What is sanctification?
Our relationship with God is eternally settled in Christ.
At its core, sanctification is the “pursuit of God”; it’s choosing and reflecting and remembering all that we’ve been given in the gospel of Christ to help us combat the temptations of the world; it’s “seeking those things which are above” (Col. 3:1). It’s seeking God and “putting on the new man” (Col. 3:10). A fallacy arises, though, when we think of salvation as, “Step One: Justification” and “Step Two: Sanctification,” as if we must move beyond what we’ve been justified from as we’re being sanctified. We’ve falsely believed that our sanctification is some sort of “checklist” — “Here’s what you need to, now do these things to be a Christian.” That all we need to do is perform and follow a certain set of rules or guidelines and that’s what will keep us saved. We’ve grossly misinterpreted the New Testament and have run with the idea that sanctification is on us. That to “better” my standing with God, I have to get better. That sanctification is me “giving all diligence,” or “making every effort” (2 Pet. 1:5–7).
When speaking of sanctification and becoming like Christ, we often stop at “work out your own salvation” (Phil. 2:12), again, putting all the pressure on us and allowing performancism to rear its ugly head. But in reality, the Christ-follower’s calling to sanctification is merely the command to “testify and approve [his] obedience by being submissive and humble,” notes John Calvin. That is, we’re to continue to live in way that gives meaning to our salvation, and that the “work” and the “effort” of our salvation is to show the results of what God’s love does.
Sanctification isn’t a calling to work harder and do more in order to get something, it’s an invitation to revel and rest in all that you already have in Jesus. Christ secured everything for us on the cross. Thus, our relationship with God is eternally settled. This is why the apostle Paul so boldly declares, “Where is boasting then? It is excluded” (Rom. 3:27). If we constantly remember all that Christ has accomplished for us in his glorious gospel of grace, and we must if we are to live the sanctified life, then there’s no other position for the Christ-follower other than humility. We can bring nothing to the table of salvation; it’s all of and by the grace of God alone (Phil. 2:13; 1 Cor. 15:10). “This is the engine for bringing down all haughtiness,” says John Calvin, “this is the sword for putting an end to all pride, when we are taught that we are utterly nothing, and can do nothing, except through the grace of God alone.”
Sanctification, then, isn’t necessarily doing, it’s believing — believing more and more that all you need is already yours because of the finished work of Jesus Christ. Sanctification more fully points to the counterintuitiveness of the gospel, by showing us that in order to grow, we must die first (John 12:24–25; 1 Cor. 15:36). The gospel paradox is “death is the way to life.” The essence of sanctification, the essence of daily Christian living, then, is “daily Christian dying,” asserts Tullian Tchividjian, “dying to our trivial comforts, soul-shrinking conveniences, arrogant preferences, and self-centered entitlements, and living for something much larger than what makes us comfortable and safe. God does everything through people who understand they’re nothing. And God does nothing through those who think they’re everything” (20). Sinclair Ferguson goes on to say that sanctification “is rooted, not in humanity and their achievement of holiness . . . but in what God has done in Christ” (58–59).
And so it is that becoming Christlike isn’t growing beyond our justification, but rather deeper into it. Sanctification isn’t adding something to our justification. It’s living the justified life — living in light of what’s been accomplished for you in Jesus Christ. We grow and excel and progress in our Christian life more and more to the degree that we think less and less of ourselves. Our sanctification feeds on our justification, not the other way around. A heart that is burning for God is one that’s fueled by the gospel, Christ’s finished work of justification and salvation and redemption. This is what led Martin Luther to write, “To progress is always to begin again.” Spiritual growth necessitates a daily going backwards — going back to what Christ finished and accomplished for you on the cross. It requires a constant learning and re-learning of the gospel.
Sanctification and becoming like Christ is the result of Jesus’s life, death, burial, and resurrection being reproduced in your heart and mind daily! When temptation and sin, then, attacks you and attempts to rob you of the joy and freedom in Christ, fly to the cross, run to Christ, and cling to his finished work of grace. Living sanctified is all about remembering how you’ve been justified!
Sinclair Ferguson, “The Reformed View,” Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, edited by Donald L. Alexander (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988).
Tullian Tchividjian, Jesus + Nothing = Everything (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).