How Do We Pursue Sanctification Amid a Sinful World?

Senior woman reading Bible, holding spectacles, close-up of hands

“We are all fallen creatures and all very hard to live with.”

—C. S. Lewis

Personally, I always feel more comfortable and confident talking about the biblical doctrine of justification than I do about the doctrine of sanctification. Probably because I feel my own progress in sanctification always leaves something to be desired. Nevertheless, here are some of my recent thoughts about the long and challenging process of being transformed into the image of Christ.

What Is Sanctification?

Evangelical theologian John Jefferson Davis offers this definition of sanctification:

“The Christian’s growth in holiness and conformity to the character of Jesus Christ through personal faith and obedience and the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.”2

Interestingly, the theological traditions within Christendom have differing ideas about how sanctification comes about in the life of the believer. For example, even within evangelicalism some groups (such as the Holiness, Nazarene, and Pentecostal traditions) view sanctification as happening through spiritual crisis events and resulting in complete moral perfection, whereas other groups (such as the Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican traditions) view it as a lifelong continual process that never reaches perfection in this life. My own studies in Scripture and in theology as well as in life experience persuade me that the latter view is closer to the truth, but I nevertheless can respect other traditions that understand the issue differently.

Two Views of Sanctification

I have long been associated with theological traditions that seem to me to talk a lot more about grace, faith, and justification than they did about repentance, good works, and sanctification. I’m not criticizing that perspective because I think an understanding of the depth of God’s grace is critical to understanding God’s entire plan of salvation, including justification, sanctification, and even glorification. So God’s grace (Greek: charis, or “unmerited favor”) is the foundation for the entire Christian experience. Yet I think Scripture is crystal clear that the grace that saves us through faith in Christ also motivates us to pursue a godly life (see Titus 2:11–15).

I always appreciate being reminded that salvation is a free gift of God. But I wonder why the message of sanctification is sometimes given far less emphasis. My impression is that the importance of sanctification can be underemphasized because it is at times such a difficult process and we see so little growth in Christ that we feel rather defeated. At points like this we need to remind ourselves of Paul’s incredible biblical promise: Nothing can “separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).3 We need to realize that the Christian life with its everyday ups and downs can and should be lived by grace and in the critical understanding that God continually forgives and strengthens us for his service.

On the other hand, I have also talked with Christians of other traditions who greatly emphasize the living of the Christian life. These believers rightly affirm that the believer in Christ is a new creation in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17). I appreciate their emphasis that God can and does transform the lives of his people and that Scripture implores believers to take sanctification very seriously (2 Corinthians 7:1; Galatians 5:24). These believers like to emphasize that grace is also a power that can serve to change the lives of believers.

I am greatly encouraged to know that I am not only saved by grace but that I can also live by grace and be empowered by God to resist sin. Yet I wonder if it is not also possible to exaggerate one’s level of sanctification because we are often oblivious to the depth of our sin even as Christians. For example, try giving up being selfish just for a day or two—it’s impossible! So some, or a lot, of what St. Augustine and Martin Luther called incurvatus in se (Latin: “curved in on oneself,” meaning inner selfishness) remains long after our conversion to Christ.

“Forgiven Sinners”

I think Luther’s famous statement in Latin: simul justus et peccator (“simultaneously righteous and sinful”) reflects both Scripture and our own experience. In our standing before God we have been declared forgiven and granted the imputed righteousness of Christ, or justification (Romans 5:1); yet in our present state we remain sinners. We have been forever changed but we still sin. So I think it best to consider ourselves after the new birth as “forgiven sinners.”

Here is a definition of sanctification that I recently came across that I think is realistic but still hopeful:

“Sanctification is the long process by which the Holy Spirit uses our real circumstances and the collateral damage caused by living in a sin-shattered world to shape us into the image of Christ.”4

So sanctification is a work of God’s grace, but it definitely involves our active participation. According to Scripture, the grace that saves us also motivates us to pursue godly living (Ephesians 2:8–10; Titus 2:11–14).

Reflections: Your Turn

Is sanctification hard or easy? What does it mean to live by grace? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

Endnotes

  1. C. S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 110.
  2. John Jefferson Davis, Handbook of Basic Bible Texts: Every Key Passage for the Study of Doctrine and Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 92.
  3. While I realize some Christian traditions believe that Christ’s followers can permanently fall away and be lost, I think Scripture teaches that God will ensure that his people will persevere and be saved: John 6:37–39, 10:28–29, 17:11–12; Romans 8:30, 38–39; Philippians 1:6; 2 Timothy 1:12, 2:13, 4:18; 1 John 5:13.
  4. John Koessler, “The Gift of Disillusionment,” Views (blog), Christianity Today, May 17, 2016, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/may-web-only/gift-of-disillusionment.html.

