#WCSK Episode 2.9b: Sanctification (The Christian Walk)

Picking up from last week …

Sanctification is active not passive

I mentioned previously that sanctification is cooperative, meaning that neither does God do all the work while we sit back and watch nor do we labor while The Lord supervises. The cooperative part of sanctification means that after God enables and empowers us to respond to Him in faith by regeneration, we then play an active role in our pursuit of holiness.

This helps to explain why Jesus can command us to “seek first” the kingdom of God in Matthew 6:33. Seeking, of course, involves individual action, just like the example of the woman who eagerly seeks to find a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10). In fact, when Jesus commands us to seek first the kingdom and righteousness in Matthew 6:33, the word first does not merely imply ordering of sequential activity but rather carries a force of priority as in “seek, above all else.”[1]

Playing an active role, or becoming sanctified, can begin with one simple task: reading the Bible and meditating on the Word of God.[2] Why? Because if we want to be like Christ, then we have to know who He is and what He desires of us. Subsequently, the Holy Spirit inspires us through Scripture, illuminates the Word to us, and then applies that truth to our lives.[3] Of course, the central character of the Bible is Jesus, and the book is filled with God’s mandates on how to live (e.g., the Ten Commandments[4]), His moral prescriptions (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount[5]), and how to praise Him (the Psalms). If we go back to the Tabernacle, sanctification is analogous to the continual, repeated process of washing in the waters of the bronze laver that not only cleanses us but also forces us to look at ourselves in the reflective washbasin. The Word of God is a mirror[6] and the objective standard that we use to gauge ourselves. So, in the Tabernacle, after the priest washes in the laver, what comes next? He would walk into the tent, a place of fellowship, praise and worship, and illumination by the light of the Spirit. By practical extension, our sanctification begins with the Word, and that incremental, day-by-day familiarity with Christ extends into, for example, prayer,[7] worship,[8] witnessing,[9] fellowship with other believers,[10] self-regulation,[11] submission to God,[12] sacrifice,[13] godliness and holiness,[14] abstinence from immorality,[15] shunning immorality,[16] purification,[17] and obedience.[18] The Bible makes it clear that sanctification involves a renewed mind[19] and a renewed heart.[20]

It must be mentioned that as we grow in Jesus, we will be convicted of the truth and therefore begin to change how we think and behave. But, if we begin to value the external rules that we obey at the expense of other people, then we have missed the point. Caring for rules without caring for people is Phariseeism, an erroneous and flawed type of righteousness that can be equated to hypocrisy. Explicitly, Jesus warned us all to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.[21] Sanctification means striving above and beyond Phariseeism.[22] The biggest danger of Phariseeism is spiritual pride: One can obey so many external rules that they begin to say, “Look what I can do!” and look down on those who can’t “do” as much. Such a dynamic may have even fooled the Pharisees. Of course, this misses the point that external behavior not grounded in a deep, inward change is not a marker of a Christ-centered life. You don’t even need God to follow a bunch of rules. You just need willpower.

Barriers to sanctification

The fact is that the normal Christian experience is one of struggle. The reason why is because of a continual assault resulting from the battle inside (the flesh), the battle outside (the world), and the supernatural battle (the devil). All of these opponents are formidable, and the process of sanctification involves increasing triumphs over these foes. 

This is much easier said than done, because we are not engaged in a fair fight at all. Our fleshy or carnal nature is a component of a fallen world, the prince of which is the devil.[23]

The flesh. Biblically speaking, flesh means more than our physical flesh but also includes our fallen, sinful nature. In Galatians 5:16-21, Paul describes an ongoing battle between our flesh and the Spirit. Hence, there is a conflict between what the Spirit desires (sanctification) and what our fallen corruption desires (sin). So, while the Scriptures tell Christians that they are a new creation[24] and that their old nature is crucified with Christ,[25] they are still in a perpetual state of war with themselves. The inner self, which is in agreement with God’s Law, battles against the flesh, which attacks your mind in an attempt to enslave you to sin.[26] The good news is that a Spirit-filled life empowers us to be victorious over our old nature,[27] and as R.C. Sproul has written, “while the old nature may be declared dead, we are not altogether free of it. We still carry around that old nature of wretchedness with us. It is as though that corpse does not know that is has died.”[28]

The world. The world wants us to be one with it, but the Bible calls on us to not conform to the world.[29] Hence, what is “fashionable” with the world is often not fashionable with God.

