Sanctification: What is it?

Error seems to travel in pairs, and when we come to the topic of sanctification, this is also the case. One error says that we must do more in order to be more. The Roman Catholic teaching on justification suffers from this misunderstanding. That is, as I perform more good, I become more justified. Justification is poured into me, little by little throughout my life, provided I keep doing. There are Protestant variations on this theme, but they still reduce to the same erroneous view: I improve my standing before God by what I do. This is not the gospel. Our standing is in Christ and rests completely on what he has done in his death and resurrection. There is no improving on that, but there surely is the possibility of marring it with my own wrong ideas about earning God’s favor. The essence of this error is to confuse justification with sanctification.

The other error is to say that because my position in Christ is secure and it is all based on his work, my living means nothing, counts for nothing, and it does not matter whether or not I am pursuing the things that belong to discipleship. This too is false. Sanctification is the process of being made holy, more like Christ in our whole being. Others may include additional facets in the definition, but it is surely not less than this. There is also an aspect of sanctification that views it as complete and already accomplished. Indeed, both of these things are found in the New Testament. As part of our salvation, Christ has become to us “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:30) Paul began this same epistle by addressing it “to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus.” (1 Cor 1:1) It is what they (and any who trust in Christ) are. We are sanctified, set apart as Christ’s, seen by God as holy in Christ because we are in Him. The word “saint” is not an aspiration for Christians, but a description of what we are. It is simply a synonym for “Christian.”

But there is more to it than this. While the New Testament does indeed speak of the Christian as sanctified, as positionally holy in Christ, it also speaks of us as being transformed, being made holy, being sanctified throughout the period of our discipleship. Heb. 10:14 captures these two aspects in a single verse: For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. We are becoming what we already are.
Paul also wrote to the Thessalonians, saying “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” 1 Thess. 4:3. Why would speak of God’s will for them if it was already done? The fact that Paul has some action in view is clear by what he next says, “that you abstain from sexual immorality.” He’s keen that they avoid something unholy. Likewise, Paul wrote to Timothy to “flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” He wrote to the Ephesians to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self.” (Eph. 4:22-24) All of these are exhortations to sanctification, to become holier, and to be more like Christ. The fact that Paul writes we are both positionally sanctified in Christ, but are to pursue sanctification does not create a conflict.

How can something be complete and finished, and yet still in process? A person can proof-text their way to a skewed view of sanctification—as many have done—to say that “You see, it’s all done by God when we were saved and there’s nothing you can do to influence your sanctification. If you strive after sanctification, you’ve lapsed into works-based salvation, thinking you can improve on the work of God. Doesn’t Paul say as much? “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Cor. 6:11. There it is, you were sanctified, past tense.

It’s just here that some get into trouble when they try to pit one against the other. The position I have in Christ, viewed by the Father as having his righteousness, is unalterable, unassailable. It is all of grace and all of his work. But it is likewise true that Christians are told to pursue holiness, to make our condition more closely match our position. This is not undertaken in our strength, nor does it bring any merit to us. It doesn’t make God love us more, nor love us less when we fail. But it is an important part of our discipleship, of our following Jesus. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that they were to be imitators of God, as beloved children. (Eph 5:1) In fact, the 5th chapter of Ephesians is all about the Christian walk, how we conduct ourselves in the world before unbelievers, and his admonition is to not be partakers in what the world does. A shorthand may be “be sanctified.”

If pursuing sanctification doesn’t make God love us more, nor does it improve our position in Christ, what then does it accomplish?
It makes us fruitful for God, it presents a testimony to the world of God’s power to transform sinners, and it adorns the doctrine of God our Savior. Not only so, but it increases our joy in God and loosens the affections we have for this world.

For those who dispute this, who say that we are as sanctified as we will ever be, that no growth in holiness is possible, or that it is, in fact, a misguided pursuit, there is a term for this: “Over-realized eschatology.” As one blogger has defined it, “An ‘over-realized eschatology’ is when someone expects that the eschatological hope of Christianity is already here and now.” I will one day be free of sinful desires—but I am not yet. I will one day have a body that is not subject to decay and the effects of the fall—but I do not yet. I will one day have a spiritual state that is at one with my spiritual standing—but I do not yet.

All of these things speak to the already/not yet duality that is part of the Christian life. If sanctification in practice is not a bit different than sanctification in position, then many New Testament passages make no sense. The plethora of exhortations and admonitions to become more Christlike, the possibility of grieving the Holy Spirit, to name a couple. In addition, if there is no difference, then it would render the idea of church discipline to be unnecessary and inconsistent. One can say that church discipline is the judgment of a local church that a Christian’s condition is grossly inconsistent with their position. They claim to be in Christ, but their behavior is bringing dishonor to His name. If we are as sanctified as we possibly can be, then disciplining such a person is moot.

Like most doctrines, sanctification cannot be demonstrated by a single verse. It requires the entirety of Holy Scripture to show what it is and to make sense of it. When we do consider all of God’s revelation, it’s clear that we are both sanctified, and being sanctified. It is who we are, but also who we are told to become.

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