How Are We Sanctified?
There are three primary agents in the character formation or sanctification of a Christian. Within these three categories come several other means that God uses to change Christians.
1. The Word of God
The first agent is Scripture, as is shown in Jesus’s statements “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17) and “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you” (John 15:3). As we read the instructions of the Bible, we are urged to obey them, and resolving to do so, with God’s help, makes us grow in holiness. Being exposed to the Scriptures also exposes us to the nature of God. When we spend time with God in prayer and in the Word, his nature permeates us, causing us to change without our even realizing it. When I got to know my wife and her family, they would use some expressions that I found strange. I would laugh when I heard these expressions. After a few years I found myself using the same expressions. It happened unconsciously. Paul said: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).
When we spend time with God in prayer and in the Word, his nature permeates us, causing us to change without our even realizing it.
2. The Work of the Spirit
The verse just quoted introduces the second source of character formation: the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Christian character is described as “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22–23). Peter talks of “the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:2). And Paul declares, “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom 8:13). Sometimes this work of sanctification is attributed simply to God. Paul says to the Thessalonians, “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).
The life of holiness may involve giant leaps forward through powerful works of the Holy Spirit in what may be called crisis experiences. The apostles’ experience at Pentecost is an example. Many Christians testify to a new level of holiness following a specific act of faith or surrender or rededication. But change generally takes place as a process. Martin Luther is credited with having described the growth of a Christian after conversion in this way: A person is rapidly declining in health because of a disease, and the doctors do not know its cause. Then the doctors correctly diagnose the disease and prescribe the appropriate medicine. He is not completely healed immediately upon starting to take the medicine. But from that point on, he improves until he is completely well. In the same way, after we experience conversion, there is a decisive turn in our lives, after which the movement is in the direction of holiness rather than sin and death.
3. The Fellowship of Believers
The third agent in character formation is fellowship with other Christians. Paul says, “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22). The writer to the Hebrews says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). The flight from evil and the pursuit of holiness occur with the aid of other Christians. Under the category of fellowship, we can also include the disciplers and the discipleship groups to which Christians belong. It is in community with them that some of the most marked changes take place.
This article is adapted from Discipling in a Multicultural World by Ajith Fernando.
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