©The Holy Spirit
Puritan Paperbacks by John Owen
Abridged and made easy to read by R.J.K. LAW

By permission
Banner of Truth Trust
Edinburgh, Scotland
Carlisle, PA
Banner of Truth

Chapter 15:Sanctification a Lifelong Work


Publisher's Preface
1. The Work of the Holy Spirit
2. The Spirit of God
3. How the Holy Spirit Comes to Us and Does His Work
4. The Special Preparatory Works of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament
5. The Work of the Holy Spirit in the New Creation
6. The Holy Spirit and the Human Nature of Christ
7. The Work of the Holy Spirit on the Mystical Body of Christ, His Church
8. The Holy Spirit's Work of Regeneration
9. How the Holy Spirit Prepares a Soul for His Work of Regeneration
10. How the Mind is Corrupted and Depraved by Sin
11. Natural and Spiritual Death Compared 12. Regeneration Itself
13. The Work of Conversion
14. The Nature of Sanctification and Gospel Holiness
15. Sanctification a Lifelong Work
16. Believers Only are Sanctified
17. The Work of Sanctification itself
18. The Work of the Spirit in Purging Believers from Sin
19. The Work of the Spirit in Renewing the Spiritual Life of Believers
20. The Activities and Duties of Holiness
21. Dealing with Sin 22. The Necessity of Holiness
23. Election a Motive to Holiness
24. Commanded to be Holy
25. Holiness and the Work of Christ
26. Holiness in an Unholy World

Chapter 15:Sanctification a Lifelong Work

Sanctification is the complete renewal of our natures by the Holy Spirit, by which we are changed into the image of God, through Jesus Christ. It is the work of the Holy Spirit on the souls of all believers. Their natures are purified from the pollution of sin. It is the renewing of our natures into the image of God. So we are enabled to obey God firstly by an inward, spiritual, ruling principle of grace, and secondly by virtue of the life and death of Jesus Christ according to the terms of the new covenant, by which God writes his laws in our hearts and enables us to obey them by the Holy Spirit indwelling us.

Holiness described

Holiness is a holy obedience to God arising from a renewed nature. This holy obedience is by Jesus Christ and according to the terms of the covenant of grace.

This work of sanctification differs from regeneration. Regeneration is instantaneous. It is one single creating act, whereas sanctification is progressive. It is begun at the moment of regeneration and is continued gradually (2 Peter 3:17,18; 2 Thessalonians. 1:3; Colossians 2:19; Philippians 1:6).

Holiness is like seed sown in the ground. It grows gradually into a full plant.


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; Ephesians. 3:17; 1 Thessalonians. 3:12, 13).

The Holy Spirit does this in three ways.

First, the Holy Spirit does this work of holiness by stirring up these graces within us. The more he stirs up these graces in us, and the more we are moved to holy living by them, the more they become a habit in us. And the stronger the habit, the stronger is the power of these graces in us. In this way the Holy Spirit causes them to grow daily in us (Hosea 6:3).

The Holy Spirit stirs up the graces of faith and love in two ways. He does so morally by the ordinances of worship and preaching by which the proper objects of faith and love are put before us (John 16:14, 15; 14:26; Hebrews. 4:2). He does so by dwelling in believers and thus preserving in them the root and ruling principle of their graces by his own direct power (Galatians 5:22, 23; Philippians 2:13).

Secondly, the Holy Spirit does this work of holiness by supplying believers with experience of the truth, reality and excellence of the things that are believed. The experience of the reality, excellence, power and effectiveness of the things that are believed is an effectual means of increasing faith and love. So God expostulates with his church (Isaiah. 40:27, 28; 2 Corinthians. 1:4; Romans. 12:2; Colossians 2:2; Psalms. 22:9, 10).

It is the Holy Spirit who gives us all our spiritual experiences for in them lies all our comfort. The Holy Spirit comforts believers by making the things they believe a powerful reality to them (Romans. 5:5).

