Presbyterian Reformed Church
Larger Catechism 75A: “What is Sanctification?” I Thessalonians 5:23
The following sermon was preached by Dr. William Young at East Greenwich, RI on October 18, 1992
Justification and adoption are acts of God, performed instantaneously and once for all. Now this does not mean that there is nothing more to be done, after God performs these gracious acts. But on the contrary, there is a great deal that is still required for the salvation of sinners. The work of sanctification begins with the new birth. It continues throughout the lifetime of the believer. It is of this work that we would speak, and we find it described in the 75th answer of our Larger Catechism: “Sanctification is a work of God’s grace, whereby they whom God hath, before the foundation of the world, chosen to be holy, are in time, through the powerful operation of his Spirit applying the death and resurrection of Christ unto them, renewed in their whole man after the image of God; having the seeds of repentance unto life, and all other saving graces, put into their hearts, and those graces so stirred up, increased, and strengthened, as that they more and more die unto sin, and rise unto newness of life.” We may not be able to cover the abundant richness of this answer in our endeavors at this particular time, but we may at least make a beginning associating the teaching of our catechism with the foundation that is found in the infallible word of God. And in particular, in the text that we have from I Thessalonians 5:23: “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In this text the apostle prays for the sanctification of the Thessalonians. Now we might perhaps dispose at this point of two serious errors that are widespread with regard to this particular text. It has been misinterpreted on the one hand by the perfectionists and it has been misinterpreted also by the trichotomists. The perfectionists seize upon the words “sanctify you wholly,” and jump to the conclusion that this text teaches that it is possible for a Christian to be free from all sin, to have arrived at the state of perfect love, as the Wesleyans call it. But this is a misinterpretation of the text. The text rather implies that the holiness of those who are here addressed requires a further sanctifying work of the Spirit of God. The Thessalonians were Christians, and there had been a beginning of the work of sanctification already in their souls, and the prayer of the apostle here is that that work is going to be increased until they are sanctified wholly and are preserved blameless to the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s not said that they are going to be made blameless so far as intrinsic holiness is concerned in this present life, but that at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ they will be then presented to him as blameless and as sanctified wholly, so that we may properly understand that this text indicates, that there is a process of sanctification that goes on in the course of the believer’s present life and that continues until the time of death, and that will appear in its full completeness and perfection at the time of the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now the word “wholly,” that we find here qualifying “sanctifying,” rather clearly refers to the entire man, a general expression of which is particularized when the apostle goes on to speak of “your whole spirit and soul and body,” that is all the elements that enter into the nature of a person are to be sanctified by the Lord. This is certainly what is being emphasized here in speaking of being sanctified wholly.
Now in connection with this enumeration, we meet with the error of the trichotomist, who contends that these words, “spirit, soul, and body,” refer to three substantial parts of human nature, that even as the body is one thing, and the soul is something else, so also the trichotomist would say the soul is one thing in the person and the spirit is still something else. Well, one might indeed grant that there is a distinction of various functions in the soul and it’s natural, perhaps, to understand the word spirit as referring specifically to the person as that person is a mind, as that person engages in thought, as the primary function of the spiritual nature of man. Whereas, the soul can be taken as signifying the will, and the affections of man that express that which has been dictated by the intellect, or by the spirit and the instrument by which the person that acts in an outward way is the body. All three call for sanctification. But that doesn’t mean that human nature is to be divided up into these three divisions. One has to take the whole teaching of Scripture, compare Scripture with Scripture, and it’s very clear, that preeminently, predominantly, the soul and the spirit are equated, and even in the first account of the creation of man we’re told that God formed Adam out of the dust of the ground, then he breathed into the nostrils of the man that he had formed the breath of life and man became a living soul. You have there simply a dichotomy. You have the body on the one hand, and you have the soul on the other. And it would be a sermon in itself to enumerate the many Scriptures in which this two-fold division is made of the nature of man, as well as those passages in which spirit and soul are used interchangeably. The Savior said, “Now is my soul troubled,” but at the same time we’re also told that it was in the spirit that he grieved, so that we are not to take the text as being a foundation for the view that a number of people have fallen into with respect to the division of human nature being three-fold rather than fundamentally two-fold.
