Having highlighted Five Attractions of Passive Sanctification, here are ten dangers that accompany this error.

1. The danger of lost doctrine

One danger of passive sanctification is of confusing and conflating sanctification with justification, which may end up with us losing both of them. Thus, the worthy desire to exalt justification ends up with us losing it, and the commendable desire to connect sanctification with justification in this way ends up with us losing both. As Kevin DeYoung wrote:

If in trying to honor justification by faith alone we provide the same formula for sanctification, we are destroying the former as much as the latter.

It’s like hot and cold water. When I want a shower, I want piping hot water. When I want a refreshing drink, I want the water to be ice cold. But if I mix the two, I end up have a disgustingly lukewarm drink and a very brief and unpleasant shower.

2. The danger of lost law

There is a real danger here that we lose God’s moral law from the Christian’s life. I’m not saying that those who advocate passive sanctification deliberately aim for this. But it’s the end result at least for many who read and follow such teaching.  The only imperative left seems to be “Believe in your justification.”

But if salvation is from sin, and sin is transgression of God’s moral law, then we surely want God’s moral law in our lives at least to help us identify the sins we are to confess and flee from, and, as God’s children, to know what pleases Him.

3. The danger of lost effort

Passive santification seems to focus all effort and work upon resting in Christ’s effort and work for us. However, there’s a lot more effort and work than that if sanctification is to happen. In his classic work, Holiness, J.C. Ryle said:

In justification the word to be addressed to man is believe — only believe; in sanctification the word must be ‘watch, pray, and fight.’

The very same apostle who says in one place, “the life that I live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God,’ says in another place, “I Fight,” “I run,” “I keep under my body”; and in other places, “let us cleanse ourselves,” “Let us labour,” “Let us lay aside every weight.

The effort is much more than merely spiritual or intellectual. There’s a muscular physicality to it involving our eyes, our mouths, our arms, our hands, our legs, our muscles, our tendons, our sexual organs, and every other part of our body.

4. The danger of lost motivation

By reducing the motivation for obedience to one item (justification) we lose multiple motivations to holiness. Kevin DeYoung wrote that he found 20 motivations for holiness in 2 Peter alone! I need all the motivations I can get.

5. The danger of a lost dimension

If nothing we do can influence our experience of God’s love, then the primary focus of good works becomes our fellow man. However, the Bible says that, by God’s grace, we can do good works of Christian service to others which ALSO please God as sweet-smelling sacrifices (Phil. 4:16; Heb 13:16; Heb 13:21).

In other words, our works on a horizontal level also impact our vertical relationship with God. Our creature-to-creature relationships influence our creature-Creator relationship.

6. The danger of lost love

Although the advocates of passive sanctification believe they are exalting and securing God’s love for the believer, there’s a real danger of their views leading to a loss of the sense and experience of God’s love for them. How so? Because, contrary to what they teach, God does respond to our obedience with more manifestations of His love.

Yes, we love Him only because He first loved us (1 John 4:19); and, yes, we love him first then keep His commandments, not vice versa (John 14:15); but yes also, when we do respond to His love with love-fueled obedience, Christ responds to that with loving indwelling, divine communion, and Trinitarian manifestation (John 14:15, 21, 23). What a powerful motivation to active sanctification!

God’s love for the believer never changes, but the believer’s experience of that love can change. God may withdraw the assurance and the daily experience of His Fatherly love because of my disobedience. He loves me no less, but I don’t have his love shed abroad in my heart to the same extent or degree. But He also may pour more of that love into my heart in response to loving service and obedience.

7. The danger of lost chastisement

If there is no link between our works and pleasing God, then there can be no link between our afflictions and displeasing God. Although we certainly want to avoid the error of Job’s friends who said all suffering is a result of personal sin, we must also avoid the idea that it never has anything to do with our conduct and character.

There is a benefit from suffering if we see it as the loving discipline of a loving heavenly Father, all for our good. We cannot make infallible links between sin and suffering but God does sometimes link them and calls us to search for these links too.

Paul expects moral and ethical change to result from our sufferings (Rom. 5:3-5) and the Apostle expects fruit form our suffering (Heb. 12:10-13).

