There is no disagreement in the PCA that sin remains in this life, or that glorification comes only at the coming of Christ. The debate is whether progress in holiness is essential to our definition of Christian, or in different words, whether a person can be plagued with homosexual desire (or any other sin) unmitigated, unrelieved, and neither weakened nor hindered until Jesus comes.
This is one of my five responses to the Session of University Presbyterian Church, Las Cruces (UPC), NM in 2020. They had challenged my doctrine of sanctification and eschatology as error, declaring them “over-realized.” This debate relates to the issue in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) of unchanging homosexual desire in the life of a Christian. I believe that in the gospel there is not only forgiveness but cleansing from all sin. The Session’s objection appears following after my comments.
May 20, 2020
My old colleagues in UPC, you think I am quite wrong in my so positive view of sanctification. So here is my doctrine: I simply believe that the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is wonderfully effective; he produces changed lives. I have emphasized this doctrine because one cannot hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith’s sound doctrine of sanctification and tolerate the claims of so-called homosexual Christians, including PCA elders, who speak of their lusts enduring without letup. When they speak this way, they contradict the lovely nature of sanctification. To have sham holiness in contrast to genuine sanctification is to jettison an element of salvation without which salvation cannot exist! John Owen stated: “… There is a certain and infallible connection between true mortification and eternal life” (Mortification of Sin, chapter 1).
Stages of Sanctification
- Sanctification begun in regeneration, yet imperfect with sin remaining
Though the dominion of sin is DESTROYED at the outset of the Christian life. In every believer the presence of sin remains. Conversion is the event when the war begins.
- Sanctification underway with real progress in holiness in this life
There are REMNANTS of CORRUPTION, but in every believer the regenerate part overcomes sin. Perfection in holiness is never attained in this life. Yet sanctification is progressive, thus sin is being subdued in every believer. The war continues, in perpetual lustings with the Holy Spirit winning.
- Sanctification completed in glorification
At the coming of Christ every believer will then be fully conformed to the moral character of Christ. The war will be over. Christians will be forever freed from all sin. Even our bodies will be transformed into the likeness of his glorious body. The completion of holiness comes in the event of the Second Coming.
In the needless debate over same-sex lust (often called an “attraction”), there is no disagreement in the PCA that sin remains in this life, or that glorification comes only at the coming of Christ. The debate is whether progress in holiness is essential to our definition of Christian, or in different words, whether a person can be plagued with homosexual desire (or any other sin) unmitigated, unrelieved, and neither weakened nor hindered until Jesus comes. My view is that Christians actually DO grow in grace (2 Peter 3:18), and we are being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). As we develop in sanctification, sin is weakened and increasingly deplored. Without holiness no professing Christian is one, and such a person shall not see the Lord. In the Session Letter, the truths of A & C are emphasized above the encouraging truth of B. The Session Letter pays scant attention to the positive aspect of sanctification.
Conversion The Timespan of Sanctification in Our Lives Christ’s Second Coming
Sanctification begins with the event of regeneration when one is converted. It is only completed at the event of the Second Coming: “We shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Until then, our lives as Christians are a time of genuine sanctification underway in spite of many sins. Sanctification is the progressive and varied activity of the Spirit in everyone united to Christ from the event of our conversion to the event of the coming of Christ. It is the divine process between the two events. Here is my understanding of and agreement with the three paragraphs of the Westminster Confession of Faith 13 – “Of Sanctification” on this:
WCF 13.1: They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally,…
In regeneration we are given a change of heart. We have become a new creation, but there is further activity of God. A gracious and wonderful advance in personal holiness has begun in our new birth and continues in sanctification.
…through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them, the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed,…
The basis is the work of Christ since the guilt of sin is removed by faith in his blood. Salvation continues by destroying the power of sin over us, and by powerfully opposing the sin remaining in us.
…and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; …
Sins within us are often called “lusts.” Our lusts are active and are always opposed by the Holy Spirit. The sins of a Christian are not allowed to continue without intervention by the Spirit. They are never weakened and mortified by ourselves alone. God graciously hinders our sins more and more. In the Session Letter you did not like my statement that in sanctification our sins are hindered by God. Weakened and hindered are the same idea.
…and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness,…
Those who are called are stimulated by God’s Word and Spirit to renewal of spiritual life. If we are saved, we are strengthened by the Word as it is assimilated into our minds, and the Spirit promotes in us “all saving graces.” He makes us confess sin as sin and to sorrow for it. He causes us in his own ways and time to turn from it. He has promised to change us as he writes his law on our hearts. We are being trained and disciplined in holy conduct.