Thirdly, the Holy Spirit does this work of holiness by strengthening these graces in us. (Zechariah 12:8; Ephesians. 3:16, 17;


The Holy Spirit also does this work of holiness by adding one grace to another. There are some graces which are stirred up only occasionally because they are not always as necessary to the life of grace as faith and love.

Holiness is thus strengthened and grows by adding one grace to another, until like a fully grown plant it is seen in all its glory (2 Pet. 1:5-7).

What is necessary is our utmost diligence and effort to add to faith all these other graces. What Peter is saying is that every grace is to be exercised at its proper time and in its appropriate situation. This adding of graces is from the Holy Spirit, who adds them in three ways.

Firstly, he adds these graces by ordering the appropriate situation according to his sovereign rule over all things, and then bringing us into that situation so that the particular grace needing to be exercised is called into action (James 1:2-4).

Secondly, he adds these graces by reminding us of our duty and showing us what grace needs to be exercised in this particular situation (Isaiah. 30:21).

Thirdly, he adds these graces by stirring up and bringing into activity all graces needed in any particular situation.

It is the Holy Spirit who works all this in us and freshens up his graces in us, as a gardener freshens up his plants by watering them (Isaiah. 27:3; Galatians. 2:20).

Christ the source of holiness

Our holiness comes from the spring and fountain of all grace that is in Christ Jesus, the head of the body (Colossians 3:3). As the whole body derives strength and ability from the head, so by the Holy Spirit all the supplies of holiness in our head, Jesus Christ, are brought to every member of his body (Cot. 2:19). As the branch is nourished by the vine out of which it grows, and by that nourishment is able to bear fruit, so we, being grafted into Christ, receive from him all necessary supplies of holiness to bear fruit to his glory. And these supplies of holiness are brought to us and made effective in us by the Holy Spirit. So God warns us not to become proud, but to remember that we were grafted into Christ by grace, and from him we receive all necessary supplies of grace (Romans. 11:20).

Objection. If God works every good work of holiness by himself, and if, without his working in us, we can do nothing, then what is the point of diligence, duty and obedience?

Answer 2 Peter 1:3. 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. Rut when supplies arrive every soldier is called to do his duty diligently.

As trees and plants have the ruling principle of growth in themselves, so does grace (John 4:14). And as a tree or plant must be watered from above or it will dry up and not thrive and grow, so grace must be watered from above.

The growth of trees and plants takes place so slowly that it is not easily seen. Daily we notice little change. But, in course of time, we see that a great change has taken place. So it is with grace. Sanctification is a progressive, lifelong work (Proverbs. 4:18). It is an amazing work of God's grace and it is a work to be prayed for (Romans. 8:27).


The Holy Spirit teaches and enables us to pray by giving us a special insight into the promises of God and the grace of his covenant. So when we see spiritually the mercy and grace God has prepared for us, we know what to ask for.

The Holy Spirit teaches and enables us to pray by making us aware of our need which drives us to God who alone can meet that need.

The Holy Spirit teaches and enables us to pray by creating and stirring up in us desires arising from the new work of creation he has done in us. New-born creatures need to be loved, cared for, fed and exercised in order to grow up healthy and strong!

The answer to all our prayers is our complete sanctification. 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. 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.

If we assume that the believer is not neglecting all means to the growth of holiness, then he may be helped by the following.

Holiness, being the subject of so many gospel promises, must be received by faith. The promise is that those who are partakers of the covenant will grow in holiness. Holiness depends on God's faithfulness, and not on our feelings or awareness of it. We must put our faith in God's faithfulness.

It is our duty to grow and thrive in holiness. Now what God requires of us, we are to believe he will help us to achieve. But we must not only believe he 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.


The work of holiness is secret and mysterious (2 Corinthians: 4:16). As the outward man is slowly dying and we are not often aware of it, so it is with the growth of grace in the inward man. We should pray as David did, 'Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting' (Psalms. 139:23, 24). In other words, 'Help me to know the true state of holiness in me.'

The Christian may be like a ship tossed in a storm. Nobody on board may be aware that the ship is making any headway at all. Yet it is sailing on at great speed.

