Introduction: From Profane Strangers to Holy Sons

This issue of the Founders Journal gives exposition of two biblical doctrines discussed in the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of the Second London Confession, adoption and sanctification. The adoption of sinners as sons of God with a view to transforming them into the image of His beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, constitutes one of the most unfathomable blessings of grace. It is a gleaming two-edged sword in the arsenal of God’s weaponry to subdue rebel creatures to constitute them loving sons.

One edge of the sword kills, and the other makes alive. One edge divides the indivisible and lays us bare before the eyes of Him with whom we must contend both now and in eternity. The other opens blind eyes and dead affections to see and love and trust the Son of God in our nature, tempted in all points as we but never with the effect of sin. In His ascension to the throne of God as our advocate, intercessor, righteous propitiation, and brother we are bidden to draw near with confidence to receive mercy. Not only forgiven and justified, we are granted the privileges of sons of God. Grace, unmerited, unfrustrable, freely sets out gifts to be enjoyed and operates internally that we might see how inexhaustibly pleasurable such gifts are.

Contrary to our merits but fully consistent with Christ’s, we are changed from rebellious aliens and strangers into loving, adoring subjects and sons. He adopts us! We have received a “spirit of adoption whereby we cry ‘Abba! Father!’” while the “Spirit Himself testifies along with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:15, 16). All the privileges of sonship and family dignity and likeness become ours. We have an inheritance “incorruptible, undefiled, that does not fade away, reserved in heaven” for us (1 Peter 1:4). We also have an anticipation for the beauty of its glory that makes us sing sincerely, “Fade, fade each earthly joy.”

The natural Son of God, ever Son, eternally the Beloved, is in Himself an eternal outflow of the love of the Father, ever the Father, never absent His effulgence of love; adopted sons of God are so by an act of the gracious covenantal will of God. The eternal Son of God is so by eternal generation and natural relation; redeemed sons of God are so by regeneration and gracious adoption.

As adoption has its legal state as well as its experiential process, so sanctification has its objective reality and its development of subjective transformation. The elect, already set apart in eternity, are set apart as God’s own possession in time. In addition, they are made to be zealous of good works. Once under the dominion of the flesh, now by the Spirit we wage war against the flesh.

In the work of Christ as applied to us by the Spirit, the “body of sin” has been destroyed both in its condemning and dominating capacity. By Christ’s resurrection, the complete power of death has been broken. In Adam death meant condemnation; in Adam death meant dominating, determinative corruption of soul. Christ’s resurrection showed that whatever power death had (as the wages of sin) came to an end; its mastery was terminated both as to damnation and domination. Now we no longer are slaves to sin, its absolute sway has been broken so that we can progressively discern its subtleties and refuse to obey its lusts and present our bodies as instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:4-14). Though we often will find deep distress in the tenacity and metastasy of indwelling sin, nevertheless the law of our minds concurs with the law of God and our confidence is that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 7:21- 8:2).

Sanctification is carried on in light of four factors: the Spirit of God, the truth of God, the example of how perfect holiness operates in producing righteousness, and the clarity of hope. All of the people of God from Adam through the last person saved prior to the glorious appearing of Christ have been, or will be, brought into the kingdom of God by the regenerating work of the Spirit. They have been, or will be, kept by the internal presence and sealing of the Spirit. No such thing exists as a believer without the Spirit. No individual perseveres as a person of faith apart from the indwelling of the Spirit. “He who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Christ” (Romans 8:9). This of factors, however, expands the scope of sanctification as the revelation of redemption advances throughout the biblical period and as its power expands throughout time.

All sanctification is the immediate operation of the Spirit of God. Sanctification is of the nature, however, that its advance comes in the context of, in the light of, certain spiritually embraced mental perceptions. These impressions in the mind arise from the presence of truthful propositions derived from biblical revelation. Wherever these mental perceptions become a part of one’s understanding they become fruitful by the immediate operation of the Spirit of truth in sanctification.

