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Sanctification is the Work of God and Ours
All the passages below are taken from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “God the Holy Spirit,” published as Second Edition in 2002 with the first Edition in 1997.
We have considered the three main views of the doctrine of sanctification and we must keep them in mind as we now seek to approach the subject in a more direct and expository manner. Certain principles are taught quite plainly in the Scripture, and we must test those three views and theories by these principles.
The first great principle found everywhere in the Bible, in the Old Testament as well as in the New, is that sanctification is God’s will for us. There is the great statement in I Thessalonians 4:3, where we are told explicitly, ‘For this is the will of God, even your sanctification.’ That is the starting point and it is fundamental. God’s purpose in doing everything, that He did in the Old Testament is ultimately our sanctification. His purpose when He ‘sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law’ (Galasians 4:4) was still our sanctification. When Christ went to the death of the cross, the object was our perfection, as it was in the giving of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, everything God has done about us and our salvation has as its end and object our sanctification.
Now it is absolutely vital that we should grasp that principle. If you want further proof you will find it in John 17:17. Our Lord is about to leave His own, and He is praying to the Father for them, and what does He pray? ‘Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.’ Indeed, He goes further and says in verse 19, ‘And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.’ Now when our Lord says there, ‘I sanctify myself,’ He is saying to His Father, in effect, ‘I am putting myself at your disposal; I am separating myself unto this final work that you have for me to do.’ That is nothing but the death upon the cross. He does that in order that we may be sanctified; it is the object which is behind everything. Again, the apostle Paul says to Titus, ‘Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works’ (Titus 2:14). That is why He died for us on the cross, for that, and for nothing less. There is a hymn which puts it well:
He died that we might be forgiven;
yes, but it does not stop at that:
He died to make us good.
Cecil Frances Alexander
The tendency is to forget the second part, and, as I shall show you in a moment, to associate the death upon the cross only with forgiveness. But the Bible never does that.
So the first principle to grasp is that sanctification is the end of the whole process of salvation. If that is true, then we must recognise that there are certain dangers which must be avoided at all costs. Let me note them. The first great danger is that of isolating these various doctrines and of separating them from one another in a false way. We have often emphasised the fact that nothing is so clear, as you work through the Bible and look at its doctrines, as the way in which they all belong together. They all form one piece. They are not disjointed, dismembered teachings that hang loosely together. There is a vital connection between them all and we have seen that all along.
Now it is right to distinguish them, but there is all the difference in the world between distinguishing between things and separating them. For the purposes of thought, and, indeed, in accordance with the Scripture, we must distinguish justification from sanctification. But that is a very different thing from separating them. And we must never do that because, according to this teaching, they are part of the same process, they are part of God’s one great movement of salvation. Therefore we must never suggest that you can have one without the other; that you can be justified without being sanctified or only later become sanctified. That is totally unscriptural.
Take, for example, that great statement of Paul’s in Romans,’... whom he called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified’ (Rom. 8:30). The Apostle is saying there that this whole process of salvation is one, and that when God starts this work in a man or woman, there is a sense in which the whole work is already complete; they go straight from justification to glorification. So it is very wrong to draw these divisions and distinctions which mean separation. Or take another statement by the Apostle, in 1 Corinthians 1:30: ‘But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.’ It is the Lord who is made all these things to us, and therefore we must not separate them for this good reason---you cannot divide the Lord Jesus Christ! You are either in Christ or else you are not. If you are a Christian, you are joined to Christ, and all the benefits of Christ are yours.
We saw that very clearly when we were dealing with the doctrine of the union of the believer with Christ, the great doctrine of Romans chapters 5 and 6. Paul says: You were crucified with Him, you died with Him, you were buried with Him, you have risen again with Him, and you are already seated in the heavenly places with Him. If we are in Christ, He is made unto us not justification only but sanctification also, and redemption. He is the all and in all, and therefore I suggest that the people who separate justification and sanctification, and say that the two have no essential inherent connection, are guilty of dividing Christ, and we have the right to ask, ‘Is Christ divided?’ (1 Corinthians 1:13). That, then, is our first deduction: God’s will, God’s purpose in the whole of salvation, in everything He has done in His Son and by the Spirit, is our sanctification.
The second danger, therefore, is the danger of thinking in terms of seeking pardon and forgiveness only, and then of imagining that later on we ought to seek our sanctification. ‘Ah yes,’ people say, ‘so and so sought salvation. He believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, and his sins were forgiven, but he has not gone on to sanctification yet. He has remained at that first stage of justification and forgiveness.’ And they now believe it to be their duty to try to get him to go on to sanctification and to receive that as he received justification.
