Sanctification–How does it happen?

Everyone who believes the Bible should agree that sanctification is necessary in the lives of those whom God has justified. Of course, even this is a matter of controversy for those who hold the “Carnal Christian” doctrine. In our day, it seems that a matter of greater controversy is how sanctification is effected in the believer’s life. Is sanctification accomplished through faith or by mere obedience? Is it a work of the believer alone that results from the Spirit’s work of regeneration, a matter of cooperation between God and the believer, or is it God’s work alone, received through faith alone?

As you may have noticed, the pivotal word in the first question is the word “mere.” Of course, our obedience to Christ must come into play in the process of sanctification. The issue is whether the believer, as a mere matter of duty, grits his teeth and obeys or does he obey Christ as an act of faith? Is it that Jesus accomplished our justification, but we must attain our sanctification by our own efforts? Of course not! To seek sanctification by passively resting in the work of Christ living his life all over again in us is quietism. To seek sanctification by our own efforts severed from faith is legalism and moral-ism. That we are not sanctified by faith alone, as in justification, does not mean we are not sanctified by faith at all.

Professor John Murray, has done an excellent job explaining the relationship between the believer’s activity in sanctification and the supernatural activity of the of the Holy Spirit in that work. He wrote,

While we are constantly dependent upon the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit, we must also take into account of the fact that sanctification is a process that draws within its scope the conscious life of the believer. The sanctified are not passive or quiescent in this process. Nothing shows this more clearly than the exhortation of the apostle: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2: 12, 13). . .God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjugation or coordination of both produced the required result. God works in us and we also work. But the relation is that because God works we work. All working out of salvation on our part is the effect of God’s working in us, not the willing to the exclusion of the doing and not the doing to the exclusion of the willing, but both the willing and the doing. And this working of God is directed to the end of enabling us to will and to do that which is well pleasing to him. . . .The more persistently active we are in working, the more persuaded we may be that all the energizing grace and power is of God.

There is no question there are times when obedience is difficult. It is not an easy matter to pluck out one’s right eye or cut off one’s right hand [please understand this metaphorically as Jesus intended it]. Walking by faith has never been easy. The reality is, such acts of mortification would not merely be difficult, they would be impossible apart from the Spirit’s enabling. If he did not grant us the desire and the ability please God, we would fail miserably. Apart from faith in the promises of God, we would be overcome by an earthbound sense of the here and now.

Sanctification By Faith

In reality, sanctification must be by faith since its goal is to please God. Hebrews 11: 6 informs us that, “without faith, it is impossible to please Him [God]. . . .” In fact, the entire chapter that has come to be known as “the faith chapter” deals with the obedience of Old Testament believers who, subsequent to believing God for justification, acted in obedience to God through faith.

How is it that believers are to account themselves truly dead to sin and alive to God if not by faith (Rom. 6:11)? How is it that believers are to feast on Christ, the true bread that came down from heaven, if not by faith (John 6:53-58)? Here, Jesus uses the present tense that indicates continuing action. The believer in Christ doesn’t eat once and then move on to his own efforts. He continues to feast on Christ as long as he lives. How are we to behold the Lord’s glory as in a mirror if not by faith (2 Cor. 3:18)? How are we to rest on God’s promises, and as a result prefect holiness in the fear of God, if not by faith (2 Cor. 7:1)? How are we to walk by the Spirit, if not by faith (Gal. 5:16)? Paul wrote, “For we walk [live our lives habitually] by faith not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). How are we to take up and put on the whole armor of God if not by faith (Eph. 6:11)? How can a person “joyfully accept the plundering of his goods, knowing that he has a better and enduring possession for himself in heaven,” if not by faith
(Heb. 10:34)?