8. The danger of lost spirituality

There’s so much more to Christian experience than the rather one-dimensional presentation of it in passive sanctification. Yes, the Spirit drives us back to Christ’s finished work every day. That’s one element of the Spirit’s work in us – and it is a wonderful experience, no question – but the Psalms, John 14:21 & 23, Revelation 3:20, and many other places, invite us to a far wider, deeper, richer, and more soul-satisfying experience of communion with God through His Spirit. There’s a vast amount of Christian literature, not least among the Puritans, that widens the vista of the life of God in the soul of man way beyond this limited view of the Spirit’s subjective work.

9. The danger of lost unity

This teaching around passive sanctification often divides God’s people, weakening the church. Now if it was truth that was causing the division, we would accept that. However, as I hope has been demonstrated, it is not truth, or at least not a biblically balanced and complete presentation of truth. J. C. Ryle says it best of the passive sanctification teaching of his own day.

I must deprecate, and I do it in love, the use of uncouth and newfangled terms and phrases in teaching sanctification. I plead that a movement in favor of holiness cannot be advanced by new-coined phraseology, or by disproportioned and one-sided statements, or by overstraining and isolating particular texts, or by exalting one truth at the expense of another…and squeezing out of them meanings which the Holy Ghost never put in them… The cause of true sanctification is not helped, but hindered, by such weapons as these. A movement in aid of holiness which produces strife and dispute among God’s children is somewhat suspicious.

10. The danger of losing Christ

The Gospel is not justification. But one of the dangers of this imbalanced emphasis on justification is that it seems to put justification in the foreground and Christ in the background. As W. Evans wrote:

The fact of the matter is that the heart of the gospel is not justification.  Nor is it sanctification.  It is Jesus Christ himself, who is “our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” The Apostle Paul came preaching “Christ crucified” and more often than not he directed Christians, not to their own justification, but to the crucified and risen Christ in whom they are both justified and sanctified.  The gospel involves freedom from both the penalty and the power of sin, and the latter is not simply to be collapsed into the former.  Only when we begin with Christ and our spiritual union with him will we give both justification and sanctification their proper due.

  • James

    Thank you for this post………it is so refreshing and so Scriptural!!! Also, another good Scripture to back all of this up is Colossians 1:10, “so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him,
    bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” But there is one thing that I need further clarification on. It is this comment you made, “when we do respond to His love with love-fueled obedience, Christ
    responds to that with loving indwelling, divine communion, and
    Trinitarian manifestation (John 14:15, 21, 23).” While I agree that these texts certainly teach that our obedience does give us a rich experience of God’s love, what does this look like to us? Are we given given more joy in our life? Or is God blessing our ministries, or spiritual gifts, with more conversions and more fruit in general? Is the “divine communion, and Trinitarian manifestation” that you speak of something we “feel”? These are things that are still unclear to me. I guess my concern might be that we run the danger of going too far in the other direction…..so to speak. In other words, we may start to give the impression that God ONLY responds to obedience when He blesses. For example, there are Christians throughout the world who are more obedient and faithful to Christ than many here in the U.S., but yet they are being severely persecuted for their faith. Also, I have heard stories of men who have labored faithfully for many years in ministry, and never saw much fruit in their lifetime. These seems to be great mystery in all of this. I agree with your post wholeheartedly, but I wonder if there is a bit more to clarify here. Any thoughts?

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  • Brandon M.

    Dr. Murray,

    Thank you for these thoughtful posts.

    My only question to you would be: who are some of the notable and influential teachers that are leaning toward and/or teaching forms of passive sanctification?

    I know there are many who have raised concern with Tullian Tchividjian’s “no law” teachings. But are there any others, that you’re comfortable mentioning, that we should take note of?

    • Reformed Christian Girl

      Tullian began to make troubling statements but he was following the teachings of the famous radical antinomian Lutheran Gerhardt Forde. In 2012, Rod Rosenbladt taught Forde’s exact view at Tullian’s church using Forde’s chapter from a “Christian Spirituality: 5 Views of Sanctification” book. See Rod’s website 1517legacy for a PDF copy of his bullet point outline of Forde’s Sanctification chapter. To the degree that one if following Forde, they will be lead into passive antinomian sanctification that denies 3rd use of the law. Yes, I’m aware Rod professes to be a confessional Lutheran and that the Book of Concord does teach 3rd use – contrary to Forde. I’m not sure how, however, how Rod can profess to affirm the Confession while promoting Forde. Link to Rod’s outline: https://www.1517legacy.com/rodrosenbladt/2014/02/gerhard-forde-and-sanctification/

      • Brandon M.


        Wow, that’s very interesting, informative, and also unfortunate.

        Thank you for the brief history of this teaching.

