The Initiative of God: Prevenient Grace and Sanctification
For many of us, the word “sanctification,” like the word “justification,” has come to refer to one particular moment in the life-story of the Christian. We think of justification as that moment when we first come to faith and our sins are forgiven. In the last article in this series of three, we saw that, while that is correct, the word justification has greater depth than that.1
We now have to say the same about the word sanctification. We rejoice that God can bring the Christian to a moment of entire sanctification—but our sanctification begins before that. The doctrine of sanctification is also deeply based in the prevenient work of God. What happens in the life-story of each Christian is based in God’s initiative, His prevenient, gracious work in the whole history of salvation.
Corporate Sanctification in Christ
First, it was God’s prevenient grace, or God’s initiative in Christ, that brought about our sanctification.
Once again, we can see how God’s initiative prepared the way in the people of Israel. If sedeq (justice or righteousness) was relative or relational, that is, a matter of their being faithful to the covenant, so qodesh (holiness) was a matter of a real change. “You shall be holy for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44; 1 Peter 1:16). The sinful people of Israel had to offer atoning sacrifices to keep the holy presence of God among them. Particularly, on the Day of Atonement, all of Israel was represented by the High Priest as he took the blood of the atonement into the very presence of God in the Holy of Holies. There, he sprinkled it on the mercy seat, or “seat of atonement” (kapporeth). This was God’s prevenient, gracious preparation for the coming of His Son to sanctify us through His blood.
In the New Testament, the epistle to the Hebrews develops most fully the understanding of our corporate sanctification through Christ’s great act of Atonement. “The blood of bulls and goats,” while commanded by God and provisionally effective for their day, actually had no inherent sanctifying power (Hebrews 10:4).
The only power of these elements was to point forward to the one effective sacrifice—the body and blood of Christ.
But how are we to understand this? Was there some inherent power in the physical chemistry of the actual blood of the body of Jesus? He certainly offered His physical body—it was not a merely “spiritual” sacrifice. But for the biblical writers, each human being is a body-soul (psychosomatic) unity. So it is important that it was the conscious, intentional act of Jesus in His mind and heart to deliver Himself up bodily to the human, political authorities who would crucify Him. He willed His own death as an offering to God. Through it, in His own body, corporate humanity was sanctified.
This act of self-consecration was the culmination of Jesus’ whole life. Jesus was born into the sinful race of Adam. In becoming incarnate, He entered into corporate solidarity with fallen humanity. But right from conception and birth by the Holy Spirit, He sanctified human being and human existence in His own Person. At every point where we were disobedient and living for ourselves, He obeyed the Father’s will in self-denial. He therefore entirely sanctified human nature and human being and human life throughout His consistent, victorious life of holiness. His obedient life as a human being from birth to death was a sinless, self-denying, holy offering to God.
That life came to its climax at the cross. There, Jesus finally and definitively made the ultimate, perfect sacrifice as a human being—giving up His own life in faith that God would raise Him from the dead. And just as the High Priest of Israel represented the people of Israel to God, so the man Christ Jesus represented and embodied the whole human race before God. The corporate sanctification of our humanity was completed, and up from the grave came the first fruits of the new humanity of the resurrection, fully redeemed even from decay and death.
The Prevenient Gift of the Holy Spirit
God’s prevenient work of corporate sanctification was, in one sense, complete and finished. But in another sense, it was not. There is a second way in which God has taken the initiative preveniently to sanctify us.
What had been worked out corporately for the human race as such in the one human being (Jesus) now had to be worked out in each human being. Only now had that become possible. The Holy Spirit had sanctified the human Jesus entirely right from conception and birth and throughout His life, so only now could the Spirit be “poured out on all flesh” (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17).
On the Day of Pentecost, the risen, ascended, exalted Lord Jesus baptized His church in the Holy Spirit. This too was prevenient grace—God acting in gracious initiative. This too was corporate: “They were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1). But within the corporate was the personal: “And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them” (Acts 2:3). The apostles, the sanctified people of God, launched out into Spirit-inspired mission of preaching the gospel of Christ.
