A vitally important area for followers of Christ is that of understanding how to be made more like Him. Sanctification is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ in how we live. Certainly, we are saints now because of the fact that Christ has purchased us, redeemed us, and saved us by the power of the Gospel, this is true of every believer who has been declared holy in the Lord (Ephesians 1:1, Colossians 1:2, and 1 Peter 2:9). In terms of progressive sanctification, however, we are still growing in the Lord. Every Christian is still working to put sin to death, to live more righteously for Christ, and to be more like their Lord.
The Apostle Paul knew that this growth in the Lord was not only the focus for his own life but also for his ministry to other believers:
“Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” -Colossians 1:28
Striving after maturity is the work of the body of Christ together. It is the labor of ministers to strive after the conversion of souls and their growth in the Lord by the power of the Spirit of God. However, often our temptation, both personally and congregationally, is to make an unbiblical separation. We can load our heads up with knowledge that never actually impacts our lives. It is an ever-present temptation for us to dive into truths like God’s sovereignty, the local church, and even the Gospel itself without ever seeking to understand the impact of these glorious doctrines. On the other end of the spectrum, we can neglect doctrine and simply focus on the practical impact like seeing how Christ calls us to love others means we should show kindness to them. I believe a quote from David Powlison helps us to see a more comprehensive and biblical view than falling into either of these ditches:
“Becoming more holy does not mean that you become ethereal, ghostly, and detached from the storms of life. It means you are becoming a wiser human being. You are learning how to deal well with your money, your sexuality, your job. You are becoming a better friend and family member. When you talk, your words communicate more good sense, more gravitas, more joy, more reality. You are learning to pray honestly, bringing who God really is to the reality of human need. And to grow in holiness does not mean you now talk in hushed tones and every third sentence quotes the Bible. It means you live in more clear-minded hope. You know the purpose of your life, roll up your sleeves, and get about doing what needs doing. You are honestly thankful for good things. You honestly face disappointment and pain, illness and dying.”
This, my friends, is a life plugged into the power source of Christ and His Word. Precisely, this is what biblical sanctification is supposed to achieve!
Balance in Growth
I love the balanced approach Powlison outlines here on sanctification precisely because it is the biblical one. The Apostle Paul who dives into the depths of the Gospel in Romans and Ephesians also says “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8).” This is the case because the work of the Gospel in a man’s life brings him to a point where he desires to use His God-given strength to provide for his family.2 If this desire is not present, it is worse than an unbeliever. Christ’s work gives a man a passion to “roll up your sleeves” as Powlison puts it. Or, as someone very dear to me metaphorically says it, “the holier you are the dirtier your hands should be.” Our sanctification must lead to the “dirty hands” that have been used to get in the muck and mire of life in service to those around us. The deep doctrine we believe and mine from the Word of God is the power source for transformed lives on the basis of the Gospel of Christ because of the Spirit’s work in our souls.
What all of this means is that we must as Christians be enamored by Christ in us the “hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).” We are striving together after Truth both lived and spoken. This why the preaching of the Word of God is central to the life and ministry of the local church (2 Timothy 4:1-2). It is also the precise reason we are commanded to be kind to each other, tenderhearted, show forgiveness, and exercise grace in our speech (Ephesians 4). Christ calls on us to know, speak, and live in light of the truth of who He is and the totality of His Word. I need the Lord to grow me in my mind renewing it after the knowledge of Himself (Romans 12:2). And yet, the very purpose of that renewal is so that I might not be conformed to the world but present my very body as a living sacrifice seeking the glory of the living God as I serve others for His sake (Romans 12:1-2). Scripture calls us to theological depths, yet it is doctrine for the sake of the knowledge of God transforming us to be more faithful to Him!
Getting To The Nuts and Bolts
Biblical sanctification calls on us to see the powerful depths of divine truths as the Spirit sifts our hearts showing us how we can apply them more faithfully. We must mourn over sin while also pursuing righteousness (Matthew 5:4, 6). Recently, I wrote about the need for pastors to both preach rich doctrine and give powerful application.3 What I am saying now is that sanctification calls every Christian to pursue both of these as well. Practically, let us say that we are studying a text like Ephesians 5:15-17:
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. -Ephesians 5:15-17
We can and should see this passage in its context and even trace out a biblical understanding of time management. Yet, we must also take the next step and then pray to God that He would enlighten our eyes to see how to make better use of the days He has given to us. Do we have an appropriate amount of time spent working and pouring into our families? Does our social media usage reflect Godly priorities and wisdom? How about the amount of time we spend on pure entertainment verses studying the Word and serving those around us? These are all questions regarding which we each need the Spirit’s guidance. We need His wisdom to know how much to rest and how much to labor. It is Him we need and we must bow before Christ asking for eyes to see how to apply the truth of His Word.
At the basic level, we must be “poor in spirit” so that we will be humble before the Lord as He grows us (Matthew 5:3). Take heart, dear brother or sister, for the glory that awaits you in Christ is beyond what you can fathom. Neither you nor I are all that we should be or will be, but Christ has promised to glorify us in Himself. We are making progress day by day by the power of His grace. My call to all of us is that our sanctification would lead us to have more highlights in our Bibles even as those pages are stained by the dirty sleeves that have been used to serve others. I pray that we shall be able to give a robust doctrine as we invest in others while also striving to be a faithful example of a life that adorns that truth. May the Lord bring us to a greater heart to pursue sanctification as we focus on being made more like Him who has been so kind and gracious to us!
1 Powlison, How Does Sanctification Work, pp. 14-15.
2 Note: Of course, there are exceptions where men are handicapped or some extraordinary matter like that. But, the desire to provide, willingness to work, and passion for seeking the good of those around them, especially in the home, should mark every man. If it does not, then Scripture says there are massive spiritual issues present.