To gain the world and its approval means absolutely nothing, because that temporal gain has no eternal value.[30] Just like in the Tabernacle, we are in the world but not of it. While in the world, we adhere not to secular standards, but Biblical standards of holiness. This is why sanctification equates to separation and thus distinction. Notice, too, that separation does not mean withdrawal. The fact that Jesus Incarnated into our reality yet was perfectly holy testifies to this actuality. Furthermore, a person who has a strong Biblical foundation and knows the truth is in many ways less threatened by the lures of the world. This is a person who could thus be mindful of philosophy[31] yet see the fraudulent nature of that philosophy and then allow the light of truth to shine brightly in a world shrouded in obscurity.[32]

The devil. Getting in depth here essentially entails speaking about spiritual warfare. To make matters simple, I will say that the key take-home point is that our battles are not fought against flesh and blood[33] but against a very subtle, crafty,[34] deceptive enemy who can often appear as an angel of light,[35] yet who is also a roaring lion.[36] Lucifer primarily uses temptation and accusation to respectively entice us to sin and hinder us from seeking God. As was discussed in the chapter on repentance, the devil accuses us so that we are burdened by guilt and emotionally paralyzed. So, the only legitimate cure for guilt is the forgiveness of God. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin so that we may genuinely repent and obtain forgiveness from The Lord.

It is crucial neither to dismiss the devil as insignificant nor to think he’s in charge, because he is not. The spiritual realm is not dualistic. There is no yin and yang. There is no dark side that is in balance with the light. The devil is subordinate to God. So, where God’s Spirit is, there is liberty.[37] What this means for the sanctified life of a Christian is simple: You are no match for the devil, but the devil is no match for Jesus.

The flesh, the world, and the devil all have a common goal: sin, which leads to death. Living the sanctified life never means accommodating sin or encouraging it. The sanctified life means resisting temptation and sin. Incrementally, it means becoming more confident in God’s acceptance of us, not because of our own merit but because of Christ’s righteousness.

What makes the forgiveness of God so powerful is that while He doesn’t forget, He forgets. That is, because God is omniscient (all-knowing), His memory of our sin never actually disappears into thin air. So, He doesn’t forget. Yet, in spite of what we have done wrong, He doesn’t hold that against us in a relational sense when we confess and ask for forgiveness. Hence, He forgets. This is a beautiful realization and can only be possible because of genuine love.

Ironically, in some cases, some Christians can serve as a barrier to the sanctification of others. Allow me to explain. We know that the devil uses the model of “accusation-separation.” That is, he accuses people of sin in order to separate them from God and ultimately lead them to destruction. The Holy Spirit uses the model of “conviction-reconciliation.” That is, God convicts people of sin in order to reconcile a broken relationship and ultimately lead them to salvation. So, when “religious” people—who may act stereotypically judgmental—accuse others and do so without a genuine intent to bring the accused closer to God, whose strategy are they imitating? Certainly, the objective standards of God never change, but in modernity, a fitting question that all believers ought to ask when it comes to helping others be productive in their sanctification is, “How will what I do bring them closer to Jesus?” Accusation for accusation’s sake may indeed expose what is wrong, but it won’t show someone else how to deal with the problem. So, in my humble opinion, whether we’re talking about issues in the social arena, the political arena, or the church, I will never advocate changing God’s Law to accommodate people. What I always advocate is changing the approach to people so that they can get to know Jesus.

Different people will receive the conviction of the Holy Spirit in many different ways and at many different times. Accordingly, sanctification is never competitive, because God is not scarce and His grace is overflowing and everlasting. Hence, we should cooperate with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, cognizant that the bar we aim for is never someone else who is less than ideal. The bar is always Jesus, who is the ideal.

