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What is sanctification and why should we study it?
The English word “sanctification” is derived from the Latin sânctus, which means to consecrate or set apart. The New Testament Greek word, hagiasmos, has the same meaning. The Greek word family associated with this word is most often translated “sanctify, holy, consecrated, and saint.” In this paper, we will look at the sanctification process—the process by which God’s elect are set apart from the perversion and corruption of sin and set apart to God, to become His pure and spotless people.
Understanding the subject of sanctification is obviously of utmost importance, since God’s number one goal for believers is to make them holy and like Christ in character. Gaining an accurate understanding of sanctification is important not only for own personal growth, but also for our effectiveness in shepherding and building others.
A correct understanding of sanctification will also help protect us from being led astray by various winds and waves of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14). There are fairly significant differences in Christianity concerning how the sanctification process works and what degree of sanctification can be achieved in this life. Some Bible teachers would view Paul’s stuggles with the flesh, described in Romans chapter seven, as fairly normative for the Christian life. Others would vehemently contradict this pessimistic view and would even go so far as to claim that a Christian can gain a state of “entire sanctification,” where he does not sin any longer. There are also differences in understanding as to how much of the sanctification process is up to God and how much is up to us. Some teachers almost exclusively emphasize man’s part in the process and others teach that any effort on man’s part is close to inconsequential and perhaps even harmful. One goal of this paper is to address these and other issues that relate to sanctification.
What are the stages of sanctification?
Sanctification occurs in steps or stages. First of all, we are sanctified or set apart to God at the point of faith and salvation.
Paul writes: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11 NIV, emphasis added).
And the writer to the Hebrews says: “And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10 NIV, emphasis added).
So, a believer is, in his core identity, a “saint” (set apart one) a person belonging to God and called to be set apart to God and to be set apart from sin and impurity—a person destined for Christ-likeness. (The New Testament writers most often refer to believers as “saints” or holy ones calling them “Christians” three times, “the Way” five times, “believers” twelve times, “brothers” about 18 times, but “saints” 61 times!)
The second stage of sanctification is the process where the saints live out their calling by becoming increasingly holy in thought and life. Paul writes:
“… Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness.” (Romans 6:19, NIV emphasis added).
“…to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24, NIV emphasis added).
Paul goes on in this passage to describe the types of things we are to put off and put on—put off lying, put on truth telling; put off unwholesome speech, put on edifying speech; put off stealing, put on working and giving; etc. This second stage of sanctification, this process of becoming practically holy and Christ-like, is the stage of sanctification that we will be addressing in this paper. The third stage of sanctification is the final stage, that of glorification. When Christ returns, believers will be totally and completely sanctified, set apart from sin and set apart to God. Paul writes:
“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
These three stages of sanctification can be found in a single verse in Philippians 1:6 (NLT): “And I am sure that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on that day when Christ Jesus comes back again.”
What is the difference between justification and sanctification?
Justification means to be “declared righteous” and is the act of God in pardoning or acquitting the believer from all his sins. Justification differs from sanctification in several ways. Justification is an instantaneous occurrence, complete in one moment, whereas sanctification is a process requiring a lifetime for completion. Also, there is a difference between the two in degree. A person is either justified or not, whereas we may be more or less sanctified. Justification is a legal or declarative matter, while sanctification is an actual transformation of the character and condition of the person.
How difficult is sanctification?
Gaining mastery over sin is a tremendously difficult task. Hartley, in Essays on Man, says, “It is the most difficult of all things to convert men from vicious habits to virtuous ones, as every one may judge from what he feels in himself, as well as from what he sees in others.” And Cornelius Plantinga, in his excellent book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, A Breviary of Sin, says, “…the main human trouble is desperately difficult to fix, even for God, and sin is the longest-running of human emergencies.”
In the ancient world, no task was more difficult than conquering a well-fortified city. Often, the conquering of a city would take years and an unbelievable investment of manpower and resources. Yet Solomon states, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city” (Proverbs 16:32). Solomon understood that ruling our own spirit is the most difficult task of all. After conquering the world, Alexander the Great, in a fit of rage, struck and accidentally killed his right-hand general and best friend. He exclaimed, “I have conquered the world, but I cannot conquer my own soul.”
Speaking for God, the prophet Jeremiah reveals God’s own amazement with the stubbornness and intransigence of His own chosen people, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jeremiah 13:23, NIV). If learning to do good is so difficult, how then can it happen? The apostle Paul realized that genuine change and growth in character is utterly impossible by human effort alone. That is why he relied upon the “power of God” and the “weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left” (2 Corinthians 6:7). And in 2 Corinthians 10:4 he says, “for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses.” The problem of sin and disobedience in people’s lives is unconquerable without divinely powerful weapons. All throughout, the Scriptures reveal that human beings need powerful outside intervention to control and eventually conquer their faults.
Because of the difficulty of the task, gaining mastery over sin may require extreme effort, not only by the individual, but also by those who are mentoring and instructing him. Paul says to the Galatians, “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19, NIV). Discipleship of others often involves work, suffering, and distress similar to the intense labor that women experience in childbirth.
Why is forsaking sin and living righteously such a difficult thing? One reason that forsaking sin is so difficult is that sin is so very addicting. Jesus declared, “…everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34, NIV). Sin tends to multiply and deceive. When we give in to one temptation, others follow hard on its footsteps. And, sometimes, the embracing of one sin can open a virtual Pandora’s box of folly and corruption. In Romans chapter one, we see that the sins of pride, ungratefulness, and thanklessness lead to other sins: idol worship, sexual immorality, and, eventually, all kinds of vileness. So, it appears that one of the most devastating consequences of sin is more sin. We are given over to ever-increasing wickedness until we reap in our own persons the due penalty of our error.
