Roles in Sanctification

Yesterday’s post reminded us the decisive break with sin allowing us to fight our sin already happened at conversion. I stated that rather than this making sin excusable or causing us to be spiritually lazy, it should actually motivate us to live in the freedom from sin and the fellowship with God that we get in Christ through definitive sanctification. I thought it might be helpful to consider how 20th century theologian John Murray summarized our role versus God’s role.

Murray doesn’t steer us 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 self-empowerment on one hand, and an anti-law/anti-rules understanding of grace that removes all requirements to obey on the other hand, Murray’s chapter proves helpful in upholding how grace motivates obedience. In a section on sanctification from Redemption Accomplished and Applied, he upholds both God’s role and our role.

God’s Role and Our Role

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)

Over time, we tend to shift from seeing spiritual disciplines as a means of knowing God to subtle thinking they’re sufficient in themselves, as if the Bible reading or prayer itself sanctifies me rather than them being ways of knowing God. I must increase my commitment to God’s 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 signifies that both God and the person are involved. God works in us and we work with His help.

Here’s a starting point for verses emphasizing God’s role and our role. This hopefully 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.

God’s Activity

  • “May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly.” (I Thessalonians 5:23)
  • “God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13)
  • “Now 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.” (Hebrews 13:20-21)
  • “…the God of all grace…will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” (I Peter 5:10)

Our Activity

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

The Corporate Dimension of Our Sanctification

Maturity in Christ isn’t solely a “me and God” thing. The NT provides numerous verses about the role of other believers in our sanctification. Just the “one another” verses themselves would give ample evidence of how important the community of faith is for my growth. Here are a few NT texts revealing our need for others and the need of others for us.

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

We must actively put off sin and put on Christ. Maturity doesn’t just happen; it takes work. But the Bible encourages us and equips us with the good news that God is working in us. God works as we work, and we work in God’s strength. Not only do we need God, but we need one another. We need others and others need us.



[1]John Murray, “The Agency in Definitive Sanctification,” in Collected Writings, volume 2(Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth), 286.

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