We live in a time of widespread confusion over the doctrine of sanctification. What is it? How does it work? Is it something man does or God does? This is a doctrine Christians need clarity on; we cannot afford to be confused here because it is at this point which we all live. All of God's children live between past justification and future glorification, in the present pursuit of holiness.
For us to understand what sanctification is and how we pursue it, it is necessary to turn to Scripture as our authority for the Christian life. We will look briefly at a few passages to help provide us with a biblical understanding of the Christian’s pursuit of holiness.
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:18, "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." He also says in Philippians 2:12-13, "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, 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."
In these two passages, we learn at least three truths about sanctification. The first truth is that a believer's growth in holiness is supernatural and internal. Paul’s words to the Philippians are clear and concise, "It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" God’s work of sanctification in us is progressive, not just to work, but also to desire and to will. He is actively conforming the desires of our hearts more and more to the things that please Him.
To the Corinthians, Paul speaks about our sanctification as a transformation into the image of the glory of Christ. He says that as we behold the glory of the Lord, we "are being transformed into the same image" (2 Corinthians 3:18). He is describing the inner transformation of a person.
Paul describes this same transformation in Romans 12:2, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind." He contrasts being conformed so that our outward behaviour is the same as the worlds to being transformed from the inside out. And again, we see that transformation happens internally by the renewing of the mind. Paul also prays that we would be strengthened with power through the Holy Spirit in our inner being (Ephesians 3:16).
The point is that holiness does not simply mean bringing our outward behaviour to a certain moral standard. It means changing our affections. The inward transformation of our affections will work itself out in our outward behaviour, but transformation begins internally. Because God is at work in us both to will and to work for his good pleasure, the holy person does not merely do what God commands, he loves what God loves, and he acts out of that love as God works in him. God’s work of sanctification causes us to love Him more and love sin less, and by it, we are transformed from the inside out.
Sanctification is both internal and external. We need to have sanctified affections and actions because God commands us not just to behave righteously, but He also commands us to be holy.
Secondly, sanctification is a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. Philippians 2:13 clearly says that "it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." In Romans 12:2 we are not commanded to transform ourselves but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. In 2 Corinthians 3:18, we are told that by "beholding the glory of the Lord, we are being transformed." Paul makes it clear that "this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit."
From God's Word, we see sanctification is an internal, supernatural, and sovereign work of the Spirit of God. It's not something we can produce by or in ourselves. This brings us to the question: if the internal, supernatural work of sanctification is the sovereign work of the Spirit of God, what does the believer do? If it's the work of the Holy Spirit to produce holiness in the Christian, do we just sit back, relax and do nothing? No, it is precisely because the Spirit's sovereign work in us that we are to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12).
That brings us to the third truth: the Holy Spirit uses means in the sanctification process of a believer—God's Word, prayer, fellowship with believers, and obedience to God's commands. Why do God's Word, prayer, fellowship with the saints, and all the other means of grace sanctify us? Because they all direct the eyes of our hearts to the chief means of sanctification. "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 Corinthians 3:18). The pathway to Christlikeness is "beholding the glory of the Lord." Hebrews 12:2 tells us that we run the race of the Christian life by "looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith." As we behold Christ and all His glory, our affection for Him is renewed, our desires are satisfied in Him, we no longer seek satisfaction in anything less, and we joyfully obey His commands out of love for Him.
Therefore, we don't fall into the error of sitting back, relaxing and waiting to be magically made holy. We must actively pursue it.
Our study in God's Word also keeps us from the opposite error that holiness is just a matter of changing our external actions by our own strength and willpower. It keeps us from performing religious duties we have no heart to perform.
As we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, we recognize that it is the Holy Spirit of God who is working within us. He works, shining the light of the glory of Christ in our hearts, winning our affections by the loveliness of that glory, and directing our wills so that we might will and work for His good pleasure. In the benediction from Hebrews, we find a fitting summary,
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.