But, surely, that is utterly false reasoning. People cannot seek forgiveness only, for this good reason: Why do they seek forgiveness? Why should anybody desire it? Well, there can be only one answer to that question. Some people, of course, when they seek forgiveness, are only seeking a feeling of comfort within themselves, but that is not seeking true forgiveness. To seek forgiveness must mean that they have seen something of the holiness of God and the holiness of God’s law; they have already seen themselves as sinners. They must have hated this thing which has separated them from God, and, therefore, if they are truly seeking forgiveness, they must be anxious to be delivered from that which has made them miserable and made them sin against God, and which has put them into such a dangerous position. Surely that is the basis for seeking forgiveness. I see no meaning in the term ‘forgiveness’ if it does not mean that. No, no, if you are concerned about forgiveness, you know something about yourself as a hell-deserving sinner.
In dealing with repentance we had to go into the meaning of forgiveness in detail, and we pointed out how in true repentance the whole person is involved; the mind understands this truth, the heart feels it. We emphasised, in passing, that, until comparatively recently, repentance was associated with weakness and with people being broken down and sometimes crying out in agony as they failed to find peace. That is the biblical repentance and throughout the centuries that has been the Church’s teaching about repentance. If men and women are not aware of all these things, there is no true content to their use of the term forgiveness. But if forgiveness includes all that, it is already the beginning of sanctification. The moment we see something of the sinfulness of sin, and long to be separated from it, and to be nearer to God, and to enjoy God, that in itself is sanctification, that is to be separated unto God.
Then, in the third place, there is obviously, therefore, a very real danger of a false evangelism which is concerned only about giving people some kind of temporary relief and release, and does not press upon them the vital importance of sanctification. An evangelism which stops at forgiveness is not biblical evangelism because the heart of all preaching is that the essence of sin is to be separated from God, and if we preach reconciliation truly, we must be preaching sanctification.
So as our basic conception we must know that we are not our own, that we have been bought with a price. That is Paul’s argument. He teaches sanctification in terms of the death upon the cross: ‘Know ye not that.. . ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price’ (1 Corinthians 6:19—20). In preaching sanctification the Apostle does not only preach the Holy Spirit, he is always preaching the cross at the same time. These things are linked together. In his early evangelism among the Thessalonians, for instance, the effect was that these people ‘turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9). To serve God is sanctification and so that was Paul’s first message in Thessalonica. So the end of all evangelism should be to reconcile men and women to God, and to separate them unto Him. Again, we need to remember that old concept of doing a thorough ‘law work’ in presenting Christ as Saviour. These things must always go together and sanctification is a part of the message of evangelism.
Let me put it, finally, like this. The whole trouble with regard to sanctification arises from our fatal tendency to start with ourselves instead of with God. We think of ourselves and our problems, our sins and our needs, and we have those things in our mind when, we begin to talk about sanctification. But there is the whole error. The apostle Peter, in preaching sanctification, adopts the exact opposite procedure. This is how he puts it: ‘Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children’---it is your relationship to God that determines it---‘. . . as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy’---why?---‘for I am holy’ (1 Peter 1:13—16).
Now the idea has somehow gained currency that meetings and conventions in which holiness is preached are clinics where people should go because they are being bothered by some particular sin. They have a sin which they cannot get rid of, so they are encouraged to go to this ‘clinic’ which will deliver them of their problem. But that is not how the Bible puts it. There is one reason, and one reason only, why we should all be sanctified and holy, and it is this: not that we may be happy, nor that we may get rid of our problems, but because God is holy, because we are God’s people and because Christ has died for us, and purchased us. We do not belong to ourselves. We have no right to live a sinful life.
That, then, is the way in which we should start facing this subject of sanctification. Salvation is God’s work from beginning to end, and therefore there can be no gaps, no hiatus. It is something that is started by God, continued by God and perfected by God Himself. The moment, therefore, that we are regenerate and united to the Lord Jesus Christ, the process of sanctification has already started. The moment I receive the divine nature, the moment I am born again, something has come into me which is going to separate me from sin. Take that statement of James which is sometimes not properly understood because of our translations. ‘Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?’ (James 4:5). Now the margin of the Revised Version very rightly puts that like this: ‘Do you not know that the Spirit that God has given you, that is in you, is lusting even to the point of envy to wean you from the world and its spirit and to God?’ That is it. So the moment I am born again and have received the Holy Spirit, this process of separating me has already started, and I cannot be regenerate without the process of sanctification having already started to work within me. The conflict between the flesh and the Spirit has already begun and that is the fight to separate me from the world and unto God, in every part and in every step.
