Spiritual Growth

What is Sanctification and How Does It Work?

What Is Sanctification?


To sanctify an object means to wash, cleanse, consecrate or set it aside for a special purpose. Sanctification is a Christian teaching about how God transforms a person, making them fit for a holy purpose. Sanctification includes a change of heart, a desire to love God and other people. It includes a change of mind, seeing the world from an honest perspective. It includes embracing the truth about life, one’s self and others. And in the future, sanctification includes a change in the body, healing and perfecting what it means to be human. 

Sanctification is a particular aspect of the Christian teaching of salvation. It’s a present experience of salvation, a process of transformation. It’s an experience that happens to a person after trusting in Christ for salvation and after God’s loving acceptance of them into His family. 

For almost 2,000 years, Christian teachers and pastors have wrestled with the Bible’s various teachings, stories, histories, poems and prophecies about this transformation of the human heart, mind and body.

If you are in a hurry, these link to specific sections of content you might want to explore:

Defining Sanctification

How Does Sanctification Work?

What Sanctification Is Not

Sanctification vs. Justification

Defining Sanctification


Sanctification is God’s gracious work that enables Christians to follow God’s moral code, to love Him, to love their neighbors and to love even their enemies as themselves.


1. Sanctification is God’s gracious work.

Grace is God’s unmerited favor. It’s His loving posture toward all people. God does not sanctify a person because they are worthy or good; God sanctifies a person because of His mercy. This means that sanctification is God’s free gift (Ephesians 2:8). Sanctification is work that the Holy Spirit initiates and sustains (Galatians 3:1–3; 5:16–18). 

2. Sanctification is supernatural.

As a work of God, sanctification includes acquiring new habits, practices and thoughts. But it’s more than the natural work that a wise psychologist or counselor can accomplish in a person. Sanctification results from the supernatural presence and power of the Holy Spirit working in a Christian’s life (Galatians 5:22–26; Ephesians 3:20; 2 Corinthians 12:9–10). 

This means that sanctification isn’t limited by personality, life experience or upbringing. It also means that sanctification isn’t limited to civility or obedience that involves actions without heart. It’s more. 

Sanctification involves a transformation of the human person in the depths of their heart and soul. It’s more than what anyone can see or feel. It’s a mysterious, complex process that God initiates and sustains as a gift.

3. Sanctification is a process.

It doesn’t happen all at once. Christians don’t immediately become loving, kind, humble and self-controlled. As a process, sanctification means becoming more holy through time. Like a child growing up into adulthood, Christians become more sanctified over time (1 Peter 2:2). This means that Christians should expect to make progress, to grow and become more loving, kind, humble and self-controlled over their life. While there may be occasional setbacks and life-long struggles, God makes His people holy in the long run.

One of the authors of Scripture, the apostle Paul, uses himself as an example. He explains that while he is a follower of Jesus, he is not “already perfect,” but continues to pursue God’s call to new life (Philippians 3:12–14). Even as a missionary and eyewitness to Jesus’ resurrection, Paul continues in an imperfect love (Romans 7:15). For him, being sanctified means embracing weaknesses and trusting in God’s undeserved kindness (2 Corinthians 12:7–10).

4. Sanctification results in good works.

God requires his people “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly” with God (Micah 6:8). For Christians, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). 

The good news is that in sanctification God gives what God requires. God doesn’t just demand that Christians love and show compassion; instead, God creates a heart that loves and shows compassion. God helps Christians to mature into people who strive to do good in the world. Like a beautiful piece of art designed to bring joy, God turns His people into a masterpiece created to do good in the world (Ephesians 2:10).

5. Sanctification looks like Jesus.

Many of the Bible’s descriptions of good works, love, virtue and qualities that the Holy Spirit produces in sanctification find their perfect picture in Jesus’ life and ministry. Christians are to imitate God through patterning their life after Jesus’ examples of love and compassion (Ephesians 5:1–2; 1 Corinthians 11:1). In sanctification, God forms His people to resemble His own holy character revealed in Jesus’ life of love and self-sacrifice (Ephesians 4:20–24; 2 Corinthians 4:6).
 