However, setting those errors aside, let us see what the positive teaching is of the Scripture in these matters. We may at this time consider first of all, the author of sanctification, spoken of in the text as the God of Peace; and secondly, the work of sanctification itself; and thirdly, the object of sanctification, that is the person that is sanctified, the whole man, spirit, soul, and body.
First of all, God is the author of sanctification. That is very clearly the teaching of our text because prayer is here made to God to perform this work. It is a work that God alone is able to perform. No man can sanctify himself by his own strength. I do not say there is no room for human activity in the matter of sanctification, but that’s another story. Any human activity that there is, that is involved, is the fruit, is the result, is the effect of the activity of God first of all. And sanctification is properly spoken of in our catechism as a work of God’s free grace. Justification and adoption, we have seen, were acts of God’s free grace. But sanctification, like effectual calling, is a work of God’s free grace. But it’s all of free grace. It’s all a divine operation and activity, that has its root and its spring, in the electing love of God. We have this intimated in that great verse, with respect to the subject of eternal election, in Ephesians chapter 1:4, that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we might be holy. Notice that connection that there is in Ephesians 1:4 between election and holiness. The connection isn’t that God foresaw that we would be holy by our own efforts and therefore elected us. No, no. That’s not it. But he has elected those upon whom he has set his eternal love in order that they might be holy. Holiness is the end that is intended in the mysterious act of God by which he has chosen a people unto himself. And we can’t separate holiness and election. That’s something ever to remember, that from where God has decreed the salvation of a soul from eternity in time, he is pleased to execute that decree. And a part of the execution of the decree of election is the sanctification of those whom God has chosen.
And likewise, you can’t suppose there is any holiness that is genuine, except that which is the fruit of God’s electing grace. You cannot separate the two from one another. And we have the connection between the two again in II Thessalonians 2:13, “But we are bound to give thanks always to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth:”. See, the sanctification to which God from the beginning has chosen his people is a salvation that is wrought through the sanctification of the Spirit, so that election to salvation is at the appointed time manifested by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. And the activity of the Holy Spirit in sanctification is also indicated in I Corinthians 6:11. The apostle writes, “And such were some of you.” He speaks of this sinful condition, the sinful actions, that characterized them before their conversion. Such were some of you. “…but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.” So that those who are converted are also spoken of as being sanctified by the Spirit of our God.
Now God is called in our text the God of peace. One might have appropriate thoughts indeed with respect to peace as an attribute of God, as a character that belongs to his nature. But I believe that in this particular connection, God is spoken of as being the God of peace in a certain respect, and that in particular, in respect to that peace that flows from justification by faith and which becomes manifested in the sanctification of the believer who has been justified by his faith. It is God that justifies, and those who are justified by faith have peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ, as we’re told in Romans 5:1. It is this that issues in sanctification. A sinner cannot be made holy as long as he remains under the curse of a broken law. That curse has to be removed, and it is removed because those who are redeemed from it are redeemed only by the one who has been made a curse for them. It is by faith that one receives that blessing which the Lord Jesus Christ has procured by his suffering the penalty that the sinner did deserve. It is for this reason that the apostle points out that sin has no more dominion over the believer, precisely because the believer is no longer under the law, but is under grace. We know that verse is greatly abused, and misinterpreted by some, but let not the abuse of it deprive the child of God from the blessed comfort that there is in the fact that he has been delivered by faith from the curse of the broken law and is now under grace. This is not of course an excuse for any kind of license, but this is rather a reason for holiness, a reason that sin has no more dominion over the believer in the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is because of the death and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ that the Holy Spirit, the author of faith, applies to the believer the work of Christ in sanctifying him. This is the connection, to be sure, that the apostle makes in the beginning of the 6th of Romans, after having set forth the blessed truth of justification by faith, the union of the believer with the Savior as his federal head, as the sole foundation for his justification, he turns to those who object that this doctrine leads one to continue in sin. This he flatly repudiates and refuses and gives this powerful argument in Romans 6:4-6,”Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, and henceforth we should not serve sin.”
