[Note: the following is from the introduction to my as of yet unpublished book, Something Worth Living For. Feel free to spread this link far and wide, as you see fit. If you want to use the content in some other form, ask me. Thanks!]
Q. 35. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.
The early Christians whose lives are reflected in the pages of the New Testament were a worthy bunch in many ways. Their passion and sacrifice are a model for us as they faced adversity and yet persevered. But the Bible also makes clear that they were people, imperfect and flawed like us. They argued and stretched the truth. They sometimes showed favoritism too freely and tolerated error too quickly. Much of their behavior we would not describe as saintly, and yet God was please to call them (and us) saints. Though broken and sinful, they were united with Christ and set apart by God. As those so set apart, they were “sanctified.” In a settled and definitive way God pronounced them “holy.”
The problem is that they, and we who are God’s holy ones, don’t act like it. The work of God which is sanctification is a process by which Christians are enabled by God to more and more act as who they are, as God’s holy people. And as Jesus is the model of holiness, sanctification is God through his Holy Spirit making his people more like Jesus. This work, this process, can be painful, and it can be slow, but it is always good.
There are sinful ways of living and reacting and behaving that come easily to us. Though we are Christians, though we are in union with Christ and so justified, adopted, and set apart as saints, these well-practiced behaviors persist. We are pulled by the world to speak falsely, to neglect compassion, or to celebrate pride. We have an instinctual recourse to erupt with rage, to seek revenge, or to hoard money. We have traumatic histories or inexplicable inner urges that tempt us to sexual expressions that fall outside the biblical norm. To die to these impulses and to embrace a new way of life is incredibly hard and will never be complete before we die. And yet God is working in our lives to shape us and to conform us to the image of Christ. When we see change, we are seeing the evidence of the work of God.
The path on which God leads us as he conforms us to Christ’s character looks different for all of us. Some Christians may by personality or background or fortuitous cultural influence be closer to a Christ-like demeanor than those who have suffered a lifetime of abuse and trauma. The goal of sanctification in each is the same—to be like Jesus—but reaching that goal will follow different paths over different durations of time, and each person will come to different plateaus. For all of us sanctification will be a roller coaster ride with strides forward and strides backwards. But in it all we can never ever forget that ultimately it is not we who sanctify ourselves, but God who works in us to make us like Jesus. He began a good work in us, Paul says in Philippians, and he will see that it is completed. It is his work to change us and he is doing so.
The “mechanics” of sanctification will occupy our consideration soon in these studies. At this point be heartened knowing that God is the one who is changing you. Don’t despair if the progress seems slow and don’t quit because it is hard. A verse of the Christmas hymn “It Came upon a Midnight Clear” uses the language of John Milton to acknowledge that the walk of the Christian is never easy.
“And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow….”
The steps of sanctification are often wandering, painful, and slow. But they are guided by a wise and good God, our heavenly Father, who is willing even now to call you, as he did those early, irascible Christians, holy.