This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.
Our Identity in Christ
A significant part of our identity in Christ is that we’re washed, renewed, and regenerated by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). Though work remains to be done in terms of our spiritual growth, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit involves placing us in a spiritual position of having been cleansed from sin. As believers, we’re set apart for God’s holy use, having experienced regeneration and initial purification. In this way, sanctification works in tandem with justification. Due to the imputed righteousness of Christ, we’re viewed as righteous, and due to the sanctifying work of the Spirit, we’ve been, and are, sanctified, not only as part of an ongoing process, but by virtue of having been placed in a position obtained at the moment of conversion. Since God is holy, he has made a way for clean, holy people to serve him! Thus, I’m a clean vessel, “set apart as holy, useful to the master . . . ready for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:21).
1. Sanctification is a position, not just a process.
It is commonly known that sanctification is a process. This is indeed the case, but in addition, as is less widely acknowledged, sanctification is, first, a position into which believers are placed at conversion. Thus, Paul addresses his first letter to the Corinthians “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2). In Acts 26:18, Paul recounts the very words of Jesus, who told the apostle that it was his purpose that believers receive “a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” So, we see that both Jesus and Paul taught that, for all true believers, sanctification has already occurred by grace through faith in the past—that there is a once-for-all, set-apart nature to our sanctification! God has graciously granted us a position “as those sanctified in Christ Jesus” by faith in Jesus.
2. Sanctification is a work of the Spirit.
The Spirit is the agent of sanctification in both positional and progressive sanctification. Regenerating us and indwelling us, he positions us and causes spiritual growth in us. The Spirit’s work is exhibited as the fruit of the Spirit: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23). Ongoing growth occurs as we “walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16), are “led by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:18), and “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). Growth in godliness is a spiritual walk—listening to and following the Spirit. A person becomes holy not by asceticism or even by practicing spiritual disciplines, but sanctification is a result of the activity of the Spirit within us. Bible study and prayer serve as essential aids, but it is the Spirit who does the actual spiritual work. Being introduced to and transformed by the Spirit to be fashioned to live in the presence of God for all eternity is entering into the realm of sanctification.
3. Sanctification, like salvation, is by grace through faith.
We often lapse into works righteousness and see spiritual disciplines as the rule for growth. In sanctification, however, we depend on God to do the work. The focus should not be on the disciplines themselves. As I mentioned in the previous point, sanctification is not in the first place something we do; it is God’s gracious work in us by his Spirit. In Galatians 3, the apostle Paul pointedly asks the Galatians, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” No! We’re moved in the direction of holiness by the Spirit alone. In the book of Romans, Paul argues that “the law of the Spirit” involves walking “in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4; Rom. 8:2), not in strenuously adhering to a set of spiritual exercises, rules, or disciplines; that would be legalism. Obedience, yes. Sanctification by works, no. It’s a fine line, but the focus needs to be right. It’s by grace we’ve been saved, and by grace we’re also sanctified.
4. Biblical theology can help us clarify confusion about biblical teaching.
There are several approaches to sanctification. Some see Christians as attaining perfection already in this life (“entire sanctification”). Others see sanctification solely as a process of growth in godliness. Yet others promote a higher spiritual experience sometime after salvation, a view often referred to as a “second blessing.” Inductively approaching Scripture apart from a theological system already in place—starting from scratch—can serve as a vital corrective. Studying sanctification on its own terms in its own original context reveals the full biblical truth in proper balance regarding this important doctrine. Rather than refracting what we know about sanctification through a particular faith tradition, we go directly to Scripture and connect the dots on the theme as it progresses throughout the Bible. In this way, our practice is informed by how God’s people were instructed about holiness historically, first in the Old Testament where God demonstrates his holiness and desire for his people to reflect his holiness, and subsequently in the New Testament church made up of all believers in Jesus Christ regardless of ethnicity, race, or gender.