To couch this issue in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh (Gal. 3:3)? Of course, someone will object that the Apostle was talking in these words about justification, not about sanctification. Our answer is that these two are inextricably joined. If a person seeks to be sanctified by the flesh, the overwhelming evidence is that he has never been justified. Faith is not a one time decision, but an ongoing experience. To the Colossians Paul wrote, “As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him” (Col. 2:6). Whatever else this verse may teach, it should be clear that if we began by trusting God’s Anointed one, we must continue to live habitually in the same manner. J. C. Ryle wrote,

(3) For another thing, if we would be sanctified, our course is clear and plain—we must begin with Christ. We must go to Him as sinners, with no plea but that of utter need, and cast our souls on Him by faith for peace and reconciliation with God. We must place ourselves in His hands, as in the hands of a good physician and cry to him for mercy and grace. We must wait for nothing to bring with us as a recommendation. The very first step towards sanctification, no less than justification, is to come with faith to Christ. We must first live and then work.

(4) For another thing, if we would grow in holiness and become more sanctified, we must continually go on as we began, and ever be making fresh applications to Christ. He is the head from which every member must be supplied (Ephes. iv.16.) To live the life of daily faith in the Son of God, and to be daily drawing out of His fulness the promised grace and strength which He has laid up for His people—this is the grand secret of progressive sanctification.

In Galatians 2:20, Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; [that is, because of my union with him, I died when he died ] it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

He tells us he lives the life he now lives by faith in the Son of God [or if we take the genitive as a subjective genitive–by the faithfulness of Christ]. Either way, he indicates his life in the sanctification process is dependent on Christ, who loved him and gave himself for his. It seems not to matter to the apostle how long he has walked in grace, he never ventures far from the cross.

Some would suggest Paul was not writing about sanctification at all but about justification since in the context of this verse he is discussing justification. There are at least three reasons for rejecting this suggestion. First, it is difficult to imagine how anyone could think “the life I now live in the flesh” could be a reference a past declaration. It is true, the genuine believer does not lose his believing attachment to Christ and his confidence that he is right in God’s sight through the one who has given up his life for him. True believers never get over their justification. Still, what is now occurring in the believer’s life, is not justification but sanctification. Second, though the immediate context concerns the doctrine of justification, that is not its exclusive concern. In the immediately preceding verse, Paul wrote, “For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God.” Though others have taken a different view of this verse, I believe Paul is saying that since the penalty of the law was exacted on his substitute in whose death he died to the law, he is now free to live to God. Whatever view we may take of the verse, it is clear that the result regards Paul’s post conversion life, namely, his sanctification.

John Brown wrote,

By the law having had its full course so as to be glorified in the obedience to death of Him in whom I am, I am completely delivered from the law. The law has no more to do with me, and I have no more to do with it in the matter of justification. And this freedom from the law is at once necessary and effectual to my living a truly holy life—a life devoted to God,’ (Italics mine). What follows is explanatory of this thought, which was ever present to the mind of the apostle—`I consider myself as identified with the Lord Jesus Christ.’ “I am crucified with Christ.” I view myself as so connected with Christ, as that when he was crucified I was, as it were, crucified; and I am as much interested in the effects of that crucifixion as if I had undergone it myself. He, in being crucified, endured the curse, and I in Him endured it; so that I am redeemed from the law and its curse, He having become a curse for me.

Finally, the idea that Paul could not have been writing about sanctification is largely tied to the idea that the theme of this epistle is justification by faith. Though it is clear that this doctrine occupies an important place in this epistle, this theme is not sufficiently broad to encompass then entire epistle. It is generally accepted that the issue Paul was concerned about was the Judiazer’s insistence that Gentile believers be circumcised. The issue, then, concerns whether the law covenant continues or has been fulfilled and superseded by the New Covenant. The question seems to have concerned the evidence of saving faith. According to the Judaizers, faith in Christ was necessary, but if a person truly had faith, he would evidence it by compliance with the Old Covenant rite of circumcision. Paul argued that if a person submitted to the rite of circumcision, he was a debtor to keep the whole law. This would place the issue in the category of sanctification. Must a Gentile believer prove the reality of his faith by submitting to a covenant that was never intended for Gentiles? More specifically in this epistle, the question is whether Gentiles must be brought under the covenant that belonged to Abraham’s physical seed in order to receive the spiritual blessings promised to Abraham. Paul’s argument in Galatians three runs like this:

(1) Abraham’s seed will be blessed (vv.8,16),

(2) Christ is Abraham’s “seed” (v.16),

(3) You are “in Christ” (v.28),

(4) You are “Abraham’s seed” (v.29a)

(5) You are “heirs according to the promise” (29b).

Central to this argument is the believer’s union with Christ. Believers, Jews and Gentiles alike, receive the blessings promised to Abraham, not because they have basically embraced Judaism, but because they are in Christ. This union concerns not only the believer’s justification but also his sanctification, and it is by faith that we are united with Christ.

The possibility exists that those who have professed faith in Christ alone for justification may again retreat to their legalistic strongholds in which they persist in going about to establish their own righteousness. If there are any left on the planet who remember some of the older hymns, they will remember a line in one of them that reads, :”I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name” There have been many who, though professing faith in Christ alone, have lived on their frames of mind, at times feeling accepted because of how they felt toward God and at times feeling rejected. What they needed was to get a firm grasp on how God feels toward them in Christ since that is in the final analysis what truly matters.

Spiritually, we human beings tend to be “do-it-yourself-ers.” It seems to be our nature to gravitate toward self-help programs. I believe it is for that reason even those who have professed faith in Christ need to be cautioned against the danger of trusting in the evidences of faith rather than the object of faith. This is not to say that the truly justified need to “maintain their justification.” If we have been justified, nothing can alter that divine declaration. Instead, it is that those who have once trusted in Christ alone for justification will go on trusting him alone for justification.

In the process of sanctification, the Scriptures call on us to strive, obey, mortify our sins, etc, but these acts of obedience are never to be thought of as forming any part of the basis of our right standing before God. If we begin to think of them in that way, we are guilty of becoming legalistic in our thinking and are in danger of condemnation. It was in this vein that Paul, the apostle, wrote to professing Christians, “if you are circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing.” Can a circumcised man get into heaven? I certainly hope so. Will any who, for their justification before God, trust, even slightly, in the reception of that rite be justified in God’s sight? Not a single one!

It is for this reason that we must be sanctified by faith. We must remind ourselves that God does not continue to smile on us judicially because we are so good, but because Christ is so good. Later, we will consider the question whether it is possible to be more or less pleasing to God in our relationship to him as our Father. Even in that relationship, we will find that all must be done by faith.

I ask then, is sanctification by faith or my mere obedience to Christ’s commands. Let me repeat, I am not questioning whether the sanctification process involves the believer’s obedience. Of course it does! My question is whether a so-called obedience that is not born of faith is what pleases God in the process of sanctification?

Sanctification by faith alone?

Are believers sanctified by faith alone in the same way we are justified by faith alone. Of course not! God has declared us righteous in his sight because he has imputed to us a righteousness which is not ours. In sanctification, he imparts grace to us, enabling us to produce a righteousness that is ours. In sanctification we are becoming what he declared us to be in justification. There is no true sanctification that does not employ the believer’s activity and obedience. That said, there may be an “obedience” that does not flow from a heart filled and overflowing with love for Christ, an overwhelming sense of gratitude for Christ’s redeeming work, or an eye to the promises of God, that is not sanctifying at all. I would never depreciate the believer’s responsibility to obey Christ’s commands, but biblical obedience is not merely a grit your teeth, grin and bear it knuckling under to Christ’s authority. True obedience is prompted by faith and hope and love.

Sanctification Alone By Faith

Perhaps we could say we are not sanctified by faith alone but we are sanctified alone [only] by faith. By this I mean any obedience that does not spring from faith is not the kind of obedience God desires.

