Writing to the church in Corinth, Paul described the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the believer’s life as follows:
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. (2 Cor. 3:18)
The New Testament describes the Spirit’s ministry as not only a one-time act in our new birth but also an ongoing work in which He makes us more like Christ. Simply put, the Holy Spirit is responsible for the transformation of the Christian’s character.
But how does this transformation occur? The theological word for the process is sanctification. It carries with it the idea of being set apart by God for His own possession. As it relates to our spiritual transformation, sanctification is the process whereby the Spirit makes our union with Christ in His death and resurrection increasingly real and obvious in our lives. It’s the lifelong process of moral transformation to make us more like Jesus.
The Relationship of Sanctification to Justification
If we are to rightly understand the Spirit’s work of transformation in our lives, we need to be familiar with a related doctrine: justification.
It’s a common error to drive a wedge, theologically speaking, between the ministries of Christ and the Holy Spirit. We must not do this. Indeed, justification—the once-for-all act affording to the Christian a righteous standing before God—cannot be separated from sanctification. These two works belong as much to Christ as to the Spirit (Eph. 5:26).
Sanctification is the lifelong process of moral transformation to make us more like Jesus.
Understanding the relationship of sanctification to justification is crucial. If we separate them, we could end up manufacturing a kind of two-tiered Christianity: the “basic” version, in which we don’t progress spiritually beyond our justification, and the “deluxe” version, where we do make some spiritual progress along the way. The result is like the experience of a college student who excels beyond his or her peers by enrolling in honors courses: all of them will earn a degree, but one will do so in a more distinguished way. In the Christian life, however, sanctification isn’t an optional extra for the spiritually elite. It isn’t an honors course in Christ’s school. It necessarily follows our justification—whether in great measure or small.
In one sense, justification by faith is a dangerous doctrine. The Reformers taught that when we are justified by faith—when we are born again of the Holy Spirit—Christ’s work on the cross has dealt with our sin past, present, and future. The inherent danger in this truth, of course, is that it can be understood as permission to sin recklessly in order to show the wonder of God’s forgiveness. This kind of thinking is exactly what Paul refutes in Romans 6: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (vv. 1–2).
From the moment of our new birth, we have a radically new relationship to sin.
For a Christian to live in this kind of open rebellion would be akin to a newlywed within days of his marriage involving himself in old relationships only to show the extent of his wife’s love for him. It’s nonsense! And we run the risk of becoming similarly foolish when we isolate God’s initial work of renewal from His sustaining work of transformation in our lives. Let’s be clear: from the moment of our new birth, we have a radically new relationship to sin (Eph. 5:8; Gal. 2:20).
Three Truths Concerning Sanctification
Having established the relationship between justification and sanctification, we would do well to consider the essential New Testament teaching on the Spirit’s transforming work.
Sanctification Is Not Sinlessness
First, the Scriptures nowhere teach that we can become sinless in this life. Some maintain that we can achieve sinless perfection through the Spirit’s transformation. This view is typically based on the teaching of Charles Wesley (1707–1788), who urged his followers to pursue a life of spiritual discipline that would apparently remove them from their ongoing warfare with sin.
The Scriptures nowhere teach that we can become sinless in this life.
In truth, anyone who views sanctification as sinlessness defines sin only in a limited sense. “So long as I’m not openly disobedient to God’s revealed will,” the reasoning goes, “then it could be said that I’m living a completely sanctified life.” The problem with this is that the Bible doesn’t let us decide what constitutes sinlessness. We have to say what the Bible affirms, and God in His Word defines sin without any loopholes. The apostle John states it plainly:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1:8)
In other words, anyone who claims to be sanctified to the degree of sinlessness is a liar. This view is not only unbiblical and impossible this side of eternity but also pride-inducing. So we aren’t to act as if our sin doesn’t exist. Instead, we are to set out on the lifelong quest of becoming like Jesus, eagerly awaiting the day when we see Him and enjoy final deliverance from sin’s grasp (1 John 3:2).
Sanctification Is Both Active and Passive
Next, we should view sanctification as having both an active and passive aspect. We encounter both in Scripture, so we must hold them in tension. On the one hand, we’re urged to rest in the finished work of Christ (1 Cor. 1:30). On the other hand, certain passages present Christian growth as a striving to be conformed to Christ’s image (Col. 3:5). Our transformation, therefore, involves both resting and striving.
It’s unbiblical to go to either of the two extremes, pushing just one of the elements to its limit. Any attempt to muster up Christlikeness in our own strength is futile, and it’s equally fruitless to withhold all effort in the process of spiritual transformation.
Paul says our sanctification involves working out what the Holy Spirit passively works in us.
Philippians 2 helps us balance sanctification’s active and passive aspects:
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. (vv. 12–13)
In essence, Paul says our sanctification involves working out what the Holy Spirit passively works in us. The Spirit urges us, quickens our consciences, and directs us toward what’s right and from what’s wrong. He works through our activity, not in spite of it. Sanctification is both active and passive.
Sanctification Is Preceded and Followed by Crisis
Finally, sanctification is a process preceded and followed by two crises, or watershed events. It isn’t an isolated process. The crisis of before is justification; the crisis of after is glorification. This is why Paul can describe the events of our salvation, from predestination to glorification, as having already taken place (Rom. 8:30)—for in God’s view, they already have. From the divine perspective, there isn’t a time gap between the believer’s justification, sanctification, and glorification. It’s all a completed work.
From the divine perspective, there isn’t a time gap between the believer’s justification, sanctification, and glorification. It’s all a completed work.
So, between our past justification and future glorification, what takes place? The answer is that we’re being renewed in the image of our Creator (Col. 3:10) and growing up into Christ (Eph. 4:15)—all language for the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work in us.
What might Paul say to the person who understands the doctrine of sanctification but doesn’t feel like he’s making any progress in the Christian life? We can return to Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 3:18, where he reminds us that we are in fact being transformed by God’s Spirit, even when we don’t feel like it. We should remember that this transformative process takes time. No acorn ever became an oak tree overnight, nor has anyone ever stumbled into a holy life by chance.
Sanctification is a lifelong process to which we ought to submit and a rock-solid promise to which we ought to hold fast.
This article was adapted from the sermon “The Holy Spirit Transforms” by Alistair Begg.