Q: What is sanctification?
A: Sanctification is the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed into the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.
Ezekiel 36:27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Election, justification, and adoption are what many focus on when it comes to salvation. But what of sanctification? For a long time, the church, especially in our cultural context here in America, didn't say much about it. Salvation was reduced to a single moment when you said the "sinner's prayer", responded to an altar call, or "asked Jesus into my heart", and that was it. Very little was mentioned concerning this process of being renewed and being made into new creations, and certainly the idea of striving to live holy lives in accordance to the law of God was rarely mentioned for fear that we would be accused of believing a works-based salvation, or worse yet, be labeled "legalistic". Everything seemed to be focused on making sure that after you die, you go to the right place. Not that that doesn't matter. It matters immensely! But it is not the whole of what it means to be saved, and we really short change the work of the Holy Spirit by not talking about the work of sanctification.
Perhaps part of the neglect of sanctification comes from the difficulty that can come with the subject. We have these indicatives and these imperatives in Scripture concerning sanctification, and it can be complex and confusing. In other words, there's a balance in the Word of God between what God has already done for us in the person of Jesus Christ, in the work of the Holy Spirit in giving us the new birth and new hearts, the great grace-filled promises of Scripture concerning our salvation and holiness (these are the indicatives), but then we have all these commands about how to live, about how we are, as new creatures in Christ, to keep the law of God and how God's law becomes a joy instead of a burden, to keep his commands, to obey God's rules (these are the imperatives). For a long time I struggled with sanctification. Is it a work of the Holy Spirit, or must I do something? Must I participate in that work? The answer is yes and yes!
I realize I just answered nothing and added no clarity to this. The catechism is quite helpful in understanding this tension between the indicatives and the imperatives. "Sanctification is the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God". This is the indicative of sanctification. But notice what the catechism goes on to say. It says that sanctification enables us to "more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness". To die unto sin and live unto righteousness are imperatives. The Scripture is littered with commands to God's people to live righteous and upright lives. But, the catechism clearly shows us that our ability, and even our desires to do so, are dependent upon what God has already done for and in us. The catechism makes this clear. The work of God's free grace in sanctification ENABLES us more and more to "die unto sin, and live unto righteousness". This week's verse in Ezekiel also makes this clear, "I will put my Spirit within you, AND CAUSE you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules."
Sanctification is a process, and it is a process that will be seen in one who is truly elected, justified, and adopted. Sanctification is not an optional ad-on feature. The reality for those who are united to Christ by faith is that we are being sanctified as the Spirit does this mighty work in us of renewing our whole selves, conforming us to the image of Jesus Christ. It will look different in everyone's lives. We will be at different stages in this process of sanctification, and there may even be moments when the process of sanctification is hard to see, but for those who are in Christ Jesus, it is a work of the Holy Spirit that is definitely taking place. Ultimately, this work of transformation will be completed on the final day when Christ appears in glory and even our flesh, our human bodies, will be completely renewed as we are given new, resurrection bodies. But until that day, we must persevere, be encouraged and empowered by the indicatives of Scripture, lean upon the grace of our Heavenly Father, rely fully upon the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf, and strive whole-heartily by the power of the Holy Spirit as he works in and through us to keep the imperatives of God's Word to the glory and honor of our great and holy God.