That, then, brings us to the second great principle: What is the agent in sanctification? If that is the process, if that is God’s will, if that is what all salvation is tending unto, how does it take place? How does sanctification proceed within us? Now here again we must be careful. We have seen, in looking at a number of these doctrines, that in some of them God alone acts. In regeneration, for instance, we do nothing, it is entirely the action of God. In justification, likewise, we do nothing at all; justification is entirely the action of God in pronouncing us to be just and righteous. The same applies to our adoption. We have nothing to do with our adoption, it is God’s declaration, God’s action. But, on the other hand, when we were considering repentance and faith, we pointed out that though these again are started by the Holy Spirit, we have our part to play. We must confess our sins, and forsake them. We believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and we cannot do so without the initial movement of God---it is started by Him---but then we have to express that belief. And it is exactly the same with sanctification.
The classic text to describe our active participation is found in the epistle to the Philippians, chapter 2: ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure’ (vv. 12—13). Now there the balance is presented to us perfectly. So when we are discussing the agency in sanctification, when we are asking, ‘How is this work of sanctification carried on in us?’ we must start by saying that it is primarily the action of God; it is God who works in us both to will and to do.
The Scripture is quite clear about this and in a very remarkable manner. Sanctification in the Scripture is attributed to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Let me give you the texts. 1 Thessalonians 5:23 teaches us that it is the Father’s work: ‘And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Then in the same way in Hebrew there is that great statement: ‘Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will. ..‘ (Hebrew 13:20—21). It is the God of peace who is going to do this. It is the Father. It is He, who brought the Lord Jesus, His Son, from the dead, who will make us perfect.
But in exactly the same way the Scriptures tell us that sanctification is the work of the Son. And have you noticed how often, in working through these doctrines, we have seen how the same work is attributed to the three blessed Persons? I know of nothing so uplifting as the realisation of that great truth that the three blessed Persons in the Trinity have co-operated in order that a worm such as I might be rescued and redeemed, and made perfect, to stand in the presence of God in the Judgment. Here is a text about the Son ‘Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word’ (Eph. 5:25—26). He died in order that He might sanctify the Church. And in the same way, as I have already reminded you, in Titus 2:14 we read that He ‘gave himself for us’. Why? Not merely that we might have our sins forgiven, not merely that we might escape hell, not merely that our conscience might be put at rest. No. ‘Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.’
But, in exactly the same way, sanctification is also the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul writes to the Corinthians, ‘But ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God’ (1 Corinthians 6:11). And there are various other references to the Spirit’s work in separating us: ‘God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth’ (2 Thessalonians 2:13). While, therefore, we can say that sanctification is the work of the three Persons in the Trinity, it is especially, of course, the work of the third Person, the Holy Spirit, because, as we have seen already, it is He who mediates Christ to us; it is He who applies the work of Christ to us; it is He who forms Christ in us; it is He who joins us to Christ.
We can never emphasise too strongly that sanctification is first of all, and primarily, the work of God in us, through and by the Holy Spirit. Therefore it is thoroughly unscriptural to say that as a believer, as a Christian, you can be without sanctification and decide, yourself, to go in for it! That is impossible. It is God’s work; it is His intent, His purpose; it is something He is doing in all whom He has separated unto Himself. Our Lord died for us in order that this might happen and it is inconceivable that it should not happen in any for whom He has paid the price with His own blood. Therefore we start with that, and it must be emphasised. Then we go on to the second part of Paul’s statement in Philippians 2:12—13: ‘For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.’ That is why we are told, ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.’ Be careful what you are doing; realise who you are; realise the meaning of the ‘fear and trembling’.
Now here, once more, we come to a vital point of difference between justification and sanctification. In justification, as I have reminded you, we do nothing because we cannot. It is the declaratory act of God. But here, we are called to activity. This again, then, is crucial in this whole doctrine of sanctification. Many people find themselves in trouble at this point, especially those at the two extremes. Some people seem to think that once men and women are born again, the activity of God in them ceases. Because God has given them a new nature, they say, they have nothing to do now but to exercise the new nature, and they do that by reading the Scriptures and understanding and applying them. In connection with their sanctification they do everything themselves. Now I have already shown you that that is wrong. Sanctification is God’s work in us. The first move, the motive, the force, all is this power of God working in us ‘both to will and to do’.
