Sanctification is God’s gift and God’s will for His children.
My wife and I felt a pang of fear when we noticed that a mole on our son’s head had changed color and shape. We immediately took him to a dermatologist for testing. The lab report confirmed our fears: He would need immediate surgery. But as the malignant cells had not yet spread, it was not as bad as it might have been. Left unattended, the spot would have become melanoma.
Something just as dangerous is present in our souls. It’s called sin. Left unattended, sin can spread like a cancer and destroy our lives. Because of Christ’s work on the cross, sin cannot snatch away our eternal life with God. But it can subvert our effectiveness for the kingdom, ruin relationships, turn us into bitter people, and grieve the God who loves us and gave us so much.
The good news for those of us who have been reborn is that God has established a means for replacing the sin in our lives with the virtues of Christ. The biblical word for this is sanctification, and there are two important nuances in its definition. In one sense, sanctification refers to the reality that we have been set apart for God’s possession and use (like the utensils of the tabernacle in the Old Testament). In another sense, sanctification refers to the process of becoming holy and pure, reflecting the character of our Father. The first refers to a gift from God; the second refers to a calling from God.
A Fact and a Process
The gift of sanctification. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth (a group of people not known for their purity), he referred to them as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy” (1 Cor. 1:2). Even though it’s clear from the rest of the letter that the Corinthians still sinned, Paul said they were already “sanctified.” He could say this because sanctification has its roots in the cross and not in our efforts to improve ourselves so we’ll be more pleasing to God. The moment we experience new birth through Christ, we are purified from our sins by His blood. Paul described the process this way: “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy . . . through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). This rebirth and washing sets us apart from sin and sets us apart for relationship with a pure and holy God.
The calling to sanctification. Not only had the Corinthians been set apart, they were “called to be holy.” In the Bible, the words sanctification (hagiasmos) and holy (hagios) share the same root word.
From the beginning of time, God has called His people to be holy. He told Israel to “be holy, because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44). This calling is repeated in the New Testament: “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do” (1 Pet. 1:15).
When Paul told the Thessalonian Christians, “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified” (1 Thess. 4:3), he wanted them to know that because they now belonged to God, they had a calling to become like Him, namely, holy. This is God’s will for us as well.
The call to be holy does not negate the fact that our sanctiﬁcation was purchased on the cross. We are sanctiﬁed; this is a spiritual reality. But we are also called to live out this sanctiﬁcation in our daily lives. God wants our established status to become a visible reality.
If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you have discovered that this process of becoming holy is hard. That’s because the evil inﬂuences that originally kept us apart from God (the world, the ﬂesh, and the devil) have not disappeared. Because we are in Christ, however, their irresistible pull has been broken. We now have the ability to say no to them through the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit of God living in us does two important things for us related to sanctiﬁcation. First, this Holy Spirit implants within us the desire to be like God in His holiness. Thus, Paul says that “it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13). Second, the Spirit empowers us to defeat sin and put on the virtues of Christ: “Through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature” (Ro. 8:13, NLT, emphasis mine).
Sanctiﬁcation becomes, then, a divine/in Christ. But we’ve also seen the good news. First, we are already sanctiﬁed and declared saints—“holy ones”—because of the cross of Christ. We are set apart for God; we belong to Him. Furthermore, God has ordained a process by which we are being sanctiﬁed as sin’s hold on us becomes weaker and the desire to live a life of purity becomes stronger. This process is guaranteed not because of our own ability to resist sin, but because of the power of the Spirit of God living in us.
Finally, there is a remaining piece of good news. We will be sanctiﬁed. That is, a day is coming when “we shall be like him” (1 Jn. 3:2). Our Christlikeness will be complete, as will our freedom from sin, and we will be in the presence of our Savior and Sanctiﬁer for eternity. In 1 Thess. 5:23-24 we ﬁnd the calling and the promise of sanctiﬁcation:
May God himself, the God of peace,sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.
Used by permission of Discipleship Journal. Copyright © July/August 2006, Issue 154, The Navigators. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. www.navpress.com