Let’s talk about sanctification for a minute.
Actually, let’s talk about marriage first. Hang in there, because this helpfully illustrates how sanctification works.
Marriage changes you. Look at a couple who has walked through decades together. They take on something of each other’s strengths. They instinctively compensate for each other’s weaknesses.
It’s not change that happens merely on the surface, a rearranging of habits or mannerisms; it’s a deeper, almost indefinable change. Married people really become different people.
Marriage is a transforming relationship.
But here’s the rub: it’s impossible to duplicate the result (deep personal change) without the cause (being joined in relationship to another person).
That’s not to say people don’t change unless they’re married – if you’re single and reading this, please don’t hear anything of that sort. The way the marriage relationship produces change is only a sign of a more profound mystery: that the deepest, most lasting changes happen in relationship.
Ultimately, what wedding vows and wedding rings point to is the transformation that occurs when men and women, married or single, are joined in a covenant relationship to the living, redeeming God.
Sanctification In A Relational Universe
Think about it. The universe is relational to its core. “In the beginning, God created” – not a solitary, lonely “god” who needed something from his creation, but the infinitely joyful and loving triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three persons.
Behind everything that exists is the mutual love and relationship shared by the Godhead. The cosmos is not cold, barren, sterile; it is more like a love poem than a math problem. All things, from black holes to blue jays, exist in relationship to God.
And into this relational world, God spoke one kind of being that would stand in a unique, intimate relationship with him: “Let us make man in our image.” After Genesis 3, the whole story of redemption in Jesus Christ is about God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit acting together to recover that relationship with us, God’s rebellious image-bearers.
Now here’s the implication for the Christian life: true, biblical sanctification is always relational at its core.
Sanctification Always Happens In Our Relationship To God
It’s impossible to become the kind of person God intends us to be without walking in relationship with him. And that means all the hallmarks of wise human relationships find their analogy in our covenant relationship with God.
Love – especially, in this case, the receiving of love.
Trials, suffering, depression, even temptations to sin are not interruptions to “the good life” – they are experiences that we walk through in relationship with our Father, processing them, talking to him about them, if necessary grieving and groaning through them, in his presence.
In a word, what the Bible calls faith.
Contrast that with some of the ways we often think about the process of sanctification. There’s the “godliness-by-getting-rid-of…” mentality which makes change all about progressively cutting off parts of us that need cutting off.
There’s a truth there, to be sure – but the kind of change that only takes place by “Stop doing that!” is a sterile kind of Christian life.
Then there’s the “just remember…” view: “Just remember God loves you.” “Just remember you’re justified.” “Just remember you’ve got the Holy Spirit.”
Yes, all those are true. But remembering is a solitary activity, something that takes place entirely in your head. This view makes the arena for change only inside of you.
By contrast, in Scripture faith always moves us outside ourselves to grasp the love of the Father, the grace of Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
Sanctification is not a technique to manage life – “Read your Bible and pray regularly and you won’t have these anger issues” – but a relationship to lean into in the midst of life.
This doesn’t mean that we just “let go and let God.” No, true faith always lays ahold of God and then moves outward in love – specific, concrete actions in the real world.
This is the “faith working through love” dynamic of Galatians 5:6. And faith certainly “puts off” all sorts of things associated with our flesh. But it does this in relationship with God.
This idea of a relational process of change isn’t necessarily intuitive or easy to grasp.
Sanctification In Real Life
Now let’s tie this all together. If sanctification always happens in the context of our relationship with God, then our goal must be, as much as possible, to live constantly before the face of God.
This isn’t nearly as mystical as it sounds. It simply means that we seek to “bring God into” every situation. Obviously, he’s already present in every situation, but there is a sense where we consciously acknowledge and depend on him no matter what we encounter.
When we are tempted to anger, we go to God. We regularly pray to God about our struggles with lust and worry and impatience. We express our heartbreaks to him and receive consolation as we read his word.
When obedience is on the line, we plead for the power to obey and then, to quote John Piper, we, “Act the miracle,” of obedience.
Sanctification happens as we let God do his divine rearrangement in the very real circumstances of our lives.
So do you want to be more like Jesus? To be more sanctified?
Then work to press into God. In every situation, live before the face of God. Depend on him, draw near to him, call out to him.
Just like the marriage relationship changes a person, true biblical sanctification happens as we seek to constantly deepen our relationship with God.