Holy Sinners: The paradox of sanctification

Holy Sinners

The paradox of sanctification

God's destiny for us is to be conformed to the likeness of his Son (Rom 8.29). One aspect of that destiny is to be holy like Jesus "For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight." Ephesians 1:4. We are to be holy like the one who called us is holy (Lev 11.44; 1 Pet 1.15,16). God's will for us is our sanctification (1 Thess 4.3,7).

When we come to talk about holiness or sanctification we are presented with what looks like a puzzle. Christians are spoken of as being saints (holy ones) but are also obviously still sinners, and are urged to be holy. In 1 Corinthians 6.11, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the change that happened to them.

"Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. 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." 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, NIV.

He implies that far from being wicked any longer, they have been sanctified and are now holy.

1. Holy Status

Earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul said that Christ has become our sanctification (1.30). He is the means by which we are made holy. The writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus is the one who made his people holy by the sacrifice of his body.

"And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." Hebrews 10:10, NIV.

"And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood." Hebrews 13:12, NIV.

(See also Heb 2.11;10.14,29; Acts 20.32; 26.18; 1 Cor 1.2).

So we are to understand that sanctification results from the death of Christ, and benefits us when we become Christians. That is why we are called saints. God has set us apart from the rest of humanity, and has declared us to be holy. The idea is closely connected to justification. It describes the status we have in God's sight. He has included us in the group of people who are holy.

He has put us into that group despite our continuing sin. We are in the group of holy people because of God's grace, not because we are actually holy in practice. Christ has given his life so that we can be forgiven. Once we understand that sanctification is a gift from God, we are better able to understand why we should be holy in practice.
So sanctification has two parts. One is the gift from God which declares us to be holy and sets us apart into the group of people whom God regards as holy. The other is the holy behaviour which we are called to practise.

2. Holy Living

"It is God's will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no-one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life." 1 Thessalonians 4:3-7, NIV.

There is no evidence in the New Testament that the gift of a holy status let's us off from being holy in practice. (See 2 Timothy 2:20,21). Indeed a holy character will be looked for in those who hope for heaven.

"Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord." Hebrews 12:14, NRSV.

Such holiness is to be found in all aspects of our life - our thoughts and feelings, our body, our inner being - all are to be sanctified.

" May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." 1 Thessalonians 5:23, NRSV.

So how do we live a holy life in practice?

The short answer is under the rule of the Holy Spirit. The chief problem we have in leading holy lives is that our sinful nature keeps on giving a foothold to the enemy.

"I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life." Romans 6:19-22, NIV.

Many people think that Christian, biblical, religious, or some other kind of law will help them become holy. The problem with the law is that it is not powerful enough to control the sinful nature. In the place of the Old Testament law God brought grace to bear in our lives (Rom 5.20). This grace has freed us from the mastery of sin (Rom 6.14), because it has brought forgiveness and a new master that is neither law nor sin. The new master is the Spirit (Rom 7.6).

"So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law." Galatians 5:16-18, NIV.

It is the Holy Spirit who is the one who gives us the power to keep the sinful nature under control, and to resist the temptations of the enemy. It is by the Spirit that we are to put to death the deeds of the sinful nature (Rom 8.13).
It is the Spirit who brings forth in us the character of God (Gal 5.22,23). This fruit of God's character is a result of having God the Holy Spirit living in us. That is why Paul can describe him as the Spirit of life. It is by his operation in our lives that we are able to please God, and do what the law requires (Rom 8.2-4).

Christians live in accordance with the Spirit, and have their minds set on what the Spirit wants (Rom 8.5). Paul says "The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace;" Romans 8:6, NIV. What kind of a mind is this? It is a mind transformed by the Spirit. He transforms our minds as they are set on the things he wants, that is, the things of Christ (Rom 12.2; 8.5). It is the word of God that the Spirit uses to change us, and direct our lives. Jesus prayed, "Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth." John 17:17, NIV. Paul also saw the word having a cleansing effect on the church "...Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word," Ephesians 5:25,26, NIV.

We must never separate word and Spirit, any more than we should separate mind and heart. The two always go together. Apart you either have a dry legalism, or a mystical subjectivism. Neither is biblical Christianity. Holy character is formed in us by the Spirit as our minds are filled with the word of God and our lives live it out in obedience.

3. Holy Sinners

So we need to be clear both about our status as holy people, and about the means by which we are to live holy lives. It is not any technique, pattern of life, habit, program or set of rules, be they evangelical or otherwise. The only way to live a holy life is to submit to the rule of the Holy Spirit who is present in our lives. This is another way of saying that we live by faith in the Son of God (Gal 2.20). We not only trust him for salvation and holy status, but also trust his Spirit as the one who can direct our lives in a way that pleases God.

Holiness in practice is not merely the absence of sin, but rather the presence of godliness. It is the presence of the holy character of God, flowing forth from us, and affecting those we live amongst. It is like salt, like light, it purifies, and exposes, and is opposed. It is a powerful thing. This power of holiness only comes from people who are humbly submitted to doing the will of the Holy Spirit within them. It is a moment by moment reliance on the direction of the Spirit of Jesus and obedience to the word of Jesus.

"let him who is holy continue to be holy." Revelation 22:11, NIV.

Dale Appleby May 30, 2000