John Murray on Active Roles in Sanctification


One of the reasons why I appreciate reading John Murray is because how succinct he writes. He’s not like the Puritans in that he doesn’t add extra paragraphs answering every objection or to fill in multiple applications. But he’s also unlike present day authors who use three pages to explain something where one substantive paragraph would have been sufficient. He simply states precisely and in matter of fact manner one logical sentence upon another without the compulsion to defend or expand. It’s not perfect and maybe at times there’s a loss because of the things I mentioned he doesn’t do, but overall it’s great to read deep theology that doesn’t have to be long winded.

Here are some of his thoughts on God’s role and our role in sanctification. I think he provides good perspective. He doesn’t steer into a ditch of passivity nor does he overcorrect in the opposite way by making sanctification a moralistic, self-driven pursuit. In an evangelical culture filled with rampant legalism and maturity by spiritual disciplines on one hand and grace without obedience on the other, Murray’s chapter on Sanctification from Redemption Accomplished and Applied upholds God’s role and our role.

I think the last few sentences from the chapter frame a healthy understanding of sanctification. “Sanctification involves the concentration of thought, of interest, of heart, mind, will, and purpose upon the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus and the engagement of our whole being with those means which God has instituted for the attainment of that destination. Sanctification is the sanctification of persons, and persons are not machines; it is the sanctification of persons renewed after the image of God in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. The prospect it offers is to know even as we are known and to be holy as God is holy. Every one who ahs this hope in God purifies himself even as he is pure (I John 3:3)” (150).

God’s role and our role together
“It is imperative that we realize our complete dependence upon the Holy Spirit. We must not forget, of course, that our activity is enlisted to the fullest extent in the process of sanctification. But we must not rely upon our own strength of resolution or purpose. It is when we are weak that we are strong. It is by grace that we are being saved as surely as by grace we have been saved. If we are not keenly sensitive to our own helplessness, then we can make the means of sanctification the minister of self-righteousness and pride and thus defeat the end of sanctification. We must rely not upon the means of sanctification but upon the God of all grace. Self-confident moralism promotes pride, and sanctification promotes humility and contrition” (147).

There are several things worth mentioning in that quote but here’s one. After reading this I’m reminded how often I begin with spiritual disciplines as a means or grace that are avenues between God and I (or the corporate body). Over time I shift from these disciplines as an avenue to thinking they are sufficient in themselves, as if the Bible reading or prayer itself sanctifies me rather than them being God appointed means of God speaking and acting in my life. Yes, the Word itself is inspired by God but Word and Spirit must come together for me to hear what God has to say to me in His Word. I must at one and the same time increase my commitment to God’s graciously provided means of grace and also be cautious not to become prideful in my exercise of them or shortsighted in relying upon them as ends instead of means. We are, as Murray writes, completely dependent on the Holy Spirit and yet our activity is enlisted to the fullest extent.

“While we are constantly dependent upon the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit, we must also take account of the fact that sanctification is a process that draws within its scope the conscious life of the believer. The sanctified are not passive or quiescent in this process…And no text [Phil. 2:12-13] sets forth more succinctly and clearly the relation of God’s working to our working. God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result. God works in us and we also work. But the relations is that because God works we work. All working out of salvation on our part is the effect of God’s working in us, not the willing to the exclusion of the doing and not the doing to the exclusion of the willing, but both the willing and the doing. And this working of God is directed to the end of enabling us to will and to do that which is well pleasing to him…The more persistently active we are in working, the more persuaded we may be that all the energizing grace and power is of God” (148-49).

Whether or not you agree with his dislike of the word cooperation, I think his point is valid. Cooperation might get across to others what you mean, that both God and the person are involved. But the point he makes should be noted, that we should not suggest it’s a 50/50 work where both sides do the same thing. God works in us and we work with his help. It’s both the order, the relationship of cause and effect, and the right motivation.

I started to put a list together of verses emphasizing God’s role and our role. Hopefully this leads us back to God as the source and help in our sanctification, but also jolts us into renewed energy towards pressing on after Christ. Here are just a few of those verses.

God’s activity
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly.” (I Thess. 5:23)
“God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:13)
“Mow may the God of peace…equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in you that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever.” (Heb. 13:20-21)
“…the God of all grace…will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” (I Pet. 5:10)

Our activity
“so now yield your members to righteousness.” (Rom 6:19)
lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely.” (Heb. 12:1)
strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Heb. 12:4)
abstain from immorality.” (I Thess. 4:3)
“Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit.” (2 Cor. 7:1)
make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue…” (2 Pet. 1:5)

The Corporate Dimension of Our Sanctification
John Murray doesn’t deal with this in his short chapter (so maybe that’s a weakness) but I thought I would mention it. It’s talked about more often today but we must intentionally remind ourselves that our maturity in Christ isn’t solely a “me and God” thing. The NT provides numerous verses that paint a picture of the corporate role, or the role of the church, actively involved in our sanctification. Just the “one another” verses themselves would give ample evidence of how important the community of faith is for my individual growth. Here’s a sampling of verses on this aspect of being sanctified that we won’t want to miss.

“let us stir one another up to love and good deeds.” (Heb. 10:24-25)
“encourage one another and build one another up.” (I Thess. 5:11)
“teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.” (Col. 3:16)
“care for one another.” (I Cor. 12:25)
“Bear one another’s burdens” and “you who are spiritual should restore him [others].” (Gal. 6:1-3)

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