John Owen on sanctification

John OwenThis is the second part of a lecture on John Owen and the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of believer. The first focused was about John Owen and regeneration. This one focuses on sanctification.

Sanctification: past, present and future
Sanctification has traditionally been used to refer to the gradual process of moral transformation; of becoming like Christ. But the New Testament also speaks of sanctification as a completed act by which we have access to God.

‘Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?’ asks the Psalmist. ‘Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false.’ (Psalm 24:3-4) No-one can come before God unless they are holy just as God is holy. God is a consuming fire that would destroy all that it is impure. And yet believers can come before God and call him ‘Father’. We have been sanctified. This does not mean we are now without sin – there is still a process of transformation that will not be complete until we get to heaven. But we are now declared holy in God’s sight. We have been cleansed by the blood of Jesus. God chose believers ‘as the first fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth’ (2 Thessalonians 2:13). Believers ‘were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God’ (1 Corinthians 6:11). Christians are called ‘saints’ = ‘holy ones’. David Peterson calls this ‘definitive sanctification’. So sanctification is ‘a one-time act, valid for all time imputing and imparting holiness, and an ongoing, progressive work’.

I suspect the word ‘sanctification’ has not been used of the past, completed sense of sanctification because the theological term reserved for this is ‘justification’. ‘Sanctification’ has been kept for the life-long process of change to distinguish it from ‘justification’. But in biblical terms sanctification is a past, present and future activity. We are now holy in God’s sight. We are being made holy through the Spirit. And we will be perfected in heaven.

Owen’s discussion of sanctification focuses on the traditional sense of the process – the gradual, life-long process of change by which we become confirmed to the image of Christ.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:23 Paul prays: ‘May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.’ As Owen highlights, this makes it clear that God himself sanctifies us. It is a work of grace rather than a work of nature. (p. 99) This work of sanctification ‘is the direct work of the Holy Spirit on our whole nature’. (p. 100).

Like conversion, Owen speaks of sanctification is trinitarian terms. God sanctifies us by the Spirit through the Son. ‘The Holy Spirit is the chief worker of holiness in us on the basis of the blood shed by Christ on the cross by which the right for the Holy Spirit to work holiness in us was purchased’. (p. 126; see also pp. 150-3) Discussing the sacrificial system of the Old Testament as a pointer to Christ, Owen says: ‘It is the blood of Christ applied to our souls by the Holy Spirit that actually purges our souls from sins (1 John 1:7; Rev. 1:5; Heb. 9:14; Eph. 5:25-26; Titus 2:14).’ (p. 126)

Owen speaks of ‘evangelical holiness’ (i.e. ‘gospel holiness’). An unregenerate mind can know the literal sense of Christian doctrines, but it does not know the reality which the doctrines present. The truth does not have a transforming effect in their lives. Without the illumination of the Spirit the will of God becomes futile ‘legal obedience’. But the gospel teaches shows how good works are founded in God’s grace to us in Christ. ‘What the eye is to the body, the mind is to the soul. If the mind sees the glory and beauty of Christ and his salvation presented in the gospel, it will excite the heart to desire them as truly good, and the will to receive and embrace them.’ (p. 66) ‘The purpose of the gospel is also to persuade men by the preaching of the truth and the encouragement of the promise to renounce their sins and all other ways of satisfying God, and to receive by faith that way of life and salvation which by the gospel is preached to them (2 Cor. 5:18-21; col. 1:25-28).’ (pp. 101-102).

Owen employs a common Puritan distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The idea is that originally God made a covenant of works with humanity in which we were perfectly to obey him. In the covenant of grace we are accepted by grace through faith in Christ’s work on our behalf. ‘God in the covenant of grace is pleased to accept that holy obedience which we do sincerely. Christ fulfilled a perfect obedience for us, so our evangelical obedience does not make us accepted by God. It is faith alone in Christ alone that does that. Evangelical obedience is the way we show our gratitude to God.’ (p. 137). I am not persuaded by the distinction between a covenant or works and of grace. I believe God has always required of humanity the ‘obedience of faith’ – an obedience that comes from believing that he is a good God whose reign is a gracious reign.

But the key point is that we are not sanctified into order to be accepted by God. We are accepted by God through the righteousness of Christ.