  One thought on “How Do We Pursue Sanctification Amid a Sinful World?

  1. December 13, 2016 at 8:34 am

    While meditating on Romans 8, and those wonderful verses that tell me that nothing can separate me from the love of God – “nor any other creature”, it occurred to me that if I allow doubts or fears to be entertained in my brain, this separates me from His love. Being reminded – by His Spirit – that in 1 John, we’re told that perfect love casts out fear, I can avail myself of that means of sanctification and go back to what Romans 5 says, that “There is therefore NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Am so grateful for being taught the Word that teaches me how to lay hold of His precious promises and continue to enjoy being cleansed and loved by Him.

    • December 13, 2016 at 10:24 am

      Thank you, Sandy, for your encouraging words from Scripture.

      Merry Christmas!

      Ken Samples

    • January 26, 2017 at 6:23 pm

      Very helpful comments, Sandy.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

    • April 25, 2017 at 2:50 pm

      I always enjoy your articles. Thank you for the quote by John Koessler.

      • April 25, 2017 at 3:09 pm

        Thank you very much, Richard.

        I appreciate you reading my blog articles on Reflections.

        Best regards.

        Ken Samples

  2. Sheer Splendor
    December 13, 2016 at 9:00 am

    This concept of holiness and sanctification has been on my mind and heart lately. I’m glad i found this article. I know its not a coincidence. Thank You Jesus…, because i want to be holy and sanctified but i still battle my flesh and old selfish ways and thoughts. Although i am not were i used to be, i am not yet were i feel i want to be, i want to be like Christ… It surely is a lifelong process. First we go through saving and reconciliation, then He changes us and we begin to desire to be like Christ… and then action is put to those desires as we begin seeking for sanctification/holiness and then the actual “doing” those things that are necessary…Finally, comes the persistence and consistent maintenance of your attained “sanctification and holiness.” It’s a never ending struggle that i hope gets easier as those habits of holiness and sanctification take hold, especially since it seems like the enemy attacks you more the closer you draw to God and holiness… It also seemed easier when I was younger than it does now that I’m older.

    • December 13, 2016 at 10:23 am

      Thank you, Sheer, for your thoughtful comments on sanctification.

      Merry Christmas!

      Ken Samples

    • Sheer Splendor
      December 13, 2016 at 10:35 am

      By the way, my comment above is purely my own observation, i don’t pretend to be any type of expert in the matter. Never the less, the part i enjoy most about this journey of sanctification, is simultaneously discovering the new depths of grace and love and goodness of our heavenly Father along the way. He truly is the best father. I love you, Jesus.
      1 Jn 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

  3. December 13, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    Ah this is such a good article and something we should all give deep thought to. Thank you, Ken.

    I agree there is more emphasis on justification than there is on sanctification. I also agree with your wondering whether we overlook sanctification because, on the whole, its seen as a tough and demanding process.

    Having been a follower of Christ for many years now (more than 30), I can see that the process of sanctification is occasionally like physical growth. Let me explain: Imagine an eight year-old getting their bike out of the shed after a long winter and discovering that it is now far too small for them to ride. The bike has not shrunk, in actual fact the child has been busy growing but hardly noticed their own growth until they saw how small their bike had become. In our spiritual lives there are times when the sanctification process seems to be going on undetected, until look back and suddenly realise that our wrong desires have changed or that the sin we used to find so troubling now seems to be barely an issue. By emerging ourselves in God, his Word, his Worship and his people we are growing and changes are happening even when we are not aware of them.

    Other times the sanctification process feels more like being a huge lump of rock and having chunks chiselled painfully away as the Master makes something beautiful out of your life. It’s hard. It hurts. But we trust He knows what he is doing.

    The real question for me is how sanctified do I want to be?! Sometimes, believing (as I do) that we will not reach perfection until we see Christ face to face does make us a little too ‘accepting’ of our weaknesses and our ‘nobody’s perfect’ T-shirt can be detrimental to our spiritual growth. I do believe that grace is power, not just pardon, and that I am set free from sin’s demands by the death of Christ. I strive to be the person I ought to be. I strive to be more Christ-like, even when I fail miserably, I long to be more like Him.

