Sanctification: I . . . Yet Not I – By Phil Johnson (Philippians 2:13)

A practical response to some twisted teachings regarding the doctrine of sanctification. This is adapted from a message delivered by Phil Johnson at Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, CA.

 

Philippians 2:12-13 says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”

 

That passage highlights two truths about our sanctification, and those two truths must be carefully kept in balance. The first truth emphasizes human responsibility. It is our responsibility to work out our own salvation.

 

The other side of the truth emphasizes divine sovereignty: God is the one who is working in us to make us willing and able to fulfill His good pleasure.

 

Both truths are essential and they must be kept in balance. If you stress either side so much that you underemphasize or exclude the other side, you will lose balance and fall into error. If you over- accentuate the human side of sanctification, that is the error of pietism – the notion that holiness is a human work. This is manifest in various forms of legalism and asceticism, like the religion of the Pharisees, the monasticism of medieval Christianity, or the externalism of some of the Amish sects.

 

If you place too much stress on the other side, however, it leads to the error of quietism – the view that sanctification doesn’t occur until we give up striving for it. Quietism is a totally passive approach to sanctification; it is an attempt to become holy by abandoning all effort and simply trusting God to remove any desire for sin from us. This is the error of the “Let Go and Let God” approach to the so-called Deeper Life.

 

Quietism is a close cousin of Wesleyan perfectionism. Of course, one of the distinctives of Wesleyan theology is its strong emphasis on sanctification. Wesleyan doctrine defines sanctification as a kind of moral perfection that believers can attain here on earth, when all desire for sin is erased.

 

The Wesleyan will tell you that sanctification is entered into by an act of believing that is separate from and subsequent to saving faith. John Wesley believed that when we first trust Christ, we receive the gift of justification, which (more or less, in Wesleyan doctrine) assures that our eternal destiny will be heaven. But if you want victory over sin in this life, Wesley said, you have to lay hold of the gift of sanctification, which John Wesley portrayed as a level of moral perfection in which you could be free from any known sin. To the Wesleyans, sanctification is a “second blessing,” a state of grace you have to enter into by an act of faith that comes after initial, justifying faith.

 

Wesley’s perfectionism begat a number of aberrant movements. It gave rise to the “holiness movement,” which borrowed John Wesley’s ideas about perfectionism and the “second blessing.” Charles Finney’s perfectionism was similar to Wesley’s and no doubt borrowed elements from it. All kinds of perfectionist teaching were spawned from these movements the nineteenth century.

 

In fact, out of the Holiness movement came the pentecostalism, which obviously has at its heart the notion that there is a second blessing, subsequent to justification, that must be laid hold of by a separate act of faith. In charismatic and pentecostal teaching, this second blessing is referred to as “the fullness of the Holy Spirit,” but the concept is obviously similar to what Wesley taught and it has its roots in this very same notion that there is a second blessing Christians must seek after salvation.

 

All brands of deeper-life theology are rooted in this same error. They are all modified versions of Wesley’s second-blessing doctrine. They start with the assumption that justification and sanctification are separate gifts of God, received at different times, by separate acts of faith.

 

(Incidentally, this is the same error that lies at the heart of no-lordship theology – the idea that Christians receive Jesus as savior only by an initial act of faith, and must receive Him as Lord through a later, deliberate act of faith, whereby they enter into a second level of Christian living.)

 

All of these theologies not only dichotomize the church, by splitting up believers into two groups (always the haves and the have-nots); but they also divide the gift of salvation in a way that is foreign to Scripture.

 

In other words, all of these wrong ideas about sanctification are based on the false assumption that when we first receive the gift of salvation, we do not receive everything we really need for life and godliness. We get justification, and a legal standing before God. But if we want sanctification – or if we want real victory over our sin – we must receive that through a separate act of faith.

 

And therefore these doctrines actually divide Christ. Because at that initial act of faith, when we trust Christ and become Christians, we are united with Him. We don’t receive just part of Him. We don’t get a Saviour only and no Lord. We receive Him for who He is – all of Him. As the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:30: “Christ Jesus . . . is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” Peter also says in 2 Peter 1:3, “His divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him.” There aren’t any additional resources you might yet lack when you have Christ. He is sufficient in and of Himself. There is no second work of grace in the Christian life. There’s no plateau we can step onto that will take us out of the realm of struggling against sin. And anyone who promises that kind of instant and automatic victory is offering a fraud.

