Begun in an instant, the normal Christian life is a journey of sanctification in which God’s grace conforms us more and more to the image of His beloved Son. Making sense of this voyage and our sanctification in it, however, requires the spectacles of Holy Scripture.
As we examine the Word of God, the first startling fact we see is that our journey of sanctification begins when God pins on us a most surprising nametag. In Colossians 3:12, the apostle Paul identifies the Colossian church as “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.” This same label—“saints,” literally, “holy ones”—is given to believers in Ephesus (Eph. 1:1) and Philippi (Phil. 1:1). Even Christians in Corinth are recognized as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor. 1:2).
How can believers with all their many problems (see James 3:2 and 1 John 1:8) rightly be branded “holy,” “sanctified,” and “saints”? How can a holy God say such a thing about you and me?
The reality of our divine nametag is rooted deep in the Old Testament. At the burning bush, God said to Moses, “Take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5). God’s Sabbath was also different from the other days of the week—“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (20:8). Israel herself was to be set apart from the Canaanite peoples and uniquely identified as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (19:6). Thus, to be “holy” is to be cut off, to be separated from the common or profane for God’s special use.
In this light, it is easy to see why Jesus would refer to Christians as “those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). At the moment that they trust in Christ, new believers are called “holy,” “sanctified,” and “saints” because they are different from the rest, united to Him by faith and by the Spirit (John 15:1–5; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 2:4–6; Col. 2:6–7). No wonder Paul could boast about the Corinthians: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).
This first aspect of our sanctification occurs at the beginning of our journey through the Christian life and continues forevermore: all Christians are called holy. Termed positional, declarative, or definitive sanctification, this shocking biblical truth means that we have undergone a change of relationship and that we are now part of God’s peculiar people: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). In this way, Christians are “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), now able to believe, to repent, to love God, to love God’s people, and to love a world in need of the Savior. Now we are able to hunger and thirst for God. Now we are able to loathe sin and fight against it.
And fight we must! This first aspect of our sanctification leads naturally to the second, which is called progressive sanctification. Not all we experience as Christians is instantaneous. There is also a progressive, unfolding aspect to our Christian life. We, by God’s grace, must continue the journey of sanctification day by day. In addition to being called holy, Christians are also becoming holy.
God’s standard for our progressive Christian lives is hardly unclear: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:14–16). Old Testament Israel received the law of God on stone from Mount Sinai. What better place to find the Lord’s standard for proper Christian living than in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1–17; Deut. 5:6–21; 1 Tim. 1:8–11) carved with His own finger?
This tenfold summary of God’s law first humbled our hearts before we began our Christian journey, teaching us how righteous God really is and how far short of His glory we actually fall. This same moral law also restrained sin inside us and out as we trembled with the children of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai every time the Ten Commandments rang in our ears. But the third use of the law is the sweetest to us in our Christian walk of sanctification, as we learn there what pleases our heavenly Father and how we should seek to serve Him.
And so we fight sin because we love God and want to bring Him glory. But this is not a lonely struggle of our flesh against all the demons that plague us. Rather, it is a deliberate and conscious battling against sin in our lives, but always in union with Christ (Rom. 8:13–18). We do not fight alone or even merely in our own strength. Instead, we are one by faith and by the Spirit with our Savior and Head. And so by His grace and strength, we are able to engage in this battle against sin, using all the tools He has provided, because He Himself also fights for us.
This mortification of sin is one side of our progressive sanctification. It is not automatic but something that requires our positive effort. It is grounded in the fact that through our union with Christ we are dead to sin, having died to it because of His crucifixion (Rom. 6:3–7; Gal. 5:24; Col. 3:3). With that stark reality in mind, it is easier to see why we must therefore strain every nerve to kill the sins that plague us so (Rom. 8:13; Col. 3:5). Thus, our union with Jesus has tangible implications for the way we live as Christians.
Our journey in progressive sanctification is not defined merely by this ongoing struggle against sin. We also live in Him, in the light and strength of Christ’s resurrection, because our union with Him extends beyond Calvary and into the empty tomb (Rom. 6:5). Death no longer holds Him, and so death no longer holds dominion over those who are His, and they live in Him for God (vv. 9–11). Thus, our walk in the normal Christian life includes a spring in our steps as we push ahead with every effort by His grace and strength to the kind of life and lifestyle He desires (Phil. 3:13–14).
This vivification brings both renewal and growth in our Christian lives. Renewal impacts every facet of our human personality, including our desires, our dreams, and our emotions. But these aspects of our lives are changed most profoundly through the portal of our minds: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). In this way, we “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). This is a work of God’s Holy Spirit on us, in us, and through us, making us more like Christ (Eph. 4:23–24), but at the same time we must exercise “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16).
Growth in grace is also a part of our progressive sanctification. The apostle Peter plainly stresses the importance of such development at the end of his second epistle: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (3:18). Paul calls on the Colossians “to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:10). Here again we see that, like renewal, growing in grace does not exclude the importance of Christlike thinking. Such Christian growth in sanctification also carries with it a corporate, social dimension in the life of the church—sharing in one another’s gifts and graces, “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:11–16).
Progressive sanctification is, therefore, a synergistic effort, involving both the work of God (1 Thess. 3:12–13) and the work of man (1 John 3:3; 2 Cor. 7:1; Rev. 7:14). By His grace, God expects us to conform our progressive experience of the Christian life to our definitive status as His saints.
What an exciting journey through sanctification we can see in the pages of Holy Scripture! God begins it in an instant when He names us as those who are set apart to be His own, and then walks with us every step of the way. Holy by His creative Word, we become more holy in our own experience by His grace and Spirit as we march forward to His glory each day.