Little By Little – Progressive Sanctification

Thank God for his patience with us:

Allow me a moment to make a seemingly odd introduction: Back in 1960 the Chicago blues legend Junior Wells released the song “Little By Little”. It was covered by many bands since then, including the Rolling Stones in 1964 and much later by the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Two lines in it are these: “Little by little, I’m losing you. That I can see. Bit by bit, your love is slipping away from me.”

He of course was referring to a female, but here I want to appropriate his words and take them in a spiritual direction. The biblical doctrine of progressive sanctification says similar sorts of things: over time, and because of God’s grace, we grow in holiness and likeness to Christ.

And that means we grow to dislike our own sin and selfishness. The old man – “the flesh” – is still there, but hopefully we are losing him – hopefully he is slipping away. As we more and more seek to be conformed to the image of Christ, more and more we learn to say no to the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Let me develop all this in two ways. First, there are some believers who claim we should never think of ourselves as sinners once we have come to Christ. They either believe that sin is no longer a thing for Christians, or that to even mention sin is to get bogged down in “negative confession”. They say we should just concentrate on who we now are in Christ.

Now that last point is quite correct: we SHOULD focus on Christ and the blessings we have in him. But that does NOT mean we can claim some sort of sinless perfectionism, nor think that the sin that still dwells within is no longer a problem.

Those notions are nowhere taught in the New Testament. Simply look at the writings of Paul. As I have discussed elsewhere, he found in sanctification a very real progressive awareness of his own sin:

-“For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9 – written in mid-50s).

-“Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ,   (Ephesians 3:8 – written in early 60s).

-“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15 – written in mid-60s).

And just two quotes of many on this:

“You will not gain holiness by standing still. Nobody ever grew holy without consenting, desiring, and agonizing to be holy. Sin will grow without sowing, but holiness needs cultivation. Follow it; it will not run after you. You must pursue it with determination, with eagerness, with perseverance, as a hunter pursues his prey.” C. H. Spurgeon

“Holiness is not a condition into which we drift. We are not passive spectators of a sanctification God works in us. On the contrary, we have purposefully to ‘put away’ from us all conduct that is incompatible with our new life in Christ, and to ‘put on’ a lifestyle compatible with it.” John Stott

See more here:

God’s grace over time

But the second thing I wish to discuss here, and the reason I was motivated to pen this piece in the first place, was because of something I came upon in my morning Bible reading. In Deuteronomy 7:22 we read these words: “The Lord your God will clear away these nations before you little by little.”

Now, one general rule in Bible study is to discern the primary application of passage, and then move on to any possible secondary applications. The context here of course is God’s instructions to the Israelites as they were about to enter Canaan. The passage goes on to say this:

“You may not make an end of them at once, lest the wild beasts grow too numerous for you. But the Lord your God will give them over to you and throw them into great confusion, until they are destroyed. And he will give their kings into your hand, and you shall make their name perish from under heaven. No one shall be able to stand against you until you have destroyed them.”

So this is about how Israel was to take over the promised land. But it seems we can make an application out of this concerning the Christian life. On the one hand God wants us to make a clean break from sin on day one of our Christian journey. We are called to be perfect as our heavenly Father is.

But this will not happen instantly – it will happen over time. And God is being quite gracious in all this. Had God shown you and me ALL the sins and selfishness and things that need to be weeded out of our lives very early on in our Christian walk, we would all be overwhelmed.

I can certainly testify to this. I have now been a Christian for over a half century, and the longer I am a believer, the more I find things in my life that need to be worked on, and/or removed. While some things I was convicted of early on as a believer (saying no to drugs, e.g.) other things have been a work in progress. And some things I was not even aware of have come to light.

So our Lord is very forbearing with us, not exposing us to all of our sin, selfishness and fleshliness in one go. Yes, the beginning to the Christian life involves a conviction of sin, and repentance and faith in Christ as we seek to turn from that sin. But it will take a lifetime to keep weeding out the old and cultivating the new.