…without which no man shall see the Lord.
Anyone who admits to sin that is constant, persistently practiced, defended and justified, without repentance has not experienced real salvation. He shall not see the Lord. He needs to come to Christ. God is not guilty of spiritual child neglect in any he has adopted. He delivers them.
WCF 13.2: This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part;…
This very valuable statement shows our official understanding that no part of a Christian’s life is overlooked by the Holy Spirit. Sanctification is throughout. Be encouraged; he wars against every sin at will. The Session Letter is very wrong to say that the Spirit will not hinder some sins in a believer this side of death. No sin in a Christian is neglected by the Holy Spirit and his cleansing work. Corruption is found in every nook and cranny of our hearts, and cleansing (but not eradication) is throughout the whole man if one is a Christian. There are abiding remnants of corruption, but that means the corruption has been reduced so that only remnants remain. God saves us from sin, and does more than just notice it or speak about it. He sanctifies.
…whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.
Thus, real war goes on within every believer. Our old sins have not lost all their attraction. Our sins know our weaknesses and habits. There will be no peace between God and our lusts. The Spirit cannot and will not fail to lust against our flesh according to Galatians 5:17. In Christ we are his, and no one knows that better than God. He claims us for Christ. Our salvation is proven to be real when God graciously saves us from our sins. Diminishing this truth to favor homosexual PCA elders is a danger that disregards the frightful possibility of their eternal damnation.
You quote from this section XIII ¶2 but not ¶3 while my critique of the gay PCA leaders emphasizes ¶3 where we find encouragement for believers that “the regenerate part [of their nature] overcomes.” Some argue instead for continuing unchanged sexual addiction.
WCF 13.3: In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.
The PCA confesses this creed. We do not deny continuing warfare within our hearts until the end of the world. We do not even hint that any part of our lives is finally sanctified this side of glory. Yet we do not deny “victory”, a word used by John Owen, one of the Westminster divines. Progressive sanctification actually has progress! Sins must be and can be mortified to such an extent that we are not oppressed by raging temptation all the time. We have the joy of the Lord replacing the craving of old lusts which wait to master us again. We are new creatures in Christ Jesus, enjoying now the firstfruits of our eternal peace. The second death has no power over us. We can be down but never out. According to Westminster, holiness is being perfected now. Thanks be to the Lord.
I agree with John Owen’s positive assessment: The Christian wants sin exterminated, but “Now, by the Spirit and grace of Christ, there may be wonderful success, and an overriding victory against sin. He may realize nearly constant triumph over it. Even so, absolutely killing and destroying it should not be expected in this life.” (Mortification of Sin, chap. 5) Owen affirmed realism about remaining sin and confidence in the power of the Spirit. He knew the law cannot deliver us, but he delighted that gospel “means of preservation are a thousand times stronger!” (Mortification of Sin, chap. 9) – certainly a positive view of the sanctification promised.
The UPC Session letter of response to me (March 9, 2020)
Your Over-Realized View of Sanctification
Returning to the broader subject of sanctification, you have asserted that the Lord “does not authorize evil desire in the same heart on which he writes his law.”  You also state that, certain sins left “unhindered” by the Holy Spirit are “proof that such a person has never been admitted into the family of God,” that such a person with “persistent illicit desires, even if bridled, loses his claim to being a Christian.” 
Let us speak to this. It is certainly true that, for every believer, the law of God has been written on their hearts (Jer. 31:33; 2 Cor. 3:3); we are all “growing in grace” as “servants of righteousness.” (2 Pet. 3:18; Rom. 6:18). And while it is also true that the Holy Spirit CAN mortify all sin in a believer’s heart and life – and never does He authorize sin – it is incorrect that the Holy Spirit WILL mortify (or even “hinder”) every sin in a believer prior to death. Rather, as the Bible says, “the law of God” is at war with the “law of sin” (Rom. 7:22-23) in our members, i.e., some indwelling sins persist throughout one’s life. In other words, both “laws” co-exist in the heart of a regenerate believer. While we pray earnestly and work diligently for the fullest mortification of sin, the Christian life is rife with spiritual warfare, “the passions of the flesh” waging war against the soul (1 Pet. 2:11). Warring against “persistent illicit desires” (as you put it) is the Christian life in a nutshell, not something alien to the Christian life.
