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10 Things You Should Know about Sanctification

We all hear a great deal about Christian sanctification, but what precisely is it, and how does it work? Today we look at ten things about this crucial biblical truth.

(1) Sanctification is transformation through consecration. The Greek word often translated “sanctification” (as well as “to sanctify”) carries both the sense of consecration (dedication, set-apartness), which is more positional (and less experiential) in force (see 1 Cor. 1:30; 6:11), and the sense of transformation (renewal, change), which is more experiential (and less positional) in force (see Rom. 6:19, 22; 1 Thess. 4:3). By God’s grace, the believer is set apart unto God as his own possession, and inwardly energized by the Holy Spirit to put to death the deeds of the flesh and to grow into Christ-likeness.

(2) Sanctification or growth in holiness is primarily an inner transformation of the intellectual, spiritual, and moral essence of a person such that one’s beliefs, values, desires, and choices are increasingly renovated and renewed and brought into alignment with those of Jesus Christ himself.

Jesus is himself the perfect man and model for our lives, the one in whom the image of God is most completely embodied, and our holiness is authentic only to the degree that we are progressively reshaped to resemble him in all ways. Thus, the aim for our lives must be his righteousness in us: his love for the unlovely, his humility in place of pride, his self-denial as over against self-seeking; wisdom and boldness and self-control, together with faithfulness to the Father and strength under pressure. 

(3) When talking of sanctification we need to avoid the two most obvious extremes. There is, on the one hand, the legalistic hypocrisy of pharisaism in which one conforms externally to a standard of rules while largely devoid of inward sincerity. There is, on the other hand, the antinomian freedom of those who would turn God’s grace into an excuse for immorality.

Thus holiness/sanctification is not primarily an issue of style or fashion. Certainly we must embrace modesty and not clothe ourselves in such a way that we are sexually seductive. But aside from that, holiness has little if anything to do with clothing or hair or makeup or other related items. Holiness/Sanctification is not primarily concerned with choices relating to culture. It has very little to do with what kind of music you listen to or what forms of art you prefer or what films you enjoy watching.

Holiness/Sanctification is primarily about having one’s character shaped by the Holy Spirit and how that transformed inner life expresses itself in conduct. Holiness should never be defined merely in terms of what you don’t do but primarily in terms of how closely you resemble Jesus in your relationships, how closely you reflect Jesus in all your behavior.

(4) Progressive sanctification is most often a gentle and imperceptible process. Although one rarely sees it or feels it happening, it is not unusual for the believer to realize at differing stages of life that they are different from what they once were. This difference, we must observe, is altogether the result of the Spirit’s empowering work. In other words, explains J. I. Packer, 

“holiness of life is not precisely a human achievement, however much it demands of human effort. It is a work of the Holy Spirit, who prompts and energizes the human effort as part of it. It is a supernaturalizing of our natural lives, a matter of becoming and so of being what we are as new creatures in Christ – a living out behaviorally of what God is working in us transformationally. We do not sanctify ourselves. . . . Self-reliance is not the way of holiness, but the negation of it. Self-confidence in face of temptation and conflicting pressures is a sure guarantee that some sort of moral failure will follow” (Rediscovering Holiness, 91-92).

(5) That being said, we must never forget that the Holy Spirit works through means. That is to say, holiness is not something imparted immediately, as if by divine infusion, independently of what the biblical authors call us to pursue, but rather precisely through or by means of those spiritual responsibilities and rituals set forth in Scripture. Here I have in view such things as the preaching and hearing of God’s revealed truth in Scripture, worship (both corporate and private), prayer, fellowship with other Christians, and the celebration of the Eucharist.  

(6) There is no holiness or Christian life that does not have repentance at its core. Repentance is not merely one element in conversion but is a habitual attitude and action to which all Christians are called. There are several elements involved. There is, first, a fundamental alteration in one’s thinking with regard to what is sin and what God requires of us in terms both of our thoughts and actions. Repentance thus begins with a recognition of the multitude of ways in which our thinking and attitude and belief system were contrary to what is revealed in Scripture.