Pastors, counselors, attorneys, and law enforcement officers, those who work with people and their problems, constantly encounter the addictive nature of sin. People become addicted not just to alcohol and other substances, but to all kinds of sin. Sexual sin, eating disorders, outbursts of anger, deception, jealousy—the list goes on and on. Sin can get its grip on our lives and just won’t let go, no matter how many resolutions we make to change, or how much we weep or plead with God, or how much effort we make to reform.
Additionally, our sin tends to deceive and corrupt not only ourselves, but others as well. The sins of the parents are passed down to the children. Dysfunction and abuse create a cycle in families that can often be traced for generations. Our sin not only causes pain and misery and addiction in ourselves, it damages and seduces others as well. This grand accumulation of the individual sins of a culture is what the Bible calls the “world.” It is a whole set of sinful behavior and thought patterns that are all around us, pressuring and seducing us toward evil and away from God.
And then we have the flesh and its lust—the sinful propensity that dwells in our mortal bodies that has been passed on to us as a result of the fall of Man. And, on top of all this, there is the Devil, our adversary, who looks for opportunities and situations to tempt and seduce us toward evil and away from God.
Add all this together and we see that sin is an extremely difficult thing to conquer. In Romans six, Paul speaks of sin as a cruel taskmaster that conquers and enslaves us. And in chapter seven, Paul powerfully describes his own experience of bondage to sin, specifically to the sin of covetousness. His words describe the experience of millions who have found themselves frustrated, enslaved, and unable to change their behavior despite an earnest desire for change.
“For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (vs. 15)… “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (vs. 19)…“For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7: 22-24)
Paul came to a realization that we all must come to if we hope to walk in victory over sin. We must realize that we are in bondage, that we desperately need someone to rescue us. For on our own, we are totally incapable of living the life of love, righteousness, and holiness that we long for and that God calls us to.
What is the basis and foundation for our sanctification?
Thankfully, we do have a Savior, and He has not only saved us from the penalty of sin, He has also saved us from the power of sin. Just as Jesus Christ is the source of our justification, He is also the source of our sanctification. Jesus is the “author,” “captain,” or “pioneer” of our salvation (Hebrews 2:10; 12:2). As the Hero of Faith (greater than any of the previously listed heroes of faith), He has endured the cross, despising its shame, and has now been seated at God’s right hand. He is the first and only fully sanctified person. Jesus Christ is the only person to have lived a life of perfect obedience and sanctification, and He is the only adequate resource we have for the development of holiness in our lives. On the basis of our union and relationship with Him, we have come to share His resources. He has “become for us” sanctification, just as He is also our wisdom, righteousness, and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30). Thus, our sanctification cannot be based simply on psychological techniques, moral will power, relational support, or emotional experiences. We must base it solidly on the person of Christ and upon His resources, available to us through our union with Him.
How has Christ set us free from sin?
The Scripture clearly states that believers in Christ have been set free from the enslaving power of sin. And that freedom is based upon our union with Christ. In his writings, and most notably in Romans chapter six, Paul refers to the fact that believers have been united with Christ (baptized into or placed into Christ), and so share in His death and resurrection. Let’s look for a moment at Romans six and its context.
Prior to Romans six, Paul has just finished arguing that what was forfeited in Adam and his sin has been regained in Jesus Christ and His obedience. He then powerfully emphasizes the extent of God’s grace and the freedom of His gift of forgiveness and life by saying, “… where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20b, NIV). The more people sinned, the more God poured out His grace. Now to this there is an obvious objection: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” (Romans 6:1, NIV). Paul replies emphatically, “By no means!” (Romans 6:2, NIV). Such a response is an incredible misunderstanding of the gospel, because forgiveness of sins is not received in a vacuum, but in union with Christ. Paul’s logic in chapters five and six is as follows:
1. We receive forgiveness of sins freely though faith in Christ.
2. This reception involves being united with (baptized or placed into) Christ.
3. Christ, to whom we are united, died to sin.
4. Since we are united to Him, we also have died to sin.
5. If we have died to sin, we cannot continue living in it.
6. Therefore, we cannot continue in sin that grace may increase.
Paul then comes to the climax of his argument and summarizes this awesome change that has happened to us in Christ. “The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God”11 (Romans 6:10, NIV). In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Since we are now united with Christ, we must view ourselves in a totally different way. And viewing ourselves in this way is absolutely foundational to our sanctification. We must view ourselves as having died with Christ, having resurrected with Christ and having been made alive to God with Christ.
Ask yourself, “What is Christ’s relationship to sin today?” Why, He has nothing to do with it whatsoever! It’s been taken care of once for all! He will never have to die for sin again or deal with it again. Any claim sin ever had on Him has been totally abolished.
And what is Christ’s relationship to God today? It is perfect! It is pure and unhindered by any problem whatsoever! He enjoys the full blessing of God. There is nothing but love, affirmation, acceptance, respect, security, and appreciation in the relationship that Jesus and the Father share with each other.
The point that Paul is making here is that since we have been united with Christ, we have the same relationship to sin that Christ does and the same relationship to God that Christ does! Being united to Christ brings about a radical change. We’ve died. We’ve been resurrected. We are now in perfect relationship with God and union with Christ. This is how we must view ourselves, not because we are trying to psyche ourselves up, but because this is what truly has happened. Surely such a person, united with Christ, could never continue in sin. “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14, NIV). What we have received through the new covenant of grace is so incredibly more powerful than what people had under the old covenant of law that it is now impossible for sin to be our master any longer. For we have not simply been forgiven, we have become united with Christ. The old person we once were has died. We have been born again (1 Peter 1:23) and have become new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17). And we should expect our lives to be as vastly changed as if we had actually died and then been raised from the dead, ready to start a new life.
