I want to clear a few things up before I write this, so that I won’t be misunderstood. I want to talk about the process of sanctification within the life of a believer. I feel this is a topic that is very misunderstood among Christians and something that is incredibly important. I also think I have such a burden about this topic because it is something that I see myself not taking very seriously. Perhaps I am the only one, and indeed I hope so, but I do not think that to be the case.
I want to be very clear that what I say about sanctification must not be confused with justification. Justification is a work wholly of God. That is, it is something that God does, and not something that we earn or can add to. God is the one who saves us, and not the other way around. Also, sanctification is a gift of God. What I mean is that, if we make progress in our Christian life, it is because God is being gracious to us and we are growing through the power of the Holy Spirit within us.
It’s always good to start with a definition of words that are not common to us. The word sanctification is the lifelong work of the Holy Spirit in us which empowers us to work in such a way that we are conformed more and more to the likeness of Christ. It is a synergistic thing, meaning that it is Christ that works in us, but we are still putting forth the hard work, as it were. This is contrasted with the monergistic work of salvation, which means that salvation is all of God (Jonah 2:9). From eternity past, God predestined those for whom He would send Christ to save. And he effectually calls all of them, and they come to faith and are never cast out.
But what of sanctification then? You could think of it this way, it is the living of your Christian life in such a way that you are progressing away from your old, dead self, and toward Christ-likeness. I found that there are passages all over the Bible that talk about this, and I hadn’t really cared much about them or noticed them before. At least not in a way that changed anything or caused me to feel/think anything particular.
A question that will always come up in the life of a Christian (at least, I hope it does) is “How do I know that I’m saved?” Perhaps in years gone by you raised your hand and repeated a prayer after a pastor or walked down an isle and got prayed for. So you point back to that and use that, but Scripture says nothing of that. I think there are a couple things that are important when thinking about this question. First, someone who is truly saved is someone who endures to the end. John writes in 1 John 2:19 that “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” Secondly, I think we look to the process of sanctification. I call it a process because we are never perfected in this earthly life. Do we see ourselves growing more and more toward becoming like Christ? Or do we see no difference now than before we were saved? It seems to me that if the Holy Spirit is within us, and God has saved us and given us a new nature, then that should have some pretty drastic changes on how we live our lives.
I get so tired/frustrated at how lightly our society, or perhaps “Christian” culture takes the idea of what it means to be a Christian. I am probably on the computer and facebook too much, but it provides perhaps some of the most potent examples of this. We see people post statuses all the time like “Jesus said we deny him before men, then he will deny us before his father. So I would like to say that I believe in Jesus! 90% of people won’t repost this. Let’s see who the real followers are.” et. ad nauseum. In fact, I have even seen a status like that posted, and then this person’s friends were quite confused as to why the person had posted something like that in the first place. Why were they confused? Because the person’s life had absolutely nothing to do with Christ. I think the world can see right through this, and more importantly, the Bible speaks about it.
We see this attitude in churches too though. A popular (or at least it was a few years ago) worship song is “I am a Friend of God” which highlights how God calls us (Christians) His friends. In fact, that’s pretty much 90% of the lyrics of the song. The problem is not in it being false, but rather, in it only being a half-truth. It is quite true that Christ called His followers friends, but He didn’t just leave it at that. “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” John 15:14 (emphasis added). That second part doesn’t fit real well into a poppy, feely, worship song, but if you’re going to speak the truth, then speak the whole truth. As a church, we have taken the truth that we are to “come as we are” and have turned it subtly into “stay as we are.”
What I mean is that it is quite true that in order to be saved, we don’t have to change into some sort of super holy looking people in order for God to take us. When Christ called the disciples, He didn’t tell them to first go change and clean up and look presentable first, He just told them to follow Him and they did immediately. However, this does not mean that we are to stay as we are once He saves us. I’m not talking about dressing nicer (though maybe that will happen) or surface level stuff like that. After all, the Pharisees were perfect examples of people who had all the outward trappings of religion and yet were dead inside. Christ was quite harsh with them in Matthew 23. (In light of that, for those familiar with the theological discussion, why is it that we always assume Matthew 7:16 refers to outward things?) Once we see that we are to come as we are to Christ, for salvation, it is important to understand that we are not to stay as we are. Saving faith is something that should change our entire lives!
For some, this may mean changing what they wear, but what it should certainly do is change what we think and what we say and how we act and what we do and what we are concerned about etc. I think the books of James and 1 John are incredibly helpful, clear, practical, and challenging about this.
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” – James 1:22. It is quite possible to hear good preaching, and have developed a good intellectual grasp of correct doctrine, but if it doesn’t change your life, what good is it?
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” – James 1:26. Guard what you say and how you say it!
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” , “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead. But someone will say , ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” – James 2:14, 17-18. It is faith alone that saves you, but that faith is never by itself. True, saving faith, produces good works in the one who is saved.
“You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” – James 4:4. You can’t play both sides of the field. Either you are living your life for God, or you are not.
“If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” , “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the way in which he walked.” , “Do not love the world o the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the father is no in him.” , “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.” , “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” – 1 John 1:6; 2:3-6, 15; 3:6-8a, 9-10.
