“What could an unsanctified man do in Heaven, if by any chance he got there? Let that question be fairly looked in the face and fairly answered. No man can possibly be happy in a place where he is not in his element and where all around him is not congenial to his tastes, habits and character.” –J. C. Ryle

Though oft-neglected, understanding sanctification is vital for a thriving Christian life. Those of us who have been walking with Christ for any length of time recognize that the work of sanctification is slow. There is no insta-sanctification or seven steps to become successfully sanctified. It is slow, with many twists and turns. It’s also deeply personal as we each have different areas of life in which the Spirit is working. Sanctification is also a highly corporate project as well. The “us” of sanctification is just as important as the “I” within the Christian life.

1. Sanctification takes place in two parts

Sanctification is the cooperative work of God and Christians (Phil. 2:12–13) by which ongoing transformation into greater Christlikeness occurs. Such maturing transpires particularly through the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3: 18; Gal. 5: 16– 23) and the Word of God (John 17: 17). Sanctification is not about perfection, but persistence. Fighting sin is a lifelong endeavor. The believer cooperates with the Holy Spirit working in them, their works being an expression of gratitude for their salvation. Sanctification, therefore, begins at the moment of conversion.

The Bible gives us two ways of understanding this doctrine. First, sanctification is definitive. This is God’s work of setting believers apart from non-believers. Even the newest believer who trusts in Jesus Christ and his finished work on the cross is considered a “saint” (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2). In this sense, Christians are “sanctified” in the present (1 Cor. 6:11), “dead to sin” (Rom. 6:11), “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20), and similar definitive (past-tense) statements. When we trust in Christ by faith we are set apart in Christ and considered to be saints based on the work of Christ for us.

Sanctification is also progressive. This active growth proceeds from the life we live by faith in Jesus Christ. Continuing to trust in the finished work of Christ, we grow in Christlikeness by cooperating with the Holy Spirit in seeking to live more faithfully in accordance with God’s word.

2. Sanctification is hard

Sounds easy right?

Regrettably, there is no silver bullet to sanctification. In Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, Gerhard O. Forde says our sanctification is “simply the art of getting used to justification.” While this may look good on a coffee cup or Pinterest board, it’s far from that simple.

Without a doubt, justification is a beautiful doctrine, but it is not the sum of the Christian life. All biblical doctrines are necessary for understanding our life in Christ. All the Scriptures are vital for the Christian. All of Jesus and his work is necessary, not just a part of him. Thus, the Christian faith, with all its rich theological reflection and truth, is best understood in light of our union with Christ. This essential truth of the Christian faith provides a framework for all of the Christian life.

At every turn of the Christian life, we must remember the distinction between the objective achievement of Christ’s work in redeeming us from sin and death, and the subjective response of such work by faith through the Spirit. Sanctification, in tandem with other crucial facets of faith, is simply one aspect of our union with Christ.

3. Sanctification happens because we’re united to Christ

Here’s a helpful way to understand our sanctification in light of our union with Christ: sanctification is part recognizing that our redemption has been accomplished by Christ, and part realizing that our redemption is being applied by the Spirit. We are in Christ by faith, and he is in us by the power of the Spirit. Scripture gives us numerous snapshots of what this looks like:

  • Ephesians 1:3—“In him we have every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”
  • 2 Corinthians 5:17, 21—“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. . . . For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
  • Romans 8:10—“If Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”
  • Galatians 2:20—“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

Lest you think sanctification is simply an exercise in theological research, hear the words of noted theologian Sinclair Ferguson, “Of all the doctrines surrounding the Christian life this, one of the profoundest, is also one of the most practical in its effects” (Ferguson, The Christian Life, 114).

When we understand the profound nature of our union with Jesus, then we begin to see the immense riches available to us for our growth in godliness. Sanctification therefore is multifaceted and meets every one of us exactly where we are on our journey of becoming more like our Savior. Though they may be similar, no two roads of sanctification are alike.

4. Sanctification is different for everyone

We are unique human beings who have been affected by the fall in unique ways. Though we all suffer from the same disease, our symptoms are often different. We all have need of the Great Physician, but his remedies are as unique as the ones whom he created. Though sanctification is deeply personal, we must remember that the Alpha and Omega of sanctification is Christ himself.

The first spark of justifying faith sets us apart as “holy ones” of God and simultaneously lights the first flame of our growth in Christlikeness. All tributaries of the Spirit’s subjective application of Jesus’s objective work flow into this one source: to know, enjoy, delight in, and adore Jesus Christ for all time.

In his recent book, How Does Sanctification Work?, David Powlison gives us five factors towards our sanctification:

  1. God. “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13)
  2. Truth. The truth of God’s word taught, sung, preached, studied, and read is one of the surest means by which the Spirit brings about change in our lives
  3. Wise people. God mediates our change “through the gifts and graces of brothers and sisters in Christ.”
  4. Suffering and struggle. Though we don’t relish it, suffering and struggles work towards our growth in Christlikeness. Difficulties prompt us to rely on God. Writes Powlison: “People change because something is hard, not because it goes well . . . Struggles force us to need God.”
  5. You change. Scripture calls us to actively believe, obey, trust, seek, love, confess, praise, and take refuge. We are not passive. The mystery of faith is that we are 100% responsible, yet 100% dependent on outside help.

How these factors play out in each of our lives may look drastically different. The Spirit is at work, applying the objective work of Christ, yet that work touches us all differently. While journeying towards the same goal, each believer will have a distinct path which they will tread.

5. Sanctification is a community project

Though sanctification is personal, it is also deeply corporate. Christians are called into a body, a group of other believers, in order to experience the work of the Spirit in our lives together. Christ died for a people. Apart from the body of Christ, sanctification is impossible. This is the way God designed the Christian life.

There is no such thing as a growing Christian apart from an active life in the body of Christ. This is so because a clear evidence of sanctification is that we are thinking of Christ and others more than ourselves. When we are not overly preoccupied with ourselves then we can rest assured that our sanctification is progressing. Our sanctification is intimately bound up in our love for and service to others. Those who are in Christ are forgiven sinners, sufferers who find shelter from life’s storms, and saints in process. And, we are in this together.

6. Sanctification is slow

Sanctification is a slow work. There are numerous reasons for this. I conclude with two. First, we can resist the work of the Spirit. Again, one factor of our sanctification is ourselves. Therefore, when we defy the Spirit’s work, Scripture calling that “quenching” the Spirit. Another way to say this is that through our stubbornness we effectively snuff out the flame of the Spirit in our lives. The result of such “quenching” (cf. 1 Thess. 5:19) may lead to a season of spiritual dryness.

Second, there is no part of our human existence unaffected by the fall. Our bodies, minds, emotions, relationships, and more have all been spoiled by the decay of sin. Thus, to find healing and restoration is a lifelong process. Though slow, this process of sanctification is good, because it gives us numerous opportunities to lean upon God and see him consistently glorified in our lives.

Like a spouse for whom our affection grows the more we see their beauty, so too is our relationship with God as we grow in our sanctification.