I have read many books and journal articles on sanctification over the last couple of years as I was doing research for my doctoral project. There are many books and differing views on sanctification, and I have not found one book that captures everything about this important theological truth. Last year I came across John MacArthur’s book on sanctification and added it to my Kindle library. I attended The Master’s Seminary, and I respect John MacArthur as one who has been a faithful pastor for decades and impacted my life when I first became a believer. I was very interested in how he would deal with this important topic.
MacArthur wrote this short book called Sanctification: God’s Passion for His People in 2020. This book is only seven chapters in under 100 pages so that one can read this quickly. He writes this book to pastors, and he says that their primary calling is the “sanctification of God’s people.” As with many of Macarthur’s books, he addresses a problem that he sees in the broader evangelical world. He looks back at prior movements of young evangelicals that he says were not focused on sanctification, providing examples of those who tended to push the boundaries. He concludes that he rarely hears popular preachers talking about holiness, godliness, or Christlikeness. I think this argument is an overgeneralization as many unpopular pastors do address Christlikeness.
I had a difficult time understanding how MacArthur defined sanctification throughout the book. He did not provide a formal definition but rather made statements to describe sanctification. For example, he quotes Romans 8:29 and then says the ultimate purpose for believers is “not merely to make us appear holy, but to make us truly and thoroughly Christlike.” I agree that believers are being changed into Christlikeness, but I did not understand what it meant to be “thoroughly Christlike.” In addition, he did not address the heart, where God changes one in thoughts, desires, and will. At the end of the book, he said, “Sanctification is a process of fighting for full joy and not selling out for a cheap substitute along the way.” I think this statement was more confusing than helpful.
What is sanctification?
As I mentioned, MacArthur does not give a clear definition of sanctification. Instead, he talks about the importance of sanctification. He states, “Sanctification is absolutely essential to the life of faith—so much so that Scripture frequently treats holiness as the identifying mark of a true believer.” Is there a way to measure this? He doesn’t describe what he means by holiness, so it is open to interpretation. I am not trying to be facetious; instead, my question is to think about the subjective nature of these comments. Only a subjective test can be used if one measures holiness primarily in external conformity to God’s law. In other words, how well am I keeping God’s law? I was initially taught that the book of 1 John was used as a series of tests for genuine salvation, which I now see as problematic. Overall, this book was focused on practical sanctification and did not address positional (or definitive) sanctification. The focus was on man’s responsibility rather than God’s gracious work to sanctify believers.
Positional sanctification is essential since this occurs before practical sanctification. One could focus on positional sanctification without considering conformity to God’s law (practical). Instead, I see that both positional and practical sanctification are necessary. One weakness in the book is that there are no clear categories for dealing with the remaining sin in a person’s life. Jesus came to redeem mankind from sin, to pay the penalty for sin (for man’s justification), break the power of sin (for man’s sanctification), and ultimately remove the presence of sin (for man’s glorification). Sanctification is an already-not yet experience; believers have been sanctified in Christ (1 Cor. 6:11, Heb 10:10) but are not fully conformed to Christ (Phil 3:20-21; 1 John 3:2). This period in between is experienced through a battle in the heart, where sin is exposed, and the Spirit works to transform the believer (Gal 5:16-26). Holiness is not something I create; it is the gracious work of God that begins in regeneration. MacArthur does acknowledge that our sanctification is not complete on this side of eternity, but I do not see any room to struggle with remaining sin. Instead, he makes comments like this, “saints (or holy ones) are not dead luminaries whom the church has formally canonized but to living Christians (1 Cor. 1:2).”
How does sanctification work?
Another area in the book that I did not think was clear was how a believer is sanctified. This was primarily during his discussion of indicatives and imperatives. He claims that evangelicals have been taught too many indicatives and therefore are not taught the imperatives, or as he calls it, “Christian’s duty to obey.” He says that indicatives refer to our justification, but the Bible is full of imperatives when it comes to sanctification. I agree that Christians are to respond to God in obedience and that there are many imperatives, but there are also many indicatives when it comes to sanctification. By disconnecting the indicatives from the imperatives, you are led to an unbalanced argument for how one lives out their faith. The indicatives give motivation for the imperatives (2 Cor 5:14). When one focuses solely on indicatives, they ignore God’s law; when one focuses only on imperatives, they reduce God’s law which can lead to self-righteousness. Therefore, to call believers to obey out of duty is unbalanced. There is a balance between Scripture’s indicatives (who we are in Christ) and imperatives (what God commands). One example is seen in the book of Ephesians; the first three chapters refer to the indicatives and the last three on how to live it out. Also, I disagree with his statement that we need to tell Christians that they have a duty to obey. I see obedience in Scripture as a response to God’s gracious work in the gospel. There is a distinction between the law and the gospel. There is a duty in the law, but there is no duty in the gospel.
I was disappointed with this book since it seemed more of a critique of the evangelical world than an explanation of sanctification. The book lacked clear definitions and descriptions for sanctification and missed the opportunity to address the heart, which I think is necessary to understanding how believers grow and change into Christlikeness.