 

One other error held in common by virtually every erroneous view of sanctification is this: They promise some kind of complete and instant sanctification – a total, immediate victory over sin – that supposedly occurs all at once when you lay hold of the victorious life by faith.

 

In other words, they want to bypass the process of sanctification by making it an instantaneous, complete, finished work at the moment you receive it. That is why all such doctrines, including all kinds of deeper-life doctrine theology, are properly classed as various kinds of Christian perfectionism. They promise instant victory without any process of growth and without any struggle or effort.

 

But anyone who embraces that kind of theology is invariably forced to redefine the whole concept of perfection (“complete sanctification,” or “total victory over sin”). Because in practice, the victory is never really total victory; the sanctification is not quite complete sanctification; and the perfection they promise invariably falls short of absolute perfection. So they have to scale down what they mean when they speak of “victory.” It is victory over known sin; freedom from conscious and deliberate acts of sin. It is never really total victory over all sin.

 

Even worse, the victory is never really a permanent victory. It is a condition you enter into by faith and must maintain moment by moment, or it can be lost. Upon inspection, it turns out to be no real victory at all, but a hopeless quest for something that is elusive, something that is completely subjective, and something that is inevitably nothing more than a bitter and frustrating disappointment. It is a counterfeit victory, guaranteed to dissatisfy and discourage anyone who is really serious about victory over sin.

 

And that, frankly, is what makes the so-called “deeper life” doctrines so dangerous. The promised victory is never really complete. It is extremely evasive. The moment you finally think you have attained the higher plateau is the very moment you typically fail most miserably. Remember the apostle Paul’s words of caution in 1 Corinthians 10:12: “let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” When someone thinks he has finally uncovered some great spiritual secret guaranteed to keep him standing, he is virtually guaranteed to fall and fall hard. And that has been the undoing of multitudes  who have bought into various kinds of second-blessing theology.

 

Every person I have ever known who has been captivated by deeper-life doctrine has found real victory very slippery and failure both inevitable and frequent. And when someone has promised you instant victory over sin and an easy life of passive rest, failure can be extremely discouraging. More than one person I know who has followed this type of theology has finally given up completely and been overwhelmed by defeat instead of victory.

 

So the search for a shortcut to sanctification has disastrous consequences. Multitudes who have sought this kind of victory have ended up utterly disillusioned and defeated. That is precisely why Paul urged the Philippians: “As ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in  my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

 

Notice there’s not a word here about surrender. Paul does not urge the Philippians to “let go and let God.” Quite the opposite; he tells them to work out their own salvation. He urges them to work diligently. He does not promise them easy or instant victory.

 

I am amazed at how prevalent deeper-life doctrine has become. It has never been taught from any Pulpit at Grace Community Church. And yet a recent survey of staff pastors at our church said the number one error they constantly encounter in counseling sessions and in their discussions with their people is confusion about the doctrine of sanctification – the notion that freedom from sin ought to be attainable instantly and easily. Even in such a well-taught church, there is a tendency to seek shortcuts to sanctification. It is a highly dangerous pursuit.

 

And the most dangerous systems of all are those forms of deeper-life teaching (such as the classic Keswick doctrine) which teach that Christians ought to be passive in the process of sanctification. They suggest that we ought to give up all our striving against sin and simply trust God to work on our behalf to remove temptation from us. And that flatly contradicts this passage – especially the phrase at the end of Philippians 2:12: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

 

Notice that Paul lays the responsibility for obedience squarely on the shoulders of the believer. Now, Paul is no semi-Pelagian. As we’ll observe in a moment, he recognizes that the ability and the will to obey comes from God alone. But the responsibility is all ours, and any doctrine that removes the duty of striving against sin from the believer is a bad doctrine. We are responsible to work out our own salvation; it is our duty to pursue sanctification. We must keep striving against sin. We cannot shirk that duty—especially by claiming we have yielded it to God.

