If the doctrine of justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls, then sanctification may be the doctrine which adorns her with beauty or leaves her standing naked and shameful.
The Church of Jesus Christ (all those who truly love and trust Christ) is His bride, adorned with His own righteousness and set apart for His intimate affection and care. This truth is the comfort of all who understand themselves to be included in the household of God. Yet, Christ does not merely call the prostituting adulterous bride to wear new labels (such as justified and sanctified), He also calls her to live accordingly (Eph 4:1; 1 Thess 2:12).
Living in light of her new status, the Church of Jesus Christ is declared to be holy, and Christ is making her holy by the washing of His word “so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor” (Eph 5:25-27). This loving reconciliation and renewal is challenged by the fact that the visible Church (the multitude of professing Christians) is made up of believers who are still desirous of sin.
Herein lies the difficulty of understanding just how the visible Church may be clothed with righteousness as she stands justified before the watching world:
A visible Church, full of sinful-but-sanctified believers, arrayed in magnificence and clothed in righteousness for all the world to see, is exactly what God has intended the Church do be.
Before diving too deeply into the doctrine of sanctification, it may prove beneficial to establish the foundation for the believer’s justification. Horatius Bonar, speaking of Christ’s righteousness with eloquence, wrote,
“In another’s righteousness we [Christians] stand; and by another’s righteousness are we justified.” This truth, he went on to say, makes plain that “all accusations against us, founded upon our right unrighteousness, [may be] answered by pointing to the perfection of the righteousness which covers us from head to foot… as well as shields us from wrath.”
Justification happens in an instant. It is the doing of God Himself when the sinner is made alive in Christ Jesus and counted good, holy, and righteous in God’s sight (Eph 2:4-9; Titus 3:7; Rom 5:9). Furthermore, sanctification is also an instantaneous declaration and positional reality for all who are in the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:11).
Sinclair Ferguson, writing on those doctrines that undergird the Christian life, says,
“it would be a distortion to present the New Testament teaching on sanctification only as a long, hard struggle for victory over sin as though few Christians ever lived the life of faith with any degree of success.”
He goes on to point out that some New Testament passages can be understood only if sanctification is perceived to be a past experience (Acts 20:32; 1 Cor 6:11; 1 Pet 1:2). In addition, the Christian union with Christ includes a significant change in relation to sin, particularly that the Christian is now ‘dead to’ or released from the power of sin (Col 2:20-3:14; Gal 2:20; Rom 6:1-14).
In the confessional statement known as the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, sanctification is one of many doctrinal subjects addressed. The confession clearly conveys an understanding of sanctification as both a past and present work.
“They who are united to Christ, effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, are also farther sanctified, really and personally (Acts 20:32; Rom. 6:5,6), through the same virtue, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them (John 17:17; Eph. 3:16-19; 1 Thess. 5:21-23); the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed (Rom. 6:14), and the several lusts of it are more and more weakened and mortified (Gal. 5:24), and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces (Col. 1:11), to the practice of all true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord (2 Cor. 7:1; Heb. 12:14).”
There is a real sense in which the mortal, un-glorified Christian – as sinful as he may remain – is now sanctified and positionally holy before God. The Christian is aroused to love for God by virtue of having been born again, and he does now love righteousness and hate sin (1 Tim 6:11). Bonar says,
“The free, boundless love of God, pouring itself into us, expands and elevates our whole being; and we serve Him, not in order to win His favour, but because we have already won it in simply believing His record concerning His Son. If the root is holy, so are the branches. We have become connected with the holy root, and by the necessity of this connection are made holy too.”
While it is true that the earthly Christian is holy, declared to be so and empowered to live as such by God Himself, the mortal Christian remains practically sinful and inclined towards sin. He may find himself in despair when he considers how sinful he still is in spite of what he reads about his position before God as articulated in Scripture.
“If I am still as sinful as I am,” he may think to himself, “how can it be true that I am holy and just in the sight of God?”
Bonar goes on to explain how vital it is that one understands the difference between working (doing good works and living righteously) and believing (trusting in the finished work of Christ for justification). He says one must not confound or confuse the two because doing so would “destroy them both.”
Therefore, justification and sanctification are fixed realities for all those in Christ Jesus by virtue of Christ’s justifying and sanctifying person and work. However, there is also a sense in which the believer is being sanctified by God and also contributing to such a work through the diligent use of the means of grace, which God has made available to the converted soul (2 Tim 2:22).
The London Confession of 1689, in paragraph two and three of the section on Sanctification, describes the reality that sanctification has taken place, and yet there is remaining much imperfection in the believer while in this mortal life. Furthermore, the believer most certainly finds himself in a constant struggle – the “flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh” (Gal 5:17; 1 Pet 2:11).
