Sanctification is a positional and practical reality in the life of every person who has been born again, whereby God the Holy Spirit progressively conforms the cooperative believer into the image of Christ Jesus, thus leading the Christian into a life that increasingly hates sin and reflects the holy nature of their heavenly Father.
(a) By a positional reality I simply mean the definite and instantaneous change that occurs upon a person’s living faith in Jesus Christ. Upon one’s regeneration a radical reversal happens in the person’s essential makeup, their nature. At the moment of new birth the believing sinner is given a new nature resulting in a total reorientation to the person of Jesus and the things of God (I Cor 6:11). Herein is the root meaning of the word “sanctification”, one being set apart, consecrated, being made holy by virtue of our relationship to God in Christ. This new nature and position provide new power, for we have been set free, at once, from the servitude of sin (Rom 6:8, 11, 14) to serve a new Master in righteousness (Rom 6:4, 11, 13).
(b) Sanctification is also a practical reality necessary in the life of the believer. The process of growing in likeness to Christ varies in degree from one person to the next, so comparing one to another is futile and factious, causing pride for the one and misery for the other. Nevertheless, one must be able to see concrete change in their own life beginning where they were at conversion with its the end being the Lord Jesus’ commands and character. Today this topic of sanctification is surrounded by heresy on both sides: “easy believism, carnal Christianity” on the one side and “sinless perfectionism, entire sanctification” on the other. A balanced biblical realism constrains us to pursue our pilgrimage squarely between these twin errors and realizes that while sin is never completely eradicated from the believer until glorification, a new relationship with Christ necessarily means a new relationship with sin—the latter must decrease if the former is to increase, no one can serve two masters. This is a practical and necessary reality in the life of all who call Jesus Lord (see: I Jn), therefore, making sanctification essential for every believer’s assurance in the reality of their salvation.
(c) Sanctification is both passive and active in the life of the believer. First it is passive. Progressive growth in the life of the believer is impossible apart from God’s grace. This is to say, God is the primary agent in the process...he initiates every step through his grace, thus enabling us to do our part (Rom 8:14; Phil 2:13; I Thess 5:23; Heb 12:2). In this sense we are passive, we receive first the means and motive from above. However, we are also active in this process, the scriptures make this clear.
We are to: “yield ourselves...” (Rom 6:13), “work out our salvation” (Phil 2:12), “strive for holiness” (Heb 12:14), “purify ourselves” (I Jn 3:3). This small group of texts makes certain that we are obligated to appropriate God’s grace and get on with it! There will be times of pain, suffering and grief, yet these are incomparable to the joy that results in working through and with the Holy Spirit in glorifying Christ in a life lived as a sacrifice (Rom 12:1)!
Many of the early years of my 16 year walk with Jesus were misspent, concerning my sanctification. In short, I had the “maverick” Christian mentality. I didn’t need church, accountability, discipleship, etc...I had Jesus. As we all know, Jesus is our only requirement for salvation, but once he has become Lord, he goes on to insists that the latter are essential to our sanctification. Thus, without these elements in my life, my growth in Christ-likeness was slow going in the beginning. The most influential factors on me in those early days were a few popular level books and preaching via TV. Any good these might have offered me at the time were quickly filtered through my own autonomy. This made for a rough start.
There are three pivotal points in my walk which have played particularly important roles in the process of my growing in grace. The first, as you might guess, was becoming a part of the local church body. I was baptized shortly after my commitment to Christ and we did do some “church hoppin’”, yet it was not until coming under the mentorship of a Wesleyan pastor, in 2000, that I began to grow (ironically, this Wesleyan pastor had a great deal of influence in my embracing reformed theology ;). P. Tom has a heart for “making disciples” and fostering others in and into the ministry. Another step, toward the goal, was when I began to study and meditate and give priority to God’s own holiness. By beginning my self evaluation in light of God’s perfections and Jesus’ purity and righteousness, the twelve steps to the “higher life” and every other existential pursuit designed for shaping the Christian walk, began to seem tenuous and synthetic. While some systematic approaches may be helpful, they are no substitute for dwelling on precisely who God is, in all his glory. Anything less is grading on the curve. The last major thrust forward in my progress came about by keeping closer guard over the life of my mind, focusing on what and how I think as much as what I do. “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he”. I am of course not talking here of the “positive thinking” ideology so popular today, but rather striving to love God with all my mind as well as heart, soul and strength.
So here I am. The paradox is that though I am much closer to where I ought to be than when I first began, I find that the more I understand about the height of our calling and discipleship under the Master, the end appears a lot further away than when I first began. Despite how fast or slow my sanctification, at the end of the day all I can do is lay hold of the blood of Christ, his work, and say with Paul: “I am what I am by the grace of God”.
I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4