The supernatural principle
Owen says: ‘The reason why the Spirit is given for sanctification is regeneration.’ (p. 115) In other words, regeneration brings about a decisive change that makes sanctification possible. Owen speak of this as ‘the gracious, supernatural principle’ imparted to believers through the Spirit. Owen asserts ‘that in the sanctification of believers the Holy Spirit doth work in them, in their souls, their minds, wills, and affections, a gracious, supernatural habit, principle, and disposition of living unto God; wherein the substance or essence, the life and being, of holiness doth consist.’ (Works, 3:468-9)

Exercise What does Owen say about the ‘supernatural principle’?
What biblical categories does it reflect?

John Owen, The Holy Spirit, abridged and simplified by R. J. K. Law (Banner, 1998), pp. 138-139.

There is such a supernatural work created in believers by the Holy Spirit which always abides in them. This work of the Holy Spirit inclines the mind, will and heart to deeds of holiness and thus makes us fit to live to God. This work also gives power to the soul enabling it to live to God in all holy obedience. This work differs specifically from all other habits, intellectual or moral, that we may achieve by our own efforts, or by spiritual gifts that we might be given.

What do we mean by a supernatural habit? It is not any single act of obedience to God. Single acts of obedience may prove holiness but will not create it ( 1 Cor. 13:3; Isa. 1:11-15). A supernatural habit is a virtue, a power, a principle of spiritual life and grace wrought in our souls and all our faculties. This supernatural habit constantly abides in believers; it exists before any actual deed of holiness is done, and is itself the cause and origin of all true deeds and holiness.

This supernatural habit in us does not bring forth deeds of holiness by its own innate ability, as in ordinary physical habits. It does so by the Holy Spirit enabling it to produce them. The whole power and influence of this supernatural habit is from Christ our head (Eph. 4:15,16; Col. 3:3; John 4: 14). It is in us as sap is in the branch. Furthermore, it varies in strength and flourishes more in some believers than in others. And while it is not acquired by works of obedience, yet it is our duty to care for it, to help it grow within us and to strengthen and improve it. We need to exercise our spiritual graces just as we exercise our bodies.

There is a spiritual habit or ruling principle of spiritual life wrought in believers from which all holiness comes (Deut. 30:6; Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 36:26, 27; John 3:6; Gal. 5:17; 2 Pet. 1:4) .The Spirit of God creates in the believer a new nature which expresses itself in all the activities of the life of God in us (Eph. 4:23- 24; Col. 3:10). And by this spiritual life wrought in us we are continually united to Christ.

The Holy Spirit dwelling in us is the cause of this union with Christ, but the new nature is the means by which we are united to Christ (Eph. 5:80; 1 Cor; 6: 17; Heb, 2: 11, 14) . Our likeness to God lies in this new spiritual habit created in us, for by it the image of God is repaired in us (Eph. 4:23-24; Col. 3:10). And it is by this new spiritual life in us that we are enabled to live to God. This is the internal ruling principle of life from which all vital acts in the life of God come. This is the life which Paul describes as ‘hidden with Christ in God ‘ (Co;. 3:10) . He thus draws a veil over this spiritual life, knowing that we are unable to look steadfastly at its glory and beauty.

So let us learn not to satisfy ourselves, nor rest in any acts or duties of obedience, nor in ally good works, how­ever good and useful they may be, which do not arise from this vital principle of holiness in our hearts (Isa. 1: 11-15).

The new ability wrought in us through regeneration is called in the New Testament the ‘new man’. The ‘“old man”’ is our corrupt human nature which has the power and ability to produce evil thoughts and actions. The “new man” has the power and ability to produce religious, spiritual and moral actions.’ (p. 49) ‘[Regeneration] is a work of God in us proceeding all our good works towards God.’ (p. 49)

Progressive sanctification

So regeneration brings about a decisive change. We now have the supernatural principle at work within us. But, say Owen, ‘sanctification is progressive work’ (Works, 3:386). It does not take place in a moment (like regeneration). It is a lifelong task that will only be completed in heaven. ‘By this ruling principle of holiness in us, sin is weakened and gradually taken away and the soul is constantly desires to be holy.’ (p. 141, emphasis added)

In the natural state, sin ruled, but the two lights , namely conscience and the mind, opposed it. In the state of regeneration, the grace of holiness rules, but it is opposed by the remains of indwelling sin. And as conscience and reason stop many a sinner from sinning, so the remains of sin hinder the regenerate nature from doing many good things. (pp. 142-3)

There is in Owen a strong sense that sanctification is the normal pattern of the Christian life. We are being progressively made holy. This is because sanctification is God’s work. God is at work in us making us like his Son.

