Sanctification and perfection: another look

What is the relationship of justification and sanctification? How do they relate to works and faith? To salvation? In what ways do they differ? In what way does perfection serve as the goal of sanctification? And what is the content of perfection?

Richard Rice, Ph.D., is an associate professor of theology, Loma Linda University, Division of Religion, Loma Linda, California.

Recently Adventism's understanding of the relationship between sanctification and justification has come under fire both from within and without the church. According to the critics, any attempt to synthesize the two inevitably leads to the subordination of justification to sanctification and thus undermines an essential achievement of the Protestant Reformation, namely, the recovery of faith alone as the basis of salvation. 1 Their analysis of Seventh-day Adventist theology raises a number of important questions, and this article will attempt to answer a few of them by briefly explaining the nature and purpose of sanctification.

In conventional usage, the term sanctification is synonymous with "growth in grace," or the development of character, which follows naturally from a person's commitment to Christ as Saviour. The English word sanctification comes from the Latin word sanctus, meaning "holy," and the idea of holiness underlies the Biblical view of sanctification. In its most fundamental sense, holiness is separateness, or otherness. The holy stands in contrast to the profane or secular. The Old Testament applies the word "holy" fundamentally to God, and by derivation, to things and persons related to God, such as the Temple, the priests, and even the nation of Israel. 2 In the New Testament this word appears in discussions of Christian behavior, 3 refer ring to the quality of purity, or innocence, in a way that recalls the requirements of the sacrifices in the Hebrew system of worship. Thus, while the conventional understanding of sanctification represents a development of its original application, it agrees basically with the New Testament emphasis on personal purity and godly living. So, this article will use the term sanctification as synonymous with the process of character perfection, of growth in grace. In view of recent discussions concerning the experience of salvation, several characteristics of sanctification deserve special attention. In the first place, sanctification, as the New Testament describes it, is an essential aspect of salvation. It is not secondary or subordinate to salvation proper, but belongs to the experience itself. The New Testament passages that specifically employ the term sanctification (such as Romans 6:22) indicate this, as do those passages that describe the concrete changes in personal behavior that salvation involves, whether in terms of good works (James 2:24), or of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), or of the progressive acquisition of several traits of character (2 Peter 1:5-9). According to the New Testament, then, a person is not saved and then sanctified, a person is sanctified as a part of salvation. The Protestant Reformers recognized this in their insistence that justification and sanctification always occur together. 4

To emphasize that salvation necessarily includes sanctification, note that the experience of salvation may be described as a "multidimensional unity," an expression usually applied to the Biblical conception of man. While for certain purposes it may be desirable to distinguish different dimensions of the experience, salvation itself is a totality, not a succession of different experiences. In this light, the expressions "justification" and "sanctification" describe not two separate experiences, but aspects of the inclusive experience of salvation.

The contents of Steps to Christ, Ellen G. White's most popular book, illustrate this. For the most part, the various "steps" do not describe separate, successive phases that a person experiences one at a time. Instead, they portray various aspects of the Christian life throughout its duration. For instance, one does not repent once and for all in an early stage of his Christian experience. Rather, the attitude of repentance must characterize one's entire life.

A second characteristic of sanctification deserves special attention in light of the recent discussions. The New Testament describes sanctification, as it does justification, as a divine activity. "It is God who justifies," Paul said in Romans 8:33.* And in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 he wrote, "May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly." Some discussions of salvation create the impression that justification is God's work and sanctification is man's work. But the New Testament gives no support to the idea that God takes care of our justification and then leaves our sanctification to us. Rather, it represents God as responsible for both.

At this point someone may object that human effort is essential to sanctification while it has no part to play in justification. A careful examination of the New Testament passages pertaining to human effort, however, reveals that this is not the essential distinction. Philippians 2:12, 13 probably helps most: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." So, what may at first appear to be human effort, turns out, upon closer inspection, to be the results of divine activity. The Christian's good works are really the "fruit of the Spirit." 5 A Christian cannot point to anything in the experience of salvation, in justification or sanctification, as his contribution or achievement. He has absolutely no grounds for boasting. Salvation is the work of God in all its aspects, from first to last.

To be sure, sanctification does involve human effort. But our effort in sanctification is analogous to that of our faith in justification. Faith is a condition of justification, but not a contribution—as if justification were somehow a cooperative achievement, partly man's work, and therefore, only partly God's work. Similarly, human effort may be a condition of sanctification, but this does not render sanctification in part a human achievement. We are not somehow more responsible for our sanctification than we are for our justification. Divine activity effects both. It is God who justifies, but it is also God who sanctifies. Justification perhaps more vividly or distinctly underlines the priority of divine activity and this is probably one reason why it receives such emphasis in our doctrine of salvation. But sanctification, when clearly understood, shows the same priority.