What this all means

Sanctification reveals to us that there is indeed a bridge between what we believe (orthodoxy) and what we do (orthopraxy). Both are equally important. Many may know what God desires of them but fail to execute. This is what happens, for example, when a person knows that cutting down on sugar is what will enable weight loss. Yet, this knowledge remains dormant as they chug down a one-liter bottle of soda. Ideally, awareness (mind) begets action and firmly held beliefs (heart). These convictions resultantly animate behaviors, enabling the person to truly take ownership and value their knowledge. Once an idea gets settled in our hearts, it becomes the fuel we need to keep us motivated and pressing forward. So, in order to live a life pleasing to God and progress in sanctification, we have to have a solid foundation of truth to stand on. By first knowing what God requires, we can then act on that knowledge. There is never a substitute for sound doctrine.

Sanctification means much more than a quick spiritual experience and entails the often mundane, uncelebrated parts of day-to-day life. It entails struggles against a host of obstacles, temptations, darkness, and perils. In this journey, there is no guarantee of riches. There is no guarantee of overwhelming success. There is no guarantee of a mega-church. There is no guarantee that you will always be smiling and floating on cloud nine. The journey will look different for each person, and the only guarantee that we have is that Christ is by our side, and He promises to deliver us to eternal life by grace through faith. Essentially, God always finishes what He starts, and He will never abandon us in the midst of the process. As I have said before, God refuses to leave creation alone, and you are no exception.

Ultimately, what makes sanctification possible is the grace of God. God does not have to approve of all the evil we do to negate His love for us. This is why even when my son does wrong, he is still my son, and I am still his father, and I stand by him. This is why even when the prodigal son[38] abandoned his father, his father remained committed to him and rejoiced when his son returned home. Sin will always be sin, and God will always be just, but God will also always be our loving Father who freely gave to us so that we would not perish.[39]

I will conclude with the words of the apostle Paul, who writes to the believers in Rome and informs them what the marks of a true Christian are. Back then, the believers lived in a very dominant culture that touched all aspects of life, and it was very hard to separate from the “Roman way” and follow “God’s way.” Similarly, Western culture in the 21st century permeates all aspects of life, and often it can be difficult to see how culture has transposed itself on God’s counsel. Paul’s words remind us to figuratively wash in, reflect upon, and cleanse ourselves in the truth of God’s timeless Word. Romans 12:9-19 says:

“Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

 Amen to that.

Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal

 

[1] R.C. Sproul, Pleasing God (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2012), 24.

[2] Joshua 1:8-9; Psalm 1:2, 19:7-11, 119:105, 111; Matthew 4:4; John 17:17; Romans 10:17; II Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 4:12

[3] I Corinthians 2:10-11

[4] Exodus 20:1-17

[5] Matthew 5-7

[6] James 1:23

[7] John 15:17; Romans 8:26; Ephesians 6:8; Philippians 4:6; I Thessalonians 5:17

[8] Psalm 95:6; Isaiah 12:5; John 4:24; Ephesians 5:18-20

[9] Matthew 28:19-20; Ephesians 4:1

[10] Ecclesiastes 4:9-12; I Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 10:24-25; I Peter 2:5, 9

[11] Galatians 5:23; Titus 1:8

[12] Luke 22:42; Romans 6:13; Ephesians 5:21; James 4:7; Hebrews 13:17

[13] Romans 8:13, 12:1

[14] Romans 12:1-13:14; Ephesians 4:17-6:20; Philippians 4:4-9; Colossians 3:5-4:6

[15] I Thessalonians 4:3

[16] I Corinthians 6:18

[17] II Corinthians 7:1; II Peter 1:5

[18] John 14:15; I Peter 1:14; I John 5:3

[19] Romans 12:2; II Corinthians 10:5; Colossians 1:10, 3:10; Philippians 1:9, 2:13

[20] Galatians 5:22; Ephesians 4:31; I Peter 2:11; I John 2:15

[21] Luke 12:1

[22] Matthew 5:20

[23] John 12:31, 14:30; Ephesians 2:2

[24] II Corinthians 5:17

[25] Romans 6:11; Galatians 2:20

[26] Romans 7:22-25

[27] Galatians 5:16

[28] R.C. Sproul, Pleasing God (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2012), 128.

[29] Romans 12:2

[30] Matthew 6:20; 16:26

[31] Colossians 2:8

[32] Philippians 2:14-16

[33] Ephesians 6:12

[34] Genesis 3:1

[35] II Corinthians 11:14

[36] I Peter 5:8; Revelation 5:5

[37] II Corinthians 3:17

[38] See Luke 15:11-32

[39] John 3:16

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