Pursuing Sanctification – God’s work or ours? Part 2

In Part 1, Dan showed us that God’s sovereignty in our progressive sanctification (that is, our ongoing journey in holiness) is not in conflict with our efforts in this area, but that both operate together, as friends. Here, Dan returns to explain what is involved for us as Christians.

1. We are active, responsible and dependent participants in God’s sanctifying work

Biblically, God’s people are active, responsible and dependant participants in God’s sanctifying work. Let me break that down so we can see what this means:

a) We are active in that we are commanded to do things that contribute to our sanctification. In Colossians 3:5 we are commanded to “put to death therefore what is earthly in you; sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”

In Colossians 3:12 we are commanded to “Put on… compassionate hearts, kindness, humility…” and in Philippians 2:12-13 we are commanded to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” In each of these commands we are commanded to be active participants in God’s sanctifying work.

b) We are responsible in that we are held accountable for our actions before God, as seen in Hebrews 12:14:

“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

c) We are participants in that any action we undertake is not only a result of our doing, but a result of God’s working within us to do it. That is, our actions are a result of God’s actions, or as John Murray puts it, “Because God works, we work.”[1]

This is why God gets the glory, and this is why we can still claim God’s sovereignty because God is the one who enables and supplies any good work we do. What a great comfort this is!

John 15 helpfully illustrates this by Jesus’ description of the branch and the vine. We are the branch that cannot produce any fruit unless we are connected to the vine (Jesus). Therefore, while the branch still actively participates in the production of fruit, the vine is the real cause of the growth as the vine gives the branch what it needs – not only for the fruit, but also what it needs in order to make the fruit.

2. There are four important means for depending on God as we pursue sanctification.

Lastly we will now consider what it practically looks like to be an active and yet dependent participant in God’s sanctifying work. The Scriptures tell us of at least four important means by which God enables us to depend on him as we actively pursue sanctification:

i) Trust – Dependence on Christ by faith (Rom 6; Col 1:3-4, 2:6)

We need to depend on our union with Christ in order to put sin to death and be renewed into the image of Christ, because it is by union with Christ by faith that “God not only frees us from sin’s penalty (justification) but he also frees us from sin’s tyranny (sanctification).”[2] Romans 6 shows that justification and sanctification are both founded upon union with Christ, and that by being united to Christ by faith in his death and resurrection (Rom 6:5) the believer is freed from slavery to sin (Rom 6:6) and enabled to live for God “in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11) as sin no longer has dominion –they are now under grace (Rom 6:14).[3]

ii) Bible – Dependence on the gospel (John 17:17; 2 Cor 3:18, 4:4)

2 Corinthians 3:18 states that we are transformed into the image of Christ by beholding the glory of the Lord, and 2 Corinthians 4:4 teaches us that the glory of the Lord is the gospel. Therefore, we are transformed from our sinful state and into the image of Christ through beholding the gospel which is the glory of Christ.

Our specific responsibility in sanctification according to these verses (2 Cor 3:18 and 4:4) is to behold the glory of the Lord as it is displayed in the gospel[4] but the transformation into that image still requires the Spirit’s work as “this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (1 Cor 3:18).

iii) Spirit – Dependence on the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:18; Romans 8:13; Gal 5:22-23)

The Spirit’s role in progressive sanctification is seen in both mortification (putting sin to death) and vivification (living the new life by the Spirit). Mortification is by the Spirit in Romans 8:13 and vivification is by the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23.[5] It is here we must also admit that “the mode of the Spirit’s operation in sanctification is encompassed with mystery”[6] but “our activity” is also “enlisted to the fullest extent in the process of sanctification.”[7]

iv) Fellowship – Dependence on other Christian believers (Eph 4:15-16; Col 1:28-29, 3:16)

Lastly, we see that we depend on the community of believers in sanctification. In Ephesians 4:15-16 we see that the body of believers grows into Christ by its service to one another as it is by “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” who “makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love”.

In Colossians we also see that Paul struggles with God’s energy to proclaim Christ in order to present everyone, not saved, but “mature in Christ” (Col 1:28-29) and in Colossians 3:16 he uses the same language to urge them to do the same towards one another.

Therefore, without separating our dependence from Christ, these passages show that:

“sanctification involves not simply individuals in isolation from each other but the entire community of God’s people…. As we grow closer to Christ, we grow closer to each other. We are sanctified through fellowship with those who are in Christ with us.” [8]

Christians need to heed Owen’s advice to “be killing sin, or it will be killing you.”[9] But this isn’t something we do by ourselves, it’s something God does through us in dependence on him, and four of the important means he has given us to depend on him is faith in Christ, the gift of the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit and each other. How might you use these gifts to pursue sanctification?

[1] John Murray, Redemption accomplished and applied, 157.

[2] Naselli, Keswick theology, 38.

[3] Naselli, Keswick theology, 38.

[4] Bridges, The Discipline of Grace, 108.

[5] Both mortification and vivification being by the Spirit are points from J I Packer, Rediscovering Holiness: Know the Fullness of Life with God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: BakerBooks, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2014), 159.

[6] Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 155.

[7] Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 156.

[8] Hoekema makes this point in Hoekema, Saved by Grace, 194-195.

[9] John Owen, Mortification of Sin, 27.