When I first began serious study of Hebrews, I was surprised to learn that its perspective on sanctification was different from commonly held views: Jesus accomplished the sanctification of his people in his sacrificial death (10:10, 29; 13:12). Although the writer encourages his readers to ‘pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord’ (12:14 NRSV), that is not the main thrust of his teaching about sanctification.
Exploring the rest of the New Testament, I discovered that there were other important expressions of what is called ‘positional sanctification’ or ‘definitive sanctification’ (e.g. Acts 20:32; 26:18; 1 Cor. 1:2, 30; 6:11; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 12). I found an article by John Murray (Collected Writings [Carlisle PA; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977], 277-93) that helped me think through through these issues more carefully, and began to question the relationship between positional sanctification and the challenges of the New Testament to be holy or to pursue holiness.
At the same time, I was confronted by a number of pastoral situations in which Christians were lacking assurance of their relationship with God. They were driven by a desire to ‘become more holy’ that was not being realised in their experience. They were overwhelmed by sin and failure. The teaching they had received about progressive sanctification was not related in any way to New Testament perspectives on sanctification in Christ.
When I was invited to give the Annual Moore College Lectures in 1994, I took the opportunity to work on these issues. Exegeting key New Testament passages in the light of biblical theological teaching, I sought to challenge a variety of approaches taken by writers in the field of Systematic and Pastoral Theology. Subsequently, my work was published as Possessed by God, the first in a series called ‘New Studies in Biblical Theology’, edited by D. A. Carson. Note also my article on ‘Sanctification’ in T. D. Alexander & B. S. Rosner (ed.), New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Leicester: IVP, 2000).
There were a number of encouraging reviews of my book. But several reviewers indicated that sanctification in their denominational contexts or theological traditions is configured in ways that are beyond dispute. I have been disappointed that people holding different views from my own have not entered into any serious debate with the position I have argued.
Recently, however, James M. Howard has written Paul, the Community, and Progressive Sanctification: an Exploration into Community-Based Transformation within Pauline Theology (Studies in Biblical Literature 90; New York: Lang, 2007). He stresses that the believing community is an essential part of an individual’s spiritual formation, interacting with my own work and that of others in the field. I look forward to reading this book and writing a review for this website.