5. Sanctification is grounded in the eternal holiness of God.
Holiness is first and foremost an attribute of God. God alone is truly holy; there is none like him. The Old Testament depicts God in glowing terms as holy and glorious, whether in self-descriptions, pronouncements made about God by various Old Testament characters, or narrative portions describing the words and works of God. The song of Moses exults, “Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Ex. 15:11). Hannah’s song similarly exclaims, “There is none holy like the Lord, for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God” (1 Sam. 2:2). Isaiah affirms, “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy, ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite’” (Isa. 57:15). The holiness of God is his very “name”! This intrinsic holiness distinguishes him from all of creation. Anyone desiring to grasp God’s work in and call to sanctification must first come to terms with the glorious, matchless, and undefiled holiness of God.
God is at work within us through his Spirit. All we need to do is remain connected; that is, abide in Jesus, knowing that apart from him we can do nothing.
6. We cannot adequately understand the New Testament teaching on sanctification apart from the Old Testament.
In the Old Testament, we learn about the holy image of God inherent in humanity. Genesis 1:26–27 says, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion . . . .’ So, God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Following Scripture documents the way in which the fall ruptured our holy relationship with God and the way in which God gradually provided ways to reestablish it through various means—the tabernacle and later the temple, the Levitical priesthood, the sacrificial system, and ultimately the prophetic promise of a new covenant where God would write his law on people’s hearts and would give them a new Spirit. In the New Testament we learn how the coming of Jesus fulfilled Old Testament messianic expectations and how the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost to usher in the age of the Spirit. All of this shows God’s unrelenting devotion to his people and his commitment to insist on and even provide for their holiness.
7. Sanctification is daily.
In sanctification, there is going to be a rhythm of repentance from sin, confession, forgiveness, and walking in the Spirit by faith. On the night before he was crucified, Jesus taught his disciples this important truth at the foot washing during the Last Supper when he told Peter, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean” (John 13:10). Metaphorically speaking, believers already have had a full spiritual bath—regeneration. We are positionally fully sanctified in that we’re considered completely clean, yet we still need the ongoing cleansing of regular “foot washing.” That is, the feet that get dirty during the toil of the day will need to be cleansed daily. We still need to be regularly cleansed from sin! Through positional sanctification, I’m already a clean vessel, but ongoing cleansing from sin is still part of the process. As 1 John 1:9 teaches, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
8. Sanctification is not trying harder to be holy.
God is at work within us through his Spirit. All we need to do is remain connected; that is, abide in Jesus, knowing that apart from him we can do nothing. In John 15:4–5, Jesus seeks to impart this truth to his followers when he says, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Abiding doesn’t mean that we’re passive, however. Philippians 2:12–13 encourages believers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” We respond to the Spirit’s sanctifying initiative; he supplies the spiritual impetus and energy to lead a holy, God-glorifying life. Jesus, through the Spirit, is the conduit for any resulting fruit. Believers should expect to bear fruit (John 15:5, 8, 16) as well as experience a certain amount of pruning from the vinedresser—God (John 15:2).
9. Sanctification is not optional.
Every Christian is expected to grow into full maturity (albeit not perfection in this life). The standard, according to Jesus, is for us to “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), a goal toward which we are called to make increasing progress by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Peter writes, “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’. . . . Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Pet. 1:16; 1 Pet. 2:2). The apostle Paul, who conceived as his calling as “present[ing] every person mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28–29), exhorts the Corinthians that by now they ought to be mature (1 Cor. 3:1–3). Similarly, the writer of Hebrews writes that “solid food is for the mature” and urges his readers to “go on to maturity” (Heb. 5:14; Heb. 6:1). So, everyone needs to take seriously the call to holiness and spiritual growth in their lives. Holy living is not just for a select few special people. Holiness matters for every believer.
10. Sanctification will not be complete until we get to heaven.
At the final state we will have achieved holiness, but until then it’s going to be an ongoing process. It’s a goal but not a reality yet. Growth, yes; perfection, no. Paul told the Thessalonian believers, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:23). And to the Philippians he wrote, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” The writer of Hebrews was insistent, “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:12–14). This calls for perseverance. We need to get back in the game when we fall. Though we’re set apart as holy instruments for God’s service, we must nonetheless recognize that holiness remains the quest of a lifetime.
Marny Köstenberger is the author of Sanctification as Set Apart and Growing in Christ.
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