Sanctification is Possible!

Our speech reveals how we think, feel, and understand the world. Words shape us. But our theology determines our words. In fact, as we speak, our understanding of who God is and how we trust him is made manifest. This is something I have been considering deeply and regularly as of late: Do we sometimes overemphasize how bad we are?

You know the situation. You’ve heard the language:

  • “I’m as wretched as they come.”
  • Everything I do is selfish.”
  • “I’m just a sinner saved by grace.”

Regularly hearing all of these phrases and many more like them, we would be remiss not to at least ask the question. What danger is there in only emphasizing our sinfulness and depravity? Consider carefully a few cautions.

NOT THE WHOLE STORY

For discerning readers, let me issue a serious caveat up front. It is totally true that Christians – both you and I and everyone else – are sinners saved only by the miraculous and merciful grace of God. We were headed for just judgment in a Christless, eternal hell until God saw fit to graciously rescue us. Every one of us had thrown off the loving rule of our righteous Creator, standing up “laws” of our own, becoming gods unto ourselves, and falling short of God’s glory (Rom 3:23). So yes, of course, I agree with you (and more importantly, the Bible) that we are all broken sinners. Not only that, we were willfully rebellious (Eph 2:1-3). And this is because of both the guilt and the sinful inclination which we have all inherited from our forefather, Adam (Rom 5:12-21). Without hope and without God, we could not save ourselves from this previous and perilous predicament. The good news is that, for the Christian, this is not the whole story.

“But God,” the Scripture says to all who have trusted in Christ as Savior and Lord. This same great and good Creator God “who is rich in mercy” has looked upon our helpless state “because of the great love with which he loved us” (Eph 2:4). God has made us alive in Christ (Eph 2:5). In Christ, we are now “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). That is, at the resurrection of Christ, the work God is doing to restore his loving rule to his creation has begun. The new creation, the redeemed and to-be-consummated one, has already broken in. John the apostle says, “the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8). By raising Jesus from the dead and recreating a people for Himself, God brings new creation into the old to invade and overcome it (Rev 3:21).

I remember just a few short years ago now when my wife and I bought our first house. It had “great bones,” as they say. Having been built 55 years ago, this house’s kitchen looked like it had come straight out of the 60’s. Surely this look wasn’t always atrocious. Certainly, at one point this look was “in.” But, not now – clearly not now. Well, we bought the house anyway, and the renovating work began. I suspect the original owner would remember his old house if he could see my kitchen today. He would likely remember the shorter cabinets. He probably would remember the yellow wallpaper. He might even remember the way it used to smell. Even with half of one wall gone, the bones are still there, of course. But it is, at the same time, unfamiliar. There are new appliances, new countertops, new cabinets, new tile, and a new paint color on the walls. It is the same kitchen, but it is an entirely different kitchen. Simultaneously, there is something both new and old about it. In the same way, every Christian is presently being renovated. Yes, my Christian friend, God is renovating you.

LIVING IN BIBLICAL TERRITORY

The truth is we were once far from God and we have now been brought near to Him. We now walk on holy ground. This tension between the change God has already wrought in us and the struggle with our old nature is biblical territory; it is where Christians live. In Christ, the Christian has been declared innocent before God – even though we weren’t! This is what we mean when we talk about justification. Salvation cannot be described as less than this. But it is also so much more. In Christ, God is conforming his people to the image of his Son (Rom 8:29). That is, God looks upon us with favor because of Christ’s righteousness (and none of our own), and then He makes us more and more righteous. We are becoming like the One who saved us. This is what we mean by sanctification.

The Bible talks about salvation in both of these lights. We have been saved (justification), just as we are being saved (sanctification). And, we will one day be saved (glorification). That is one day when we see Jesus face-to-face we will be transformed, glorified perfectly after his image. Between now and then, God is sanctifying us. And – at least as far as the Bible is concerned – sanctification is possible! So, let’s be careful not to functionally deny this in our speech by overemphasizing our sin nature.

FOR THE SAKE OF GOD’S GLORY

It is often said from faithful pulpits around the world, “though the power of sin has been broken, the presence of sin remains.” You will find no disagreement here. We will wrestle against our flesh, the world, and the devil until we meet Jesus in eternity. I simply want to add the necessary biblical context. A massive change is occurring in us, and God is the one doing it. Look carefully at the following verses from Scripture.

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:15-16 ESV)

In Paul’s own life and ministry, he understands himself in light of his rebellious and sinful nature. He speaks in the present tense about being the worst of sinners. The apostle knows he is a sinner saved by grace. Yet, the mercy he has been given and the life change he has experienced serves an important purpose – that Jesus might be seen as great and that others would know he can save them too.

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him (Colossians 1:21-22 ESV)

Notice the purpose of God’s saving work in our lives. He aims to present us “holy and blameless” before himself. As Christians, we will be trophies of God’s mercy and grace for all eternity. The most common descriptor for Christ’s people in the New Testament is not “wicked and incapable,” but “saint.” That is, as people of Jesus, we are becoming like Jesus. We are the ones who are set apart to and for God. God has promised us this outcome in his Word. Is God faithful to keep his promises? Then he will provide a way for us to glorify him in all circumstances. Do we believe this? Then we must trust him with the way we live, pray, speak, and act with regard to our own sanctification. There simply is no appropriate defeatist mindset in the Christian life!

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6 ESV)

Just as God has justified you, so he will certainly sanctify you. In fact, it is his will for your life in every season and situation (1 Thess 4:3). He will sanctify you because of who he is – the Faithful One, the Savior, the Deliverer, the Righteous, the Just. God’s glory is at stake in your sanctification.

As that great Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer has said, “by God’s grace, our lives are substantially, significantly, and observably different.” God has done it. He is still doing it. And he is faithful. He will not stop until the work is finished, for the sake of his own eternal glory. Take heart, Christian, sanctification is possible.