Sanctification: growing toward God

By Dr. Roger Nicole

Hebrews 12:14

Sanctification is an unwelcome word to many Christians for at least two reasons. Some people look upon it as a joyless wasteland where God takes away everything enjoyable in life in order for us to grow as Christians. Fearful and intimidated, they avoid any contact with the process. Others have watched those with a faulty understanding of sanctification become so carried away with being "sanctified and perfect" that they are obnoxious in their self-importance. Not wishing to fall into that trap, they too avoid the subject.

But ignoring the subject of sanctification is not the right solution. Rather, we should examine it in light of Scripture, since it is so critically important to our salvation that the writer of Hebrews says "no one will see the Lord" without it. Perhaps a modern comparison would help us understand what is involved in sanctification.

Imagine a beautiful luxury automobile in which everything has been carefully planned by a resourceful engineer and lovingly handcrafted by skillful mechanics. From one end to the other everything is perfectly adjusted for service and comfort. The owner is justifiably proud of this splendid machine.

Now imagine that this car is stolen, driven recklessly at excessive speeds, and involved in a head-on collision. What have we got now? A piece of distorted metal on the side of the road! The chassis is warped, the body is bent out of shape, the glass is shattered, the leather is cut to shreds. What was not damaged on impact was ruined by the ensuing fire. "It is totaled," says the insurance adjuster. "Tow it out of here."

But suppose a highly skilled craftsman took hold of this mess of twisted metal and proceeded to rebuild the car according to its original design. With infinite patience and consummate dexterity he straightens what has been twisted, replaces what has been ruined, and refurbishes what has been seared. Ultimately he restores the car to its pristine splendor, its engine purring like a kitten, its chrome and body gleaming, every part running smoothly. "It's as good as new!" one might exclaim.

"It's even better than new," the mechanic might say, "because of the great amount of individual attention given to every part!" Sanctification may be compared to the work of that mechanic, keeping in mind that the illustration deals with an inanimate object, while sanctification applies to a living person.


Sanctification is the work of God in concurrence with the renewed will and energy of the Christian, securing growth, development, and maturity in the life and personality of the regenerate. It involves both positive and negative aspects.

The negative aspect consists in bringing to naught or reducing to helplessness those elements in our being, nature, disposition, and character that are alien to the will of God. When God regenerates a person He reorients the will, implanting a new governing disposition within the soul. But this implantation does not mean that He provides the full development at once. Therefore, a work of grace ensues by which that which has been damaged, distorted, twisted, and mangled by the presence of sin is discarded and the person is re-created to glorify God.

Recalling our car illustration, we might say that certain parts of the car that have been damaged beyond repair, as well as foreign elements that have intruded into the mechanism, must be removed. This process of "mortification" is often painful, as is the removal of a tumor, but we should not resent it, no more than the man with a house full of litter should resent the trash collector.

Sanctification does not deprive us of that which is worthwhile. Sometimes we hold on to things "for dear life," thinking they are valuable when they are not. God asks us to give up that which we should not grasp tightly, that which does not really matter, that which does not help move us toward God. He wants to rid us of that which hampers us, weighs us down, and paralyzes us. Far from being afraid of sanctification and fearing that somehow it is going to be terribly costly and ruin our lives, we should embrace it. God is not in the business of taking all the fun out of life; on the contrary, He wants to make our lives effective, enjoyable, and useful in preparation for the life to come (Rom 12:2).

The positive aspect of sanctification encompasses a renewing that God Himself undertakes. In contrast to mortification, He wants to develop the new life as a fresh principle of existence within the soul. In Christ we are a new creation, but this creation is not inanimate. It is organic, developing, growing, and bearing fruit. It is like a tree that starts from seed, sprouts, expands, and eventually produces branches, leaves, and fruit. It develops, enlarges, and strengthens itself, dislodging and displacing the appetites of natural sinful humanity. In presenting this truth, the Bible uses such lofty and sublime language that we are stunned. It says that we are transformed into "His (Christ's) likeness with ever-increasing glory" (2 Cor. 3:18) and that we are "being renewed in knowledge, in the image of [our] Creator" (Col. 3:10). This fills us with joy.

Again, think of a person who owns a house full of junk. Somebody says, "I will be glad to come in and help you with this; I am going to come every week and take some of this to the dump. But I won't leave your house empty. I am going to bring in fine antiques, attractive curtains, and nice oriental carpets." You would say, "How wonderful! You are really a good friend. How happy I will be to see all my clutter go, and all those great and good things take their places in my house." This is precisely what God does with us in the process of sanctification.


God is the sole agent of regeneration. He acts according to His own sovereign will. He does not consult us to see whether we are willing to be regenerated, but He sovereignly begets us into newness of life (James 1:18). Similarly, a baby has nothing to say about his or her conception, and very little to say about his or her appearance in the land of the living.
He says, "I want you to have a part in this great work. I want you to conform your will to mine and yield yourself to the life I have implanted in you."

On the other hand, God wants to associate Himself with us in accomplishing the work of sanctification. He has not said, "I am going to clean your trashy house up by myself. When you come back you will find it entirely free of all the things that are unworthy." Rather, He says, "I want you to have a part in this great work. I want you to conform your will to mine and yield yourself to the life I have implanted in you." Instead of doing the work by Himself, God involves us as co-laborers with Him.

Sometimes we lament about this, thinking that God could do a much better job by Himself. Why does He make us plod along the painful upward road with all its difficulties and dangers? We are so clumsy and slow at times. Yet, this is how God operates, regardless of our questions. He wants us involved and to be active participants. God wills our involvement in the process of sanctification not for us to earn merits or to gain special acceptance with him, but that the marvels of His grace in our renewed personalities may become apparent as we work and act and stand before God as responsible agents.