As we confess, “this corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated.” Also, regarding sanctification, we confess that it is “yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part, whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.” The Larger Catechism puts it this way: there are “perpetual lustings of the flesh against the spirit, where [we] are often foiled with temptations, and fall into many sins, and are hindered in all [our] spiritual services, and [our] best works are imperfect and defiled in the sight of God.” Walter Marshall summarizes,
“Though we are partakers of a new holy state by faith in Christ, yet our natural state remains in a measure, with all its corrupt principles and properties. As long as we live in this present world, our apprehension of Christ, and His perfections, in this life, is only by faith … Though we receive a perfect Christ by faith, yet the measure and degree of enjoying Him is imperfect…[Believers] have received but the ‘first fruits of the Spirit,’ and must wait for a [sic, the] more enjoyment of it.”
In a similar vein, John Owen observes,
“It is true: great ground [in sanctification] is obtained when the work is vigorously and constantly carried on; sin is much weakened, so that the soul presses forward toward perfection; but yet the work must be endless; I mean, while we are in this world…. We have been ready to say that there was an end of sin, that it was dead and gone forever; but have we not found the contrary by experience? Has it not manifested that it was only retired into some unsearchable recesses of the heart, as to its in-being and nature, though it may be greatly weakened in its power? Let us, then, reckon on it, that there is no way to have our work done but by always doing of it; and he who dies fighting in this warfare dies assuredly a conqueror.”
While God certainly releases Christians from the power of sin upon regeneration, liberating them from the lusts and pleasures of the flesh, to suggest that homosexual desires will be fully uprooted in the hearts of the regenerate in this life is to collapse sanctification into glorification, i.e., an over-realized eschatology. It seems to emit the odor of Wesley not the aroma of Westminster. To be sure, “he who began a good work WILL bring it to completion” (Phil. 1:6; you quote this verse in your email to a member of UPC on 1/27/20). And yet, we cannot forget the salient conclusion of this verse … “in the day of Christ Jesus.” This is not to place limits on the work of the Holy Spirit. This is not a “testimony to the failure of the Holy Spirit in sanctification,” as you assert in one of your articles. This is not a “rebuke to the integrity of the Lord;” nor is this “to render the new covenant inoperative concerning any sin,” as you say; nor is this to condone any sin as “basically ok.” Rather, it is simply surrendering ourselves to the freedom which God assigns Himself in the work of sanctification. As B. B. Warfield opines, God does it in His own way ; and that is by process – whom He calls He justifies, and whom He justifies He glorifies…Expecting the end of the process only at the time appointed is no limitation upon the power of the Savior.”
Some of My Responses to the Session Letter
I agree with you when you say that the Spirit has no limits in our sanctification; in the new covenant he works against all our sins, even though the measure and degree is not total in this life. It is therefore a contradiction for you to say that some sins are not even hindered in this life! Surely, we cannot hold that Christians are released from the power of death in regeneration, and then believe that some sins remain unhindered.
You intimate that I teach that homosexual desires “will be fully uprooted.” I have never said that any sin will be fully uprooted before Christ comes. When my so called over-realized eschatology was being discussed, I was not present to declare that I do not believe any doctrine of perfectionism.
You quote John Owen, who pointed out that in sanctification, sin “may be greatly weakened in its power.” He adds that “mortification will wither the root of sin” (Mortification of Sin chap. 2). That is precisely what am I driving at when I say that sin is hindered in believers. The Session Letter claims it is “…incorrect [to say] that the Holy Spirit WILL mortify (or even hinder), every sin in a believer prior to death.” You have embraced a terrible error! I simply agree with Owen and our Confession that sin is much weakened. However, this is not what our gay leaders and their supporters are saying! “Sin” in Owen’s writing (and mine) is not qualified so that some sins are being mortified and others are not, as if certain transgressions might get a pass. Oh how the gays would like that! They could pick a sin which has not withered and claim, “Oh, it will be gone when Jesus comes.” Those who think that way are at peace with sin.
Thus, you have come up with a new doctrine from somewhere, I know not where, the doctrine of “selective sanctification” where only some sins are cleansed.  1 John 1:9 promises cleansing “from all unrighteousness.” If you can lay your hands on any reformed creed which asserts that only some sins are weakened in this life, I would like to see it. Skip Westminster; it is not in ours. Owen warns of inventing “a new righteousness that the gospel knows nothing of.” You have taken a large step away from what he calls “universal righteousness” – universal because it includes all commandments.
The Session letter says, “some indwelling sins persist throughout one’s life.” Why not say just sins persist rather than some? Where does Scripture make this kind of distinction that some sins persist, and by implication some do not? Would a godly person claim that he has certain sins which never show up again? He would not. No one this side of heaven has ever had any sin eradicated, but still the Lord effectively strives against every sin because, “the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6). I think you may revise that. I hope so. It seems to me to be something you do not really mean.
