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The Fulfilled Life: Rediscovering the Transforming Power of Sanctification

Providing biblical teaching on living a holy life can provide spiritual freedom to the people in your congregation.

By Dan Crabtree

Belief in the personal holiness of every believer has been part of Pentecostal teaching at least since the Azusa Street Revival. The Scriptures teach that, “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). Since God is holy we must also be holy. But this creates a dilemma: We cannot make ourselves holy. Any attempt to do so through our own effort results in legalism, an outward conformity without the inward transformation true holiness requires.

Growing up in church, I understood that at salvation, by divine declaration, God pardoned my sins through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Following salvation, I also understood that living a holy, sanctified Christian life was primarily my responsibility. God had already done His part by saving me; now, through human effort, I needed to make myself holy. So I took up the call to be holy, even though it seemed like a daunting and impossible task that would inevitably have many moments of humiliating failure. I was grateful for God’s grace, but I felt trapped by His seemingly impossible standards of holiness. Unintentionally, I had chosen the way of legalism, but how was I to obtain the standard of holiness God required?

At its very core, legalism weakens the church, leaving in its wake frustrated, burned-out, and defeated Christians. Many believers have been led to believe that to earn God’s favor they must follow a rigid set of rules, standards, and regulations. Despite enormous efforts by pastors to teach their people how to daily live in holiness, some leaders have unwittingly reinforced a legalistic, works-based righteousness. God has called believers to freedom and liberty in Christ (Galatians 5:1). It is our responsibility as pastors and leaders to affirm that a life of holiness flows out of what Christ has already accomplished for us at the Cross and not by what we can achieve through human effort.

How Does God, in Christ, Sanctify the Believer?

New Testament writers employ various terms to describe the dramatic change that takes place as a result of Christ’s self-sacrifice. Salvation draws on the metaphor of slavery. Biblical writers often associate redemption with the price paid to liberate from bondage.

Justification is a legal term describing a courtroom verdict in which God, the Eternal Judge, pardons the believer from his or her sins. We often, however, overlook sanctification when describing the salvation experience. We sometimes view sanctification, or holiness, as what a believer experiences after justification and before glorification. This is, however, a somewhat incomplete understanding of how God in Christ sanctifies the believer. The danger is this: While justification is a matter of grace, it is believed that sanctification is achieved through human effort.

At salvation, God both justifies and sanctifies us. Theologians often speak of two different yet interrelated aspects of sanctification: positional sanctification — who we are in Christ as a result of His death on the Cross; and progressive sanctification — learning how to daily live out a life of holiness. Paul expressed this concept by using indicatives and imperatives. Indicatives are Paul’s statements describing what is already true of the believer as a result of Christ’s work. His imperatives are his call to ethical and moral living that flows out of the indicatives. You have been made holy by Christ’s death; now live like it.

The following passages describe what Christ has done on the Cross, making the believer holy and giving her a new status in Him. These Scripture place an emphasis on positional sanctification, although I also address the call to live out who we are in Christ. In these passages God never calls believers to make themselves holy — only to live out the holiness that is already theirs through Christ’s death.

Positional Sanctification

Hebrews 10:5–18

Through His death Christ accomplished what the repeated shedding of the blood of animals could not. Christ offered himself “once for all” as the final perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 10:10). The fact “we have been made holy” is a status or condition made possible through Christ’s death. His sacrifice is “once and for all,” “no further sacrifices or rituals are needed to keep us in that sanctified condition.”1

Verse 14 restates believers’ sanctification through Christ’s death, “by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever,” but then adds, “those who are being made holy.” How should we understand, “those who are being made holy”? Because this is in the present tense, it speaks of Christ’s ongoing inward work in the heart of the believer. Because of Christ’s death the believer can have confidence to draw near to Him (Hebrews 7:19; 10:1,22).

In Hebrews 10:22, the writer of Hebrews exhorts believers to approach God with a “sincere heart in full assurance of faith” which is the fulfillment of God’s promise to change the hearts of His people (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:26,27). Through Christ’s self-sacrifice we are free to worship and serve the living God in a way that pleases and honors Him. “When the sanctifying work of Jesus is proclaimed and believed, God changes our hearts and binds us to Him as children of the new covenant.”2 Understanding who we are in Christ is foundational to holiness, the inward transformation of our hearts leading to a lifestyle of outward obedience.

