In his book Possessed by God: A New Testament theology for sanctification and holiness Dr. David Peterson challenges the common assumption that the New Testament views sanctification as primarily a process. He argues that Scripture’s emphasis instead falls upon sanctification as a definitive event. A succinct summary of the thesis of his book is written on page 27:
“Sanctification is commonly regarded as a process of moral and spiritual transformation following conversion. In the New Testament, however, it primarily refers to God’s way of taking possession of us in Christ, setting us apart to belong to him and to fulfill his purpose for us. Sanctification certainly has present and ongoing effects, but when the verb ‘to sanctify’ (Gk. hagiazein) and the noun ‘sanctification’ (Gk. hagiasmos) are used, the emphasis is regularly on the saving work of God in Christ, applied to believers through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.” (Page 27)
I readily admit that whenever Peterson described the “common misconception” of our day, he is for the most part describing my own (previous?) understanding of sanctification. So, I was immediately intrigued to read on to see what I must have previously missed. Throughout the book Peterson points to different Scriptures which show that when sanctification is in view – we are primarily talking about our conversion experience where we are initially incorporated into Christ (an example of what I would previously had considered as simply a description of a believers’ “justification”).
For example, in I Cor. 1:2 Paul is amplifying to the Corinthians what it means to be God’s church and he describes the intended audience as, “to those sanctified in Christ” (Gk. hegiasmenois en Christo). Here he is saying that the Corinthian Christians were a holy and distinct people in that corrupt and godless city. This is the only time Paul uses this full expression in the opening letter to a church. Apparently, he wanted to emphasize this concept in writing to the Corinthians. Peterson continues…
“This was so because of God’s initiative, because of God drawing them into an exclusive relationship with himself. What God had done for them “in Christ Jesus” had made them part of his eschatological community. In this passage, the perfect passive participle “sanctified” should be understood as another way of speaking about their conversion and incorporation into Christ. It can hardly refer to their holiness of character or conduct, since Paul spends much time in this letter challenging their values and their behavior, calling them to holiness in an ethical sense.” (italics are my own – Pages 40-41)
So in this quote Peterson is highlighting the fact that to be “sanctified in Christ” is to be primarily redeemed just as we should understand “sainthood” to be synonymous with “Christian.” Similarly, Peterson claims it is one of the tragedies of church history that the term “saint” has become too narrowly identified with apostles or outstanding Christian leaders and exemplars who have done especially good stuff. One of the worst things about this understanding of “sainthood” and by comparison “sanctification as a process” is that we can begin to believe that “sainthood” is an achievement, not a gift. If someone says, ‘She’s a real saint,’ it ought in truth to mean, ‘She’s a real Christian’!” (41) So it would also be true with the concept of sanctification.
I had never before read a defense of positional sanctification and so I’m still new to the conversation. I’m not sure I’m completely convinced yet that sanctification is primarily positional, but I did love one particular consequence of this understanding. In Dr. Peterson’s articulation one truth becomes very clear: If sanctification is indeed positional, then holiness is not something we do, holiness is all about Who we know. This truth echoes and resonates with what I know more broadly as the “Gospel message” and the “Kingdom of God.” We see this helpful nuance all throughout the book.
After reminding us that first and foremost, holiness in Scripture is a description of God and His character and that God alone is holy, Peterson reminds us that the Israelites found that same holiness not through what they did but because they were in a relationship with the Holy One (19). Since God is the only source of true holiness for his people, then holiness cannot simply be acquired by human effort. It is a status or condition which God imparts…(23). Elsewhere Peterson equates holiness with a new “status” given to us by God when he highlights I Cor. 6:11 which says, “This is what some of you used to be…But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”
Paul’s overall meaning being, “Your own conversion, effected by God is what has removed you from being wicked…therefore live out this new life in Christ…” (45) Interesting here that Paul is offering 3 different prescriptions of the same reality, rather than alluding to a process of first being washed, then being sanctified, then being justified. So, sanctification in its context does not refer to a process of ethical development but highlights the fact that God claimed the Corinthians as his own. God turned them around and brought them to Himself in faith and love. In ethical terms, this separation has profound implications certainly – but it is fascinating to see how much Paul labors the point of their holy status as the basis of appeal for holy ethical living.
The same point is reinforced on pages 112-113 when Peterson is exegeting Romans 6:11-14 where we see again that holiness of life is not simply attained by moral effort nor even by striving to keep the law of God. Is is not even a matter of “letting go and letting God.” Rather, practical holiness involves “putting to death” in our lives what God has already sentenced to death on the cross (‘mortification’) and living out the new life given to us by the indwelling Christ (‘vivification’ or ‘aspiration’). Human effort is required, but not apart from, nor distinct from the activity of God’s Spirit. In short, the imperative for holy living in Romans (see also Romans 8:12-13) is grounded in the fact that the “Spirit of holiness” (1:4) has taken possession of us and because of that, the Spirit empowers us to walk in God’s way and to counteract sin.
I need to think about the positional definition of sanctification more because there is something very freeing in its correlated definition of holiness. As Peterson explains, “fullness of life is not attained but given.” (115) Our progress then is not a result of our own human achievement. And ultimately, our “sonship” and “inheritance” depends solely in our relationship to Jesus, not in our good works. While this sense of belonging doesn’t ignore the ethical responsibilities of our family tie, it does ground it in something much more sure. If all this is true, then I don’t rely on myself to further the sanctification of God in my life. I have a better option. I can ask God to finish HIS sanctification within me. As Charles Wesley once prayed:
“Finish then thy new creation,
Pure and spotless let us be:
let us see thy great salvation,
perfectly restored in thee.
Changed from glory into glory,
till in heaven we take our place;
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love and praise.”
(Quoted on page 137)