Why don’t we feel like we are growing in holiness?

First, Owen argues that growing in holiness and feeling that we are growing in holiness may not be the same thing.

It is one thing to have holiness really growing and thriving in the soul; it is quite another for that soul to know it and be satisfied with it … We must not only believe [God] will help us, but we must also believe that he is now helping us. We must not rely on our feelings or whether we are aware of being more holy or not. (p. 109).

Often ‘corruptions and temptations help the fruitfulness of grace and holiness’ (p. 110) … ‘corruptions and temptations develop the roots of humility, self-abasement and mourning in a deeper search for that grace by which holiness grows strong’. (p. 111) ‘More experienced Christians often have greater troubles, temptations and difficulties in the world. God has new work for them to do’. (p. 111) Elsewhere Owen says sanctification is achieved by two means: (1) faith, and (2) troubles and affliction. (p. 126) So the normal pattern for Christians is progressive growth in holiness – even if we are not always able to observe this for ourselves since it may be accompanied by corruptions and temptations.

As the Mississippi River flows south to the sea is twists and turns to such an extent that at times it is flowing north away from the sea. Yet the water within it is still flowing to the sea. So it is with sanctification. Sometimes in our lives we twist and turn so that we move away from God and godliness, yet true Christians are still flowing towards the perfection of heaven.

But the second reason we may not be growing in holiness is that we are not! Sometimes Christians backslide. This is because we fail in our duty. We resist the Spirit’s work of sanctification. ‘Firstly by allowing any lust in us to grow till we yield to its temptations. If we do this we neglect the duty of killing sin. Secondly we can resist it by not encouraging holiness to grow and thrive in us.’ (p. 112) There are three common reasons why believers fail in their duty:

1. They presume they are already perfect.

2. They believe that grace means they need not bother with holiness.

3. They despair of making progress.

Many complain that sanctification seems to come to a full stop later in the Christian life. Then the soul appears to be like a desert, barren and dead, which is quite opposite to their experience in the early years of their Christian life. But they must understand that while it is natural for grace and holiness to grow up to perfection, it will not grow if its growth is not helped but hindered. Sinful negligence and self-indulgence, or love for this present world, hinders this growth in grace.

The Spirit’s sanctifying work and our responsibility
God does not require is to make atonement for our sins or make ourselves righteous or merit salvation – though this is what people think. Instead ‘God commands us to be holy and he promise to make us holy’. (p. 103) How should we respond?

1. Remember we are utterly unable to be holy.

2. Adore the grace that promises to do we are unable to do (i.e. to make us holy).

3. Pray for God to fulfil his promise to make us holy.

4. Pray especially for God to keep us hold in times of temptation.

5. Remember that ‘it is the Holy Spirit who sanctifies all believers, and who produces all holiness in them.’ (p, 104)

Notice that none of these are thing we must ‘do’. Sanctification is the Spirit’s work in us. So sanctification is not an human achievement. It is by faith. ‘Holiness, being the subject of so many gospel promises, must be received by faith.’ (p. 110) ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ says that men are sanctified by faith in him.’ (p. 118) ‘It is by faith that our souls are purified (Acts 15:9). Faith is the hand of the soul that takes hold of the blood of Christ for cleansing.’ (p. 129).

The work of holiness is carried on in us by increasing and strengthening those graces of holiness which we have received and by which we obey. Whatever duties towards God men may perform, if they are not motivated by faith and love they do not belong to that spiritual life by which we live to God (Luke 17:5; Eph. 3:17; 1 Thess. 3:12-13).’ (pp. 105-6).

In other words, sanctification takes place by the increase of the two graces of faith and love. ‘The Holy Spirit does this work of holiness by stirring up the grace [of faith and love] within us’ through worship and preaching, through his indwelling presence, and ‘by supplying believers with experience of the truth, reality and excellence of the things that are believed.’ (p. 106)

If holiness is God’s work and if we can do nothing without him is there any point in ‘diligence, duty and obedience’? Owen refers to 2 Peter 1:3: ‘His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.’ He comments:

