You and I would wholeheartedly agree that salvation is the work of God. And I suspect we would also agree on the need for us to share the gospel with others, despite the fact that salvation is God’s work. Yet when it comes to sanctification, although we agree on it being a work of God, we can be misled into thinking that we have no role at all in that process. And not only do we think that we have no role in that process, we are further misled into thinking that the process is largely ineffective in this lifetime! Consider what Mark Galli of Christianity Today said in his recent article entitled, Real Transformation Happens When? He said,
But after living the Christian life for nearly a half century, I doubt the ability of Christians to make much progress in holiness.
I look at my own life and marvel at the lack of real transformation after 50 years of effort. To be sure, outwardly I’m more patient, kind, gracious, and so forth. But even after half a century of transformation, my thoughts and motives are a cauldron of evil.
If I put it in my own words, it might sound something like this:
I’m a Christian and I keep sinning. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve changed at all since becoming a Christian. Real change must happen in heaven and not on earth. Maybe God will change me at present and maybe He won’t. If I have faith, I’d better show it by not worrying about sanctification anymore.
The Scriptures paint a completely different picture. Consider Philippians 2, where Paul contrasts Timothy with those who serve their own interests, He says,
I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 2:19-21)
Paul was essentially saying that Timothy had grown in his relationship with the Lord to the point where he was concerned about the welfare of others more than his own. Timothy was being sanctified! The Scriptural witness shows us that we can be sanctified, but we are right to recognize that God does the sanctifying and not us. So what is our role? Our role is to pray earnestly to God for this good gift.
Sanctification, in other words, doesn’t just overtake us when we become a Christian. It’s a gift for which we pray. Galli notes that he does not see a difference in the lives of those attending churches where sanctification is emphasized, but sanctification does not come from attending a holiness church any more than being a Christian comes from attending any kind of church. As the old chestnut goes, being in a church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than being in a garage makes you a car. Galli may be discovering that the historic holiness churches are less focused on sanctification than they used to be, or even that their understanding of sanctification is off base. But the reality that God will answer our earnest prayers desiring sanctification is not a peculiarity of a small group of churches in the 21st century. It is the testimony of Christians going all the way back to Jesus.
Thomas Cranmer’s 16th century translation of an 8th century Latin prayer is a great example of just such a prayer for sanctification. It says,
Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open all desires, known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Sanctification takes root in our lives when we come face to face with the testimony of Scripture and cry out to the Lord with the same sentiment of Thomas Cranmer. Sanctification takes root in our lives when we understand that God not only can change us, but that he wholeheartedly desires that change for our lives. Therefore, a great index of our sanctification is not only our outward actions but even more so our inward desire for God to change our lives. You may rightly agree with Mark Galli, that you haven’t really grown in the Lord like you should have. But that certainly doesn’t mean that sanctification in this lifetime isn’t possible and that God doesn’t desire it in your life. Dennis Kinlaw describes the sanctification that Paul wrote about in Romans 12-15 this way:
It [sanctification] is a possibility in grace because it is not a matter of attainment. Such love is a gift that can only be received. It is a gift because it is the very life of God himself. One does not rise to such a life. One kneels to receive, to let him who is agape love fill and complete our personhood.
Sanctification is God’s job. Our job? To pray passionately and faithfully for him to sanctify us, and to believe the testimony of Scripture that this is a prayer he loves to answer.