19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. – Hebrews 10:19-21 ESV
One of the questions we are attempting to answer is whether the believer’s sanctification brings God satisfaction. Or, to put it another way, is there more he or she needs to do become fully acceptable to God? There is no doubt that the average Christian is far from perfect and fully capable of committing sins that offend a holy God. And the Scriptures are replete with admonitions that Christ-followers put every effort into the pursuit of a lifestyle that emulates Christ and honors God.
Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.– Hebrews 12:14 NASB
Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. – 1 Timothy 6:11 ESV
So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. – 2 Timothy 2:22 ESV
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called… – Ephesians 4:1 ESV
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. – 1 Thessalonians 4:1 ESV
But the real issue is whether these admonitions and the efforts they encourage are intended to produce additional godliness in the life of the believer. The term progressive sanctification is often used to describe the believer’s growth in godliness. It is the part of the believer’s life that connects his justification, which took place at salvation, with his future glorification, which will occur at Christ’s return. During the intervening years between initial salvation and future glorification, the believer is expected to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14 ESV), and to pursue a life of righteousness.
Sanctification begins with regeneration, the implanting of spiritual life in a believer. From that starting point sanctification is God’s progressively separating a believer from sin to Himself and transforming his total life experience toward holiness and purity. The process of sanctifiction for a believer never ends while he is on erth in his mortal body. It is consummated in glorification when that believer through death and resurrection or through the Rapture stands in the presence of God “ conformed to the likeness of His Son” (Romans 8:29). – J. F. Walvoord, R. B. Zuck, Dallas Theological Seminary (1985), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scripture
But one of the dangers inherent in seeing the believer’s sanctification as progressive in nature is that it can leave the impression that he or she falls short of God’s glorious standard for acceptable righteousness. That is certainly not what the quote above implies, but it what far too many Christians have assumed about their relationship with God because of faulty conclusions regarding progressive sanctification.
The question is not whether we are to pursue righteousness or to make every effort to walk in a manner worthy of our calling. It is whether, in doing so, we are making ourselves any more acceptable to God than we already are. If we are not careful, we can turn sanctification into a work where we are attempting to please God by making ourselves more holy through self-effort. But Zuck and Walvoord are very specific when they write, “sanctification is God’s progressively separating a believer from sin to Himself and transforming his total life experience toward holiness and purity.” Sanctification is the work of God, not man. And in the process of sanctifying the believer, God is trying to make the believer more acceptable. The believer’s sanctification is not about satisfaction, but about the actualization of the righteousness imputed to the believer through his union with Christ.
The passage from Hebrews that opened this post provides us with a much-needed reminder that “we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19 ESV). In this chapter, the author of Hebrews is comparing the sacrificial work of Jesus on the cross with the Old Testament sacrificial system prescribed by God for the atonement of the sins of the people of Israel. Because of sin, the nation of Israel found itself constantly separated from God and unable to enter into His presence. So, God implemented the priestly office and the sacrificial system so that sinful men could receive cleansing from their sins and restored access to God.
…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. – Hebrews 9:22 ESV
But as the author of Hebrews puts it:
But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. – Hebrews 10:3-4 ESV
Once the sacrifice was made, the very next sin the average Israelite committed resulted in his separation from God yet again. So, another sacrifice was necessary. More blood had to be spilled. His righteous standing with God had to be restored.
But there is good news. The author goes on to quote Jesus, describing His role as the final and fully sufficient sacrifice for the sins of mankind.
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body have you prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’” – Hebrews 10:5-7 ESV
Jesus came to provide a fully sufficient sacrifice for the sins of mankind. His death and the shedding of His blood for the remission of sins was fully satisfying to God. He propitiated or satisfied God’s demand that blood be shed in order for the sins of men to be atoned for. The wages of sin is death, and Jesus paid the debt that was owed.
“Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. – Hebrews 10:9-10 ESV
Don’s miss the significance of the author’s words. “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” There is no more sacrifice needed. No more blood is required.
For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. – Hebrews 10:14 ESV
Here we have the stated the vital balance that must be maintained if we are to understand the role of sanctification in the life of the believer. With His death, Jesus has perfected or made complete each and every believer – for all time. And the author describes believers as “those who are being sanctified.” We are constantly being transformed into the likeness of Christ, but not so that we might become more perfect or acceptable. The blood of Jesus Christ has already accomplished that.
But here is the danger we face. Without a clear understanding of our right standing before God because of Christ’s death on the cross, we read a verse like Romans 12:1, and assume that our righteousness is up to us.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
We hear Paul telling us that we have to somehow make ourselves holy and acceptable to God through self-effort. And depending upon the church we attend or the faith community to which we belong, we interpret Paul’s call to be a living sacrifice as entailing Bible study, prayer, tithing, service, meditation, obedience, submission, or some other form of sacrificial effort on our part. We assume that Paul is telling us we don’t measure up, so we have to get busy if we want to have a right standing with God.
But the author of Hebrews has told us, “we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus.” The sacrifice has already been made – once for all. So, Paul’s call that we be living sacrifices is not a demand that we make ourselves acceptable to God, but that we recognize that we have been made acceptable by the blood of Jesus. We are an acceptable sacrifice because Jesus Christ has made us so. We have been imputed His righteousness and stand before God has holy and acceptable. Nothing we do will make us more so. Sanctification is not about achieving acceptability but about accepting our acceptability. We are right with God. And our pursuit of godliness is not meant to make us more right but to bring glory to God as He sovereignly and progressively transforms us into the likeness of His Son.
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.