 

I constantly encounter Christians who want to put the responsibility for their failures on God. I once corresponded with a fellow who was indulging in the grossest kind of sin. He was involved in bestiality, and he had been indulging in this sin for so long that it had become a habit he could not  break. But he insisted that when God wanted him to be free from that sin, God Himself would remove the desire from him. This fellow professed to be a Christian and was even an Awana leader in his church. I told him what he was doing was gross and abominable sin and he ought to step away from any role in church leadership or public ministry because of it. He was so angry with me that he tape-recorded a verbal tirade and sent it to me. I still have the tape he sent me. And this is what he said: “I have prayed to God to take this habit away from me, and he hasn’t done it yet, so who are you to tell me it is sin and try to blame me for it?”

 

That is the polar opposite of working out your own salvation with fear and trembling. Martyn Lloyd-Jones offers the right corrective. He writes:

 

I do not know of a single scripture – and I speak advisedly – which tells me to take my sin, the particular thing that gets me down, to God in prayer and ask him to deliver me from it and then trust in faith that he will.

 

Now that teaching is also often put like this: you must say to a man who is constantly defeated by a particular sin, “I think your only hope is to take it to Christ and Christ will take it from you.” But what does Scripture say in Ephesians 4:28 to the man who finds himself constantly guilty of stealing, to a man who sees something he likes and takes it? What am I to tell such a man? Am I to say, “Take that sin to Christ and ask him to deliver you?” No, what the apostle Paul tells him is this: “Let him that stole, steal no more.” Just that. Stop doing it. And if it is fornication or adultery or lustful thoughts, again: Stop doing it, says Paul. He does not say, “Go and pray to Christ to deliver you.” No. You stop doing that, he says, as becomes children of God.1

 

That is exactly what the first part of Philippians 2:12 means: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

 

But the apostle Paul doesn’t stop there. There is another side to the equation, and it is vital.  Here is God’s part. He is the one working in us to motivate us and empower us to do what He  commands. And he works this way in all who are true believers: “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (v. 13). That speaks of the sovereignty of God over the fallen human will. His power is the only remedy for our weakness.

 

In our fallen state, and left to our own devices, we have neither the will nor the power to obey God. Romans 8:7-8 says, “The carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.” That passage speaks powerfully against the notion of human free will. Left to ourselves, we have no free will. Our wills are enslaved to sin. We cannot be subject to the law of God. Anyone who boasts of free will simply doesn’t understand what Scripture says about the hopelessness of our bondage to sin.

 

That passage is describing the condition of everyone who is without Christ. They cannot obey God. They are incapable of loving Him. And therefore there is no way they can ever please Him. They are in a hopeless situation unless God Himself intervenes to give them the will and the power to obey Him. That is what grace is all about.

 

And for every Christian, this marvelous truth applies: God is at work in you both to will and to do His good pleasure. That is the power of divine grace. God gives you both the will and the power to obey Him. He doesn’t eradicate your fleshly habits or tendencies. You’re still commanded to work out your own salvation. You are still called upon to mortify the sin that remains in your members. But according  to Philippians 2:13 you have the power of divine grace working in you to give you the will and the ability to do what is in accord with God’s good pleasure.

 

As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:5, “we are [not] sufficient of ourselves . . . but our sufficiency is of God.” If you labor in your own power, oblivious to the fact that without the power of Christ you can do nothing, you are doomed to failure. But if you work with the knowledge that God Himself is at work in you, you can have victory over your sin – not all at once in an easy and instant fashion, but through a process that gradually conforms you to the image of Christ.

 

Philippians 2:13 gives us five principles that explain how it is possible for fallen creatures like us to progress toward the goal of Christlikeness. These are all truths that focus on God, not on us. And they direct us to lean on God for the desire and the power to be sanctified. Here they are:

 

1. . D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Sanctified Through the Truth: The Assurance of Our Salvation (Wheaton: Crossway, 1989), 54.

