Sanctification: The Christian’s Pursuit of God-Given Holiness

As you are likely familiar with, there has been a fairly large-scale discussion taking place recently within evangelicalism surrounding the doctrine of sanctification. And that’s demonstrated that there is widespread confusion about what the doctrine of sanctification is, how it relates to our justification, and how God’s role and man’s role work alongside one another.

But if there’s a doctrine that we can’t afford to be confused about, it’s the doctrine of sanctification. And I say that because it’s where we all live. We all live in between the time of our past justification and our future glorification—in the present pursuit of Christlikeness. And so we need to get this right. If we are concerned to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel (Phil 1:27), if we desire to please the Lord in all respects (Col 1:10), if it’s our ambition to put the sanctifying power of Christ on display, then we need to be clear on how we go about growing in holiness.

So over the next few days, I want to look into what Scripture has to say about these issues, with the hope that I might be able to add something helpful to the discussion, and to help us align our thoughts with the biblical teaching on the matter.

Fundamentally Internal and Supernatural

The first truth about sanctification that we need to consider is that the believer’s growth in holiness is fundamentally internal and supernatural. We see this in Philippians 2:13, where Paul tells us explicitly that God is working in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. In the process of progressive sanctification, God is working in us not just to work, but also to will. He’s working even on our desires.

And 2 Corinthians 3:18 helps us with this concept as well. In that text, Paul speaks about our sanctification as a transformation into the image of the glory of Christ. He says that as we behold the glory of the Lord, we “are being transformed into that same image.” And that word, “transformed,” is metamorphóō, which is where we get the English term “metamorphosis.” But as every Greek dictionary will tell you, this word doesn’t merely refer to the outward form. Metamorphóō describes the inner transformation of the essence of a person—an inward change in fundamental character.

Romans 12:2 is another helpful verse on this subject. Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” There, our word “transformed” is used in contrast with the term “conformed,” which refers to a change in the outward behavior. TransformedSo the contrast is clear. Paul is saying: Don’t be conformed, outwardly, such that your behavior is indistinguishable from the world. Instead be transformed, from the inside out. And even here, we see that that transformation happens by the renewing of the mind—more internal language (cf. Eph 3:16; 4:23

The point of all of this is that holiness does not simply mean bringing our outward behavior into conformity to an external standard. Hypocrites can do that. The inward transformation of the mind—which is to say the character, or the affections—will indeed work itself out in external behavior, but the transformation begins internally.

The great Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge, puts it very helpfully. He says,

“sanctification…does not consist exclusively in a series of a new kind of acts. It is the making the tree good, in order that the fruit may be good. It involves an essential change of character. [Just] as regeneration is…a new birth, a new creation, a quickening or communicating a new life,…so sanctification in its essential nature is not holy acts, but such a change in the state of the soul, that sinful acts become more infrequent, and holy acts more and more habitual and controlling” (Systematic Theology, 3:226, emphases added).

This means that the holy person doesn’t merely “do what God commands,” though he certainly does that; the holy person “loves what God loves” and then acts in keeping with that renewed heart. As God works in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure, He inclines our hearts to treasure the glory of Christ. And as we behold Him with the eyes of our heart, our minds and our affections are renewed (2 Cor 3:18; cf. Rom 12:2), so that we love Him more and love sin less. We are transformed from the inside out.

Now if this weren’t so, and sanctification were simply a matter of performing external duties, then “Nike-sanctification” would make sense. You know: Just Do It. Try harder and be better. Bear down, grit your teeth, and give it the old college try. And though that’s a bit of a caricature, many Christians conceive of sanctification in a way that isn’t substantially different than that. And what you have there is the kind of moralistic externalism that depends—not on the power of the Spirit of God working within you—but on the strength of your own willpower, whether your heart is properly engaged or not.

And so if holiness was a fundamentally external thing, that could be one way to go. But because this dynamic of transformation is a fundamentally internal and supernatural work in the heart of man, in which God progressively conforms our affections to the affections of Christ, our pursuit of holiness looks a lot different. If sanctification is fundamentally internal and supernatural, we need to realize that we can’t directly effect that internal transformation in ourselves.

A Sovereign Work of the Spirit of God

And that brings us to a second point: Sanctification is a sovereign work of the Spirit of God. Philippians 2:13 says that clearly: “…it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”

Now, this only makes sense. If true sanctification is not merely external but is fundamentally internal and supernatural, then we must be dependent upon the One who supernaturally works in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. (Which is why I believe it is not strictly accurate to say that sanctification is synergistic. See here for more on that.) That’s why, in these key texts on sanctification, you hear the passive voice being used a lot. In Romans 12:2, we are commanded—not to transform ourselves—but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. In 2 Corinthians 3:18, it doesn’t say, “Beholding, we transform ourselves,” but rather, “Beholding, we are being transformed.”

