Below is a recent article I wrote for The Gospel Witness (April 2011, pp. 6-8).
“From the Sordidness of Sin to the Purity of God’s Image”: The Doctrine of Sanctification
There was once a time when catechisms were a common feature in the life of the church. Through a series of questions and answers people would learn the basics of theology. It so happens that at the church where I serve as Pastor we are studying through the Baptist Catechism[i] in a weekly bulletin insert to seek to grow in our knowledge of God as best understood by our Baptist forebears. It seems fitting that at this time in preparation for celebrating Easter we would be at Question 38 of the catechism which asks “What is sanctification?” Since Easter celebrates the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and that through this we are united to Him, and through our union with Christ we receive the blessing of sanctification (cf. 1 Cor 1:30) it is only fitting to consider what exactly sanctification is, how sanctification flows out of the cross of Christ and to consider bearing it has on the Christian life.
Towards a Definition of Sanctification
Puritan great William Ames (1576–1633) writes that sanctification is “the real change in man from the sordidness of sin to the purity of God’s image.”[ii] What we are understanding sanctification then to be is that process where we grow more and more in holiness. We are constantly being changed and conformed to the image of Christ through a joint process of our own along with the work of the Holy Spirit in us. In particular we will consider what the answer to the Baptist Catechism question noted above tells us about sanctification. The answer to the question reads, “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.” There are a number of things we see about sanctification.
First, sanctification is a work of God’s free grace. Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 notes that the work of sanctification is a work of the Spirit that flows out of God’s sovereign choice, and thereby, a work of His free grace. The verse reads, “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.”[iii] We often act like when we are saved, our justification is done through the power of God, but our pursuit of holiness is by our own effort. In contrast, it is seen that even the ability to grow in godliness is a gift of God.
Second, we see that sanctification involves a renewing in the whole man after the image of God. In the fall, our image has been marred. It has been damaged by our sinfulness to the point that it effects all of man. We are totally depraved because of our sin. Yet, our goal is to regain that complete image of God through our pursuit of holiness. Therefore, sanctification is that process where we are being renewed into His image. Paul in addressing the Ephesian believers notes that we are to be “renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:23–24). Just as one would remove a dirty shirt, we are to remove our old, sinful self, and replace it with a new self, after the likeness (or image) of God.
Finally, we see that sanctification has a result that we are more enabled to die to sin and live to righteousness. As we grow more and more in holiness and are closely matching the image of God in our lives, we are more able to resist sin and temptation and instead to pursue righteousness. In fact, Paul in Romans 6:6 identifies a close relationship between our association with the death of Christ and our ability to bring our sin under control through sanctification. He writes, “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” As our old self has been taken off (or here crucified) we are no longer enslaved to sin and therefore are more able to resist it (put it to death as the catechism says) and to instead pursue righteousness. It is a life-long pursuit and we will never reach perfection this side of glory, but because of what Christ has done on the cross, we can pursue holiness and become conformed to the image of God in Jesus Christ!
The Cross and Sanctification
On Easter it is important therefore to consider the cross of Christ. The cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the foundation of our faith. Without either, Christianity falls apart. That is why we must have a correct understanding of the death and resurrection of Christ because our Gospel message stands or falls upon it. Yet, the cross did not simply pay for our sin and our guilt as Christ became our substitute, but it made provision for our ability to grow in Christ-likeness through our pursuit of progressive sanctification.
Romans 6 is one of the clearest passages of Scripture which connects the dots between the cross of Jesus and sanctification. Our ability to pursue holiness clearly comes as a result of the cross. Paul begins by addressing an objection that if when we sin grace increases should we continue to live in sin (v. 1)? Paul says, “By no means!” Since we have died to sin we can no longer live in it (v. 2). But what does Paul mean when he says that we have died to sin? He is speaking specifically that those for whom Christ died have too died. Just as Christ was crucified for us, we too were crucified with Him. We are united to Him in both the cross and the resurrection. In fact, Paul goes on to connect the ordinance of baptism to that of identifying ourselves with the death of Christ. All of those who have been baptized into Christ have also been baptized into His death (v. 3). Baptism is, at the heart, a public identification. If we have chosen to identify ourselves with Christ we have identified with His death. Hence, Paul can write that, as we go down under the water of baptism, it is as if we have been buried with Christ and just as we come up out of the water of baptism, it is as if we have risen to new life with Christ (v. 4). This newness of life is the key to our understanding of sanctification and the cross. Through the death of Christ and our identification with it, we have died to sin’s control and mastery over us and have been given new life and the ability to pursue godliness.
