The Sanctification of the Believer: Positional, Progressive & Perfect

Sanctification comprises the entirety of the Christian life, from the moment of our spiritual birth to our entrance into glory.  There is a past, present, and future aspect to our sanctification: past (positional sanctification); present (progressive sanctification); future (perfect sanctification).

How do these aspects of sanctification relate to one another?  In short, positional sanctification is foundational, with progressive sanctification building on or flowing from positional sanctification and looking forward to perfect sanctification.  Further, perfect sanctification is simply the final realization of positional sanctification, and the prospect of perfect sanctification motivates progressive sanctification.  This relationship will become clearer as we make our way through the study.

What is the basic meaning of sanctification?  The basic meaning of sanctification is to be set apart.  This basic meaning is true of all three aspects of sanctification, but has different reference points according to the aspect being considered.  The reference points are bound up in the respective adjectives – positional, progressive, and perfect.  In other words, there is a sense in which we are positionally set apart, progressively set apart, and perfectly set apart.

Another term frequently used in Scripture that is synonymous with sanctification is holy or holiness.  Holy basically means to be set apart; consecrated; sacred. 

This aspect of our sanctification speaks to our being set apart from the world unto God.  This is an instantaneous act of God’s saving grace, which takes place at the moment of our conversion.  At that very moment we are sanctified – set apart unto God for His use.  A few key Scriptures will suffice to demonstrate this positional aspect of our sanctification.

Ephesians 1:4 “just as [God] chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love.”

1 Corinthians 6:11 “And such were some of you.  But you were washed, but you were sanctified [past tense], but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.”

1 Peter 2:9-10 “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.”

Note that our positional sanctification is in Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 1:30), is past tense, and has implications for the way we live our lives for God.  We are positionally holy in Christ, having been united to Him in His death and resurrection.  In other words, this aspect of our sanctification is by virtue of Christ’s holiness.  In God’s eyes we are holy as Christ is holy, for we are in Him and He is in us.

There is a very important term in Scripture used of Christians that specifically has this positional aspect of sanctification or holiness in mind – saint.  The term literally means “holy one,” and it does not refer to a select few within the church, who happen to live extraordinary lives, but to every single believer of the gospel.  Paul often addressed his letters to “the saints” (Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2), which simply emphasizes the believer’s holy standing (i.e. positional sanctification) in Christ through faith.  If you are in Christ, then you are a saint – holy one.

Whereas positional sanctification emphasizes God’s work, progressive sanctification emphasizes our work or obedience, yet this is not without God’s grace.

Philippians 2:12-13 “Therefore, my beloved, as you 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; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”

Progressive sanctification is the process whereby we daily become more and more like Jesus Christ, through the killing of sin in our lives as we endeavor to live according to God’s grace in the gospel.  While we have been set apart to God in a positional way, we must now live accordingly, growing or maturing in it.

Ephesians 4:20-24 “But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.”

Romans 8:29 “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.”

Romans 8:13 “For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

Romans 12:1-2 “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.  And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother [or sister] in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified.  For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness.  Therefore he who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also given us His Holy Spirit. 

Progressive sanctification is not optional.  He who does not demonstrate growth in sanctification shows himself to be a false professor (and he therefore lacks positional sanctification).  Sanctification is not only God’s will for His people, it is the desire of His people, who have truly experienced His grace in the gospel, and so endeavor to live in a manner worthy of their calling, to be pleasing to the Lord.

How may we progress or grow in our sanctification/holiness?  There are many things we can, and should, do (e.g. pray, fellowship with other believers); however, let me focus in on a central discipline of the Christian life that will carry us along in our sanctification.  We ought to daily read and memorize the Scriptures (the word of God).

1 Peter 2:1-3 “Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious.

Psalm 119:9, 11 “How can a young man [or woman] cleanse his [or her] way?  By taking heed according to Your word….  Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You.”

By daily reading and memorizing Scripture, we grow in our knowledge and understanding of God, His will, and the gospel.  We are reminded of the promises and blessings that are ours in Christ Jesus, and the Holy Spirit uses this to strengthen us and conform us to Christ.

