What “Progress”?

In the Reformed theological tradition we believe that God not only justifies us (declares us guiltless and righteous); he also sanctifies us (literally “makes us holy” – makes us actually better people than we have been – transforms us).

There is a little bit of debate on whether sanctification is “definitive” or “progressive”. The term “definitive sanctification” was coined, I think, by John Murray of Westminster Seminary in the mid-20th century, so it is pretty recent. But by this term Murray focuses on the way Scripture often uses the terminology of holiness: “but you were sanctified“, etc. Holiness is not something we only gradually attain; it is something God has given us once and for all, through Christ. And Murray is right.

On the other hand, Reformed students of Scripture have long talked about sanctification as a process – “progressive sanctification”, by which God changes us gradually, so that we die to our fleshly desires and sins, and are made alive to the presence of Christ’s Spirit in us. This is the clear teaching of the Westminster Confession, the most important Reformed confession of faith in English:

I. They who are effectually called and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened, in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.

II. This sanctification is throughout in the whole man, yet imperfect in this life: there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part, whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.

III. In which war, although the remaining corruption for a time may much prevail, yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regerate part doth overcome: and so the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

I love the way the Confession talks about Sanctification. But I don’t love the phrase, “Progressive Sanctification.” I do believe that we can gain true victory over specific sin patterns. Sometimes this happens quickly, sometimes after a long, hard slog.

But perhaps the most flashy sins – the ones others see and shudder at – are not always the deepest and deadliest sins. A man may lay aside sexual sin or drugs but become deeply embroiled in pride. Has he progressed?

A second issue is that of “backsliding” or “regress”. I feel myself to be in a period of spiritual neglect or decline, and repent and take stock: perhaps I have been giving my anger its head, or feeling sorry for myself, or lying to others, or spending my money stupidly. These were a problem two years ago; I made some “progress” but have now “backslidden”. Am I truly “back where I was” two years ago? Am I better off? Worse? Can anyone but the Omniscient answer these questions? I can’t, and I’m damn sure you can’t.

The concept of “progress” in sanctification is helpful in the sense that it gives hope for the defeat of sin, but it is not necessarily very biblical and it has enough of a modern scent that we should be cautious if not downright suspicious.

While the Bible certainly talks about journeys and pilgrimages, it spends more time talking about dwelling, feasting, and looking. Moses enters the tabernacle of meeting to speak with Yahweh: he emerges with his face shining. The sparrows that nest in the eves of the Temple are luckier than us pilgrims. Travelers can make “the valley of tears” into a spring precisely because they are heading to “the shouts, the songs, the crowds, the feast!” Settle in the land, dwell in it continually. Seedtime and harvest, summer and winter.

Perhaps it would be better to think about sanctification as a series of pilgrimages, a perennial taking stock and realizing that we’re still in Ur and not in Canaan. I need, need to sit again at the feet of the Master. Better, I need to see again his cross and his empty tomb.

There is a little bit of a broader principle at work in this talk of “progress” as well. Progress suggests a long but basically straightforward path: to triumph, to knowledge, to power, to salvation. This is patently false and naive. In response, we could listen to postmodernity’s counsel of despair, and believe that knowledge and action are alike circular: I am doomed to know and do what I have always known and done. Or we can exercise patience. As there is a “hermeneutical spiral”, by which we slowly, by encountering and re-encountering the object of our study, come to set aside our biases and come to know it, so there is a “sanctificational spiral”, by which we encounter again and again the beautiful Cross, and each time, we come away changed. The change will be deeper, probably, than conscious thought or habit, but it will be irreversible.

I think T. S. Eliot got this. From “Little Gidding”:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Or, from “The Journey of the Magi”, after the Magi have found the place beneath the star:

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

My sanctification is not a matter of journeying ever onward, stumbling back along the track, forward again, and so on. It is a matter of having seen the place, perhaps from afar, and returning again and again. My gracious Lord does not leave me in the desert always. He gives me living Water and Bread to drink, Light to see by, and Rest.