Surveying Sanctification: Already Made Holy by God
Within Reformed theology there is an emphasis on the “already, but not yet” aspect of the Christian faith and life. It’s an emphasis, though, that is not merely within Reformed theology but more importantly Scripture. Our Triune Lord has already accomplished all his promises (Gen. 17:5; Ex. 2:23-25; 1Kings 8:56; 2Cor. 1:20; Eph. 1:3-14; Rom. 6:1-15). God chose his people in Christ before the creation of the world to be holy (Eph. 1:4). We are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works that God has prepared beforehand for us to walk or live in (Eph. 2:10). The Christian is God’s work, not his or her own work. Yet, the definitiveness of God’s work means the Christian is enabled to work on the holiness that God has already secured definitively for him or her.
Even prior to Sarah’s pregnancy and the birth of Isaac, the only son of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah, God declared to Abraham that he had already made him “the father of many nations” (Gen. 17:5). None of what Abraham and Sarah would experience as the objects of God’s gracious and merciful blessing was uncertain. God was not depending on them. God’s relationship to them is not accurately expressed as him “wanting them to experience his blessing, if only they would trust in him, and obey him.” No, mercifully and graciously the salvation of God’s covenant people is chiefly about who God is, and therefore what he has done, is doing and will do for, in and through them.
In Romans 4:16-17 Paul clarified that the Christian’s faith in God is the work of God’s grace, and he quotes from Gen. 17:5. Already God had made Abraham the father of many nations, but Abraham had not yet experienced in his being and in history the fullness of this blessing. The whole Christian faith and life is wrapped in this great, glorious and gracious reality of the “already and not yet.”
As creatures, created in God’s image and placed in the time and space realm that God created, we experience God in and through his creation. Among other things, this means there is an historical progression that marks every aspect of the Christian faith and life. Yet, because God created time and space, these are not only part of the creation God rescues from sin, but also the “vehicle” through which he rescues his people from sin. God is not merely distinct from time and space, but acts in them, and we experience him in and through them. Christian salvation has past, present and future aspects to it that are inseparably and organically joined. What God has definitively secured for his people empowers them to live working out their salvation with fear and trembling so that they press on toward the goal for which they have been apprehended by Christ (Phil 2:12-13; 3:14).
This is perhaps why some can draw the wrong conclusions from the bible’s emphasis on the commands given to the Christian. Our duty to obey God’s commands that reveal our love for him (John 14:15) ought not to lead us to the conclusion that God is dependent upon us, or that the true Christian’s salvation is dependent on the Christian’s obedience to God. Nor should it lead us to think that striving for obedience to God is automatically legalism. Instead, those whom God has predestined to be conformed to the image his Son are those whom he has already called, justified and glorified (Rom. 8:30). When Paul wrote those words he had not yet experienced the fullness of glorification, but he, and everyone who ever has, does and will trust in Jesus for salvation had already most definitely been glorified! What a great, glorious and gracious truth!
Speaking of those who trust in Jesus for salvation, Peter wrote that they are holy and for the purpose of proclaiming the excellencies of him who called them out of darkness and brought them into his marvelous light (1Peter 2:9). Such people do not achieve their status of holiness. No, their holiness has been definitively secured for them and given to them. And this is exactly why they are able to exercise it. Just as we did not create our own bodies and yet can exercise them, so too we did not create our own holiness, but we can and should exercise it.
Our holiness, then, is definite and yet a process, but it is the latter, because it is the former. Praise be to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!
David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.