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Chris is away on vacation this week. I am confident that it will pass far too quickly. Vacation is one of those things that always pass too quickly. Certain days feel like they drag on forever, but those are never vacation days. Those are the food-poisoning days that drag on forever–right?
There are some things you want to happen quickly . . . dental work, childbirth, vomiting, jury duty, any Jane Austen movie. We want those things to happen quickly–to pass in the blink of an eye. And to be honest–in that group we often put sanctification. Christians want to get rid of sin in their life quickly–with a thought, with a promise, with a prayer, for that sinful habit to be done and gone forever.
But for most of us, being transformed into the image of Christ feels more like getting gray hair. You don’t notice when the first one arrives until somebody points it out. Then slowly, more and more develop. Sometimes you do something that covers them up for awhile. But if you’ve got it, it stays and grows stronger. Are you familiar with this?
In the email this week, I compared sanctification to mountain climbing. Whether you want to climb Mt. San Jacinto or Kilimanjaro, you need to know where you’re going. Sure, you want to go up–but without a sense of progress toward a known destination,
you can easily feel exhausted, lost, dazed and confused. Hiking is easier when you know where you want to go. And sanctification is the same way.
So today I’m going to be your Sherpa, helping you understand the doctrine of sanctification. You will find far more joy in your Christian walk when you know when, how and why God is conforming you to the image of His Son.
We don’t normally do this, but we’re going topical today. We’re going to look at the stages of sanctification, the means of sanctification and the motives for sanctification–when, how and why. So I want you to better understand when, how and why God is sanctifying you. We’ll look at the stages of sanctification, the means, and the motives of sanctification.
Sanctify and sanctification are big, hard-to-spell words, so feel free to abbreviate in your notes. The words show up way before Jesus. They’re traced all the way back to creation. As Moses wrote about creation in Genesis 2:3, he said, “Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” This means that God set apart the seventh day as special and unique. It was a day with a dedicated purpose. It was set apart to God.
And that’s exactly what sanctify means–it means to be set apart to God. Sanctify and holy have the same root meaning. When you’re standing at Gettysburg, and someone says this is hallowed/holy ground, they mean that it’s set apart. It’s been sanctified and made special and unique.
God sanctifies things and people for His use–He sets them apart. Exodus 31:13, “I am the LORD who sanctifies you.” And when we’re talking about sanctification, we’re talking about God setting you apart from the world around you. Specifically, we’re talking about him removing sin from your life so that you think and act more like Jesus. First question we’ve got to ask–how and when does God do that? When does He make you more like Jesus?
The Three Stages of Sanctification
1) Past/Positional Sanctification
When you talk about marriage, you talk about your married life now. But sometimes you talk about the beginning of marriage. And sometimes you reflect on the future, and how life will be as your marriage ends with a death. Sanctification is a bit like that–it has a beginning, a middle, and an end . . . past, present and future aspects.
Scripture variously describes our sanctification as past, present and future. First Corinthians 6:11, “But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”
This makes clear that sanctification has a definite beginning at regeneration. When you believed in Christ, there was a break that happened. The power of sin in your life ended. Your love for sin was tainted and killed. In one act, you were set apart for God for the rest of your life. Hebrews 10:10, “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
When you put your hope in Jesus Christ for salvation, and trusted in His righteousness and not your own–at that point, in that moment God saved you. Christ’s righteousness was counted as yours. God’s wrath to your sin was borne by Jesus. He justified you and declared you righteous in His eyes. He adopted you as His own child. He put His Spirit within you, sealing you and keeping you as His. He supernaturally gifted you in unique ways, and He broke the power of sin in your life.
Romans 6:11 and 14, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. . . . For sin will have no dominion over you.” From the time of your salvation, you have had the power to overcome patterns of sinful behavior in your life. You are no longer enslaved.
You may look back at the time now and remember how you used to curse up a storm,
and then you got saved and your language changed overnight. You were two-faced, one way at home and another in the world, and then the Gospel rocked you, and you came clean about everything and were transformed. Your marriage was on the brink and you had no hope, but God intervened and you hoped in Jesus, and your marriage is radically different now than it used to be.
