Passive sanctification is an error that has stalked and hurt the Christian church and many Christian lives through the years. The basic idea is that personal holiness is achieved without any personal activity, without any physical effort. Rather, holiness is received the more we are enabled to yield, to give up, or to believe.

The older form of this error has been summed up in the phrase, “Let go and let God.” We are passive and God is active. The more passive we become the more active God becomes. The less we try to succeed the more God will succeed in us.

The newest form of this error can be summed up in the phrase “Believe in your justification and you will be sanctified.” The idea is that the more you believe in your justification the more holy you will become. As faith receives and embraces justification, spiritual growth will happen. Faith simply receives, and this automatically produces godliness. There is no effort or activity on our part, apart from the effort of believing and receiving what Christ has already accomplished. Sanctification happens by believing in our justification.

There are a number of reasons (good and bad) why so many Christians are attracted to this modern version of passive sanctification.

1. Keeps justification central in the Christian life

Although we are only justified once, by our initial act of saving faith, yet we need to appropriate that justification time and time again. We do need to understand it more, believe it more, know it more, and experience it more. “Remember it, recognize it, realize it, relax in it, and rejoice in it. Yes!

2. Reduces the danger of legalism in the Christian life

Some Christians have the tendency to think “I’m saved by God’s sovereign grace, but now it’s over to me.”  “I get in by Christ’s work but I go on by my work. I’m saved passively but I’m made holy by my activity.” The Christian life then becomes a ceaseless round of activity, service, obligation, targets, resolutions… and failures, disappointment, frustration, etc. By helping the Christian return again and again to their justified status, the danger of legalistic activism is avoided.

3. Re-connects justification and sanctification

The re-connection of justification with sanctification keeps obedience faith-fueled and love-driven. Sanctification does not begin with “I resolve…I will” but with “I believe.” I like what David Powlison said: “Don’t ever degenerate into giving advice unconnected to the good news of Jesus crucified, alive, present, at work and returning.”

4. Relieves exhausted Christians

Some Christians are on the sure road to spiritual burnout. Passive sanctification can sound extremely attractive to such activists. Stop your ceaseless round of doing, stop your works for justification and sanctification. You are saved by faith and sanctified by faith. Justified by receiving Christ in the Gospel, and sanctified similarly.

5. Offers silver bullet for sanctification

Christians are always looking for the quickest and easiest way to be holy. This sounds like a very plausible silver bullet for sanctification. It’s very attractive to those who feel their sense of failure and lack of progress and are anxious for a fast lane to spiritual success.

Tomorrow we’ll see that despite the attractions of this view, there are a number of serious spiritual dangers that accompany it.

  • David Phillips

    I agree with the comments about passive sanctification but I always thought the phrase ‘Let go and let God’ related to our ceasing to retain anxious control of a situation and giving it over to God’s control to reveal His will and solution. Similar to ‘Be still and know that I am God’. Never saw it as relating to passive sanctification and have never heard it used in that context – I can see how you’ve made it fit but don’t agree with its usage or application here…

  • Andrew Bernhardt

    Sanctification comes through walking in submission to the Holy Spirit, not resting in Him.

    • JR_Walker2100

      Great point!!
      The concept of active submission is something that many overlook. Some who see submission as passive receiving miss the strength and action required in submission.

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  • SC

    I like to say that we are unworthy recipients and active participants of God’s work. Philippians 2:12-13 – “…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”

    Interestingly, the pronouns here are plural (as with most of the NT), reminding us of the much neglected role of the believing community in our progress. I talk about this in a piece I wrote on “The Amish view of community and salvation.” see:

    Steve Cornell

  • Justin

    “Don’t ever degenerate into giving advice unconnected to the good news of Jesus crucified, alive, present, at work and returning.”

    Are you criticizing that notion? I can’t really tell, as it seems like everyone that talks about the necessity of sanctification feel like they need to throw good comments like that in the trash.

    It’s discouraging because while we need to be active in our sanctification, that the point is hounded so much on the internet that it gives the impression that one isn’t doing enough.

    How does one advise active sanctification to people who suffer from a neurotic sense of depression. How do we grow in holiness without sitting on the anxious bench? These practical questions never seemed to be answered, but the regular old “here’s why you’re wrong” is found in plenty of blog posts on the net.

    I sincerely hope this comment isn’t seen as a stone being thrown, because like I said, I agree in the need for holiness. I’m just extremely discouraged.

    • David Murray

      I agree with Powlison.

      • Reed Here

        Appreciate that David. As worded though, I can’t tell if you’re using David as an example of the bad point (#3) or a counter point to the bad point.

        • David Murray

          I changed it. Hope it’s clearer.

  • CrossHugger

    Jesus told us to take care of…. He told us to go and make disciples……These are actions not sitting in a pew for 1 hour or more, then nothing more.

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  • Brandon Sloterbeek

    David, can you tell me if the modern gospel-centered sanctification movement such as Acts29 falls into this camp. I have been criticized for not teaching gospel-centered messages and I feel as though this is what they are pushing toward. They recommend I read Elyse Fitzpatrick. Some of this sounds similar to what she is saying.

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