Jesus told his disciples they could produce no spiritual fruit whatsoever apart from or severed from him (John 15:4-5). It was their responsibility to “abide” in him. But, what does it mean to abide in him? This term has often been used in a nebulous, mystical, ethereal sense that no one really seemed to be able accurately to define. But, it sounds so spiritual, doesn’t it? It helps to understand that the word translated “abide” simply means to remain. Jesus is telling them that they have a responsibility to remain in him? Someone is bound to ask, is not our continued union with Christ a sure thing? Is it not certain that if we have been once saved, we will be always saved no matter what? Dr. Lloyd-Jones once answered this question as follows, “Yes, but not when you put it like that.” This is like saying, “All God’s elect will be saved, no matter what they do.” Will all God’s elect be saved? Yes! Will they be saved if they do not believe the gospel? Never! It is the phrase, “no matter what they do” that is the problem. It is certain that God will enable them to believe and save them through faith in Christ. Once saved, you will always be saved, but you must be once saved to be always saved. Additionally, it is the character of the redeemed and regenerate people of God that they will persevere in faith and obedience to the end. Not only that, we need to understand that the certainty of our perseverance does not relieve us of the responsibility to persevere. It is that responsibility Jesus is emphasizing when he says, “Remain in me.”

Our responsibility to remain in Christ has at least three elements:

First, it is a heartfelt acknowledgment that just as a branch has no life in itself, we have no life in ourselves. If our concept of sanctification is that God has, in the work of regeneration, given us all that we need for a life of holiness apart from his continual prompting and assistance, we have badly misunderstood the Bible’s teaching. In regeneration, God implants a new governing principle in our souls, but he does not thereby enable us to will and act for his pleasure apart from his continual work in us. Apart from our vital union with Christ, we have no spiritual life at all. John Murray wrote,

We may not think of the Spirit as operative in us apart from the risen and glorified Christ. The sanctifying process is not only dependent upon the death and resurrection of Christ in its initiation; it is also dependent upon the death and resurrection of Christ in its continuance. It is by the efficacy and virtue which proceed from the exalted Lord that sanctification is carried on, and such virtue belongs to the exalted Lord by reason of his death and resurrection. It is by the Spirit that this virtue is communicated.

Second, it involves a growing consciousness of our inability to produce spiritual fruit on our own. Not only do we have no life in ourselves apart from his life; we have no spiritual ability apart from the ability he gives us. For that reason, we should never become proud of our progress in sanctification or of the spiritual fruit we have born since we know it is the fruit of the Spirit, not of our own efforts

Third, it involves a conscious, continued dependence on Christ to enable us to obey. If we have been united to him by faith, it is by faith that union is to continue. Jesus’ life on earth was one of constant dependence on his Father. In fact, Satan’s temptation consisted in the insidious suggestion that he act independently of the Father. That same temptation comes to us as we engage in the process of sanctification. If we are always aware that severed from him, we can do nothing, he will lead us to trust him for a positive result in the sanctification process.

Professor John Murray wrote,

It is imperative that we realize our complete dependence upon the Holy Spirit. We must not forget, of course, that our activity is enlisted to the fullest extent in the process of sanctification. But we must not rely on our upon our own strength of resolution or purpose. It is when we are weak that we are strong. It is by grace that we are being saved as surely as by grace we have been saved. If we are not keenly sensitive to our own helplessness, then we can make the use of the means of sanctification the minister of self-righteousness and pride and thus defeat the end of sanctification. We must rely not upon the means of sanctification but upon the God of all grace. Self-confident moralism promotes pride, and sanctification promotes humility and contrition.

If we have been united to him by faith, it must be by faith that union is to continue. The evidence that we remain in him is the transformation of our lives in conformity to his image. Or, to put it in terms of Jesus’ vineyard parable, the evidence that we remain in him is that we will bear much fruit.

Robert Traill wrote,

And simple as the old remedy for thirst may appear, it is the root of the inward life of all God’s greatest servants in all ages. What have the saints and martyrs been in every era of Church history, but men who came to Christ daily by faith, and found “His flesh meat indeed and His blood drink indeed?” (John vi. 55.) What have they all been but men who lived the life of faith in the Son of God, and drank daily out of the fulness there is in Him? (Gal. ii. 20.) Here, at all events, the truest and best Christians, who have made a mark on the world, have been of one mind. Holy Fathers and Reformers, holy Anglican divines and Puritans, holy Episcopalians and Nonconformists, have all in their best moments borne uniform testimony to the value of the Fountain of life. Separated and contentious as they may sometimes have been in their lives, in their deaths they have not been divided. In their last struggle with the king of terrors they have simply clung to the cross of Christ, . . . .


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