I insist on this, because progressive sanctification without progress is not sanctification at all. When God writes his law on our hearts, does he not write all of them? Yes! If the Spirit does not write all of them, he is falling down on his job and failing to deliver on the divine promise in the new covenant. One Revoice star does not like the word “deliverance” with good reason; he does not have it. His view is not of sin weakened but of sanctification reduced to what suits him. In your excellent Owen quotation, we get a very different theological drift when he says, “… he who dies fighting in this warfare dies assuredly a conqueror” To some sensitivities that sounds like perfectionism, but Owen simply believes that Jesus saves us from our sin.
You quote Marshall, Owen, Warfield, the Confession and Larger Catechism, plus some Scripture texts. Many of these were to serve as a corrective of my over-realized view. It is a strange feeling to have material I agree with laid out as a remedy for my supposed theological error. You provided major quotations to prove we should believe there is remaining sin in us. Then you give strong confessional material to prove that perfection comes only when the Lord does. I agree, but you do not show that our standards also show that sanctification is an effective work of God in every believer’s life during the interim. This is a vital matter in the current debate. The Westminster Larger Catechism explains beautifully:
75. What is sanctification?
Sanctification is a work of God’s grace, whereby they whom God hath, before the foundation of the world, chosen to be holy, are in time, through the powerful operation of his Spirit applying the death and resurrection of Christ unto them, renewed in their whole man after the image of God; having the seeds of repentance unto life, and all other saving graces, put into their hearts, and those graces so stirred up, increased, and strengthened, as that they more and more die unto sin, and rise unto newness of life.
Note that sanctification speaks of the powerful operation of the Spirit so that the elect are “renewed in their whole man.” God’s saving graces are “so stirred up, increased, and strengthened … that [believers] more and more die unto sin, and rise unto newness of life.” That is not the way Christian homosexuals describe their unchanging passion for their same sex. Therefore, I ask, “Where is their sanctification?” The Session Letter spends most of its energy to say what sanctification is not.
You point out that the good work spoken of in Philippians 1:6 will be completed in the day of Jesus Christ. I have never suggested that it is completed earlier, and you think I have. Note that the verse also teaches that God’s good work in us has begun in every believer. Those who deny any work of God to reduce and kill their lusts deny their sanctification, and thus salvation’s inseparable package. They do not point to a good work liberating them from their homosexual lusts.
My eschatology is not over-realized in the present. Complete conformity to Christ will come only at the appointed time, which is never in this life. Yet a major heading for a large section in your letter to me is that my eschatology is over-realized. You mean of course that I bring forward glorification into current sanctification. Wesleyans do that. The correction you offer misses the mark. I am not guilty of that error.
David Linden’s writings have “the odor of Wesley!” Never have I been accused by anyone but the UPC session of holding a Wesleyan view of holiness. None of us hold the error of our dear brother John Wesley. And if a person keeps reading, nothing I have written even “seems” to. I do insist that the sanctifying Spirit succeeds in transformation as he wills – thirty, sixty, or a hundred-fold, but never zero.
In September, 2019 Pastor Tebbano wrote: “…Your view of sanctification seems to be closer to Wesleyan holiness than a reformed view of progressive sanctification. In particular, your concerns seem to leave little room for WLC 149.” I replied in November, 2019 with a response I hoped he would share with the session. In that reply I referred to how I had simplified WCF XIII in my second article about Homosexuality in the PCA, Greg Johnson Wrote a Book. In that article I reaffirmed the entire WCF 13. I told Patrick that that WCF chapter expresses:
“… my conviction wholeheartedly. I think there is nothing Wesleyan in what I said or in the WCF. But since you refer to something I said to the session and also in my written work, you can imagine how difficult it is to respond to an unidentified error even though it has appeared twice? So, my old friend and brother, please let me know if my words above lay to rest your concern whether I am in error. My reworking of the Westminster Confession clearly affirms that sanctification is progressive … Then too I insist that in every believer’s life, including those with SSA, sanctification is progressing right now. That is a theological statement of current progress, not just an ultimate eschatological hope. Some like Wes Hill and Greg Johnson give no such testimony; they point to no progress in overcoming their abominable desires. They should fear for their eternal welfare!”