In this war, the believer is assured that he will overcome (Rom. 6:14), but he may experience periods when the remaining corruption may seem to prevail (Rom. 7:23). Martin Luther noted, early in his magisterial work on the depravity of fallen humanity,
“The world and it’s god (2 Cor 4:4) cannot and will not hear the word of the true God: and the true God cannot and will not keep silence. While, therefore, these two Gods are at war with each other, what can there be else in the whole world, but tumult?”
If this is what we universally find (namely tumult and war) when the true God clashes with “the god of this world,” then we should expect to find the same hostile conflict in the microcosm of the human heart when these two opponents meet. However, the Christian may take great comfort to know that God has not left the task of sanctification in the mortal’s hands alone. God has called the Christian to diligently pursue righteousness and good works (Matt 6:33), and God has promised that He is working within to bring about both the willing and the doing of those same things (Eph 2:10).
The London Confession is again helpful to explain:
“Their ability to do good works is not all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ (John 15:4,5); and that they may be enabled thereunto, besides the graces they have already received, there is necessary an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them and to will and to do of his good pleasure (2 Cor. 3:5; Phil. 2:13); yet they are not bound to perform any duty, unless upon a special motion of the Spirit, but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them (Phil. 2:12; Heb. 6:11,12; Isa. 64:7).”
The doing of good works by every believer is commanded and enabled by God (Titus 2:7; Heb 10:24; Matt 5:16; 1 Pet 2:12; Eph 2:10). Not only thus, but Scripture informs us that good works will provide some evidence of genuine faith and discipleship (James 2:14-26; Jn 8:31). Good works, or righteous living, do not produce justification or sanctification, but it is clear that good works necessarily and always follow such things.
Kevin DeYoung describes the relationship, borrowing from biblical imagery, in botanic terms.
“It’s not that good works are in the root of the tree; they’re not the thing that makes the tree what it is. They’re not the ground or the basis of our standing with God. But if we truly are redeemed through the blood of Christ, if the Holy Spirit truly dwells in us, then we will be people who bear fruit in good works. Our lives will be marked by what Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22-23). And if those fruits are not present in us, Jesus says, we have reason to question whether the tree was ever really healthy at all.”
With more elegant style and language, Bonar explains the enabling power of God in the life of the believer by saying, “The life of the justified is a decided one.” It is fixed and focused. “The justifying cross has come between him and all evil things.” The Christian has a new light in his eye. “Even if at any time he feels as if he could return to that country from which he set out, the cross stands in front and arrests his backward step.”
The Gospel itself compels the Christian onward toward the celestial city with holiness as his aim. “There is henceforth to be no mistake about him. His heart is no longer divided, and his eye no longer roams. He has taken up his cross, and he is following the Lamb.” With such a view of the Christian life and focus, one might imagine that there should be no sinful expressions from the thoughts, words, or deeds of any Christian. But alas, we do find much in the way of sinful expressions in the life of every Christian we meet – including the one we meet daily in the mirror.
The explanation for such an experience in the Christian life is not exactly clear. The Scriptures tell us that God extends varying levels of grace to individual believers (Eph 4:7; 1 Cor 12:11; Phil 2:13), but we would want to be careful not to blame God for the sinful expression of any sinner. The Holy Spirit works in varying degrees within individual believers (Heb 2:4; 1 Cor 12:6), but again we would want to avoid accusing God the Spirit of any negligence on His part in the sanctifying work. Individual believers play an important role in how far and how fast they progress in sanctification throughout their mortal lives (Heb 10:24; 3:13; Titus 3:8), but here too we are wise to refrain from ascribing any credit to the believer for his or her progress because it is only by God’s enabling Spirit that they are sanctified.
All three of these are true, so then there must be some combination of these factors that explain the varying degrees of speed and efficiency that mark the sanctification process in different Christians. It is clear that there will be progress in the work of sanctification in the life of every believer, and God has promised to complete the process which He has begun (Phil 1:6).
It appears that God has not only promised to work within Christians to bring about the mutually desired end of complete sanctification, but he has also instituted local communities through which Christians are to engage in diligent efforts towards sanctification together.
Here, we shall turn our attention from the personalized sanctification of the individual to the communal sanctifying properties of the local church.
The London Confession says,
“[T]he Lord Jesus Christ calls out of the world unto himself, through the ministry of his word, by his Spirit, those that are given unto him by his Father (John 10:16; John 12:32), that they may walk before him in all the ways of obedience, which he prescribes to them in his word (Matt. 28:20). Those thus called, he commands to walk together in particular societies, or churches, for their mutual edification, and the due performance of that public worship, which he requires of them in the world (Matt. 18:15-20).”