While justification and sanctification have important similarities, as aspects of the experience of salvation and as divine activities, they also differ in significant ways—particularly as Ellen White describes them. Notably, they differ as to the period of time that each involves. According to Ellen White, justification takes place instantly. It represents an immediate change in a person's status before God. 6 In contrast, sanctification is progressive. It is not complete in a moment, but occupies a lifetime. 7 Ellen White emphasized the progressive character of sanctification in response to the view prevalent in her day that sanctification does not take an indeterminate period of time, but can be fully realized here and now. Besides noting that instantaneous sanctification does not harmonize with the Biblical description of sanctification, Ellen White also criticizes this concept because it easily becomes a pretext for spiritual pride and for disregarding the commandments of God.8 Those who believe they are already sanctified often show little inter est in the fruits of a godly life.

The progressive character of sanctification gives rise to the perplexing question of perfection. For if sanctification occurs progressively over a period of time and not all at once, one may naturally ask where this process is headed and when it is complete. Our brief examination of perfection will focus on some of Ellen White's statements, since Adventists are dependent largely upon her writings for their understanding of the subject.

Ellen G. White applies the term perfection to the process of Christian growth in two different ways. At times she speaks of growth in perfection, as when she writes, "At every stage of development our life may be perfect." 9 At other times she speaks of perfection as a goal of the Christian life, or of growth toward perfection. For example, she writes, "Glorious is the hope before the believer as he advances by faith toward the heights of Christian perfection!" 10 The idea that the Christian should direct his life toward the goal of perfection raises the further questions of whether he can attain this goal, and if so, when he can or will reach it. These questions have become particularly important to Seventh-day Adventists in view of the delay of Christ's return. Many believe that Christ has not yet come because He is waiting for His people to reach perfection of character before returning to this earth.11

To clarify some of the issues involved in the questions of perfection, we should notice that the idea of "goal" can function in two different ways. It may refer either to an ideal objective, or on the other hand, to a realistic objective. To illustrate, a sailor may direct his boat toward a star on the horizon, not because he hopes to reach it, but because traveling toward it keeps him on the right course. In contrast, he may sail toward a certain landmark, such as Catalina Island, because it is his actual destination. In different ways, both the star and his landmark serve as goals to the navigator, although he expects to reach his goal eventually in the one case, but not in the other. The Christian life is often thought of as a journey toward the goal of perfection in character. In this case, does perfection represent a destination that the believer will actually reach at some point in time or is it instead an ideal, which, like the navigator's star, keeps the Christian traveler on the right course throughout his journey?

In answering this question, it is important to notice that Ellen G. White makes different kinds of statements relative to the issue of perfection. First of all, she makes numerous statements that describe perfection as a divine standard, or an obligation to be fulfilled. "The Lord requires perfection from His redeemed family. He expects from us the perfection Christ revealed in His humanity." 12 Besides the language of obligation or requirement, Ellen White also employs the language of possibility to speak of perfection, using words such as may and can. "God calls upon us to reach the standard of perfection and places before us the example of Christ's character. In His humanity, perfected by a life of constant resistance to evil, the Saviour showed that through cooperation with Divinity, human beings may in this life attain a perfection of character. This is God's assurance to us that we, too, may obtain complete victory." 13

Statements like this appear to describe perfection as a practical possibility, which we can actually reach in this life. And if this were all Ellen White said, we could easily conclude that some will actually do so. Another kind of statement she makes, however, warns us against drawing this conclusion too hastily. For when she specifically describes the actual results of Christian growth, she indicates that God's people always come short of perfection. Thus she writes, "So long as Satan reigns, we shall have self to subdue, besetting sins to overcome; so long as life shall last, there will be no stopping place, no point which we can reach and say, I have fully attained." 14 No true Christian, therefore, will ever claim to be perfect: "We are never to rest in a satisfied condition, and cease to make advancement, saying, 'I am saved.' . . . No sanctified tongue will be found uttering these words till Christ shall come." 15 Indeed, far from claiming perfection, he will discover more and more ways in which he needs to change: "The closer you come to Jesus, the more faulty you will appear in your own eyes." 16 Ellen White apparently did not hold, then, that we will actually become perfect in this life.

Some may argue that Ellen White contradicts herself. For if we will never reach the point where we can accurately claim perfection, why say that we can become perfect? Conversely, if we really can become perfect, why say we will always have besetting sins to overcome? In response to this, it is important to notice that in none of the statements described is Ellen White directly answering the question, Will we or won't we become perfect in this life? These various statements have a somewhat different purpose. Instead of predicting how far a Christian will grow in this life, they are intended to encourage the development of certain attitudes along the way.