1 Corinthians 1:2

Paul opens his letter to the Corinthians by addressing them as “the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:2). The emphasis here is on divine activity. They are “of God”; they are God’s people and have been “sanctified.”3 They are made holy not by what they have done, but what God has done “in Christ Jesus.”

At salvation they were positionally sanctified in Christ. Nonetheless, the Corinthians did not act like sanctified, holy people. Their quarreling led to division (1 Corinthians 1:11–13); they were complacent about a man living with his father’s wife (1 Corinthians 5); they sued each other in front of pagan judges (1 Corinthians 6:1–8); they abused the Lord’s Table (1 Corinthians 11:17–34); and they misused spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12–14).

The Corinthians’ sanctification can hardly refer to their holiness of character or conduct since Paul had to spend so much of his time correcting their behavior and calling them to ethical living. “In many ways they look more like Corinth than they do God’s people in Corinth.”4 And yet, Paul addressed them as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:2).

The Corinthians were already sanctified in a relational sense, but they needed to express that sanctification in a lifestyle.5 To deal with the gap between who they were in Christ and the reality of their lifestyle, Paul reminded the Corinthians that they are also “called to be holy” (1 Corinthians 1:2). They are called to be who they are in Christ and thereby reflect God’s character.

1 Corinthians 1:30

In 1 Corinthians 1:30, Paul writes, “It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us the wisdom of God — that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption.” Paul insisted that Christ crucified is the wisdom of God, over against the Corinthians’ attempt at seeking wisdom for themselves (1 Corinthians 1:18–25). As the ultimate expression of God’s wisdom, Christ has become three things for us: (1) “righteousness” (justification), a legal term describing the believer’s pardon and undeserved right standing before God; (2) “sanctification,” describing the believer’s new status as holy in Christ; and (3) “redemption,” the price of our liberation from the bondage of sin.

In this passage, sanctification is not a process of moral change but a description of our new status in Christ. All three terms — righteousness, sanctification, and redemption — refer to God’s saving activity. “It is because of him (God) that you are in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:30). Paul places sanctification after righteousness but before redemption. If sanctification referred to a process of moral change following conversion, then logically Paul would have listed it after redemption.

The Corinthian believers’ new status in Christ gave them a new identity. They were no longer defined by a world that viewed them as not “wise by human standards; not … influential; not … noble” (1 Corinthians 1:26–29). Paul called them to live out their new identity and status in Christ by listening to the wisdom of God and not the wisdom of the world.

1 Corinthians 6:11

In this context, Paul admonished the Corinthians to stop dragging each other before public courts over private matters (1 Corinthians 6:1–8). Perhaps as something of a warning, Paul presents a list of those who will not “inherit the kingdom of God” (verses 9,10). Paul then exclaimed, “That is what some of you were” (verse 11). Using the past tense, Paul reminded them of what Christ had already done for them: “But you were washed, [but] you were sanctified, [but] you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (verse 11). As in 1 Corinthians 1:30, Paul used all three terms to describe God’s saving activity in Christ. In the Greek, all are aorist passive, describing what God has done for us in the past. Alla (but) precedes each of them, although English translations do not always reflect this.

Paul is offering three different descriptions of the same reality: “you were washed” — implies cleansing from sin; “you were sanctified” — God has claimed them as His own and made them His people; “you were justified” — implies declaration of legal right standing. All of this takes place in the “name of … Christ,” referring to the saving authority of Christ on behalf of the believer and “by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). “Together, then, the two prepositions refer to what God has done for His people in Christ, which He has effected in them by the Spirit.”6

In this passage, as in 1 Corinthians 1:30, sanctification does not refer to moral improvement. Despite their proclivity for suing each other, they were already sanctified in Christ. By reminding the Corinthians of what Christ had done for them, Paul sought to motivate them to holy living. Despite Paul’s challenge, “and that is what some of you were,” the Corinthians chose to reflect their past lives in their actions. By not loving one another, they compromised their witness before unbelievers, the very people before whom God desired to reveal himself as holy.

Ephesians 5:25–27

Paul uses an analogy from marriage to depict Christ’s love for the church. Paul describes Christ’s sanctifying self-sacrifice on the Cross when he writes, “Just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy.”

“Christ’s intention was to have the Church as His own possession, the community of His holy people, set apart for himself.”7 As His bride, Christ set apart the Church to be exclusively devoted to Him. Whatever faults the Church may exhibit in the present, she is still His holy bride; and at His second coming Christ will “present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (verse 27).

