One of the earliest questions that arose in Christian culture was whether or not believers should even avoid sin. After all, if the purpose of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross was to free humanity from the eternal burdens of sin, what is the point of living an ethical life? The thief hanging on one side of Jesus at Golgotha received admission into heaven simply for declaring his belief in Jesus, right at the end of his life. Before that, he had clearly spent a life living far from the teachings of Christ; otherwise, he would not have received a death sentence for theft. St. Paul addresses this in Romans 6: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom. 6:1-2 NIV). The argument that some were making was that having more sin in one's record would allow the amount of grace that God extended at one's death to be even greater, potentially bringing God even more glory. St. Paul dismisses that argument out of hand, asserting that the change that comes with belief makes one dead to sin, and the possibility of a “new life” (Rom. 6:1-4 NIV) depends solely on one's commitment to leaving the life of sin behind. The Christian life is a life of discipline, faith, prayer, and witnessing. While on another scale, this refers to constant correction. The Christian walk is indeed a spiritual one that every believer should want to go higher in. According to Romans 8, the Spirit is integral to our sanctification. Paul teaches about the relationship between the indwelling Spirit and Christian obedience (or sanctification). This informs his discussion of the law. We consider Paul’s teaching regarding the two regimes, the offering of our bodies to God, and the transformation of the believer (Rom 6, 7, and 12).
In general terms, sanctification refers to “the state of proper functioning.” Sanctifying, then, according to that definition, refers to setting someone or something apart for a particular use – the one that its designer intended. If you use a pencil to write, you technically sanctify it. When you use a telescope to take in a view of the stars, you sanctify it as well. In a more theological perspective, sanctification refers to the act of making “an event or place holy.” This refers to the act of setting a person, place or event apart for God’s purposes, and so when a person lives in accordance with the design and purpose that God has intended, that person is sanctified.
The Wesleyan view of sanctification saw its goal as “to renew men’s and women’s hearts in God’s image.” Wesley came to this definition following a practical method. His belief was that the primary evidence of true maturity as a Christian was shown by “a faith that works by divine love in the crucible of everyday life.” Melvin Dieter shares that view, although his emphasis is that the New Testament emphasis of sanctification is ethical in nature. The real test of one’s holiness is love.
The reformed view of sanctification is “that gracious operation of the Holy Spirit, involving our responsible participation, by which He delivers us as justified sinners from the pollution of sin, renews our entire nature according to the image of God, and enables us to live lives that are pleasing to Him.” While justification removes our guilt in the eyes of God, sanctification involves the removal of corruption that sin has brought into our lives. This dovetails with the Greek term for sanctifying, or hagiadzo. This word literally means to set someone or something apart to serve God and leave behind those actions that are not pleasing to him. The reformed view involves the requirement that the believer have a developing union with Christ. Without that union, sanctification cannot take place. Second, the truth is a requirement for sanctification, and the primary source of that truth is the Bible. Finally, faith is the method through which we develop this sanctification. Faith gives us the ability to live in that community with Christ and to understand that sin no longer masters us, as well as to produce the sort of spiritual fruit that a Christian will generate over time.