I thank God for his patience, mercy and grace that he has shown me over all these decades. I still have a long way to go in this Christian journey, but some progress is being made – and he gets all the credit for it, although sanctification still is a cooperative effort.

A few more quotes on this in closing:

“There is no shortcut to holiness; it must be the business of our whole lives.” William Wilberforce

“You may have sought and tried to obtain instant godliness. There is no such thing… We want somebody to give us three easy steps to godliness, and we’ll take them next Friday and be godly. The trouble is, godliness doesn’t come that way.” Jay E. Adams, Godliness Through Discipline

“There is no shortcut to Olympic-level skill; there is no shortcut to godliness. It is the day in and day out faithfulness to the means which God has appointed and which the Holy Spirit uses that will enable us to grow in godliness. We must practice godliness, just as the athlete practices his particular sport.” Jerry Bridges, The Practice of Godliness

“Although the forgiveness of sin takes an instant, the cure of the sin-soaked soul is gradual and not complete until heaven.” J. Budziszewski, The Revenge of Conscience

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11 Replies to “Little By Little – Progressive Sanctification”

  1. This little song (leaving aside the repeats) captures much of what you’ve said, Bill:

    Little by little everyday
    Little by little in every way
    Jesus is changing me,
    He’s changing me.
    Since I made that turn about face
    I’ve been growing in His grace
    Jesus is changing me.

    He’s changing me, my precious Saviour
    I’m not the same person that I used to be
    Well, it’s been slow going
    But still there’s knowing
    That someday perfect I will be. ……

  2. Sadly, many “Christians” don’t understand that sanctification is a journey for the rest of their lives.
    They see it as a reward and thus, having given their life to Christ, mistakenly think that they have “arrived”

  3. Hi Bill,

    While I appreciate your discussion of this aspect of our response to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, I do think your article verged on being unhelpful, in that it omits probably the most important aspect of Sanctification.

    In his book ‘Possessed By God’ David Peterson, an Australian author, argues that ‘definitive sanctification’ is a more important theme in the NT than has generally been acknowledged. He says, ‘Rightly understood, this doctrine is a key to holy living and a way through the impasses created by much previous debate’.

    His emphasis is upon the importance of Jesus ‘once-for-all sacrifice for sins, stressed by the words in Hebrews 10:10, “we have been sanctified”.

    When Paul writes to correct so. much of the immoral mess at Corinth, he addresses the church as “those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1Cor. 1:2). A great place to begin.

    One could never ‘pursue holiness’ (Heb. 12:14), apart from the certain status given to us, by grace, through the finished work of Christ, namely ‘definitive sanctification’.

    Wesley’s ideas of Christian Perfection, whilst having many good effects, were deficient, because his teaching failed to rightly expound this matter. He did not primarily lay the emphasis upon Christ’s gift, together with faith, humility, patience, thankfulness, prayer and love.

    In an essay entitled, ‘Christian Perfection’ in his book, “God the Holy Father”, P.T. Forsyth says:

    “Christian perfection is the perfection not of conduct, character, or creed, but of faith. It is not a matter of our behaviour before God the judge, but of our relation to God the Saviour. Whatever lays the first stress on behaviour or achievement; on orthodoxy, theological, moral, or social; on conformity to a system, a church, a moral type, or a code of conduct; on mere sinlessness, blamelessness, propriety, piety, or sanctity of an unearthly type—that is a departure from the Gospel idea of perfection; which is completeness of trust, and the definite self-assignment of faith amid much imperfection’. (p. 126-127).

    Praise the Lord for these gifts of justification in the Justifier, and sanctification in the Sanctifier, freely given to sinners such as ourselves—’of whom I am the foremost’. Blessings, Trevor.

