What is Sanctification?
Over the last several months as we have been reviewing our new book Faith in the Night Seasons, we've taken some time to really explore God's basic will for our lives. According to the Bible, there seem to be four different aspects to God's will: His sovereign will, which is the redemptions of all things; His revealed will, which is His Word; His will for mankind, which is salvation and union with God; and His will for the believer, which is sanctification - the purification of our body, soul and spirit.
"And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Thessalonians 5:23)
This fourth aspect of God's will is the one Christians understand the least and what we want to focus on in this article.
Sanctification is the procedure by which we become holy. It's the process that God has designed to conform us into His image, so that we can experience His Life through us and His presence in us. (1 Thessalonians 4:3; 2 Thessalonians 2:13) In other words, in order to know Him intimately and experience His Life, we must first be sanctified (be made holy)-body, soul and spirit. Thus, sanctification is simply the means by which we are set apart, separated or consecrated from anything that is unholy.
Scripture tells us that when we accept Christ into our hearts, we are "positionally" sanctified because of what He has already done for us on the cross and the holiness that He has already imputed to us. (Hebrew 10:10) In other words, it's a fact that we are already separated and consecrated unto Him. However, in order to experience this sanctification in our lives, we must first relinquish ourselves to Him and allow Him to remove or cut away anything in us that quenches His Spirit.
[Now, please bear in mind that Jesus was the only One who ever lived a perfectly holy and sanctified life. We will never be completely purified as long as we are in our human bodies. There will always be more sin and self to be dealt with. But, as we daily allow God to show us what He wants us to surrender to Him, we will be able - in an ever-increasing way - to experience His Life through us and His presence in us.]
Why the Sanctification
The purpose of sanctification, therefore, is twofold: outwardly to reflect Christ in all that we do (i.e., abundant Life), and inwardly to experience His presence (i.e., intimacy with Him). We often see the term "the fulness of God " in Scripture. This simply means being filled up with Christ inside and out. As Colossians 3:11 expresses it, "Christ [has become our] all and in all."
God desires a love-relationship with us. He yearns for us to have the kind of intimacy with Him that we might enjoy with our spouse. He not only wants us to experience His Love, Wisdom and Power flowing through us, He also wants us to experience the joy of His continual presence, the beauty of His holiness and the security of His Love.
He desires to dwell among us, to fill us with His Spirit and to continually communicate with us. He wants to lead us and guide us and direct our footsteps. He longs for us to see Him and experience Him, just as Job did. "I [had] heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth Thee ." (Job 42:5) The only way these things will ever be possible, however, is by the process of sanctification-the moment by moment cleansing of our body, soul and spirit.
Our greatest failing is not realizing who God really is. There is an infinite gap between the highest in us and the lowest in Him. The gap between us is absolutely unbridgeable from our side. If the gap is ever to be bridged at all, it must be launched from God's side-for He is holy. He is holy because He is set apart from the power, the practice and the presence of sin, to absolute righteousness and goodness. In other words, there is no sin in Him and He can never have anything to do with sin (other than to judge it). Therefore, if we are ever to approach God at all, we must do it on His terms .
The Process of Becoming Holy
Since God is the One who made us, He alone holds the key to our true happiness. And, although this may come as a shock to many twentieth-century Christians, the Scriptural essence of sanctification is to surrender all that we are to Him, and in exchange allow Him to give us His Life-His Love, His Wisdom and His Power. In other words, our fulfillment, our meaning and our significance all rest on this exchange of life-our being transformed into His image. Someone once said, "we have not only been chosen to prostrate ourselves and reverence God; we have also been chosen to reflect Him in everything we do ."
