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Sanctification: Now, at death, in purgatory, or ongoing for eternity?14 min read

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purgatoryI am currently reading Dr. Jerry Walls’ book on purgatory (for Protestants!) entitled Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation, and one important question he addresses is, “Is purgatory for the purpose of satisfaction or sanctification?”

Satisfaction, meaning paying for one’s sins, is rejected by Protestants since we see Christ’s work as full and final on that account. But what about sanctification? Walls is proposing that, among other things, Purgatory would answer the question as to how God intends to complete our sanctification before we come into his presence.

Now, I’m not sold on his solution, but he offers it in response to this important question, which I want to address in two parts – “Does God require complete sanctification before we can enter into His full presence, and how does he accomplish it?”

Walls answers seem to be “Yes” and “Purgatory” for the repentant (he also believes in post-mortem repentance, but that’s an entirely other subject).

My thesis regarding santification, however, is different:

MY THESIS: Full Practical Sanctification (FPS) is composed of two parts – moral purity, and moral maturity. The former is fully attained at the resurrection, when we receive our new bodies, having left the old corrupted bodies behind. The latter is achieved throughout eternity.

Let’s explore, shall we?

1. What is Sanctification?

Sanctification in Christian theology is a two part process – when one accepts Christ (at regeneration) we are declared morally pure (holy), but from that point on, that new ‘legal’ or ‘positional’ status must also be developed into the reality of our life and character – typically called ‘progressive’ or ‘practical’ holiness.

So we are initially declared holy, but the process of becoming holy and Christlike in reality takes time. This dual definition of sanctification is nicely explained at

Sanctification is a state of separation unto God; all believers enter into this state when they are born of God: “But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). This is a once-for-ever separation, eternally unto God. It is an intricate part of our salvation, our connection with Christ (Hebrews 10:10).

Sanctification also refers to the practical experience of this separation unto God, being the effect of obedience to the Word of God in one’s life, and is to be pursued by the believer earnestly (1 Peter 1:15;Hebrews 12:14).

2. Is full sanctification required for us to enter into God’s presence?

That is the traditional viewpoint, based on many scriptures, including:

And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”  ~ 1 Thessalonians 5:23

“Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is. ~  John 3:2

Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. ~ Hebrews 12:14

The last verse is interpreted as requiring holiness in order to see or get near to God in his full glory, and the first two verses seem to indicate that our sanctification will be completed by the time of Christ’s return, so there is no timeline conflict there.

Assuming for the moment that full practical sanctification  (FPS) occurs between now and Christ’s return, as you might expect, there are a range of proposed endpoints for sanctification. But before we look at the possible milestones for FPS, I want to stress the importance and impact of this topic.

3. Why the doctrine of full sanctification matters

Wrong doctrines have practical impacts on people, and wrong doctrines of sanctification have caused many to suffer wrongly, and even leave the faith. Below, I will discuss the various doctrinal views, and the impact they can have – bad views produce bad results. But ‘bad’ results or not, in the end, we must ask, what do the scriptures say, and where they are silent, what do reason, tradition, and experience suggest are the most likely answers?

4. When is full sanctification accomplished?

Well, that depends on who you ask.

a. Before Death (Methodism/Wesleyanism/Holiness)

The Methodists, chiefly led by John Wesley, developed the idea that full sanctification can be, and perhaps must be, attained in this life BEFORE death, and that through application of effort. In Methodism, this is called “entire sanctification” or “Christian perfection.”

Though I disagree with the proposed timing of reaching this perfection (before death), Methodism’s definition of perfection provides the two attributes which form my thesis – purity v. maturity. Here’s the type of sanctification Wesley beleived Christians could attain in this life – that is, moral purity.

And again: `If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.‘ Now, it is evident, the Apostle here speaks of a deliverance wrought in this world: For he saith not, The blood of Christ will cleanse, (at the hour of death, or in the day of judgment,) but it `cleanseth,’ at the time present, us living Christians `from all sin.’ And it is equally evident, that if any sin remain, we are not cleansed from `all’ sin. If any unrighteousness remain in the soul, it is not cleansed from `all, unrighteousness. Neither let any say that this relates to justification only, or the cleansing us from the guilt of sin: First, because this is confounding together what the Apostle clearly distinguishes, who mentions, first, `to forgive us our sins, and then `to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ Secondly, because this is asserting justification by works, in the strongest sense possible; it is making all inward, as well as all outward, holiness, necessarily previous to justification. For if the cleansing here spoken of is no other than the cleansing us from the guilt of sin, then we are not cleansed from guilt, that is, not justified, unless on condition of walking `in the light, as he is in the light.’ It remains, then, that Christians are saved in this world from all sin, from all unrighteousness; that they are now in such a sense perfect, as not to commit sin, and to be freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers.”

Now note that he wants us to know that this moral perfection is not entire, nor is our sanctification, from a maturity point of view, complete.