The Resolution of our Misunderstanding We should tremble before the life and death words of Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death (or mortify) the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13, ESV). I wonder when you hear me use words like “mortify” if it may sound to some elders as an assertion of eradication. If so, naturally you would react. Much hangs on how we take this word. So I ask you to weigh the words of the Reformed theologian who has perhaps studied this subject the most. He defined what he means by the word mortify in Romans 8:13, the text with which he began his classic The Mortification of Sin:
What is meant by mortify? (John Owen in Mortification of Sin, chapter 1)
“Put to death” – This is a metaphor, taken from putting any living thing to death. To kill a man or other living thing means to take away all his strength, vigor, and power, so that he cannot act or exert on his own. That is just what it means in this case. Indwelling sin is compared to a person, a living person, called “the old man.” He has his way of thinking, his tendencies, his wisdom, craft, subtlety, and strength. This old man, says the apostle, must be killed, put to death, mortified. That is the old man’s power, life, vigor, and strength, his ability to produce effects, must be taken away by the Spirit. In fact, it is to be “crucified with Christ” as a good thing. We, as the “old man,” are said to be “dead” with Christ. When we are resurrected in Christ and regenerated, a principle contrary to the old man, one designed to destroy him, is planted in our hearts. But the whole process towards perfection (Christ-like behavior) is carried on by degrees all of our life.
Owen with some other Puritans was a framer of the Westminster Confession I think he understood it well. When he speaks of a process towards perfection, he is not Wesleyan in his thinking but biblical. We have homosexual elders in the PCA who do not speak of their own experience in terms of the Spirit’s effective sanctification, or with the joyful confidence we find in the writings of John Owen. I would like to ask these men if the God they serve is able to deliver them, and if he has promised to do so. An answer is needed to that.
Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God (2 Corinthians 7:1).
Epilog, January, 2021:
In September, 2020 the Session informed me that they had studied and benefitted from the PCA report on human sexuality, released in May, 2020. The session commends it. I, too, find much benefit in it. The Session explained further that their March 9, 2020 letter to me has been modified by that report because the Session’s position “is now better represented” by that report. This leaves in place serious problems:
The PCA report does not address whether our gay minister may remain as pastor of a PCA church, and the Session informed me in the summer of 2020 that they will not support any action to bring about his removal. When I heard that announcement, I knew my days at University Presbyterian Church were over.
The March 9 letter makes very clear that they think there are errors in my theology. In this article I defend my understanding of the lovely doctrine of sanctification. I agree with the Westminster Confession in detail. With no retraction, the Session’s judgment stands that my understanding of sanctification is in error.
The Session has not retracted this above where they said: “It is incorrect that the Holy Spirit WILL mortify (or even “hinder”) every sin in a believer prior to death.” In our ordination each one of us declared in WCF XIII:1 that our several lusts are more and more mortified by the Holy Spirit. I believe that that is true; I also believe it is wonderful. But I also note that the Session has signed a statement that differs substantially from our Confession.
“Mortify” does not mean eradicate in Scripture, the Confession, John Owen, or my writing. See the explanation above.
The blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7). According to Romans 8:13 our life depends on mortification, i.e., a ceaseless striving against our sins, giving sin no exception and no excuse. Naturally, the gays in the PCA would like a little breathing room on that, and, regrettably, the Session’s position provides a measure of comfort for them.
There is no statement in Scripture that the Lord is passive concerning any of our sins. Yet the Session thinks there are some sins which the Holy Spirit does not even hinder in this life. That is, God’s Holy Spirit lets some sins co-exist with righteousness for the rest of a Christian’s life on earth. All one has to do now is connect such bad theology with the untransformed life of a homosexual PCA officer, and we will find that same-sex lust just keeps rolling along without remedy in this life.
Rev. David H. Linden is a retired Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and lives in Las Cruces, NM.
 WCF VI.5
 WCF XIII.2
 WLC Q/A 78
 Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, pg. 92 [In my copy pp. 98,99]
 John Owen, The Power and Efficacy of Indwelling Sin, pg. 255 [in my partial document, p. 12]
 David Linden, The Aquila Report, “‘Surprising Errors’ in Greg Johnson’s Assessment of the RPCES 1980 Homosexuality Report,” published 8/26/19
 David Linden, letter to the Rio Grande Presbytery, 1/28/20
 B. B. Warfield “The Higher Life Movement” Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, VIII.519
 In chapter 8, Owen speaks of “selective mortification” (his term) as something spawned by self-love.
 I speak of Dr. Wesley Hill in his book Washed and Waiting, p.176, “… I was … unable to locate myself in the paradigm of ‘deliverance from’ or ‘diminishment of’ my same sex attractions.”
 I read recently that some historians of that period say that John Owen was not part of the Westminster Assembly. This is for me an unresolved question.