Shorter Catechism Q. 35
Q. 35. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.
Eph 4:23–24; Romans 8:1–11; 1 Pet 1:13–16
If you understand how justification and sanctification are both related to and distinct from one another, you will understand the whole Bible. If you think the last sentence is a bit of exaggeration, you’re probably right. But it is only a small exaggeration to say that the main thrust of the Old and the New Testaments is to reveal to us how to be right with God (justification by faith) and how to live as God’s people (sanctification).
First, how are justification and sanctification related? They are inseparable. In justification God pardons all our sins and declares us righteous in his sight because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. In justification we have deliverance and freedom from sin’s curse and condemnation.
And God sanctifies those whom he justifies. In sanctification he subdues our sins, giving us increasing freedom from sin’s continuing influence and power. In justification God declares us righteous. In sanctification he works by his Word and Spirit and makes us holy after the image of his Son Jesus Christ. In other words, justification and sanctification are so inseparably joined together that no truly justified believer is without sanctification, and no person who is truly being sanctified is not declared righteous before God first.
Second, how do justification and sanctification differ? Shorter Catechism Q33 says justification is an act of God’s free grace. But sanctification is the work of God’s free grace. The difference between the act and the work is that justification occurs once and for all in the life of the believer. It is an act performed by God’s sovereign grace. Once God declares a sinner righteous for Jesus’ sake, he does not change his mind and declare him under condemnation again (see Rom 8:1). Once a sinner is justified, he is righteous before God no matter what he has done, will do, or is doing now! It defies logic and sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? There is a reason why grace is called “amazing.”
Sanctification, on the other hand, is an on-going work of the Holy Spirit, which happens throughout the believer’s life. That is, the Christian continues to struggle with sin throughout his entire life. But the reality of his remaining sins do not at all question the reality of the righteousness of Christ credited to his account. It is unfortunately too common that some believers interpret their on-going struggle with sin as an evidence of God’s rejection and their unsaved status. But it isn’t. Struggling with sin is the evidence of the work of God’s Spirit. A man who is not made one with Christ is so blinded by sin, and so comfortable with sin, there is no serious struggle with it. Sin’s blindness and bondage are very powerful, indeed. So powerful that only the death of the Son of God can free us from.
Instead, it is rather the believers who by faith call upon God as their “Abba Father” who earnestly struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. We grieve, because by God’s grace we have tasted that the Lord is good. We grieve at the thought of displeasing our Father who loved us and gave his Son for us. That we grieve over sin is rather a sure sign that we are loved by our Father in heaven.
So how does sanctification work? The Holy Spirit addresses the whole person (the whole man). He brings light into our thinking, feelings, and actions. It involves conviction of sin, whereby he teaches us to grieve over sin. He gives us hope to look to the Savior to be our constant refuge and help. He changes our heart and so changes our behavior.
That means there is no short-cut to sanctification. We prefer easy to remember and still easier to do list of things. Sometimes when we look for “applications” from a passage of Scripture, it comes from a desire to “manage” our sanctification. But there is no short-cut. Instead we have to polish our hearts by constantly shining God’s Word into it, subduing our wills to the Holy Spirit, and do the hard work saying “no” to the world and “yes” to God. In this way there is a kind of partnership between the Holy Spirit and the believer. It is a gracious partnership, begun and sustained by God’s grace, and made hopeful by the promises of eternal life and glory.
Are you discouraged and wearied by sins in your life? Well, good! How else do you suppose you should feel about sin? But, please, get over yourself! Now turn to your Father who loves you, your Savior who prays for you, and the Comforter who strengthens you. And trust that God loves you. He will finish in you what he began. He will make you more and more like Jesus Christ.