How Does Sanctification Work?


1. In sanctification human beings participate in God’s work. 

God sanctifies Christians (1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 5:21; Ephesians 3:16; Galatians 2:20; Colossians 1:11; John 15:4; Galatians 5:22). And human beings participate, struggle, fight, work and act. Countless passages teach that human beings are responsible to work out their sanctification (Romans 8:12–13, 12:9–10; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Galatians 5:16–23; Colossians 3:5–14; Philippians 2:12–13).

Christians aren’t passive spectators sitting on the sidelines while God does all the work to win the day. Instead, Christians are active players struggling against evil. “I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body,” said Paul, “and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:26–27).

2. At its heart, sanctification is a process of self-denial and gospel renewal.

Sanctification is a process of dying and rising, of self-discipline and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit. Thus Paul can describe the Christian life in these terms: “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:11).

Self-denial is an essential ingredient in the process of sanctification (Luke 9:23; Colossians 3:5; Ephesians 4:22). But it’s not the only ingredient. The Holy Spirit working through the gospel must birth new life out of the ashes of an old life (Romans 10:17; Philippians 3:8–11; 2 Corinthians 5:17). Being a Christian means following Jesus in death and new life (Luke 9:23; Colossians 3:1–5). Through trusting Jesus, Christians experience a part of that new life as holiness or sanctification.

3. God has provided a plan for sanctification.

In sanctification God has promised to work through human effort and activities designed to discipline the heart. While there are forms of self-discipline that are worthless for the journey and fail to result in a holy life, there are special activities that God has promised to bless (Colossians 2:16–23). “God works to sanctify His people through their reading Scripture, hearing biblical sermons, praying and being baptized. He also works through their receiving of ordinary bread and wine during a worship service, and serving the poor, the marginalized, and anyone in need” (Colossians 3:16; 1 Corinthians 10:16).1

Through God’s sanctifying work, Christians begin to imitate Jesus and reveal characteristics consistent with His (Ephesians 5:1; 1 Corinthians 11:1; Galatians 5:22–26). This includes loving people that might feel like enemies (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:35; Romans 12:14, 17, 20–21). Yet, even while striving to do good, Christians will fail. They will continue to struggle with harmful, evil desires and weakness of heart and body (Romans 7:15; Philippians 3:12–14; 2 Corinthians 12:7–10). The effects of sanctification in this life are real, but incomplete and imperfect. This is because the end result of sanctification is the resurrection and the fullness of new life that awaits in the next.

What Sanctification Is Not


1. Sanctification is not perfection. 2

After reading passages like 1 John 1:8–2:2 or Romans 8, some Christians concluded that to be sanctified means never committing an intentional act of evil. For these Christians, to be sanctified means to be cleansed from all selfishness, evil or impurity to the point that it becomes impossible for a Christian intentionally to do evil. But a close reading of 1 John 1:8–2:2 only shows that Christians ought to mature to the point that doing good in the world and loving God become a habit. This fits better with other places in the Bible (Hebrews 12:4; James 5:16; Romans 7:15; Philippians 3:12–14; 2 Corinthians 12:7–10).

2. Sanctification is not natural.

In a society with psychological experts, life coaches and self-help books, Christians can sometimes mistake sanctification for productivity, self-improvement or mindfulness. These are all good pursuits and accomplishments and include good practices and disciplines. A person doesn’t have to be a Christian to be a good person, productive or mindful. Christians can use these resources, but should not confuse personal growth with sanctification no matter how good it is. 

Sanctification results from the supernatural presence and power of the Holy Spirit working in a Christian’s life (Galatians 5:22–26; Ephesians 3:20; 2 Corinthians 12:9–10). It requires a change of heart, an alignment of the will with God’s will. Sanctification means learning to love what God loves and value what God values, and thus sanctification goes beyond what is natural.

