“Satan deceives people with the Progressive Sanctification heresy, which means that sinners gradually become holy after they believe in Jesus…
The crux of this theory is gradual sanctification. It sounds great that man can believe in Jesus and gradually become a holier Christian. This theory has deceived many Christians over the years, making them feel secure. It sounds almost like we work our way to heaven. That’s one reason why there are so many Pharisaical, holier-than-thou Christians in Christendom.”
I stumbled across this quote on “Denny’s Christian Writings” blog late into writing an essay partially about being deceived by a progressive sanctification heresy. I believed progressive sanctification was entirely up to me—with Jesus’ help, of course. But it never made me feel secure because I sucked at it wholesale. I was definitely Pharisaical but holier-than-no-one. And I hungered and thirsted for righteousness.
I didn’t feel very blessed. In fact, it reminded me of the pagan myth of the punishment of Tantalus. I’ve spent as much time, I suppose, as anyone trying to deny or anesthetize that hunger and thirst. I even wished it away with thoughts like “Denny’s” abandon-hope-all-ye-who-enter-here attitude toward 1 Peter 1:15, 16 (KJV):
“But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.” We are told here to be holy, to be Christ-like, but is anyone really Christ-like? Not in this life in the flesh. We should endeavor to be holy as Christ is holy, but Romans 3:12-18 is still in the Bible…
“Denny’s” premise: “Is it possible to have eternal salvation and not be sanctified? Of course not. Eternal salvation and eternal sanctification go together, one mandates the other. If sanctification required any effort on [our] part, then salvation would not be of grace.” But how should I “endeavor to be holy as Christ is holy” without hope of success and without doing it by my own efforts? “We should endeavor to be Christ-like and do good works. However, we are not sanctified by our good works or clean living. Jesus sanctified us.”
Frankly, this sounds like we have moved from a created cosmos where it is hard…to enter the kingdom of God to one where it is grammatically impossible. It doesn’t lead me to faith in Jesus Christ or reliance on the power and presence of his Holy Spirit. “Denny” quoted Philippians 1:6 (KJV) and Ephesians 3:20 (KJV) and commented on each:
“Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ:” This is a very good verse but it has nothing to do with Progressive Sanctification. This verse pertains to our salvation, and our glorious inheritance.
This next verse pertains to the same thing: Ephesians 3:20, “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us.” We have Holy Spirit power working in us, convicting us of sin, but Jesus has already sanctified us once for all.
But I didn’t become holy in practice “once for all” the moment I believed in Jesus. I need something more than “convicting us of sin” because I still hunger and thirst for righteousness.
I believe wholeheartedly that the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other. I also believe that—so that you cannot do what you want—cuts both ways, whether I want sin or righteousness. But I don’t believe for a moment that a grudge-match between the Holy Spirit and my flesh is a fair fight. My flesh is going to lose. I can count on it.
I am much less confident, however, in a “church” surrounded by people who don’t believe that righteousness is a basic and urgent need, a hunger and thirst. I am weak in faith. In that environment I find it much more difficult to hear the Holy Spirit and much easier to ignore Him. In many ways traveling for a living and working many weekends has spared me from being overcome by that kind of groupthink. Jesus promised that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…will be satisfied (χορτασθήσονται, a form of χορτάζω).
I may never be fully satisfied until I can leave this cursed flesh behind and see Him face to face, but that doesn’t stop me from hungering and thirsting for every taste and scrap I can get here and now. And I really don’t care whether we call that satisfaction progressive sanctification (spiritual progress in the Catholic catechism) or not. I want that satisfaction. And as I’ve written before, I don’t believe the hunger and thirst for righteousness originates with me. It is the perseverance of the saints.
And, yes, of course, perseverance of the saints is a terribly misleading phrase. It’s all an illusion. Saints don’t persevere in their own strength. They get sidetracked, confused, give up and quit as often as anyone else, but the Holy Spirit of Almighty God picks them up fills them again with a hunger and thirst for his righteousness and leads them onward.
The word gradual has always bothered me in the context of sanctification. My experiences of being in the Spirit or in the flesh have seemed more like instantaneous leaps back and forth with truly dizzying effect. But my desire has been to spend more time in the Spirit than in the flesh, and any success at that over time might be considered gradual or progressive. Here’s the issue as I see it.
The Greek words translated sanctified, sanctify, or sanctifieth nine times in the King James translation of the New Testament are forms of ἁγιάζω, to make holy.
|Hebrews 10:10||ἡγιασμένοι||made holy||sanctified|
|Hebrews 2:11||ἁγιάζων||makes holy||sanctifieth|
|ἁγιαζόμενοι||being made holy||sanctified|
|Hebrews 10:14||ἁγιαζομένους||are made holy||sanctified|
|1 Corinthians 1:2||ἡγιασμένοις||sanctified||sanctified|
|1 Corinthians 6:11||ἡγιάσθητε||sanctified||sanctified|
If I were to graph the change over time, God’s holiness would not change. It’s my resistance to his holiness that changes. Here I’m picturing the Holy Spirit—that fountain of water springing up to eternal life—more like a water cannon used in surface mining operations, except that this water canon erodes away my ungodliness (ἀσέβεια) from the inside out. But I think we might choke on calling this satisfaction progressive godliness. Besides, the process feels more like progressive un-ungodliness to me.
My plan was to use “Denny’s” Scripture references as an outline for one brief essay and move on. As I began to study the words translated sanctified, sanctify and sanctifieth I decided to slow down and get real pedantic again. I’ll start with ἁγιάσαι (a form of ἁγιάζω) in another essay for no other reason than it is first in alphabetical order.