The background

I grew up in a Reformed church since I was a kid. In my adulthood as I become more concerned with my spiritual health, I increasingly expect theology to provide at least a rich enough vocabulary of the spiritual life of a believer that I can latch into and correlate them with aspects of experience in my spiritual life (which is given to me by Christ through faith).

After a decade or so studying and reading, I found that compared to Catholicism (which has a rich store of concepts in its spiritual and mystical theologies) when pushed for clarity, Reformed pastors and teachers keep going back to concepts such as "godliness", "Christlike-ness", "ongoing sanctification" which (despite having REAL referents because Jesus and God are real) is linguistically CIRCULAR since those concepts go back to the theology of God and to Christology, thus creating a wall that separate theology from philosophy/psychology in the area of spirituality. In contrast, Catholicism since time immemorial (especially since St. Augustine) has been self-consciously breaking the wall by integrating theological discussion with philosophy & psychology so that referents of spiritual life concepts such as "godliness", "Christlikeness", and "ongoing sanctification" don't remain ontologically in the realm of the intellect, i.e. remain concepts (albeit having REAL referents to God).

If theology is to have any relevance beyond remaining in the ivory tower, there needs to be a spiritual theology that provides clarity to abstract concepts so it can be "incarnate" (practically real) in a believer's daily life. Thus, if "maturity" can stand in for "godliness" then it is a better term (from spiritual theology perspective) since it's more concrete descriptively, something that humans can have a handle of, in philosophy & psychology. But I found out from experience discussing with Calvinists that most seem to have an aversion to breaking this WALL that separates theology of God/Christ from something that can be experienced and described by the servants of theology, namely philosophy and psychology. They would typically say that Christians are not supposed to pollute theology with humanism. But how can spiritual theology NOT having a philosophical/psychological conceptual tool to describe progress in a believer's spiritual life?

For an evangelical introduction to spiritual theology that specifically connects the theology of sanctification with psychology, please watch/read a 2014 video (transcript included) of a talk at Biola by John Coe, Professor of Philosophy and Spiritual Theology / Director of the Institute for Spiritual Formation at Biola University: Spiritual Theology for the Church.

The puzzle

I am sometimes puzzled with some Calvinists / Reformed believers who insist that no one is righteous but God, EVEN after conversion, sanctification, and resurrection of the believer! This is often characterized by the theological concept of imputed righteousness and alien righteousness which emphasize that righteousness remains solely God's possession forever (but never ours), and they would cite verses like Rom 3:10-12 and interpret them to hold true even when we are in heaven!

My puzzle comes when I come across Bible verses that imply God working in us (during sanctification stage) to increase something within the believer. Example: Phil 1:6,9-11 (CSB):

6 ... he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. ... 9 And I pray this: that your love will keep on growing in knowledge and every kind of discernment, 10 so that you may approve the things that are superior and may be pure and blameless in the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.

Later in the letter (Phil 2:13, CSB), Paul reiterates about God's work:

For it is God who is working in you both to will and to work according to his good purpose.

This "growing" and "filling" language implies something that is ontologically REAL within the psychological space that increases within a believer, which is the result of God's work (with our passive cooperation since according to Calvinists all we can do is not rebel). This language also implies "progress" (see a related question).

Sensitive / philosophically minded readers will ask: what is this something within us that God produces within us progressively to enable us "to will and to work according to his good purpose" more and more easily?

The question

So my question to Calvinists / Reformed is this: what is the proper term in spiritual theology (a term that is MEANINGFUL, RELATABLE, and DESCRIBABLE to a human) for the aspect that God increases within us during our sanctification? If not righteousness, can it be called holiness (cf Rom 6:19, NIV)? Or is there no unifying theological term but leaving it to individual fruits (love, joy, etc.) as in Gal 5:22-23? Or do Reformed theologians use a term that is not in the Bible such as virtues for this something?

Some comments have suggested "godliness", "Christlike-ness", and "ongoing sanctification" which are of course perfectly fine as a theological term, but those concepts leave the correlational hard work to poor believers who are untrained theologically to correlate those theological concepts to the realm of philosophy and psychology that they can latch on in daily spiritual life. So while I can accept those as correct answers, I have updated the question to "spiritual theology term" in order to induce answers that can provide synonymous terms which are more pertinent to human experience on the human side of the WALL (see "The background" section).