Unfortunately, the sanctification process does not happen automatically. It all depends upon our own moment-by-moment choices. "Having, therefore, these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God." (2 Corinthians 7:1) Faith choices -non-feeling choices where we say, "not my will, but Thine"-are the only choices that allow God's sanctification process to go on unhindered. (Matthew 26:39)
A Scriptural Example: Peter
The life of Peter is a perfect example of this. When Peter first encounters Jesus, he is a strong and fiery man given to passionate outbursts. Even though this fisherman starts off as little more than an arrogant blunderer, the Lord gradually transforms him into a hero of faith. Who but God could take Peter's foot out of his mouth and fill him with an inspired message of salvation? (Acts 2) Who but God could take this fearful man and transform him into a disciple of undaunted courage? (Acts 2-3)
Peter could have run away in defiance every time he was rebuked by Jesus, but he chose to humble himself and remain a disciple. He could have isolated himself in fear and shame after his betrayal of Jesus, yet he chose to realign himself with the risen Lord. When persecution ignited in Jerusalem, Peter could have once more denied his faith, yet he chose to stand for Christ. After Paul publicly rebuked him for being a hypocrite in Galatians 2:11-14, Peter could have turned away in bitterness, but instead he chose to repent.
Over and over again, we see Peter cooperating with God's process of sanctification by choosing to make "faith" choices or non-feeling choices to follow God's will. We, too, if our life truly belongs to God, must be willing to choose to lay everything (the good, the bad, and the ugly) at His feet and abandon ourselves to His will being accomplished in our lives.
John 12:25 tells us that whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose (surrender) his life shall preserve it.
Once we recognize that "faith choices" are imperative and the only way we can remain open and pliable to God's will in our lives, then the sanctification process can proceed. If, however, we make "emotional choices " (sight and feeling choices) to follow our own will and desires (and not God's), then we not only shut God out of our lives, but we also thwart the sanctification process.
Because this process involves a complete surrender, moment by moment, of our wills and our lives, many Christians choose to disregard this aspect of God's will. They think because they are "saved" that's all that's needed, and thus they go about living their lives according to their "own" will and desires. Other Christians verbally promise God to "forsake all else and follow Him," but when He begins to take measures to implement their promise, they scream and yell and immediately retract their commitment.
Our failure to respond to God's call of sanctification, however, does not stop His loving ways of accomplishing His will in our lives. The Lord is relentless in His purpose of transformation, because He knows it's the only way we will ever be fulfilled in this lifetime.
Do We Trust Him?
The question is: Do we trust Him enough to surrender our lives unconditionally?
God wants us to have such unshakable faith in Him that we will be open and pliable to whatever He deems necessary in our lives to accomplish His will - the sanctification of our body, soul and spirit. And He seems to find new ways every day to ask us the question, "Will you trust Me? Will you trust Me enough to do towards you all that I need to do, in order to accomplish My perfect will through you?"
Remember, He doesn't ask us to understand everything that He is doing, but simply to trust and believe in His Love through what He is doing.
Whenever I think about ultimate trust in God, I immediately think of a dear friend of mine named Diana Bantlow. Diana was just two years old in the Lord when she was diagnosed with leukemia and given only six months to live. She had a beloved husband who adored her and two precious children: Hillary, three, and Stephanie, one.
Diana, however, had tremendous faith in God. And, she knew that because God loved her, He would not allow anything into her life that wasn't "Father-filtered" and that wouldn't eventually bring Him glory. So, throughout her ordeal, no matter what the circumstances were and no matter how much pain she was in, she continually chose to trust her God and to abandon herself to His will.
Now you know that she must have experienced things like fear, doubt and anger because she was human. But because she loved God so much and unequivocally trusted Him, she kept making those faith choices - no matter how she felt or what she thought - to do His will.
Even though Diana had enough faith to "move mountains," and had been prayed for many times by the elders of her church, God in His sovereignty, chose not to heal her physically. He knew that the example of her faith and the witness of His Life through her frail condition would affect more lives than any other way. And, it's true. As I have shared Diana's story at different seminars over the last 20 years, many have come up to me and told me how they had known Diana and how her life had touched them.