He continues to say that if we have died with Christ we too will be raised with Christ (v. 5) and that our old self (our sinful nature) has been crucified with Christ so that sin would no longer have control or dominion over us (v. 6) so that he can make the bold statement that “For one who has died has been set free from sin” (v. 7). If then we have died with Christ we then therefore live with Him and since death has no hold on Him so will it have no hold over us (vv. 8–9). In this death Christ died to sin (as death is the result of sin) and He now lives for God (v. 10) and therefore we too are dead to sin and alive to God (v. 11). As a result then of our identification with Christ in His death and resurrection we are to no longer live in sin but to be slaves to righteousness (v. 18). We are therefore to “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness” (vv. 12–13).
We have been given the power to live for righteousness because we are no longer controlled to sin. We have died to it because Christ has died to it. And now since He lives, we too live and are able to live for righteousness. We are able to be holy because the Holy One died for us, and through our union with Him, we too have died to ourselves and to sin. As David Peterson writes, “God has consecrated to himself a new people, through the death and resurrection of his Son. By faith, we have been buried together with him by baptism into death, united with him in a death like his. God has dealt with our sins and bound us to himself, making it possible for us to live a new life to his glory and ultimately to be united with Christ in a resurrection like his.”[iv]
Sanctification and the Christian Life
In addressing the doctrine of sanctification, Baptist Divine John Gill (1697–1771) writes of sanctification being, “grace in the soul is a well of living water, springing up unto everlasting life”.[v] The pursuit of holiness is not one of drudgery as if it is obedience to the Law. Instead, it is everything of grace to the soul. The Holy Spirit, dwelling inside the believer, convicts us of sin and brings us ever closer to the image of Jesus Christ. God calls us to be holy because He is holy (1 Peter 1:16). Our goal is therefore to be like God, as perfectly manifested in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. This is not solely through our own effort as if we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps but is a joint effort through the power of God working in us that we put off sin and put on righteousness. This power in us comes as a result of being united to Christ through His death and resurrection.
This then is our ultimate goal in life. Because we are united to Jesus Christ in His death through the cross, we are called to glorify God by becoming more like His most perfect Son. This occurs through the process of sanctification. It is a glorious process, occupying our entire lives from the point when we are united to Christ at salvation to the point when we are perfected in glory. So, if something is so consuming of our lives and integral to our pursuit of the glory of God, we should reflect more on the matter and consider more how we can be faithful to this pursuit of holiness. For, it came at a great cost, the death of Jesus Christ. Through His death we have the power to become holy. As Anthony Hoekema writes, “God’s purpose for us, in other words, is not just future happiness or a guaranteed entrance into heaven but perfect likeness to Christ and therefore to himself. God could not, in fact, have designed a higher destiny for his people than that they should be completely like his only Son, in whom he delights.”[vi]
This Easter, do not think that Christ’s death only made you right before God in position, but that through the cross work of Christ, you are pursuing God’s highest purpose for you: being made right before God in the actual way you live!
[i] For a brief introduction to the Baptist Catechism see the forward by James M. Renihan in The Baptist Confession of Faith and the Baptist Catechism (Vestavia Hills, AL/Carlisle, PA: Solid Ground Christian Books/Reformed Baptist Publications, 2010), pp. 89–91. For a more detailed examination see Tom J. Nettles, Teaching Truth, Training Hearts: The Study of Catechisms in Baptist Life (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press Publishing, 1998), pp. 47–58.
[ii] William Ames, The Marrow of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997), p. 168.
[iii] All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version.
[iv] David Peterson, Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness. New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995), p. 100.
[v] John Gill, A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, 3 vols. (London: Printed for W. Winterbotham, 1796), II, 312.
[vi] Anthony A. Hoekema, Saved by Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 233.