Sanctification: myths and truths

Australian Presbyterian, Winter 2015, published as Wholly Holy: Sanctification is our blessed freedom and duty

I searched for ‘sanctification’ in my Bible program. Not one hit came back. Excellent, I thought. I am let off the hook. I’ve got my ticket to heaven, and now I can live however I want.

Do we think that ‘the Gospel’ is only justification and forgiveness? We gladly sing about Christ and His Cross. That good news saves, and we like seeing people added to the Church. However, sanctification is not such good news. We picture dowdy, Puritanical types preaching what not to do. It puts people off Church. We mightn’t sing so loudly about holiness.

What is sanctification? Is it a Gospel issue? Is it even important? Let’s clear up some misconceptions first.

Misconception #1: Sanctification is the ‘do nots’. Don’t drink. Don’t steal. Christianity is all stop signs. Clearly, there are things that Christians should not do. E.g. ‘Do not sit in the seat of the scornful’ (Ps 1:1). Don’t let every voice into your head. However, is there nothing higher than ‘do not’? Are there any green lights?

Misconception #2: Sanctification is ministry, or doing things. Instead of ‘do nots’, we become ‘do nuts’. Some cultures are intellectual (the ancient Greeks). Others are about character and morality (Victorian Britain). Our culture is pragmatic, and wants to get things done (like the ancient Romans). As long as I am plugged into my church’s programmes, then my heart condition and how I treat people don’t matter. Some will say to Jesus, ‘Did we not prophecy in your name’, and He will say to them, ‘Depart from me, I never knew you’ (Matt 7:22–23).

Misconception #3: Sanctification is a feeling. It is about me feeling pious and holy—like a Buddhist monk. People who feel holy just have a bad memory. They don’t see themselves properly. ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?’ (Jer 17:9). The ‘feeling’ of holiness should be the feeling of smallness.

Misconception #4: Sanctification is an optional extra. Salvation is what God does—Christ saved me by His Cross—and it doesn’t matter how I live. This would be a tragic mistake. God cares about how you live your life. He struck Ananias and Sapphira dead because they lied to Peter (Acts 5). The Corinthians thought ‘everything is permissible’, but some died, because they mistreated the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:30). ‘Without holiness, no-one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). Your God insists on your co-operation in the sanctification programme.

We could continue countering misconceptions, but what is sanctification? My Bible program didn’t have ‘sanctification’. However, it has ‘sanctify’, ‘sanctified’, ‘sanctifying’. Most translations use ‘sanctification’, too. It’s from a Latin word meaning, ‘holiness’. As a theological term, it is a catchall for everything Scripture says about separation from sin and devotion to God. Sanctification is everywhere in the Bible, from cover to cover.

Concept #1: Sanctification is loving God—loving His being, tri-unity, will and works. This love produces actions, but is seated inwardly (i.e. it is real love). Sanctification is holiness, holiness in the Bible is otherness, and there is nothing more ‘other’ than being caught up into and enraptured with God. The key verse of the OT: ‘love the Lord your God’ (Deut 6:4).

Concept #2: Sanctification is calmness in life. I am caught up with God, so I rest calmly and securely in His being, tri-unity, will and works. I am satisfied with who He is, His plan for my life, and His salvation. I am not alarmed by this world’s events. God Himself rests happily in His own being, triune relationships, will and works (He is ‘impassible’). He isn’t overwhelmed by events. He is the ‘blessed/happy and only Potentate’ (1 Tim 6:15). I share in His contentment. I enter His rest. Mind you, I still weep, as Jesus wept; yet, paradoxically, ‘Fear not’ (Isa 41:10).

Concept #3: Sanctification is repentance. John Calvin explained this clearly. Repentance is not ‘confessing sin’, but is a change of mind with regard to sin and righteousness. The whole of sanctification—the whole Christian life—is the ongoing battle to choose which way you will go. Will you tear down the old structures of sin, and build new structures of righteousness (Eph 4:20–24; Col 3:9–10)? Get a new mind on the matter.

Concept #4: Sanctification is law-keeping. Christians have a love-hate relationship with the law. Some love it; others hate it. The Reformers and their successors loved God’s law (the moral law, the Ten Commandments; not the defunct, ceremonial law). They believed that the law gives legs to love. Somewhere in the 19th–20th centuries, our affection for law soured. Nowadays, a Christian can hardly say ‘law’ without causing a storm on Facebook. ‘Legalism’, is the cry.

Law-keeping is central to biblical sanctification. God’s people in both Testaments kept the law. ‘How I love your law’ (Ps 119:93). ‘He who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it”¦this one will be blessed’ (James 1:25). ‘Fulfil the law of Christ’ (Gal 6:2). Discipleship is about law-keeping: ‘the coastlands shall wait for His law’; ‘teaching them to observe all that I have commanded’ (Isa 42:4; Matt 28:20).

We don’t fear law-keeping, because we are justified in Christ. He is our righteousness. If we get that into our heads, then we will get what law-keeping is about. It’s not about merit or earning a spot in heaven. It’s about adopted children pleasing our Father. Those in union with Christ, live like Christ and for Christ.

It is ‘law’, though. It is not an optional extra. These are clearly-revealed commands, and it is God’s pleasure and to our benefit that we obey. To fail to see sanctification as law-keeping is to fail to see God as He is: a God with standards, the great King who rules and commands, a consuming fire, a God who is not mocked (Rom 6:17; Ps 47:2; Deut 4:24; Heb 12:29; Gal 6:7).

Concept #5: Sanctification is about character and conduct—about who you are and how you treat people. It is about ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’ (Gal 5:22). Mission follows, since the law says, ‘love your neighbour’ (Lev 19:18).

Much more could be said about sanctification. Scripture describes sanctification in a myriad of ways: the armour of God; white robes; covenant living; prayfulness; wisdom; worship; service; Christlikeness. Still, one more concept will suffice.

Concept #6: Sanctification is being filled with the Spirit and His Word (leaving the best point for last). It is God’s work in your soul. We persevere, but He preserves. ‘The Lord your God will circumcise your heart’ (Deut 30:6). It is Christ’s resurrection life within us.

This giving of the Spirit is part of the salvation purchased for you by Christ at the Cross (Eph 1:14; 2:8–10). It is Gospel—‘good news’! It is as astonishing as justification—and as costly. The Cross of Christ brings the double cure, freeing from sin’s guilt and power.

Thus, allow the Spirit of Christ free rein in your life. ‘Count it all joy’ when He sets you on a challenging or even distressing path (James 1:2). Embrace the whole Gospel, justification and sanctification included. Sing about what Christ has done for you, and what He continues to do in you. Take Him as Saviour and Lord. Until the day of our glorification in the next life, our song is Psalm 51: ‘Blot out my transgressions’, and ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God’.