Knowing this great truth, says Peter, we ought to let it motivate us and encourage us to all diligence to make ourselves holy (v. 5). So two things are required. First, that we wait on God for supplies of his Spirit and grace, without which we can do nothing, and secondly, when those supplies arrive, we must be diligent in our use of them. Without supplies from base, an army cannot fight effectively. but when supplies arrive every solider is called to do his duty diligently. (p. 108)

Although our sanctification and growth in holiness are the work of the Holy Spirit, yet they are also our own work and the duty to which we are called. (p. 112)

The Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification or the cleansing of our souls is done by his applying the death and blood of Christian to them (Eph. 5:25-26; Titus 2:14; 1 John 1:7; Rev. 1:5; Heb. 1:3; 9:14). Nevertheless believers also are commanded to cleanse themselves from sins (Isaiah. 1:16; Jer. 4:14; 2 Cor. 7:1; 1 John 3:3; Psalm. 119:9; 2 Tim. 2:21). (p. 121)

If sin is not diligently hunted down and dealt with by holy violence, it will escape all our attempts at killing it. It is a great mistake to think that we can at any time rest from this duty … Sin cannot be killed without a sense of pain and trouble. (p. 168)

It is natural for Christians to grow towards perfection, but natural growth can be stunted if it is hindered by sinful indulgence or worldly love. In other words, imagine a plant. It is natural for it to grow. If you feed it and care for it, it will grow. You don’t have to stretch it or add bits to it. Growth is natural. But you can hinder its growth by neglecting it: by not feeding or watering it or by blocking out the light. So it is with our sanctification. It is natural for us to grow because the Holy Spirit gives us life. But we can stunt our growth if we neglect to feed our spiritual life or if we block out the light of God. Imagine that the plant is a vine and you are reminded of John 15 where Jesus says: ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.’ (John 15:5-6)

Owen affirms that we have an active responsibility in our sanctification – we are not passive. But the emphasis falls on sanctification as God’s work in us through the Spirit on the basis of Christ’s work on the cross. You keep asking Owen as you read, What must I do? But just when you expect him to tell you what you must do he actually tells you what the Spirit does. It is the Spirit who sanctifies us.

Though we are commanded to ‘wash ourselves’, to ‘cleanse ourselves from sins’, to ‘purge ourselves from all our iniquities’, yet to imagine that we can do these things by our own efforts is to trample on the cross and grace of Jesus Christ. Whatever God works in us by his grace, he commands us to do as our duty. (p. 124)

In other words, the New Testament commands us to cleanse and sanctify ourselves. It also says that God graciously cleanses and sanctifies us by the Spirit through Jesus Christ. Owen reconciles these by saying: ‘Whatever God works in us by his grace, he commands us to do as our duty.’ (p. 124) There is a sense in which our duty is to grow in holiness. But the fuller statement of this is that our duty is to co-operate with the Spirit’s work of sanctifying us. We do not sanctify ourselves, the Spirit sanctifies us. ‘No-one by his own efforts can free himself from the pollution of sin. He can only do it with the help of God the Holy Spirit.’ (p. 124)

The plant metaphor helps. Living plants grow because they have life in them. You can help or hinder their growth. In the same way sanctification is God’s work. We grow in holiness because the Spirit is at work in us and because we are connected to the true vine, Christ. And so sanctification is by faith. What we can do is help or hinder that growth: by basking in the light of God or blocking the light of God; by feeding the new man in us or feeding the sinful nature.

As a crucified person takes a long time to die, so does the ‘body of sin’ within us. But the crucified man on the cross will live much longer if he is fed well and cared for than if he is starved and his legs are broken … when we came to faith in [Christ], by virtue of his death, our sinful, corrupt nature was ‘crucified’ in us. Its power in us was broken. Sin has no more dominion over us. So now this crucified ‘body of sin’ within us must not be fed and cared for, but rather, every effort must be made to hasten its death. (p. 165)

In Galatians 5:16-17 Paul says: ‘Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.’ The story is told by way of illustration of a man who said he felt the conflict between the Spirit and his sinful nature was like two dogs fighting in a sack. When he was asked which one was winning, he replied: ‘The one I feed’.

Owen calls the fight to get rid of sin ‘mortification’ (p. 163) – putting to death sinful desires after Paul in Colossians 3 and John Calvin.