Those immediate changes that happen when you first believed–those are often indicators of your initial break from sin. That is past sanctification. Your position has changed, and you are set apart to live for God. This change of love and desire occurs at the beginning of sanctification. That is positional sanctification.
What marks past, positional sanctification is that God set you apart as His and made you free to obey Him, rather than sin. You may be a rocket that starts slow, or you may take off like a bullet from a rifle. Regardless of how you started, sanctification increases and endures throughout life.
2) Present/Progressive Sanctification
Even though the New Testament speaks about a definite beginning to sanctification,
it also sees it as a process that continues throughout our Christian lives. This is the primary sense in which books and Christians use “sanctification” today. Progressive sanctification is the act of becoming more like Christ in our thinking and actions. We are called to pursue righteousness, with the same vigor that we used to pursue sin. Romans 6:19 says, “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” (ESV)
I’ve got absolutely no rhythm what so ever–I can’t clap and sing at the same time. My wife and I gave up on swing dancing because I just couldn’t hear the rhythm. Even though I’m challenged that way, I’ve had some amazingly talented musicians as friends. Some years ago, I was talking to a truly amazing guitar player and I asked him, “How did you get so good? How long did it take?”
His father had died when he was in elementary school, and he told me that he spent most days of junior high and high school in his bedroom. He would pick up his guitar and listen to a song and try to play it. Hour after hour, day after day, he would just practice and practice and practice–thousands and thousands of hours over years and years. And that love and commitment he had to guitar is the same love and commitment you may have had towards dancing or drinking or dating or doing something before Christ.
And now Paul says that you are to put energy and passion into righteousness. In the same way that guitar playing takes time and practice, so righteousness takes time and practice. With the same gusto which you had for improving at music, basketball, work or whatever, you now are to pursue becoming like Jesus.
For some reason, we often think that sports skills take practice and becoming a good doctor takes time, but holiness and righteousness should just happen after a short prayer. We are so messed up in our thinking—four hours practice, five minutes Bible. Our present sanctification is a gradual process. It is not an instantaneously accomplished act by God, like election or justification.
Second Corinthians 3:18 says, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” (cf Romans 8:29) It is a progressive, lifelong, gradual process. But we often deny that truth.
We get mad and angry with ourselves and with others, because we expect that change will happen in an instant. I don’t know why I blew up again. I prayed and asked God to help me stop. I talked to her about gossiping. I can’t believe that she’s doing it again. Can you believe that he would say that to me? He’s a leader in the church. My kids must not be saved–they still struggle to obey what I ask of them.
Listen–sanctification is gradual. It’s the video, not the snapshot. Everybody has rough days. If you freeze the frame on certain elements of my day or anyone’s day, you’re going to see failure and sin. But how does it look when the video is rolling. What’s the dominant pattern? Is there gradual, progressive conformity to Christ?
Though I do not see my son, LJ, getting bigger each day–when I take him to the doctor,
he’s heavier and taller. Ask others if there is gradual growth and increasing righteousness in your life. If so, this is a sign of salvation. All the New Testament authors assume that your sanctification will increase throughout your Christian life. There will be ups and downs, but you will grow—until . . .
3) Future/Complete Sanctification
In the future, when Jesus comes back, we will be utterly, completely sanctified. We will be transformed completely, made entirely like Jesus in body and soul. Philippians 3:20 to 21, ”For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; 21 who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.”
First Thessalonians 5:23, “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.” Right now sin remains around us and as a battle for us, even though we’re in Christ. That means that our sanctification will never be completed in this life. But once we die and go to be with God, then we will be free of indwelling sin. And when Jesus returns, our bodies will be raised in perfection.
Scott Ardavanis will be preaching about all this next week as “glorification”, so I’m going to leave this for him to expound. For now, let me just remind you of two things. Until you die, you will never be able to say, “I am completely free from sin,” because your sanctification will never be completed. Don’t stop fighting!
I can remember laying on a sofa in college, reading the Psalms, totally ignorant of any way that I needed to grow. I wasn’t free of sin–I was self-deceived. Trust me that it’s there! Keep looking–keep fighting!
