Dear Church Family,
Some people believe that while God may sovereignly and graciously save a person, after one is saved, He leaves His children to pursue holiness in their own strength. Others believe that while God may sovereignly and graciously save a person, He is not concerned with how a person lives his or her life as His child. However, the Westminster Shorter Catechism helpfully reminds us that just as justification and adoption are one time acts of God’s free grace (WSC 33 & 34), sanctification is the continuing work of God’s free grace, “whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (WSC 35).
What this helps us to see is that sanctification is the gracious work of God in those who believe. And, it is also an enablement for those who believe, to pursue holiness (die unto sin and live unto righteousness). This is what chapter 13 of the Westminster Confession of Faith is about.
(1) The definition of sanctification and how sanctification works (WCF 13.1)
There are basically three interrelated parts of God’s sanctifying work that lead to the practice of true holiness.
First, the one who is united to Christ by faith is freed from the dominion (or rule) of sin. Just as the Israelites were set free from the bondage and captivity in Egypt to serve the true and living God, the Christian has died to sin; sin and death no longer have dominion (Romans 6:6-14).
Second, the lusts of sin in the believer are increasingly weakened and mortified. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24). Those who live by the Spirit, put to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13).
Third, believers are increasingly made alive and strengthened in all saving graces. They bear the fruit of good works, increase in the knowledge of God, are strengthened with all power, attaining steadfastness and patience (Colossians 1:9-12).
All three of these things are true for every believer and are accomplished through union with Christ and the virtue of His death and resurrection (Romans 6:5-6). Yet, for the one who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, these things may not always be fully felt and experienced. Part of that is because whereas we were once blind to our own sin, now it has become more heinous in our eyes (we may be growing in holiness, but our own sins looks worse to us then they used to).
Another reason why we may not fully feel or experience the effects of God’s gracious work of sanctification is because we fail to avail ourselves of the means that God uses to renew us after the image of God: His Word and Spirit. This is the third time that the confession uses this phrase: (1) Christ governs the hearts of His people by “His Word and Spirit” (WCF 8.8); (2) Christ effectually calls all those predestinated unto live by “His Word and Spirit” (WCF 10.1); (3) Christ sanctifies those effectually called and regenerated by “His Word and Spirit” (WCF 13.1).
If a believer wishes to be governed by Christ (grow in obedience), seek the salvation of others (evangelize), or be sanctified (grow in holiness) – then he must make use of, and avail himself of, the reading and preaching of the Word of God – the means that the Holy Spirit uses to accomplish these purposes (John 17:17; Romans 10:14-17; Ephesians 5:25-27; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-5; 2:13). Again, the Westminster Shorter Catechism helpfully reminds us of this biblical truth: “The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation” (WSC 89).
(2) The continual and irreconcilable war in sanctification (WCF 13.2)
In this life, believers will continue to war against the abiding remnants of their own corrupt nature. In the sanctification of the child of God, there is a continual and irreconcilable war between the flesh and the Spirit (Galatians 5:17; 1 Peter 2:11). Yet, even as we continue to wage war against the desires of our flesh (or our sinful natures), we would do well to remember that because we are in Christ, we are new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17); we have a new identity and citizenship in heaven (Philippians 3:20).
In the Scriptures, we find this understanding of being new creatures, yet still waging war against the remnants of sin, described in several places. Both the Apostles John and Paul speak of sin as being both alien and foreign to the true identity of the believer (one born of God) and, at the same time, indwelling the believer. Whereas before we were regenerated sin was our master and part of our identity, for those who are born again and united to Christ sin is to be thought of as an indwelling enemy interloper (1 John 1:10; 3:7-9; Romans 7:14-21).
(3) Perfecting holiness in the fear of God (WCF 13.3)
In the continual and irreconcilable war between the Spirit and the flesh, sin may sometimes get the upper hand in the life of the Christian. Though sin may no longer be our master, it still has the power to temporarily imprison us (Romans 7:22-23). But, because of the sanctifying power of the Spirit of Christ in us, the regenerate part in the believer will overcome (2 Corinthians 3:18). We look with hope and anticipation for Christ’s return when He will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory (Philippians 3:21).
And, even in this life, we may cling to the promise of God that He who began a good work in us will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6). God promises to continue to grow His saints in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. Even as we know that victory in overcoming the world is ours because of our faith in Jesus Christ (1 John 5:4), we are encouraged all the more to cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, seeking after holiness in the fear of God (2 Corinthians 7:1).
Conclusion & Application
As I’ve thought about this chapter and its lessons on sanctification, I have become convinced that there are two keys to growing in sanctification and holiness for the Christian. First, this chapter begins with the reminder that those whom God has effectually called and regenerated are further sanctified really and personally through means: by God’s Word and Spirit. Second, the chapter concludes with the statement that “the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”
This is a helpful reminder for all those who wish to pursue holiness, and has been confirmed by my own experience and the experience of other believers with whom I have counseled. In the continual and irreconcilable war against sin in his life, it is essential for the Christian to always remember and keep in mind the fear of God, while simultaneously seeking to come under the authority of the reading and preaching of God’s Word. It’s not a twelve-step program or recipe, simply the God-ordained and biblical means to growth in grace.
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch