“Q. 35. What is sanctification?
- Sanctification is 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 unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”
Catechism refers to teaching someone in a systematic and orderly manner, usually set in the format of questions followed by answers. It serves as a helpful tool to teach a set of doctrinal standards used by many churches around the world. While it is by no means held to the same standard as God’s infallible Word, it serves its purpose of giving to us an apt and faithful description of the work of sanctification. Sanctification is a biblical term used throughout the New Testament.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:23 uses this word to describe the work of God in keeping us blameless at the second coming of Christ.
- John 17:17, in Jesus’ high priestly prayer, he prays that we will be sanctified in the truth which is God’s word.
- 1 Thessalonians 4:3 describes sanctification as God’s will for us.
And when not explicitly stated, the process of sanctification is described for us.
- 2 Timothy 2:21 promises that if we are to cleanse ourselves of the dishonorable, we shall be set apart as holy to be used by God.
- Galatians 2:20 is a statement by the Apostle Paul that he has been crucified with Christ in his old life and raised with Christ in new life. This analogy of dying to the old self and of being given spiritual life is a prominent one.
- Romans 6 is one of my favorite passages and begins with a series of rhetorical questions by Paul all made to describe the fact that Christians can now walk in newness of life.
This work is of God’s free grace and is the process of being made more and more like Christ. It is neither human self-reliance nor passive reliance on God (cf. 2 Corinthians 7:1, Philippians 3:10-14). Yet there seems to be a dichotomy in here. Sanctification is God’s work yet we are also called to cleanse ourselves in 2 Timothy 2:21. While some may try to reconcile the two by saying that sanctification is partially man’s work and partially God’s, I don’t see that as faithful to the scriptures. Rather it would be more accurate to say it is human responsibility dependent upon God; that while there is human action in sanctification the work is all God’s gift of grace.
Sanctification is ongoing. It is seen in the sinner’s daily struggle against sin yet also dependent on God working in us. Without God, this struggle would be meaningless. We would get nowhere. Without such a divine enablement, we would only achieve an outward appearance of holiness rather than an inward holiness as Jesus says when he rebukes the Pharisees in Matthew 23:26.
What then should be our role in santification?
First, we should abide in Christ. Ask for his help daily. And know with certainty that “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). It is an easy truth to understand but a hard one to obey.
Second, realize that sanctification is a group effort. God has placed individuals in local churches in order to grow in holiness together. We come together on Sundays to sing praises, be fed through preaching, and mutually encourage and challenge each other. Yes we are called to enter our “prayer closets” where no one can see us as we personally commune with God but we are also called to pray together. We see this in the New Testament church, most notably in Acts 2. Consider letters to churches calling out false teaching such as the letter to the church of Pergamum in Revelation 2. John commends them for their steadfastness even in a city where idolatry runs rampant. Yet he calls the entire church to repent because of false teaching, not just pointing fingers at certain individuals. With this we realize that those in the local church are responsible for each other.
The church of Pergamum was filled with false teachers, so it is not a direct analogy. Our churches today are filled with spiritually immature Christians. We can extrapolate this principle of churches looking after their own to an application in the growth of holiness. Realize that your spiritual growth affects more than just you, but those around you. More than that, we should help younger Christians to grow. Encourage them. Challenge them. Disciple them.
“But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
(Hebrews 3:13 ESV)