Therefore, these societies or communities of faith are designed for mutual improvement, building up, or sanctification (Eph 2:19-20). Paragraph 12 of that same confession, in the section on The Church, goes on to explain that there are privileges, censures, and authoritative instruments that the Christian may enjoy in the life of a Gospel-centered community.
Rather than these communities being an end in themselves or even a rule unto themselves, they are local and communal expressions of mutual submission to the Christ who reigns over all. Andrew Purvis expounds this view by saying,
“The ministry of the church is, by the Holy Spirit, a sharing in God’s ministry to and for us in, through, and as Jesus Christ. The task at hand, then, is to focus on the profound interrelationship that must obtain between… those truths and realities about God that the church brings to expression through Christian doctrine… and pastoral care.”
Pastoral care, the shepherding of God’s sheep and caring for Christ’s bride, is the task of “sharing in God’s ministry to and for” Christians. The church is meant to be a local expression of “truths and realities about God,” which we find clearly revealed in the Scriptures and understand as Christian doctrine.
In less lofty terms, but just as potent, Mark Dever says that a local church is “a community of believers who have become part of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood and, as a result, have covenanted together to help each other run the Christian race with integrity, godliness, and grace.” The London Confession also has this view of a local church and its membership.
“The members of these churches are saints by calling, visibly manifesting and evidencing (in and by their profession and walking) their obedience unto that call of Christ (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2); and do willingly consent to walk together, according to the appointment of Christ; giving up themselves to the Lord, and one to another, by the will of God, in professed subjection to the ordinances of the Gospel (Acts 2:41,42, 5:13,14; 2 Cor. 9:13).”
Church membership, then, is a collective affirmation that Christians in local proximity to one another are attempting to live out in practical ways the reality of their positional possession – holiness.
They are saints by calling, and they are seeking to live in obedience to Christ by “giving themselves” to one another in mutual submission and love.
While any reasonable understanding of what a church is and what a church does (as described here) would assume that this must be done in community with other believers, it is helpful to allow a dissenting voice to speak in order to demonstrate greater clarity. In her book, How to be a Christian Without Going to Church, Kelly Bean takes aim at average local church experiences over the last generation or so. She rightly points out that many local churches are active but not very effective. Whether she measures effectiveness in biblical terms or not is questionable at best, but her assessment may still be true when measured in biblical terms.
Her solution is to opt out of church attendance or involvement altogether, something she calls non-going. She sees some problems that arise with such a lone ranger mentality, and she suggests, “A collective narrative is important for all.” The collective narrative she is looking for is exactly what is provided by the Gospel message and the mutually stimulated sanctification that occurs in Gospel-centered communities, through the proclamation of biblical truth and by the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Yet, this is not something she seems to believe may be found in any communal expression of local Christians.
Bean seems to be unaware that she is describing the creation of a church, albeit an ‘alternative’ one, when she admits, “In many ways, the art of non-going and facilitating alternative Christian communities that offer the support we might need, is still in the works.” Reinventing Christian communities to offer ‘non-goers’ support so that they may maintain their non-going status sounds about like offering a fish an aquarium so that he may refer to himself as “a fish out of water.”
It is simply inconceivable that a Christian would find sanctification to be something that he or she should pursue outside of a community of believers. Dever says,
“While our individual walks are crucial, we are impoverished in our personal pursuit of God if we do not avail ourselves of the help that is available through mutually edifying relationships in our covenant Church family” (Heb 10:24-25).
Christians are, therefore, beneficiaries of the communal and covenantal relationship that is only available in a local church. The local church is, then, both exclusive and active in this participatory endeavor of mutual sanctification and humble submission to Christ.
The exclusivity of a local church comes in the form of membership admission. It may go without saying (but it never should) that local church membership is for Christians only (Eph 2:19-20). There is no sense in which an unregenerate man or woman should seek communion among regenerate men and women.
Since regenerate people are diligently pursuing practical righteousness in themselves and in one another, the unregenerate person can have no genuine unity with them. The very thought of hating his own sin and loving a Lord greater than himself is repugnant to the unregenerate man (Rom 8:5-8).
