Sanctification is a subject of much debate within Christian circles. Recently, it has been in the news (Christian news, that is) due to the exit of Billy Graham’s grandson Tullian Tchividjian from the popular blogging website The Gospel Coalition. The reasons for his departure? It’s a complex issue, with two sides to the story, but on the one hand, a primary reason for the change is the way that Tullian Tchividjian understands sanctification. 1
I don’t usually read too much from The Gospel Coalition, neither have I really followed this issue. However, I do like Tullian Tchividjian, and I value his grace-centered message. But in reading about this dispute, it has caused me to re-examine my perspective on sanctification. It also has made me realize that I have never actually expressed these views on this website. So I want to talk about sanctification: what it is, what it isn’t, and what all that means for our lives.
What is Sanctification?
Sanctification in the New Testament comes from the same Greek word for holiness. Which means to be set apart, or different. Therefore, sanctification takes place in the life of a believer when as they are set apart from the world, i.e. become holy. The question, then, and the division in theology, is when this happens. Is it instant? Is it a life-long process? How do we become sanctified?
There are therefore essentialy three elements to sanctification. 1) The immediate saving sanctification of Jesus, 2) the practice of sanctification in the believers life, and 3) the eschatological fulfillment of sanctification (when Jesus returns).
The question is, which of these are up to us, and what of these are gifts of grace? For most, both (1) and (3) are acts of sheer grace, through faith. However, the division primarily finds itself in number 2. So how do we, believers in Christ, live out our new nature, and the holiness of Christ?
Jesus is Sanctification
My question is this: why can’t all three be the same unified act of sanctification? Why must we divorce sanctification into three categories?
In my mind, sanctification is a once and for all deal; just as justification, redemption, and reconciliation are too done deals or “finished works” of Christ. If salvation is wrapped up in Jesus, and if Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith, then wouldn’t it be safe to assume that Christ Himself is not just our salvation (i.e. our entrance into Christ) but also our sanctification (i.e. our continued life in Christ)? I think so.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:30, “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (ESV)
Jesus Christ Himself is our sanctification.
So what then can we say about #2 of our three aspects to sanctification? If sanctification is Jesus Christ Himself, and if we are in Him, then is sanctification a life-long process of achievement? Are we fully in Christ, or only partially?
If we are truly in Christ, as the bible tells us we are, then are we not also partakers of Christ Himself? And therefore, if this is true, are we not partakers of His holiness?
I think we have to first see that the whole Gospel is wrapped up in Christ. It is not a transaction, or even an announcement: the Gospel is a person, the Man Christ Jesus. All that is good news, is wrapped up in Him. Therefore, salvation, reconciliation, new creation, and redemption are all realities that we partake of when we partake of Christ. Along with all this, we must to see that sanctification is included in Christ Himself, not apart from Him.
We cannot have a doctrine of sanctification that exists apart from Christ and His finished work. He is our sanctification. We therefore are not working our way into holiness by either faith or works. It is all Christ’s doing, all the way through. We partake of His sanctification, we do not earn sanctification in and of ourselves.
Becoming vs. Discovering
Sanctification therefore is Christ Himself. All that can be said about our sanctification must be said in the light of Christ, our union with Him, and our participation in His life.
Now, here is a distinction that must be made. Sanctification is still both a person and a process. However, it is not a process like many in the church seem to think it is. Sanctification is not a process of becoming holy. Sanctification is a process of discovering holiness already accomplished and given to us in union with Christ Jesus.
We do not become progressively more sanctified any more than we become more “in Christ” one day over another. We discover our sanctification more and more as we see Christ more and more. Sanctification is the process of seeing Christ and us in Him, and thereby seeing that we are new in Him: utterly sanctified and holy.
Christ Himself is our sanctification. He is our holiness. We are not left to sustain our lives out of our own self-efforts. It is through Christ’s life in us that we live. Breath in a deep sigh of relief: holiness isn’t up to you!
“Yet not I, but Christ…”
What do you think? Do you agree with my perspective on sanctification here? Leave me a comment below!
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