“The real key is the direction you’re heading, not the distance you’ve traveled or the place you’ve reached.” ~David Powlison
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “sanctification”? In an article published in 1984 titled, “How the Spirit Sanctifies” (see Romans 15:14-21) by John Piper, pastor, author, founder and leader of desiringGod.org, and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary, he writes:
“Sanctification” is a very irrelevant word, but it is not an irrelevant reality. It’s like a hundred technical medical terms. Nobody but doctors use them, but your life depends on the reality they stand for. “Sanctification” comes from two Latin words: sanctus which means holy, and ficare which means make. So to sanctify means to make holy. But, of course, the word “holy” isn’t much more relevant today than sanctification—what with “holy mackerel” and “holy cow” and “holy buckets”—we’ve just about ruined one of the highest and most valuable words in the Bible.
I don’t think there is any point in trying to invent new words for these old realities. It would take too long and by the time the new words got established people would already be using them for a banged finger. Instead, I think we should dig into the minds of the biblical authors until we see the reality they were talking about when they said “sanctified.” And then, whether we use their word or not, we should make sure of the reality behind the word “sanctification.” You don’t ever have to use the word “insulin,” but if you are a diabetic, your life may depend on the reality. You may never have heard of the word hyperopia, but you won’t be able to read unless you get glasses to correct it.
As irrelevant as the word sanctification may be where you work and in your neighborhood, the reality is very crucial, very contemporary, and very relevant. Suppose you’ve always concealed private sources of income when filling out your tax returns. Then you come to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and begin to tell the truth on your tax returns—that’s sanctification. Suppose you’re always on your husband’s case, and then the Word of God pricks your conscience and you begin to preach less and look for ways to show respect—that’s sanctification. Suppose you’re sleeping with your girlfriend, and you meet Jesus Christ and get the courage to move out—that’s sanctification.
There are living images of sanctification in our world today which are more real, more authentic than all the people put together who think sanctification is passé… Malcolm Muggeridge takes Mother Teresa as an example:
I think a person like her comes into the world, not by chance, and radiates the Christian faith at its most simple, most pure, most effective level. She takes any baby that is given to her and looks after it. She brings in dying people from the streets who might live for only a quarter of an hour. When they leave this life with a loving Christian face beside them instead of one of rejection, she would say that it is well worth it. She is diametrically opposed to the spirit of the age—abortion is a horror to her, and all the attitude of mind associated with it. (Eternity, April 1984, p. 27)
When a young woman living in the security and comfort of middle class Western society moves to Calcutta in obedience to Jesus, that is sanctification, and it is not irrelevant. Don’t let the irrelevance of the word mislead you. The reality is immensely important. (Quote source here.)
In a second article published on November 2, 2017, titled, “Play the Long Games of Sanctification,” by David Powlison, PhD., executive director of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF) and a council member of The Gospel Coalition, he writes:
Christians often misunderstand sanctification. Many view it as a goal that must be attained. You’re “sanctified” only when a certain level of holiness is reached. This isn’t entirely false—there is, in fact, an absolute goal. The Bible tells us that when we see Jesus face to face, we’ll be like him. You’ll be entirely characterized by trust, love, joy, humility, and every good fruit. First John 3 urges us to purify ourselves because of the hope found in becoming like Christ on the day of his return.
However, while sanctification will one day be complete, right now it’s an ongoing process. It’s a journey, not a destination. The real key is the direction you’re heading, not the distance you’ve traveled or the place you’ve reached.
Sanctification actually starts when God claims you as his own. You are “chosen, holy, and beloved” (Col. 3:12). But the process of becoming what you are starts as you make a turn from sin toward God.
Imagine the vilest possible human being—violent, immoral, drunken, lazy, and profane. Such men and women, caught in such evil, can come to a moment when sanctification begins. They realize their sin. They become sick of their life and desire something different. They start to look in the direction of mercy. They turn to Christ. God makes them his own, and they begin walking in the direction of light.
During my first months as a Christian, I had a friend who showed me God’s patient power in sanctification. He was in his late 30s and had been a Christian for 10 years. Before that, he’d lived a life of immorality from his early teens on through his 20s. He told me, “If you could divide your mental and behavior life into a thousand moments per day, 900 of mine were immoral.” He said, “When I turned to Christ, I found mercy, I became a Christian, and I received the Holy Spirit. But, 900 immoral thoughts and behaviors each day did not immediately become 0. It became 700, which then became 500, and 500 became 100, and 100 became an occasional moment of lust of the eyes. I learned to rejoice in God’s grace with me, that his love is both patient and persistent,”
Great healing had taken place in the area of his sexuality—but he wasn’t perfect and was still on a journey of sanctification. He sought to be transparent with his wife, accountable to several men, and committed to walking in the light.
While my friend experienced sanctification in the area of his sexuality, this kind of change can take place with any sin. Whether your moral failings be sexual sin, anxiety, gossip, complaining, or anger, change is possible by the grace of God.
Recognize that sin won’t be cleansed from your life at conversion, and wiped away at the snap of a finger. Turning from larger sins that have more public and obvious consequences, such as going to jail, may actually be easier. But turning from “smaller” sinful impulses takes a lifetime.
Sin will slowly die throughout our journey of sanctification as we walk in the direction of Christ and repeatedly come to him in repentance and trust. The “quantity” of our sanctification isn’t important. We’re simply called to walk in the direction of Jesus.
We must be cautioned against comparing the speed of different sanctification journeys. For some, the entanglement with sin is much deeper, and they face repeated temptation in their lives. Those who deeply struggle with sin should be encouraged at even small steps in the right direction. By turning to God for his mercy, they have begun the process of sanctification.
God calls us to be holy as he is holy—this is the highest imaginable bar. Christ’s vision for our sexuality is simple—and lifelong. Seek to become like him in holiness. Repent of your sins and turn to him to be washed. Seek his strength to protect you and change you. His life purpose is your sanctification.
However far you’ve traveled on your journey, what matters most is the direction you’re walking.
This is an adapted excerpt from David Powlison’s new book, “Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually Broken” (Crossway). (Quote source here.)
Sanctification is an ongoing process and an ongoing journey through life. As David Powlison stated at the end of his article, “However far you’ve traveled on your journey, what matters most is the direction you’re walking.” So…
Keep . . .
Walking . . .
Forward . . . .
YouTube Video: “All Things New” by Hillsong Worship: