Before I get into my topic for the day, I want to point you to an article I wrote for the Reformed Arsenal dealing with the way Christians have been responding to the death of the great evangelist Billy Graham. You can read it here.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Christian walk lately and I’ve noticed that most of us would like to think of it as an ever-ascending line to Heaven; when, in reality, it’s more like a staggered roller-coaster ride through the ebbs and flows of nominal Christian life. We don’t get saved one day and then step on an escalator that doesn’t stop moving upward until we reach glorification. Rather, we get saved and step on an escalator that moves steadily upward most of the time, but often slows down, gets stuck, or even starts moving backwards!
Maybe your escalator is stuck today, or moving at a pace that doesn’t satisfy you. Or maybe it’s even started to move in the wrong direction and you are concerned for your spiritual vitality.
I want to encourage you today by discussing the nature of sanctification or, how we grow as believers in Christ. Specifically, I want to look at three things concerning sanctification: (1) its nature, (2) its means, and (3) its end result. Let’s get started.
1. The Nature of Sanctification
If I haven’t referenced it before, one of my favorite systematic theology textbooks is Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. He does a great job defining terms that can often be confusing, so let’s look at his definition for sanctification:
“Sanctification is a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives" (Systematic Theology 746).
Essentially, Grudem explains that the process of sanctification is one in which we become less prone to sin and more like Jesus Christ. While that’s a good theological definition, I think we can round it out better by turning to a more practical understanding of sanctification.
My pastor has often recommended the book An Infinite Journey by Andrew Davis. I finally snagged it on Kindle a few months ago and while I haven’t had time to read it thoroughly, I’ve skimmed it a bit and found it extremely encouraging. Davis calls sanctification an “infinite journey.” It is infinite first of all because we will not attain complete sanctification until death, but more importantly because, “only the infinite power of God can complete it” (An Infinite Journey 22).
While these two definitions differ, notice that they both use words like progressive and journey. This shows that the nature of sanctification is one of progression. In other words, it’s a process. Sanctification doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t get saved and then wake up the next morning free from your struggle with anger or lust. You and I both know we would love if that were the case. But, in God’s wisdom, it isn’t like that. Which moves us to our next point: how does sanctification work?
2. The Means of Sanctification
Sanctification has both a divine side and a human side. It also works through God's normal means of grace. So, let's look at the divine side first, then we will look at the human side and the means of grace.
First on the divine side, like everything else in our Christian life, our sanctification is rooted in the finished work of Christ. We are made new creations in Christ (II Cor. 5:17) by the blood that He shed for us on the cross. It is that new birth in Christ that sets the process of sanctification in motion. As Grudem put it, “he earned our sanctification for us” (Systematic Theology 753)
However, Christ’s work doesn’t stop there. Bavinck says this concerning Christ's role in our sanctification: “By laying down his life for his friends in death, Jesus gives us an example to follow in our own pilgrimage of bearing our cross and following him” (Reformed Dogmatics 571). So not only does Christ’s death enable sanctification to happen, it also provides us an example by which to live by. However, Christ also sent His Spirit into the world (John 14:26) to be our helper in this process.
So second, the Holy Spirit is the primary worker in the sanctification process. We see this in passages like Galatians 5:16-18 and Romans 8:13-14 where the Spirit is heavily emphasized. Furthermore, sanctification is explicitly called the work of the Spirit in I Peter 1:2.
So what does all this mean? Are we to “let go and let God” as is so often said? Absolutely not. We are by no means passive in our sanctification. Let’s look at that side of things now.
Although the divine side of sanctification is made abundantly clear in the Scriptures, so is the human side. Paul told the Philippian church to, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:13 ESV) and he puts it rather violently when he exclaims in I Cor. 9:27 that, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (ESV).
Clearly, we do not sit by lazily as the Holy Spirit works within us. What do we do, then? How do we “work out” our salvation and “discipline” our bodies to conform to the image of Christ?
Simply put, we employ the so-called “means of grace” that God has given to us. Primarily, those are Scripture reading/meditation, prayer, and gathering together with the Lord’s people.
James shows us the absolute necessity of the Word of God in sanctification when he says, “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21 ESV, emphasis mine). Furthermore, Hebrews 10:24-25 illustrates the importance of other believers in the sanctification process and encourages us to stir one another up to love and good works.
Doing these things doesn’t magically make you more Christlike, but as you employ these means of grace, the Holy Spirit within you works powerfully to conform your desires more and more to the desires of Christ.
So if you are a Christian not reading your Bible, or lacking much of a prayer life, or staying home on Sunday, you are forfeiting the very means of sanctification that God has given you. I implore you, exercise these means of grace within your life and work hand in hand with the Holy Spirit as He sovereignly conforms you to the image of Christ. As one of my professors said recently, “You cannot be sanctified beyond your assimilation of truth."
3. The End Result of Sanctification
I have hinted at this earlier, but the end result of sanctification is complete conformity to the image of Christ. Obviously, this will not happen completely until Christ returns, but nevertheless it is the goal to which we strive every single day. We strive by employing the means of grace; however, we employ those means of grace to help us do one thing: behold the glory of God.
Listen to Paul when he says, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (II Cor. 3:18 ESV). It is by beholding the glory of God in the image of Christ that we are transformed (sanctified) into the image of Christ!
It is my prayer that today, and every day, you strive to behold the glory of God in the image of Christ so you will become more and more like Him!
What are your thoughts on sanctification? Do you often get frustrated with how slowly the process seems to be going in your life? Let me know in the comments below! Or hit me up on Twitter @CalebEakle. And don’t forget to hit that subscribe button below - you’ll receive these posts right in your inbox!
Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem
Reformed Dogmatics, Abridged Edition by Herman Bavinck
An Infinite Journey by Andrew M. Davis