Theology in 3D

The Sanctificational Spiral

Layton Talbert | February 5, 2019
New Testament

How do we approach the outworking of our sanctification as believers? One approach, it is said, looks like this: stop doing wrong, start doing right, and you will desire what’s right. Some suggest that’s the way BJU tends to approach the practice of sanctification, hinting that such an approach lends itself to a kind of legalism that relies on self-effort for sanctification.

The better approach, they say, looks like this: start desiring Christ, start doing right, and you will stop doing wrong. The honest and experienced advocates of this view acknowledge, however, that it can lend itself to legalism’s equally damaging opposite: the negation of personal effort and the misconception that everything is so drenched in grace that God doesn’t really mind our ongoing sin so much. But isn’t it grace that teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and to live soberly, righteously, and godly in our present age (Tit 2:11-13)?

In other words, both approaches can lend themselves to extremes and imbalances. We are prone to extremes and imbalances, thanks to the problem that sanctification is designed to address — indwelling sin due to our native fallenness.

I want to suggest, however, that the very notion of a single “starting point” is fallacious. Part of the problem with structuring the argument as opposing “starting points” is our tendency to so emphasize the “starting point” that we get stuck there and ignore the rest of the process. You have to admit, “stop doing wrong” sounds pretty biblical (Jn 5:14Jn 8:11Rom 6:12-13Eph 4:17Col 3:5-10). On the other hand, “start desiring Christ” sounds way more spiritual … and no less biblical (Col 3:1-4).

My problem is, I can’t just “start desiring Christ” any more or any better than I can just “stop doing wrong.” Both are scriptural, yet neither are within my power because both require a work of grace by the Spirit of God through the Scriptures.

The “starting point” view seems to picture Christian living/sanctification on a spectrum with “personal effort” on one end and “grace” on the other end. Back when I was a student, the emphasis seemed (to me) heavily tilted towards the “doing” end of the spectrum. Listen to the most popular songs today—including the ones most sung at BJ—and the predominant tilt is toward the “grace” end of the spectrum. Granted, the doctrine of our union with Christ needed to be recovered. The problem is the pendulum effect. An exclusive emphasis on my effort, my work, and my performance forgets the reality that I am secure in Christ and because of Christ, and not because of my performance. An exclusive emphasis on my acceptance and security in Christ skews my thinking to the point that any talk of obedience and self-denial sounds suspiciously like legalism. (Don’t misread me; the functional word in both statements is “exclusive.”)

John Owen’s classic on sanctification, The Mortification of Sin, brings some much needed biblical poise to this issue.

First, what mortification is not. “Mortification is not to utterly root out sin and destroy it, that it should have no more hold at all or residence in our hearts.” That’s our desire and it will be our ultimate experience, but not until we are glorified.

Second, what mortification is. (1) “A habitual weakening of the lust” and its power over us. (2) “A constant fight and contention against sin.” (3) “A degree of success in the battle.”

Third, how is this accomplished? “Mortification is accomplished by the Spirit.” After all, the gift of the indwelling Spirit is one of the key distinctive promises of the New Covenant (Ezek. 11:19-2036:26-27).

Fourth, what is the process by which the Spirit accomplishes this mortification? (1) “By causing our hearts to abound in grace and the fruits that are contrary to the works of the flesh…. He causes us to grow, thrive, flourish, and abound in the graces that are contrary and destructive to all the works of the flesh, and therefore contrary to the thriving of indwelling sin.” (2) By the effective destruction of the habitual power of sin. (3) “He brings the cross of Christ into the heart of a sinner by faith, and gives communion with Christ….”

Fifth, what’s my role in all this? Owen talks about both “the work of the Spirit and my responsibility.” “He does not so work in us that it is not still an act of our obedience. The Holy Spirit works in us and upon us … and yet he preserves our own liberty and free obedience….He works in us and with us, not against us or without us.”

Sixth, by what means does this process occur? (1) Scripture (Jn 17:172 Cor 3:17-18), and (2) conscious fellowship with Christ and God (1 Jn 1:1-2:6).

That final passage is a fitting one to end on, because it illustrates my larger point: there is no single “starting point” for sanctification. Read John’s cyclical discussion of sanctification. It is the seamless, interwoven working of the Spirit in us through the Scripture, changing our appetites, teaching us to abandon sin, gracing us to obey God, as we fellowship with Christ and are transformed into his image through the Spirit’s use of the Scripture (cf. 2 Cor 3:18). If that sounds circular, that’s the point. It is.

Each part of the process energizes the others. It takes Spirit-graced effort to seek Christ in the Scriptures; seeing Christ in the Scriptures energizes our desire to obey God; the Spirit-graced desire to obey God compels us to abandon and resist sin; Spirit-graced abandonment of sin drives us to seek Christ in the Scriptures. Grace is the fuel that drives the engine of our sanctification, but the fuel requires an engine nonetheless (1 Cor 15:102 Tim 2:1).

There is no single right starting point. Different NT passages invite — indeed, command — the believer into the cycle at all these points. Step into the cycle wherever you will, and you find yourself in a “sanctificational spiral”* which, if you cooperate in the whole process, carries you closer to Christlikeness.

*I chose this expression as a somewhat whimsical allusion to Grant Osborne’s Hermeneutical Spiral, but my intent is to convey not a downward spiral (like a tailspin) but an upward one (like Elijah’s whirlwind).

One response to “The Sanctificational Spiral”

  1. Janine M says:

    I was just reading the same kind of ‘spiral’ in Bridges’ book Respectable Sins. He calls it ‘dependent responsibility.’ We obey and he says, “at the same time…we are in fact totally dependent upon the enabling power of the Holy Spirit.”

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