If we have died to sin, does that mean we are totally free from its presence and influence altogether? Paul’s teaching that we have been united with Christ in His death and resurrection and have “died to sin” is so clear and compelling that, at first glance, we might think that believers have, or can, become completely separated from and dead to sin and temptation altogether. But let’s look more closely at Romans 6:6-7 (NIV):
“For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.”
First of all, the word translated in the NIV “done away with” (Greek katargeo) does not necessarily mean to cease to exist, but most often means to nullify or to bring something to nothing. Rather than the body of sin being annihilated or removed completely, it has been nullified, or rendered ineffective. Indeed, Paul seems to explain what he means by “done away with” when he says, “that we should no longer be slaves to sin” and that we have been “freed” from sin. Paul seems to be stating that we have died to sin, not in the sense of dying to its presence or dying to all temptation, but in the sense of dying to sin as a master.
Indeed, this slavery analogy is present throughout the entire passage as Paul views sin as a personified power. Sin reigns as king (5:21; 6:12) and makes people serve it as master (6:14) so that they are sin’s slaves (6:17, 20). Sin is a warring general who uses people’s bodies as his weapons (6:13). In light of this analogy, it would appear that having died to sin would refer to having died to sin as our master, rather than having been completely cut off from any possibility of sin or completely cut off from its influence.
Paul goes on in the chapter to specifically state that evil desires are still present. He exhorts his readers, “…do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires” (6:12, NIV). This exhortation would be meaningless if “dead to sin” meant that Christians are dead to the very existence and inclination to sin. And, his exhortation clearly states that the “evil desires” of the “mortal body” are still present and demanding to be obeyed.
But what is the “body of sin” that has been nullified, or brought to no effect? Does sin have a body of some type? Or is Paul referring to our physical bodies? A study of the word “body” (soma) in Romans strongly suggests that Paul is referring to the physical body:
Romans 6:6 that the body of sin might be done away with. Romans 6:12 don’t let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its (the body’s) lusts. Romans 7:24 who will rescue me from the body of this death? Romans 8:10 your body is dead because of sin. Romans 8:11 God will give life to your mortal bodies. Romans 8:13 through the Spirit putting to death the misdeeds of the body. Romans 8:23 we groan, waiting eagerly the redemption of our bodies.
If indeed the term “body of sin” in Romans 6:6 is referring to the physical body, then clearly, the phrase “done away with” must mean “nullified” rather than “cease to exist,” for certainly our physical bodies have not ceased to exist. Rather, the sinful desires (Romans 6:12 lusts and Romans 8:13 misdeeds) of the body have been nullified or rendered ineffective or brought to nothing. So, Paul is not arguing that we have died to sin in the sense that we have been totally freed from the presence of sin, or even that we have been totally freed from the power and influence of sin. Rather, we have been freed from our bondage and slavery to sin. We have died to sin as our master.
How intense should we expect our struggle for holiness to be?
If we have been delivered from slavery and bondage to sin, it would seem that we should experience little struggle with it. Yes, sin and fleshly desires are still present, but if we have died to sin and the “body of sin” has been nullified, why do so many Christians experience such an intense struggle with sin?
Although the believer has been united with Christ and, therefore, is dead to sin, alive to God, and seated with Christ in the heavenly places, still the Bible consistently paints the life of the saint as a life of difficulty, struggle, conflict, and self-denial. Paul “encouraged” the believers in the Galatian churches by reminding them, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22, NIV). What is the source of our struggles and conflict?
Conflict comes as an inevitable result of what God has called us to and of who God has made us to be. In fact, it is precisely because we are new creatures and “saints” that we experience conflict with the world, the Devil, and the flesh. Take the world, for example. As we become more and more sanctified, our new life-style in Christ is bound to put us on a collision course with the lifestyle of a fallen and corrupt world. The goals, motives, and energies of our lives now stand in complete contrast to the world around us. That radical difference makes tension, conflict, and stress inevitable. Jesus warns that the world will hate us (John 15:19). In 2 Timothy 3:1-11, after describing the depraved condition of the world around us, Paul concludes that all who desire to live godly lives in Christ will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12). Paul states that we are at odds with the goals and values of the world, which is trying to “conform“ us to its “pattern” (Romans 12:2).
In addition, we are now in conflict with Satan and the spiritual forces of evil. Before we came to Christ, we were held under the sway of the Devil, the “spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 2:2). We, like the rest of the world, were “under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). But now, God has “delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). Through Christ and His work, the Devil has been defeated and disarmed (Colossians 2:15) and we have been freed from his power over us. Yet, the Devil and the domain of darkness are still very much present and active. Although Christ has rendered the Devil “powerless” (Hebrews 2:14, where the same verb appears as in Romans 6:6 katargeo, to nullify), Christians are still in danger of being “led astray” by his “cunning” (2 Corinthians 11:3). We are exhorted to stand firm in battle against him and his dark spiritual forces, having armed ourselves with God’s weapons of warfare (Ephesians 6:10-17). And Peter admonishes us to resist our “adversary”, the Devil, remaining firm in our faith, since he prowls around “like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8-9, NIV). In our union with Christ, we have been “seated with Christ in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 2:6). And as a result, we have now joined the battle against the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). Amazingly, our daily lives involve the skirmishes of the cosmic war of the end times. But our conflict is not simply external, with the world and the Devil. It is internal as well—a conflict with the desires of the flesh. As we have seen, Romans 6 teaches that we have been delivered from slavery to sin and that the “body of sin” has been nullified. Yet Paul says in Galatians that a battle remains between the flesh and the Spirit:
“For the sinful nature (flesh) desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature (flesh). They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” (Galatians 5:17 NIV parenthesis and emphasis added).
