Loosely defined, sanctification is the work of both God and a believer toward becoming more Christ-like. The variations within evangelical theology and its view of sanctification vary greatly.
As a system of theology, dispensationalism views sanctification in similar ways to many other evangelical theologies with the exception of three distinctions. Those three distinctions are
- The security of a believer.
- The work of the Spirit.
- The unique role of progressive sanctification.
This blog post will define sanctification broadly from both a mainline and dispensational viewpoint and discuss at length the three distinctions of the dispensational view of sanctification.
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According to the Tyndale Bible Dictionary, sanctification is “being made holy, or purified” by A.H. Strong as the “continuous operation of the Holy Spirit, by which the holy disposition imparted in regeneration is maintained and strengthened.” Lewis Sperry Chafer’s Systematic Theology tells us that word sanctify comes from similar Hebrew and Greek words that mean “a person or thing is thereby said to be set apart, or classified, usually as pertaining unto God.” Encompassing all of these definitions is that “Sanctification refers to growth in spiritual maturity, founded upon the enablement provided to all believers by the Holy Spirit and energized by the filling of the Spirit.” 1
With the definition of sanctification provided it is important to examine dispensationalism and how it might provide a different view of what sanctification is and how it occurs in the life of a believer.
Three Distinctions in the Dispensational View of Sanctification
1) Security under Christ
The first distinction of the dispensational view of sanctification is a believer’s security under Christ.
Dispensationalists focus on progressive sanctification: the experimental act of the believer by yielding to the work of the Holy Spirit after justification. This is because justification and security of going to heaven is not based on “how sanctified you are.” Instead, the focus is placed on the trustworthiness of God’s own testimony in His word. 2 In other words, believers are “eternally secure from the moment of regeneration” 3 through their faith and baptism in Christ. Therefore, their assurance is not based on their worthiness or honor nor is it based on their “progress” in progressive sanctification. Their assurance is based on their belief and faith in Christ.
While some people might see justification and sanctification as one event, the dispensational view of sanctification sees them as two distinct events. Lewis Sperry Chafer, a dispensational theologian and founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, provides two basises for this view. The first was that he saw a sharp distinction between justification and sanctification. 4 Including in this distinction between justification and sanctification was the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit had different ways of working in the believer between the “drawing near to Christ” that the Spirit uses to bring a believer close to God (justification).
While the work of the Spirit was much different in the life of a believer as part of sanctification. The second was that Chafer saw a time interval between conversion and the beginning of progressive sanctification because progressive sanctification was primarily based on a believer’s yeildedness. 5 This meant that a person was not necessarily being sanctified as soon as he or she was converted to Christianity. This was because according to Lewis Sperry Chafer in He That is Spiritual, progressive sanctification in the life of a believer is based on the knowledge of truth, devotion, and experience. These elements are something that do not happen at the moment of conversion but instead occur during a time interval sometime after justification.
Further support for the security of a believer in sanctification is provided by the Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) dispensational doctrine of sanctification. DTS believes that sanctification is “already complete for every saved person because his position toward God is the same as Christ’s position.” The position being referred to is a position of security of salvation under Christ. Salvation is secure because the work of salvation has already been done. Because the faith of the believer has already been confessed in Christ and that believer has already been baptized by the Holy Spirit.
The idea that a Christian will never fall into sin is a false one. It is important to remember that all Christians have a sinful nature and that sin and wrongdoings will occur in the life of a believer. Because of this, dispensationalists argue that “sinless perfection is attained only in the glorified state of heaven and not in the present life.” 6 Because of this, the dispensational perspective recognizes the fact that Christians will fall into sin, but the dispensational perspective does not see sin as reversing a believer’s salvation. Neither does sin cause a believer to lose the Holy Spirit. Yet, that sin of the believer must be corrected. 7
This view that sin does not reverse a believer’s salvation is contrary to other evangelical views of sanctification. One of those views is the “holiness” view of sanctification. The holiness view of sanctification includes the Wesleyan, Oberline, Pentecostal, and Reformed views of sanctification that say you might lose your salvation if you participate in severe sin. 8 In the holiness view the believer’s active role in sanctification is heightened and emphasized.
The question that one would raise from a dispensational view is this: If a believer plays a role in sanctification, what happens if he or she fails? If a believer plays a role in his own sanctification and he fails, is he still saved?
An assurance that believers have under the dispensational view of sanctification is that sin does not reverse a believer’s salvation. This is because of the “sealing” work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer at conversion. Chafer explains the ministry of the Holy Spirit in sealing as it “represents the Godward aspect of the relationships, — authority, responsibility, and a final transaction. It is ‘unto the day of redemption.’ The Spirit Himself is the seal, and all who have the Spirit are sealed. His presence in the heart is the divine mark.” A believer might try his best to live a holy life yet still sin, or have taken a “day off” from living as a Christian.
