(Click to listen to an audio recording of this article: Sanctification: What is it and how can I partake in it?)
A radical transformation
The Scriptures make it clear that sanctification is vital for a Christian’s growth and development on life’s pathway. There is no doubt that God desires us to be partakers in this, as we read in 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14 “… God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” There should also be a compelling reason on our part to partake of sanctification based on the serious words of Hebrews 12:14: “Pursue peace with all people, and sanctification, without which no one will see the Lord.”
But what exactly is sanctification?
Sanctification is another term for holiness, and we certainly don’t become holy overnight. Actually, something drastic has to happen for us to change from being the way we are by nature into being holy, as He is holy. (1 Peter 1:15-16) A radical transformation is needed, and it involves a lifelong process. This process is called sanctification.
Victory over conscious sin
The Christian life begins with reconciliation. If we truly repent of past sins, God forgives us for Jesus’ sake. This is a wonderful experience, but we soon discover that we are still tempted to sin and that we must fight to overcome it. By the power of the Holy Spirit and through faithfulness in this battle, we can indeed come to a life of victory over all conscious sin—that is, the thoughts, attitudes and actions we know in the moment of temptation are wrong.
We read in Romans 6:22: “But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.” We are free to stop sinning!
Victory over unconscious sin
But as we present ourselves to serve God, we make another discovery! Although we have been set free from sin—free from consciously sinning—we still have sin in our flesh, as the apostle John points out in no uncertain terms. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” 1 John 1:8. Our flesh, our human nature, is full of a tendency to sin, and we are oblivious to this until we notice it in the form of a temptation, or God’s Holy Spirit sheds His light on it. Clearly, there is a difference between consciously committing sin and “having sin in the flesh.”
Fruit grows from a seed. In order for “fruit to holiness” to grow, the seed of our own life—our own will—must be sown, and must die. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” John 12:24. The apostle Paul makes a clear declaration in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Do we hate our own “I” according to the flesh—our own will? If so, then we will be willing to sow it into death, so that new life can grow.
To put it simply, victory over sin has to do with overcoming the sinful lusts in our flesh revealed to us in the moment of temptation. But a disciple’s sanctification doesn’t stop there. Sanctification continues with the process of dealing with sin that is revealed to us after we have done or said something wrong – this is the sin that clings so easily to us, even when we have the best intentions or have done a good deed. This sin also needs to be put to death (judged and rejected by my conscious mind) so that fruit to holiness can grow.
Sin that “follows along”
It’s written in Psalm 119:105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” In the light of God’s Word, and through the promptings of the Holy Spirit, we can see the sin in our nature that followed along with the good that we set out to do. A harsh tone, unmerciful words, or a thoughtless comment popped out of our mouths just when we set out to show kindness or help someone in need. We did what we hated, but we did not see it until after the fact. These are the deeds that Paul refers to in Romans 8:13, the “deeds of the body.” “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” 1 John 1:7.
Little by little, by walking in the light (agreeing with God’s judgment over our own sin and being obedient to put to death what is revealed to us), sin is cleansed out. (Romans 8:13) Then the virtues of Christ, His life and characteristics, can grow so that we are transformed into His image more and more! This is a wonderful and realistic hope for every Christian who longs for transformation.
A new nature: The virtues of Christ
Our human nature with all its wretched tendencies is anything but divine! But the hope of the gospel is clear: “As His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.” 2 Peter 1:3-4.
God is exceedingly interested in helping us forward on this way of sanctification. Our part is to want it, to acknowledge our need for it, and then launch out in obedience to God’s Word and the Holy Spirit, in faith that “He who began a good work in [us] will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6.