        Kind regards in Christ,

        • Reformed Christian Girl

          You are welcome, Brandon. Yes very unfortunate. Pray for our brothers and God’s truth. Will is correct to point out that Rod doesn’t follow Forde in all errors like atonement. However, Will mentioned “doubt” that Rod would take Forde’s stance on sanctification and here I am puzzled. Will, did you follow the link? Rod’s own 2014 blog posting shares his 2012 PDF outline promoting Forde’s antinomian sanctification view, so it seems clear he agrees with it enough to teach it. I don’t know how one can deny Rod has unfortunately promoted this antinomian teaching to Tullian. Rod says so himself:

          “In the last week of February, 2012, Dr. Rod Rosenbladt delivered an address at the Liberate conference held at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, focused on Gerhard Førde and Sanctification. This outline is the free one he has made available through that event and is now available here.

          DOWNLOAD Førde and Sanctification, the Lutheran View PDF”

          • Will Barrett

            RCG: It appears you’re right. Much as I admire and have been blessed by Rod’s work, this is disappointing.

      • Will Barrett

        Not sure that Rosenbladt could be put in this category. Forde yes, but Rosenbladt is not nearly as aggressive as Forde and his students Mark Mattes and Steven Paulsen. Indeed, Lutheran critics of Forde never cite Rosenbladt as problematic. Moreover, whatever one thinks of Mike Horton, White Horse Inn, etc. I doubt Rosenbladt would be such a key component of the ministry were he to take Forde’s stance. Forde practically denies the substitutionary atonement – Rosenbladt does no such thing.

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  • Venkatesh

    Dr. Murray,

    Thank you for your post and for highlighting the dangers of passive sanctification. I have been following your blog for quite some time now, and I appreciate your scholarship very much.

    One of the things you have often cautioned your readers is the danger of overreaction (like in your Moses and Merit posts). As I read your above post repeatedly, I wondered whether you may have over-reacted yourself in this post. Here is my concern:

    You wrote that “The Gospel is not justification” and then you approvingly quoted Dr. Evans who said, “The fact of the matter is that the heart of the gospel is not justification. Nor is it sanctification. It is Jesus Christ himself, who is “our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”

    To say that Gospel is not justification, and that justification is not at the heart of the gospel, seems to me, to go against the grain of the Reformed tradition. Does not the Reformed tradition put a primacy on the doctrine of justification? Did not Luther say that justification is the article on which the church stands or falls? Did not Calvin say that justification is the hinge on which true religion turns?Even recent authors in our tradition affirm that justification is at the heart of the gospel — like James Buchanan (1; See below); Robert Reymond (2); Charles Leiter (3); and of course R. C. Sproul (4)

    Now, I understand that the phrase “heart of the gospel” is quite subjective and different people can mean different things (some have said atonement is the heart of the gospel). However, as all these quotes below testify, the doctrine of justification by faith is the central tenet of the Christian Gospel according to our tradition. To deny that would be to go against much of what others have said in our tradition.

    Moreover, to say that “heart of the gospel is neither justification nor sanctification but Jesus Christ himself” is to introduce a false dichotomy between the person and work of Christ. We cannot embrace Christ crucified — and as our sanctification — unless we first embrace him by faith for our justification (as implied by the word “righteousness” in 1 Cor 1:30). Even others outside our tradition, like Phil Johnson, have pointed this out: “Here, in Paul’s own words, is the heart of the true ambassador’s message. This is Paul’s own explanation of precisely what he meant when he spoke of preaching “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” In other words, this is Paul’s most succinct summary of the heart of the gospel: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).” (http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2006/05/heart-of-gospel.html)

    I fully understand your concerns about antinomianism and agree with your other points. But I was quite concerned about your last point for the above reasons.

    (1) So that, when they found the Bible teaching that God’s relationship with man is regulated by His law, and only those whom His law does not condemn can enjoy fellowship with Him, they believed it. And when they found that the heart of the New Testament gospel is the doctrine of justification and forgiveness of sins, which shows sinners the way to get right with God’s law, they made this gospel the heart of their own message. (under the section, “Divine Authority of the Bible”)

    (2) The doctrine of justification is the heart and core of the Gospel… (page 761; New Systematic Theology)

    (3) Two great miracles stand at the very heart and center of the gospel. The first miracle is justification… (Page 13; Justification and Regeneration)

    (4) http://www.ligonier.org/blog/what-is-the-gospel/

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