 

1. His Person

 

“It is God which worketh in you.” The energy behind your spiritual progress is not your own power. It is God at work in you. This is an amazing truth: the sovereign God of the universe, who rules all things and always does His good pleasure – He is at work in you. There’s not much we need to say to elaborate on that. Words fail, frankly. It’s a mind-boggling reality that we can only sit in wonder at.

 

But God Himself indwells the Christian, and despite our fleshly weakness and our own sinful tendencies, He empowers us with the will and the energy to conform to His righteous purpose for us.

 

God indwells us in the person of the Holy Spirit. Remember the verses I just read from Romans 8:7-8: “the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.” The very next verse goes on to add, “But ye  are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.”

 

In other words, if you are a Christian, the Spirit of God dwells in you. And if you do not have the Spirit indwelling you, you don’t belong to God at all. You are none of His.

 

It’s a very simple concept: there is no second blessing you need to obtain. If you are a Christian, you have the Holy Spirit, and if you have the Holy Spirit, you are no longer hopelessly in bondage to the flesh; you have everything you need to live righteously. God Himself is at work in you, and He will empower you with the will and the energy necessary to work for His good pleasure.

 

And that brings us to principle number 2:

 

2. His Power

 

God works in you. The Greek verb translated “works” is energe – the word from which we get our word “energy.” It describes an effectual and productive force. It is the infinite power of God Himself at work in you.

 

God’s own power is what energizes all our spiritual progress. We are commanded to work out our own salvation, but we are not left to work it out in our own energy. Too many people give up without a struggle, because they know they don’t have the energy to persevere. So they never get moving in the process, and they fail before they begin.

 

The slogan of deeper-life theology is “Let go and let God.” I’ve already said I deplore that theology, but I want to emphasize that what I deplore about it is the first part of the formula: “let go.” Again, there is no command in Scripture that ever suggests we should let go, be passive, sit back, and expect God to remove temptation or magically give us victory over sin. There is no biblical commandment to “surrender,” in the sense of halting our struggle against sin. There is no place in the Christian life for passivity when it comes to our salvation.

 

“Let go” is bad advice. It’s the same bad advice Moses gave Israel when the Egyptian army was pursuing them and he said in Exodus 14:13, “stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD.” Moses wanted to stop and hold a prayer meeting when they reached the Red Sea. God rebuked him for that, and in Exodus 14:15, He said, “Why do you cry to Me? Tell the children of Israel to go forward.” “Stand still” was bad counsel. God’s commandment was “go forward.”

 

In the very same sense, “Let go” is bad advice. God’s commandment in Philippians 2:12 is “work out your own salvation.”

 

So it’s that first half of the deeper-life formula I object to: “Let go.” It’s an unbiblical idea of sanctification. But the second half of the formula, “Let God,” is wise advice. Trust God to energize and enable your obedience. When you realize your own weakness and inability, keep working anyway, and trust God to energize your will and your work for His good pleasure. If you are a Christian, God is at work in you, and you are supposed to draw on His power as you work out your own salvation.

 

That’s why those who are truly in Christ are eternally secure, and our ultimate triumph is assured. His power is driving us toward the goal. And as Paul says in Philippians 1:6, “He who has begun  a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” It is a power that cannot fail. It is an immeasurable resource for us to fall back on. If you find yourself losing energy in the battle against sin and the struggle for personal righteousness, meditate on the infinite power of God, and realize that this is the infinite reservoir of energy you can draw on for your sanctification. It is God who is working in you.

 

Principle number three:

 

3. His Presence

 

God is at work in you. He’s not just working on you; He is working in you and through you. In Ephesians 3:20 Paul says God is “is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us.” In Colossians 1:27, Paul speaks of “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” And Jesus said of the Holy Spirit in John 14:17, “he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.”

 

I think it’s interesting that Colossians 1 talks about Christ in us; John 14 talks about the Holy Spirit in us; and our verse, Philippians 4:13, speaks of God in us. In other words, the full power of the Godhead, all three Persons of the Trinity, are working in us and through us to bring us to full sanctification. What an encouragement that should be as we work out our salvation!

 

God is not remote, sitting afar off, confined to the throne room of heaven. He indwells us, and is working in us, to will and to do His good pleasure.