Romans 6:12 says that saints still have “mortal” bodies with “evil desires” that are still demanding to be obeyed. And Romans 8:13 says that by the Spirit we must put to death the “misdeeds of the body.” (Of course, not all bodily desires are intrinsically evil. Our desires for food, sleep, security, etc. are God-given and good, when they are kept in balance and are subject to the law of love. Yet, since the fall, the physical bodily desires have become inordinately strong, perverse, and self-centered, leading us into the types of activities described by Paul in his list of the “deeds of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21.)
In his excellent article, The Reformed View (of Sanctification), Sinclair B. Furguson seeks to explain the tension between those Scriptures that so strongly state that we have been freed from sin and those that depict an intense and continuing battle. “All that is true for me in Christ has not yet been accomplished in me by the Spirit. I live in the Spirit, but I also continue to live in the flesh (though no longer dominated by it, nor a debtor to it). But as I have been delivered from bondage to the flesh, I continue to live my life with a body and mind marred by sin, and in a world and community which have been dominated by the flesh. Although I have been delivered from addiction to sin, its presence remains. I experience withdrawal symptoms and remain weakened by its devastating impact on my life. The desires of the flesh and the desires of the spirit are contrary to one another…In microcosm, I experience a reflection of the conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. Because I am destined for the glory of Christ, so long as I am in the body, I groan, longing for the day when my life as a child of God will be brought to its final consummation (Romans 8:23).”
How does the Holy Spirit help us in our battle with the lusts of the flesh, the world, and the devil?
In Romans, chapter seven, Paul describes his experience and frustration with the sin of covetousness. In his intense struggle to do right and to obey God’s law, he finds himself doing the very things he hates. There has been much argument among Bible interpreters as to whether Paul is describing an experience he had while he was a non-Christian living under the law, or while he was a Christian. We will not look at the issue here, but one point needs to be made. Whether Paul’s experience happened when he was a believer or a non-believer, he did find deliverance from his struggle. After so powerfully describing his own experience of bondage, Paul breaks out in thanksgiving to God:
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!…because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, 4 in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit” (Romans 7:25-8:4, NIV emphasis added).
Paul joyfully announces that the law (here Paul is using the word “law” in the sense of an unchanging principle) of the Spirit of life has set him free from the law (unchanging principle) of sin and death. He is overjoyed that the Spirit of life has set him free from the bondage and frustration he described in chapter seven. What the law could not do, God did in Christ. Now, through the new way of the Spirit (not the old way of human effort) the law’s requirements (which are summarized in the word love) can be fully met in those who live according to the Spirit.
Paul continues in the following verses of chapter eight to show that the working of the Spirit is our source of power to live a life of holiness. Here are some of his points:
- All who belong to Christ have the Spirit (vs. 9).
- Those controlled by the flesh reap death but those controlled by the Spirit reap life and peace (vs. 6).
- Those controlled by the flesh cannot please God (implying that those controlled by the Spirit do please God) (vs. 8).
- By the Spirit, we can put to death the misdeeds of the body, resulting in life (vs. 13).
- The Spirit leads us (vs. 14).
- The Spirit testifies that we are children of God.
- The Spirit intercedes for us.
In Galatians 5:16 (NIV), Paul again points to the work of the Spirit as the means of sanctification and victory over the flesh, “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature (flesh).” And verses 22-23 (NIV) show the results of living in the Spirit, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. Against such things there is no law.”
As we have already seen, sanctification is achieved through a believer’s union with Christ. And part of what it means to be united with Christ is to have the Holy Spirit indwelling us. Here are a few of the verses that describe the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives:
- Our bodies are now temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19).
- The Spirit has been sealed in us until the day of redemption (Ephesians 4:30).
- The Spirit is a river of living water, springing up from within the believer (John 7:38-39).
- The Spirit strengthens us in the inner man to comprehend God’s love and to fill us to the measure of the fullness of God (become like God in our character Ephesians 3:16-19).
- The Spirit gives us power to be witnesses (Acts 1:8).
- The love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Spirit (Romans 5:5).
- The Spirit helps us to pray and to worship (Ephesians 6:18, Jude 1:20, Philippians 3:3).
- The Spirit reveals God’s thoughts to us and gives us the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:11-16).
- The Spirit gives us spiritual gifts to build up the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).
- The Spirit transforms us into God’s likeness with ever-increasing glory (2 Corinthians 3:17‑18).
- The Spirit is our helper, companion, and counselor (John 14:16-18).
We are better off to have the Spirit as our companion and helper than the disciples were to have Jesus Himself as their companion and guide (John 16:7). In the Holy Spirit, the believer has an incredibly close companion and helper. In John 14:16, Jesus refers to Him using the word parakletos, a difficult word to translate into English. It literally means “one called alongside to help.” The New American Standard translates it “helper.” The New Living and New International use “counselor.” The King James uses “comforter.” The word has all these meanings and more. It is sometimes translated “advocate” and “intercessor.” It can have the meaning of “encourager, companion, and guide.” Jesus goes on in verse 18 (NIV) of this passage to state, “I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you.” The Holy Spirit is as helpful and necessary to us as a parent is to a child. Without Him, we would be orphans.