3. Sanctification is not a path to earn God’s love. 

Scripture teaches that sanctification is God’s gift to people whom He already loves. God loves and desires all people to receive His gift of eternal life (John 3:16–17; 1 Timothy 2:4). Jesus’ entire life demonstrates God’s love and mercy to all people, especially the poor, marginalized, and outcasts of society. Jesus made a point to show love to the very people that felt the most unworthy of that love (Matthew 9:10–13, 21:31; Luke 7:34; Luke 15:2). God loves and accepts people who imagine that they are the worst kind of people (Romans 5:8). In the same way that a person becomes a Christian through God’s grace, a person becomes sanctified through grace (Galatians 3:1–5).

 

Sanctification vs. Justification


To understand sanctification, it’s helpful to distinguish it from another important teaching, justification. Justification and sanctification are both Christian teachings related to salvation. They both are part of the good news of Jesus Christ. Both justification and sanctification are God’s gracious gifts, received by faith. But there are also three important differences.

1. Justification is legal; sanctification is transformational.

Justification is the opposite of condemnation (Romans 8:1). It’s a change in status from being guilty before God to being called righteous, holy or perfect. Justification is God’s legal declaration that a person is both innocent of all charges made against them and immune from any future charge in God’s court of law. It’s both forgiveness and legal immunity so that the person is unable to become guilty (Romans 7:4). 

This works because by faith a person embraces Jesus as their legal representative before God. And as the work of their legal representative, Jesus’ work counts as their own, and Jesus’ death counts as their own (Romans 5:12–21). To explain further, in justification, Jesus’ status is applied to a person by faith (Romans 3:21–26).

Unlike justification, sanctification is transformational. Sanctification isn’t a change in status but an actual change in the human condition. Justification is being declared forgiven and righteous, but sanctification is being made righteous and holy.

2. Justification happens all at once; sanctification happens over a lifetime. 

As a change in status, justification is immediate, final and complete. A person doesn’t become justified over time, and a person doesn’t become more or less justified throughout their life. For Christians, justification is an event in God’s court of law that has already happened. This is why Paul described a Christian as having “been justified” in the same way that Christ died “once for all” (Romans 5:1, 6:10).

3. Jesus’ work is the grounds for justification; Jesus’ life is the pattern for sanctification.

By faith a person embraces Jesus as their legal representative before God, meaning that Christ’s work counts as their own and Christ’s death counts as their own (Romans 5:12–21). This works because Jesus, as the Messiah, came to fulfill all of God’s requirements for eternal life as a representative of humanity. Through the resurrection, Jesus enters into the eternal life that He has secured for everyone who trusts Him for salvation.

In sanctification, Jesus’ life is a pattern to follow (Ephesians 5:1–2; 1 Corinthians 11:1). In sanctification God transforms His people over time to resemble Jesus (Ephesians 4:20–24; 2 Corinthians 4:6).


Conclusion


Sanctification is God’s beautiful, transforming work in the life of His people. It’s the transforming presence and power of the Holy Spirit and offered as a gift to anyone who desires it (Luke 11:13). 

If you desire the Holy Spirit to work in your life and wonder how to begin, consider our Core Essentials: Living the Christian Life series. This series will introduce ten essential Christian practices through 11 short studies.
 


1 “Like initial conversion, sanctification is a process of growth and maturation that requires a diligent use of the public means of grace as well as ecclesial, familial, and private disciplines of prayer, meditative reading of Scripture, witness, fellowship, service to those in need, and the discerning care of faithful elders. In progressive sanctification, our focus should not be on the visibility of our experience and growth but Christ as he is given to us in the gospel” (Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, 661).

2Fred Zaspal, Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel ( Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2012), 111–120. Zaspal also explains Warfield’s expert handling of Romans 8, making this work a good entry point into the discussion of what theologians call Perfectionism.

   

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