That’s why in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, Paul ascribes the entire work of sanctification to God. And similarly, in the benediction of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the author tells us that the God of peace is working in us that we might do that which is pleasing in His sight. And so theologian Louis Berkhof rightly concludes that sanctification therefore “consists fundamentally in a divine operation in the soul” (Systematic Theology, 532).

Spirit TransformsAnd the Holy Spirit is the particular member of the Trinity that takes up this cause of sanctification. As John Murray says, “it is the peculiar prerogative and function of the Holy Spirit to glorify Christ by taking of the things of Christ and showing them unto the people of God” (Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 148). He is “the Spirit of holiness” (Rom 1:4), who “sets His desire against the flesh” (Gal 5:17) and leads the believer into righteousness (Rom 8:12–14; Gal 5:16–18). The works of obedience that result from the transformation of the believer’s affections are called “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22–23). And in 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul tells us there that this whole process of transformation is “just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” And so we conclude with John Owen, that the Holy Spirit is “the efficient cause of all holiness and sanctification—quickening, enlightening, purifying the souls of his saints” (Communion with God, 2:199).

The Spirit Employs Means in Sanctifying the Believer

So, so far we’ve seen that (#1) sanctification is a fundamentally internal and supernatural work. And so it’s not something that we can accomplish directly in ourselves. Instead, (#2) sanctification is a sovereign work of the Spirit of God.

But that brings us to the famous question: if the internal and supernatural work of sanctification is properly said to be the Spirit’s work, what does the believer do? If the Holy Spirit is the agent of this great work of effecting holiness in the Christian, do we just sit back and do nothing? Are we entirely passive, dependent upon the sovereign whims of the Spirit to sanctify us as He pleases? Does it fall to us merely to “yield” and “surrender”—to “let go and let God”?

The answer to that question is: Absolutely not! As Philippians 2:12 and 13 says, it is precisely because of the sovereign work of the Spirit in us that we must pursue holiness by a diligent effort: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, because God is at work within you.” God’s work is not an excuse for us not to work; it is the very ground of our working. Peter says the same thing in 2 Peter 1. He tells us that God’s “divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3). He tells us that because of Christ’s work we have “escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust” (2 Pet 1:4). And then he says, “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue” (2 Pet 1:5). (Which is why I believe it is not strictly accurate to say that sanctification is monergistic. See here for more on that.)

And so on the one hand, sanctification is a sovereign work of the Spirit of God, and on the other hand believers are exhorted to work out our own salvation—to “pursue…the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14), to “put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom 8:13), and to “flee immorality” (1 Cor 6:18). Scripture even uses such active language as to exhort us to cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit (2 Cor 7:1).

So are we contradicting ourselves here? Do we just throw up our hands in confusion and attribute this to a divine mystery? No. I don’t believe we can afford to do that, and I don’t believe Scripture leaves us with no further light on the issue. See, while it’s unmistakable that the Spirit is the sovereign agent of sanctification, that fact in no way contradicts the reality that He effects this transformation through the use of means which the believer must appropriate.

Farmer's Labors 2So, sanctification is a fundamentally internal and supernatural work; and because of that it is a sovereign work of the Spirit of God. But, thirdly, the Holy Spirit employs means in sanctifying the believer. And sofar from being passive in the matter—so far from merely “yielding” or “surrendering”—we are to make every effort, as Peter says, to avail ourselves of the means through which the Spirit does His work.

I love the way the Scottish Puritan Henry Scougal illustrates this. He says,

“All the art and industry of man cannot form the smallest herb, or make a stalk of corn to grow in the field; it is the energy of nature, and the influences of heaven, which produce this effect; it is God ‘who causeth the grass to grow, and the herb for the service of man’ (Ps. 104:14); and yet nobody will say that the labours of the [farmer] are useless or unnecessary….” (The Life of God in the Soul of Man, 78–79).

You see, human beings can’t make grass grow. We can’t wave our hands and make the land sprout fruit and vegetables. That’s God’s work. But God has ordained that the earth yield its produce by means of the farmer’s labors. In the same way, we can’t change our own hearts to make ourselves more holy; sanctification is a supernatural, sovereign work of the Spirit of God. But God has ordained that the Spirit accomplish this glorious work through means. So when Scripture commands us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, it is commanding us to make diligent use of the means the Spirit employs in effecting our holiness. When Scripture uses a passive imperative, commanding us to have something done to us (like “be transformed”), it is commanding us to put ourselves in the way of those channels of grace that the Spirit uses to conform us to the image of Christ.

Tomorrow, we’ll spend some time looking into what Scripture has to say about five of those means of sanctification.

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