The duty of mortification is to take sides with grace against sin. This means cherishing and strengthening the ruling principles of holiness implanted in us by the Holy Spirit. It means letting graced freely work in us all duties, both internal and external. In this way the activities of the flesh are defeated. It means applying the appropriate grace, with all its power and activity, against that particular sin which desires to be fulfilled. Just as there are particular sins which desire to be fulfilled, so there is a particular grace to oppose each sin. When mortifying a particular sin, that particular grace designed to oppose that particular sin must be brought into place. It is in this right application of the appropriate grace to the particular sin that the secret of mortification lies. (p. 167)

Behind every sin is a lie. Our role is to speak truth to that lie. We are to have faith in the truth instead of acting on the basis of the lie.

When Owen eventually lists our duties this is what they consist of:

1. Continual self-abasement. ‘Remember the defiled and polluted state from which you have been delivered.’

2. Be continually thankful for the deliverance Christ has given you.

3. ‘Watch against all sin, especially its early stirring in the heart … Starve the root of sin (James 1:13-15). Do not feed your sinful desires.’ (p. 133)

We are continually to watch out for the rising up of this ruling principle of sin and immediately subdue it. This is to be done in all that we are and do. We are to be watchful on our behaviour to others, watchful when we are alone, watchful when in trouble or joy, We are to be particularly watchful in the use of our pleasure times and in temptations. (p. 168).

4. Come continually to Jesus Christ for cleansing by his Spirit and the sprinkling of his blood.’ (p. 133) Elsewhere he speaks of the duties of ‘prayer and meditation’. (p. 173)

An Exposition of Titus 3:3-8

Exercise Read Titus 3:3-8. What is our problem? How does God put it right? What should be our response?

Paul says we were ‘enslaved by all kinds of passions’ (v. 3). This is more than the slavery of addictions like drug abuse and alcoholism. If we try to stop sinning we find we cannot. For example, we may try to stop being angry. But at best we still feel angry in our hearts and at worst our anger seeps out one way or another. We are controlled by the sinful desires or passions of our hearts (see Romans 1:24-25). We are deceived by our sin (v. 3). We find ways of pretending sinful actions are not sinful; we think sin is not too bad; we blame others; we say we had no choice. More than that, we sin because we do not believe the truth about God. Sin is rejecting God and his rule. We believe the lie of the serpent in the garden that God’s rule is tyrannical. And so we choose to be gods of our own lives.

‘God our Saviour’ in verse 4 could be the Father or it could be Jesus (see also v.6). For our purposes it does not matter. Either way God’s kindness appeared at the cross. But here Paul emphasises the role of the Spirit. We are saved ‘through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.’ Paul focuses on the way the Spirit sets us free from the deception and slavery of sin described in verse 3. The cross of Christ is the foundation of our salvation. The Spirit is poured out ‘through Jesus Christ our Saviour’ on the basis of his atoning death through which we are ‘justified by his grace’ (v. 7). But the means of our salvation is the Spirit.

Paul says that we have been washed, reborn and renewed by the Holy Spirit. We do sinful things because we have unclean hearts. But now the Spirit has washed us. We sin because we have inherited humanity’s bias towards sin. We are born into sinful humanity. But now we have been re-born into Christ’s new humanity. Once we are dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:1) and enslaved by sin. But now we have been renewed. We have new life and power to live for God free from sin.

In verse 8 Paul tells us how we should respond to the saving work of the Spirit. Those who are being changed by the Holy Spirit should devote themselves to doing good. Notice that God is working in us to change us and we are to work to change. Without the Holy Spirit we could not change. But we still have a responsibility to live a new life.

I want to conclude with a couple of quotes from Owen that place regeneration and sanctification as part of the larger picture of God’s eternal covenant plan for believers:

The reason why the Spirit is given for regeneration is election. The reason why the Spirit is given for sanctification is regeneration. The reason why the Spirit is given for comfort is sanctification, along with the temptations and troubles which those who are being sanctified are going through. It is because of these troubles that believes need the Holy Spirit as the Comforter. (p. 115)

In other words: election leads to regeneration leads to sanctification leads to comfort (with troubles)

Holiness is not only for this life, but goes on with us into eternity and glory. Death of no power to destroy holiness. The activities of holiness are indeed momentary and transient, but their fruits last for ever in their rewards (Rev. 14:13; Heb. 6:10). holiness last for ever and enter into glory with us (1 Cor. 13:8). (p. 101)


See David Peterson, Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness (Apollos, 1995), p. 14.

K. Bockmuehl, ‘Sanctification,’ New Dictionary of Theology (IVP, 1988), p. 615,