13 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
– Romans 13:14 ESV
20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. – Ephesians 4:20-24 ESV
8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. – Colossians 3:8-10 ESV
2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation… – 1 Peter 2:2 ESV
18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 3:18 ESV
15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ… – Ephesians 4:15 ESV
By this point in our discussion, there should be little doubt that our sanctification is the work of God. In fact, each member of the Holy Trinity plays a vital and very specific part in our transformation from a sin-plagued, enemy of God to one of His chosen and fully forgiven children who stand in His presence as completely righteous and fully acceptable in His sight. And not just acceptable or tolerable, but loved and cherished as His very own.
The author of Hebrews reminds us that it was God the Father’s will that we be sanctified and the means by which He accomplished it was through His Son’s sacrificial death.
For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time. – Hebrews 10:10 NLT
Paul expands on this thought in his letter to the believers in Ephesus.
Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. – Ephesians 1:4-5 NLT
God chose to set some apart, even though they were undeserving and unbelieving. And then He sent His Son into the world to be the means by which the unholy and unrighteous could be sanctified or made fit for His presence. It was only through the shedding of the blood of Christ that sinful men and women could receive permanent cleansing from their sins and made pure and holy in God’s eyes. God willed our sanctification. Jesus made it possible. And Peter summarizes the three-fold work of the Father, Son, and Spirit in our salvation when he states that it was “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood” (1 Peter 1:2 ESV).
But is our sanctification complete? Has everything been done that needs to be done? Is there anything left that we need to do to complete the process? If you go back and read the verses that opened up this post, you may get the impression that there is still much to be done. After all, we’re told to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.” And while we’re at it, we’re to put off the old self and put on the new self. And Peter tells us we’re supposed to grow up into salvation, whatever that means, and in the grace and knowledge of Christ.
Sounds like there is plenty left for us to do. And in his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul leaves the impression that even God has not yet completed the work of our sanctification.
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. – 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 ESV
And the author of Hebrews provides us with a somewhat confusing and contradictory statement regarding the status of our sanctification when he writes, “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14 ESV). So which is it? Are we perfected for all time, or are we becoming that way? Are we fully righteous or becoming more so? And if we are to supposed to be increasing in righteousness, is it up to us or up to God?
This is one of the classic debates of Christianity, and it has caused a lot of confusion and fostered a great deal of debate over the centuries. It has also resulted in a wide range of views regarding the doctrine of sanctification and man’s role in it. The primary crux of the debate revolves around the two poles of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. There is within every human being the desire to be the master of their own fate and the captain of their own soul. The thought of anyone or anything usurping our autonomy and controlling us from the outside rubs us the wrong way. We argue vehemently for our right to have a free will and the freedom to do as we choose – even as believers. But God would have us recognize that, apart from Him, free will is a misnomer, a lie of the enemy meant to keep man from recognizing the reality of his true condition. The apostle Paul reminds us that, prior to coming to faith in Christ, our so-called freedom was one-dimensional.
When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the obligation to do right. – Romans 20 NLT
Those who are outside of Christ are slaves to sin and have no other choice but to obey their own sin natures. And because all that they do is done in their own flesh, and corrupted by their sin natures, even their so-called righteous deeds are like filthy rags in God’s eyes. They are unholy people attempting to do holy things, but everything they say and do is mired and marred by their sin. Even their best efforts done with the best of intentions are unacceptable to God.
But what about those of us who are in Christ? Once we have a relationship with Him, what is our responsibility when it comes to sanctification? Do we have a part to play? The answer is simple: Yes. But the explanation as to how we pull this off is a bit more complex. And this is where we tend to get into the high weeds when it comes to the topic of sanctification or our growth in Christlikeness. Far too often, we make the task of spiritual growth our own. We hear the Scriptures say, “put on, put off, and grow up,” and we assume that it is all up to us. But we fail to recognize that this ongoing transformation is still the work of God. It is not something we can accomplish in our own strength or by virtue of our will power. It is the work of the Spirit of God.
Think about what Paul said to the Thessalonian believers: “may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely.” It was God’s will that we be sanctified and it is God’s will that web become completely sanctified. And He has chosen to accomplish His will through the indwelling presence of His Spirit in the life of each and every believer. But it is essential that we understand what Paul is not saying. He is not inferring that our sanctification is somehow deficient. We have been sanctified by God. It is a completed action. He has set us apart as His own and nothing can impact that reality. We cannot become un-set apart. We don’t run the risk of losing our set apart status as His children or our righteous standing before Him. Those were paid for by the blood of Christ.
But we can live in greater reliance upon His Spirit and experience an ever-increasing transformation into the likeness of His Son. Paul makes this clear in his second letter to the church in Corinth.
So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. – 2 Corinthians 3:18 NLT
We stand before God as righteous because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, but that does not mean that all we do in this life is righteous. Not all our thoughts and actions are righteous. We still have a sin nature that does daily battle with the Spirit within us. We have the capacity to ignore the Spirit’s promptings and to give in to our old desires. But it is the recognition of that interior battle that should drive us back to complete reliance upon God. He alone has made it possible for us to grow up in our salvation. He has provided the means by which we can be holy as He is holy. Or to put it another way, that we might live as who He has called us to be. Our daily lives can actually reflect the reality of our righteous standing as we put on Christ daily. But how do we pull that off?
Through complete dependence upon God. It is God alone who can produce in us the fruit of righteousness (Philippians 1:11). Remember, we are already righteous before God and, because we have His Holy Spirit within us, we can live righteous lives. Who we are can actually show up in how we act. Our righteous character can show up in righteous conduct. But it is only by the power of the Spirit of God.
So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. 5 Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. 6 So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. – Romans 8:3-6 NLT
When we read the words “put on, put off, and grow up,” we tend to hear commands telling us to get busy. They come across as tasks to perform and objectives to accomplish. But if we attempt to do them in our own strength, we will fail. They are a call to dependency and complete reliance upon the Spirit of God. They are reminders that our righteousness is God-given, not self-produced. They are meant to drive us back to the source of our sanctification: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The source of our sanctification is the same as that of our salvation.
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.