There are many theological terms with which we laymen should be familiar. They have to do with important spiritual truths that vitally affect us as Christians. But because some of them seem long and somewhat vague, we tend to think of them as being of secondary importance. However, every Christian should know and be able to explain the basis and meaning of his faith.

One of the words often misunderstood is “sanctification.” We are in a sense repelled by it, because we hear people called “sanctimonious” and the connotation is bad. No one likes the idea of making a show of religion. Hypocrisy and false pride are denoted when we use the term “sanctimonious,” and we want none of it.

But sanctification is a very different matter. Sanctification is growth in Christian graces, in likeness to the Saviour, and in power to overcome sin in one’s life. Just as a child grows physically and intellectually until he becomes a well-developed adult, so the Christian should grow after he is born by the Spirit of God.

The words “justification” and “regeneration” have to do with that supernatural act whereby the Spirit of God moves upon our hearts and we turn to him for forgiveness and cleansing. Justification is what God does for us. Regeneration is that which occurs in us when we are justified: we are born again, we become new persons in Christ.

But what about the years that follow? Should a Christian remain, spiritually speaking, an infant? True, the entrance into the Kingdom of God requires a humility of spirit like that of a little child. Our Lord said, “Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein” (Luke 18:17). But being a child in faith and failing to develop spiritual maturity are very different things. We are born into the Kingdom of God by faith like that of a little child. But we should grow in both faith and practice, and that growth is sanctification.

First of all, sanctification is a work of God’s grace in our hearts. We cannot attain it ourselves. We cannot become sanctified by our own good works or intellectual attainments. Just as we are redeemed by God’s grace, so too we are sanctified by that grace. This grace is exercised by the power of the crucified and risen Lord in the hearts of those who believe in him. It is our response to Christ’s call to holy living; we depend on him to effect this change in our hearts and lives.

While justification is an act of God’s grace that occurs in our lives once for all, sanctification is a continuing process that should always be evident but will never reach perfection in this life.

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The Westminster Catechisms (Larger and Shorter) speak of one aspect of sanctification as the process whereby God’s children “more and more die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”

The practical effect of this is tremendous, not only in the joy, peace, and effectiveness of our lives as Christians but also in the effect of our lives on others. It has been truly said, “There is no argument against a changed life.”

This is an area where Christians can and should run a check on their own lives. As time passes, is there more consistent victory over temptations? Over overt sins? More love for God? More joy in the study of God’s Word? More power in prayer? More concern for the lost? More joy of fellowship in the Church? More awareness of the presence of Christ in the heart?

If we sense these signs of spiritual growth, we have practical evidence that God’s grace is working fruitfully in our hearts. This is no reason for self-congratulation but rather a reason to thank the One who lives in our hearts and is carrying on his gracious work.

What part does the Christian have in the work of sanctification? First of all, he must accept and make use of the means of grace God has given us.

As a Christian reads and studies his Bible, the Holy Spirit takes the Word and applies it to his own life and particular needs. Again and again men bear testimony to the change that takes place in their lives when they hear God speak to them through the Holy Scriptures.

As a Christian prays, he grows in things of the Spirit, in love and understanding, in a sense of the nearness and guidance of a loving, all-wise, and all-powerful Heavenly Father.

But sanctification is far more than a passive exercise in the means of grace. Because it is a work of God’s Holy Spirit, the fruits of the Spirit begin to show in our lives. And as we receive their effect of joy and peace, there is also a growing change in our relations with others.

Such changes are not in full evidence at the beginning of the Christian walk; rather they develop as time goes on. Life becomes more disciplined. Concern for others increases. Love for God becomes more real and awareness of his will more compelling.

The Apostle Paul describes this work of God’s grace many times and in many ways. To the Corinthian Christians he wrote of his desire that they might “walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness” (Col. 1:10, 11).

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In his letter to the Philippian Christians he wrote: “That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; holding forth the word of life” (Phil. 2:15, 16a).

Does this mean that there is held out to the Christian the prospect of sinless perfection? Of course not! Sanctification is a continuing process all through life; no one will reach perfection until that day when we see the Lord in glory.

The greater the degree of sanctification, the greater the sense of one’s sinfulness and unworthiness. By this work of the Holy Spirit we increasingly see ourselves in the light of God’s holiness and realize the depths of his redeeming love—that we are redeemed not because of what we are or may have done but in spite of it.

There are two sides to the coin of sanctification—the working of God’s grace and the obedience of the believer. The Apostle Paul wrote the Christians in Philippi, “… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God which worketh in you, both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12, 13).

Failure to grow in things of the Spirit is tragically common. A retarded Christian dishonors his Lord and lives a life in the valley of frustration and defeat when he should be treading more and more on the higher ground of victory.

Sanctification is a process of deepening faith, understanding, and obedience, and it pays abiding rewards.

“This is the will of God, even your sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3a).

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