It is obvious from all these verses that the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our lives is the key to our sanctification. If we wish to grow in holiness, we must learn to live in the Spirit and to be filled with the Spirit.
How do we walk in the Spirit?
Christians seem to have a tendency to try to reduce the sanctification process to a few simple rules or steps to follow. It would be nice in some ways if we could follow a simple formula every day that would lead to our sanctification. Perhaps it would be reading so much of the Bible each day, or praying for a certain period of time every day, or simply asking God to fill us with the Spirit each day. Although these are obviously good things to do and may help us immensely to walk in the Spirit, I am convinced that the sanctification process cannot be reduced to a simple formula or series of steps to follow. Why is that? It is because the Spirit is not a force to be manipulated, like electricity or magnetism. The Spirit is a person. And, as with any person, if we want to walk with them, we must walk in relationship. Relationships cannot be reduced to simple formulas. I cannot reduce my relationship with my wife to a few simple rules take out the garbage, kiss her every morning, and bring flowers home every night. Those things may be good to do, but maintaining a relationship is much more difficult and complex than that. Relationships do have rules, but they cannot be reduced to rules.
Following a few resolutions and performing a few duties will not cut it in walking with God. Following Him requires the commitment, energy, and interest of a devoted relationship. But really, isn’t that actually wonderful? We have not been united to rules and duties, but to a wonderful person, the most wonderful person imaginable, a person who is able to meet our every need.
Where does Scripture bring out the idea of a relationship with God as key to sanctification?
Romans 6:11 (NIV) says, “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” We have talked at length about what it means to be dead to sin, but the really exciting part of this verse is that we are alive to God. We are in relationship with God. In fact, our relationship with Him is as close and wonderful as Christ’s relationship with God, since we have been united with Christ.
Romans 7:4 (NIV) brings out this same thought, “So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.” Part of the good news of the gospel is that we are no longer under the law, as Romans seven clearly states. But there is even better news. We now belong to another, or literally have been “joined to another” to Jesus Christ. We have a relationship not to a set of rules and laws, but to a fantastic person.
Romans 8:14-15 (NIV) also stresses this new relationship, “ …because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’” We have a relationship to God, not as insignificant peons or lowly slaves, but as sons, with all the rights and privileges of sons!
Our union with Christ is not simply some theoretical, judicial union: it is a union of persons. It is the same type of union that a loving father shares with his respectful and obedient son. It is the same type of union that a man and wife share in marriage. In fact, one of the purposes of marriage is to be a picture of the union that believers have with Christ (Ephesians 5:23-32). It is the same type of closeness and union that a branch has to the vine (John 15:1-10). It is the same type of closeness and union that the head has to the body (Ephesians 1:22-21). It is the same type of closeness and union that God the Father shares with God the Son (John 17:21-23).
Relationships cannot be reduced to simple formulas. There are too many factors Involved affection, respect, admiration, obedience, love, kindness, patience, trust, humility, honesty, listening, openness, selflessness, forgiveness, courage, and time spent together. Sometimes we have a tendency to focus all our energy on one aspect of the relationship, say prayer. We might say, “Prayer is the key to a relationship with God.” Well, it is certainly one essential ingredient. But if it is prayer without admiration, or prayer without obedience, or prayer without love, or prayer without trust, it may not further the relationship and may even hinder it. (It’s hard to have a relationship with someone who talks all the time and never stops to listen or interact.)
Why do you think the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? Why does He command us to do this? It is because He wants a relationship with us. He desires our love. He desires our love so much that he becomes intensely jealous whenever we give our affections to any other god or idol (James 4:4-5).
Perhaps sanctification can be best summarized as the process of learning to love God with all our being. It is learning to enjoy Him and obey Him and know Him and experience Him. It is developing a relationship with Him.
What practices can assist our relationship with God?
Although relationships do not consist in rules, there are rules that we can follow that can help us improve our relationships. Part of loving someone is desiring to know them better. Trust is vital to a relationship, and trust is enhanced by knowledge of a person’s personality and character. So, it stands to reason that we can learn to love God more as we know Him better. Thus, we desire to read His Word, His clearest and most complete revelation of Himself to us. Part of loving someone is desiring to please them and make them happy. So, we study the Word of God to find out what is pleasing to God and what makes Him happy. Part of loving someone is telling him how wonderful he is. So, we praise and worship God, both privately and in public worship.
Part of loving someone is openly communicating with them, telling them our hopes and fears and desires, asking their advice, soliciting their help. So we pray to God and pour out our hearts to Him. Part of loving someone is to love those they love. So we love our fellow men and watch out for their interests. Our relationship with God at this point in human history is similar to a long-distance relationship between two humans. Although the Holy Spirit actually indwells our bodies and can get no closer physically to us than He already is, our communication with God is not yet “face to face.” Presently, we see but a poor reflection, as in a mirror (1 Corinthians 13:12). Our relationship with God is, in some ways, similar to two lovers separated from one another in different cities and only able to correspond by letter. Our answers to prayer are often not immediate. Wisdom from God may not come instantly, upon our first request. We do not always know God’s agenda and what He is doing. Yet, in a coming day, we will see Him face to face and we shall know things fully, just as we are fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).
But at present, our relationship is similar to a long-distance relationship and such a relationship takes special patience and trust. There is less opportunity for affirmation and reassurance in a long distance relationship. In such a relationship, lovers will cling to those love letters, even memorizing certain parts, to reassure themselves of the love of the other. The Bible is our love letter from God, reassuring us of His love, and guiding us into His Will and instructing us how to please Him. The importance of the Bible in the process of sanctification can hardly be overemphasized.
