The doctrine of sanctification is a critical aspect of the whole counsel of God for his people.
Paul charged Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:1-2). Faithful Christian preaching demands proclamation of the whole counsel of God’s word (Acts 20:27). The doctrine of sanctification, as God’s will for our lives, is a critical aspect of the whole counsel of God for his people (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Simply put, sanctification consists of the transformation and conformation of God’s people into Christ’s likeness (Romans 8:29-30). In this article I will briefly consider what sanctification entails, its importance in preaching, and what’s at stake for the preacher and his hearers.
What is Sanctification?
The Old Testament reveals that the directive for God’s people to be consecrated and set-apart from the nations marks the heart of God’s covenant with his people. Through Moses, Yahweh declared, “consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy…I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God, you shall therefore be holy for, I am holy…I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Leviticus 11:44-45; 20:26). In his epistle, Peter would summon this divine declaration to assure that this covenantal requirement is binding on God’s people across all ages (1 Peter 1:15-16).
God sanctifies his people, and God’s people participate with God in putting indwelling sin to death.
Essentially, in contrast to unbelievers, God’s call for believers to be holy is non-negotiable because in sanctification, God claimed his people to be his treasured possession by his grace (Exodus 19:5-6; 1 Peter 2:9-10). As the Westminster Shorter Catechism articulates it in Q35, “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” (Romans 8:1; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; Ephesians 4:24). This means that God sanctifies his people, and God’s people participate with God in putting indwelling sin to death.
Let me explain what I mean by that last sentence.
God Sanctifies His People
Sanctification is fundamentally God’s gracious work in us (Exodus 31:13; Leviticus 20:8; 21:8, 15; 1 Peter 1:2). God sanctifies his people through three major means, by the:
- Shed blood of Jesus Christ that atoned for our unrighteousness (1 Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 5:25-27; 1 Peter 1:18-19)
- Indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (1 Peter 1:2)
- Truth contained in the inspired Word of God (John 17:17).
Our confidence lies in that the work of sanctification begins and ends with God.
Hence, our confidence lies in that the work of sanctification begins and ends with God. This means that being a sanctified people in Christ is effectively woven into our Christian identity. Therefore, as Paul exhorts, it is God who began the good work in his people, and it is God who is responsible to bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6). In sum, God principally makes, is making, and will make his people holy in Christ Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, by his holy word.
Our Participation in the Work of Sanctification
Furthermore, we actively participate in God’s sanctifying work through our volitional pursuit of holiness. The evidence that we are God’s treasured possessions lies in the active conformation of our will to lead our lives in a holy manner. This is not a ‘heaven-makes-holy-those-who-make-themselves-holy’ kind of scheme. This participation I am speaking of is that which God, through his Spirit, empowers his children to make active decisions to slay their sinful tendencies (Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5). In this participation, we consciously and viciously put to death all that’s unholy in us, knowing that it is God who is working in us to wilfully pursue holiness for his good pleasure and our good (Philippians 2:12-13).
How do we tangibly participate in this holy work? To pick a few points from the Bible, we:
- Immerse ourselves in the word of God and humbly submit to the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in us (Romans 12:2; Hebrews 4:12)
- Lead prayer saturated lifestyles (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
- Exhort one another so that none may fall into the deception of sin as we strive for peace and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 3:12-13; 12:14)
- Don’t rationalise our sins but fall before the feet of the Lord in repentance and holy contrition (Psalm 51; I John 1:9)
- Keep alert, at close watch, and examine ourselves, training ourselves for holiness (1 Timothy 4:7-8, 12-16).
We actively participate in God’s sanctifying work through our volitional pursuit of holiness.
In The Mortification of Sin, John Owen famously said: “be killing sin, or it will be killing you.” Beloved, we must make it our daily business to put to death the deeds of indwelling sins lest we slack, and it consumes us. Given, on this side of eternity, perfect holiness is impossible. However, the transformative work of the Holy Spirit is manifested in identifying our sinful tendencies and intentionally putting it to death for the holiness and glory of God. We believe that God is making us holy in Christ, therefore, we can respond in obedience by pursuing growth in our holy identity.
Faithful Preaching in Light of this Doctrine
Today, the upsurge of ungodliness is unprecedented in Africa, as well as the rest of the world. Rather than being lovers of God, people are becoming perpetual lovers of self, money, pleasure, and embracing all that is unholy (2 Timothy 3:2-4). Therefore, preachers must be concerned about the holiness of God’s people (1 John 2:15-17). Make no mistake, God intends on making his treasured people holy!
Faithful preaching calls God’s people to respond in active obedience to mortify indwelling sin.
Therefore, faithful preaching demands that the preacher exhorts God’s people to embrace their identity as a treasured possession of the holy God. Faithful preaching calls God’s people to respond in active obedience to mortify indwelling sin. It challenges and exhorts God’s people to conform their minds, hearts, characters, conducts, and attitudes in accordance with the will of the holy God. The proclamation of the counsel of God’s word is a consecrating endeavour. Therefore, preachers must exhort God’s people to be holy so that they might be made ready for the second coming of their Holy Lord and Saviour (Ephesians 4:12-16; Hebrews 3:12-13).
Holy Preachers and God’s Holy People
Sanctification is God’s will for his people, and faithful preaching summons God’s people to be holy.
The dictum of many so-called “men of God” in Africa to their hearers is often, “do what I say, but not what I do.” Make no mistake, personal holiness and unfeigned Christian character is non-negotiable for preachers of God’s counsel (1 Timothy 3:1-7; James 3:1). Therefore, African preachers must viciously put to death indwelling sin in their lives (1 Timothy 4:16). For the preacher whose life is marked by Christlikeness becomes an indubitable example for his hearers. Like Paul, he can say to his hearers with utmost confidence, imitate me as I imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Sanctification is God’s will for his people, and faithful preaching summons God’s people to be holy because they belong to the Holy God.