The Basis of Sanctification
There is very little that appears in the teachings of Jesus about either holiness or sanctification. He points out that gifts are sanctified when they are set upon the altar of the temple (Matt. 23:19), and he provides a cryptic warn not to “give what is holy to dogs [and not to] throw your pearls before swine” (Matt. 7:6). However, the vast majority of Jesus’ focus was on matters of the present, of beginning one’s journey of faith rather than discussing what would take place further down the road. For sanctification to begin, though, it is necessary to realize one’s own status as a sinner. Paul writes that “but where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Rom. 5:20). This is the salvation that is available to those who believe in Christ. Paul goes on to argue that “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for you are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). This is the founding principle of the union between the believer and Christ. Because the principle falls under grace rather than under law, sin will not have control over believers. There are believers who may give their lives back over to the control of sin; in that case, sanctification cannot take place. However, this union is the ultimate basis of sanctification. At the point of salvation, we join with Christ, and as Paul asserts in Romans 6, our union involves crucifixion, death and resurrection along with Him. Paul echoes this in the Letter to the Ephesians: “And has raised us up together and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6) and in the first Letter to the Corinthians: “But of him are you in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). For true sanctification to take place, then, belief is the first necessary step. An active commitment to pursuing the truth through the study of the Bible and the pursuit of Christian community is also necessary. Finally, the realization that sin is something that should no longer be a part of our lives is a requirement as well. Those who are still dabbling in sin are not on the road to sanctification, because they are not showing full faith in the work of the Cross. By clinging to that sin from their former lives, they show a lack of belief in the fact that the way of God is the one that provides ultimate reward.
Means of Sanctification
The process of sanctification differs significantly among the various denominations within Christianity. According to the Reformed view, both God and man play roles in sanctification. When God elected believers into faith and conformity, He started the process of sanctification, and the Reformed belief is that the entire Trinity is involved. For example, the Father provides discipline to those who need it and uses the truth to sanctify believers (John 17:17). The Son uses the word to cleanse the church (Eph. 5:25-27), and the Holy Spirit washes us, providing a new birth as well as renewal (Titus 3:5). However, this does not suggest a compartmentalization of the different elements of sanctification.
It is also important to realize the part that humanity plays in sanctification. While nothing would happen in terms of sanctification without the work of God, it is also important for people to fight against the temptation to sin and be grateful for the work of the Cross, offering themselves as complete sacrifices to God. It is also important for believers to do their best to follow the example of Jesus (John 13:14-15). St. Paul addresses the difficulties that accompany humanity’s role in sanctification; he describes how important it is to “work out your salvation in fear and trembling.for it is God who is at work in you to will and work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). However, this is not a simple example of cooperation; rather, it is more of a causal relationship. As John Murray puts it, “God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God worksthe relation is that because God works we work.”
According to the Augustinian/dispensationalist view, the means of sanctification takes a place as a combination of divine and human effort. Those who place their complete trust in God and live with a dependent spirit with regard to the power of the Holy Spirit may never reach God’s standards for perfection in the earthly plane (and indeed such perfection is seen as impossible in more than a few traditions), sanctification can involve a steady growth. The reason for this is that the Holy Spirit provides an increasing sense of assurance with regard to our own salvation as well as a sense of God’s design for our individual lives, assisting us at worship and in prayer, and going through us to provide service to other people.
Sanctification is clearly not an event that happens at one particular point in life; instead, it is a lengthy, gradual process. One example of this comes from the life of St. Paul himself. If there were any point that could have served as the basis of an instantaneous sanctification, that would be his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. However, after that takes place, it takes three days just for his sight to return. After that time, it is true that his focus changes from killing members of this new sect known as Christianity to convincing as many people as possible that Christianity was the only way to enter heaven with God – in other words, a complete paradigm shift in his religious beliefs. Even after this has taken place, though, St. Paul is still not entirely sanctified; as he argues in Romans, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, I do.” (Rom. 7:15). He realizes that it is the “sin living in [him]” providing those impulses (Rom. 7:17), but the question that he asks (“Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?”(Rom. 7:24)) shows that he has not made it to anything close to a victory over sin or to a complete sanctification.
So how does this take place? In the Pentecostal view, the means of sanctification begin with belief. At that point, the believer is pulled apart from the rest of the world to follow Christ, through the symbolic action of baptism (Col. 2:11-12). The philosophical basis of the notion of instantaneous sanctification comes from 1 Corinthians 1:30, which indicates that belief is a point of unification with Christ and the beginning of a new life, in which the believer is now free to do God’s will and has the basis of the work of the Cross. Within the Pentecostal faith, this is known as positional or instantaneous sanctification. However, there are times when Christians do not act in accordance with their positional sanctification. St. Paul addresses the new believers as “infants” (1 Cor. 3:1), and he talks about how self-control is a discipline that believers still must master (1 Thess 4:3-4) and that such former habits as lying require renunciation by the believer (Col. 3:5-10).