- It is the “truth” that sanctifies and “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17).
- Our lives are “transformed” (metamorphoo) as our minds are renewed by God’s truth (Romans 12:2 & Ephesians 4:22-24).
- The Word of God is the “sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17); without the Word, the Spirit has no sword to fight with.
- The Word of God is “pure spiritual milk,” that causes you to “grow up in your salvation.”
- The promises of God and the knowledge of God are what allow us to escape the corruption of the world and become participants in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:3-4).
- The Word of God is what thoroughly equips us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Our souls are revived by the Word of God (Psalm 119:7).
- Victory over the Devil and the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12) comes from knowing and holding to the truth of God. In fact, all the armor of God relates to knowing or holding to the truth.
- Belt Truth
- Breastplate Righteousness (truth in practice)
- Shoes Gospel of peace (holding to and sharing the truth of the gospel)
- Helmet Salvation (hope in the promise and truth of future salvation)
- Sword The Word of God (which is truth)
The entire armor relates to knowing, believing, speaking, or practicing the truth. And no wonder, for the Scripture makes it clear that the Devil’s primary, if not exclusive, power toward a believer is the power of deception (2 Corinthians 11:3).
How much is our part and how much is God’s part in the process of sanctification?
Christians sometimes debate about sanctification and specifically about the question of who does what in sanctification. How much of it is our part and how much is God’s part? Many Christians, and even whole churches and denominations, see sanctification primarily as man’s responsibility. They emphasize obedience to God, self-denial, and striving for holiness. Certainly the Scripture teaches these things, yet if that is all that is taught or emphasized, it will lead to a moralistic and legalistic approach to sanctification. Everything in the Christian life will be seen as an attempt to live up to the standards of God by our own efforts. If we just tough it out and obey, everything will be all right. And, yet, obedience apart from trust and reliance upon the enablement of the Spirit will lead to the same experience of frustrating bondage that Paul wrote about in Romans seven. Even after we are born again, we are still incapable of pleasing God or obeying Him apart from the working of the Spirit. And, whether Paul experienced the bondage of Romans seven while he was a Christian or an unbeliever, every Christian has at one time or another experienced the same feelings of frustration. Why do we experience this? It is an indication that we are not filled with the Spirit. We are trying to obey God in the flesh under our own power and are not walking in relationship with and dependence upon the Holy Spirit.
Paul addresses the Galatians as “foolish” because they were doing this very thing in Galatians 3:2-5: “I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? … 5 Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?”
The Galatians were returning to the Law and to a system of self-effort to maintain acceptance with God and to grow in holiness. Paul reminds them of how foolish this is. Their human effort to keep the law was not what justified them, gave them the Spirit, or worked miracles. No, it was hearing the gospel and believing it. Justification began with hearing and believing and sanctification continues with hearing and believing. An attitude of faith in the power of God at work in our lives and an attitude of humility (a despair of our own ability to produce righteousness on our own), are as necessary in sanctification as they are in justification. We cannot bear fruit apart from a relationship of trust and faith in Christ.
Part of the reason the self-effort-apart-from-God approach is so common in Christianity is that the good news of freedom from sin through union with Christ and the good news of the Spirit’s enablement are often not adequately preached. As Bob George points out in his book, Classic Christianity, Christians today are, by and large, only preaching half a gospel. We preach forgiveness of sins and eternal life as a free gift, but we neglect to preach our union with Christ and all the resources we have available to us in Christ. People are not adequately told of the power available to them in the person of the Holy Spirit and how to avail themselves of that power. So they approach sanctification as though it was all up to them. They only see their part of the sanctification process.
If we expect people to grow in holiness, we must be careful to adequately preach the entire gospel, including our union with Christ and the enabling power of the Spirit activated through faith. But, sometimes when people begin to comprehend the power of God that is at their disposal and start to realize what they have been missing, they swing the pendulum the other way. Again, whole churches and denominations can follow this path. They emphasize God’s part almost exclusively and neglect to mention our part in sanctification. To them, everything is up to God; we need do nothing but trust. Any exhortation or encouragement to obedience is seen as legalistic and putting people under the Law. The analogy of the vine and the branches is used to show that we need make no effort, just as a branch makes no effort to bear fruit, other than to abide in the vine. (This is a great example of taking a parable or analogy too far and stretching it beyond its main and intended point.) Efforts to obey are sometimes actually seen as counterproductive to sanctification. But a thorough study of the Scripture’s teaching on sanctification clearly shows that neither extreme is correct. Rather, a partnership between God and man is taught in Scripture. In Colossians 1:28-29 (NIV), Paul speaks of his own experience working with God in furthering the gospel:
“We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.”
