Home > doctrines, S. Lewis Johnson, sanctification > The Bible’s Four Types of Sanctification: Getting our Vocabulary Right

The Bible’s Four Types of Sanctification: Getting our Vocabulary Right


I recently met up with a group of people, and their pastor/teacher, who have a non-standard definition of the overall concept of sanctification – or perhaps a very limited definition.  After hearing for so long, within broader evangelicalism, about the different aspects of sanctification, and particularly about progressive sanctification, the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, I was surprised to read the following (from one in this group):  “If we are in Christ and He is in us, then we have rested – completely ceased from any and all working and striving for justification and for sanctification. There is no more work to be done.”

On the surface, it appeared as what could be advocating perfection, with the use of the term sanctification in the same phrase as justification.  Or at the very least, that the person has the terms and their meanings confused.  In follow-up conversation, that individual cited Hebrews 10:10, which is one of the passages that describe the completed (positional) part of sanctification:  “By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”  It turned out that what most Reformed evangelicals refer to as “progressive sanctification” means, to this group, “mortification,” with no understanding of the multiple tenses or types of sanctification.  Also, their focus is on whether or not sanctification is “a work” to which we contribute versus something all of God (monergistic: their view): an unusual approach to the topic.  Usually (in my experience) the topic of sanctification comes up, not as a question of “a work” or not, but in the general understanding of spiritual growth and an ongoing process, “progressive sanctification,” within which it is understood that God is the one who continues the  work within us.  (Phil. 1:6)

From further research into what I was really looking for, comes the following helpful summary, from S. Lewis Johnson’s “Basic Bible Doctrine” series, message 27:

  • Preparatory sanctification:  the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing us to the cross. (2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2)
  • Positional sanctification: a process or a procedure takes place by which a believer, the moment that he believes, becomes in the sight of God holy.  That is why believers in the New Testament are called saints. (1 Corinthians 1:2)
  • Progressive sanctification:  something that goes on daily constantly in the Christian life.  It may have degrees; The Bible does speak about two degrees: about infants and about adults. (2 Corinthians 7:1)
  • Prospective sanctification:  the complete agreement of our position and our practice, and that will take place at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.  (1 Thess. 5:23-24; Romans 8:29)

This experience also shows how important it is that like-minded Christians understand and use the same vocabulary.  When the majority of Christians speak of sanctification in one way (understanding the concepts of positional versus progressive sanctification), and one group (that really does believe basically the same about this) uses the same words to mean different ideas – the positional sanctification and emphasis on “sanctification” already accomplished and done by the Lord, and calling the common term “progressive sanctification” by some other name – it does hinder communication, so that the terms have to be clearly defined before meaningful discussion can occur.

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  1. September 6, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    Great perspective here Lynda, though I’ve never seen preparatory sanctification used anywhere else. I agree that sanctification can be both completed action and progressive action. One of the main ways we determine that sanctification is definitive or completed is by the use of the perfect tense in Greek, the tense of completed action. In several instances, the Greek perfect is used in reference to sanctification. The progress of the action has reached its culmination and the finished results are now in existence. It can have reference to the past action and the state that results from that action or only to the resulting state. Unlike the English perfect, which indicates a completed past action, Greek perfects indicate the continuation and present state of a completed past action.

    “To open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.” Acts 26:18 [Here, sanctified is completed action].

    “To open,” “to turn,” and “to receive” in the original Greek language of Acts 26:18 are aorist infinitives that describe actions that happens at one point in time; the phrase “among those who are sanctified by faith in Me” describes action that is completed with continuing results because in Greek, sanctified is in the perfect
    tense. Note that Paul doesn’t say among those who are justified by faith in Me. Justified is a one-time event as well. This particular use of sanctification is a completed act as a result of justification, so definitive sanctification in Christ is a for-all-time act that exists because we are justified (see also Acts 20:32).

    To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are
    sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in
    every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both
    theirs and ours. 1 Corinthians 1:2

    Note here that they are called to be saints because they are sanctified (perfect participle) in Christ Jesus. As the sanctification is completed, so is the expectation of “saint-ness.”

    The process of our changing character is called progressive sanctification and comes about by the continuous operation of the Holy Spirit, along with the believer’s resolve and effort, to bring about increasing victory over sin’s influence and increasing holiness and love. This changing in character is the growth within us in holiness that should gradually begin to follow conversion. Because this aspect of sanctification is not static, it is often referred to as our “progressive,” ongoing sanctification, a sanctification that is advancing steadily by increments.

    • September 7, 2012 at 8:13 am

      Thanks for sharing that, Rick. A good insight into the Greek phrases and tenses in some additional verses concerning sanctification.

  2. September 7, 2012 at 11:24 am

    Philippians 1:6(NET) For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.
    I love that this verse saying the work will be completed and that it is God who will see that it happens…the Good Work is IN us…not BY us.

    • September 10, 2012 at 7:45 am

      Yes, a very good verse that tells us that God is the one who started and will finish His work IN us. I often think of the scripture song from that verse: “He who began a good work in you, will be faithful to complete it in you.”

  3. September 8, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    Interesting never saw the fourth category of preparatory sanctification.

    • September 10, 2012 at 7:54 am

      Yes, that one seems a less common category, but I would see it as similar to, same category, as what has also been called (by the Puritan / Calvinist definition) prevenient grace: the grace that comes before human action, aka irresistible grace.

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