Once a month, you’re going to hear from our authors, from our team, or from a guest on how we study the Bible, what resources we use, and what questions we ask. Because we had such a great response to this post, we’ve decided to take a closer look at some commonly used theological terms, breaking down what those mean and what we learn about God from them. This month, we’re looking at the word “sanctification.”
“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. And may your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23
Too many of us live life in a rush. We hurry to get to work. We push hard through our day to get things done. We rush home to fix supper or take someone to practice or get to a community event. We’re even in a hurry in our Christian lives, rushing through a devotional time, hurrying to get to church, scampering to pull together a Bible study or spiritual event. And we want God to hurry too. We want Him to immediately deal with our issues, to take care of our requests on the spot. We want immediate knowledge and instant growth. Whew! Makes me tired. But we need to stop and realize it doesn’t work that way. Sure, the Bible speaks of our Christian life as a race (1 Cor. 9:24-27; 2 Tim. 4:7; Heb. 12:1). But it’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. When it comes to spiritual life and growth, we must take the long view. And when we look through the long view lens, we can see that God is at work in us, shaping us, taking us through the process of sanctification.
To understand sanctification, we need to touch on a couple of other theological words for context: justification and glorification. All three words are essential to the salvation we experience in Christ. We can understand it like this:
Justification – I am saved
Sanctification – I am being saved
Glorification – I will be saved
Let’s break that down a little further.
In the moment that we repent of our sins and receive Christ, we are justified before God. Our standing before Him is changed. God immediately declares us righteous. Paul explained it like this in Romans 3: For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus … God presented him to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so that he would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:23-24,26, emphasis mine)
Then some day in the future, glorification will take place. When Jesus returns, all believers will be glorified in Him. Our salvation will be complete when we see Christ. Paul said it would happen “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will be changed,” (1 Cor. 15:52). At that time we will be completely like Jesus. As John wrote: “We know that when he appears, we will be like him because we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
But what we want to talk about today is what happens in between: sanctification.
Simply put, sanctification is God working to make us look more like Jesus.
First, understand that you don’t do this on your own. Sanctification is not a self-help program. You’re not bettering yourself. It is the Holy Spirit at work in you as you surrender to His leadership in your life. Paul stated “For it is God who is working in you both to will and to work according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13). He is shaping you and molding you. It’s a continual process in which God is conforming you to the image of Christ. The truth you learn, the difficulties you walk through, your life experiences—God is using all these things to make you look more like Jesus (Rom. 8:28-30). And you can trust that God is not going to get exasperated, throw up His hands, and give up on you. Here’s the promise from Scripture: “I am sure of this, that he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). That’s why you need to take the long view.
But lest we think that we’re just passive play-doh waiting around to be squished into shape, let’s note some of the words used to talk about the Christian life:
“Walk by the Spirit … (Gal. 5:16)
“Run with endurance the race … (Heb. 12:1)
“Stand firm in the faith … (1 Cor. 16:13)
“Flee from youthful passions, and pursue righteousness … (2 Tim. 2:22)
Action words. You have to move. You have to strive. You have to exercise those spiritual muscles through submission to Christ’s lordship, practicing spiritual disciplines such as Bible study and prayer, discovering and practicing your spiritual gifts, participating in corporate worship, and so forth. You have to grow!
The following analogy breaks down quickly, but if you don’t do the things to grow in Christ, it’s like going to the gym, securing a private trainer, but never working out. You have all the things there to help you get fit, but you’re content to stay as you are. The writer of Hebrews didn’t take too well to that attitude. He told his readers there was much they needed to learn and understand but they had become lazy. They should have moved on to solid spiritual food but they were still taking milk (Heb. 5:11-14). He urged them, “Therefore, let us leave the elementary teaching about Christ and go on to maturity…” (Heb. 6:1-2).
Unfortunately, too many of the people that sit in church pews every Sunday have progressed very little in their Christian lives. The depth of their love for Christ is shallow, their knowledge of His Word is limited, and their commitment to the purpose of His kingdom is minimal. They are content and comfortable, and thus tragically missing so many of the blessings of sanctification.
Don’t be one of them. Submit to the power of the Spirit’s working within you and be all that Christ is calling you to be in Him. You’ve experienced the great joy of coming to know Him. And you will one day know joy like you’ve never known when you see Him. But in the meantime, embrace the joy of growing in Him.
Mike Wakefield served for more than 20 years as student pastor, associate pastor, and senior pastor in churches in Missouri, Arkansas, and Tennessee. He currently serves as a content editor in Adult Publishing at LifeWay Christian Resources. He and his wife Tricia live in Spring Hill, Tennessee. They have two young adult children, Hannah and Joshua.