What is sanctification?
In my first few visits to my local church, I encountered more than one word that I did not really understand. One of the first words that sent me to the dictionary was the word sanctification.
Sanctification is one of those dog whistles that pastors expect everyone in attendance to hear and understand. But the new Christians, like me, had to jot this word down and look it up later.
A kind reader named Debbi mentioned her difficulty with this word. It was confirmation for me that I needed to talk about it.
I speak a lot of the expectations new Christians might have when saved. Personally, I really didn’t know what to expect and – left to my own devices – came up with a lot of wrong expectations.
It is easy to get caught up in the comparison game;
Why does that person seem to be so Spirit-filled?
Why is that person so sure about God’s promises?
Why am I not as confident in my salvation as other Christians?
The difference between us and those “other” Christians is where we are on our walks… our journeys. Where we are on that journey can be seen as our spiritual maturity. That journey is the process of sanctification.
Sanctification has a couple of different meanings in Scripture. Both, I feel, are equally important.
The first definition of sanctification is to be set aside for a particular purpose. We are sanctified – or set apart – from the world for God’s purposes.
We can either be for the things of the world or for the things of God. We cannot be for both. They are opposed.
The second use of the word sanctification is the lifelong process of being transformed into the likeness of Christ.
Though we are still in our fleshly, human states, we are being made into a new creation. We are, and forever will be, being changed into our new Christian selves. A new sacrifice holy and pleasing to God (Romans 12:1). This process is a product of God’s grace.
And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17)
So, here we see with one of Jesus’ early commands to His disciples; follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.
The “will make you become” portion of this is one of the most important things to remember. It is a process. The process though is dependent on our following Jesus.
God created human beings perfect. He also gave them the ability to choose – or not choose – Him. Satan came along and persuaded us and we sinned.
Adam and Eve knew God. Adam had met God, spoken with Him, and fellowshipped with Him. That wasn’t enough though. Once he and Eve sinned, they were cast out of the garden – and God’s presence.
In a manner of speaking, that ability to choose led to our sin which became the fall of mankind. Now, that same ability to choose and to regret our fallen states and consecrate ourselves to – or present ourselves to – God make way for God’s work in us. That work in us is sanctification.
But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. (2 Thessalonians 2:13)
So God chose us to be saved before we were ever born (Ephesians 1:4). That salvation though is an ongoing process with 2 components; our part and God’s part.
There are many mentions of sanctification from Jesus, Himself, as well as from the teachings of His disciples. With little exception, Scripture provides us with our part in the process.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
Throughout Scripture, we often see the word “be” in use. Unfortunately, its tense can be overlooked. It is when the word “be” is given to us as a command, a verb, an action we are to take, that we see some of our most impactful instructions from God.
In the verse from Romans above, Paul is telling us to not be conformed to the world. To not allow the world to change us or prevent us from changing. To not put the world’s opinions of us above God’s opinions of us (Proverbs 29:25; Matthew 10:28; John 12:4; Galatians 1:10).
Then Paul tells us what we are to do. We are to be transformed. That is a command. That is an action to take. The Holy Spirit is who transforms us (2 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Corinthians 3:18). So how do we be transformed if we are not the ones doing the transforming?
I have a friend who was baptized last year. He has been saved. He has not yet been able to break free from his constant use of curse words though.
I had this same issue at first. It took real work for me to stop cursing. It was what I knew and had done with such ease for years.
I told my friend that if he wanted to have Jesus in his life, he had some floor sweeping to do. He needed to make his heart a place where Jesus belonged, and where the Holy Spirit could do His work on him.
Imagine being commissioned to paint the inside of a house, but the walls were covered with mold, rust, and grime. That coat of paint would arguably be an improvement, but not solve the problem. These stains would only bleed through. The walls would have to first be stripped down and properly cleaned to give the paint something to stick to. That is our part in sanctification.
Salvation is a greater thing than simply believing in God. Taking on that faith involves something more; making Jesus the Lord of our lives. When we do that, the Holy Spirit can work on us.
Our part in sanctification, this giving of ourselves to the Lord so that the Spirit can transform us, is the act of consecration.
We no longer sacrifice bulls or doves as the Levitical Old-Testament laws had us do. Now, because Jesus was the final sacrifice to forgive the sins of mankind we are to sacrifice ourselves back to Him in response. That means turning from the world and turning toward God.
Because we have been saved, we are now set apart from the world. We should now stand out because the holiness that we strive for and the holiness being imparted to us by the Holy Spirit, by definition, makes us very different.
If we cannot be seen as different, then perhaps we have not yet made the commitment to be transformed.
Unfortunately, we get confused about what “that commitment,” or “standing out” looks like. That is why we sometimes hear of church leaders saying that AIDS is God’s judgment against homosexuals or that Katrina was God’s judgment against New Orleans.
The Bible does not command us to do that. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors (Mark 12:31), love and pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), and forgive everyone… everyone (Mark 11:25; Matthew 6:15, 18:21-22).
Making that commitment to move (or perhaps better stated, to be moved) from our old selves to our new selves is also part of our sanctification. Put simply, we must make Jesus the Lord of our lives.
All of what we need to know about our part in sanctification is contained in the Bible. There is action for us to take. These actions are made clear.
Jesus said to pick up our crosses daily and follow Him (Luke 9:23).
Jesus said we must be born again (John 3:3).
Paul said we are to be crucified with Christ and though we remain in our flesh, we can go forward in faith (Galatians 2:20).
This does not happen once. Paul spoke of dying daily (1 Corinthians 15:31).
When we consecrate ourselves to the Lord, sacrifice ourselves, walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh, then the Holy Spirit can do His work in us.
When we are saved, we accept Christ. Now the rest of our lives are spent in transformation. Our journeys are God’s working on us, shaping us, molding us into a likeness of His Son.
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:29)
When we are saved, we do not wake up sinless. We are still our fleshly, fallen selves.
We do wake up forgiven, though. From that point forward, the Holy Spirit will be working on us and in us to transform us into the likeness of Jesus.
It is often a misunderstanding of this process that gives voice to non-believers and can create confusion in new believers.
Why are Christians decapitated in the Middle East?
Why did my wife leave me?
We Christians are not assured the best life has to offer. We are assured the best God has to offer.
These tough things, these trials, are part of what God uses to shape us. God uses all things, both good and bad, for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28).
Sanctification is an ongoing process. It is also different for every believer.
Whatever our continuing struggles with sin, God often chooses those areas to continue His work in us until we are free from that sin and dependent on Him.
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Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.