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Sanctification: How does it work?

So, what is sanctification. I may have turned you off from reading further simply by using the word “sanctification” however, this is vitally important to understanding your relationship with Jesus Christ.
Sanctification is the process by which you became “made righteous”.
That was an awkward way of saying it, but you’ll see why I say “by which you became ‘made righteous’.

Firstly, what is sanctification. The word “Hagiasmos” literally means “to be made holy”. Notice a few things about this word. It is passive, meaning the action is not by the thing or person being made Holy, but the verb is passive, meaning that the one who is acting to make something Holy is other than the subject. To make this clearer, the subject is not the one who makes itself Holy, but something outside the subject, makes it Holy. “Hagiasmos” does not mean “to makes ones self holy” it means “to be made holy”.
So, sanctification is a supernatural process by which we are made Holy. We can’t make ourselves Holy.
The first thing we have to accept in this, then, is that we are not Holy, or that we have spent time as unholy, to the point where we needed to be made Holy. If we could be Holy by ourselves and by our own will and actions, then there would be no need for sanctification. Unfortunately, that is not how it works. We are unholy because of our sin.
Paul says that we are dead in our transgressions, so the question has to be asked; “What can a dead person do?”. Well… nothing, the only way for a dead person to be made alive again is for someone else to charge up the defibrillators and press the button to shock them back into life. Have you ever seen a dead person use defibulators on themselves? A dead person cannot do that themselves.

A good example of this comes in 2 Corinthians 3:18 where it states that we are “being transformed into his image”. Notice again, the verb is passive, otherwise it would say; “you are transforming yourself into his image”. The verb is also imperfect, which indicates an ongoing action. You are “being” transformed means that this is a process.

So, what does this process look like.

In John 16:8 Jesus says that when the Holy Spirit comes, he will convict the world of sin. So, the process starts with recognizing that we are sinful. The Spirit convicts us through the law that we have been sinners. Without this understanding we can’t possibly see our need for a saviour. We have this Godly sorrow for our sins, we realize that our sins are sins and we hate that we have sinned against God. Suddenly we are concerned about our sin, whereas before this conviction sin seemed natural, now sin is revealed to be what it is…sin. And this sorrow produces conviction, and this conviction, leads us to, turn from our sins, it leads us to repent and to admit our need for a saviour (2 Corinthians 7:10).

But this isn’t something that is a dry thought process, there is something greater at work. The holy Spirit who convicts is active throughout all of this. This leads to rebirth, to be born of the Spirit and Spiritual baptism. Water baptism is different, water baptism is a conscious act that we do whereby we, display an outward symbol or emblem of what is happening spiritually inwardly. Baptism itself cannot save us. But the Spiritual rebirth is not a physical birth but a supernatural one. In this process the old is gone and we become a new creation in Christ. Notice, when we read that we become a new creation in Christ the old “has” gone, and the new “has” come. It does not say that the old “maybe gone” and the new “may” come, the verbs are definite. This is a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, we can’t be born again, unless we are born of the Holy Spirit, and this birthing process is a spiritual one by which the Holy Spirit transforms us into a new creation.

What does this look like? Well, it is a change in direction (as per the definition of repentance). No longer do we see sin as an option, but now, by the renewing of our minds, we are different. We begin to hate our sin. We take the position of Romans 7 and we see our true state that we are “wretches” because of our sin in need of a saviour. We now no longer live for ourselves but for Christ and we begin to deny ourselves and to seek the things above where he is seated. This does not happen naturally. I mean, really, why would it? We by nature are selfish. If we could live by our own will and satisfy the flesh, why wouldn’t we?

When we are reborn we are not reborn as a better version of our old self. In Galatians 2:20 we read that Paul says that he has been crucified, which is an acknowledgement that the old has gone, his life in the flesh is now dead. Now that he is dead, he has been brought back to life no longer living as himself, but now it is not he that lives but Christ that lives in him.

All this being said, there is a very important aspect of this that we have to consider, which is that this process of sanctification is a process that concludes only when we reach perfection. 1 Corinthians 15:53 tells us that at present our bodies are corruptible, but that we will, at the bodily resurrection put on an incorruptible body. Were not there yet. So, our bodies are still subject to sin and the sin that is around us including temptation. We also look at Romans 7, which is Paul’s confession of sin and when we read that, Paul is using the present tense, he is not saying I used to struggle with sin, but says, what a wretched man am I, where the verb is present tense, not “what a wretched man was I”. We also see that Peter was wrong, and he sinned by showing favouritism, even as a believer.