Storms produce growth

Great winds and storms help fruit-bearing trees. So also do corruptions and temptations help the fruitfulness of grace and holiness. The storm loosens the earth round its roots so the tree is able to get its roots deeper into the earth where it receives fresh supplies of nourishment. But only much later will it be seen to bring forth better fruit.

So corruptions and temptations develop the roots of humility, self-abasement and mourning in a deeper search for that grace by which holiness grows strong. But only later will there be visible fruits of increased holiness.

God cares for the new creation

God, who in infinite wisdom created the new creature, also cares for it. He cares for the life of grace wrought in us by his Spirit. He longs to see it grow healthy and strong. He knows exactly how to promote that growth, just as a good gardener knows exactly how to produce the best plants. But how God works to do this we may be unable to explain: at times we will be at a loss to know what he is doing with us.

In the early days of faith, the streams seem to flow in green pastures, and the new Christian seems always fresh and green in the ways of grace and holiness. But later in the Christian life, it seems good to God to turn the stream into another channel. He sees that the exercise of humility, godly sorrow, fear, diligent warring with temptations and all things that strike at the very root of faith and love, are now more needed.

So older, more experienced Christians often have greater troubles, temptations and difficulties in the world. God has new work for them to do. He now plans that all the graces they have be used in new and harder ways. They may not find their spiritual desires to be as strong as before, nor have such delight in spiritual duties as they had before. Because of this, they feel that grace has dried up in them. No longer do they feel and enjoy the springs of holiness that once joyfully flowed in them. They do not know where they are or what they are. But in spite of all this, the real work of sanctification is still thriving in them and the Holy Spirit is still working it effectively in them. God is faithful. Therefore let us cling to our hope without wavering.

Objection. Scripture shows how often God charges his people with backslidings and barrenness in faith and love. So how do these backslidings happen if sanctification is a continual, progressive growth in the believer ?

Answer These backslidings are occasional and abnormal to the true nature of the new creature. It is a disturbance to the ordinary works of grace, just as an earthquake is to the ordinary workings of nature. Just as the body can be sick with diseases, so the soul can be spiritually sick with spiritual diseases. And 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.

There are two ways by which we can resist this work. 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.

In order for holiness to grow and thrive in us, it needs both the constant use of the ordinances and means God has appointed and faithful obedience to all commanded duties. There must also be a willingness to exercise every spiritual grace in its proper place and time. The neglect of these things will greatly hinder the growth of holiness. It is like neglecting all the right means to a healthy life.

We are required to give all diligence to increase grace (2 Pet. 1:5-7). We are to abound in all diligence (2 Corinthians. 8:7). We are to show the same diligence to the end (Hebrews. 6:1 1).

If we neglect our duty, the work of sanctification will be hindered and holiness will not thrive in us.

Why believers often neglect duties

There are three reasons why many neglect these duties on which the life of obedience and spiritual comfort depend.

The first reason is a presumption that they are already perfect. If they really believe this, then they see no further need for evangelical obedience, and so they return to justifying themselves by obedience to the law, to their eternal ruin.

Paul utterly rejects absolute perfection as unattainable in this life (Philippians. 3:12-14). The purpose of the Christian life is to bring the believer into eternal blessedness and glory so that he may enjoy God forever. Paul also shows that the way by which we are to press towards this goal of perfection is by a continual, uninterrupted pressing on and reaching out for it. All this teaches that the Christian life is a constant progress in holy obedience accompanied by wholehearted diligence.

The second reason why many neglect these duties is a foolish assumption that, being in a state of grace, they need not bother about exact holiness and obedience in all things, as they did before they had assurance. Paul deals with this in his letter to the Romans (6:1, 2). Can we say that we are in a state of grace if we are not concerned for the growth of grace in us?

The third reason why many neglect these duties is weariness, despair and depression arising from various oppositions to this work of holiness. Such persons ought to take heart from the abundance of encouragements Scripture gives to continue in the way of faith.

By permission
Banner of Truth Trust
Edinburgh, Scotland
Carlisle, PA
Banner of Truth