You also can never say, “This sin has defeated me. I give up,” or “God made me this way. I’ve been this way all my life, and I will be until the day I die. People are just going to have to put up with me the way I am!” To say that is to say that sin has gained dominion. You are allowing it to reign in your life. It is to admit defeat. It is to deny the truth of Scripture, which says that you are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Keep fighting against sin until your complete sanctification. So how do you do that?
The Means of Your Sanctification
There are many means. To be specific would be to name everyone and everything in your life, but I’m going to try and categorize the big four.
1) You are Transformed by God’s Grace, through Faith
Jesus prayed to God that you would be sanctified by the Father. He asks that God would sanctify you. John 17:17, “Sanctify them in the truth.” And if there is anyone whose prayers God will hear and answer, it is Jesus’ prayers. God is faithful. He sanctifies us. He transforms us.
I was reading a story on Friday night of someone who struggled with same-sex attraction. As they began to confess to people in the church, God began to change their sexual desires. Without much intentionality or work, they went from years of same-sex attraction to heterosexual desire in the span of a few months. A year later, they were married and have been for the last twelve years.
God can change you in an instant. He often does this in certain ways when you first believe. Sometimes it happens later in life. You didn’t have to struggle and fight with a major sin. By His grace, He just changed you. It was supernatural. Now radical transformation like that is not a guarantee of salvation. There are Mormons who used to be alcoholics. There are atheists who used to be adulterers. A short period when life suddenly changed for the better is not a guarantee of God’s work.
But it’s also true that you may have been saved early in life and not seen a major lifestyle change. That doesn’t mean you aren’t saved. You may hear other people’s testimonies and get concerned because you can’t point to some extreme shift in your lifestyle. Mild, slow transformation is not an indicator that you are unsaved.
Acts 26:18, “Those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.” The grammar here indicates that the work of sanctification was done to them. They have been sanctified. Faith in God was the impetus, but the work was done by God. It was supernatural. It was a special, volitional work by the Holy Spirit. It was not chance, luck or the general goodness of God, but was a special act of God in you. The Spirit of God wrought it in you. Second Thessalonians 2:13, “God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.” So God is the major means of sanctification. Yet . . .
2) You are Transformed by Your Own Hard Work
Now you may feel like I’ve just renounced Scripture and the Gospel, but let’s read this together. Hebrews 12:14, “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.” Wait–we’re to pursue what? The word “pursue” is “to do something with intense effort and with definite purpose.” So God’s Spirit works in you AND you work your tail off pursuing righteousness. As Chris would say, you DEPEND and you OBEY. Your role in sanctification is passive AND active.
Philippians 2:12 to 13, “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” We depend on God to sanctify us AND we strive to obey God and do all we can to think and act like Jesus.
If you drop either side of that equation, you head for trouble. If you neglect active striving to obey God, you will become a passive, lazy Christian. If you neglect the passive role of trusting God and yielding to Him, you will become proud and overly confident in yourself. In either case, your sanctification will be greatly deficient. We need to grow in both.
Paul shows this tension in Romans 8:13, “For if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” By the Spirit you do this. But the Spirit is not commanded to put sin to death–that’s you. You are putting to death the deeds of the body. Are you doing that? If someone were to look at your life, would they say that you are “pursuing sanctification”? Is righteousness pursued “with intense effort and definite purpose”? Your hard work is a means of Gospel transformation.
3) You are Transformed through the Word
In priority, this really should probably be #2. You see, all true sanctification is through the Word. It is the filter that tells you God’s will for your life. It tells you what’s right and what’s wrong. It describes the target that you’re shooting for. When Jesus prayed for God to sanctify you, He described the means God would use. John 17:17, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.”
God’s Word is the truth which sanctifies us. In Ephesians 5, Paul says that we are washed with the water of the Word. There are plenty of other means of sanctification, but the Word is primary. In your notes, I listed some Mediators of the Word in Sanctification
(a) Your, and others’, prayers
(b) The Church’s ordinances and services
(c) The Church family
We tend to think of these things as different means of sanctification for us, but really they are secondary. They are mediators of the Word. Prayer is effective as you pray for God’s revealed will, not just what you want. A church’s services and the Lord’s Supper can move you towards righteousness only when they are in accord with God’s revealed Word.