In particular, two nurses from California came up after one seminar and shared how they had both attended Diana in the hospital the last few weeks of her life. They told me that they both had come to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior as a result of seeing His Life through Diana, even though she was dying.
They said, as they would go into her room to administer her pain medication, Diana would softly whisper, "No, thank you, my Father is taking care of me." Then she would go on and say, "And may He bless you abundantly in all you do today." Both these nurses shared how uncharacteristic this is of terminally ill patients. Either the patient is totally "out of it" (almost semiconscious) and unaware of what is going on around him, or he is emotionally and mentally distraught as the reality of death approaches. They both said this was not at all the case with Diana. They saw in Diana a Love, a peace and a joy that "passed all human understanding." And they yearned to have what she had. Both eventually accepted Christ as a result of Diana's witness.
As it came closer to Christmas, Diana told everyone that God was going to allow her to go "home" for the holidays. Now she thought God meant her physical, earthly home, but on Christmas day 1974, God took His precious child "home" to the one He had prepared for her from the beginning of time. (John 14:2)
We must all get to the place where we can accept even the bad things (from our point of view) as being good, because they are from God. As George MacDonald tells us, "I fear that you will never arrive at an understanding of God so long as you cannot bring yourself to see the good that often comes as a result of pain." God has a plan for our lives and sometimes that plan includes suffering.
Sin and Self
God's ultimate plan, then, is to set His people apart (or sanctify) from the flesh, the world and the devil, and fashion us into human conduits freely overflowing with His Love. As Christians, we must learn to escape the prison of sin and self and enter a love union with Christ where His Life can flow through us to others in any circumstance, just like Diana. Thus, sanctification is simply the process by which Christ's Love is formed in us and allowed to flow through us.
In order for this transformation to be accomplished, however, there are again two things that God must do: 1) By His blood, He must cleanse our souls and bodies (the flesh) of all sinful acts; and, 2) By His Spirit and His Word working together, He must purify all of our soulish and self-centered ways. Sin and self are the two things that quench God's Life in us.
Sin could be defined as all of our unrighteous and unholy acts - sexual immorality, impure thoughts, lustful pleasure, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, anger, envy, drunkenness, etc. "Sin" is anything that we do that is contrary to what the Word of God commands and anything that quenches His Spirit in us. Whereas, self might be defined as all of our self-centered ways-our self-protective attitudes, our self-oriented motivations, our belief systems, our habits and our own natural strengths. "Self," then, is not necessarily sinful, but if left alone and not crucified, it can eventually lead to sin.
Therefore, in the sanctification process, God wants us to surrender, relinquish and give over to Him not only everything that is sinful, but also everything that originates from "self." In other words, liberation from sin is only the first step!
Self must also be highlighted, exposed and crucified. Thus, part of the sanctification process is that God wants us to surrender to Him everything that is "natural," as well as everything that is "sinful."
The question is: Do you trust God enough to expose and point out all of your sinful acts and self-centered ways and also to relinquish these areas to Him? This is what the sanctification process is all about.
God is the One who warms us in the sun and He is the One who sends the rain. It is God who feeds us and it is also He who withholds our food. He sends the winter and He also allows the hot summer days. God, by His Love, does all of the above. Our responsibility is simply to yield ourselves to the inner workings of His Spirit and know that everything He does in our lives comes from his Love. We are being asked to trust Someone who has the power to keep us from all danger, threat and violence. The question is, "Do we trust Him enough to do so?"
In closing, ask yourself the same questions that Fenelon (the great Christian writer of the 16th century) asked, "Why am I afraid to break out of my chains? Do the things of this world mean more to me than You [God]? [Why] am I afraid to give myself [completely] to You?..."
Then Fenelon answered his own question by saying, "...What a mistake! [For] it is not I who would give myself to You, but You who would give Yourself to me !"
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This article has been excerpted from Chuck and Nan's new book Faith in the Night Seasons.