So you see a person is justified by faith only because that person is by faith united to the Lord Jesus Christ, and the righteousness of Christ is counted his. But the union of the believer with Christ, (and this is of course what is signified in the sacrament of baptism, this is why the apostle speaks of being buried with him by baptism unto death), that one is united to Christ in his death, but one is also united to Christ in his resurrection from the dead. As we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also with the likeness of his resurrection. And there’s not only the pardon of sin and acceptance with God that flows from union with Christ crucified, but there is also new life that proceeds from union with Christ, who has risen again from the dead. Well, this banishes the vain dream of any sanctification, or of any iota of holiness, apart from union with Christ in his death and his resurrection from the dead.
Now with regard to the nature of sanctification, we may make a few remarks of a general nature at this time, though much, much, much, much can be said in a particular way with regard to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and its effects in the life of the Christian. But here the apostle prays that the God of peace would sanctify those to whom he is writing, and this prayer is a prayer that has force not only for the Thessalonians to whom the apostle Paul is writing, but this applies to every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ at all times, that it is the work of the Holy Spirit who would produce the holiness without which no man would see the Lord. The apostle Paul has in the chapter of I Thessalonians 4, a number of precepts with regard to Christian conduct that now he proceeds to pray that the Lord will sanctify the believers. He prays for that divine blessing, apart from which all precepts and all preaching are in vain. The word that is set forth in the precepts of the law, the word that is preached, may be perfectly true, may be absolutely necessary to be known, but what effect will it have upon the heart, and upon the life of the individual hearer, unless the Holy Spirit is pleased to perform this gracious work?
Now this sanctification for which the apostle prays is not something that is merely external. In many Scriptures that which is set apart from what is common is called holy. We should realize that the Scripture often does speak of that which is external when it speaks about holiness. It is very striking, of course, in the Mosaic law when you have the priests as well as the tabernacle and the very utensils of the tabernacle all being said to be holy. Well now, this isn’t sanctification in the internal sense that we are especially concerned to deal with. This is something which is simply external, that is, these things are set apart according to God’s institution. To be sure, they are set apart from common, secular use and character, and in this sense, being dedicated to the service of God according to his own institution, they are said to be holy. But we’re talking of something more, something other than this external holiness. (Though when God makes commandments , even external institutions, they are to be maintained.) We know that most of the institutions of this sort that God made under the Mosaic economy were shadows, types, and are no longer in literal effect under the New Testament. Though there is still a certain place, an important place, for external holiness under the New Testament. For one thing, the Sabbath is a holy day. It’s a holy day. God has set this day apart from the other days of the week. And the holiness of the Sabbath is to be recognized. God hasn’t set apart, so far as the New Testament is concerned, hasn’t set apart any other times, There are no other holy days to be found in the year except the 52 Sabbath days. Those Sabbaths are, of course, observed the first day of the week as the Lord’s Day in which the resurrection of our blessed Savior is being celebrated.
But we’re talking now, especially when we speak of sanctification, in the sense of it as it is mentioned in our text, and as we find it described in the Larger Catechism. This is an internal work of the Spirit of God. The language of our Larger Catechism (Q 75) is, “renewed in the whole man after the image of God.” There are beginnings, together with justification and adoption, which are simultaneous, and the order of these matters of effectual calling, regeneration, justification, adoption, and the beginning of sanctification, the order is not all important. But one is not to suppose that a difference of time, or that a gap of time, is necessarily intended when we speak of the priority of one of these acts or works of God’s grace over and above the other. What is important, what is most important, we might have theological questions with respect to the order of the salvation of the sinner and of the works of God in this matter, but what is of the greatest practical importance to recognize in this, that only those who have been effectually called, only those who have been born again, that have been adopted, have been justified by faith–only those can be sanctified. To seek after holiness when a person is still unconverted, is futile. There must be, first of all, spiritual life before there can be spiritual growth. And while the soul is yet a stranger to the very beginnings of spiritual life, which only the new birth can produce, there can be no such thing as sanctification. There can be no such thing as growth in grace. I’m afraid in all too many congregations of the visible church that the hearers are given the impression that all they have to do is to grow in grace and never a question is raised as to whether they actually are in a state of grace, as to whether there has really been a genuine beginning of spiritual life. But unless there’s been that first beginning, there’s not going to be any further progress. There’s not going to be anything in the way of the work of sanctification without their regeneration first of all. With regeneration, we have also these blessed acts that we’ve been speaking of, justification and of adoption. And the fruit of the beginnings of faith and repentance, all belong together.