In the dispensational view of sanctification, justification and security under Christ is permanent. In effect, one may say that the dispensational perspective holds that the position of a Christian is saved forever and that he is going to heaven. Therefore, the Christian needs to allow the spirit of God to work in him. A key distinction in the dispensational view of sanctification is that salvation is divinely secured at justification. Therefore the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer should also be examined from the dispensational perspective.
2) The Work of the Holy Spirit
The second distinction of the dispensational perspective on sanctification is the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit.
John Walvoord, a dispensationalist and former president of Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote an article titled, “The Augustinian-Dispensational Perspective of Sanctification” where he states, “Though all Christians are regenerated by the Spirit, baptized by the Spirit, indwelt by the Sprit, and sealed by the Spirit, not all Christians are filled with the Spirit.” 9 The filling of the Spirit and Its active work in the believer is an important work within the dispensational perspective. Dispensationalists argue that this work of the Spirit inside a believer is distinct from the work of the Spirit before salvation (which is often called the “conviction” of the spirit that draws non-believers to God). This work of the Spirit is also distinct from the work of the Spirit at the moment of salvation (i.e., baptism by the Holy Spirit, resurrection with Jesus, etc.). This work of the Spirit in the life of a believer is the cornerstone and main focus of the dispensational perspective of sanctification in the life of a believer.
But, what is the work of the Spirit in the life of a believer? The work of the Spirit in the life of a believer is the “work of God that occurs repeatedly in the life of believers, and as such it is obviously the source of sanctification as well as all spiritual fruitfulness.” 10 This is the cornerstone for not just the work of the Spirit in the life of a believer for sanctification, but it is the main part of dispensational theology. This is important for the dispensational view of sanctification because the filling of the Spirit is the unhindered ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer. The Holy Spirit infuses into the believer and provides spiritual power to do more than what he might have done without the help of the Holy Spirit. 11
In the dispensational view, the only necessity in sanctification is a “yieldedness” to the Holy Spirit. Thus sanctification according to Randall Gleason in his article, “B.B. Warfield and Lewis S. Chafer on Sanctification,” is “dependent on the believer’s initiative in meeting the condition of yieldedness.” 12 And that condition of yieldedness is justification and allowing the Holy Spirit to do work in the life of the believer. Further clarifying the work of the Holy Spirit and the believer’s responsibility is Chafer who believed sanctification was contingent on a believer’s willingness to “yield” to God. 13 That yielding is a submission to the work of the Spirit in the life of a believer.
When considering that dispensational theology sees seven distinct “dispensations” in how God deals with and relates Himself to man, it is important to characterize how this work of the Spirit fits into dispensational theology. Based on the dispensational perspective of Chafer, Walvoord, and Ryrie, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit was a new ministry of the “dispensation of grace.” 14
The dispensational perspective would view indwelling, baptism of the Holy Spirit, sealing, and union with Christ being an instantaneous event occurring in the New Testament as a new dispensation. Therefore, this was not a practice in the Old Testament, 15 but it is something that believers now experience under the dispensation of grace.
3) Progressive Sanctification
The third distinction in the dispensational view of sanctifications is what Chafer calls progressive sanctification. Virtually all Christians agree that sanctification is an activity that occurs in some form after conversion (justification). However, the types of sanctification and the role of God and human are often debated.
The dispensational view of sanctification sees the topic of sanctification broken up into three separate categories which also occur in order in the life of a believer:
- Positional Sanctification: This is the position in Christ, perhaps best clarified by Paul when he refers to all believers as “saints” and a “holy nation, priesthood, etc.”
- Experimental Sanctification: This is the “progressive” act of God for the believer. It is the “progress” a believer makes to become more like Christ by the Spirit of God.
- Ultimate Sanctification: This is the perfection believers will experience when they are brought into the presennce of glory at the end times. (See Lewis Sperry Chafer’s book, He That is Spiritual, for more information on these three positions of sanctification.)
This paper will focus on the role of “Progressive Sanctification” as that is the primary way that believers are sanctified here on earth after positional sanctification and before ultimate sanctification.
Progressive sanctification is characterized by the filling of the Spirit. The filling of the Spirit is essential to the progressive sanctification that occurs in the life of a believer. However, it is important to distinguish the difference between the filling of the Spirit defined in dispensational theology verses how it is more commonly used in evangelical theology.
- Filling is different than indwelling because indwelling is something permanent while filling is recurring and experimental.
- Filling is different than sealing because sealing is a one-time event occurring at the moment of faith while filling is a recurring event.
- Filling is different than Baptism because Baptism is a one-time event that results in identification with the church while filling is a recurring event that results in community of church and union with Christ.
- Filling is different than maturity because maturity is obedience to God over time while filling is yielding to the Spirit’s work in the life of a believer. 16
Progressive sanctification only occurs because of the indwelling of the Spirit. By the power of the Spirit the new nature a believer has enables him to produce the fruit of the Spirit. 17 The new nature that occurs because of the power of the Spirit is explained by the Apostle Paul that:
We died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the father, now we also may live new lives. . . We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set from the power of sin. And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him. . . . So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus. . . For you were dead, but now you have new life (Romans 6:4, 6-8, 13).
