Sanctification... a thing to be reckoned with?

Sanctification is clearly a topic I'm very interested in and this aspect of theology is really a lifelong wrestle for me. How do I understand the Biblical imperative "Be holy for I am holy" AND how do I live it out?

There have been many attempts to understand sanctification throughout the ages, and its relationship to other aspects of theology. For example, Calvin proposed the dual processes  of mortification and vivification (the ongoing process of the old self "dying" and the new life "living"). My main issue with this is that it makes the Christian life sound like a kind of multiple personality disorder. Another suggestion, particularly arising out of 19th Century revivalism, is that of "second blessing". That is, there is a moment in time, normally post-conversion, when the Christian seeks God in faith to be "entirely sanctified", and when this moment occurs there is an exchange in the life of the believer where the love of God drives out sin (classically referred to in the early Salvation Army as the "roots of bitterness") which thereby eliminates the possibility of sinning, or at least enables the believer to focus their entire self on the love of God. The problem here is that what is an experience of "some" has in some circles seen to become "normative" for all. This is a problem because not everyone will experience sanctification in this specific way. Of course, that is not to invalidate the fact that many people have in fact sought after God for sanctification and by his grace he has done so in this particular way, but let's not pretend that this will be the way that it happens for everyone. 

(For an interesting perspective on this view from one damaged by it see Harry Ironside's Holiness the False and the True. This book needs to be understood in its context; from someone who has been hurt by a particular interpretation of a doctrine and not used as some sort of "proof" that that doctrine is in fact wrong. Rather, it's necessary to hear these kind of voices as a part of good theology).

What I would like to suggest is there is a problem in the way that sanctification (and indeed justification as the New Perspective of Paul has taught us) has been conceptualised as a kind of "thing" that needs to be acquired. Sanctification; the love of God; the righteousness of God; his holiness; or other related terms all become conceived of in terms of a "thing" that is transferred from God to the believer. The believer "doesn't have enough" of this "thing" and so needs more from the divine source of this "thing-ness". Similarly, sin becomes the negative polar opposite "thing" that is eliminated in a process of exchange and as a result of this exchange the believer acquires the "thing" that belongs to God (that is, sanctification). 

There's significant problems here that I won't get into, but rather propose an alternative conceptualisation. I'd like to suggest that sanctification and holiness (and indeed justification) need to be conceived in relational terms. This is the language of covenant throughout the Scriptures. Indeed this is the way we should understand God; as a relational God. He is not just the Holy One, but the Holy One of Israel. The command to Pharaoh through Moses is "Let my people go!" And my personal favourite - "I will be their God, and they will be my people". These are all relational terms. Covenant does not mean that God's righteousness (insert holiness or other qualities of God here) is somehow transferred from God to the people thus making them holy, but rather that they are made holy by virtue of their relationship with God

This has implications for the whole imputed/imparted debate. We need to get rid of those terms because they're based upon a "thingness" conceptualisation of sanctification. They're not relational terms, and so unrelated to the Biblical concept of covenant. Similarly the way we understand "sin" is also challenged here. It also needs to be understood of in relational terms (taking into account of course it's ontological consequences... that's for another time). 

I think perhaps the best way to understand this in relational terms is by use of an analogy - that of marriage. For me there was a moment in time when I was married - 18th March, 2000. I stood up in front of family and friends, and in the presence of God I was united with my wife in marriage. Consider that the moment of enacting the covenant. From that moment on I became "married".  It's even more important that I don't just express this in "me/I" terms but "we" terms; since it is a relationship. So that day we entered into marital relationship. 

Now let's try and translate some of the options of conceptualising sanctification above into this relational analogy. Let's start with Calvin. From that moment on I spend a lifetime mortifying my "single life" and vivifying my "married life". Now there are some aspects of truth to this, but overall it just doesn't make sense. In the same way, if I conceive of covenant as a relational term, then sanctification must be expressed in relational ways. 

Let's try the second example. On 18th March, 2000 I was married, but then I continued to seek after my wife with all my heart, hoping and praying (by faith of course) for a moment when all my desires for any other person in this world were taken away and my focus was only ever upon her. Let's even label this a "second wedding" or becoming "entirely married". Again, it doesn't fit into relational terms. It's almost laughable!

Scripturally, I think there's plenty of warrant for understanding sanctification as a relational concept, rather than a transfer of some "thing". For example, Paul refers to the Corinthians as hegiasmenois en Christoi Iesou, kletois hagiois (to ones who having been sanctified in Christ Jesus and called saints...) in 1 Cor 1:2. Now the content of the rest of the letters certainly raises some questions as to just how "sanctified" and "saintly" they really were! If we conceive of it in Calvin's terms well we might just say that they are still undergoing this process of mortification and vivification. Possibly, but Paul could have used plenty of other terms... so why didn't he? The second option, that is the "second blessing" alternative, is even less likely to fit here. If we conceive of sanctification as some kind of second event in time, and the Corinthians are apparently already "sanctified", then why were there so many problems amongst the church here if their propensity to sin had been taken away? 

However, if we consider this in terms of relationship, or more specifically covenant relationship, then we have a much better result. Stretching my metaphor just a little further the result is this "You Corinthians are married (in covenant relationship) with Christ, therefore start living like married (covenanted) people - and here are the expectations of a  life married with Christ" (cue the rest of the letter...). 

There are implications for a shift in thinking in this way, and I would value your thoughts on this.  For me there are also implications on the whole "faith" vs "works" dichotomy as well... but that can wait for another post.


  1. I think you're absolutely on the right trail here Adam. You have probably already read it but Mildred Bangs Wynkoop's "A Theology of Love: The Dynamic of Wesleyanism" pointed us in this direction years ago but no one has really followed though on it yet, though I've drawn heavily from her in my proposal for a Trinitarian theology of Christian perfection. The most successful of attempted revisions of Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection have been those which have stressed relational rather then ontological, personal rather than impersonal, and dynamic rather than static categories. These are the very categories which have characterized contemporary Trinitarian theology, beginning with Karl Barth and continuing to the present time with the work of Jurgen Moltmann, Catherine Mowry LaCugna, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and others. A careful and critical evaluation of these sources and a constructive application of them to the Wesleyan doctrine of sanctification would be a worthwhile contribution to the advance of the tradition.


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