Stages of Sanctification
What is sanctification? Our working definition has been, sanctification is that work of God and man where believers are made holy and Christlike progressively. It is the Spirit-induced pursuit of Christlikeness wherein believers strive to grow in holiness, love, purity, and righteousness. In other words, it is the process of growing holy and being conformed more into the image of Christ.
The stages of sanctification can be narrowed down to three. They are: begins at regeneration, is progressive throughout the life of a believer, and is completed at death.
Sanctification begins at regeneration
Regeneration changes everything. Spiritually dead sinners are made alive in Christ and become new creatures. The old nature is killed and believers are given the Spirit in order to subdue the remaining flesh and provoke growth in holiness. The believer is transformed and cannot habitually or continually live in sin. The power of sin has been broken. The relationship with sin has changed- it has been severed.
Christians are dead to sin. “ So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). Believers no longer love sin, nor are they dominated by it. “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:12-14). Having been freed from sin's bondage, believers are now slaves of righteousness. “Having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18). Christians serve a new master and can resist the temptation to sin because of the power of the Holy Spirit.
Sanctification is positional. This means that a believer is sanctified in Christ. Believers are privileged to be holy due to their union with the sinless Son of God. “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus..” (1Cor. 1:2). “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1Cor. 6:11). “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10).
The blood of Christ is said to sanctify believers. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27). “... Who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Tit. 2:14). “ So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (Heb. 13:12).
What this means is that believers are sanctified in the sight of God because they are united to Christ. God knows the end from the beginning. So, there is a sense where believers are sanctified, however, in another sense, they still sin and are growing and progressing in holiness.
Romans 8:30 explains this, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” The key thing to notice is that believers are said to be glorified. This is in the past tense meaning that believers are as good as glorified because God cannot fail to accomplish what he began. Everyone whom God chose will be called. Those who are called will be justified. And those who are justified will be glorified. The same holds true for sanctification. Although sanctification is not mentioned explicitly in the verse, it is implied. Glorification implies sanctification. In order to be glorified, a believer must grow in holiness throughout life. Upon death, sanctification will be complete- the believer will be transformed in the twinkling of an eye and be like Christ.
Even though positionally a Christian is sanctified in Christ, actually they remain sinful and imperfect. This is the ongoing tension and struggle known as the Christian life. We continue to dwell in sinful flesh. “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Rom. 7:18-23).
Believers are at war. There is a battle raging inside each and every Christian. The flesh battles the Spirit, and the Spirit wages war against the flesh. “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal. 5:17). “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1Pet. 2:11). However, the Spirit gives strength to overcome sin. Christians may lose ground or suffer small defeats and the flesh may prevail for a short time, but the Spirit will ultimately gain victory.
Sanctification is progressive
Sanctification is a process that begins at regeneration and continues throughout the life of the Christian. Believers continually grow in holiness and conformity to the Lord Jesus Christ. Sin, the enemy of holiness, is slowly killed and its reign defeated. “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness” (Rom. 6:12-13). Believers, who once grew in sin, now strive to grow in righteousness. “I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (Rom. 6:19).
Much of the New Testament is spent on instructing churches, which are comprised of individual believers, on how to grow in Christlikeness. Many passages simply reveal how Christians are to act.
Some of these passages are: the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), what defiles a person (Mk. 7:14-23), suffering for Christ (Lk. 9:23-27), humility and service (Jn. 13:12-17), devotion, growth, charity, love, and fellowship (Acts 2:42-47), do not be conformed to the world... (Rom. 12:2), flee from sexual immorality (1Cor. 6:18), do all things for the glory of God (1Cor. 10:31), examine yourself (2Cor. 13:5), walk by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16), put off the old self (Eph. 4:22-24), work out your salvation (Phil. 2:12), seek the things that are above (Col. 3:1), abstain from evil (1Thess. 5:22), do not grow weary in doing good (2Thess. 3:13), pursue righteousness, godliness, faith... (1Tim. 6:11), be strengthened by grace (2Tim. 2:1), be devoted to good works (Tit. 3:8), obey and submit to leaders (Heb. 13:17), be doers of the word (Jms. 1:22), be sober-minded and watchful (1Pet. 5:8), make calling and election sure (2Pet. 1:10), do not love the world (1Jn. 2:15), keep yourself in the love of God (Jude 21), and let the righteous do right (Rev. 22:11).
The word of God teaches us that sanctification is necessary. In fact, there is no Christian life without it. If the Lord has caused you to be born again, then you will grow- you have to grow. God does not fail. The Spirit will make you like Christ. Sanctification is necessary: for our fellowship with God (1Jn. 4:8, 16, 19; Heb. 12:28-29), corresponds to what God has done for us in election, redemption, effectual calling, justification, adoption, and glorification (Eph. 1:4; Tit. 2:14; Jn. 17:15-17; Acts 26:18), demonstrates obedience to the will of God (Matt. 22:37-40; Rom. 6; Eph. 4-6; Jms. 1), expresses gratitude to God for his mercy (Lk. 1:74-75; Rom. 6:1-2, 15), shows fruit and evidence of union with Christ (Col. 2:6; Jms. 2:17-24), testifies to a lost world (Tit. 2:10; 1Pet. 2:9), and is preparation for heaven (Rom. 2:7-10, 8:6-13; Gal. 5:22-23; Heb. 12:14; 1Jn. 3:2-3).
Sanctification is completed at death and glorification
Upon death, the soul of every believer is set free from indwelling sin and made perfect (Heb. 12:23; Rev. 21:27). Even this is incomplete until the Lord returns and believers receive their resurrected bodies (Rom. 8:30; 1Cor. 15:23, 49; Phil. 3:21; 1Thess. 4:14-16). Then, for all of eternity, believers will be like Christ- we will be completely sanctified (Phil. 3:20-21; 1Jn. 3:2). We will be holy. We will be unable to sin. We will finally be able to the love the Lord our God with all of our being!