Paul says, “I labor” (kopiao labor, toil, be wearied), “struggling” (agonizomai fight, labor fervently, strive). Clearly, Paul was making great effort in his walk with God. And yet his struggle was not in his own strength only. He strove with all God’s energy, which powerfully worked within him. We see the same partnership in 1 Corinthians 15:10 (NIV), where Paul writes:
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”
It was not just Paul working—God’s grace and power were also working. But it was not just God working Paul worked harder than them all (harder than the other apostles). Again, the same partnership is taught in Philippians 2:12-13 (NIV):
“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
We are exhorted to “work out our salvation,” but at the same time we are told that God is at work in us “to will and to act.” (The term “salvation” in this context appears to refer to the sanctification process and a practical day-by-day salvation from sin.) God is leading and persuading and we are working and striving even with fear and trembling. It is an all-out effort on both parts, a cooperative effort. Charles Hodge, in an article entitled Holy Living, describes the cooperation between the work of God and the work of man like this:
“The doctrine that the Holy Spirit works in the people of God both to will and to do according to his own good pleasure, is not inconsistent with the diligent use of all rational and scriptural means, on our part, to grow in grace and in the knowledge of God. For though the mode of the Spirit’s influence is inscrutable (difficult to fathom or understand), it is described as an enlightening, teaching, persuading process, all which terms suppose a rational subject rationally affected. The indwelling of the Spirit, therefore, in the people of God, does not supersede their own agency. He acts by leading them to act. Thus we are commanded to do, and in fact must do, what he is said to do for us.
“We believe, though faith is of the operation of God; we repent, though repentance is the gift of Christ; we love, though love, gentleness, goodness, and all other graces, are the fruits of the Spirit. The work of sanctification is carried on by our being thus led under this Divine influence to exercise right dispositions and feelings.” (parenthesis added)
Sanctification is a partnership with both God and man involved. We must avoid the two extremes of:
1) Quietism It is all up to God. We need make no effort to obey, in fact any effort to obey is seen as “works” and as thwarting the process.
2) Legalism: It is all up to us. God’s part or efforts to change us are unnecessary or insignificant. We are on our own and must gut it out, do our duty, and pull ourselves up by the bootstraps.
Does sanctification involve breaking habits and changing patterns of behavior?
A habit is a recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is ingrained in us through our previous choices and experiences. In Romans 6:19, Paul talks about the effect that our behavior has in developing subsequent patterns of behavior, “…Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness.”
Paul is stating that the process of holiness is, in some ways, similar to the process of corruption. As an unbeliever, you gave yourself to sin, leading to increasing wickedness and bondage to sin. Now that you are a believer, give yourself to righteousness, leading to holiness. Paul is saying that when we obey, it leads us to ever-increasing holiness. You might even say that as we obey we become addicted to holiness.
Clearly, this verse teaches that holiness is a process. Certainly, it is possible to be wholly devoted to God and walk in righteousness even as a new baby Christian. But there is also a growth process involved where we become increasingly consistent in holiness. Part of this process involves discovering patterns of thought and behavior that are unrighteous and replacing them with thoughts and behavior that are righteous. This is the process of putting off the “old self” and putting on the “new self” that Paul lays out in Ephesians 4:22-32. It involves laying aside old habits and patterns of thinking and behaving (like stealing, lying, foul language, and resentment) and replacing them with new patterns of thinking and behaving (like giving, truth telling, edifying speech, and forgiveness).
Sometimes our thought patterns and attitudes may be unconscious. We may be unaware or in denial that they even exist. All we may see is the problems they are causing us. Some patterns of thinking may have been initiated by the sin of others’ abuse or neglect as children, assault, slander, and violence. The sins of others may produce a natural (though sinful) response on our part, or the patterns of sinful thinking may have originated solely from our own wrong choices. Whatever the cause, part of the sanctification process involves uncovering assumptions, attitudes, and thought patterns that are sinful, acknowledging them and repenting of them. Sometimes this can be a painful and purifying process that often requires great humility and honesty.
To what degree can sanctification be achieved in this life?
As we have seen, Christians have died with Christ and died to sin and have been united with Christ in relationship to God. Yet the Scriptures also clearly teach that believers still have an intense battle with the world, the flesh, and the Devil. Only by the power and grace of God can the battle be won.
Some of the driving force behind those who teach that a Christian can gain “entire sanctification” in this life is a desire not to compromise with sin. And that desire is a good and right desire. Too often we give up too quickly. We fail to believe in the resources of God at our disposal and avail ourselves of them. In 1 John 2:1, the apostle John wrote: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (emphasis added).
John’s hope and desire was that they wouldn’t sin. He obviously felt that “not sinning” was possible, and he even anticipated that they would not sin. There are many other great promises that show that we need not sin. One is in 1 Corinthians 10:13 (NIV): “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
God will provide a way of escape. Sin is no longer inevitable. We can get victory over it. And until and unless we believe this, we won’t get victory over it. We will give up too quickly without a fight. So we must believe that we can be victorious through the power of the Spirit. Yet, the battle raging around us and within us is incredibly strong. Although we need not sin, we don’t always take advantage of the resources available. We don’t always take the way of escape. And certainly we will never in this life get to a point where we are incapable of sin. Even the apostle Paul, toward the end of his life said that he had not yet been made “perfect,” but was striving with all his might toward that goal. And even when we are not consciously sinning, we are still in need of growth in holiness as we continue to discover thought patterns and behavior patterns in our lives that are not pleasing to God and that call for repentance.
How can we be filled with the Spirit?
Sanctification involves the work of God in the person of the Holy Spirit. As Paul states in Romans 8, it is the law of the Spirit of life that has set us free from the law of sin and of death. Since the Holy Spirit is our primary resource for sanctification, I’d like to conclude with some thoughts on how a person can be filled with the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 5:18 tells us: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” Let’s look at several things in this verse:
To be filled means to be saturated, influenced, even overwhelmed. Just as wine in those who are drunk saturates, influences, and overwhelms, so we should be with the Spirit. He should influence all of our being and all of our thoughts.
