Sanctification and Transformation

Greg Strand – February 22, 2013 2 Comments

David Peterson has written many helpful books. Recently Sandy Grant interviewed Peterson about “using biblical words in biblical ways” focusing on two of his books addressing sanctification and transformation.

In the first book discussed, Possessed by God: A New Testament theology of sanctification and holiness, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1995), the following paragraph sums up Peterson’s key thesis (p. 27):

Sanctification is commonly regarded as a process of moral and spiritual transformation following conversion. In the New Testament, however, it primarily refers to God’s way of taking possession of us in Christ, setting us apart to belong to him and to fulfil his purpose for us. Sanctification certainly has present and ongoing effects, but when the verb ‘to sanctify’ (Gk. hagiazein) and the noun ‘sanctification’ (Gk. hagiasmos) are used, the emphasis is regularly on the saving work of God in Christ, applied to believers through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Peterson’s concern is that there was a problem created by the interface between systematic theology and biblical theology.

With regard to sanctification, we have a problem regarding the interface between systematic theology and biblical theology, as well as a complex history of debate between different schools of thought about how we make progress in the Christian life. The use of ‘sanctification’ as a cover-all term for everything that happens between justification and glorification is misleading. Consistent with OT teaching about consecration and holiness, the verb ‘to sanctify’ is used in the NT to describe the beginning of the Christian life, not its progression and development. There are different ways in which related terms are used to challenge us about living out or expressing that sanctified status as the ‘saints’ of God under the New Covenant.

The second book they discussed built on the former book and spelled out further what Christian growth and maturity means by focusing on the term transformation: Transformed by God: New Covenant Life and Ministry (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2012). Peterson claims that the term “transformation” is a better term to describe/explain the process of moral and spiritual growth, even though it is a word that is rarely used in the New Testament (cf. Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 3:21). But, states Peterson, there are good reasons to use the term.

Although ‘transformation’ vocabulary is fairly rare in the NT, it puts the focus emphatically on God’s work in changing us into the likeness of Christ. That theme is more widely expressed in other contexts where related terminology is used (e.g. Rom 8:29; Gal 4:19; Eph 4:13; 1 John 3:2-3). The call is for us to expose our minds and hearts to God’s word and the influence of his Spirit and to respond with faith and obedience, looking for God to change us in his own time, according to his own will.

These are two excellent books to read!

Another important book written by Peterson is Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992). This is one of the best books on a biblical theology of worship I have read; it had a profound impact on my understanding and practice of biblical worship.

His most recent commentary written in the Pillar New Testament Commentary series edited by D. A. Carson is also, as with everything else he writes, very good: The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

2 responses to Sanctification and Transformation

  1. Perhaps further clarification would be helpful. Is Peterson suggesting that the concept of progressive sanctification is not helpful? Is he suggesting that we replace that with the idea of transformation.

    • Wayne, for Peterson it is not the concept that he questions. Instead he questions whether the concept consists in the words “to sanctify” (hagiazein) and “sanctification” (hagiasmos). Peterson concludes those words emphasis the notion of being set apart, what we would refer to as definitive or positional sanctification. He also affirms the notion of progressive sanctification. But because that terminology comes from the discipline of systematic theology, he prefers the biblical term of transformation. Though referred to differently based on the disciplines of biblical and systematic theology, both positions agree that 1) there is definitive/positional being set apart, and 2) there is moral and spiritual growth as Christians are being conformed into the image of the Son (Rom. 8:29; cf. 2 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 4:23-24).

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