The fruits of sanctification are generally not a matter of much controversy among the various wings of Christianity. A part of this comes from the fairly specific listing of fruits of the spirit that St. Paul provides: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). The Augustinian/dispensational view contains the idea that part of the believer’s destiny is conformity to the image of Christ, which means that perfect sanctification will happen, no matter what our current shortcomings may be. It is the sum of our choices that determines the degree of sanctification in this lifetime, but even with the right choices, perfect sanctification will not take place until the next life, according to their view. Walvoord describes sanctification as “the work of God for human beings rather than our work for him.” After the end of time, believers will reflect the glory of God and show the conformed image of Christ. The Bible promises that when believers appear before God, they will be without sin or imperfection (1 John 3:2).
The Wesleyan view of the fruits of sanctification varies somewhat. Wesley claimed that Christians who have matured as believers have the ability to relapse into sin. However, that sort of relapse is not necessary. Because the Wesleyans view Christian believers as being free from the control of sin, the implication is that they can choose not to violate God's law. The fact that the world is fallen and is still dominated by the effects of sin, believers must wait for complete delivery from sin's presence.
This does not mean, of course, that Christians do not have room for development in their maturity as believers. However, Wesley taught that Christians had a considerable degree of freedom from the tendency to sin, and he claimed that delivery from what he called willful sin was a possibility for Christians, and that this particular degree of sanctification was open to Christians in this lifetime. He frequently said that it was wrong for Christian believers to be “content with any religion which does not imply the destruction of all the works of the devil, that is, of sin.” It is, then, possible, from the Wesleyan perspective, to completely fulfill the law of God's love during this lifetime, even though the world has so many flaws.
Assurance of sanctification is found throughout both testaments in the Bible. The promises that God makes to help His people know how to love Him, follow His statues and to obey the principles that He has laid down begin in Deuteronomy, the book in which Moses leaves the people of Israel with a codified law to follow. One of the reasons for the laws in Deuteronomy was to teach the Israelites God's nature and to point them in the eventual direction of the Messiah. This intention is echoed by the prophets (Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36). While the Old Testament prophets did not yet know about the Holy Spirit, it was clear to them that those who believed in God would be able to live a righteous life characterized by true holiness for their entire lives.
The Reformed view is less optimistic about the powers of humanity, with several objections to the Wesleyan form of sanctification assurance. First, the Wesleyan view weakens the notion of sin, referring only to transgressions that are deliberate. Second, the Bible points believers toward continuous growth rather than a second experience that would be as significant as salvation – which complete sanctification would most certainly represent. Instead, such verses as Col. 3:10, Romans 12:2, 2 Peter 3:18 and Ephesians 4:23 all point toward a progression rather than a completed journey. Galatians 5:16-17 expresses the ongoing internal battle that takes place between the Holy Spirit and the sins of the flesh; the permanence of that battle suggests that a full arrival at sanctification is possible. Finally, such verses as James 3:2 and Matthew 6:12 all suggest that Christians sin after conversion and will continue to do so.
The doctrine of Christian sanctification is one of the most fraught with controversy throughout all of systematic Christian theology. The idea that Christians continue to sin is a troubling one, given the promises that the Bible makes about the changes that come with belief. However, the partnership between belief and actions is central, as the notion that faith is reflected through actions is one that appears throughout the New Testament. As sanctification progresses, and believers come closer to that ideal that Christ represents, God's vision for each of us comes closer to fruition. The very definition of sanctification, then, finds expression in the life of each believer who, through a combination of belief and intentional actions, moves toward a point where he will be set apart, at last, for God's own purposes.
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