Yes, but in trying to avoid the one extreme, some go right to the other, and the second school says that we have nothing at all to do except look passively to Jesus and abide in Him, and then all the work is done in us and for us. I reminded you of that in the last lecture when I mentioned the illustration of the poker and the man with the lifebelt around him, both of which give the impression that we have nothing to do at all, that the work is done entirely by the Lord, as we look to Him. And the answer to that is Philippians 2:12—13: ‘Work out your own salvation.., for it is God which worketh in you.’
But these friends sometimes tell us that surely in John 15 our Lord teaches the selfsame idea, that we do nothing, but look to Him. John 15 gives us the parable, the picture, of the vine and the branches: ‘I am the vine, and ye are the branches’ (v. 5), and this is interpreted as meaning that the branch does nothing at all, that the work is done entirely by the tree, and that the branch is just there to show the fruit. But that, surely, is a profound misunderstanding of our Lord’s picture. The branch in a tree is not inactive. It is not like a hollow tube which is inert and has no life in it. The branch is full of life. Of course, the branch can do nothing if it does not receive the sap that comes up from the tree; yes, that is absolutely essential. But, given the sap, the branch is full of vitality and life. It draws things from the air; it sends things back into the air. Every leaf of a branch is very active.
So you see the danger of illustrations, how easily they can be misunderstood. But the Scripture itself is perfectly clear about this: ‘Work out your own salvation.’ You could not do that if God did not work in you first, but He does work in you in order that you may work out. God works in my will, He works the will to act, and He enables the action. It is ‘God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure,’ but I must do the willing, and the doing.
There are a number of statements in the Scriptures that say exactly the same thing and surely this is something that ought to be perfectly clear to all of us. Take Romans 6, for instance, where there is a collection of these phrases. ‘Reckon yourselves’, says Paul; ‘Reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God...’ (Romans 6:11). That is something that I have to do; nobody can ‘reckon this’ for me. I have to indulge in that activity. The Holy Spirit working in me leads me to this recognition, but I am exhorted to do the reckoning. It is an appeal to me; it is a part of sanctification. Then listen to Paul putting this negatively: ‘Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body’ (v. 12). You must not let sin reign in you. It is an exhortation to you. Paul also puts this positively as he goes on to say, ‘Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God... and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God’ (v. 13). We must yield the members of our body; it is a positive thing that we must do.
Again, Paul says, in Romans 8: ‘... If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live’ (v. 13). We must mortify the deeds of the body; yes, you will notice, through the Spirit. Without the Spirit we cannot do it. That was the error of monasticism and that is the error of all morality. But having received the Spirit, and with the Spirit working in us, then through the Spirit, we must mortify the deeds of our body. Or listen to Paul again in Colossians 3:5: ‘Mortify therefore your members which are, upon the earth.’ We must do that. There are other phrases: ‘Stand fast’ (1 Corinthians 16:13); ‘Fight’ (1 Timothy 6:12)---Paul even exhorts us to fight! That is not a very passive thing, is it? Then he says, to Timothy specifically, ‘Flee also youthful lusts’ (2 Timothy 2:22)---He is calling upon Timothy to flee, not to wait to be delivered, he must do something. And in 1 Timothy 6:11 Paul says, ‘But thou, 0 man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness.’ Timothy had to seek after it, to strive after it. We are told to put off the old man and put on the new (Ephesians 4:22, 24).
But I sometimes think that the most important text of all is 2 Corinthians 7:1: ‘Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.’ Is there any possible alternative exposition of that statement? All these terms point in the same direction. Indeed, as I have said earlier, if what I am saying is not true, then none of these New Testament epistles need ever have been written. If all we have to do to be sanctified is to ‘let go and let God’, to surrender ourselves and look to Jesus, then the apostles have wasted a great deal of ink and of time and energy in arguing with us about doctrine, in saying, ‘Therefore, in the light of that, now then, apply it; do this, don’t do that, cleanse yourselves.’ Why should they have said all that we need is only to surrender, wait, look and abide?
No, let us be careful lest we wrest the Scriptures, if not to our destruction, at any rate to our confusion. The Scriptures plainly teach us that God is working in us because He has saved us; but He is working in us in order that we may work it out, and those are the ways in which we do it. What we really have to do is this reckoning, this understanding, this application, this mortifying, and so on---this cleansing. But there is the great balance in the Scripture---primarily, initially, vitally, all-importantly, sanctification is the work of God by the Spirit. As ‘new born babes’, as ‘dearly beloved’, as ‘children of God’, we are exhorted to be holy because the One at work in us is holy, and His whole purpose in redemption is that we might indeed be His children, worthy of the name. (203-212)
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