Synergistic Sanctification

Written by M. Ashley Evans

October 3, 2019



To sanctify means to set apart for holy use. We are sanctified positionally at the moment of salvation, which is our justification. At that moment we are seen as holy, as saints. Completely accepted in the Beloved. This position never changes. We also are progressively being sanctified as we grow in Christlikeness. And finally, we will be perfectly sanctified when we are glorified in heaven. Our sanctification is not just something that we will one day attain, but it is our state of being that God has called us into.


The Westminster Shorter Catechism says that sanctification is “the 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.” God is continuously changing us and transforming us into the image of His Son.




Synergistic Sanctification: God’s Grace and Moral Effort


“Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” James 2:17

“For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” James 2:26


Sanctification is synergistic, but we have to have the correct understanding of this synergism or else we muddle grace. On one hand, it is only by the grace and mercy of God that He bestows on us the ability to grow in holiness. It is through the leading of the Holy Spirit that we are convicted of our sins and can repent of them and pursue obedience.


On the other hand, we have a responsibility to live in obedience. Our position in Christ is what propels and encourages our obedience. Because we are now holy, we should follow Christ. Because we are now holy, we should flee from sin. Because we are now holy, we should learn to take our thoughts captive. Because we are not holy, we should seek to live in a way that reflects that. We are called to be holy. We are commanded to obey. And God provides the means to enable us to obey.


“Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge.” 2 Peter 1:5


John Calvin, when commentating on 2 Peter 1:5 said, “As it is an arduous work and of immense labor, to put off the corruption which is in us, he bids us to strive and make every effort for this purpose. He intimates that no place is to be given in this case to sloth, and that we ought to obey God calling us, not slowly or carelessly, but that there is need of alacrity; as though he had said, ‘Put forth every effort, and make your exertions manifest to all.’”


“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23



Growing in Godliness is Hard Work


“But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” Romans 6:17-18


If we say we are saved, if we call our selves a Christian, our lives will reflect that. If we have no conviction over our sins and no desire to live for Him, then we need to carefully examine whether or not we are saved. The church is filled with false converts who said a prayer but were never convicted of their sins. A believer will frequently feel in conflict. His flesh will yearn for sin and his heart will yearn for the things of Christ. This conflict is evidence of a renewed heart and a life that is continuously growing in sanctification. This inner conflict is war. The flesh is at war with the spirit.


“Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.” Colossians 3:5


Progressive sanctification is the fruit of salvation.  It is a natural consequence of receiving a new heart with new desires that occur at the moment of salvation. When we are regenerated that is our new birth, and progressive sanctification is growth. God has planted in our new heart a seed for godly desires, and as it grows, as we progress in our spiritual growth, as we mature in our walk, we love the things of God more.


The process of being transformed into the image of Christ, our progressive sanctification, should not be gauged based on our fleeting emotions or on how well or not we struggle with the spiritual warfare. We still live in the flesh; our bodies are subject to the fall. We can feel like we are doing pretty well one minute and the next, be in the depths of despair. Our feelings do not fuel our journey in becoming more Christlike.


Within the process of sanctification, we are progressively being freed from our sinful habits. Our love for Christ and the things of God grows more and more. We increase in virtue and love for others. This doesn’t mean that at the moment of salvation we are completely and totally free from any temptation to sin, or that we won’t ever struggle with sin. But there is a change in us – a new heart with new affections. We will see our sins differently; we will see them and hate that we ever loved them.



A Correct Synergism



Turretin said, “The question does not concern the second stage of conversion in which it is certain that man is not merely passive but cooperates with God (or rather operates under him). Indeed, he actually believes and converts himself to God; moves himself to the exercise of new life. Rather the question concerns the first moment when he is converted and receives new life in regeneration. We contend that he is merely passive in this, as a receiving subject and not as an active principle.”


God sanctifies us through a synergistic effort. It isn’t totally reliant upon our efforts to do all the work, but we can’t sit back and do absolutely nothing either. Our effort, or our “good works”, is totally dependent upon God enabling us. He provides the strength for us to do the work He has called us to. We are strengthened by living in obedience and by abiding in Christ. Synergism, in this sense, does not mean that we do our part and God does His. Nor does Turretin imply that man is completely apathetic in his receiving of Gods enabling grace. God supernaturally brings about our progressive sanctification by He Himself sanctifying us and at the same time, He bestows grace which enables us to live victoriously. Our sanctification is a work of God and God empowering us to sanctify ourselves.


“I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he considered me faithful, putting me into service,” 1 Timothy 1:12


Charles Hodge explains this unique variety of synergism well: “When Christ opened the eyes of the blind no second cause interposed between his volition and the effect. But men work out their own salvation, while it is God who worketh in them to will and to do, according to his own good pleasure. In the work of regeneration, the soul is passive. It cannot cooperate in the communication of spiritual life. But in conversion, repentance, faith, and growth in grace, all its powers are called into exercise. As, however, the effects produced transcend the efficiency of our fallen nature, and are due to the agency of the Spirit, sanctification does not cease to be supernatural, or a work of grace, because the soul is active and cooperating in the process.”


“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

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