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The concept of sanctification relates to holiness. It deals with progression in holiness, or, as the word implies, the sanctifying of human life.
We may consider this doctrine under three heads: the necessity of sanctification, the method of sanctification, and, finally, the extent of sanctification.
I. The Necessity of Sanctification
The necessity of sanctification is declared in words of the Old Testament: "I am the Lord your God...be holy, for I am holy" (Leviticus 11:44). God is a holy God; hence He will have His people be a holy people. In speaking to Israel He says, "You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6).
The imperative need for sanctification therefore roots in the nature of God. When God is understood in His holiness, there can be no question about His requirement upon man. For if God made man to have fellowship with Himself, man must be holy even as His Maker.
Over and over again the holiness of God is sharply etched in the Scriptures. One only need call to mind Moses at the burning bush, the Israelites at Sinai not allowed to place a foot on the holy mountain, the Holy of Holies of tabernacle and temple which no man except the high priests (and he only once a year) could enter without dying. Thus does God make terribly vivid His holiness, that men might come to understand the urgency of being holy.
Occasionally one hears God described in familiar and indulgent ways-e.g., a nice kind of guy. Aside from the sacrilege involved, such talk leaves no room or need for sanctification. One can then properly be or do anything-and it's fine with God. The need for sanctification can root only in a true understanding of the nature of God as holy.
If the necessity of sanctification roots in the holiness of God, it grows in the realization of the unholiness of man. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are an ever increasing portrayal of man's deep-dyed lack of holiness. It is not only a matter of man's external actions wherein takes God's name in vain, commits adultery, kills, steals, lies, and so on; it is also an even more urgent matter of man's internal thoughts and feelings wherein he despises God, lusts, hates, envies, judges, condemns. Man is anything but holy; impurity and uncleanness mark his life all through.
Because of God's holiness and man's unholiness there is separation between God and man. Man was made by God to live a righteous life both now and always, but if there is no holiness in this life, there is only deep misery and pain and continuing separation from God. For to be unholy is to be shut off from God and the riches found in Him-and this is torment.
The necessity of sanctification then is grounded in the holiness of God, the unholiness of man, and the resulting separation of God and man in this world and that to come. "Be holy, for I am holy" is a divine commandment, forever inescapable.
II. The Method of Sanctification
Two things may be said about the method of sanctification: first, there must be a radical break or reorientation in man's nature that puts him on the road to holiness; second, there must be a continuing looking to the Lord for growth in righteousness thereafter.
First, the radical break is a dying to unholiness, a death to sin. For example, Romans 6 depicts this in terms of being baptized into the death of Christ (verse 3). Also in this same chapter the radical break is viewed as a deliverance from bondage, from slavery to sin (verse 6). This death to sin, this deliverance from bondage, is essential; for without such, all growth in holiness is impossible. There is no point in discussing growth in something that is either not there to begin with, or, if there, is confined so tightly it cannot increase. A radical break with the past, a new beginning, is necessary.
This ought to be stressed a thousandfold for the reason that people often feel that growth in holiness and development in Christian character is a relatively simple matter of improvement of nature. Man, they feel, is basically all right; just give him a good environment, good teaching, good ideals-and goodness will automatically grow. If one will only instruct children in the teachings of the Bible (e.g., the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the Golden Rule), then they are on the road to Christian maturity, true virtue, and holiness.
Or perhaps someone urges that if any one devotes enough time to self-examination, to prayer, to fellowship with the right kind of people, to living according to the highest standards, he is bound to grow in holiness of life. Man has it in himself-if he would only really try to find ways of bringing his goodness to fruition.
The Scripture says flatly: no. Man does not now have it "in himself." Rather, man is spiritually "dead...through trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2:1); he is "enslaved to sin" (Romans 6:6). So, try as hard as he may to grow in true character and holiness, man cannot do so initially because of his death and serfdom.
The Ten Commandments, for example, cannot of themselves make for holiness. When originally given to Israel, they were not intended to be the origin of a nation's movement toward holiness. The origin lay rather in God's act of redemption from Egypt-and this redemption is stated in the preface of the Decalogue: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me..." (Exodus 20:2-3). The Israelites were no longer dead in Egypt, slaves to Pharaoh; now as made alive and free, grateful for God's redemption, they are to keep His commandments. The point then is (as Paul so often stresses), the law cannot make alive or set free; only God can do that. But once made alive and set free, it is possible to begin to do what never could have been done before.
So we return to the point that, for sanctification to occur, there must be a radical break: an initial point in which there is a dying to unholiness, an emancipation from slavery. This point is of course the death of Jesus Christ in which, through faith in Him and His death for us, we find our sins died for and our enslavement at long last overcome.
"Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?...Our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin" (Romans 6:3, 6). Christ not only died, He also rose again; hence we who have believed rise with Him into a new life. "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4).
Elsewhere Paul points out the parallel with the Old Testament: "I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under this cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea" (1 Corinthians 10:1, 2). As a result of this "baptism," they were a people rising into "newness of life."
There can be no sanctification that does not begin with faith in Jesus Christ and His death on the cross as our own death; for to be baptized into that death (as Paul puts it) is death to sin, freedom from slavery to sin. There can be no other point of departure for Christian living, for growth in holiness, for sanctification. For in that death there is resurrection; in that liberation there is new life. For Christ not only died; He also rose again, and with Him as the living Lord there can now be real growth in sanctification.
Second, after the radical break, the dying to sin through Christ, comes the living to God in Christ. So writes Paul: "The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Romans 6: 10-11).
Sanctification, growth in holiness, becomes a matter of being "alive to God in Christ Jesus." We who were "slaves of sin...having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness" (Romans 6:17-18).
This growth in holiness, however, is nothing automatic and inevitable. There is a radical break with the past through faith in Christ's death and baptism in His name, and there is a new life beginning; but this growth only occurs as we look to God in Christ Jesus and continue to offer ourselves for His cleansing and service.
"Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness..For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification" (Romans 6:13, 19).
Sanctification, therefore, continues as we yield ourselves to God, even as a slave yields himself to his master, his life and actions being determined by his lord. Paul does not hesitate to speak of this new status as becoming "slaves of God"-"But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life" (Romans 6:22).
Let us leave Paul's letter to the Romans for a moment and quote a verse from 2 Corinthians 3:18-a verse which beautifully describes the progress of sanctification-"And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit."
Paul is emphasizing that yielding to God, or slavery to Him, is a matter of steadily beholding His glory, of keeping one's eyes focused on Jesus Christ. In that steadfast devotion a transformation into His likeness gradually occurs.
Sanctification is not making oneself holy either by adding virtues or discarding vices. Rather it happens to one as he keeps his eyes fixed upon Christ and offers his total self to be used in His service.
Moses came down from Mount Sinai, face aglow with the holiness and splendor of God. And whence had it come but from being a "slave of God" for forty days and nights? He had beheld the divine presence, and in beholding that glory he was transformed. All who saw him knew that God was in his life. So may we be "changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another."
III. The Extent of Sanctification
How far is it possible to grow in holiness? May one become completely sanctified in this life? There are some who claim that the Bible teaches complete sanctification, for does not God say, "Be holy, for I am holy"? Does not Jesus teach, "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect"? Furthermore, do we not read in Romans 6 about being "set free from sin'? Is the mature Christian one then for whom sin is forever gone and whose life is one of perfect purity?
The biblical answer to these questions is that God's standard can be nothing less than perfection in holiness. There must be growth in holiness as we look to Jesus Christ. But perfection of character in this life? The answer is no. Indeed, the more one grows in holiness, the more one realizes that there are sins yet to be overcome. It is the saints who are always most conscious of their sinfulness, because the closer they come to God in holiness the more they behold the evil that yet remains in them.
It is as if one were to view an object in dim light. Very little of defect or soil would be seen, but the brighter the light in which the object is viewed the more every tiny crack and every least amount of dirt or smudge stands out. So it is with one who grows in holiness; he becomes aware of sins none other could see. He knows increasingly the longer he lives that the need for continually making his confession and, as Paul says, yielding his "members to righteousness for sanctification" will remain.
Quite often the struggle becomes exceedingly intense. It is not just a matter of moving from darkness to light but an inner warfare that begins the moment one is on the road to sanctification. The power of sin has been broken, but the remnants continue to struggle and seek to overpower the spirit. "For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other" (Galatians 5:17).
The flesh goads, harasses, and there may be stumbling or falling, but the Holy Spirit within enables us to gain the victory.
For sanctification we must in this life more and more die to sin and live to righteousness. This we do as we are slaves to God, looking steadfastly upon Jesus Christ, and yielding ourselves continually to His Spirit. This is a real transformation which He brings that makes life both here and hereafter richer and fuller.
Finally, when we are at death's portal and pass through to the other side into the full presence of God, it will not be that we have achieved or received enough holiness to stand before Him, but that Christ will stand for us. Moreover, by His Spirit we will finally be made perfect in holiness and so dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
We may close with some words of an old hymn:
Take time to be holy,
Be calm in thy soul;
Each thought and each motive
Beneath His control;
Thus led by His Spirit
To fountains of love
Thou soon shall be fitted
For service above.