Distortions of Sanctification

Don Johnson

An occasional series on the doctrine of sanctification: Part One; Part Two; Part Three. This is Part Four.

In this essay, I’d like to address the tendency we have as Christians to fall into error by over-emphasizing a truth. When I say ‘error’, I don’t mean ‘heresy’. Heresy, according dictionary.com, is “an opinion or doctrine contrary to the orthodox tenets of a religious body or church.”[1] The key term in that definition is “contrary”. When someone deniesan orthodox tenet, they cease to have a valid Christian testimony. But many Christians who do not deny orthodox tenets still fall into error. Perhaps to some extent all Christians err at one point or another.

Several errors persist within orthodox Christianity with respect to sanctification. These errors are the consequence of over-emphasizing an aspect of truth. In this case, Christians have fallen afoul of over-emphasizing one aspect or another of the Strategy of Sanctification. While these errors are not fatal to orthodoxy, they warp spirituality. It is a cripple being healed by Christ, yet persisting to walk with a limp. Or maybe more so, after having been healed, the ex-cripple develops a particular limp and revels in it as the best limp of all.

The Strategy of sanctification is focused on four words from Romans 6: know, reckon, yield, and obey. All four are necessary components of sanctification, but at different times and different places, Christians have made one or the other aspect of the strategy the central plank (or worse, the only plank) on which to build a successful Christian life. Sanctification involves a deep understanding of the gospel (know), a by faith application of the gospel to self (reckon), an internal commitment of my physical self to the service of God (yield), and an actual active living out of that living faith in the activities of my daily life (obey from the heart).

The first error in sanctification

The first error in sanctification could also be called ‘the fundamentalist error’, although fundamentalists are not the only Christians ever to have developed or perpetuated this error. What do you suppose that error would be? Which of the four words of the strategy are over-emphasized among fundamentalists? It shouldn’t be too difficult to pick it out: fundamentalists are routinely charged with legalism, often labeled Pharisees, and are criticized for their too frequent preoccupation with rules and standards. The area of sanctification truth over-emphasized among fundamentalism is the word, ‘obey.’

In a way, a distortion of sanctification by an over-emphasis of obedience is the easiest distortion to slip into. No one can see your understanding of the gospel, your internal faith-life and commitments, but they can see your behavior. So it is easy to make sanctification all about conforming to a code, to be Pharisee-like in your approach and to communicate that if you keep the list of rules, you’ll be “OK” with God.

Fundamentalism has been accused of legalism for years. The reason the accusation sticks around is because it is at least sometimes true. Someone who cuts his hair the right way, dresses the right way, attends the right church at the right times, who fills a role in that church, who keeps his life free from any taint of moral scandal, who insists his family conform to his leadership, well, that someone can quite easily come up with the notion that by his works he is sanctified. (And, yes, there are a host of other rules/standards that have been a matter of discussion for years.)

Part of the problem with this distortion is that the ‘distortee’ thinks of sanctification in the wrong tense – ‘sanctified’ instead of ‘growing in grace’. Sanctification in this life is a process, not a merit badge. By saying this, I don’t mean to discard point four of the strategy. There is no denying that sanctification involves obedience. There is plenty to obey in the New Testament. But it is a mistake to think that one has arrived at the level of ‘pleasing to God’ because he conforms to a particular list of Christian rules, no matter how tightly those rules are connected to New Testament imperatives and principles.

Before we leave this topic, some Christians have recognized this error and have concluded they don’t have to keep all those “man-made” rules, they can relax their standards and still be “pleasing to God.” The problem with this view is that it is still rooted in legalism – it has merely exchanged high standards for lower ones, more achievable ones, but it should hardly be reassuring to us to make up our mind that God is pleased because we have managed to meet our own lower standards. That’s not really what obedience from the heart means.

The fact remains, however, that this error is widely prevalent and has been part of Christianity for a long, long time. You can take the thundering preaching of a Tertullian, for example, and derive a similar point of view. The error isn’t a departure from the faith; it is in the first place an error of over-emphasis on obedience. It can lead to a departure from the faith when it devolves into a works-based salvation, but it starts by over-emphasizing obedience for sanctification.

The second error in sanctification

The second error in sanctification involves an over-emphasis on the internal responses to the gospel. Primarily I have seen this centered around the word ‘yield’, but it seems to me that the idea of ‘reckoning myself dead indeed unto sin’ can be thrown into the mix as well.

