How Sanctification Works
By Tiffany Wismer
Sanctification is a long word that means “the process of being set apart” and “the process of being cleansed and freed from sin.” It is something that every Christian goes through — no Christian is immune to this process. It happens after we realize and accept God’s presence in our lives. As He indwells us, we begin to change. Sanctification is a metamorphosis, a natural spiritual process during which we are changing from one state to another. There are several common misconceptions about this process. The most common can be found in the book of Galatians.
Paul explains the Christian life to the wayward Galatians by saying, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). What is he saying here? He is clearly still alive. But when he says “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” he is pointing out that whatever good things are happening in Paul’s life, whatever ministry he is engaged in, whatever victory he has over sin, is being done by Christ, living in him. This is a reference to the Holy Spirit. The man who tried to earn salvation and gain sanctification by his own religious effort was “crucified with Christ.” The life he lived in the flesh was lived by faith, because when his old self was crucified with Christ, he “died to the law” so that he might live to God (vs. 19).
Like the Galatians, we often find ourselves going backward — attempting to sanctify ourselves by our effort, rather than by faith in Christ’s life in us. Paul asks them “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2-3). No, none of us are perfected that way. In fact, we are all made perfect by Christ, once for all, on the cross (Hebrews 10:10, 14). We know our justification was achieved on the cross, but we very often forget that our sanctification was accomplished there too. As beings who live in linear time, this is hard to grasp, but there it is, in verse 14: “He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
In my last post, I discussed the faith of Abraham, and how Abraham was entirely dependent on God. It is no coincidence that Paul brings Abraham into his discussion with the Galatians. He says, “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith — just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’?” (Galatians 3:5-6).
His point is that sanctification is not something we do to ourselves via good works, it is something God does to us in order to produce good works (Ephesians 2:10). We cannot achieve it by learning more theology and reading more books (Ecclesiastes 12:11-12). We can’t force it by imposing harsh rules on ourselves (Colossians 2:21-23). Again, it comes down to dependence. As we trust God to do what He promised, He accomplishes our sanctification.
We don’t sanctify ourselves through good works; Christ sanctifies us for good works.
It is also important to note that difficulties and dilemmas are part of the sanctification process (Hebrews 12:7-11). They are not a sign that God is unhappy with us, or punishing us — rather, they are proof that He is treating us as His children. A protagonist in a story must endure hardship for his character to be revealed. It is the same with each of us. As God, our Author, leads each of us through our story, He brings along forces of antagonism to test our mettle and show that we belong to Him. Each of these experiences is a part of sanctification, and is entirely driven by God. For the most part, we are uncomfortable with this lack of control, especially when situations are causing pain, either to ourselves or to people around us. But peace comes when we learn to relax into the reality that God is in control and that He is at work in us (Ephesians 2:10; Philippians 2:13;Romans 8:28).