and more” of growth and spiritual development. Only by the increasing power of the Holy Spirit does the child of God come to know his sins in all their horror.
The second answer that is given is that the greater knowledge we have of our sin, the more we will learn to seek remission for them in the cross and the more earnest we will be in seeking our righteousness in the blood of our Savior. And that too is astonishing and remarkable growth and progress. It is growth in humility. It is growth in forsaking ourselves. It is growth in escape from all Phariseeism, from all trust in our power. It is the great progress of fleeing more and more to Christ and clinging by faith to His cross. And again, this kind of progress the believer finds in his life, for his only comfort in life and in death is that he belongs to his faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
The third answer which this Lord’s Day gives is that we trust more and more in the grace of the Holy Spirit. What tremendous progress one makes in the life of sanctification when more and more he abandons himself and his own efforts, when more and more he forsakes his own works, when more and more he no longer trusts in what his hands have done; but rather relies solely upon and seeks only the grace of the Holy Spirit. This is the end of all Arminianism in his own soul. It is the full judgment of his own consciousness upon every work which he does. It is the death knell for self-righteousness., Grace and grace alone is the power by which he becomes increasingly conformed to the image of Gods Son. And relying upon that grace alone, he lives as a branch out of the Vine, which is Christ, and that life of Christ pulses within him.
And finally, the Catechism points us to the perfection which awaits the believer. Struggling with his flesh, fighting a wearying battle against his own corrupt nature, he increasingly longs for the day when he can lay aside once and for all the weapons of his spiritual warfare and claim the palm branch of perfect victory. Wounded, bloodied repeatedly in the battle, indescribably weary from the conflict, he lives in the hope of the day when the enemy shall forever be vanquished and he can receive from the Captain of his salvation the wreath of victory which is His through the blood of the cross. This, too, is growth in sanctification. He is torn away from this world and all its pleasures and lusts. He is pulled powerfully in the depths of his being towards glory. He turns his back increasingly upon all that belongs to this sinful life. And he grows in the hope of the day when he shall be with His Savior.
If we look for growth in the outward good works which attract the attention of men and which are praised by men, we shall fall into the trap of Arminianism and moralism, and fail to see what sanctification is all about. But if we understand that sanctification is God’s work, performed by grace, wrought in us in the profound way in which our fathers have explained it; if we know the quiet working of the Spirit, the still small voice, the unheralded humility of the crushed sinner who cries to heaven, the tears which God collects in His bottle, above all, the desperate clinging to Christ for everything, then we shall come to understand a bit of what remarkable and astonishing progress the sanctified child of God makes on this difficult path of life and holiness which leads to heaven.