In Romans 7 Paul talks about a battle that is waging in his mind. Before we are born again, no battle takes place, we are simply slaves and captives of sin. Our hearts are sin’s secure territory. We are comfortable in our captivity because we know nothing else. However, as Paul says, when the Law and the Spirit are given to us, and we have conviction and repentance, that territory is no longer secure, Jesus and his righteousness is an army that is making steady advances into this territory with an aim and purpose to set us free and to keep us free. All the while the devil will attack from time to time, and we may be wounded, but in this process of sanctification, if we remain in the faith, we only grow stronger and we will not suffer a fatal wound. Paul says he is running a race, though he hasn’t achieved the reward yet, he runs, nevertheless, putting behind what is behind and looking forward to the glory that will be revealed.

In this passage, Paul, in Philippians 3, uses the analogy of a race, and Paul will win this race to receive the prize that awaits him in heaven. Notice, however, what Paul says about this. He does not say he will win the race because of how fast he runs or because of how strong he is, no, he says that he will win the race because he set’s his eyes on the prize, looking forward to that which he is being called heavenward. Paul is not talking about winning the race by his own skill and works but winning the race by faith. You see, sanctification is not so much about our works but about our mind set. The major aspect of sanctification is repentance, which literally means to turn. It is not simply about getting us to change our actions, but to change our focus. This will inevitably change our actions, but the real work of sanctification is not to get us simply to stop doing bad things, but to get us to put our faith, not in ourselves, but in Christ.

This process will be evidenced by works; works are the fruit of this process. For example, if I truly have faith in Jesus, I will abstain from all forms of Idolatry. If I truly have faith in Jesus and the promise of eternal life I will have contentment with what I have and I will understand that “his grace is sufficient for me” therefore I will be less likely to have jealousy, greed, lust, or envy. If I have faith in his grace it will mean that I understand grace and will be less likely to have hatred, favouritism, or unrighteous anger. This is explained in Galatians 5 in the explanation of the fruit of the spirit, if we are of the spirit we will bear fruit of that which is growing up inside of us, peace, patience, kindness, love, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is not the fruit of us, but the fruit of the Holy Spirit welling up inside of us. If an oak true wants to bear grapes, no matter how hard it tries, no matter how much it thinks about grapes, it will never be able to bear grapes, unless it is somehow remade into a grape vine. So it is with us, we cannot bear fruit without first being born of the Spirit, without first having been given salvation by Grace through faith.

So then what happens in the end. Well, the reason for sanctification, is because God is holy, and we cannot spend eternity with him unless we are holy. Zechariah 3 gives us a good analogy when Joshua is standing before God in filthy rags. The filth represents sin, and the devil is there to accuse him of that sin. Instead, of condemning him and agreeing with the accuser, the devil, God commands that his filthy garments be replaced by clean ones, whereby Joshua, despite his once filthy rags, is now made clean, he is not made Holy.

This process of being made Holy allows us entrance into his presence. Those without this will face judgment before God, and without grace through faith, they will remain in their filthy garments and will be judged accordingly. For us, those who profess Christ, when we appear before God, according to Col. 3 we will appear in the name of Jesus. It will be as if we say when we get to heaven, “I’m with Jesus” and we gain entrance, not based on our name, but on his. So, simply saying “I’m with Jesus” doesn’t necessarily get us into God’s eternal presence. According to 2 Corinthians 5, we must appear before the judgement seat of Christ. Jesus says that not everyone “who calls me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven”. There will be some according to Jesus who will say “I’m with Jesus” in order to gain access to heaven, but Jesus will say “depart from me for I never knew you” to those who say the words but have had no inward change. It is here, before the judgement seat of Christ that our faith will be examined, and it will be examined by our works. Now again, you can’t get to that point without faith, if you go before Jesus and you say, “I’m here because I’m a good person”, then it was not faith in Jesus that you had but faith in yourself. However, as James says, faith without works is dead. Just the same that if you are a body and you want to prove that you are alive, then it is your heartbeat that will show that you are alive. Your heartbeat doesn’t make you exist, but your heartbeat is evidence that you exist. At the judgement seat of Christ your works are the heartbeat of your faith. At the judgement seat of Christ your actions will be judged to see if you were in the faith, and for those who were saved by grace through faith, the judgement seat of Christ is actually an awards ceremony. For those who displayed no spiritual inward change, no being born again, no sanctification, he will say “depart from me for I never knew you”.

The constant through all of this is faith. Is to trust in the Lord for our salvation and not ourselves.

About the author

Erik Liljegren

Erik Liljegren

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