Living Out Who We Are in Christ

Progressive Sanctification

Christ’s death on the Cross not only positionally sanctifies us, but also makes possible the progressive ongoing life of holiness. We need to use the word progressive, however, with some caution because it suggests we can through our efforts become more holy.

There are no steps to holiness that the believer must climb. The New Testament never calls us to make ourselves more holy. The Bible challenges believers to live in keeping with who they are in Christ. But no one is making himself more holy. Only Christ can and has done that.

Christ not only sanctifies us but also sets the example of what a life of holiness looks like. As God in the flesh, He reveals to us the character of God. He then calls us to be like Him when He says, “Follow me.” As church father Athanasius said, “He became like us that we might become like him.”

To follow Jesus we ask, “What would Jesus do?” Dallas Willard puts it well: “I am learning from Jesus to live my life as He would live my life if He were I. Remember, we are not learning how to live Jesus’ life (that has already been lived); we are learning how to live our lives as Jesus would live them, if He were us.”8

Pursuing holiness is more than doing our best to obey a set of rules, but learning to live and love the way Christ does. In practical terms, we best express holiness through love. If sinning keeps us from loving, then living a holy life should result in love. Christ taught, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” — loving God and loving your neighbor (Matthew 22:34–40). Indeed, “Love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10).

The Holy Spirit enables us to live the sanctified life by continually applying the benefits of what Christ accomplished on the Cross. He reminds us of Christ’s work and at the same time guides us in living like Him. Walking in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16,25) results in the fruit of the Spirit, which is love (Galatians 5:22). As the Spirit leads us, we are to set our minds on the things of the Spirit (Romans 8:5). By the Spirit we put to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13). By His presence in our lives, the Spirit — who is holy — enables us to live holy lives. “It is the Spirit who is at work in the believer, bringing about likeness to Christ.”9

Romans 6–8

In Romans 6, Paul calls believers to live lives that lead to holiness (Romans 6:19, 22) by recognizing who they are in Christ (Romans 6:11). They are no longer slaves of sin but are to offer themselves as slaves of righteousness. By identifying with Christ’s death and resurrection, the believer dies to the “old life” (Romans 6:2,6) and rises to “live a new life” (Romans 6:4). Just as the control of sin characterized the old life before Christ, so a life under God’s control needs to characterize the new life. Having been made alive to God through Christ the believer is to no longer “let sin reign” or “obey its evil desires” (Romans 6:12). Instead the believer is to offer himself “in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness” (Romans 6:19; c.f. 6:22).

Living the life of holiness flows out of what Christ has already accomplished for us at the Cross. But we must believe and accept our new status in Christ. Paul admonishes, “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). We are “summoned to agree with God’s perspective.”10 Paul calls on believers “to be what he declares they are. For Paul identity is determined by being in Christ, but the believer must still choose to believe this reality sufficiently to live accordingly. Through faith one receives a new identity, and through faith one must also continue to embrace and live in that new identity, so that obedient works become expressions of living faith.”11 This does not mean that Paul anticipates a sinless perfectionism on the part of the Roman believers, but quite the opposite. He anticipates the enormous difficulties and challenges the believers will encounter as they seek to live holy lives. But it all begins by understanding and being motivated by the truth of who we are in Christ.

Paul describes the struggle with sin with gripping, first-person narration in Romans 7:14–25. Whether Paul is describing his pre- or post-salvation or simply using a rhetorical device need not detain us here. The important point is that Paul graphically describes the attempt and ultimate failure to keep the Law through human effort.

Paul’s repeated use of “I” illustrates the futility of self-sanctification. How can one be delivered from such a wretched condition? The answer is the Cross — “Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25). At the Cross, Christ accomplished what the Law was powerless to do (Romans 8:3).

Romans 8 pictures the Spirit-controlled life as living “in accordance with the Spirit” (Romans 8:5) with a “mind controlled by the Spirit” (Romans 8:6). The “Spirit,” not “I,” is in control resulting in victorious Christian living. To surrender ourselves to the Spirit’s control we must allow the truth applied by the Spirit to shape our thinking. We are to “count [ourselves] dead to sin” (Romans 6:11) and have our “minds set on what the Spirit desires” (Romans 8:5). The flesh/sinful nature controlled the mind of the unbeliever, resulting in ungodly patterns and habits of thinking and living (Romans 8:5–8).

