How Does Sanctification Work?
We’ve all read and/or heard about butterflies and how God, in His perfect and glorious will, transforms something ugly into an incredible thing of beauty. A monarch butterfly, thought to be one of the most beautiful of its species, is a flying display of striking orange wings with black stripes and white spots.
But the butterfly originated as something quite different – a tiny egg. After a period, the egg becomes a small caterpillar, weird looking at worst, and at best with colors to match what it will become. It’s small with many legs, and under a microscope it has a monster-like appearance.
The caterpillar soon forms a chrysalis, which protects the creature as it becomes what God intends. After a few weeks, a butterfly emerges from its protected environment. Its wings are crumpled and it has to hang until the wings dry out and harden. And then, in its beauty, the butterfly takes wing and flies. It will lay its eggs and the cycle will begin anew.
Many parallels can be made between a caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly and our Christian journey to holiness. We call our transformation process sanctification.
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In the Bible, What Is Sanctification?
If we could choose just one verse to communicate our definition of the sanctification of believers, it would have to be (in this author’s mind) 2 Corinthians 3:18, which reads, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
Theologian John Frame defines sanctification as “God’s work within believers to make them holy. Sanctification means overcoming our unbelief. And our level of understanding is related to our level of trust and obedience.” As such, sanctification is an ongoing forward process within each believer that begins at the moment of conversion.
Justification and adoption are acts of God’s grace, and they don’t occur separately from regeneration (new birth), conversion, and sanctification (positional). God makes all of this happen simultaneously. Progressive sanctification is the process by which God changes us more and more into the image of Christ, therefore becoming holy (see 1 Peter 1, especially verse 16).
We need God’s sanctifying work in us to help erase the effects of sinful thinking. Christian educator Dr. Steven R. Cook surmises, “Sin permeates every aspect of our being, corrupting the mind and will, so that the natural tendency of our heart is to think according to the ways of the world. A hostile heart may search the Scriptures to know God’s Word and yet be completely closed to accepting its message.”
But God produces a metamorphosis in us (Romans 12:2), and the Holy Spirit accompanies God’s Word to produce all we need in our sanctification process. Because of His work in us, we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). He equips us to love and obey as He sanctifies us.
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Why Is Sanctification Important?
Sanctification is an ongoing work of God within us that is evidenced in inwardly changed lives that outwardly reflect God’s glory. We were once darkness (Ephesians 5:8). Not just in darkness, but darkness itself. The same verse tells us we are now light, and we are not to hide His light in us (Luke 11:33).
Through God’s work in us, we overcome our unbelief (Mark 9:24). Let’s park on that five-word verse for a moment. “I believe; help my unbelief.” This father stood before the Creator of the heavens and the earth. He’d no doubt heard of Him and he wanted desperately to believe Jesus could heal his child. He needed Jesus’ help to believe.
Jesus healed the child, and He heals us who believe from our sins (Isaiah 53:5). But we can’t do it in and of ourselves. It’s His work in us — His good and perfect work. And as a result, we are free to do good works because we are His and want to bring Him glory (Ephesians 2:10). Our good works are also a part of His sanctifying work in us. Pastor Kevin DeYoung calls our good works “cheerleaders for sanctification.” That’s a great description.
The process of sanctification is an amazing act of mercy on God’s part, for if we came to a complete knowledge of what we will know once we get to full glory, our heads would explode. Not really, but we in fact need a glorified mind to fully comprehend what being Christ’s is all about. We read 2 Corinthians 3:18 above. My friends, we are already in glory, but not yet to the final degree. What an amazing diving board into the Christian life. It’s okay to plunge in because of God’s work in us.
God has given us His Spirit and His Word (in Jesus Christ and the Scriptures). He hasn’t left us on our own to grow in His grace and knowledge. Study Jesus in the Gospels. Study Paul’s life as an imitator of the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1). Learning by imitation is a vital course of sanctification (1 Cor 4:16; Philippians 3:17; 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:9). Therefore, imitate God, Jesus, the apostles, and other representative characters in the Bible. God outlined their lives for a reason, to give Him glory, to help us know and love Him, and to learn (2 Timothy 3:16; Romans 4:16-25; 1 Corinthians 10:1-12; Hebrews 6:11-12; 11:1-12:2; 13:7; James 5:17-18).
