Sanctification can mean many things in contemporary Christianity. This should not surprise us as most any Christian term can mean a lot of things in these days of invent-it-yourself Christianity. And actually differences in the definition of sanctification go a long way back. One commonality of the understandings of sanctification is that it has to do with the relationship of an individual to God. Thus it would appear to be one of the central concerns for a believer in Christ—one of the essentials of the Christian faith.
There are three widely held views on what sanctification means and how it works. One is definitive sanctification, another is progressive sanctification, and a third is entire sanctification. Definitive sanctification is defined as a one-time event that accomplishes the effectual calling; the regeneration; the transfer from sin to holiness; the joining to Christ and the new covenant; and the freeing from the power of sin in the believer. Defined this way, definitive sanctification encompasses much of what is regarded as justification by those who accept progressive sanctification.
Progressive sanctification can be defined as God working progressively in our lives (after justification) to free us more and more from sin and to make us more like Christ in our daily lives. It is an outworking of the new life the believer received in the regeneration of justification. Progressive sanctification is seen to be gradual and incremental and not perfected in our life on earth.
The idea of entire sanctification, or Christian perfection, came from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and is based on his understanding of sanctifying grace. Perfection is seen as an instantaneous or progressive process that results in the heart of the believer being freed from his or her sinful nature by the infilling of the Holy Spirit. This fullness from God produces purity in intentions, dedication of the individual’s life to God, knowledge of the mind of Christ, and thus the ability to live as Christ did. Perfection does not mean being unable to sin but rather being able to choose not to sin. In Wesley’s view, Christian perfection was not a permanent condition of the believer.
I think that progressive sanctification best fits my experience of the Christian life. When I was run down by the “hound of heaven” about forty-five years ago and returned to Christianity, my life was certainly changed for the better, but I was not the spiritual person I am now. I do think that through all kinds of experiences, good and bad, and the continual work of the Holy Spirit within me that I am a much more mature Christian now than I was when I returned to Christianity after a lapse of twenty years.
The church I was raised in taught definitive sanctification. This effectively means that maturing spiritually is a do-it-yourself project. This, I think, can lead in two directions. For me, who was unable to live up to the standards of the church, it meant rejection of Christianity and a feeling on my part that I would never measure up. The other direction where definitive sanctification takes people is to set a standard that most of the church can meet. The danger here is that it can lead people who can do what they are told they should do to become self-righteous.
The problem I see with entire sanctification is that it can lead people to think they are able to meet God’s standard of holiness, if only for a short time. And, of course, your perfection can always be lost. So there is no security in your spiritual life or even in your salvation.
I hope what I have written may encourage you to think seriously about the matter of your sanctification. After all, I think the most important part of our Christianity is becoming what Christ would have us be.