These are serious passages, and those are only a few passages from a couple books. This sort of thing is all over the Bible! Yet we take it so lightly! I can hear already someone saying “yeah, but you already said sanctification can’t be completed in this life. nobody’s perfect. give me a break.” I say, enough of that excuse! It is true that we will never be able to perfectly follow the commands of God. That is why the law cannot save anyone. However, in His sermon on the mount, Jesus Himself says “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – Matthew 5:48. Should not the command of Christ be enough? Is what He is asking impossible? Yes, it is. But I think we too often (at least I do) take that truth as an excuse to be lazy and not put in the hard work. The bar is set so incredibly high that in order for anyone to be saved, it must be God Himself that reaches the bar. That is the point of the gospel. But the fact that sanctification will not be perfected in this life should be no excuse for us to be lazy and not work towards becoming more like Christ (which is another way of saying perfect, since He alone is the standard for perfection).
To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, it is not that we are so passionate that we go after the things of the world, but rather, that we are not passionate enough so that we go after eternal things.
I want to lay out several helpful/practical things from a book I am currently reading by J.C. Ryle called “Holiness”, but before I do that I want to offer a word of encouragement. I know this is sort of a downer of a blog because I am writing passionately and heavily. I do not say for a moment that if you are not currently a super-Christian, that you aren’t saved. A light may be very dim and still be a light. It is not for no reason that Scripture refers to new Christians as newborns, and then as children, young men, and fathers finally. As I said before, the process of sanctification is one that will last our whole life and there is always a point of starting where you fall into sin more than you avoid it. But take heart, for Christ has overcome the world, and if He truly dwells in you, then you will begin to have victory over sin your life. However long and hard the road may be, you are in the company of a countless multitude of saints who have walked that road before you.
The “Holiness” book is basically a collection of papers under the topic of holiness and of the chapters I have read so far, the ones on sanctification and growth have been the most helpful, practical, and convicting for me. I know writing out all this will make this already long blog even longer, but I think you will find this helpful.
First, he lays out several visible marks of sanctification.
-True sanctification does not consist in talk about religion.
- True sanctification does not consist in temporary religious feelings.
- True sanctification does not consist in outward formalism and external devoutness.
- Sanctification does not consist in retirement from our place in life, and the renunciation of our social duties.
- Sanctification does not consist in the occasional performance of right actions.
- Genuine sanctification will show itself in habitual respect to God’s law, and habitual effort to live in obedience to it as the rule of life.
- Genuine sanctification will show itself in an habitual endeavor to do Christ’s will, and to live by his practical precepts. (Here he makes reference to the practical precepts found in the gospels and particularly in the sermon on the mount. There’s a lot of practical goodness found there to be used toward living the Christian life.)
- Genuine sanctification will show itself in an habitual desire to live up to the standard which St. Paul sets before the churches in his writings. (He references the closing chapters of nearly all his epistles. Again, look for the practical goodness. He wrote to specific churches, but his advice applies to living the Christian life.)
- Genuine sanctification will show itself in habitual attention to the active graces which our Lord so beautifully exemplified, and especially to the grace of charity. (How did Jesus act? A good thing would be to reference the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5.)
- Genuine sanctification, in the last place, will show itself in habitual attention to the passive graces of Christianity. (Those shown especially in submission to the will of God and in bearing and forbearing toward one another.)
In his chapter on growth, he lists out several marks of how it is we can know, if we desire to, if we are growing in sanctification. It is true that there is no such thing as a stand still faith. Either we are going forward or we are not, and if we are not, it is quite likely that we are going backwards. He then lists some practical things which answers the question of how we grow, if we desire to.
- One mark of “growth in grace” is increased humility.
- Another mark of “growth in grace” is increased faith and love toward our Lord Jesus Christ. (Do you love Christ more than you did before? Do you find more about Him to rest on? Are you finding Him to satisfy you more than sin?)
- Another mark of “growth in grace” is increased holiness of life and conversation. (The man whose soul is “growing” gets more dominion over sin, the world, and the devil every year. In other words, you start winning your fight against the flesh more.)
- Another mark of “growth in grace” is increased spirituality of taste and mind. (You take more of an interest in spiritual things.)
- Another mark of “growth in grace” is increase of charity.
- One more mark of “growth in grace” is increased zeal and diligence in trying to do good to souls. (Do you care about the souls of those unsaved? As you grow more, you should care more.)
Now, how do you go about accomplishing this growth?
- One thing essential to growth in grace is diligence in the use of private means of grace. (private prayer, private reading of the Bible, private meditation and self-examination.)
- Another thing which is essential to growth in grace is carefulness in the use of public means of grace. (Going to church, uniting with God’s people for common prayer and praise, the preaching of the Word, and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Also, how do you go about those things? Does your church bear the marks of a healthy church? See here. What is your attitude about church? That’s the careful part of this point.)
- Another thing essential to growth in grace is watchfulness over our conduct in the little matters of everyday life. (Our tempers, what we say, how we act, how we use our time, and our relationships with other people.)
- Another thing which is essential to growth in grace is caution about the company we keep and the friendships we form. (This is a tough one, because we want to be friends with everyone. But the conduct of who we surround ourselves with will effect our conduct and it is much easier for bad conduct to influence us than for good conduct to, if you have a mix.)
- There is one more thing which is absolutely essential to growth in grace – and that is regular and habitual communion with the Lord Jesus. (He means a daily habit of fellowship between us and Him. We do this through prayer and meditation. So this is connected with the other points.)
I know this has been a very long blog, but I feel it is something that is needed greatly today. I know it is something I personally need greatly. I know that in writing this, it is likely that the coming days will be harder for me, because that just seems to be the way things work. So I ask for your prayer for me, that I am able to live out what I write, and that I do not take the lazy way out of things. I pray this has been edifying to you and that it will ignite a desire in you for personal holiness/sanctification.