14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. – Hebrews 12:14-17 ESV
The Scriptures clearly teach that followers of Christ have been sanctified by God. They enjoy a new status as His chosen ones, having been set apart by Him and deemed righteous in His eyes, due to the blood of Jesus Christ shed on their behalf. As a result of Christ’s sinless life and selfless sacrifice of that life, those who place their faith in Him as their Savior receive wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.
And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption… – 1 Corinthians 1:30 ESV
But there is far more to the doctrine of sanctification than the believer’s change in status. Yes, God sets each and every believer apart as His own, but He also fills them with His Holy Spirit. Through the divine presence of the Spirit of God, every believer is equipped with the power they need to live as who they are: A saint or holy one of God. And this power is essential because believers, though set apart by God, still find themselves living in a fallen world and dealing with the reality of their old sin natures. Coming to faith in Christ eliminates the penalty for sin, but it does not eradicate the potential to commit future sins. The truth of this statement is lived out in daily life and supported by the New Testament writers.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. – 1 John 1:8-10 ESV
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. – 1 John 2:1-2 ESV
It is the daily experience of every follower of Christ that sanctification does not provide an escape from the temptation to sin. Even Jesus Himself, the God-man and the unblemished sacrifice for the sins of man, was faced with the temptation to sin, as the author of Hebrews makes clear:
…he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. – Hebrews 4:15 NLT
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil.
– Matthew 4:1 NLT
And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. – Mark 1:13 ESV
But Jesus had no sin nature with which to contend. He was not born into sin like the rest of mankind. He came into the world as holy and remained so throughout the entirety of His life. But the same is not true of us. We are born in sin and were imputed the same sinful disposition that Adam and Eve possessed. And as A. W. Pink so aptly puts it, our relationship with Christ does not eliminate our potential for sin.
…scriptural sanctification is neither the eradication of sin, the purification of the carnal nature, nor even the partial putting to sleep of the “flesh”; still less does it secure an exemption from the attackes and harassments of Satan. – A. W. Pink, The Doctrine of Sanctification
We must not think of sanctification as a freedom from the capacity to sin, but as a God-endowed power to resist the temptation to sin. Paul reminded the believers in Rome that they had been set free from their former slavery to sin.
Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living. – Romans 6:17-18 NLT
Before coming to faith in Christ, they were incapable of resisting the constant temptations thrown at them by Satan and the world, let alone the passions of their own sinful flesh. But now, as those set apart by God and possessing the power of God’s indwelling Spirit, they could say no to sin and yes to righteous living. But Paul goes on to tell them that they face a daily decision regarding their choice of lifestyle.
Previously, you let yourselves be slaves to impurity and lawlessness, which led ever deeper into sin. Now you must give yourselves to be slaves to righteous living so that you will become holy. – Romans 6:19 NLT
The believer has been sanctified by God, but he faces a daily decision to live as one who has been set apart as belonging to God. That is why Paul so strongly emphasized the believer’s obligation to live according to his or her status as God’s chosen possession.
Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. – Romans 6:13 NLT
This pursuit of holiness is not intended to be meritorious in nature. In other words, Paul is not instructing the Roman believers to earn favor with God through their actions. They had already been sanctified by God. Jesus had paid the price for their sins – in full. They had already been declared righteous by God because He had imputed the righteousness of Christ to their account. But Paul was clearly teaching that the believer’s new standing before God came with an obligation to live in keeping with His divine will so that their lives would give Him glory. Notice what Paul says: “So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God.”
One of the amazing realities of the doctrine of sanctification is that it reveals how God has chosen to restore His image in man. Adam was made in the image of God, but sin marred that image. It damaged Adam’s likeness to his Creator. No longer could Adam’s actions bring glory to God by reflecting His glorious character. But Jesus came to earth as the second Adam, and He was “the visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 NLT). Paul described Jesus as “the exact likeness of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT) and the apostle John said Jesus made God known and knowable (John 1:18).
And when sinful men place their faith in the Son of God, they become one with Him.
…he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. – 1 Corinthians 6:17 NLT
Christ-followers are united with Him in His death, having had their sins nailed to the cross and crucified alongside Him. And believers are united with Christ in His resurrection, having received a new nature like His. Those men and women who place their faith in Christ are made new and receive the capacity to once again reflect the image of God. Their union with Christ provides release from slavery to sin and the restored freedom to serve God faithfully as His obedient servants.
But now you are free from the power of sin and have become slaves of God. Now you do those things that lead to holiness and result in eternal life. – Romans 6:22 NLT
But again, each and every Christ-follower faces the daily choice to live in their new-found freedom, made possible by the death of Christ. They can still choose to sin, or they can choose to pursue a life of sanctification. But this choice is only possible because of their relationship with Christ. It was not possible in their former fallen state. But because of Christ’s death on the cross and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, believers have the capacity to live godly lives. They can and should pursue righteousness. They should desire to live in keeping with the will of God and according to the example that Jesus left them.
And the New Testament is filled with countless calls to forsake the old way of living for the new life made possible in Jesus Christ.
…throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. – Ephesians 4:22 NLT
Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. – Ephesians 4:31-32 NLT
But now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, and dirty language. – Colossians 3:8 NLT
So get rid of all evil behavior. Be done with all deceit, hypocrisy, jealousy, and all unkind speech. Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. – 1 Peter 2:1-2 NLT
Sanctification is to be the believer’s constant obsession. There is no place for complacency in the life of the Christ-follower. The status quo is to be avoided at all costs. Growing in Christ-likeness is to be the goal of each and every person who claims Christ as their Savior. And the joy of watching God transform their life from the inside out, through the power of His indwelling Spirit, is the reward of a life of sanctification. And it will continue until we see Him as He is.
Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. – 1 John 3:2 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.