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Is a Christian’s Sanctification Always a Forward-Moving Process?
We are sentient beings, emotional and often unyielding. We are stubborn and selfish by nature (Jeremiah 17:9). We tend to be at odds with anything or anyone who thinks other than we, and we question much about life.
When we surrender our lives to Jesus Christ, we are new creations in Him (2 Corinthians 5:17), but we will not reach full sanctification (holiness) until the Lord calls us home or He comes for His church. We still have some of our filthy, ragged flesh sticking to us. But now we know it. Thank God for His Holy Spirit, who
- Indwells us (1 Corinthians 3:16)
- Is our Helper (John 16:7)
- Convicts the world of sin (John 16:8)
- Teaches us (John 14:26)
- Is our source for revelation, wisdom, and power (1 Corinthians 2:10-11)
- Seals us (Ephesians 1:13)
- Gifts us (1 Corinthians 12:7-11)
- Guides us in the truth (John 16:13)
- Helps and intercedes for us (Romans 8: 26-27)
- Brings us to life (Romans 8:10-11)
- And sanctifies us (Galatians 5:22-25)
In God’s perfect process of making us more and more into the image of Christ, He helps us work through these questions and doubts (2 Corinthians 3:18). We’ve all heard this saying: A Christian’s life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. We are — in effect — in training for what we will be and do once we are glorified. We will face bumps and we will all blunder along the way. We’ll knock over some of life’s track hurdles as we go, but in the end we will reach the finish line (Philippians 3:14) and, good Lord willing, we will hear the Lord say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).
A Christian may feel like he goes backward at times, but what God does in the life of a true Christian cannot be reversed. We may sit in periods of despondency or disobedience, but if we consistently go back to the truths God has given us in His Word and through His Spirit, we regain our ground and flourish. We can pick up the hurdle, wipe off the dirt, and continue our march toward holiness, albeit by Christ’s power that He so powerfully works in us (Colossians 1:29). So, at times we get off track, but we don’t live there.
As part of our full spiritual armor, we put on the helmet of salvation. This headgear keeps us grounded and rooted in the truth that we belong to Jesus and no other. He is and will always be The Way, the Truth, and The Life (John 14:6).
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If We Don’t Grow as a Believer, What Happens?
Contrary to the beliefs of some non-Christians, we are not automatons who act in stiff legalism. When we abide in Christ (John 15:6), our wills are changed to those which please the Father and bring us great joy. We want to be the people He created us to be so He gets the glory. There is great freedom in Christ (Galatians 2:4), freedom the world will never understand or accept. Knowing and loving the Lord causes us to grow in Him so we will be more like Him.
If we stagnate, we remain spiritually immature and unfit to disciple others, which is a command we cannot ignore (Matthew 28:19-20). In actuality, we cannot ignore any of the Lord’s commands, nor as mature believers do we want to.
Hebrews 5:11-14 shows us a stark admonishment to believers who don’t spiritually mature.
“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
They are lazy, not exercising their spiritual muscles — as it were — to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. We as Christians must grow theologically and ethically because one cannot occur without the other. We grow as we face spiritual warfare, which Ephesians 6:10-18 says will occur, and our full armor is completely commendable and tangible. And it is Christ in us. He enables us to fight the enemies who would keep us and others with whom we interact in darkness.
As we reflect on the story of a butterfly’s transformation, we can better understand how the Lord has saved us and transformed us from dead to alive. From unrighteous to holy. From ungodly to godly. It’s not a “one and done” transaction. Why are we here? To glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.
Sanctification is a new-life process of stutter-steps where we sometimes take bounding leaps forward and at times wane because of unbelief or disobedience. Yet hope always remains and fills a Christian with, “What’s next,” for the best is yet to come. And the best to come is to be with Christ in glory.
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Lisa Loraine Baker is the multiple award-winning author of Someplace to be Somebody. She writes fiction and nonfiction. In addition to writing for the Salem Web Network, Lisa serves as a Word Weavers’ mentor and is part of a critique group. She also is a member of BRRC. Lisa and her husband, Stephen, a pastor, live in a small Ohio village with their crazy cat, Lewis.