Sanctification is progressive. Someone known to have fits of anger should not expect that because he or she is regenerate, he or she will now be sweet and mild in all circumstances. The temper remains, but now it can and must be controlled. God is there now to assist in the struggle. Instead of fighting a losing battle alone, that person can triumph by the grace of God.


Often we wonder why God permits us to struggle so long in the life of sanctification. One answer is surely that it puts us face to face with the reality of our sin. Through sanctification we increasingly understand the corruption of our hearts. We do not discover this all at once, even though at the point of conversion the Holy Spirit often brings about a dramatic conviction of sin. Generally, only in the process of growth in the Lord are we led to probe into the reality and depth of our corruption. Therefore, the life of sanctification is one of painful discoveries.

This is apparent in the career of the Apostle Paul. Toward the beginning of his ministry, Paul said in a rather humble way in 1 Cor. 15:9 that he was "the least of the apostles." This is a remarkable statement because Paul is one apostle that most of us remember!

A few years later he tells the Ephesians that he is "less than the least of all God's people," that is the least of all believers, not worthy of the grace of God (Eph. 3:8). That is an even stranger statement, for by this time the apostle was surely one of the greatest believers and the most effective of missionaries. He was one in whom the grace of God had appeared in a most signal manner.

Finally at the very close of his career, we find him saying in 1 Tim. 1:15, "Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the worst." What does this mean? It means that as the life of grace was enlarging within the apostle, his own self-esteem diminished. In getting closer to the Lord and more fully under the control of the Holy Spirit, he perceived even more clearly where he fell short.


To promote our sanctification, God has provided means of grace by which the life of the Spirit is enhanced. The first of these is the cultivation of Scripture, not only as a book out of which we can draw propositional truth, but as spiritual food which is able to renew us and cause us to apprehend more fully the blessings and grace of God. Jesus said in John 17:17, "Sanctify them by the truth; your Word is truth." We need to remain closely attached to the Scriptures in order that our lives may grow. Otherwise our souls will be stunted and retarded.

Prayer is not only a privilege, but also a duty. For it is in prayer that the life of holiness will develop.

God has also provided prayer as a means of grace, because through prayer we can establish lines of communication with Him. It seems strange that God should have to admonish us to pray, for it is an honor for us to be allowed to come into His presence and make our requests known. Yet Paul says, "Pray continually" (1 Thess.5:17); our Lord Jesus Christ says, "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation" (Matt. 26:41). Prayer is not only a privilege, but also a duty. For it is in prayer that the life of holiness will develop. That which is unworthy will be sloughed off, and that which is God's will for us will be enhanced.

Christian fellowship is also a means of grace. Americans tend to be overly individualistic. We want to emphasize each person for his own self, each one as a distinct object of interest. Surely there are some good reasons for this, but we need to recognize that God has not called us to live the life of Robinson Crusoe at the spiritual level. There are no spiritual islands. We are called to be a people of God, not just private individuals. When God sent the disciples, He sent them out two by two, not to work in isolation.

Most of the time we need the support of other believers; we need to be strengthened and comforted, challenged and watched. We need to help others when they are about to fall. Sanctification is a life in which God's people function as a family - loving, supporting, and helping one another. When we think that we are so great, so good, so spiritual that we do not need our brothers and sisters in Christ, that is when we are about to fall.

Finally, God has provided the sacraments as a means of grace because they signify in a moving manner what He has done for us. They are signs of His blessing and tokens of His immeasurable love. Baptism and the Lord's Supper seal and certify to our consciousness the benefits that accrue to us from the work of Christ. They help stabilize and develop the life of the Spirit in us.


It behooves us to rejoice in our redemption, bask in the glory of justification by faith, and thrill to our adoption as children of God. It also behooves us to seek with earnestness and zeal that life of conformity and obedience to the will of God that alone is pleasing in His sight.

How we should yearn for sanctification! When we study the grace of God, we must be moved to request the Lord to take that which is unworthy out of our lives, renew us into His image, and use us --trophies of His grace-- for the blessing of others. Those who see us should say, "There is someone in whom God's grace is unmistakably at work. I would like to have a life like that." Unless we do this, the witness of our lips will not be strong. We may tell the truth, but it will never be convincing when it is not backed up by our lives.

May we triumph in temptation, be strong in the Lord to do His will, be renewed in conformity to His image, and glorify His holy name in the presence of this world and even in the face of Satan.

Hymn writer Charles Wesley said it well:

He wills that I should holy be,
Who can resist His will?
The counsel of His grace in me
He surely shall fulfill.

Dr. Roger Nicole

Long regarded as one of the preeminent theologians in America, Dr. Roger Nicole is Professor of Theology at RTS/Orlando. He holds an M.A. from the Sorbonne, a Th.D. from Gordon Divinity School, and a Ph.D. from Harvard University. A bibliophile and distinguished librarian with a massive collection, he owns Calvin's Commentaries on the Gospels and Acts and other volumes from the 1500s and 1600s. He is past president of the Evangelical Theological Society and a founding member of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. An associate editor of the New Geneva Study Bible, he also assisted in the preparation of the New International Version of the Bible. He is a prolific writer, having produced some 100 articles and contributed to fifty books and reference works. This article in its expanded version was originally published in The Tenth Quarterly (July, 1980).

© Reprinted by permission of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, 1716 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103.



Last updated 10-21-1999.