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Using biblical words in biblical ways

Two decades ago, one of my lecturers at Moore Theological College was a great example of the practice I spoke about on Wednesday: using biblical words and concepts in biblical ways.

David PetersonDavid Peterson made us aware that inadequate attention was paid in much Christian theology to the use of holiness terminology in the New Testament and specifically regarding sanctification. Soon after I graduated, he published the fruits of his labour in Possessed by God: A New Testament theology of sanctification and holiness (Apollos, 1995).

This seminal paragraph sums up the book’s key thesis:

Sanctification is commonly regarded as a process of moral and spiritual transformation following conversion. In the New Testament, however, it primarily refers to God’s way of taking possession of us in Christ, setting us apart to belong to him and to fulfil his purpose for us. Sanctification certainly has present and ongoing effects, but when the verb ‘to sanctify’ (Gk. hagiazein) and the noun ‘sanctification’ (Gk. hagiasmos) are used, the emphasis is regularly on the saving work of God in Christ, applied to believers through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. (p. 27)

I thought I’d catch up with David regarding the way we speak about sanctification and progress in godliness. Here’s our conversation.

SG: Evangelicals prize the words of Scripture as the very words of God. David, why do you think we are often so careless about reflecting the New Testament’s patterns in speaking of sanctification? Does it matter whether or not we use biblical words in biblical ways?

DP: To answer the second question first, I think it is extremely important that we use biblical words in biblical ways and do not allow individual experience, church culture, or theological tradition to steal the true meaning from us. With regard to sanctification, we have a problem regarding the interface between systematic theology and biblical theology, as well as a complex history of debate between different schools of thought about how we make progress in the Christian life. The use of ‘sanctification’ as a cover-all term for everything that happens between justification and glorification is misleading. Consistent with OT teaching about consecration and holiness, the verb ‘to sanctify’ is used in the NT to describe the beginning of the Christian life, not its progression and development. There are different ways in which related terms are used to challenge us about living out or expressing that sanctified status as the ‘saints’ of God under the New Covenant.

SG: David, what are the pastoral dangers you see when the emphasis on ‘progressive’ sanctification overshadows or marginalizes ‘positional’ sanctification?

DP: On the one hand, honest believers will become depressed about their lack of progress in holiness and may even begin to doubt if they are truly Christian. Striving to be a better and better Christian every day puts the focus on your own effort and achievement. On the other hand, as Berkouwer so beautifully put it:

The moment sanctification is ejected from the temple of faith, and hence of justification, that moment justification by faith has become an initial stage on the pilgrim’s journey, a supply-station which later becomes a pleasant memory.1

SG: Conversely, what are the dangers when we emphasize positional holiness to the neglect of the practical progress in godliness?

DP: If positional sanctification is taught correctly, we will emphasize the unique character of the relationship into which Christ calls us. The genuineness of that relationship will be demonstrated in daily prayer to express that relationship in God-honouring ways. Of course, if we simply emphasize status without responsibility, we deceive ourselves and dishonour God by encouraging careless and disobedient lives.

SG: Your latest book is Transformed by God: New Covenant Life and Ministry (IVP, 2012).2

In it, I’m given to understand you suggest ‘transformation’ might be a better summary term for the process of moral and spiritual growth following conversion. Is that right, given ‘transformation’ vocabulary is fairly rare in the NT (just Romans 12:2, 2 Cor 3:18, and Phil 3:21 as far as I can see)? If so, what advantages does this term bring us?

DP: Although ‘transformation’ vocabulary is fairly rare in the NT, it puts the focus emphatically on God’s work in changing us into the likeness of Christ. That theme is more widely expressed in other contexts where related terminology is used (e.g. Rom 8:29; Gal 4:19; Eph 4:13; 1 John 3:2-3). The call is for us to expose our minds and hearts to God’s word and the influence of his Spirit and to respond with faith and obedience, looking for God to change us in his own time, according to his own will.

SG: More broadly, how does your book contribute to an understanding of the process of Christian growth?

DP: The prophecy of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34 and related passages) is picked up in the NT to show how we should understand and apply the gospel to Christian life and ministry. The first outcome is to see how foundational the atoning work of Christ is to our relationship with God and experience of his grace. Secondly, Jeremiah teaches that this knowledge of God’s amazing grace in the death of Jesus will transform hearts, making people want to serve the Lord and please him in every way. So if we want to encourage one another to pursue holiness and godliness, we must do so on the basis of a clear exposition of the grace of God in Christ and our status as ‘saints’ under the New Covenant. The parallel passage in Ezekiel 36 shows how the Holy Spirit works through this process of transformation. But there is much more to be said about this subject, so please read the book!

It is important to see that there are different terms used in the NT to describe the work of God in bringing us to himself and making us his children through the death and resurrection of Christ and the gift of his Spirit (e.g. justified, redeemed, reconciled, sanctified, cleansed, renewed, adopted). The significance of each term needs to be explored and the pastoral implications noted. Each term contributes something different to our understanding of the work of God for us. Sanctification belongs in this frame of reference, not as a way to describe the process of transformation, growth or maturation flowing from initiation into Christ.

SG: Thank you, David.

  1. GC Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Faith and Sanctification, trans. J Vriend, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1952, p. 21
  2. Transformed by God has been reviewed, very positively, twice (!) at The Gospel Coalition’s book review website, by Bobby Jamieson of 9Marks and SJ Wellum of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The Briefing will also publish a review of it soon.

6 thoughts on “Using biblical words in biblical ways

  1. Yes. Very important point on the danger of emphasising ‘progressive sanctification’ over the way sanctifications is more commonly spoken of in a positional sense. The progressive must flow from the positional.

  2. Good interview! The great words of our salvation used in the New Testament (redemption, propitiation, sanctification, justification, reconciliation, etc…) came from the world of that time and had prior meanings and associations ranging from the market place to temple, to courtroom etc….

    I find our abundant use (if not, overuse of the term “biblical” intriguing).

  3. Pingback: Shepherd Links – 1/26 | Pastoralized

  4. Thanks sandy and especially thanks to Dr David – it is a real danger that we use bible language in unbiblical ways and the positional understanding of sanct. makes good sense of 1 Cor 6:11 and the otherwise odd way Paul puts sanctified between washed and justified

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