But we do know that, while they all belong together and can’t be separated from one another, there are very important matters with respect to the order. There are some matters with respect to the order that are, perhaps, unimportant. But some are. And one of the important matters with regard to the order is that the new birth must precede faith, not faith must precede the new birth. We know that there is all too much professedly evangelical teaching that a person has to believe by an act of his own free will in order to be born again. But the Scripture does not represent it in that manner. A person has to be born again. There has to be a great change wrought by the Spirit of God before a sinner is able to believe. That doesn’t mean there is a difference in time between the work of the Spirit in regeneration and the first beginning of saving faith. It is simultaneous as far as time is concerned. But it is important to realize that it’s God’s work that is the cause and it is man’s faith that is the response, the effect, of the Spirit of God.
And we may say that there is the same relationship between the operation of the Spirit of God and the fruit of that also in the whole course of sanctification. It’s always the work of the Lord that produces within the soul of the believer any activity that is of a truly holy nature. The renewal that is spoken of in connection with sanctification might also be thought of as beginning in regeneration. Sometimes the very words, regeneration and sanctification, have been in one way or another identified with one another because there is this first beginning in the new birth, and what we are speaking of as sanctification here, and what I believe our text is speaking of, is a continuation of that renewal. It is such language as the apostle makes use of in the epistle to the Ephesians, chapter 4: 23-24, “ And be renewed in the spirit of your mind: And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.” Well, the first creation of the new man in righteousness and true holiness has taken place in the new birth. Now in sanctification, the child of God is said to put on the new man that after God is created in righteousness and true holiness, and this is identified with being renewed in the spirit of one’s mind.
Now I would like, in the third place, to say a few words about the object of sanctification. Not the object in the sense of the purpose of sanctification, but in the sense of the person who is sanctified. The object of sanctification, in this sense, is the whole man. The “sanctified wholly,” as is spoken of in our text, may indeed be taken either extensively or intensively. But I believe that the extensive sense, “sanctified wholly” or sanctifying the whole man, is what is most prominent in our text. I don’t say the other is to be excluded. But the apostle seems to be explaining what it is for one to be sanctified wholly, namely, for the whole man to be sanctified, that is spirit, soul, and body. The emphasis in this enumeration, is on the extensive side in the sanctifying work of the Spirit. The whole man is renewed. This begins in regeneration. In regeneration, the whole man is renewed to begin with, and then in the continuation of the work of sanctification, the whole man is renewed. And we may take it, if one wishes to make the distinctions that were spoken of in spirit, soul, and body, of first of all the intellect–and I believe there’s a primacy of the intellect here, in the sense when God converts a sinner to begin with, the first thing is the enlightenment of the mind in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. I don’t deny for a moment that it’s necessary for the will to be renewed by the absolute power of the Holy Spirit. I’m not trying to say that this is just an automatic effect of the work upon the intellect. But the Spirit of God works upon the whole man. At the same time, while the Spirit of God is working on the whole man, renewing the will, cleansing the affections, the brightening up the darkness of the memory, even affecting the body, while all this takes place together, there’s a certain order, and I believe that the spirit, the mind, and the intellect is fundamental in the order in which the Lord is pleased to work, both in the new birth, and also in sanctification. There’s a practical implication of this with regard to sanctification, and that is, that the means by which a Christian is sanctified is by the word of God. The study, the meditation, upon the word of God is fundamental if one is to grow in grace and in holiness. And is not that the effect of our Savior’s prayer in John 17:17, that God would sanctify the disciples by the truth? “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.” And it’s the Scripture that is the great means used by the Spirit of God in accomplishing the work of sanctification.