After conversion, new believers are often tempted to fall back into the same habits and patterns they developed prior to conversion making them feel they are still under the control of sin. We can seal off this natural entry point of sin into our lives by renewing our minds so we do “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2). Through the Spirit we put to death in our lives what God has already sentenced to death on the Cross (Romans 8:13). “Human effort is required, but not apart from, nor distinct from the activity of God’s Spirit, who subdues the flesh as we mortify it in His power, and as we set our minds on the things of the Spirit.”12

1 Thessalonians 3:12,13

Paul addressed 1 Thessalonians to a church undergoing severe persecution that potentially threatened their unity. Paul prayed that their love would “increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else” (1 Thessalonians 3:12). “And for everyone else” means those outside the church and apparently included their persecutors. To maintain their testimony under fire, Paul asked God to strengthen their hearts so they can be “blameless and holy” at the Second Coming (1 Thessalonians 3:13).

Holiness flows out of a heart strengthened by God. True holiness is never merely a matter of externals. God works from the inside out. “Love and holiness are two related ways of viewing the Christian life. Holiness will be pre-eminently expressed in love, and love will be the essential means by which holiness is maintained. Paul’s prayer indicates that love must increase and abound, if believers are to persist in holiness. … In effect, holiness abounds when love abounds.”13

Hebrews 12:10—14

The writer of Hebrews wrote to believers who were being tested by adversity. Challenged by the example of those who have gone before them (Hebrews 11), they are to run the race of faith with endurance as they keep their eyes fixed on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2). The sufferings they are enduring serve God’s purpose of discipline. Like a father disciplines the son he loves, so God disciplines us so we may become more like Him (Hebrews 12:10). Holiness here means “character.” God can use “all things” to conform us to the image of His Son (Romans 8:28,29).

The goal of sharing in His holiness is to live in “righteousness and peace” with others (Hebrews 12:11). God did not intend for us to live out our holiness in isolation, but to reveal our holiness in our treatment of others. This is particularly true during times of stress brought on by suffering. Understanding this, the writer of Hebrews challenged the believers, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

Conclusion

At the Cross, Christ sanctified us and set us in right relationship with himself. Our challenge is to believe and accept what Christ has done in giving us a new identity in Him. We are to “count” ourselves “dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11) and to see ourselves as hidden “with Christ” (Colossians 3:3). God’s work of holiness begins in us when we believe what He has done for us through Christ at the Cross.

When we accept who we are in Christ, we begin to see ourselves the way God sees us. We no longer primarily define our identity by how others view us or by our own self-perception, or the dominant cultural values. To place our identity in something we can lose is to live in perpetual insecurity. But our identity is found in Him. When we accept who we are in Christ, we can with confidence say, “yes” to holiness and “no” to the world. We may be in the world but we are no longer of it.

God sanctifies us through Christ and then calls us to live out our new identity. This is not a call to make ourselves holy. God is not asking us to do what only He can do. Rather it is an exhortation — having been sanctified — to live a sanctified life, or be who we are in Christ. This requires commitment and endurance on our part as we seek to live holy in an unholy world. Through the Spirit we are to “put to death the misdeeds of the body” (Romans 8:13). Sometimes, however, in the intensity of the conflict, we struggle and fail. God in His grace picks us up and through His Word reminds us who we are.

Our example in living a holy life is Christ himself, who through love revealed the character of God. In imitation of Him, we are to express God’s holiness through our love. As we do this together we become a holy community revealing God’s character to the world. This is what God called Israel, the disciples, the believers in Thessalonica, and now us to do. God has sanctified us through Christ at the Cross so that together we might reveal His holy character to the world.

DAN CRABTREE, D.Min., is professor at Central Bible College, Springfield, Missouri.

Notes

1. David Peterson, Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 34.

2. Ibid., 40.

3. In the Greek Paul uses the perfect passive participle for “sanctified” to describe what they had already experienced at salvation. The passive indicates that the Corinthian believers are recipients of God’s action and the perfect indicates an event that took place in the past but has continuing effects in the present.

4. Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 33.

5. Peterson, 41.

6. Fee, 247.

7. F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Ephesians (Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1961), 116.

8. Richard Foster, “Salvation Is for Life,” in Theology Today, (61, 2004): 307.

9.Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book 1985), 970.

10. Craig Keener, Romans: A New Covenant Commentary, (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2009), 81.

11. Keener, 82.

12. Peterson, 112,113.

13. Peterson, 80.

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