Believers sanctify one another as they bring biblical truth to bear on life. Pastors and teachers are only useful as they declare God’s Word to you. This doesn’t mean that all you need is a Bible in order to be like Jesus. Those other things are necessary and critical, but they are dependent on the Word. So God transforms you, you pursue it, and the Word guides it all.
4) You are Transformed through Discipline, Trial and Suffering
In the same way that your children learn obedience and self-control through discipline, so God also uses that same method to teach you obedience. Hebrews 12:11, “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” God disciplines sinning believers to bring out righteousness.
God also uses trials, suffering and every aspect of your life to accomplish your sanctification. Romans 8:28 to 29, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God. . . . 29 For He predestined [them] to become conformed to the image of His Son.” Every experience, pleasant or unpleasant, is permitted by God in order for you to become more like Jesus.
So the Word is our guide to sanctification, but when we ignore it or refuse to listen, God has a way of waking us up and making us listen. He spanks us, he permits trials and suffering, he involves other people–all so that every child of God in His family will look more and more like His Son in time. These struggles will be present in the life of any growing Christian. They are not a sign that something is wrong. In fact, if you are growing more righteous, they are a sign that God is at work.
God has lots of ways that He sanctifies us, but we are called to pursue it. So let’s talk a bit about why.
Some Biblical Motives for Your Sanctification
Scripture presents all kinds of motives for our righteousness, even stating that when we obey, angels glorify God. But I’m just going to cover a few. Some of the biggies . . .
1) It’s commanded
This is the “yeah, duh” motive. We should genuinely want to be righteous because God asks us to be. We already saw in Hebrews 12 that we are commanded to pursue sanctification. First Thessalonians 4:3, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” It is God’s will that you be sanctified. But before we move on, you need to grasp this.
God commands it. He does not ask you to do things that are impossible. The world tells us that change is impossible–that some trauma in your childhood will always make you respond in a certain way. That’s fatalism. According to the Bible, your background is not your destiny.
He is God. He has commanded you to live in a way that’s different than who you were. He knows what He is doing. He knows what He is asking. His commands are not throw-away words. This should be incredibly freeing! Change is commanded, and it’s genuinely possible for you. That’s a good motive.
2) It pleases God and expresses your love to Him
Jesus said, John 14:15, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” Notice that he doesn’t say, “For Me to love you . . .”–you obey God because you love God. You don’t obey God so that God loves you. People often get sanctification confused with justification.
Here’s a chart that displays the differences.
Justification is an objective work that changes our legal standing before God, our relationship to him, while sanctification is a subjective, internal work that affects our soul and heart. Justification is an instantaneous occurrence, complete in a moment, whereas sanctification is a process requiring an entire lifetime for completion. Justification is entirely God’s work, whereas in sanctification we cooperate with God in being transformed.
There are degrees of sanctification, but not of justification. One is either justified or not, perfect before God in this life or not–whereas one may be more or less sanctified, and is never perfected in this life. Justification happens just the same for you, me and every Christian in the world–but the degree of sanctification varies, according to the work of God and the individual.
We often reverse the two and assume that God’s love and acceptance of us are based on the quality of our behavior and the degree of our sanctification. So we then obey God’s law out of a fear of rejection by Him. If you cannot feel forgiven after sin and failure, this is you. If you do penance, weighing yourself down with guilt and misery even after you’ve confessed and repented, then this is you. But the truth is that you cannot ever do enough to earn God’s favor. Forgiveness and joy flow out of the belief that God’s love and acceptance are secured by Christ, rather than what you do. So your obedience to God’s law is motivated by a desire to delight and know him.
My daughter Abby is motivated by rewards. She can memorize most anything if the treat is big enough. So it is a big deal when they give out candy for verses in her children’s class. But here’s what’s amazing–despite her love for candy and rewards, she will save out all the Smarties for me. She won’t eat them, but brings them to me because she knows that they’re my favorite. Her actions are not to win my affection, but are the result of her affection for me. She doesn’t give me candy to win my love, but because she loves me she brings me candy. And because it pleases God and we love Him, we then pursue righteousness. That’s our motive!
