There are a lot of big words that you can come across while reading the Bible. In the Old Testament, it is usually proper nouns. If you are like me you stumble a bit anytime you come across a name of a person or a long place name that you are not sure how to pronounce. I come to those words and I put my head down and muscle through hoping for the best result. In the New Testament, you do not come across big words that you don't know how to pronounce as often. Most of the time the big words that you come across might be words that are easier to pronounce but you are not sure what they mean. You have heard the word before but you don't feel confident in exactly what it means. Yet, it is in those types of words where we find so much of the important doctrine of the Christian faith. One example that I have had people ask me about on many occasions is the word sanctification.
In preparing to write this article I went to my trusty copy of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary. When I found the word situated between Sanballat and sanctuary, I found this sentence in the first sentence of the paragraph long definition: The process or result of being made holy. That is an excellent summary of what the word means. Sanctification is at the same time a process and a result of being made holy. Sanctification is something that is currently happening to you and something that has happened to you.
That idea definitely requires some more explanation. When we talk about being made holy, if you are in Christ, you are in fact holy right now. As mentioned in the previous Bible Vocab article on justification, when we are in Christ we have been declared righteous. We are holy because of the work of Jesus Christ for us. The Apostle Paul expresses this idea of an immediate sanctification in 1 Corinthians 6:11 when he is encouraging the church in Corinth to put away sinful things. After a pretty exhaustive list of sins in verse 10, Paul says "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." Notice that this is a statement of fact. Being holy is not something that you are doing here. It is something that is done and it wasn't done by you in the first place. So, we see that in one sense the idea of sanctification is something that we already are because of the work of Christ for us.
At the same time, the process of being sanctified or being made holy is not yet completed in you. When you agree with God about your need for a savior and receive the gift of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, you are not immediately freed from all sin. There will always be something that you will be battling in this flesh on this side of glory. The process of sanctification is more and more putting to death the old self and putting on the new self in Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 4:22-24)
This putting on of Christ is the key element of growing in holiness. Many people have the idea that if they could stop doing one sin or another then they would be truly sanctified. This is something that we end up believing because deep down we think that sanctification is up to us as individuals. We approach our sanctification much in the same way we hope that a self-help book can help us out. If I can find a step by step process holiness will become easy. My friends, holiness is never easy. As we read in 1 Peter 2:11 the passions of the flesh are at war against your soul. That is strong language and so we should not expect that growing in holiness should be easy. You will not become more sanctified by following steps 1 through 5. What it all comes down to is that if you are resting on yourself for your sanctification, you are going to end up as frustrated as you were by the productivity or diet book you have sitting on your shelf. There is no easy shortcut to losing weight, accomplishing more at work, or becoming a better athlete. Unfortunately, there is also no easy shortcut to sanctification.
What I have said may come across as contradictory. I said that it wasn't something that you could do, but I also said that it isn't easy. We put our trust in Jesus Christ for our sanctification but that doesn't mean that we sit back and do nothing and POOF, we become more holy. We trust that through the Holy Spirit we will grow in holiness and faith by the use of the means that God ordains. What that means is that we trust that through the Word and the Sacraments God will work in us as he has promised to do. God works through means and those means are accessible to everyone. Faith comes by hearing and ordinary words come to us and by that word, the Spirit creates faith in us. We read God's Word and see the salvation that God has won for us in the Gospel and we believe by faith. We receive the ordinary elements made from the fruit of the vine and the bounty of the field and in the eating and drinking of them we are sustained to life everlasting. Baptism, while not something we receive more than once, is also a way in which our faith is built up. As we witness the baptism of someone else we are reminded of God's covenant faithfulness not only to that person, but also the covenant faithfulness that God has shown to us. We see a visible reminder that through Christ's blood we have been made clean. Through prayer, we grow in holiness as we daily learn to humbly pray "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven". In prayer, we also acknowledge our sin and pray for God to strengthen us. We pray trusting that God will work all things together for his good pleasure.
In the same way that we trust in Christ alone for our salvation, we d also trust in Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, for our sanctification. Trust that God will continue to work through the means that he has ordained. That is why it is so important that we hear the Word, we receive the sacraments, and with a humble heart go to our God in prayer. It all points to the saving work of Jesus for us and our inability to achieve holiness and sanctification on our own.
For a deeper look at sanctification I recommend that you pick up J.V. Fesko's short book "A Christian's Pocket Guide to Sanctification".