"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, which 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
This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding 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.
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 regenerate part doth overcome; and so, the saints grown in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God," (Westminster Confession of Faith, 13).
Thus we have a classic expression of progressive sanctification. Let us add some comments from A. A. Hodge:
"that the whole body of death is not immediately destroyed in the instant of regeneration is plainly taught in the sixth and seventh chapters of Romans, in the recorded experience of many Biblical characters, and in the universal experience of Christians in modern times," The Confession of Faith (Banner of Truth, 1983), 197.
Notice, in this quote, the appeal to experience. I suppose someone might object that the argument from experience has no place in Protestant theology, where sola Scriptura is our rule of faith.
In Hodge’s defense, however, it may be said that sanctification is, in the nature of the case, a division of practical theology, that different versions of sanctification have predictive consequences, so that experience is one way of testing their truth or falsity. Exegetical objections aside, one reason many of us can’t take perfectionism very seriously is the persistent failure of the perfectionist to live up to his creed!
In addition, Hodge is assuming a continuity of experience between Biblical saints and modern-day saints. And, as a general proposition, this is true, although some uncertainty attaches in individual cases. But God saves the elect the same way under all covenants.
It isn’t clear from his wording whether Hodge includes or excludes Rom 6-7 from the argument from experience. Perhaps he regards them as didactic rather than biographical. Yet these chapters are descriptive of experience, on at least a generic level. Whether Rom 7 is more autobiographical is a well-worn issue. In my opinion, the most consistent explanation of Rom 7 is that Paul is impersonating the experience of a Gentile convert.
Hodge reiterates the appeal to experience: "the biographies and recorded testimonies of all the Scripture saints make it impossible to attribute sinless perfection to any one them," ibid., 200.
Of course, he’s not merely invoking raw experience, but canonical experience, where we can speak with some degree of confidence about the subject’s state of grace. Indeed, one function of Scripture is to furnish us with hortatory and cautionary examples of the faithful and the faithless (e.g. Ps 95:7-11; 1 Cor 10:11; Heb 11).
So far, I agree with everything he says. Now let’s move to his conclusion:
"From a constant supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the gracious element in the believer’s nature, upon the whole, prevails, and he gradually advances in holiness until he is rendered perfect at death. This precious truth follows necessarily from the fact, already shown, that sanctification is a work of God’s free grace in execution of his eternal purposes of salvation," ibid., 200.
Unfortunately, I don’t see how all this follows of necessity from what was already shown. In particular, I don’t see how the progressive element is essentially implicated in this scheme.
In principle, predestination and providence would be consistent with perfectionism or a second blessing scheme. I don’t believe that either of these is Scriptural, but that is for reasons more specific than a general doctrine of predestination and providence. Had he so willed, God could foreordain and effect immediate sanctification, in a manner parallel to immediate regeneration.
In addition, it is striking that Hodge suddenly abandons the argument from experience, and instead resorts to a more abstract principle. But if the argument from experience is a sound standard by which to judge perfectionism, then is it not also a fair judge of progressive sanctification?
And that raises a rather obvious question which, for some reason, Hodge never ventures to ask. Does universal or even general experience, from Bible and church history, confirm the claim that Christians get better as they get older?
I’m not denying that this ever occurs or occurs with some frequency. I don’t have the stats on that. I’m sure that many believers do improve with age. Of course, that’s true of some unbelievers as well. The mellowing effect of age, although not unexceptional, is a commonplace of human experience. We cannot sin as energetically as in our youth! Then again, we also see the opposite happen with some believers. They become hard and bitter and brittle—like Naomi.
There is a lot in Scripture about a believer’s struggle with sin. But I don’t see his life necessarily charting an upward curve. Jacob gets better, but David gets worse, while Abraham and St. Paul seem much the same from beginning to end. Does Baxter’s Directory or the writings of Richard Sibbes suggest that, at a certain point, Christians make it over the hump and level off at a spiritual plateau—from whence they can now coast with gravitational grace pulling them across the finish line? Or is it always an uphill climb?
Indeed, as the Confession also notes, the life of holiness appears to be more polemical than progressive, a constant battle, with ground gained and ground lost—like trench warfare. That is, indeed, a common figure for the spiritual life (Rom 7:13-25; 1 Cor 9:26-27; Gal 5:17; Eph 6:11-13).
One difficulty is that the biographical materials supplied us in Scripture are rather limited. There are only a handful of individuals whose adult life-span receives a fair amount of attention. And, even then, Scripture doesn’t generally read like a psychological novel. We get some of that in the Psalms. Yet even they afford a close-up rather than a long-shot. But that being so, it’s hard to generalize one way or the other.
As to church history, it is axiomatic to observe that those who lay the greatest claims to their advanced state of sanctity are the most spiritually deficient and deluded of all. Of course, fear of spiritual pride can foster false modesty. And maybe the seasoned saint is more and more aware of less and less. But if there’s any appreciable trend, spiritual maturity goes hand in hand with an acute sense of sin. The most holy are the most mindful of their unholiness.
