A Topical Study of Christian Sanctification

  • I praise God that there is such an emphasis on justification (being made right before God) by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Ever since the Protestant Reformation, I do believe a large emphasis has been rightfully given to a biblical understanding that Christ’s atoning work on the cross has purchased repentant sinners from their sin, and by faith we now can have a relationship with God. But, I sense there is less understanding about the Christian life that flows out of justification and is also granted and sustained by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone; usually theologians refer to this as sanctification.
  • The first thing somebody is going to notice when they come to faith in Jesus is that the sin in their life does not INSTANTLY disappear. In our justification-when we come to faith in Jesus we are rest assured that we are saved-we are rest assured in the promise of God in John 3:16 “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whosoever would believe in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.” Your innocence before God is set in the heavens the moment you believed in Christ and nobody can snatch you from God’s hands! Because, you were once a slave to sin, but at justification you became a slave to Christ.
  • However, although the punishment for sin has been removed from your life-the power of sin still remains. God wants to then deal with your sin and remove it from your life in a progressive process throughout the course of the rest of your life on earth. This is what is meant when theologians use the big word “Sanctification,” It is the lifelong progressive process of being made more and more like God. And I should say at this point that justification is necessary for forgiveness of sins, and sanctification begins at the very point of justification, and therefore there is no such thing as a justified person who has not entered into a life of sanctification. Yes, people progress and mature at different rates, and yes some people mature more than others do-however, everyone who has been justified receives the Holy Spirit, and therefore, enters into sanctification, and will also one day be glorified at the Second Coming of Jesus.
  • Needless to say, somebody who has not come to faith in Jesus cannot be sanctified. They can appear sanctified-they can do the “right” things-they can say the right theological statements, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are actually in Christ. Sanctification cannot truly happen in an individual’s life until they understand the love of God, and repent-meaning turning away from their own satisfaction and their own glory and instead seek to satisfy and glorify God-that is when someone has begun the process of sanctification-which begins the moment that one is justified when they have believed in Jesus.
  • It is also very important to remember that if we are justified by God’s grace through faith in Jesus, we are also sanctified by God’s grace through faith in Jesus. This means the same power that removes the penalty for our sin also works to remove sin from our lives completely – that power is the grace of God. Often times in our Christian lives we get very excited about God’s grace when we first come to faith. When we come to faith in Jesus we are often extremely thankful and in love with God’s grace because we know how bad of sinners we truly are and have been and we are so thankful that those sins are removed as far as the east is from the west-and so we love the grace of God in our justification, but often times, as time goes on we revert back to a works-based sanctification and start believing the lies from Satan that after being justified we have to then earn points in sanctification just by doing the right things-and so we quickly depart from GRACE!
  • Those of you who are struggling with this very thing in your walk with God-you have turned your struggle with sin into a legalistic battle which excludes the grace of God-or you have turned your struggles with anxiety into one detached from the grace of God-let me be a brother who wants to help your conscience—the same power that granted you forgiveness and righteousness at your justification is the same power that will grant you forgiveness, freedom, righteousness, and joy moving forward in your sanctification-and that is the grace of God. That is exactly what Paul means when he starts Romans chapter 12 by saying “I appeal to you brothers, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Paul is appealing to God’s mercy in your justification as the means by which you then should present your bodies as a living sacrifice in the process of holiness-he is talking about sanctification. Paul is basically saying I appeal to the mercy of God in your justification as the same mercy which allows and directs your sanctification.
  • The goal of sanctification is that you and I would be holy as God is holy. The command to be Holy is very straightforward in 1 Peter 1:16 “For as it is written, be Holy as I am Holy.” But what are we actually meaning when we say “God is Holy?” What we actually mean by this is that God is unlike anything else. If you’ve ever seen the Brad Pitt movie “Troy,” you will remember there is a scene with a pan out angle of the sea of Troy-and there are all these boats in perfect line and unison with each other and they look exactly the same EXCEPT FOR ONE! And that one boat was way ahead of the pack, and was a different color from the rest-it was completely set apart and different from the others. That is what we mean when we say God is Holy-He is completely separate and set apart from any other thing-the analogy actually breaks down because even though the one boat was different looking and way set apart it was still a boat like the rest-God is unlike the rest though in every way He is completely different.
  • So, then what does it mean for us to be holy? Elisabeth Elliott is very helpful in answering this and she says that Holiness is first of all “to be set apart.” But, she says, holiness is not impassibility on our part, but instead, holiness means “having the will to do God’s will.” So for us-that means actually having the desire to do what it is God desires from us. So, to be holy, or to practice holiness is to be made like God who is perfect. It is the process of putting aside our own selfish and sinful selves to being made progressively more and more perfect like Christ. This is why the Holy Spirit is such an amazing gift to be sent to us by Jesus. In John 14:16 Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit as an “advocate to be with us forever.” He promises that the Holy Spirit will live with us and he says actually “will be in you.” And then in Galatians 2:20, Paul says, “For I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live (so that is referring to justification where we have died with Christ and the old us no longer exists) because it is Christ who lives within me.” That second part there refers to our sanctification where Christ comes and lives within believers by the power of the Holy Spirit which is a gift then for us to be Holy as God is Holy.
  • The process of sanctification is a process which God works in the life of a believer from the moment they are saved (justified) until the believer dies an earthly death. God wants us to be holy as He is holy and He does not stop working in our lives to remove sin and make us like Christ until we are actually with Him in heaven.
  • It is at this point then that I must say that we as Christians need to be very careful with how we judge where we are at in our sanctification. And what I mean by that is sanctification is not always necessarily gauged or measured by where we are at in terms of doing or not doing the right things—because we need to take into account that everyone has a different starting point when they come to faith in Jesus. We as Christians are all given the same standing when we come to faith in Christ-we are declared righteous before God the Father, however, not all of us have the same subjective starting points at this declaration. Some of us are more naturally submissive, and have benefitted from a loving family environment; we have not been addicted to substances before, and so on and so forth. Others of us when we come to Christ have come from traumatic situations, addictions, homelessness, poverty, or whatever it might be. C.S. Lewis in “Mere Christianity” puts it like this: 

“Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and a good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say of Himmler? That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it.” The point being made by Lewis is that because we all have different starting points when we come to faith-some people will look as if they are more mature because they are more naturally moral-and for those people they need to constantly be reminding themselves of how Grace is greater than legalism. And then others will look less mature in their sanctification because their starting point was rough, and so for them they need to allow the power of the Holy Spirit and the grace of God to give them small and consistent and growing victories in their Christian lives as they defeat sin.

To help us understand salvation even further consider 2 Corinthians 5:17 for a moment… It says “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”

This verse in 2 Corinthians 5:17 declares clearly that for those who are “in Christ” meaning they have believed in him, and therefore, verse 18 applies to them-they have been reconciled to God through Christ-then “the old has passed away—the old life and everything about it-marked by sin, suffering, death, confusion, distortion of God’s image, but the new has come! The new life in the Spirit marked by Jesus’ righteousness, eternal life, and the recapturing of the image of God in each of our lives which happens in a process over time-which is our sanctification.

We can be thankful to know God has given us the proper tools we need to be encouraged and to be built up in our sanctification… In a sense, God has given us a “wrench set” for our sanctification. And there are many tools God has given us-but for the sake of brevity let me just highlight three of them….The greatest tool he has given us is His Word. God’s Word is the tool we need in order to hear from God on a daily and regular basis. In our Bibles we can actually hear from God constantly.

The second tool in our wrench set for sanctification is PRAYER! If reading God’s Word is communicating with Him by listening to Him then prayer is communicating with God by talking to Him! As we communicate with God in His Word and in prayer our relationship with Him grows!

A third tool in our wrench set for sanctification is the community of other believers in Christ around us-this is the Church! If you are not in community with fellow believers in Christ then you will not grow in your sanctification, because the community of believers is one of the tools God has given to us to grow in Christ.

What we’ve learned about salvation is that we are saved by God’s grace through faith in the Lord Jesus (Eph. 2:8). If we continue reading in Ephesians 2:10 we read “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” It is clear from Scripture that we are saved by faith and then in our life of sanctification after believing in Jesus we are to have works which match our faith in Christ. We might say that we are not saved BY good works but we are saved FOR good works. Our motivation for doing good works is that we glorify our God and we find enjoyment in doing His work while we are here on earth. Good works are evidences of God’s work in our lives as long as they are done from a heart of faith and we aren’t trying to earn God’s acceptance.

So in closing on this topic- To summarize our discussions about salvation here is what we have discussed:  A person is saved and justified by God’s grace the moment they have believed in Jesus Christ and they immediately enter into a lifelong process of sanctification guided by a life of involvement in the community of believers, prayer, and immersing themselves in the Word of God which empowers them to do good works until we are with Jesus again one day in the future-which is the day Philippians 3 says “Our lowly bodies will be made to be like his glorious body” Which is our day of glorification. If we believe in Christ then we have been saved-justification-we are being saved-sanctification-and we will be fully saved on the day of our glorification.

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