Secondary questions (which is nice to be addressed in an answer, but not strictly asked for, to keep this Q from being too broad):

  1. How do we discern the result of God's working in us, even if indirectly (through its effects)?
  2. If this process does not finish when we die, what happens to God's promise in Phil 1:6? How does God bridge the gap between a faithful with lots of sinful habits to the finished version of that faithful that fits for heaven? Does God simply snap his finger like magic and finish the work without our involvement at all?
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    I think you might be looking for godliness. Less of a definite single aspect and more of a conformity of every aspect. The upward call of God in Christ. Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 12:46
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    @MikeBorden "godliness" a good candidate. I purposely narrow the scope to Phil 1:6 and Phil 2:13 so we can "test" the answer. Is it then theologically correct that "godliness" IS what God is producing in us, that "godliness" increasingly becomes the REAL possession of a believer? Why is it a preferred term compared to "maturity", "virtue", "love", "holiness"? Theology's purpose is to give clarity to abstract concepts so it can be practically real in a believer's daily life. Thus, if "maturity" can stand in for "godliness" then it is a better term since it's more concrete (descriptively). Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 13:04
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    @MikeBorden I respond to your very helpful comments in the edited Q to reflect better what drove me to this Q in the first place. Bottom line: I want to be able to correlate God's work in me to something tangible, at least conceptually. Since Spiritual Theology (ST) seems to be the proper kind of theology, so I ask for an ST term. Although ST will ultimately go to Gal 4:19 (Christ-likeness) as basis, ST NEEDS to hash this out further. Aquinas actually wrote the whole Summa as an aid for confessors; his answer to this question would be Virtues. But what is the Reformed answer? Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 15:24
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    I think "righteousness", "holiness", and "godliness" are pretty much synonymous in most Protestant theology.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 22:37

3 Answers 3


The epistle to the saints and faithful in Ephesus soars higher into the 'heavenlies' (Ephesians 1:20, literal) than perhaps any other. And the church of Ephesus, addressed by the Son of man, Revelation 2:1, is commended for works, labour, patience, withstanding evil, trying false apostles, forbearance and not fainting.

These were mature Christians, tried and tested, very experienced, separate from the world, faithful followers.

Nevertheless, this they lacked, and that lack so significant that, did they not repent of that lack, they would no longer be a church, and would, of necessity, need to leave Ephesus and join with other congregations, as individuals, due to their corporate failure.

'Thou hast left thy first love'.

Thus says the Son of man to the Ephesian saints in Revelation 2:4.

For what is all worth, without love ?

'Though I speak with the tongue of men or angels ; though I have prophecy ; and understand all mysteries and all knowledge ; and though I have all faith ... and have not charity - I am nothing. '

Thus says Paul the apostle in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3.

Faith, itself, 'works by love', Galatians 5:6, else, it is not faith but intellectual acumen. Heady and high-minded, pompous and puffed up.

And this is God's commandment, 1 John 3:23, 'That we should believe on the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another'.

So the love prompts the faith and the faith results in love.

Such that Paul prays that 'the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one to another and toward all even as we to you', 1 Thessalonians 3:12 (KJV).

'Increase and abound in love' is certainly, therefore, an 'aspect that increases within a believer as God carries his work to completion' and is an aspect which, if lacking, is a matter so serious that a particular church can lose its status as a church should that church depart from it.

Nor is this to be mistaken with natural affection or the kind of love that nature has for its own, for the love of which the New Testament speaks is 'the love of God' that 'is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us', Romans 5:5.

Divine love, shed abroad, in the heart by that Person given, in an anointing, by God himself. And that same love shown one to another, increasing and abounding.

The term that, most conspicuously, stands out as something that increases within a believer as God carries his work to completion : is 'love'.

All references are to the KJV.

Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned. Song of Solomon 8:7 KJV.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ ? Romans 8:35 KJV.