There is, though, another line of evidence which Hodge does not exploit, which are the passages that speak of believers growing in grace and faith (Eph 3:12-16; Col 1:10; 1 Pet 2:2; 2 Pet 3:18). On a related note are passages describing a process of spiritual renewal (Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 3:18; Eph 4:22-24).
Regarding the latter, it isn’t clear, in 2 Cor 3:18, whether the transformation has reference to ascending degrees of glory or the origin and outcome of the process, as believers are glorified by their participation in the glory of God.
And on either view, there is the further question of whether the transformation takes the form of a continuous process or distinct phases. On the latter view, the new creation (2 Cor 5:17) would mark the first phase, and the eschaton the final phase (1 Cor 15:49).
Another question is how we coordinate various metaphors, viz., athletic competition, spiritual warfare, biological growth, reflected glory, a new suit of clothes. Strictly speaking, different metaphors are incommensurable because each belongs to a different universe of discourse. Mixing your metaphors is a literary flaw because it triggers a jarring clash of images.
In order to draw a comparison, you must ask what the picture-language is literally intended to depict. And this runs the risk of circularity, for we tend to use the illustration to define and describe the process.
Metaphors come with cultural baggage. In an agrarian economy, figures of botanical growth focus on seedtime and harvest (e.g., Jn 4:35-37; 12:24; 15:1-6; Rom 8:23; 1 Cor 15:20,36-37,42-44); in a patriarchal society, figures of biological growth focus on the passage from boyhood to manhood (1 Cor 13:11; Gal 4:1-6). The emphasis is not on the continuum, but the contrast between sowing and reaping, minority and majority status. Even when the process is broken down, it is segmented into key developmental junctures, with a view to the crop yield (Mk 4:28), rather than in one undifferentiated flow.
One must guard against pressing the incidental details of a metaphor. But one must also avoid the assumption that we know what a metaphor means without examining the cultural context.
John Frame has drawn attention to another line of evidence:
"let us remember the biblical emphasis on respect for our elders, as in 1 Tim 5:1f. The wisdom literature (e.g., Proverbs) presents the scenario of an older man or women instructing a younger one, with the assumption that the elder's experience is cautionary. It is also exemplary; consider the qualifications of elders in the Pastoral Epistles. This seems to assume that those who have lived with God ver a period of years often achieve a level of spiritual growth that others should emulate. This doesn't always happen, but it happens often enough that the young are expected to show a respect for the elderly beyond the mutual respect required of all believers for each other. That's obviously true when one is an adult and the other a child; hence the fifth commandment. But I think it runs all through life. That's why we sense a special kind of tragedy when an older saint, like Solomon, goes far off-base" (Private correspondence [10/6/03]).
This is, in some measure, a normal and natural difference between youth and age. As Dr. Johnson once put it:
"The old man trusts wholly to slow contrivance and gradual progression—the youth expects to force his way by genius, vigor, and precipitance…the old man deifies prudence—the youth commits himself to magnanimity and chance. The young man, who intends no ill, believes that none is intended, and therefore acts with openness and candor; but his father, having suffered the injuries of fraud, is impelled to suspect…Age looks with anger on the temerity of youth, and youth with contempt on the scrupulosity of age," Samuel Johnson (Rinehart, 1971).
Although this is generally true of unbelievers as well as believers, there is a degree to which Scriptural wisdom and spiritual maturity are forms of sanctified common sense. We find the confluence of holy wisdom and prudent holiness in the letter of James and book of Proverbs.
It is also possible for something to get both better and worse at the same time. In athletics, you improve with practice, but so does your opponent, and the competition gets rougher, not easier, with every successive and successful round. And is this not a normal aspect of Christian experience? Consider a couple of observations by two past masters of the spiritual life:
"the truth here is that the God of whom it is said, "he shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall gather the lambs in his arms (Isa 40:11)," is very gentle with very young Christians, just as mothers are with very young babies. Often the start of their Christian career is marked by great emotional joy, striking provinces, remarkable answers to prayer, and immediate fruitfulness in their first acts of witness...But as they grown stronger, and are able to bear more, he exercises them in a tougher school. He exposes them to as much testing by the pressure of opposed and discouraging influences as they are able to bear...There is nothing unnatural, therefore, in an increase of temptations, conflicts, and pressures, as a Christian goes on with God—indeed, something would be wrong if it did not happen," J.I. Packer, Knowing God (IVP, 1973), 223-24.
This is what we may call the danger of the middle period. It is something which is true not only in the Christian life as such, as it is true of the whole of life. It is the problem of middle life, and, if you like, of middle age. It is something which...we all have to face sooner or later...I am perfectly convinced that the most difficult period of all in life is the middle period. There are compensations in youth and there are compensations in old age which seem to be entirely lacking in the middle period.