Now the whole soul has been depraved. We often talk about total depravity, and whatever else may also be involved in it. Certainly one thing which is central in thinking of total depravity is that every aspect of the human being has been corrupted as a consequence of the fall. The intellect has been darkened, the will has been enslaved, the affections have been perverted, the memory has been affected, the conscience has been affected, and the body as the instrument that is used by the soul also has undergone the painful effects of sin. The whole man is depraved. And just as this is the side-effect of sin, so also in the new birth, the old man is renewed. The intellect that has been darkened is now enlightened; the will that has been enslaved is now liberated; the affections are reversed. Things that we previously loved, now we hate, and the things that previously we hated, now we love; the memory has been restored to remembering those things which are good, rather than the way in which we are so prone to remember the things that might better not be before our minds; the body itself is the subject of the work of sanctification. We have that emphasized in the teaching of the apostle Paul in the epistle to the Romans with regard to the inward conflict in the believer in Romans 7:23, “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” And I take it that the members of the body, not simply the members of the mind, are in view here. And so, also, in the sanctifying work of the Spirit, there’s a operation upon the members of the body. In Romans 8:13 we’re told “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” And further, the very practical implication and application is made in I Corinthians 6:15, “Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid.” And again in verse 19, “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?”
Before leaving the subject at this time, we may make at least one application of this truth. And that is this: It is a sad thing to observe that many souls perish in ignorance of the nature of that holiness without which no man shall see the Lord. It’s not only those who are unconcerned about eternity who are devoid of true holiness. That’s obvious enough, is it not? Those who are simply walking in the ways of the world, serving the devil and their own lusts and pleasures, are anything but holy. But it’s not only such who are completely unconcerned and give themselves up to the abominations of the world in lives of wickedness. But there are those who seek to maintain a moral and an upright life, but who still are strangers to true holiness. This is a more serious matter when we have this confusion. It’s a strange thing, yea, it’s even a remarkable thing, that one can even read some of the writings of moralists and have to hide one’s face in shame at the thought that all too many professing Christians don’t come up to these standards of morality and of uprightness that one can find in some of the writings of the heathen. I don’t say that all the heathens who wrote so beautifully about virtue and so on practiced what they wrote so nobly about. But occasionally, it has to be admitted that one finds that those who are complete strangers to the gospel and to true holiness who nevertheless are found to be decent and upright individuals so far as their external moral conduct is concerned. And there are those, I say not whether they are true Christians or not, but there are those who profess to be Christians who come short of what one sometimes sees among those who are simply to be found in the world, though they don’t give themselves over to the gross corruptions that one might find there. There is often that kind of confusion.
There is also a confusion upon professing Christians, who may make a profession of holiness, but who really see nothing more in the holiness that they make a profession of than simply good morality. After all, there’s a failure to understand the moral law on the part of those who suppose that they are excellent Christians, because they are conducting their lives in accordance with the commandments of God. But all too often it’s as it was with the apostle Paul before he was converted. Indeed, he was upright so far as anything external was concerned. If you take the first table or the second table of the law, you’d find him walking in an outward way in conformity with the commandments. But when it comes to the state of the soul, this is another subject. And we know that the apostle Paul had his spiritual eyes opened, to see that the commandment “Thou shalt not covet,” was a commandment that touched the inner man, the inward state or part of the soul, and not simply one’s outward actions. You can’t have a true holiness, you can’t have a true obedience to the commandments of God, when the commandments of God are seen to require perfect love to God with the whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and love to the neighbor as one’s self. One can’t find this in reality without saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The soul must be translated from the kingdom of darkness into a place in the kingdom of God’s dear Son before there can be genuine sanctification, and before there can be any genuine holiness. So that we’re brought back to the great fundamental with regard to union with the Lord Jesus Christ, with regard to the forgiveness of sins, the acceptance as a child of God of which we’ve been speaking. There must be first of all that great work of effectual calling, in which the Spirit of God convinces the sinner of the fact that he or she is a lost sinner and is under the wrath and under the curse of God, and is unable to make the change that must be made. The Lord himself produces that great change in the work of effectual calling or the new birth. And this is the foundation upon which true holiness is possible, upon which the path of the just, as we read in Proverbs, can be said to be like a bright and shining light that shines more and more until the perfect day.
May the Lord be pleased to grant his blessing.