Theological Primer for Counselors: Progressive Sanctification

We continue our brief series covering the ten basic categories of theology and relating them to our walk with the Lord and to our personal ministry of the Word of God to one another. Today, let’s think about the doctrine of salvation, particularly what it means to be saved and progressively sanctified by the grace of God.

The Doctrine of Progressive Sanctification

Relative to the one-another ministry we call ‘counseling,’ let’s concentrate on the aspect of soteriology known as progressive sanctification. Millard Erickson defines sanctification as “the continuing work of God in the life of the believer, making him or her actually holy. By ‘holy’ here is meant ‘bearing an actual likeness to God.’ Sanctification is a process by which one’s moral condition is brought into conformity with one’s legal status before God.” In other words, the believer’s sanctification is threefold: sanctification is positional (past) in that it refers to God’s calling apart a sinner unto Himself (Galatians 1:6); it is progressive in the present in that it refers to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer conforming him to the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 3:10); and sanctification is ultimate (future: “glorification”) in that it refers to the day the believer’s standing and his present state become one—being completely sanctified on that day in glory (1 John 3:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:23). Jim Berg accurately reminds us of the indispensable role of the Holy Spirit in this ongoing work: “Change into Christlikeness…is not something we do to ourselves. It is something that happens supernaturally through the agency of the Holy Spirit when we expose ourselves to God’s Word and He reveals to us His glory.”

According to Romans 6:5-11, it is the believer’s union with Christ that makes sanctification possible in our everyday experience. “Union with Christ” means that the believer is spiritually united with Christ (1 Corinthians 6:17; Romans 8:9), resulting in the believer’s old self being crucified with Christ on the cross and the new self being raised up with Him in His resurrection. Because this is true, each believer must put off the old self and put on the new self, which is created in the likeness of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:17-24). Wayne Grudem notes that these “changes within our individual lives are accompanied by a dramatic change in the realm in which we live….To be ‘in Christ’ is to be in that new realm that Christ controls. This means that every action in our lives can be done ‘in Christ,’ if it is done in the power of his kingdom and in a way that brings honor to him.” Henry Thiessen gives four consequences of union with Christ:

  1. Union with Christ means eternal security,
  2. Union with Christ means fruitfulness as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work,
  3. Union with Christ means endowment for service, and
  4. Union with Christ means fellowship with Christ.

In other words, all true growth toward Christlikeness is an outgrowth of the believer’s union with Him. It is our union with Christ by faith that guarantees the ultimate completion of our sanctification into His image. “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2).

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