    I love the quote you used by John Koessler – I’m going to copy that into my bible. Thank you. The sanctification process goes on…sometimes we are painfully aware of it, sometimes we are blissfully unaware of it…but we should always strive to decrease as Christ in us increases.

    “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am” John Newton

    • December 13, 2016 at 5:50 pm

      Dear Kim:

      Greetings.

      You have so much wisdom. Thank you for sharing it. I appreciate your thoughtful insights on sanctification. And I like the Newton quote.

      May our Lord greatly bless you and your family during this Advent-Christmas season.

      I continue to pray that the Triune God comforts and heals you and your family.

      Grace & Peace,

      Ken Samples

  4. Bob Sherfy
    December 15, 2016 at 10:42 am

    Thank you for pointing out that sanctification, just like justification, is a gift of God’s grace. Too often Christians, whether intentionally of inadvertently, emphasize our efforts (works) as central to sanctification. Once we understand that we are sanctified by grace, we are freed from a works based life.

    • December 15, 2016 at 11:39 am

      Thank you, Bob.

      It is so important to know that sanctification is a gift of grace.

      Merry Christmas!

      Ken Samples

    • Darrell Gallear
      January 4, 2017 at 9:45 am

      Amen. Like Braveheart said, “Freedom”.

      • January 16, 2017 at 11:28 am

        Darrell:

        Greetings again.

        Maybe our difference is merely one of perspective but I think both Scripture and our personal experience indicates that as believers we are more sinful than we would like to admit. Fortunately for our sake Christ is a great Savior!

        Best regards in Christ.

        Ken Samples

  5. January 2, 2017 at 6:11 am

    Hi Ken, you ask, “Is sanctification hard or easy”? It seems to me that what makes it hard is that we so readily try to hold on to our lives. But doesn’t it become far easier when we die to ourselves? I’m beginning to think that when we invite someone to Christ, we should tell them that yes, salvation is a free gift, but by accepting this gift, you agree to die to self and become a slave of Christ. How many would want salvation in that case? But isn’t that what He asks of us?

    People are so quick to talk about grace empowering us to be sanctified, as if they don’t have anything to do about it. But in my mind, part of the empowerment is that His love is so wonderful that it melts our hearts making us willing to die to ourselves and to live for Him. Or you could say that His grace enables us to see that by dying we live. But we still have to choose to die. Every day.

    His grace has unlocked the door and thrown it wide open for all. And yet the door leads to His kingdom. A kingdom where He rules and reigns. Every one focuses on the aspect that we get to freely walk in. But why do we neglect or marginalize the Lordship aspect of it?

    I am thinking that the modern church is doing a great disservice to followers of Christ. I am thinking we need a much stronger call to die to self, to make Christ our Lord, and to live worthy of His calling. Is it really so hard to respond to His abundant love and grace by dying to sin that would only destroy us?

    No, it is easy — once we agree to die.

    • January 2, 2017 at 7:01 am

      Thanks, AZ, for your comments.

      Happy New Year!

      Ken Samples

  6. January 2, 2017 at 8:33 am

    I think I am more in the Wesleyan holiness category (though I am a Southern Baptist). A mentor to me, Dr. Bill Gillham wrote in his book “Lifetime Guarantee” about cooperating with Christ, allowing Christ to express his life through us. Dr. Gillham also made the point that our death to sin (Romans 6:1-11) is a reality. In the book, he showed how sin indwells our earthly bodies, but he asked: “If you get a splinter in your foot, does that make you a totem pole?”
    I think that sin is imprinted on our bodies. After all, our minds are bombarded with sin’s thoughts in this world. All you have to do is read or listen to the latest news feed. Nevertheless, I believe that we are new creatures in Christ living in bodies that are dead on account of sin. Our salvation is in Christ’s death on the cross, not in our future death.
    I want to say I absolutely agree that sanctification is a work of God’s grace.

    • January 2, 2017 at 11:18 am

      Thanks for your comments, Mike.

      Happy New Year!

      Ken Samples

  7. Rita Gorski
    January 2, 2017 at 11:38 am

    I don’t like to think of sanctification as hard, but a natural progression as I live in intimate contact with the Lord, trusting that He wants me sanctified more than I do. I give Him permission often to remind me of things He wants to add to my “newness” in Him that is missing, rather than changing my old-man behavior, since it is dead. It helps to see myself as kind of a stick person (I know it’s quirky) that needs some good fruit added. For instance, since He wants peace to be part of my life, his grace reminds and gives me the ability to “not let my heart be troubled,” “or to be anxious for nothing.” It’s taking a while to grow that fruit to maturity, but it’s beginning to bud! We want to live as we already are – new creations.

