Sanctification is a fancy word used to describe what God has done – and is doing – in the life of a follower of Jesus. To understand it more fully there are two key aspects to consider.
Firstly, sanctification refers to a new reality in relation to God. To be ‘sanctified’ is a miraculous work of God where he takes a person who rejects him, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, brings them into a real loving relationship with himself. The Holy Spirit sparks faith in a heart that has been wandering from God. When the Spirit moves, things change. The heart that was cold to God begins to beat. It comes alive. It becomes warm to God. This is saving faith that shows we now stand in a right relationship with God. And it’s not because we’re smart, or can grapple with religious concepts, but only because the rebellion we’ve engaged in has been fully dealt with by Jesus. Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t an accident. It was a sacrifice wherein Jesus took upon himself God’s rightful justice against us. In this sense we’ve been sanctified – literally, we’ve been ‘set apart for a special purpose by God. Taken from rebellion, and brought into a new reality. It’s a miracle. A gift. A relationship.
Here’s how Paul addresses the Christians in Corinth:
To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours . . . (1 Corinthians 1:2; NIV)
Instead of a person being ‘out there’ running from God, rebelling, he brings them ‘in here’ – ‘in Christ Jesus’. They are set apart. Sanctified.
But the second sense of sanctification builds on the first, in that it refers to the process of how God changes us to become more like Christ. We have been set apart, not to be spiritual ornaments on God’s bookshelf, but active members of his worldwide family that proclaim to the world the reality and relevance of Jesus. Paul again . . .
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son . . . (Romans 8:28-29a; NIV)
God wants us to become more like Jesus Christ – the Son of God who became a human to show humans what it means to be truly human! While the primary aspect of sanctification is its miraculous nature, this second emphasis points out that once we are in a new relationship with God, we have to be active in how we live for God. We have to get to work. We have to DO something. But what?
Theologians have pointed out that God gives us ‘means of grace’ to help us change. ‘Means of grace’ are things that God gives as resources or avenues of growth that we can make use of. These include daily prayer, regular reading of the Bible, meeting for corporate times of praise and encouragement, fellowship, worship, and other ways that connect us with a deeper understanding of who God is and what he’s done in Jesus.
That’s why we encourage people to ‘go to church’ and pray, to read their Bibles, and to get involved with their church family. It’s because these are the means by which we grow.
As we read and pray and serve others, we seek to turn from rebellious self-focused ways. The more we do, the more clearly we see Christ. We see his majesty and his beauty. We see his love shown at the cross. And bit by bit, we grow. Here’s how C. S. Lewis put it in his novel Prince Caspian (note: Aslan is the lion-like character who represents Christ):
“Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.” “That is because you are older, little one,” answered he. “Not because you are?” “I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.” – C. S. Lewis Prince Caspian
How big does Christ seem to you? And how does the new reality of being ‘in him’ show in how you live? How are you changing? What sins and bad habits are you confronting? What new heart-habits of love and service are you choosing?
If you’re a Christian, you’ve been sanctified by God. It’s a new reality. Now God calls us to see how satisfying Christ is. And to trust him, turn from laziness and sin, and to choose those things that grow us. That’s the process. He won’t do it for us. But he will help us on the way.
It’s time to become the people God has made us to be.