3) You Want to be Useful to God
Paul says that you dealing with sin makes you useful to God. Second Timothy 2:21, “If anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.” The more you deal with sin in your life, the more God will use you for His purposes.
More than you realize, your lifestyle affects others. Don’t kid yourself–they may be turned off by how you live. Or it may be a cause of people glorifying God when Jesus returns. First Peter 2:12, “Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.”
4) You Want to Increase Your Reward in Heaven
We don’t talk about it much, but it is right to pursue righteousness for eternal reward. It is not somehow noble to be righteous without concern for reward. Hebrews 11:26, “Moses endured ill-treatment because he was looking to a future reward.”
Second Corinthians 5:9 to 10, “We also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” Study heaven–Randy Alcorn and John Piper have both written helpful things on future reward. It’s motivating–and I don’t think that you end up giving it all away when you get there. But if you aren’t motivated by reward, then how about the simple reality that . . .
5) The World is Ending and Jesus is Coming Back
After describing how God is going to destroy the world, Peter writes in 2 Peter 3:10 to 12, “Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, 12 looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God.” The destruction of the world should motivate us to righteousness. Not only is it foolishness to invest in and love things that will be so quickly destroyed. But Peter says that our godliness will be a means of speeding up the return of Jesus.
So if you’re sick of the struggle with sin, if you’re feeling worn down and worn out by life in this world, Peter says, “Hold on, keep obeying, so that you speed up the return of Jesus!” It can be easy to feel at ease, to feel comfortable with the way things are now.
And it can be just as easy to feel despair during illness, trials and disappointments. So Jesus’ return offers hope, and it offers motivation to us to live obediently until He’s here.
6) You Want Assurance of Salvation
If you’ve ever made a profession of faith, progressive sanctification is what can provide you with assurance that you are genuinely God’s child. If you see God transforming you, replacing your desires with His, and making you into the image of His Son, then you can find assurance that you are His child. Romans 8:12 to 14 says, “If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.”
If you wrestle with whether you are genuinely saved, then look at the video stream of your life. Don’t look at the snapshot. Don’t put a lot of weight in how you feel right now–whether bad or good. Instead, look and see if you are putting to death the deeds of the flesh.
Sanctification is commanded, it pleases God, it makes you useful to God, it increases your reward in heaven, it hastens Jesus’ return and it provides you assurance that you are God’s child. These are some of the many reasons you should pursue sanctification. Now this has been a lot to cover, and you have no idea how much I cut.
Three Truths You Must Own
1) Your Present Sanctification is Most Often a Gradual Process
William Carey said, “If, after I die, anyone should think it is worth his while to write my life, I will give you a way to judge its accuracy. If he gives me credit for being a plodder, he will describe me justly…I can plod. I can persevere in any definite pursuit.” This most frequently describes your Christian walk.
We love microwaves, fast freeways, but sanctification is most often a gradual process. When you are frustrated with someone–another Christian, or even yourself, remember that change often happens slowly rather than in an instant.
2) The Christian Life is not Static Ever
You are on a fast moving river. You may move forward or be pushed backward, but there is no staying in place. To think that you are static is dangerous–it is a false comfort and indicates that you are blind to changes that are happening. You do not get saved and then stay like you were.
The Christian life is one of dependent obedience. There will be highs and lows, hills and valleys, times when you run and times when you fall. But the chart of your life should show progress towards the image of Jesus as the trend-line. The Christian life is not static ever.
3) The More Like Christ You Grow, the More Joy and Peace You Will Find
Joy and peace are part of the fruit of the Spirit. They were also a mark of Jesus’ life on this earth. Romans 14:17, “The kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy.” Here’s the promise–if you pursue Christ with all your strength and all your might, you will know the work of the Spirit in your life even more than you do now.
The result will be greater joy for you now, and God will work in and through you far, far more than you could ever imagine. He will do abundantly more than what you hope or dream. The result will be that you are more ready and excited for Heaven than you even thought possible.