As mentioned earlier, perfect sanctification is simply positional sanctification realized, consummated, brought to completion, or perfected.  In other words, while we are positionally sanctified or holy in Christ, we do not at this time experience the full realization of this sanctification.  Why?  Because we are yet in our mortal bodies, still affected by temptation, and therefore we still sin.  Of course, we do not sin as we once did.  We are no longer enslaved to it, held under the full weight of its power; nor do we make a practice of sinning, but now experience conviction of sin by the Holy Spirit, knowing that we have displeased and dishonored God when we do sin, and therefore repent of it.  This daily struggle with temptation and sin falls under progressive sanctification, but it causes us to remember our positional sanctification (what we are in Christ) and look all the more to our perfect sanctification (forever separated from sin and temptation).

Perfect sanctification speaks to the perfected state of the believer through glorification.  At Christ’s return all things will be made new, and we will be like Him, for we will see Him as he is.

1 John 3:2-3 “Beloved, now we are children of God [i.e. positional sanctification]; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him [i.e. perfect sanctification], for we shall see Him as He is.  And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself [i.e. progressive sanctification], just as He is pure.”

Romans 8:29-30 “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.  Moreover whom he predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.”

Philippians 3:12 “Not that I have already attained [the resurrection from the dead; v. 11], or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.” [cf. 1 Thess. 5:23]

This is our great hope – our glorification with the Lord.  Christ has gone before us, and so guarantees our glorification, which will be our perfect sanctification (forever separated from corruption and sin). 

So we see that sanctification is an important aspect of our salvation, spanning the moment of our conversion to our future glorification.  In summary, we have been sanctified, are being sanctified, and will forever and fully be sanctified.  Put another way, we have been set apart from the world unto God (positional sanctification), are being conformed more and more to the image of Christ, by fleeing worldliness and ungodliness (progressive sanctification), and will be forever separated from corruption and sin in glory (perfect sanctification).

Special Note:  Notice how the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) is intimately involved in all three aspects of our sanctification, as is clearly seen in the passages referenced throughout the lesson.

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8 thoughts on “The Sanctification of the Believer: Positional, Progressive & Perfect

  1. Pingback: The Sanctification of the Believer: Positional, Progressive & Perfect – Drew Mery | The Confessing Baptist

    • Gregory,

      Good question. First of all, First Corinthians 6:11 is a good example of how the Bible clearly differentiates between positional sanctification and justification: “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified [positional sanctification], but you were justified [note, it’s differentiated from the sanctification just mentioned] in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” Now, to briefly elaborate on that a bit, justification is a legal (law-court) term (see Rom. 8:31-34), and it has to do with our right standing before the holy God. It is not our own righteousness by which we may rightly stand before God, but the righteousness of God received by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:21-26). Justification has reference to the law and the fulfillment of it. We have not fulfilled the law, but Christ has in our place (Rom. 10:4). Positional sanctification pertains to our being set apart from the world by means of being in (united to) Christ (Rom. 6:1-11). We are now saints (holy ones) in the household of God (Eph. 2:19-22). There’s obviously a relationship between the two, as both are established “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (note the Trinitarian witness there!), and you can’t have one without the other. But I do believe there is also an obvious difference between the two.

    • Hi George,

      Thanks for the question. Certainly, much could be said in answer, and indeed much has been written by many people already. So I will be brief and to the point in my answer.

      I believe that the Scriptures are explicitly clear that salvation is indeed eternal, that it cannot be lost. Salvation cannot be lost because salvation is of God, through and through. That is to say, God is the one who saves us and keeps us. The work He performs in His people is a powerful work to turn them from enemies of God to worshippers of God (e.g. Rom. 5:6-11). If salvation could be lost, then we would be able to bring into question God’s sovereignty, power, goodness, etc. This truth of salvation being wholly of God can be seen, for example, in such passages as Romans 8 (the whole chapter) and Epheasians 1:3-14. Let me write out a few verses from other places in Scripture that I believe clearly teach that once God saves you, that salvation cannot be lost:

      John 5:24 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”

      Philippians 1:6 “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

      Hebrews 10:14 “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”

      I hope this helps.

      Grace and Peace,

  2. Pingback: Are We Sanctified by Works or by Grace? (part 2) –

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