The Grace to Live
At Redeemer, we recently finished a three-week study on the doctrine of sanctification. Sanctification is the formal theological word which describes the immediate act of a Christian being made holy through the forgiveness of sins and the transfer of Christ’s righteousness at the moment of salvation, and the progressive growth in holiness experienced by a Christian throughout their life. I taught this class, in part, because by studying sanctification more in depth over the past few years, I have become convinced it is a doctrine oft misunderstood and neglected even in Protestant, Evangelical, gospel-centered churches.
Now, before you read further, I want to be clear—I am not an expert on the doctrine of sanctification. A.W. Pink, an author whom I benefited greatly from in my own study, wrote in his book The Doctrine of Sanctification:
“Though I have been studying this subject [sanctification] off and on for upwards of twenty-five years, [I] have felt myself to be too immature and too unspiritual to write at length thereon; and even now, it is with fear and trembling.”
I am certainly nowhere close to the caliber of thinker A.W. Pink was (as though you needed convincing!), nor have I been studying this doctrine for twenty-five years. Though, Lord willing, perhaps I shall one day be able to say I have. So, why would I say anything on the subject at all, when others who far exceed my theological and intellectual capacity have been reticent?
I have been working in the field of mental health as a therapist for almost a decade. I have worked in community mental health, para-church ministry, and directly for the local church. In my experience, the most often asked question, whether implicit or explicit by those seeking counseling is this: “Will I ever change?” I hear this question when a man, through tears, asks in all seriousness whether or not it is possible to receive a medical castration because he is so pained by his continuous sexual immorality. I hear it in the desperate cry of the single mom who, overwhelmed with stress, finds herself drinking more than she ought, or in the voice of the teen who cuts themselves—creating deep and sometimes permanent scars—in an effort to make manifest the deep internal pain they feel.
To me, the doctrine of sanctification is certainly one of theological importance, but as I meet with people nearly every day who are suffering, struggling, and desperate to change, I also see the doctrine of sanctification as a source of hope for those who are weary and most in need of encouragement.
The Good News of Sanctification
Do you know the good news? If you attend a “gospel-centered” church, you might explain the gospel by speaking of our total and utter inability to come to Christ, the sovereign electing power of God, and the free gift of saving grace applied to us through the atoning work of Christ on the cross. Amen! But when you think of the gospel, do you also think of your sanctification?
Listen carefully to the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, and see if you can catch the good news he shares with them:
“And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6:11, ESV)
Did you see it? Again in Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth he shares the good news for all believers:
“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 Cor. 3:18, ESV)
How about now? Do you see the good news that is there for every believer? Rightly understood, these verses offer hope to believers who find themselves repeatedly sinning—wondering whether or not they will ever stop. Paul is writing to a church in Corinth struggling with serious problems of division, sexual immorality, theological confusion about marriage, divorce, participation in pagan religions, and the bodily resurrection of Christians. These problems are not all resolved when Paul writes to them. The Corinthians have not stopped sinning, and yet Paul tells them “…you were sanctified…” The word sanctification literally means “to make holy.” Paul is telling this church full of immoral, intoxicated, idolators that they were made holy. And the tense Paul uses to describe this holiness is in the past—“you were,” “you were,” “you were.” They were not made holy because they began acting holy (clearly!), they are holy—sanctified— because of the work of Christ on the cross to make his holiness their own.
In Paul’s second letter he says “…[you] are being transformed from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (emphasis mine).”
The good news for every saint weary and struggling with sin is that Christ did not save us and then leave us to fend for ourselves! We were sent the Holy Spirit to work in us and through us the good works which were prepared beforehand for us to accomplish (Eph. 2:10). The same God who made us alive while we were dead in our sins, has also promised we are sanctified (holy) and we will be sanctified (1 Thess. 5:23-24).
If you are a Christian, and you are wondering “will I ever change?” Rest assured, God has not forgotten you. He will continue working through you for His good pleasure all the days of your life. Charles Spurgeon said it this way:
“If He gives you the grace to make you believe, He will give you the grace to live a holy life afterward.”
Christian, you are counted holy because of the work of Christ. This side of heaven you may never change in all of the ways you would like to, but you need not wonder whether or not your efforts to grow in holiness are in vain. Because it pleases the Lord to grow you in conformity to the image of his son, you will change (Phil. 2:13). Isn’t that good news?