Wherever they went, preaching the word in the power of the Spirit, they established churches—corporate fellowships of sanctified believers. In one of his earliest letters, Paul wrote “to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints...” (1 Corinthians 1:2). Paul was addressing the whole church. They were all “saints” (sanctified ones). As John Wesley clearly insisted, all Christians are in a sense sanctified. “We grant,” he wrote, “that the term sanctified is continually applied by Saint Paul to all that were justified.”2
Wesley appealed to the more Johannine language of regeneration to speak of the first initiation of sanctification. And he insisted that justification and regeneration always go together:
"Though it be allowed that justification and the new birth are, in point of time, inseparable from each other, yet they are easily distinguished, as being not the same, but things of a wholly different nature. Justification implies only a relative [relational], the new birth a real change. God in justifying us does something for us, in begetting us again, he does the work in us. The one restores us to the favour, the other to the image of God. The one is the taking away of guilt, the other of the power, of sin."3
This “real change” is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is not enough, therefore, to speak of the beginning of the Christian life as “justification,” as we so often do! That leaves the impression that we can have our sins forgiven yet still live unchanged in sin—the false notion that we can accept Jesus as Saviour without accepting Him as Lord. We must rather insist that with justification goes regeneration, the beginning of sanctification. We are “born again”! There is new love for God in the heart. Receiving the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:6). And, there is consistent victory over outward, deliberate, voluntary breaking of God’s known law (1 John 3:6). Christians do not lie and cheat and murder and live sexually immoral lives.
But the Holy Spirit is not finished with us. God still works within us preveniently to do more. The “gradual work of sanctification” follows.4 The Spirit begins to reveal to us that there is “indwelling sin” (Romans 7:17, 20). Only by setting out to follow the Lord Jesus as justified, regenerated disciples can we make that discovery. Only then can we discover that deep inner tension between our new love for God and the old desire to put ourselves first. That is “the mind set on the flesh” (Romans 8: 6-8). “Flesh,” as we have seen, means humanity considered as corporate; so the “mind set on the flesh” may be interpreted as “the mind set on human goals and values.”
Has God’s prevenient grace provided for our delivery from that? Paul is clear: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4).
What is the just requirement of the law? Jesus summed that up in the two great commandments: the love of God first and foremost and the love of neighbor. Acting preveniently in His grace, God can therefore now fill our hearts with the Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of love in such a way that the shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 is at last fulfilled. That is the perfection of love about which John writes (1 John 4:7-24). That is what Paul prays for: “May the God of peace sanctify you entirely” (1 Thessalonians 5:23; see also 3:12-13).
But still, the prevenient grace of God is not finished with us yet! We still confess how far we fall short, but the Holy Spirit continues to be active in us and around us to lead us “from glory to glory” with all His people to that great day when our physical redemption will at last be complete in the resurrection. He brings some of us through great tribulation and suffering. But He has promised never to leave us. His prevenient, saving, justifying, sanctifying grace is more than sufficient.
T. A. Noble is research professor of theology at Nazarene Theological Seminary, Kansas City, and senior research fellow in theology at Nazarene Theological College, Manchester.
1. T. A. Noble, “The Initiative of God: Prevenient Grace and the Atonement,” Holiness Today, September/October 2020, and “The Initiative of God: Prevenient Grace and Justification,” Holiness Today, November/December 2020.
2. John Wesley, “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” The Works of John Wesley, Vol. 13, 160.
3. Sermon 19, ‘The Great Privilege of Those that are Born of God,’ Wesley, Works, Vol. 2, 436.
4. Sermon 43, ‘The Scripture Way of Salvation,’ Wesley, Works, Vol. 2, 160
Holiness Today, January/February 2021
Please note: This article was originally published in 2021. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.