But there must follow a change in behavior. There must be a conscious and consistent abandonment of those courses of action to which our sinful and rebellious thinking gave rise. There is also an emotional or subjective sorrow and remorse that true repentance requires. Merely feeling sorry for one’s sins is not itself repentance, but it is impossible for repentance to occur in the absence of a deep conviction, and its attendant anguish, for having lived in defiance of God. Whatever feeling is entailed in repentance, it must lead one to forsake all former ways of disobedience. To acknowledge one’s guilt before God is one thing; to abandon those actions that incurred such guilt is another, absolutely essential, dimension in genuine repentance. Thus there is in repentance not only a backward look at the former life from which one has turned but also a commitment both in the present and for the future to pursue Christ and to follow him in a life of devoted discipleship.  

(7) Sanctification is in one sense the work of God. God is the one who is at work, gradually demolishing our bad habits and the wicked ways of the old man in Adam. God is the one who is actively constructing within us good and godly new habits of Christ-like action and reaction.  

However, sanctification is also in another sense synergistic. Says Packer: “it is an ongoing cooperative process in which regenerate persons, alive to God and freed from sin’s dominion (Rom. 6:11, 14-18), are required to exert themselves in sustained obedience. God’s method of sanctification is neither activism (self-reliant activity) nor apathy (God-reliant passivity), but God-dependent effort (2 Cor. 7:1; Phil. 3:10-14; Heb. 12:14)” (Concise Theology, 170-71).

(8) In sanctification, says J. I. Packer, God in sovereign grace “unites the individual to the risen Lord in such a way that the dispositional drives of Christ’s perfect human character – the inner urgings, that is, to honour, adore, love, obey, serve and please God, and to benefit others for both their sake and his sake – are now reproduced at the motivational centre of that individual’s being (“Evangelical Foundations for Spirituality,” in Serving the People of God, 259; emphasis mine).

Consider that again. Sanctification occurs when “the dispositional drives” or the “inner urgings” that moved, motivated, and guided Jesus himself are “reproduced” at the motivational center of our own lives. 

(9) Holiness in life is a community effort. Holiness isn’t something you seek after in isolation from other believers. Holiness must be lived out in the context of community, in a small group setting or something similar. You do not have the strength of will or the maturity of character to go it alone! Simply put, you will never advance far in the Christian life or deepen in the development of biblical holiness until you embed yourself in a community of other Christians who can hold you accountable and ask the hard questions. You will never get far in the Christian life until you find the courage to give other people the right to get in your face and challenge you about your speech, attitudes, thought life, use of money, relationships, etc.

(10) One of the more instructive paradoxes of the Christian life is the fact that as we grow in holiness, the distress and pain of sin only intensifies. Many have embraced the unbiblical notion that with personal growth in godliness there comes a diminishing sense of the presence of sin and the pain that it typically evokes. But the more holy and mature one becomes the more offensive and painful sin is to their hearts. Says Packer: 

“Those . . . who have been instructed in God’s law and gospel, as found in the Bible, will ordinarily have a more vivid awareness of their sinfulness, and of their particular sins, because the divine light that shines on them from Scripture to show them to themselves is brighter. This is one reason (there are others) why converted Christians regularly experience deeper conviction of sin after their conversion than they knew before, and why one dimension of spiritual growth . . . is growth downward into a more thorough humility and more radical repentance. Though not much is said about this nowadays, a deepening sense of one’s sinfulness remains a touchstone of the genuine Christian life” (Rediscovering Holiness, 52-53). 

An inescapable principle of the spiritual life is that the farther you go, or the deeper you progress, the greater is your sense of distance from where you know you should ultimately be. As your desires for God expand and increase, as your longing for greater intimacy deepens, you become ever more conscious of how far you have yet to go in knowing and loving God as you ought. Again, “intense distress at one’s continuing imperfection, in the context of an intense love of goodness as God defines it and an intense zeal to practice it, is the clearest possible sign of the holiness of heart that is central to spiritual health. The paradox – too hard a nut, it seems, for some to crack – is that increase of real holiness always brings increase of real discontent, because of what has not yet been achieved” (Rediscovering Holiness, 222).