Thoughts on Sanctification, Part 1


By Pastor Josh Kirk

1 Thessalonians 4:1 – “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.”

Recently, my wife and I were sitting in our living room having dinner with friends and enjoying some fellowship. Oftentimes, we try to use these evenings to ask at least one intentional question that will encourage true spiritual fellowship with one another. On this particular evening, the question was “What is one of the biggest areas of change the Lord has worked in your life over the last decade?” I hadn’t really planned to ask such a big question and consequently hadn’t taken the requisite time to compose an intelligent answer myself. As I sat there pondering, I realized I hadn’t thought about what the Lord has been doing in my life for some time, which surprised me. Paul says that sanctification, my growing in holiness and becoming more like Jesus, is a priority for him but somehow it often slips to the back burner on my priority list. 

What about you? If someone asked how has the Lord sanctified you this year, or month, or week, what would you say? Would you come up with something quasi-intelligent and hope to move on as quickly as possible? Would you understand what is meant by “sanctification”? If sanctification is God’s will for us, it’s important to have a solid understanding of what exactly it is and how we participate. 

Sanctification is a broad term for a process having three distinct stages: beginning (definitive or positional sanctification), middle (progressive sanctification), and end (final sanctification or glorification). Though, when the word “sanctification” is used today it almost always refers to progressive sanctification, it’s important to have a concrete understanding of each stage.

Positional Sanctification is a one-time event that takes place at the moment of regeneration. All of us were once haters of God, driven by the desires and passions of the body, children of wrath, and deserving of wrath (Rom 1:18-32; Eph 2:1-3). We not only lived in darkness, but we also embraced it (Jn 1:9-11). But at the moment of regeneration, God transfers us out of the kingdom and darkness and into the kingdom of his beloved son (Col 1:13). We are set apart as a holy priesthood, a people for God’s own possession (1 Pet 2:9). Christians now have a new position. We do not stand before God as rebels to be judged, but children to be loved. Similar to justification, positional sanctification is a once-for-all act that is completed in full solely on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ. We contribute nothing. The implications of this new status before God are innumerable and incredible, but I would like to highlight three in particular. 

Benefit one – belonging. This is the beating heart of positional sanctification. We now belong to God. We are set apart as vessels devoted to God. The cost to purchase us was immense, Christ had to shed his own blood, but the privilege of belonging to God as one of his children is freely offered. As Bonhoeffer elegantly put it, “Grace is free, but it is not cheap.” Christians have a new Father; while once they belonged to the father of lies who leads people to death, now they have an everlasting Father who can never lie and always leads them down paths of righteousness leading to everlasting life. We once were brothers and sisters in iniquity, now our brothers and sisters are those who do the will of God; once devoted to wrath but now devoted to the good works God has prepared beforehand for us to do. New father, new family, new jobs, new life, all accomplished by the sacrificial blood of Christ. 

Benefit two – prayer. Because we are now children and not rebels, God listens when we speak to him and petition him for needs. In Christ, we are now sons and daughters with full, direct access to God, our loving Father. He patiently listens to us and gives us what we need. Not only that, but he joins with us in the work he has given us to do. Hudson Taylor once points out, “When man works, man works. But when man prays, God works.” What an immeasurable comfort this is! A balm for the anxious heart, a crutch for the weak in faith. We don’t have to worry about that task list that can’t get done or that relationship that seems to continue to go sideways no matter how hard we try to repair it. We can take it to the Father and leave it with him, casting down our burdens at his feet because he cares for us. 

Benefit three – Transformation. Our lofty position as God’s chosen ones allows us to draw near, gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, and be transformed. Paul uses the image of Moses whose face would shine when he came into the presence of the Lord. Through Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit opening our eyes, we get to see God through faith and be transformed. Paul writes,

“Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end…Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Cor, 3:12-13, 17–18).

As Christians, we get the privilege of gazing upon the beauty of the Lord as revealed through Christ in the Bible and our faces get to shine. I had the privilege of growing up in a pastor’s home and getting to visit people in the hospital with my dad, One visit in particular sticks in my mind to this day. She was an old woman by the time I met her. We came into her room and she was shaking like a leaf, not from fear or old age, but from Parkinson’s disease. I can’t imagine life with a debilitating health issue such as Parkinson’s; in my mind this infirmity hung like smoke over the conversation, blocking out all else in my mind. But not in hers. She wanted to talk to my dad about what she’d been reading that day. As hard as her life was with all the difficulties that my little eight-year-old brain couldn’t even begin to understand, she didn’t want to talk about any of that. She wanted to talk about Jesus and how excited she was to get to meet him one day. Every interaction with her I can remember was like that first one. And her face was shining! All! The! Time! From one degree of glory to the next as she meditated on her precious savior Jesus. 

Most of us don’t have the debilitating trials she did, but does your face shine? Do you make a practice as gazing upon the beauty of the Lord and being transformed? Are the first words out of your mouth when you see someone about Jesus? Or are they about how hard the day with the kids has been, or how frustrating your boss or coworker is? Does your face shine and can people see it? In future posts, I hope to address glorification and then dive into the how’s of this transformation. But for now, think about your position. Live in it, praise God for it, and don’t take it for granted. We don’t deserve to be children, but we are. Praise God for that.