What is sanctification? Does God do it or do we do it? What does it look like in real life?
These are questions the Christian Church has been asking ever since it’s birth, and throughout the ages many have answered these questions well and many have answered these questions poorly. In our day, it’s my opinion that we need a massive shift, a reformation in our understanding on this subject. We need this for one large reason. Most Christians view justification as something God did for us to the glory of His name while viewing sanctification as something we do for God to the glory of His name. This is simply incorrect. “The error is that while we have been justified by a righteousness produced totally by Christ, we think we must be sanctified by a righteousness produced totally by ourselves.” (Walter Marshall)
This shows itself today in many ways. One only has to go a Christian bookstore or the Christian section of a larger bookstore to see that multiple volumes of books have been written the disciplines of the Christian life and discipleship. And as good as these books can be for us most of them largely have one giant glaring omission. They never mention the gospel or our union with Christ at all. So we now have a doctrine of sanctification that largely says: ‘Yes God’s grace has saved you, but your effort will now make you holy.’ Or ‘Yes God’s grace has saved you, but the rest is up to you.’ Or even, ‘Yes God’s grace has saved you, but if you really want God to be happy with you, you must live a good life.’ This is nothing but tyranny and oppression, a return to living under the law and not under grace.
There are many ways we could approach this subject, but I think it’s best to start back at the very beginning. So first I want to clarify the difference between justification and sanctification today, then move onto the gospel nature of sanctification on Wednesday, and finally end with the Holy Spirit’s work in sanctification on Friday.
Justification vs. Sanctification
In question #33 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism justification is defined as “an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” Contrast this with question #35 where the Catechism defines sanctification as “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 to sin, and live to righteousness.”
Note that in both of these definitions we see God’s free grace being given to undeserving sinners. The difference comes when we see that justification is a one time act of God’s free grace in man, while sanctification is the ongoing work of God’s free grace in man. In justification, because of the righteousness of Christ being imputed or accounted as our own by faith, God truly has declared us to be what we’re not – righteous. In sanctification, we see God’s work within us to make us into what He’s already declared us to be – righteous.
Even here we see the glory of the gospel in that our justification doesn’t depend on our sanctification. Or to say it another way, our acceptance with God doesn’t depend on our performance in the Christian life. We’ve already been justified, made right, and accepted by God and from that secure position God begins to grow us more and more into the image of His Son. We even see a shadow of this in the Ten Commandments. Before commanding Israel to do anything, God reminds them of who they are. In Exodus 20:2 God says, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” After this clear statement of their redemption out of Egypt and their adopted and secure position with God, God then commands them to live in a new way. The same is true with us. God has finished the work of redemption through His Son and by faith in Him God saves us from the slavery of sin and adopts into His family. Then, once we know of the security of our new state as sons and daughters of God, God then commands us to live in a new way. So rather than true obedience to God and true growth in that obedience to God coming from our obedience to God, the truth is the other way around. True obedience to God and true growth in that obedience comes out of our identity and union with Christ. It does not come from trying to earn His favor, it comes from resting in His favor already given to us.
This is where we begin to see the gospel nature of sanctification.