They are not perfect in knowledge. They are not free from ignorance, no, nor from mistake. We are no more to expect any living man to be infallible, than to be omniscient. They are not free from infirmities, such as weakness or slowness of understanding, irregular quickness or heaviness of imagination. Such in another kind are impropriety of language, ungracefulness of pronunciation; to which one- might add a thousand nameless defects, either in conversation or behaviour. From such infirmities as these none are perfectly freed till their spirits return to God; neither can we expect till then to be wholly freed from temptation; for `the servant is not above his master. ~ A Plain Account of Christian Perfection by John Wesley

So, Wesley admits that our moral perfection can be accomplished before or at death, but there still remains room for growth.

SIDEBAR: Christian Perfection, Arminianism, and the accompanying mistake of striving for holiness

Unfortunately, this doctrine of the possibility of moral perfection in this life also leads to and is tightly and logically integrated with the idea that one can and must continue to exercise effort with respect to that growth, or else they could lose their salvation. This emphasis on human effort and responsibility has a huge risk, which is that Christians will subtly shift from faith in God to faith in their own ability to persevere. And this leads to some of the most hellish Christian striving. I know firsthand.

As a victim of the heavy burdens of the Wesleyan/Holiness view of full sanctification in this life, I nearly gave up on faith until the more Reformed views of Christ’s finished work put me back on a foundation of faith in God instead of faith in my own efforts.

b. At Death (Reformed)

The traditional Reformed view is that our sanctification is completed when we leave this sinful body behind at death. This is a convenient spot to insert this completion, but it is a bit of a deus ex machina solution, and it then begs the question – if we are all instantly sanctified at death, what use is there maturing or seeking Christ-likeness in this life? If it’s automatically given, rather than worked into us through experience and cooperation with God, why try at all?

This objection is a good one, and is one of the motivating factors behind the purgatorial view described below. However, my bifurcated view of sanctification, that of separating it into purity and maturity components, obviates the need for purgatory, allows us into God’s presence immediately, and allows for ongoing spiritual growth in heaven. But I’m skipping ahead.

c. In Purgatory

Believe it or not, there are some Protestant theologians who, in an attempt to answer the question of FPS, opt for a ‘sanctifying purgatory.’ Their reasoning is based on their assumption that time and real experience are necessary for our meaningful participation in the sanctification process. As Jerry Walls summarizes:

The essence of the first argument is that there is no way to make conceivable the abrupt transition of a morally imperfect being into a morally perfect one. Since all or most persons who die are morally imperfect, purgatory is needed as an intermediate state in which this transition can occur in a fashion that fits our condition as essentially temporal beings. The self-acceptance argument turns on the claim that God desires our free cooperation in his relationship with us, so he will respect that reality and work with us in such a way that we freely endorse each aspect and step of our moral and spiritual transformation. ~ Purgatory, p. 114-115 [Kindle Location 2607]

On this view, our time spent in the intermediate state, after death and before resurrection, is spent becoming sanctified. However, this view has some issues – like why is it that people who die just before the resurrection only need a few years in purgatory, while those who died in the first century, need 2000+ years to complete their sanctification? Some purgatory supporters might say that we spend some time in purgatory AFTER resurrection, but that too has problems – so some of us get into heaven at the resurrection, while the rest work on our sanctification? And on it goes.

d. At Resurrection

This view is very similar to the Reformed view, except that it puts attainment of FPS, not just at the point of leaving this earthly body, which would put FPS attainment at the start of the interim period between death and resurrection, but at the point of receiving our new bodies at the resurrection.

Since we don’t know much about the interim state of the regenerate dead, there’s not much difference between this and the ‘at death’ view of FPS.

e. During Eternity

 This is where my thesis comes in. If you can accept the bifurcation of sanctification into moral purity and moral maturity, then there seems no reason why you could not hold to a view that says the first is attained at death or the resurrection, while the latter could go on for eternity.

In fact, church father Origen, fond of learning, pictured heaven in just this way – as an ongoing classroom:

Although an individual may depart from this life less perfectly instructed, but who has done works that are approved of, he will be capable of receiving instruction in that Jerusalem, the city of the saints, i.e., he will be educated and moulded, and made a living stone, a stone elect and precious, because he has undergone with firmness and constancy the struggles of life and the trials ofpiety; and will there come to a truer and clearer knowledge of that which here has been already predicted, viz., that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God. And they also are to be understood to be the princes and rulers who both govern those of lower rank, and instruct them, and teach them, and train them to divine things. ~ Origen, De Principiis, II.11.3


Allow me to restate my thesis:

Full Practical Sanctification (FPS) is composed of two parts – moral purity, and moral maturity. The former is fully attained at the resurrection, when we receive our new bodies, having left the old corrupted bodies behind. The latter is achieved throughout eternity.

This approach addresses what I see as the weaknesses of the other views.

  • It doesn’t require full maturity in order to be with Christ in Heaven
  • It doesn’t require instant, magically attained sanctification at death or resurrection
  • It doesn’t posit some purgatorial structure in either the interim period or after resurrection, an additional component for which we see little or no scriptural support.

Of course, I have not made the exegetical argument for my case, mostly a philosophic one. But that could come next.