There are some Christians who teach that saints are totally depraved, with no difference in our being than before we were redeemed. Some of these seem genuinely concerned that we do not hold to infusion of grace into our flesh; and that is a legitimate concern.
It’s not our flesh that has been made new by our new life in Christ. It’s our soul that has been made alive. The soul of the unregenerate is dead – unable to move his flesh in a way pleasing to God. The saint has a soul that is alive to God, with the Spirit of God willing and making him able to do things that ARE pleasing to God (Phil 2:13). This is what I think we are taught in various places, including Romans 12:1-2 (HCSB) Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.
Note this: the way we avoid being conformed to this age is by being transformed by the renewing of our minds. The soul of the saint has been translated from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of His glorious light (Col 1:13) and we are seated with Christ in the heavenlies (Eph 2:6). Obviously this is not speaking about our physical being, but our spiritual being.
It should also be obvious that our mind, which is part and parcel of our soul, controls our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. We are not told that our flesh gets better with time, but we are told to control our thoughts, words, and deeds; we are not to walk as reprobates do, but as children of God:
Ephesians 5:6-11 (HCSB) Let no one deceive you with empty arguments, for God’s wrath is coming on the disobedient because of these things. Therefore, do not become their partners. For you were once darkness, but now ⌊you are⌋ light in the Lord. Walk as children of light— for the fruit of the light ⌊results⌋ in all goodness, righteousness, and truth— discerning what is pleasing to the Lord. Don’t participate in the fruitless works of darkness, but instead expose them.
Did you notice: a command to walk as children of light, which will bear fruit of that light which will reveal itself in goodness, righteousness, and truth – which means we can discern what’s pleasing to the Lord. Why would He give us such discernment if we have NO ability to influence our thoughts, words, and deeds? Why tell us NOT to take part in works of darkness if we are depraved and unable to say no to sin?
None of us will be without sin while we inhabit these bodies of death; but none who have been born from above by the Spirit of God are without a Helper who wills and equips us to do that which is pleasing to Him. We have an Intercessor who will make a way of escape (1 Cor 10:13) so that sin will not have dominion over us, but allow us to run away from it, as Joseph did so long ago. This is the consistent teaching of Scripture.
Romans 6:16-23 (HCSB) Don’t you know that if you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of that one you obey—either of sin leading to death or of obedience leading to righteousness? But thank God that, although you used to be slaves of sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching you were transferred to, and having been liberated from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness. I am using a human analogy because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you offered the parts of yourselves as slaves to moral impurity, and to greater and greater lawlessness, so now offer them as slaves to righteousness, which results in sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free from allegiance to righteousness. So what fruit was produced then from the things you are now ashamed of? For the end of those things is death. But now, since you have been liberated from sin and have become enslaved to God, you have your fruit, which results in sanctification—and the end is eternal life! For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That transforming renewal of our minds works its way out in our patterns of what we think, what we speak, and what we do. We have been liberated from sin and enslaved to God, which results in sanctification – the end of which is eternal life. Sort of sounds like sanctification is one of those essential things God works in us that we cannot do without.
2 Corinthians 7:1 (HCSB) Therefore, dear friends, since we have such promises, let us cleanse ourselves from every impurity of the flesh and spirit, completing our sanctification in the fear of God (see also 1 Peter 2:11).
We work at completing this sanctification by cleansing ourselves from impurities of the flesh and our fleshly desires. We should not think we can cleanse ourselves by our effort and we should not think God will sanctify us no matter what we do; both are ditches we need to avoid. It’s analogous to being so afraid of works righteousness that we do not tell people to repent and believe or being convinced we can save sinners by our clever words. Both are wrong thinking.
1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 (HCSB) For this is God’s will, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality, so that each of you knows how to control his own body in sanctification and honor, not with lustful desires, like the Gentiles who don’t know God. This means one must not transgress against and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger of all these offenses, as we also previously told and warned you. For God has not called us to impurity but to sanctification. Therefore, the person who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who also gives you His Holy Spirit.
Here is a very specific area of sanctification – sexual purity. Ouch! But look what we’re told: God wills our sanctification so we will know and be able to control our bodies in an honorable way. How anyone can say we are no different from unregenerate people confounds me. There is no teaching of perfectionism, but there is clear teaching that we are to grow in grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus so we won’t be led astray by lawless people (2 Pet 3:17 & 18).
Read the qualifications of elders and deacons in 1 Tim 3 and see sanctified life described in action terms: sensible, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, not a drunkard, not quarrelsome or greedy. No different from depraved reprobates?
2 Thessalonians 2:13-15 (HCSB) But we must always thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God has chosen you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, so that you might obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught, either by our message or by our letter.
We are chosen by God for salvation through sanctification. Not that we are sanctified and then saved, but that just as repentance and faith are separate but inseparable, so is salvation and sanctification. And this sanctification is the work of Spirit through the Word of Truth. And we finish this passage with the exhortation to behave rightly and think rightly, as taught by the apostolic records in Scripture. The Christian’s life IS DIFFERENT than the unregenerate’s life.
I have come to the conclusion that while justification (salvation, redemption) is monergistic, sanctification (perseverance, preservation) is not. But it’s not synergistic, either. That term conveys the notion that both elements or parties are required for the process to function. Even a casual read through the Bible will reveal the fact that God bids us to obey (Galatians 6:9) and enables to do so (Hebrews 13:20 & 21), He commands us to press on for the prize that will not tarnish and sustains us in the doing (Hebrews 12:1 & 2), and reminds us that apart from Him we do nothing (John 15:5). This is the essence of Augustine’s famous prayer that ignited the controversy with Pelagius: “God, command what you will, grant what you command.” The Christian will want to obey God and trust Him to bring it to completion. Yet He also works to conform us to His Son when we rebel and are not careful to walk as children of the light (1 Corinthians 5:9-13; Hebrews 12:3-11; James 1:2-4 & 12). Brothers, this should not be the case, we should not kick the goads; but it is comforting (and convicting) to embrace a God Who is not dependent on us!
So I conclude that God can work to sanctify us without our active participation, yet we cannot work towards growing in likeness to Christ without His active participation (John 15:5). We take 100% responsibility for the sin in our lives, we give God 100% of the credit for the good thoughts, words, and deeds we do. His Spirit in us works so that we pray effectively (Romans 8:26), without Him we can do nothing.
Sanctification. If it’s not part of your life, you need to examine yourself to see if you be in the faith (2 Cor 13:5).