Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.
There is an inseparable connection between desiring to be with Christ in heaven after death and desiring to be more like Christ in this life. Scripture tells us that all those who truly have the hope of becoming perfectly like Christ in body and soul when Christ appears show that they have this hope by striving, already in this life, to begin to purify themselves even as Christ is pure (I John 3:3). This means that all those who have the Christian hope long to experience more and more God’s gracious work of sanctification.
Sanctification is the saving work of God in which He delivers His people from the corruption and dominion of sin, and conforms them to the image of Christ. It is the process by which God causes us to become more like Christ, so that we think, speak, and act like Him.
Sanctification is to be distinguished from justification. When God justifies us He delivers us from the guilt of our sin, and declares us to be perfectly righteous in Christ and to have a right to all the blessings that Christ has earned for us by His suffering and death. When God sanctifies us, He delivers us from the corrupting power of our sin, causing us to receive and experience Christ’s heavenly life, so that we more and more turn from our sin and willingly walk in obedience to God, while enjoying intimate communion with Him.
The difference between justification and sanctification can be illustrated by a man who goes from being locked in a debtor’s prison to living with the king in his house, daily eating at his table and communing with him. The first thing that happens to this man is that he hears the joyful news that his debt has been forgiven, that he no longer has any debt, and that he actually has been granted the right to dwell with the king in his glorious palace. The second thing that happens to him is that someone comes to his cell, unlocks the door, and brings him out of the cell and into the presence of the king, where he continues to dwell.
As impossible as it would seem that such a thing could happen to a human being, something far more amazing actually happens to us who are in Christ Jesus. That we are justified means that we are declared to be free from debt, and that we consciously hear this declaration. We hear that Christ has paid the debt we owed, and that we now have the right to be set free from the prison house of sin, and to enter into the house of our heavenly Father. This is justification. But then we also experience that Christ, by His Spirit, sets us free from the dominion of sin, so that we are no longer in bondage to our sinful thoughts and desires, but are able to break from these sins and to submit to God, so that we walk and commune with Him in His heavenly house. This is sanctification.
Although this is a glorious work of God in which we consciously become active, it is still God’s work from beginning to end. It is true that when God is sanctifying us we are actively and willingly turning away from sin and towards God. But God is the one who gives to us not only the gift of faith, but also the gift of repentance (Acts 11:18). He produces in us both the will to believe and the act of believing also (Canons III & IV, 14), and He causes us willingly to walk in His statutes by means of the faith that He Himself has given to us (Ezek. 36:27).
This is not the way sanctification is often presented. It is often presented as though God has a wonderful plan for the life of every believer, but that that plan is often not realized because the believer does not do his part. God gives the believer sufficient grace to grow into a mature believer, who bears much fruit in all areas of his life. But often this plan of God is not realized, and the believer experiences very little if any spiritual growth, because he fails to cooperate with God. Such a view teaches that sanctification is partly the work of God and partly the work of man.
The truth is that sanctification, just like justification, is God’s work from beginning to end. God has before ordained every good work that we will perform (Eph. 2:10), and causes us by His grace to perform precisely those works that He has before determined that we would do. He gives to us not only the desire to do these works, but also produces within in us the activity itself. “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Such is the way Scripture sets forth God’s sanctifying work in the life of a believer.
It is true that we will experience this work only in the way of our submitting to it. We confess this in Lord’s Day 38, where our fathers taught that the fourth commandment requires of me that “all the days of my life I cease from my evil works, and yield myself to the Lord, to work by His Holy Spirit in me.” If the believer refuses to repent of any sin, God will withdraw His Holy Spirit from him, although not entirely, so that He will not consciously experience this sanctifying work. But when we do submit to this work, and experience the blessings thereof, we do so because God has graciously caused us to do this.
If we have failed to yield ourselves to the Lord for a time, and if during that time we did not experience making progress in our battle with sin, but rather found that we were more and more being given over to it, this also must have taken place according to God’s decree. God’s counsel stands, He always does all His pleasure (Is. 46:10). God uses even such times as this for our profit. But it is our calling, and our desire, willingly to yield ourselves to this gracious work of God. And, insofar as we do this, it is Christ performing this work in and through us.
When God graciously sanctifies His people, He is beginning in them the work of glorification. Some may have the tendency to think of glorification as something that does not begin until after a believer dies and goes to heaven. But, actually, we already now begin to experience the act of glorification, when we are delivered from the corruption of sin and conformed to the glorious image of Jesus Christ.
That sanctification is an act of glorification is taught in a number of places in Holy Scripture. First of all, we take a look at Romans 8:30, which speaks of the order of salvation.
Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.
When reading this verse, one may be inclined to ask, “Why did the inspired apostle leave out sanctification?” The answer is that the work of sanctification that we experience in this life belongs to God’s saving work of glorification. This same truth is taught in II Corinthians 3:18,
But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.
As we begin in this life to behold in God’s Word the glory of the Lord, we begin to be changed into this glorious image. The more God causes us to think, speak, and act like Christ, the more we radiate the glorious image of our Savior. This is the work of sanctification performed by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, who dwells in our heart.
The obedient believer experiences this deliverance from sin gradually throughout his life upon this earth. Although it is true that our sinful nature does not improve as we get older, it is also true that God causes us more to experience the victory over our sin.
Let us take, for example, the sin of complaining and of not being content in the Lord’s way. This is a sin that we all see within ourselves. As we see this sin, we ask God to forgive us. But we also ask Him to deliver us more from this sin, so that we make progress in being content. Then, when we have truly requested this from the heart by faith, we experience that God grants our request, so that over time we can see the spiritual progress we are making in our battle against this sin.
The more we experience the victory over this sin, and over all sin, the more we reflect the glorious perfections of God, and show to those around us that we really are children of our Father which is in heaven. In this way we glorify our Father, and show forth the praises of Him who has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.