“Debauchery” means dissipation, wastefulness, or moral corruption. It is like putting water in a container filled with holes What you pour in is dissipated, scattered, and wasted. Drunkenness liberates us from the constraints of reason and morality that bind our lower nature, leading to debauchery. Drunkenness overcomes our better judgment and loosens us to do things that we later regret. So the filling of the Spirit will cause us to do (righteous) things that we would never do otherwise on our own (and which we will never regret). Drunkenness is being “under the influence.” Those who are drunk have another factor controlling them, a force outside of themselves. Similarly, being filled with the Spirit is being “under the influence”, being controlled by another force, the Holy Spirit.
“Be filled” is in the present tense, which can have a continual sense. The wine comparison would also suggest this. People don’t just get drunk once and it affects them perpetually. They must be repeatedly filled with wine to remain drunk. So it is with the Spirit. We must be filled over and over again. “Be filled” is in the passive voice, implying it is not something we actively do, but something we allow to be done to us. We can’t control or manipulate the Spirit or wrest power from Him through anything we do. Prayer does not manipulate God. Claiming promises doesn’t manipulate God. He can and will work in His way and His timing.
“Be filled” is in the imperative mood. It is a command. We are commanded to allow something to happen to us. This implies that God constantly desires to fill us with the Spirit. We must simply yield ourselves to Him and allow Him to do so. Being filled with the Spirit is allowing the Spirit to be the driver. It is yielding to His will, His commands, His desires, His agenda, His timing, His wisdom. It is allowing Him to have control of us. It is impossible to be filled with yourself and with the Spirit at the same time.
We can deduce from this that being filled with the Spirit involves faith and trust. We will never yield to someone we don’t trust. Perhaps that is one reason that the Word of God is called the sword of the Spirit. The Word builds our confidence and trust in the wisdom, power, and love of God, allowing us to yield our lives joyfully to Him.
Paul’s experience in Acts 20:22-23 (NIV) teaches us something about how walking in the Spirit and faith interact: “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.” (emphasis added).
We learn three things from this passage: 1) what the Spirit is leading us to do won’t necessarily be what we want to do, 2) we won’t always know what will happen, 3) there may be difficulty, persecution, and suffering. And to this we can add one more statement upon reading the outcome in Paul’s journey, 4) God will always see us through.
As is evident in this passage, walking in the Spirit will often involve risk. It will often involve stepping out of our comfort zone. It will often be beyond what we could ever imagine doing in our own abilities and strengths. God has plans for each of us that could only be described as spectacular, even scary. Walking in the Spirit involves faith, because where the Spirit leads will often be way beyond our own abilities and beyond where we want to go.
I have one final thought on being filled with the Spirit and experiencing the power of God. Paul’s experience, described in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (NIV), shows that the power of God is released in our lives as we maintain and grow in humility. Paul writes:
“To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Christ’s power rests on us as we understand and acknowledge our weaknesses. God knew that one of Paul’s greatest temptations would be pride, so He allowed increased difficulty in his life to keep him humble. Through Paul’s increased humility and attitude of dependence, God’s power was magnified and perfected. Paul repeats the same theme in 2 Corinthians 4:6-7 (NIV): “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
God has left us with a mortal, decaying body, a jar of clay, just so that everyone can see that the power involved is not from ourselves, but from God. Our weaknesses highlight and magnify God’s power. Too often, our problem is not that we are too weak but that we are too strong in our own estimation. We are too self-reliant. We have learned to trust in ourselves, in our families, in society, in our relationships, in our intelligence, in our economy, in our health. So when our health goes bad, we get upset. When people let us down, we get ticked off. When the government or businesses rip us off, we get angry because we’re trusting in ourselves, in human strength, rather than in God. We can’t walk in the Spirit until we realize, “I can’t do it without God’s help.” Often, God can’t work in us until we come to the end of ourselves. We don’t like to be there; we would rather be in control ourselves. But the place of utter helplessness is often where the power of God will rest upon you most strongly.
How would you summarize the sanctification process?
When we believe in Christ, we are not only forgiven of our sins, but we are united with Christ. This unity is so real that we can rightly view ourselves as having died with Christ (and died to sin), been resurrected to a new life, been seated with Christ in Heaven, and made alive to God. We have been released from the Law and bound to another, to Christ. We have been released from our bondage and slavery to sin, not by the eradication of sin, the flesh, the world, or the Devil, but by the addition of the Spirit and His power in our lives. We should expect there to be intense conflict and struggle in the battle with the flesh, the world, and the Devil. But no matter how difficult or stubborn the problem, the power of the Spirit is more than adequate for victory. We don’t ever have to sin as a Christian, but will never get to a place in this life where we cannot sin. The sanctification process cannot be reduced to a few simple principles, for it is a love relationship with God and, as with all relationships, it is complex and fluid. Study of the Word, faith, prayer, worship, and service all can enhance our relationship with God and lead to our sanctification. Sanctification is a partnership of both divine and human effort. We strive, but with the power of God at work. Part of sanctification includes the process of discovering sinful thought patterns, attitudes, and habits; acknowledging and repenting of them; and replacing them with God-exalting thoughts and attitudes. We walk in the Spirit by continually yielding our lives to God in confident trust and by maintaining an attitude of humility and dependence.
1 Plantinga, Cornelius, Jr. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, A Brevieary of Sin, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids MI, p. 5.
2 The gender of “its” is neuter, corresponding to the word “body” (which is neuter in gender) and not to the word “sin” (which is feminine in gender).
3 The Reformed View, Sinclair B. Furguson, Christian Spirituality, Five Views of Sanctification, Donald L. Alexander, editor, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, p. 62.
4 Hodge, Charles Holy Living, http://members.tripod.com/~Michael_Bremmer/holy-ch.htm