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.