A few weeks ago, I posted on Five Theological Words Worth Knowing (and Appreciating). One of the words I highlighted there was sanctification - which I described very simply as ""the lifelong process of growing in godliness" (e.g. Galatians 4:19; 1 Timothy 4:7). Since writing that post, I've had the opportunity to interact with a number of others about this topic of sanctification, and have realized how much a fuller understanding of sanctification can (1) help people appreciate God's work in them and for them, and (2) provide practical ideas for people wanting to keep moving in the direction of Christlikeness. My aim is that this post accomplishes these same goals for you.
With that in mind, here are 4 "Ps" that can help us dig into sanctification more deeply, so that everything this word means takes root in us more deeply.
1. Sanctification is POSITIONAL.
For believers in Jesus Christ, because of our trust in what Jesus did for us on the cross, in some mysterious-yet-true way, when God looks at us he sees the righteousness of Christ. Our position is one of sanctification, that we are "set apart" as His (even though practically, there's plenty of room for growth!). I love how Colossians 3:3-4 communicates this: "For you died [in Christ], and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory." In some way, who I really am as a justified sinner is seen as righteous - I am hidden in Christ. When God looks at me, He sees the righteousness of Christ. This truth of positional sanctification is how Paul can call the corrupt, disunified, mis-prioritized Corinthian church "sanctified" (1 Corinthians 1:2) - even knowing the sins of the church he'll be getting to later in the letter.
In his helpful and thorough book on this subject, David Peterson contributes this to our first point:
"History shows that that, when the terminology of sanctification is simply used to describe everything that happens to us after conversion [instead of also thinking through our positional sanctification, that God has already accomplished in our lives], the definitive emphasis of the New Testament is soon obscured. The call to 'be holy' can so easily degenerate into a moralistic and perfectionistic programme for believers to pursue. In New Testament terms, we are to live as those have been brought from death to life, discharged from the law to belong to Christ, led by the Spirit in a continuing struggle with the flesh. We are to live with a confidence in what God has already done for us and trust in him to continue his transforming work in us until we see him face to face." (David Peterson, Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness. NSBT. InterVarsity Press, 1995. p. 137)
This positional sanctification has very practical implications for our lives, however. This brings us to our next point.
2. Sanctification is PROGRESSIVE.
While on the one hand God's sees us as righteous because of what Christ has definitively accomplished for all who trust in Him (positional sanctification), when the word sanctification is commonly used it has shades of an ongoing PROGRESS towards godliness, or Christlikeness. Properly understood, this ongoing progress should always be rooted in our position as justified, redeemed, and righteous because of Christ's work on the cross for us.
The value of this point is that is keeps in front us the truth that is slowly, and intermittently, and not always in the ways we want, Christians should be making progress in growing in Christlikeness. This is why, over the course of 2 years or 5 years, believers should be more spiritually mature and exhibit more Christ-like character than they had been - because there should be growth in the Christian life. This growth is always a roller coaster, and we always have to struggle against our sin nature as well. But there can be growth. Our lives on this earth are marked by progressive sanctification. We'll never reach entire sanctification this side of heaven, but we should strenuously pursue progress. This is why Peter can urge the believers to whom he's writing to "make every effort" to grow in godly virtues (2 Peter 1:5-7). This is why the author of Hebrews can write to a group of believers, commanding them to "make every effort...to be holy" (Hebrews 12:14).
Even though we ARE holy in a very real sense because of what Jesus has done for us, in just as real of a sense we need to pursue growth - or progress - in Christlikeness. This is where the traditional spiritual disciplines are so valuable. This is where our activity (never in isolation from dependence on God and His grace) is so important.
(For more on the spiritual disciplines, be sure to keep watch for our Institute class called "Grow: An Important Class about Spiritual Formation." We devote 8 weeks to this topic.)
3. Sanctification will one day be PERFECTED.
This is the "complete sanctification" we achieve when we finally see Jesus face-to-face, and not before. 1 John 3:2 says, "...when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." In other words, when we're with Jesus we'll finally be "like him" in the complete, perfected sense. At that time we'll no longer struggle with our sin nature, etc. Only then will we have reached perfected sanctification. The truth that one day our sanctification will be complete in glorification should propel our hope, and keep us striving towards the future God is preparing for us.
4. Sanctification - growing in Christlikeness - is POSSIBLE.
I've found it important to include this last point because so many people "feel" the distance between where they're at with growing in Christlikeness, and where they want to be. They believe in Christ's work for them, and they know the future towards which He's moving. But they are also aware of the gap that is painfully palpable as they fight against the ways of the world (1 John 2:15-17), the Devil, and our own indwelling sin.
Yes, growing in Christlikeness is slow, intermittent, and can't be controlled or reduced to some formula. But it is possible. By sinking our roots deeply in the fertile soil of God's grace and pursuing godly disciplines with a right motivation, growth will happen. Be grateful for this. Find hope and courage in this. And stay the course.
Kevin DeYoung has a really helpful chapter on this point in his recent The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness. I'll end with one excerpt:
...God does not expect our good works to be flawless in order for them to be good. If God only accepted perfect obedience from his children, the Bible would have nothing good to say about Job or David or Elizabeth or anyone else except for Jesus. I like what the Westminster Confession of Faith says about good works. On the one hand, sanctification will always be imperfect in this life. There will always be remnants of corruption in us. But by the power of the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, true believers will genuinely grow in grace. Our good works are accepted by God, not because they are 'wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God's sight,' but because God is pleased through Christ to accept our sincere obedience, although it contains many weaknesses and imperfections. God not only works obedience in us by his grace, it's also by his grace that our imperfect obedience is acceptable in his sight. And even the smallest act of obedience is an event worth celebrating. Perhaps we are slow to see any good in us because we don't understand how bad we were. Your tiny spiritual life may seem less negligible when you consider that it comes from a heart that used to be spiritually dead. That you and I have any law-abiding willing and doing in a miracle of God's grace." (Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness. Crossway, 2012. pp. 67-68)
How have these truths about sanctification helped you appreciate God's work in Jesus, or given you practical ideas for moving in the direction of Christlikeness? Are there additional truths about sanctification you would have added?
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