    Forsyth, P.T. .’God the Holy Father’, is a free download here:

  4. Thanks Trevor. That some folks will see my theological writings as being unhelpful I can easily accept. That folks can say similar things about scholars and great men of God like Spurgeon, Stott, Bridges, and so on, I find harder to accept. And of course what they and others have written on these matters certainly were NOT based on ‘Wesley’s ideas of Christian Perfection’ – nor was my piece, nor the many dozens of other articles I have written on this.

    I of course have volumes by Forsyth as well as the Peterson book you mention. I can appreciate where they are coming from, knowing that the matters discussed here can be quite complex and much debated. Whether my differences with them means I think they are unhelpful may not be how I would approach these writers however!

    Not to belabour all this, but… I may be a poor theologian and an unclear writer, but there were two main points I tried to make here – both more as a devotional encouragement than as a theological treatise. And I still stand by both of them. Regardless of the particular theological terminology we employ here, I can say this:
    1 – We can all be thankful that God did not reveal to us all that we needed to work on as a new believer, or we likely would have given up in despair!
    2 – Like Paul and most believers, I can truthfully say I am much more aware of my sin and selfishness now than I was when I first became a Christian.

    But thanks for your thoughts. Blessings.

  5. Thanks Bill.
    On those two points, we are agreed.

    As to my first comment, yea, the word ‘unhelpful’ may have been, well, unhelpful. Wesley comes to mind because some in the Wesleyan tradition basically ignored the ‘have been sanctified’ gift in the gospel.

    An ongoing concern has been that when discussions of sanctification are on the table, many have thought they ‘simplified’ things, by naming justification as the gift that comes to us in Christ, and sanctification, as the ongoing response, that is ours pretty much alone.

    It is good to be more nuanced and include the ‘have been sanctified’ as well as the ‘are being’ and ‘will be’ truth of sanctification. Otherwise people can be thrown back upon themselves to ‘improve’. And this often tends toward an unsettled heart, or sheer despair.

    Trust that is helpful.
    Peace to you, in the Triune God, our Sanctifier.

  6. Thanks Trevor. Again, not wanting to belabour all this, since I have covered this in many articles already (and one can only include so much in one article!), but a few quick things. There are in fact two ‘simplified’ and un-nuanced errors to avoid like the plague on this discussion. One is the one you fear, that people will forget that every good gift, including sanctification, is of God, and he indeed does sanctify us and is at work in us by His Spirit. Then they can work like mad on their own efforts, and likely get nowhere in growth in holiness.

    The other error is thinking that believers should just sit back and do nothing because it is thought that this is all God’s work. That ignores the HUNDREDS of imperatives found in the New Testament that COMMAND us to do all sorts of things: crucify the flesh, deny ourselves, say no to sin, resist the devil, draw near to God, do not grieve the Spirit, etc, etc, etc. I suspect that this the main problem with most evangelicals today, not the other. But thanks again.

  7. Excellent! I almost always like and agree with your writings, Bill.

    “The whole purpose of God in redemption is to make us holy and to restore us to the image of God. To accomplish this, He disengages us from earthly ambitions and draws us away from the cheap and unworthy prizes that worldly men set their hearts upon. The true Christian ideal is not to be happy but to be holy.“ (A. W. Tozer)

    However, it is also true that only a holy person can be truly happy—note the fruits of the Spirit include love, inner peace, and joy (Galatians 5:22-23). If these three things are not essential to the definition of happiness, then I do not know what “happy” can possibly mean.

    I entirely believe in the developmental aspect of sanctification. We may, by faith, be “once saved, always saved”, but this is generally not made evident immediately in our lives. Few of us are like St. Stephen. More typically, the True Vine reveals His fruit among the Branches over time, at the proper season (John 15). It is a process of becoming increasingly Christ-like. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we become motivated to study the scriptures and be involved in prayer and meditation. Through this same Spirit, we also become motivated to serve our brothers and sisters… at the convergence of their needs and our own gifts and abilities. We do not do these things because we have to, nor even because of future rewards; we do them because it is our joy, it is who we are now.

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