  • "Love" is a good term that can be described, felt, and thought within the time and space dimension of a human soul. Theologically it makes sense as well. What your answer implies (not explicitly stated) is whether you are prepared to say that the "work" referred to in Phil 1:6 and Phil 2:13, the "work" that God produces in us, is increasing "love"? This sounds similar to Catholic teaching (which is a good thing!) that God indeed infuses the virtue of love (charity) in the soul of those in the state of grace. Commented Oct 7, 2022 at 16:16
  • @GratefulDisciple I don't recognise the term 'infuse'. My understanding (and experience) is of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in union with my own spirit. Thus is love 'shed abroad in the heart'.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Oct 8, 2022 at 0:40
  • I see that you use the Greek word ἐκκέχυται in Rom 5:5 and Acts 10:45 as the basis while Catholics use the "infused virtue" language in connection with the gifts from Christ to us in the sacrament of baptism (see here). I'll ask another question to Catholics about this. Commented Oct 9, 2022 at 10:39
  • @GratefulDisciple Yes, I am referring to what happens when one is 'born of water and Spirit', ' born from above', born again', 'born anew' and born of God'. I am not referring to a ritual performed by men on one another. Yes, indeed.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Oct 9, 2022 at 17:19

"Ongoing sanctification" works. But I think the term the OP is really looking for is theosis. Originally this comes from the tradition of the Greek church, but it was also expressed by Reformers such as Jonathan Edwards and possibly John Calvin. Recently, Reformed theologians have given increasing attention to the concept. Here is a summary of the ideas from the evangelical publication Themelios:

Orthodox writers use this Greek word to refer both to humanity’s initial vocation (the task which God gave to Adam and Eve at creation) and to salvation. The word theosis is translated ‘deification’ in English and is thus very problematic for most Western evangelicals. However, we should recognise immediately that deification does not imply that people actually become gods in any ontological sense at all; the Orthodox affirm that God is unique and transcendent, just as evangelicals do. Rather, by theosis the Orthodox mean the process of acquiring godly characteristics, gaining immortality and incorruptibility, and experiencing communion with God. As a result, deification corresponds somewhat to concepts which evangelicals describe using the terms sanctification, eternal life, and fellowship or relationship with God.

  • Thanks for the 4 resources. I have been interested in theosis myself, and these references help connect that concept with Reformed theology, both by Calvin (founder), Edwards (spirituality), and today's Reformed theology. Prof. Donald Fairbairn (who teaches at Gordon-Conwell) is a good patristic scholar to introduce theosis to evangelicals. Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 19:24
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    But theosis is the process, not the thing itself. Same problem with sanctification really...
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 22:38
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    I know of no such thing in theology, Reformed or otherwise which is, to quote the OP... "MEASURABLE to a human." Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 0:20
  • "measurable" has been tainted with empirical scientific measurement connotation, so I changed it to "describable". My aim is for concepts similar to what Aquinas use. For example, I believe he would answer this Q in terms of virtues, the way he did it in his Summa. From a common sense and everyday reality check angle, if it is meaningful for us to say how someone is more loving than others (in philosophical / psychological terms) then shouldn't it be possible to describe the effect of God's work in us similarly? Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 8:23

Ongoing sanctification is the simplest, clearest term I can think of. Sanctification is explained in detail in the New Testament, and it indicates something received by the person who puts faith in Christ Jesus. This is stated here:

"So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness." Colossians 2:6 N.I.V. 1987 ed.

To 'receive' Christ Jesus is to receive sanctification, for no unsanctified person can receive Christ.

Having received this sanctification, it is clear that the person must continue living 'in Christ'. It is not a gift to be received then put to one side, as it were, as if that was the end of the matter. No. Sanctification can be seen being worked out in the believer for the rest of their life until that glorious day we confidently look forward to when:

"...he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." Philippians 1:6

A few verses further on, Paul adds that such Christians are to:

"...continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." (2:13)

There is the on-going aspect of a salvation already received. It is at work in the believer who fears the Lord, aware of the awesome privilege of having God work in them, for his glory (not for their salvation, because they have already been given salvation.) That is why Paul gives as a reason to eagerly await for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed,

"He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful." 1 Corinthians 1:8-9

It is because God is righteous and faithful, and has justified and sanctified the believer on the basis of his righteousness, that we can rejoice in the changed status of those who God brings into that intimate fellowship with his Son. That may be be why the writer to Hebrew Christians spoke of "things that accompany salvation" (6:9). Salvation is not a "thing", like an object. It is a changed relationship, and once that change happens, there are accompanying matters (or 'things') that evidence now having salvation.