She may have intended these different groups of statements for people with different personal problems. The first group, for example, may speak to those who underestimate God's expectations, satisfying themselves with a low level of spiritual achievement. To this group, Ellen White says, in effect, "God's standard is much higher than you think. It is nothing short of perfection." The second group may apply to those who are discouraged by the height of God's expectations, or disillusioned by previous personal failures. To such individuals, Ellen White says, "Take heart. There is no limit to what the power of God can do in your lives." And she may have meant the third group of statements for those who are overly impressed with their spiritual accomplishments, or who believe they no longer need be concerned with their spiritual growth.

Besides applying to the misconceptions of different people, the statements may also refer to some important elements within the personal outlook of each individual Christian. They suggest that a growing Christian's experience will include the simultaneous development of several different attitudes: increasing appreciation for the height of God's standard, growing confidence in God's sanctifying power, and deepening distrust of one's own abilities. Interpreted in this way, Ellen White's statements define an essential tension within the Christian life. On the one hand, we need to believe that perfection is possible, that we can by God's grace reach the high standard that He has set for us. On the other hand, we must never claim to have reached this standard; perfection always remains beyond the level of our present attainment. Consequently, to the question, Can we become perfect? the Christian answers, Yes, expressing his trust in God. However, to the question, Have you become perfect? the Christian answers, No, expressing dis trust in himself. If one or the other of these elements—trust in God or distrust of self—is missing, the essential structure of Christian faith will collapse and give way either to discouragement or to presumption.

We see, then, that Ellen White's statements affirming the possibility of perfection serve the purpose of encouragement, rather than prediction. They refer to an ideal that gives direction and motivation to the Christian's experience rather than to a specific level of achievement that will actually be reached at some point during this life.

When we think about perfection as the goal of sanctification, we need to remember that the content of perfection can be conceived in different ways. Many people think of perfection as primarily negative, as avoiding certain forms of behavior, or successfully resisting temptations to do wrong. In this vein, perfection is often equated with sinlessness, and people frequently speak of "sinless perfection." While perfection certainly involves the absence of sinful behavior, it has a positive as well as a negative side. It consists in the presence of certain attitudes and actions.

The life of Christ Himself, the ultimate manifestation of a holy character, most clearly evinces this. Certainly He never yielded to temptation, but some how this fact alone fails to express the essence of His spiritual accomplishment. For what equally distinguished His life from all others was the fact that love was the constant motive of His actions. He devoted His entire life to self-forgetful service for others. Not once did He sacrifice another's welfare to His own advancement, and He crowned His ministry by giving His life for the salvation of men. 17 Thus, the essence of our Lord's spiritual accomplishment was the depth and constancy of His love. His never yielding to temptation is comprehended in His love, because His fiercest temptations were to leave the path of unselfish service with all that this meant.

Taking love, then, as the ideal of sanctification suggests another interpretation of the famous statement in Christ's Object Lessons, p. 69. "When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own." The consummation of the plan of salvation awaits a manifestation of Christ's love for others in the lives of His people. Only this will attract the world to what they have to say and enable them to complete their mission.


1 See, for example, Geoffrey J. Paxton, The Shaking of Adventism (Wilmington, Del.: Zenith Publishers, Inc., 1977), pp. 135, 148.

2 Ex. 19:6.

3 For example, Rom. 12:1; 1 Thess. 4:3.

4 John Calvin makes this point in the following way: "Why, then, are we justified by faith? Because by faith we apprehend the righteousness of Christ, which is the only medium of our reconciliation to God. But this you can not attain without at the same time attaining to sanctification; for he 'is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption' (1 Cor. 1:30). Christ therefore justifies no one whom He does not also sanctify." Institutes of the Christian Religion, III. 30. 1.

5 Gal. 5:22.

6 "Justification is a full, complete pardon of sin. The moment a sinner accepts Christ by faith, that moment he is pardoned." The SDA Bible Commentary,   Ellen G. White Comments, on Rom. 5:1, p. 1071. ,

7 The Great Controversy, p. 470; The Acts of the Apostles, p. 560.

8 The Great Controversy, pp. 471fT.

9 Christ's Object Lessons, p. 65.

10 The Acts of the Apostles, p. 533.

11 This view is frequently supported by appealing to the following statement: "When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own." Christ's Object Lessons, p. 69.

12 Child Guidance, p. 477. Also: "God requires perfection of His children. His law is a transcript of His own character, and it is the standard of all character." Christ's Object Lessons, p. 315.

13 The Acts of the Apostles, p. 531. Also: "Jesus revealed no qualities, and exercised no powers,
that men may not have through faith in Him. His
perfect humanity is that which all His followers
may possess, if they will be in subjection to God as
He was." The Desire of Ages, p. 664.

14 The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 560, 561.

15 Selected Messages, book 1, p. 314.

16 Steps to Christ, p. 64.

17 Mark 10:45.

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Richard Rice, Ph.D., is an associate professor of theology, Loma Linda University, Division of Religion, Loma Linda, California.

June 1984

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