"now this is equally true in the religious or spiritual life. This is the stage which follows the initial experience...in which everything was new and surprising and wonderful and clear, the stage in which we were constantly making new discoveries which never seemed to come to an end. But suddenly we are conscious of the fact that they do seem to have come to an end, and now we have become accustomed to the Christian life. No longer are we surprised at things, as we were at the beginning, because we are familiar with them and know about them. So that all that thrill of new discovery which animated us in the early stages suddenly seems to have gone. Nothing seems to be happening, there does not seem to be any change or advance or development...It is something that always tends to happen when we have got over the newness and the thrill and excitement of doing something that we have never done before, and we settle down into our routine, doing the same thing day after day. Then this trial arises, and we are no longer carried over it by that initial momentum which seemed to take us through it all in the early stages at the beginning," M. Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression (Eerdmans, 1992), 192-93.
Another question we need to pose is the relation of progressive sanctification to the case of the backslider. Reformed theology has always held that a true believer may backslide, and backslide for a prolonged period, but come around at the end. It is hard to find many clear-cut examples of this in Scripture. Peter and David are textbook examples, although their lapse was short-lived. Manasseh is another case in point. Saul’s state of grace is too ambiguous to supply an example. Samson may be a paradigm-case. Perhaps the case of Solomon is the most persuasive, for his lapse was the most prolonged. The parable of the prodigal, although fictitious, takes this doctrine for granted.
In any event, the doctrine has less basis in specific case-studies than in the confluence of sin and perseverance. The Christian is still a sinner, and may fall into grievous sin, but remains immune to utter apostasy. Sooner or later, the backslider will be restored.
This is, indeed, an aspect of sanctifying grace. Even—or should we say, especially?—in his backslidden state, the Holy Spirit is prodding and chastening his conscience.
But if we must make such allowances, as—indeed—we must, it certainly presents a pretty truncated view of spiritual progress. If Solomon, or a man such as Solomon, could live for so long in such an unholy state, and only come around at the eleventh hour, then he would seem to emerge from the experience a spiritual midget, unless we regard his reclamation is having the effect of growth hormone that made up for lost time. His spiritual figs will be green rather than ripe.
And this brings us to another question. Progressive sanctification is not regarded as passive, automatic process, but a cooperative endeavor in which the Christian must make diligent use of the means of grace. This is not cooperative in the synergistic sense, for it is God who wills and induces our compliance.
Still, this raises an obvious question: suppose a believer neglects the means of grace? And surely this is more than a hypothetical question. Would not such a Christian suffer from stunted growth? Is this not the admonition of Heb 5:11-6:1? What we have here is, indeed, a less extreme case of the backslider, by sins of omission rather than commission.
There is even an ironic danger that the doctrine of progressive sanctification, as popularly expounded, may actually impede spiritual progress by fostering a false expectation that will often be dashed and leave the believer discouraged. Is there not, for example, a sense in which the Puritan preoccupation with the evidence assurance actually undermined the experience of assurance? For the inward evidence of grace comes concomitantly with the inward evidence of sin.
This is not to deny the duty of spiritual examination. But would it not be sounder, both in principle and practice, to seek evidence in the conflict itself, rather than the bright blossoms of faith and grace—blossoms that come with thorns of iniquity? For those that are dead in sin suffer no inner warfare between the flesh and the Spirit. For them, the battle was won in favor of the flesh.
Perhaps the upshot of all this is that the relation between sin and perseverance is so individually indented that we cannot graph any general trend in the Christian life. We can set certain markers and boundaries (e.g., regeneration, perseverance), and we can plot the final destination (glorification), but must leave the intervening steps to temperament and providence.
Having said all that, we must still aim for the ideal, for the Bible often and earnestly urges the people of God to pursue the path of holiness. John Ryle has well expressed the extremes, both for our encouragement and admonition:
"there are some of the Lord's people who seem "never able to get on" from the time of their conversion. They are born again, but they remain babies all their lives. They are learners in Christ's school, but they never seem to get beyond the ABCs of faith. They have got inside the fold, but there they lie down and go no further. Year after year you see in them the same old besetting sins. You hear from them the same old experience. You observe in them the same want of spiritual appetite,—the same squeamishness about anything but the milk of the Word, and the same dislike of strong meat,—the same childishness,—the same feebleness,—the same littleness of mind,—the same narrowness of heart,—the same want of interest in anything beyond their own little circle, which you observed ten years ago. They are pilgrims indeed, but pilgrims like the Gibeonites of old;—their bread is always dry and moldy,—their shoes always old and clouted, and their garments always rent and torn (Josh 9:4,5).
But then there are others of the Lord's people who seem to be "always getting on." They grow like the grass after rain. They increase like Israel in Egypt. They press on like Gideon,—though sometimes "faint, yet always pursuing" (Judges 8:4)." They are ever adding grace to grace, and faith to faith, and strength to strength. Everytime you meet them their hearts seem larger, and their spiritual stature bigger, taller, and stronger. Every year they appear to see more, and know more, and believe more, and feel more in their religion…They attempt great things, and they do great things. When they fail they try again, and when they fall they are soon up against. And all this time they think themselves poor unprofitable servants, and fancy they do nothing at all!" Practical Religion (Clarke & Co., 1977), 54-55.