I hope this clears a few of the points raised. But, in view of your edit to your question, and your request that I enlarge in view of that, here are some additional points.

Receiving the Holy Spirit is consequent upon the experience of justification, which is the reason for sanctification, and which is the basis of 'ongoing sanctification'. I appreciate that is not a philosophical term, but it does deal with a spiritual theology that denotes this 'increase' in a believer. Yet more can be said.

You speak of "a wall that separates theology from philosophy/ psychology in the area of spirituality" and of "the ivory tower" of theology (which Calvinists are inclined to 'inhabit'?) Let me respond with a philosophical poem about how God reaches down from heaven to teach a searching individual the importance of Truth. It was written in the 14th century (so, no Calvinists involved) by William Langland (translated here by Ronald Tamplin) and is one of the great works of English literature: Piers Plowman - Love in Action - Passus 1

"Truth proclaims it: love the wonder healer -

No blemish left, if that herb is used.

As God wished, the world was shaped in love.

Revealed to Moses, it was the best of things,

Heaven's image, priceless, the plant of peace.

But Heaven could not contain the weight of love,

Till, here on earth, it fed to the full, took

Flesh and blood. And after that, no leaf there was

On tree so light as love, mobile in air, plunging

As a needle point, no steel could stop it,

Nor castle wall. So, on earth as in heaven,

Love leads God's people, like a mayor,

Agent between the commons and the king. Love

Directs all, frames law, fixes fines

For the people's crimes. Know it for sure,

Love come surging from the power of God,

Its source, its mountain spring, the human heart."

"Speaking the truth in love" as per Ephesians 4:15 is the spiritual, theological term.

  • Your writing has always been exemplary, clear, and correct theologically, so I read this answer carefully. It IS the correct answer and the Reformed characteristics are shining through, but I was targeting something more concrete. Your answer helps me to clarify what brought me to the question in the first place, so I edited the question to ask for a "spiritual theology" term that is measurable, relatable, and meaningful in the space of philosophy/psychology so that terms don't remain in the ivory tower. I hope you would be interested to update your answer accordingly. Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 15:03
  • About your comment that salvation is not a "thing", of course I agree with you! Whole salvation includes the 3 aspects of sanctification that this article explains; this Q zeroes in on the 2nd one. I carefully wrote "aspect that increases within a believer" to capture the quality of the soul impacted by God's work which in turn directly affects our relationship to Him. Some say this quality shows through in our increasing obedience & submission to God's standard. Thus this Q is about a psychologically relatable term for this quality. Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 16:00
  • @GratefulDisciple Your comments and changes to your Q noted, and now responded to, possibly still not as clearly as you would wish, but that's because God is in heaven (as the poem shows) and it is HIS way of measuring, relating, and conveying meaning to us that needs to be our focus, and not our own viewpoint. God measures, relates, and conveys in ways far superior (and more ethereal) than we can suppose. We need to grasp his ways.
    – Anne
    Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 12:42
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    @GratefulDisciple Just to point out that many people adept at using spiritually theological terminology have actually brought heretical teachings into the Church. It's not language - words - that constitutes the real problem here, for it is a problem of the heart, which God 'reads'.
    – Anne
    Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 14:36
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    @GratefulDisciple Scottish theologian Wm. Cunningham (1805-61) taught Historical Theology and that the greatest qualification for a pastor is a God-sensitive heart desiring to know God, not just to know about God. Love for God empowers a prayer life that seeks the salvation of souls, so theological study must always be practical. He dismissed intricate theological Qs lacking that application. Theology is simply knowing God, which is what it means to be a Christian. Now I will look at that video, thank-you!
    – Anne
    Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 15:40

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