With this in mind, many local churches have put into place a kind of membership interview for potential church members. These interviews, in one form or another, involve relationship building and include probing questions in order to discover Gospel clarity and some evidence of the new birth (Jn 3:3; 1 Pet 1:23). Jonathan Leeman notes what standards he might put into practice in a membership interview when he says,
“Look for the ones who are poor in spirit; who mourn their sin; who aren’t entitled, always insisting on their way, but are meek; who are sick to death of sin and all it’s nonsense and so hunger and thirst for righteousness like it is water. When you find people like that, make sure they know who Jesus is. Make sure Jesus is the one who fills their impoverished spirit, who has forgiven their sins, who receives their life and worship, and whose righteousness they depend upon and pursuit. When you find such people, tell them to join!”
The exclusive membership of a local church is vital to the active mutual sanctification of its members because only those who have been sanctified by Christ will have any desire to pursue sanctification any further. The church is to be the nourishing and chastising community that all Christians need in order to grow in sanctification. Mark Dever writes,
“Each local church has a responsibility to judge the life and teaching of its leaders and members, particularly when either compromises the churches witness to the Gospel (Acts 17; 1 Cor 5; 1 Tim 3; 2 Pet 3).”
While judgment and discipline seem to be allergens in contemporary local churches, to avoid such things is to prevent the implementation of the clear and explicit design for the very institution itself.
Liberty, personal and individual freedom, seems to be the untouchable possession of the day. However, rebellious sinfulness has often been masquerading as Christian liberty. The London Confession explains:
“They who upon pretense of Christian liberty do practice any sin, or cherish any sinful lust, as they do thereby pervert the main design of the grace of the gospel to their own destruction (Rom. 6:1,2), so they wholly destroy the end of Christian liberty, which is, that being delivered out of the hands of all our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our lives (Gal. 5:13; 2 Pet. 2:18, 21).”
Christian liberty is the deliverance from Christian enemies (namely sin and death) so that we might serve the Lord without fear, and so that we might walk in holiness and righteousness before Christ our Sovereign.
Therefore, local church communities are charged with holding one another accountable to the truth of the Gospel and rebuking one another when these clear truths are neglected, denied, or rejected. In his book on healthy church membership, Thabiti Anyabwile explains,
“Formative discipline refers to how Scripture shapes and molds the Christian as he or she imbibes its teaching and is trained to live for God.” He goes on to explain another form of discipline, which he calls “corrective.” He writes, “No one lives in entire life without the need of discipline, whether positive or corrective. So the healthy church member embraces discipline as one means of grace in the Christian life.”
Rather than lamenting accountability, the genuine believer embraces it with gladness because he knows the sinful inclinations of his heart and desires to live in opposition to them.
Fallen humanity is so utterly sinful that unregenerate man is enslaved to sin (Jn 8:34). This is no longer true of the believer, for the Christian has been set free from bondage to sin and walks in this new freedom (Rom 6:6-7). Yet, the sinful desires that remain can be detrimental to a believer’s sanctification if left unchecked.
In dealing with what he calls “deadly serious symptoms” of a “lust” or strong sinful desire, John Owen calls for “extraordinary remedies” to combat them. He explains that the sinner or those around him may notice these symptoms, such as habitual sin or the sinning heart pleading “to be thought in a good state.” Owen says, “When a lust has remained a long time in the heart, corrupting, festering, and poisoning, it brings the soul into a woeful condition.”
He further writes, “A person who seeks peace on any account and is content to live away from the love of God in this life, so long as it does not mean a final separation, shows that his love for sin exceeds his love for God.”
Owen laments this disposition in the heart of a believing sinner, and he asks, “What is to be expected from such a heart?” Because this may be an acceptable posture from the perspective of some Christians for a time, it is imperative that others in their community of faith wake them from their sinful slumber and stir their hearts towards right desires as well as godly truth.
Not only should rebellious sinfulness be admonished in the life of the church member for his own sake, it should also be censured for the sake of the entire body. Martin Bucer writes,
“One mangy sheep soon infects the whole flock. That is why the Lord also commanded so earnestly that evil and wicked people should be removed and driven out from the people of God” (Duet 13, 17).
Bucer notices that the ‘mangy sheep’ may not be a sheep at all; in fact, it may be that the rebellious sinner is a ‘goat’ (Matt 25:32-33), or the problem may be so bad that he rightly be called a ‘wolf’ (Matt 7:15; Acts 20:29). No matter the condition of the mangy sheep, the flock is at risk, and this is reason enough to act.
The particular action may vary, depending upon the response of the sinning member as he is engaged by other members and/or by his pastor, according to the prescription found in Matthew 18; but should the mangy sheep remain content with his mange, Bucer explains the necessity of his exclusion from the flock. Bucer writes,
“[I]t is also necessary in order to guard the healthy sheep and feed them in the right way for the carers of souls to exercise the greatest earnestness for the good of the congregation to exclude and keep away from it all those who refuse to listen to the church when they are warned in its name to repent, amend their ways and seek what is good, but instead wish to persist in there disorderly lives, and do not want to do good according to their calling and conduct themselves in obedience to the holy gospel and lead a Christian life, but fall into serious sins and lusts and refuse to repent, or become rebellious and start up gangs and sects.”