    • January 2, 2017 at 12:07 pm

      Thanks for your comments, Rita.

      Happy New Year!

      Ken Samples

  8. Richard Smith
    January 3, 2017 at 11:24 am

    Kenneth,
    Thank you for this article. I especially enjoyed your comparison of views of sanctification. I have long considered my maturity in Christ and how to live graciously. As a youth I learned the acronym GRACE (God’s Reconciliation At Christ Expense) and that has remained with me till even now. I see sanctification as a process in which God works His will in us, to transform us into saints, for His good purpose. Scripture instructs us to, “work out our salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). We are saved to do good works and God will indeed expect us to have been able stewards. It is not a question if one knows who Jesus is but rather does Jesus know you in a personal individual way that transforms how you live and engage with others! Two ebooks that helped me in this area are, “The Cross of Christ” by John Stott and “The Cross and Salvation” by Bruce DeMarest.

    • January 16, 2017 at 11:07 am

      Thank you, Richard, for your helpful comments about sanctification.

      Happy New Year!

      Ken Samples

  9. JDock
    January 3, 2017 at 2:13 pm

    Chesterton, I think, said “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried.” I think that is even more accurate regarding sanctification.
    Regarding charting ones own progress in sanctification, or someone else’s for that matter, isn’t it nice that God alone does that job.
    My perspective is Wesleyan through a Nazarene lens, I guess.

    • January 16, 2017 at 11:10 am

      JDock:

      I appreciate the application of the Chesterton quote to sanctification. Quite appropriate.

      Happy New Year!

      Ken Samples

  10. Darrell Gallear
    January 4, 2017 at 9:43 am

    Concerning the term “forgiven sinner”:

    Paul does not address believers by what they do, but who they are. The believers in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, and Colossae all sinned, but Paul addresses them as saints, or holy ones. Paul never labels any believer as a sinner.
    My son is named Gabe Gallear. If he does a bunch of good things, his name does not change to Gabe Goodman. If he does a bunch of jerky things, his name does not change to Gabe Jerkman. Whether he does something good or jerky, he is Gabe Gallear. In the same way, whether we sin or not, we are saints. We have been made holy. We are a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Nothing we do will change who we are.

    • January 16, 2017 at 11:21 am

      Darrell:

      Greetings.

      Thanks for your comments.

      We may view this differently. But I think Romans 7 identifies Christians as forgiven sinners. We’re both. A saint is a forgiven sinner.

      Happy New Year!

      Ken Samples

  11. Judy McQuillan
    January 5, 2017 at 2:31 pm

    Hi Ken,
    I really liked your article. However, I disagree with calling yourself a “forgiven sinner”. Nowhere in the New Testament are the Christians referred to as sinners unless they were referring back to their before Christ selves. They call each other and themselves as saints. While that might seem like splitting hairs I believe it’s very important because we behave in a manner according to how we view ourselves. When we view ourselves as sinners, forgiven or otherwise, it is impossible not to sin. When we view ourselves as saints who sin, we have God’s view of ourselves and it is easier to resist yielding to the temptation to disobey and sin.
    The only way to be progressively sanctified is by meditating on Scripture which transforms my mind which changes my behavior. Meditation can be reading over and over, memorizing, studying, murmuring. I believe speaking God’s Word out loud is also crucial to transforming my mind. Being sanctified is a choice I make daily, minute by minute at times. Do I choose to die to self and obey God or go my way and disobey?

    • January 16, 2017 at 11:53 am

      Hello, Judy.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I especially appreciate your emphasis upon Scripture in your desire to walk in Godliness.

      Maybe our difference is merely one of perspective but I think Scripture (especially Rom. 7) and our experience indicates we are forgiven sinners.

      As Luther noted, we’re simultaneously sinners but granted righteous in Christ.

      Best regards in Christ.

      Ken Samples

  12. Darrell Gallear
    January 10, 2017 at 11:24 am

    Ken, I see that no comment is moderated after Jan 2. Is there a certain time period to reply in?

    • January 16, 2017 at 12:37 pm

      Darrell:

      I responded to your later message below.

      Ken Samples

  13. January 25, 2017 at 2:14 pm

    Amen. Thanks for this though provoking post.

    • January 26, 2017 at 1:30 pm

      DeeplyGrateful:

      You’re welcome.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

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