Old Testament believers in increasing proportions had the elements of sanctification available to their understanding; after the coming of Christ, his teaching, his death-burial-resurrection-ascension, the initiating of the new covenant as the determining identification of the people of God, and the writings of the apostles and prophets, the material for sanctification increased exponentially. As the revelation of truth increased, so holy expectations would increase. As each writing of the Old Testament was brought into the body of written truth that governed life and worship for Israel, so the potential for holy living would increase even unto the time of the reign of Christ (Hosea 3:5). With the apostolic writing showing us the things of Christ and delineating all that is freely given to us by God, holy living, the expanse of experiential sanctification, reaches ever higher possibilities.

In addition to that, the coming of Messiah gave both teaching and example of how holiness would produce works of righteousness. We are pointed to Christ’s example of humility in the incarnation as a model for how we should relate to other people (Philippians 1:1-5). For true munificence in giving we look to Christ’s leaving the infinite riches of heaven for the poverty of a carpenter’s shop and the moral filth of a sinful world to give us eternal life (2 Corinthians 8:9). For how we should love one another, we look to Christ’s giving Himself up as a sacrifice (Ephesians 5:1, 2). For patience in suffering we look to Christ (1 Peter 2:21). For perseverance in faith even in the cauldron of boiling opposition, we should fix our eyes on Jesus who endured the cross (Hebrews 12:1-3). Believers since the time of Christ have much greater perception of the nature of holy conduct in all situations of life, for we have the undefiled exemplary conduct of the Savior as our model. There are, in fact, many situations in which we can pause and ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” The most advanced of Old Testament saints did not have any example of how perfect holiness operates in producing righteousness.

Another contributing factor to increase of sanctification is the far greater clarity of our hope. The resurrection solidifies the reality of eternal life. Believing in it is no longer an extrapolation from other doctrines, as strong and as compelling as those drawn inferences may be. In reasoning through his plight in conjunction with what he knew of the God he worshipped, Job concluded, “In my flesh I shall see God, whom my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19: 26, 27). David wrote, “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6). Enoch and Elijah were taken bodily into heaven and Daniel was assured that, “You shall rest, and will arise to your inheritance at the end of the days” (Daniel 12:13).

But now, an observable, historically manifested conquering of death in a touchable but transcendently manageable body, fit for operation in the realm of pure Spirit (1 Corinthians 15:44), has occurred that puts to an end the victory of death. “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20, 21).

Now appeals can be made and hope enforced, not by strong inference, but by historical precedence:

“And our hope for you is steadfast, because we know that as you are partakers of the sufferings, so also of the consolation” (2 Corinthians 1:7).

“And raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6, 7).

“Walk, as you have us for a pattern…. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to his glorious body, according the working by which he is able even to subdue all things to himself” (Philippians 3:17, 20, 21).

“If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above; … therefore put to death your members which are on earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion … anger, wrath, malice, … filthy language out of your mouth” (Colossians 3:1, 2, 5, 8).

“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed” (1 Peter 3: 15, 16).

The apostle John brings together for us both adoption and sanctification in the context of the manifest hope that is in Christ due to his resurrection and the promise of his glorious return: “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:1-3).

While we believe, therefore, that only the Spirit of God can sanctify the heart and thus the rightness of conduct, He does this work in conjunction with the expansion of the truth basis of our understanding of God, an example of righteousness built on holiness preeminently and exhaustively in the Lord Jesus Christ, and by the ultimate hope given us by the resurrection of Christ.

One could also argue that the leavening effect of the gospel in world cultures contributes to present sanctification. Complete understanding of doctrine, godly relationships, holy living, and gospel responsibilities were not automatically matured in the immediate post-apostolic (or even apostolic) age. Close attention to the word of truth in Scripture will yield results in personal lives and in cultures until Christ comes again. Many practices and relationships once considered normal and acceptable when brought under the close scrutiny of Scripture will be found wanting; this will yield expansive sanctifying influences.

The powerful influences of Spirit and truth both in times of revival and in the normal flow of Christian life has brought about prison reform, universality of educational opportunity, social action on moral issues, confrontation with systemic racism, a challenge to the epidemic of unwed motherhood and absentee fatherhood, involvement in issues of public health and safety. Other matters also are loaded with moral implications to open a fertile context for the development of personal soul-searching and positive action with sanctifying influences.

We offer this edition of the Founders Journal with the hope and prayer that it will bring about increased joy in the grace of God, increased holiness in life, and strengthened convictions about how to glorify God in the church, the world, and in daily thought and action.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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