Now Bucer goes on to say that the Christian community should prayerfully plead with the excluded sinner, that he would repent from his sin and turn once again to embrace Christ as Lord and Master. If the sinner should find repentance and confess his error, then he may be restored; “otherwise,” Bucer says, “we are to have nothing to do with them, and they are to be shown with Christian severity how greatly we condemn and abhor their ungodliness.”
While this abhorrence for ungodliness may be too much for some to stomach, no amount of temporal discomfort can compare with the eternal torment that one may suffer under the wrathful hand of God if one has presumed upon the grace of God (Rom 2:24; Heb 2:3-4).
No doubt, this kind of seriousness about sin and about sanctification would be a shock to the system of many local churches. Pastors and members alike may have a strong distaste for such intentional pursuit of holiness and righteousness.
The pastor who insists on elevating the sanctity of the flock for which he has been named the under-shepherd may realize that his genuine care for sheep has earned him their bitterness and hatred. The church member who challenges his or her leadership to this kind of care and oversight may discover that there is no genuine care for souls in the heart of his or her leaders.
Dever, noting the difficulty of living in Gospel-centered and sanctifying community this way, reminds his reader, “Don’t give up! Don’t give in to doubt or disillusionment or fear of man! Take a longer view. God’s purposes for all of human history revolve around the local church as the visible, corporate manifestation of His Son, Jesus Christ!” This is a lofty task indeed, and God is at work among us.
The message is clear. All those whom God has justified He has also sanctified, and He continually sanctifies them by the power of His Spirit. Additionally, God has instituted the Church as the Spirit-empowered community of faith in which sinning Christians may walk in progressively greater degrees of freedom from their sin.
Christian community, then, is the sum and substance of the mortal Christian life. The believer who tends towards self-righteousness may be humbled; the Christian who tends towards despair may be encouraged; the convert who struggles to break free from remaining inclinations towards sin may be restrained by accountability; the unregenerate pretender may be lovingly exposed and evangelized appropriately; the malevolent wolf may be discovered and expelled; and all of this may and should take place in the average daily life of the local church.
Bucer wrote, “Now, it is not possible for the word and doctrine of God to teach and command anything which is not possible, helpful, good and beneficial.” Did we ever believe otherwise? May God grant us grace to love Him and grace to serve Him well!
Anyabwile, Thabiti M. What Is a Healthy Church Member? Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008.
Bean, Kelly. How to Be a Christian without Going to Church: The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014.
Bonar, Horatius. The Everlasting Righteousness, Or, How Shall Man Be Just with God? 1st ed. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1993.
Bucer, Martin, and David F. Wright. Concerning the True Care of Souls. Translated by Peter Beale. Edinburgh: Carlisle, PA, 2009.
Dever, Mark, and Paul Alexander. The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005.
Dever, Mark. What Is a Healthy Church? Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007.
DeYoung, Kevin, and Greg Gilbert. What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011.
ESV: Study Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2007.
Ferguson, Sinclair B. The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989.
Leeman, Jonathan. Church Membership How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.
Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will. Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 2001.
Owen, John. The Mortification of Sin. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2004.
Purves, Andrew. Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
“The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689.” The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689. Accessed October 10, 2014. http://www.1689.com/confession.html.
 Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness, 179
 Ferguson, The Christian Life, 124
 The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, Sanctification, paragraph 1
 Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness, 182-183
 Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness, 175
 The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, Sanctification, paragraph 2 and 3
 Luther, Bondage of the Will, 25
 The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, Good works, paragraph 3
 DeYoung, The Mission of the Church, 227
 Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness, 202
 The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, The Church, paragraph 5
 Purvis, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology, 4
 Dever, The Deliberate Church, 110
 The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, The Church, paragraph 6
 Bean, How to Be a Christian without Going to Church, 70
 Bean, How to Be a Christian without Going to Church, 70
 Dever, The Deliberate Church, 111
 Leeman, Church Membership, 88
 Dever, What is a Healthy Church, 106
 The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, Christian liberty and conscience, paragraph 3
 Anyabwile, What is a Healthy Church Member, 76
 Owen, The Mortification of Sin, 54-55
 Owen, The Mortification of Sin, 57
 Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, 183
 Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, 184
 Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, 185
 Dever, The Deliberate Church, 72
 Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, 184