One of the early signs of the saving work of God in the life of an individual is dissatisfaction with sin and a striving for holiness.
But neither dissatisfaction on the one hand nor striving on the other is the same as holiness itself. Holiness is a goal toward which we move.
If we do not think of holiness in the strongest biblical terms, but rather in our own, we may imagine that we have attained perfection and may even become complacent in the Christian life. If we understand it biblically, we instead find ourselves being thrown back on the power of the Holy Spirit to work in us. Sanctification, which is the proper word for this aspect of the Spirit’s work in believers, describes two basic areas of growth. The first is separation to God and his purposes. For the root meaning of holiness suggests that which has been “set apart” to God. The second is God pleasing conduct or morality, becoming more like Jesus. We will increasingly think as he would think and act as he would act.
This goal of holiness, then, has an outward standard of morality coupled with an internal conformity to the will and mind of God. Though there are negative implications, sanctification is a positive desire for and actual growth in Christian character. Perfect, yet being perfected.
We are still sinners, even though regenerated and justified in God’s sight. Although we are perfect in terms of our present standing before God, we are far from perfect in our actual thoughts and conduct.
Sanctification aims to close this gap. Paul was aware of this when he wrote to the Philippians, ‘Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil. 3:12).
Then, just three verses later he continues, “Let those of us who are mature [the Greek word is the same perfect] be thus minded” (v. 15). Clearly, although Paul knew that his record had already been cleared before God on the basis of Christ’s work and although he had attained maturity in the Christian life, he was also aware of the necessary growth in holiness that lay before him.
All Christians have this experience. When we first believe in Jesus as Saviour, most of us have a great sense of joy and gratitude to God for salvation. In this grateful state of mind, we often feel that everything has changed. We are liberated from sin. We are new creatures in Christ.
But actually, we are not much different in natural inclinations, character and conduct. Before, we had bad habits. Now we are saved, but many of these bad habits and wrong actions remain. Should we doubt the reality of salvation? Not at all. The very fact that we are now aware of these imperfections in a new way, is proof that God’s work of transformation has begun. Instead of discouragement or doubt, we should realise that we have entered on a new way of life in which many former patterns must change. As God works, there will be an increasing distaste for sin and a growing hunger for righteousness.
Because sanctification is a process which is never completed in this world does not mean it is of secondary importance or (even worse) dispensable. It is as important and necessary in the application of salvation as regeneration, justification and adoption.
John Murray stresses the gravity of sanctification by three statements:” (1) All sin in believers is the contradiction of God’s holiness; (2) the presence of sin in believers involves conflict in their hearts and lives; and (3) though sin still remains it does not have the mastery.”
The first statement is drawn from such passages such as, “But as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’1 Peter 1:15, 16. “The lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world” 1 John 2:16. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” 1 John 3:2, 3.
If we are God’s children, we should be like him in holiness, as well as in other aspects of his character.
Romans 7 is a classic example of the conflict that exists in the believer’s life when sin is present as Paul mentions: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate....When I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members” (Rom. 7:15, 21 23).
It is futile to argue that this conflict is not normal. If there is still sin to any degree in one who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, then there is tension, yes, contradiction, within the heart of that person. Indeed, the more sanctified the person is, the more conformed he is to the image of his Saviour, the more he must recoil against every lack of conformity to the holiness of God.
The deeper his apprehension of the majesty of God, the greater the intensity of his love to God, the more persistent his yearning for the attainment of the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus, the more conscious will he be of the gravity of the sin which remains and the more poignant will be his detestation of it.
The more closely he comes to the holiest of all, the more he apprehends the sinfulness that is his and he must cry out, “O wretched man that I am” (Rom. 7:24). Was this not the effect in all the people of God as they came into closer proximity to the revelation of God’s holiness? “Woe is me! for I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Is. 6:5). “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5 6).
I am always reminded of the testimony of Corrie ten Boom while in a Nazi concentration camp during World War Two. This is what she said: “There is no pit so deep, that His love is deeper still”
We are being taught that although sin remains, it is not the master and we will see that in the next verse: “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:2 4).
While sanctification is important from the perspective of our own fulfillment as Christians, its importance is seen even more.
Rev Vakaroto Ngaro