About a hundred and forty years ago or so many sincere Christians were talking excitedly about such things as “Victorious Christian Living” and the “Deeper Christian Life.” This movement became known as the Keswick movement which still has adherents today. Many of these Christians were troubled at the struggle they constantly felt with their flesh, constantly fighting a losing battle as described in Romans 7. Many prominent Christians were involved in this movement, including such names as D. L. Moody and Hudson Taylor. If you read Taylor’s biography, you will find him wrestling for years with his flesh until he comes to the place where he has a sort of ‘epiphany’ where he finally gives all over to God and finds relief and victory in simply yielding to God. The reality is that he probably exchanged one over-emphasis (“obey”) for another (“reckon/yield”).

No Bible believing Christian should deny the truth of ‘reckoning one’s self dead indeed unto sin,’ and ‘yielding one’s members to God as instruments of righteousness’. These truths are essential to sanctification. They involve the active response of the heart to the gospel, expressing itself in faith and pressing forward by faith to actions of victory, thus displaying the ‘obedience from the heart’ that a proper sanctification strategy requires.

The Keswick movement, in what it affirms about the internal processes of sanctification, can be helpful to Christian living, but the fact is that many who make the over-emphasis on ‘yielding’ their central, primary focus for sanctification (to a virtual exclusion of the other components) find themselves with an unhealthy inward focus in their Christian lives. Many become spiritually paralyzed, wondering if they have ‘yielded enough,’ or have ‘entirely consecrated’ their lives to Christ. Morbid introspection becomes the order of the day for many. Although they often have much to commend them in their spiritual interest and zeal, they can fail to reach out to others (whether for evangelism or fellowship), and, ironically, are actually defeated in their Christian life because they are too passive and not active enough.

The third error in sanctification

The first word of the strategy for sanctification is ‘know’ – it is related to gospel reality. Paul speaks in Romans 6.3 as if he is astonished at a believer dismissing the need for sanctification. He uses the language of baptism and the cross to teach us that through faith we have been united with Jesus in his death and should also be united with Jesus in his life. This is gospel truth. It is the foundation of sanctification.

Today it seems that many people are enamored of ‘Gospel-centered’ living and preaching. Some say that sanctification is just a matter of deep meditation in the cross and an application of the gospel to one’s own life. Some say that if we just knew the gospel more, we’d be so in love with Christ we would have less and less desire to sin and thus be sanctified.

In company with this emphasis, many are becoming enamored with Calvinistic soteriology and making it the central interest of their spiritual life. If knowing the gospel makes me more in love with Christ and less with sin, then let me know all I can of the ‘doctrines of grace’ that I might be a stronger Christian.[1] It is interesting (and helpful) that some prominent Calvinistic pastors like Kevin DeYoung have noticed this trend and spoken out against it.

Knowing the gospel and its ramifications is vitally important. But the know component of the strategy of sanctificationis only one part of the whole. When ‘the gospel’ becomes over-emphasized, as many are doing today, the result is a distortion of sanctification.

It is very difficult to critique this error because those espousing it can counter-attack by demanding, “What is more important than the gospel?” That’s really not what I am saying in my criticism. When it comes to sanctification, I’m not trying to make any part of the strategy any more important than the other. In fact, that’s the point. The gospel is the foundation of sanctification. You will never be sanctified without knowing its truths and the ramifications of those truths. But if you over-emphasize knowing the gospel, your sanctification will be still-born. You’ll never get off first base. You need to move on to start dealing with spiritual issues in your own self. You need to reckon yourself dead indeed unto sin, you need to yield your members unto God as instruments of righteousness, and (don’t stop there!) you need to obey from the heart that form of doctrine to which you have been committed.


Let’s not forget that obedience is part of the picture of sanctification. The whole idea is putting to death a good bit of the sin we used to live in. (See Romans 5.20-6.2). The passage starts with doing and ends with doing. In between there are some essential spiritual realities that must be true or else all we will end up with is Pharisaic legalism. The first reality is knowing the gospel in all its ramifications. The second reality is the reckoning, the third is the yielding. And really, obeying from the heart is a spiritual activity and reality itself. If you leave out the ‘from the heart’ bit, you can easily slip into the first error of sanctification.

Last, let us not be ashamed to call for obedience. Those who say God is fine with a low level of obedience are still stuck in legalism, even when they smear others with the label. But God didn’t save us so that we could wallow in disobedience and sin, living any old way we want, just so long as we know the gospel.

Let’s pursue a truly entire sanctification that means not sinless perfection but a kind of sanctification that embraces and practices all of God’s marvelous strategy for a victorious Christian life.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria and serves on the FBFI board as chair of the Communications Committee which is responsible for this blog.

[1] heresy. Dictionary.com. Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/heresy(accessed: September 21, 2012).

  1. By making these statements I am not trying to argue for or against a Calvinistic understanding of salvation. []