 

Now look at principle number 4:

 

4. His Purpose

 

God is working in us for what purpose? “To will and to do of his good pleasure.” God energizes both our will and our work. He shapes our desires and empowers our deedsCto work for His good pleasure. And here Paul uses that same word, energeo to speak of our work. God works in us to energize our work. As we work out our own salvation, He works in us to accomplish that work, giving us both the will and the energy we need to please Him. All we have to do is obey, and He provides both the will and the power to make it possible for us to conform to His purpose.

 

What is that ultimate purpose? I have referred to it several times. He is conforming us to the image of Christ. That is God’s ultimate purpose for us. It is the purpose for which He chose us and the end to which He predestined us in the first place. We read about it in Romans 8:29: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” God is making us like Christ.

 

And that should be our goal, too, as we work out our own salvation. We should be seeking to be more and more like Christ. In fact, there is no better expression that sums up our duty in sanctification than the words of Romans 14:14: “Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” We are to put off the deeds of the old man and put on Christ. Put off the old and put on the new. That is what sanctification is all about. Listen to Ephesians 4:22-24:

 

put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts;

 

23 And be renewed in the spirit of your mind;

24 And . . . put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. Colossians 3 employs the same terminology but puts it in the past tense, underscoring the truth that if you are truly a Christian at all, this sanctifying process is already underway. So Paul treats it as an accomplished reality. Listen to Colossians 3:9-10: “ye have put off the old man with his deeds; And [you] have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him.”

 

Again, you see the emphasis on being conformed to the image of Christ. Here’s how Paul describes the process in 1 Corinthians 3:18: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.” It’s a process of transformation, as we are transformed from one degree of glory to the next. We are being transformed into what? “the same image” – the very image of Christ.

 

Sanctification is a process. It is not an instantaneous victory. The time will come when we are transformed completely and instantly into perfect Christlikeness, free from the remnants of our flesh and sin. But that instant and complete transformation happens at glorification, either when we die or when Christ returns and removes us from this world. Paul describes it in Philippians 3. Look at it there. It’s just a chapter over from our verse. Philippians 3:21: “[He] shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.” That speaks of glorification, when even our bodies will be transformed into the likeness of the glorified Christ.

 

The same thing is also described in 1 John 3:2: “Now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” Again, that speaks of an instantaneous and complete transformation, when we finally see Christ face to face. Right now we are looking into a dim mirror, and the process of transformation is slow and gradual. But then we shall see Him face to face, and the process will be brought to instant completion. That is our great hope and our longing. And in the meantime we are to keep working out  our own salvation with fear and trembling.

 

In 1 John 3:3, just after the apostle John has described our glorification and reminded us that “we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is,” he goes on to say, “And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.”

 

In other words, if glorification and perfect Christlikeness is your true destiny, you ought to be diligently pursuing that same Christlikeness through the process of sanctification right now. That is God’s design for the Christian. His ultimate goal for us ought to be the same goal we are striving for right nowCconformity to the image of Christ.

 

And that brings us to principle number 5:

 

5. His Pleasure

 

The end result is “his good pleasure.” The great goal of the sanctification process is the pursuit of God’s good pleasure, which finds its ultimate end in conforming us to the likeness of His own dear Son. When we work out our own salvation in fear and trembling, God works in us to accomplish His own good pleasure. He is pleased and glorified through our work, because He is working in us.

 

We don’t merit His pleasure. What pleases Him is His own work in us, as He conforms us to the image of His Son. He is the potter, fashioning us into vessels of honor. And He is pleased because it is ultimately His work, and His work is always perfect. And we are privileged to be the vessels through which He works.

 

Neither quietism nor pietism does full justice to this wonderful plan of sanctification. God calls us to holiness and then makes us holy. He calls us to obedience and enables us to obey. We work, only to discover that God is working in us. So our sanctification is wholly His work, and yet it is accomplished only when we work, as we out our own salvation in fear and trembling.[1]

 


[1] Dave Jordan, M. E. Pulpit Magazine February 2013 Vol. 02. No. 2.

http://www.graceadvance.org/docs/pulpit/Pulpit-2013-02.pdf

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