I wrote a lot here and elsewhere on the doctrine of sanctification, particularly in a Reformed key, at the beginning of the year. I don’t want to rehash old points, but it’s something I’ve thought about a lot over the past week or so. In fact, it’s a bit of a constant topic of thought for me, for what in my estimation is the biblical evidence that man is justified once and for all apart from works and yet still must be sanctified yields what can at times seem like a sort of perplexing relationship between the doctrines of justification and sanctification, especially if the Reformers are right in saying that God does not justify anyone whom He does not also sanctify (and I think they are).
Obviously, it’s really easy given the conversation to find ourselves asking the Augustinian-Lutheran questions, “How good is good enough? How sanctified is sanctified enough?” It’s in answering this question, and many others by way of this one, that thinking about sanctification through broadly Reformed lenses is really helpful (I should note here that I’m not sure the Reformed are the only, nor probably even the first to cast justification and sanctification in this light. However, I share a tradition with them, so I’m simply most familiar with their work).
Perhaps somewhat primarily, it’s helpful to think of sanctification in covenantal terms, or in terms of the believer’s union with Christ (@Reformed folks). John Owen, who, granted, was less Reformed than the average bear by his own admission, says this: "Our communion, then, with God consisteth in his communication of himself unto us, with our returnal unto him of that which he requireth and accepteth, flowing from that union which in Jesus Christ we have with him.” This union and communion with the Triune God is, for Owen, the basis for the whole of our sanctification. It is in the context of this union that God Himself communicates His benefits to us, of which sanctification is one.
Now, casting sanctification here into something of a systematic-theological perspective is fine and great. But practically, we would be right to ask what exactly this looks like in practice. This, then, is where GC Berkouwer comes in. For Berkouwer, sanctification is best thought of as being in "constant ‘commerce’ with the forgiveness of sins,” for man’s "continued dependence on it must—both in pastoral counselling and in dogmatic analysis—be laid bare, emphasized, and kept in sight.” And, of course, this comes only as a result of our union with Christ which Owen so eloquently enumerated earlier. Berkouwer goes on to elaborate: "To the man who understands that a progressive sanctification must keep the windows of faith opened to the grace of God, the surprising multiformity of the Word of God will be intelligible. For one moment we are directed to follow after holiness and another to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. This multiformity preserves us both from passivity and from nomism. Any ‘striving,’ in this connection, receives its content from the fact of grace…The progress that is here meant is like the fruitbearing of branches in the vine. The branch, if broken from the vine, cannot bear fruit.”
What’s so helpful about Berkouwer’s statement is that it does justice to the biblical imperative to grow in grace. Yet, it seats this effort in nothing other than the grace of God. Of course, many formulations of the relationship between justification and sanctification with regard to the whole of redemption do the same thing. They just don’t always do it as clearly. Indeed, for Berkouwer (and Owen, too), the emphasis is much less on the end result of the sanctification of the believer, and much more on the process which the Holy Spirit works in the believer. Thus, our guiding questions above ultimately seem to miss the point.
I should add, as a general postscript, that these are incomplete thoughts formulated over the course of a week. By no means is this the definitive statement even of my own thoughts on the matter. It was just helpful to try to put them on paper (or on pixels).