That is the new nature believers have in Christ: no longer being under the requirements of the law (an old dispensation), but instead having new life because of Christ Jesus (a new dispensation, the dispensation of grace).
How does this happen in the light of the sinful nature which all believers have?
This is certainly not possible on a normal scale because each human once was controlled by sin and was a slave to sin (as seen in the Romans passage). This is possible because the “human body is His instrument for manifesting these evidences of God’s grace.” 18 Warfield and Chafer agree that “sanctification involves both the sovereign grace of the Holy Spirit and the willing response of the individual believer and that the experience of sanctification is progressive.” 19
Therefore sanctification is an act of God through the life of a believer as long as the believer has “yielded” to the Holy Spirit to allow Him to do that work. It takes both the work of God and the willingness of the believer for sanctification to occur.
With the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the yielding of the believer, progressive sanctification can occur. Chafer believed that sanctification occurred “little by little as the believer’s new nature counteracted the old.” 20Even though the old sinful nature can never be completely abolished, a believer’s yielding to the work of the Holy Spirit in his life allowed the new nature to slowly and progressively defeat the old sinful nature.
The Dallas Theological Seminary Doctrinal Statement also sheds light on the progressive sanctification and its distinctives within dispensational theology. In dispensational theology there is a “progressive sanctification where the Christian is to ‘grow in grace,’ and to ‘be changed’ by the unhindered power of the Spirit.” 21 It is important to note that in light of the security under Christ, progressive sanctification, and being perfectly sanctified when Jesus returns, the sin nature always remains. (This is in direct contradiction to teachings of “holiness” such as Wesleyianism which believes that “Entire Sanctification” and “Christian Perfection” are possible which result in the eradication of sin and sin’s nature in the life of a believer.) It cannot “be eradicated in this life.” 22 The sin nature is part of every person regardless of how much or how well a person allows the Holy Spirit to sanctify him. 23
It is important to note that the distinction between the believer’s “old self” and “new self” correspond to the teachings of both Lewis Sperry Chafer as well as C. I. Scofield. Many believe Scofield influenced Chafer’s position on sanctification.
Concluding Thoughts on the Distinctions of Sanctification in Dispensationalism
This blog post claims that there are three distinctions in the dispensational view of sanctification. After a broad evangelical definition of sanctification and a brief biblical basis for dispensational theology, those three distinctions were shared. Those three distinctions are
- A believer’s security under Christ.
- The work of the Holy Spirit.
- Progressive sanctification.
As a result, believers can rest assured that their salvation is secure under Christ, that the Holy Spirit will work in their life, and that over time they will become progressively more and more like Christ. These are biblical and comforting assurances that each believer can have based on the dispensational view of sanctification.
Question: What other distinctions do you believe there are in the dispensational view of sanctification?
- Nathan Holsteen, “The Reformed View of Sanctification,” unpublished class notes for ST105 (Dallas Theological Seminary, Fall Semester, 2013), 18. ↩
- Nathan Holsteen, “A Dispensational View of Sanctification,” Dallas Theological Seminary, Fall, 2013, p. 24. ↩
- Randall Gleason, “B. B. Warfield and Lewis S. Chafer on Sanctification,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40, no. 2 (June 1997): 241. ↩
- Gleason, “B. B. Warfield and Lewis S. Chafer on Sanctification,” 250-251 ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Randall Gleason, “Warfield and Chafer on Sanctification,” 241. ↩
- John Walvoord, “The Augustinian-Dispensational Perspective,” in Five Views on Sanctification, ed. by Zondervan (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 219. ↩
- Nathan Holsteen, “The Holiness View of Sanctification,” Dallas Theological Seminary, Fall, 2013, 5-22. ↩
- John Walvoord, “The Augustinian-Dispensational Perspective,” 215. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Randall Gleason, “Warfield and Chafer on Sanctification,” 251. ↩
- Ibid., 255 ↩
- Mark Snoeberger, “Second-Blessing Models of Sanctification and Early Dallas Dispensationalism,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 15, vol. 1 (Spring, 2004): 94. ↩
- Ibid., 101 ↩
- Nathan Holsteen, “A Dispensational View of Sanctification,” Dallas Theological Seminary, Fall, 2013, 23. ↩
- John Walvoord, “The Augustinian-Dispensational Perspective,” 220 ↩
- John Walvoord, “The Augustinian-Dispensational Perspective,” 221. ↩
- Randall Gleason, “Warfield and Chafer on Sanctification,” 241. ↩
- Ibid., 255 ↩
- Nathan Holsteen, “The Reformed View of Sanctification,” 18. ↩
- Nathan Holsteen, “The Reformed View of Sanctification,” 18. ↩
- Randall Gleason, “Warfield and Chafer on Sanctification,” 245. ↩