5 Questions about Sanctification

This article is part of the Questions and Answers series.

Q: What does it mean to be sanctified?

A: To be sanctified is to have your faith simplified, clarified, and deepened. You need God. You know God. You love God. You see life, God, yourself, others more truly. And to grow as a saint is to grow in actually loving people. How other people are doing matters increasingly to you. You care. You help.

Becoming more holy does not mean that you become ethereal, ghostly, and detached from the storms of life. It means you are becoming a wiser human being. You are learning how to deal well with your money, your sexuality, your job. You are becoming a better friend and family member. When you talk, your words communicate more good sense, more gravitas, more joy, more reality. You are learning to pray honestly, bringing who God really is to the reality of human need.

And to grow in holiness does not mean you now talk in hushed tones and every third sentence quotes the Bible. It means you live in more clear-minded hope. You know the purpose of your life, roll up your sleeves, and get about doing what needs doing. You are honestly thankful for good things. You honestly face disappointment and pain, illness and dying.

Sanctification, saint, holy, and holiness—they speak of daily life. There is nothing more practical than to live with an ever-growing love, joy, and purposefulness. There is nothing more eyes-open and helpful than to be maturing in wisdom, hope, and faith.

How Does Sanctification Work?

David Powlison

Weaving together personal stories, biblical exposition, and theological reflection, David Powlison highlights the personal and particular means God uses to make us more like Jesus.

Q: Who and what is involved in the process of sanctification?

A: You often hear people say things like “He should just remember that . . .” Or “If only she would just do . . .” Or “If I could just experience . . .” You’ve probably said things like that yourself. I certainly have. Preachers, teachers, counselors, authors, and friends instinctively gravitate toward naming some truth, some spiritual discipline, some action step, or some experience as the key that will unlock everything. The phrase “Just . . .” is a tip-off. But there are no “Just [do x, y, or z]” solutions to the puzzles of our sanctification.

We need stories and word pictures, both from Scripture and from the testimonies of daily life. We need to understand how Scripture illumines and connects to our current situation. We need practical help to work out the implications and applications for who we are, for where we struggle, for what we face. We need Jesus to be present—the Lord who is my Shepherd, the Lord who watches over my going out and my coming in. Scripture vividly and inductively demonstrates how these truths get traction and get personal. We need to get traction and get personal. We need other people. We need to hear and take to heart other people’s stories. We need God’s creation. We need to understand our times. We need honesty about ourselves. We need fresh object lessons. We need embodied faith and love. We need many different wisdoms to illumine the different parts of life.

Q: Are we changed by knowing that we are justified by faith alone?

A: Yes and amen. To consciously remember and take to heart that you are fully accepted by God because of what Jesus Christ has done for you makes a big difference in your Christian life. He reached out to take you by the hand and saved you. In friendship, preaching, counseling, and discipleship, this may be exactly the message that needs to be featured. This truth is theologically foundational to being a Christian, to being forgiven, to being made right with God, to having the courage to be candid about our sins (one of the foundational transformations of the sanctification process). It is elementary—not in the modern sense of being as easy as ABC, but in the old sense of being basic, fundamental, essential, constitutive.

To be sanctified is to have your faith simplified, clarified, and deepened.

Q: What is God demonstrating to us in sanctification?

A: Whether you think you are too bad or think you are good enough, it makes a difference to know that we become right with God by faith in Christ and what he has done. Such faith is an empty hand reaching to receive life. Here is one biblical description of how he has done it:

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. (Rom. 8:31–34)

Take this to heart. Don’t ever forget. If you feel unworthy and yet all these things are true, then the door to the Father stands wide open. If you think you are worthy, then because these things are true, this is the only door to the Father. He means it when he says, “Come to me.” So whatever your struggle, take him at his word. So far so good.

But now notice something significant about the pastoral purpose of Romans 8:18–39. Paul openly states his reasons for mentioning God’s justifying mercies in 8:31–34. He is not even thinking about performance-oriented people. Self-salvation efforts, our sins, and placing personal faith in Christ’s atoning work for forgiveness are not in view. The direct application in this discussion of justification serves people who face hardship, weakness, and hostility. They are tempted to doubt God’s love, to feel abandoned by God, to feel threatened by “the sufferings of this present time” (8:18).

Romans 8:31–34 mentions that God has already justified us by Christ’s death as one way to give hope and comfort to sufferers, not to remind anxious sinners or obsessive strivers. The original takeaway was not “You can get off that performance treadmill—God does not condemn you for your sins.” The takeaway was “However hard life gets, nothing and no one has power to destroy you and separate you from the love of God.” The second half of Romans 8 sanctifies you when earthly life is a vale of weakness, affliction, groaning, and tears.

Justification by faith serves as one subpoint in a long chain of subpoints aiming to make a far larger point: God is for you. One way he shows that he is for you is that he justifies sinners. And that is one of a cascade of ways that God demonstrates his essential attitude toward you.

Q: Is God’s goal in sanctification just make me better than I currently am?

A: Yes, of course, we’re our own worst enemies—prone to a turbulent cocktail of anxieties, complaining, deceptiveness, selfishness, compulsions, irritability, confusion, indifference, immorality, self-righteousness, low self-esteem, judgmentalism, money-loving, laziness, drivenness, “and things like these” (to quote Gal. 5:21). But the Lord’s desired outcome is not simply a better me who has found peace and gotten his act together. The goal of sanctification is not a better, happier, more confident individual—not exactly. Listen to how Scripture puts it:

“The Father of mercies and God of all comfort . . . comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction” (2 Cor. 1:4).

When you find hope and encouragement in your troubles, the comfort doesn’t land with you just feeling better. You now have riches to bring to others in whatever troubles they experience. Their welfare and yours have joined hands. The well-being of others increasingly matters as you become a participating member of Christ’s body, brothers and sisters in our Father’s family. Sanctification is making you into a person who is connected, wedded, and joined to Jesus Christ and all the other people whose center of gravity is shifting outside themselves.

“He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people” (Heb. 5:2–3).

Knowing how gently God deals with you in your confusion, short-sightedness, and wanderings, you deal gently with others in their sins and weaknesses. It is wonderful to experience that God is gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, forgiving your iniquity, transgression, and sin. And as you learn that he is this way with you in your ignorance and waywardness, you develop the same heart for others in their failings. You aren’t simply a “happier person.” This world is too full of woes and woebegone people. You take the pains and confusion of others to heart. You are becoming a person sobered by the human condition and willing to help.

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 4:32–5:2).

Forgiven people don’t simply rest in peace because their restless sins, corrosive guilt, and dark shame are now covered. You now have goodness and mercy to bring to others. Knowing that you are a beloved child does not leave you complacent and self-satisfied. You are beloved so that you are able to love, to give your life away for others. You don’t become a “self-confident individual.” Your life might be stressful. You serve the King and Savior who died at age thirty-three—and his service is not always convenient. It puts you out of your comfort zone. It strips away all the illusions that we can control people and events. You are becoming a person whose confidence rests outside yourself in God, a person whose life purpose is Christ’s purpose of redeeming love.

This article is adapted from How Does Sanctification Work? by David Powlison.

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