Three Aspects of Sanctification

Anthony Hoekema defines sanctification like this: “that gracious operation of the Holy Spirit, involving our responsible participation, by which He delivers us as justified sinners from the pollution of sin, renews our entire nature according to the image of God, and enables us to live lives that are pleasing to Him.” Or, more simply, the process that believers are made more like Jesus.

There are three aspects of sanctification.

Positional sanctification happens immediately at salvation, and is the washing and cleansing of the new believer where God sets him apart as his own. Paul writes of believers who were sanctified at a specific time in the past: “but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified…” (1 Cor. 6:11). When a person gets saved, he is considered positionally sanctified. He is a saint. He is holy.

Progressive sanctification happens after salvation and is the process by which the believer is transformed into the image of Christ. Romans 6:19b reads “so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.” Believers are to strive for holiness “without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).

Permanent sanctification happens at glorification, when believers are finally “not able to sin.” This will only come when we die and go to be with the Lord. “When we see him, we will be like him” John says (1 Jn. 3:2), ;and Revelation 21 makes clear that all sin and struggle and pain will be eradicated. In that state of glorification, there will be no possibility of sin destroying anything.

The human dilemma

God’s holiness is the reason why the Fall was so devastating. God’s holiness is the reason why Nadab and Abihu were consumed at the altar. God’s holiness is the reason why the earth opened up and swallowed the complainers. God’s holiness struck down Uzzah when he touched the ark.

When the ark returned to Israel after the Philistines had captured it in 1 Samuel the men of Beth-shemesh were elated to see to ark coming back. 1 Samuel 6:13, “Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley. And when they lifted their eyes and saw the ark, they rejoiced to see it.” But do you know what happened? Just a few verses later: “And [God] struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked upon the ark of the Lord. He struck seventy men of them, and the people mourned because the Lord had struck the people with a great blow.”

The ark, in God’s amazing providence, returns to Israel on an oxcart. The people rejoice and offer sacrifices and praise to God. And as they’re sacrificing, and worshiping, and praising God, a man drops dead. Then another. And suddenly there’s something like an epidemic—and seventy men die. Why? Because they looked at the ark. A direct violation of Leviticus 16:13.

In the Bible, some of the most profound insight comes after a person, in some way, experiences God’s holiness. This clash between God and man causes the men of Beth-Shemesh to ask one of the most important questions a person can ask: “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God?” (1 Sam 6:20)

That’s the human dilemma. Anyone who as ever really experienced God asks the same question. In fact, this is the question that all sinners ask before they grab hold of the grace of God in Christ. Until the dilemma haunts you with its stone-faced reality, you wont’ find any need for a Savior.

If God were not holy, we would have no hope because though he’s sovereign he wouldn’t be good. But because God is holy, we are doomed, because when the unholy and the holy meet, someone has to die. And it’s not going to be God.

Or is it?


Hope for Holiness

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 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 1:13-16 ESV)

So first, hope in God’s grace. And second, be holy. Hope and holiness—two qualities Peter commands his audience to have. Is Peter just picking random Christian virtues from out of a hat and demanding that we obey them? Or is there an order to his thinking here?

I believe Peter has thought this through and knows exactly what he wants to say. It’s no accident that hope comes first and holiness comes second. You can’t be truly holy without hope, and hope that doesn’t result in holiness is fake. Can I say it like this: the source of biblical holiness is hope, and the fruit of biblical hope is holiness. Hopeless holiness is fake holiness. Hope that doesn’t birth holiness is misplaced hope. Remember this. Write this down somewhere—hope is the foundation of holiness.

Hope, or forward looking faith, has the power to say no to sin. In fact, hope is the sheath that holds tight the sword of the Spirit. God’s promises are nothing for us if we don’t hold them tightly. Anyone who hopes in an eternal rest will be willing to be exhausted here. Anyone who hopes in an infinite inheritance will be generous with their money here. Anyone who hopes in the rewards of suffering will not fear risk here. He who hopes in God will not look to the world for satisfaction– he’s smarter than that– he knows this world can’t satisfy him. “Everyone who thus hopes in [God] purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).

It is belief in the fulfillment of these promises that allow us to soar above the temptations of this world. It’s not Red Bull that gives you wings, it’s hope.

Practically speaking, what does that mean?

Really believe in divine appointments. Really believe in all-sufficient grace. Really believe in future rewards. Really believe obedience is better. Get your mind and heart around the glories of all we’ve been given now and will be given then. Hope in them. And then stop sinning.

Drink of these celestial glories and be satisfied.

When your soul is so small that you can’t fit the big joys of heaven inside it, you’ll substitute them with the fleeting pleasures of this world. And in doing so, holiness will be crowded out by worldliness.

“No one eats the bologna sandwich when they can smell the sizzling steak on the grill.”


Luther’s encounter with the holiness of God

Martin Luther’s first Mass as a monastic was a memorable moment for the friends and family who gathered to celebrate the occasion. Luther, not ever the shy one, began the ceremony with poise and confidence. No one expected how it would end.

When the time came for the Prayer of Consecration, Luther was supposed evoke God’s power for the miracle of transubstantiation (turning the wine and the bread into the actual blood and body of Christ). Instead, he froze.

Family and friends looked on nervously. Hans, Luther’s father, grew more embarrassed with every passing second. The hush filled the room as Luther quivered. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, Luther limply walked back to the table where his father was seated. He couldn’t say the prayer.

What happened at the altar? All he was supposed to say was, “We offer unto thee, the living, the true, the eternal God.” But he went paralyzed. Luther wrote about the experience later on:

At these words I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken. I thought to myself, “With what tongue shall I address such majesty, seeing that all men ought to temble in the presence of even and earthly prince? Who am I, that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine Majesty? The angels surround him. At his nod the earth trembles. And shall I, I miserable little pygmy, say ‘I want this, I ask for that?’ For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and I am speaking to the living, eternal and the true God.

Adapted from Sproul’s The Holiness of God.