In this essay we want to do a summary comparison of four major theological traditions in regard to sanctification. Hopefully, that will give us a good overall view of the doctrine. Although all four traditions hold to a doctrine of sanctification, and all would agree that ultimately, at least, it includes freedom from sin for all believers, they differ at the point of various interpretations of how and when it is attained.
The four major traditions are the Roman Catholic, the Classic Calvinist (sometimes called the high Calvinist position), the Arminianized Calvinist (sometimes called the low Calvinist view), and the Wesleyan. The Arminianized Calvinist view is a position held by people in the Calvinistic tradition, who no longer hold to unconditional election (the idea that God chooses who will be saved or not). The comparison of these four views of sanctification should suffice to enable us to understand the doctrine better.
It is possible to have the culpability (blameworthiness) of sinfulness forgiven without having the sinful nature itself removed. Therefore all Christians are susceptible to sinning. That is why all of these traditions believe in sanctification. That also is why talking about the negative sense of deliverance from culpability of sin is not enough. We must go on and talk about sanctification as a positive condition of real holiness.
In the last essay, we saw from the scriptures that Christians are expected by God to actually be holy, but how does one accomplish that? In the Wesleyan Arminian view, the process starts at conversion. One of the concomitant events (events that occur at the same time) of conversion is initial sanctification, which begins the actual process of one’s getting one’s will in harmony with the will of God. The other three concomitant events are justification, regeneration and adoption.
Justification is the forgiving of our sins. Regeneration is receiving the Holy Spirit and as a result being born again. And adoption is being adopted into the family of God. Initial sanctification, on the other hand is the beginning of a single process of making the Christian holy as Christ is holy, a process that continues until, and even beyond, full sanctification. It is the process whereby the tendency of one’s will is turned from evil towards good, and the will becomes so closely attuned to the will of God that one is cleansed from sin and made holy.
Roman Catholicism doesn’t really deal with getting rid of the depraved nature itself. Catholicism assumes that people will continue sinning after baptism; and as they do, they are to continue to confess and receive absolution and receive their forgiveness through the Sacraments of Penance and Eucharist (Holy Communion). Those who die with unforgiven sin on their souls go to purgatory where unforgiven, post-baptismal sins can be purged by temporary suffering.
Thus, when we consider the means of holiness in the Roman Catholic view, we see that there is both an imputation (a reckoning or ascribing to) and an impartation of righteousness; and the impartation occurs through the Sacraments.
However, in most cases, the process of actual holiness does not seem to have any permanency until after the soul has been purged in purgatory. Only unusual Christians, rare saints, manage, through exceptional good works, to attain holiness in this life.
Now then, turning to the Calvinist views, the basic position is that sanctification is imputed to the Christian at conversion. And so God considers all Christians to be holy from the moment of conversion. But insofar as the actual holiness of Christians is concerned, that must be worked at day by day. That is, the Christian seeks to be, and to do, good out of gratitude to God. In this view, Christians with the help of the Holy Spirit, repress their carnality for the glory of God. And actual holiness occurs only at death (Calvin, Institutes, Book three, chapter xiv, par. 12). Thus we can summarize the Calvinistic tradition regarding holiness as an imputation in this life. Impartation takes place only at death.
The Arminianized Calvinistic view is a kind of cross between the high Calvinist and the Wesleyan. It includes an imputed sanctification like that of the classic Calvinists; but it also places more emphasis on impartation in this life. They believe that the Holy Spirit will fill those who invite him to do so. Hence, though they believe that Christians must repress their carnality, they also believe that the Holy Spirit provides more real help in their efforts than their brethren in the classic camp. Nevertheless a complete holiness is only possible at death. Thus the means, in the Arminianized Calvinistic view, consists of both imputation and impartation in this life, with full impartation at death.
And finally, the Wesleyan view says that real holiness is possible in this life; and the process of sanctification, which begins at conversion (initial sanctification), continues to the point where one makes a complete commitment of the will to God and even beyond that.
At the point of full commitment, the Christian experiences a real infilling of the Holy Spirit which some call entire sanctification. That infilling cleanses the Christian from sin. Thus in this view, real holiness is possible in this life; and the means are by both imputation and impartation.
I want to make one more observation regarding post-conversion sins. As we have seen, Roman Catholics believe that post-conversion sins are taken care of the same way as pre-conversion sins. The Catholic Christian confesses to the priest, receives absolution, does penance, and participates in the mass. For Protestants, the process is the same for Christians in every Protestant tradition. Protestant Christians believe that when they sin, they simply confess it to God and ask for forgiveness.