What Jesus said about sanctification

Both Jesus' words and His actions demonstrated that the natural, spontaneous fruit of faith is genuine obedience and victory in the Christian life. But this is a work that we can no more do for ourselves than we can save ourselves.

What did Jesus have to say about sanctification? If we look for His specific use of the term, the only reference is found in John 17:19, where He says that He wants His followers to be sanctified the way He was sanctified.

But when it comes to the subject of sanctification in its modern usage, refer ring to Christian growth, obedience, victory, and power—in short, the work that the Holy Spirit does in us as we live the Christian life, we discover that Jesus had far more to say about that than He did about the work that God has done for us. Today some say that the proper balance of emphasis between justification and sanctification would be for us to spend 90 percent of our time talking about the work of Christ for us at the cross and 10 percent on the work that He is doing in the life. But Jesus talked at least twice as much about the work of God in us as He did about the works of God for us.

In sanctification, whether finished or ongoing, the method is always by faith alone, just as much so as is justification. Although we must think of justification and sanctification as separate for the sake of acceptance and assurance, we must think of them together regarding the method of accomplishment in our experience. When we use the term sanctification by faith alone, this is not to deny that both faith and works will exist in sanctification. We are making use of the usual under standing of the word by in the English language. It refers to method. (I travel to New York by plane, or I make my living by working.) The method of sanctification is by faith alone.

Jesus said it, in John 15:5—"Without me ye can do nothing." He was talking about producing the fruits of obedience, the fruits of the Spirit, in the Christian life. It is plain that if we can do nothing without Him, then all that is done will have to be done by faith in Him. We cannot accept a gift and also earn it. And that's one of the vital questions facing us today: Can we ever work for, or earn, God's grace, whether to atone for our past sins or to receive power to overcome our present sinning? The answer is No. Sanctification is as much a gift of God as is justification.

How, then, can we receive this gift? The Jews came to Jesus one day and asked a very similar question. "What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?" Jesus answered, "This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent" (John 6:28, 29). The only work involved in belief, or trust, is the work involved in communication; for it is possible to trust only someone we know. As Jesus said in the parable of the sheepfold, "When he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers. ... I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine" (John 10:4, 5, 14).

What are the methods of communication that Jesus taught? "Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation" (Mark 14:38). "He that eateth me, even he shall live by me. .. . The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life" (John 6:57, 63). "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). By beholding we become changed. It is a law of life even in the secular world that what gets our attention gets us. And there is a twofold application of this verse: In beholding the Lamb of God we are assured that our past sins are dealt with, but also we are assured that there is power to overcome our present sinning. Jesus said, "But one thing is needful" (Luke 10:42). That one thing is to spend time at the feet of Jesus in communication and fellowship with Him. So the methodology that Jesus taught concerning sanctification was the study of His Word, prayer, and communion with Him.

However, when we talk about getting down to a relationship with Jesus, through time spent in the study of His Word, we're talking about more than simply an intellectual assent to the truth. Jesus said, "You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you might have life" (John 5:39, 40, R.S.V.). The purpose for studying God's Word is not simply to gain information: it's for communication, fellowship, and relationship with Jesus.

Genuine obedience and victory in the Christian life is natural and spontaneous; obedience is the fruit of faith. A person doesn't labor on fruit—fruit is the result. Jesus compared obedience to fruit on several occasions. "As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me" (John 15:4). "Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit" (Matt. 7:16-18). Bearing good fruit is natural and spontaneous for a good tree (see Isaiah 61:3).

Jesus said, "Cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also" (Matt. 23:26). How many of us have wasted our time and energy trying to clean up the outside of the cup, instead of going to the cause of the problem—the heart? If we put our attention on the cause and clean the inside, then the outside will be clean. Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15, R.S.V.). These are evidences from Jesus that genuine obedience is natural and spontaneous in the Christian life. If we are having trouble with obedience, we need to direct our effort toward learning to love Jesus more, and the obedience will follow. We cooperate with Him by coming into relationship with Him, so that love and trust spring forth spontaneously. And when they do, obedience is the inevitable result. The essence of Jesus' teaching was self-surrender. Only as we give up on ourselves and come to Him can we even begin the life of faith. Jesus said, "Whoso ever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder (Matt. 21:44). And in Matthew 13:45, 46 He warns us that we have to sell everything we have in order to obtain the pearl of great price. The pearl includes salvation in all of its aspects. Jesus said, "Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:33).

Throughout the Gospels Jesus refers to the cross as "our cross." He's talking about death—for us, as well as for Himself. We must die, we must come to the point of surrender, before we can begin to experience genuine sanctification. However, we cannot bring ourselves to this experience—only God can bring us to that point, for no one can crucify himself. It takes another to crucify us. As we continue to seek Him, to behold Him, to sit at His feet in relationship and communion, He will accomplish the rest of it for us as fast as He can, without destroying our power of choice.

The object of the Christian life is something more than simply assuring us personally that we have salvation. It is to reproduce the character of Jesus in us so that honor and glory can be brought to God. Jesus said it in Matthew 5:16: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." He said it in John 15:8: "Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples." And He said it in John 17:10: "I am glorified in them." Our works, our obedience, our victories, are not for the purpose of saving us in heaven; they are for bringing glory to God. And if we are interested only in getting to heaven and not in bringing glory to God, then we might seriously question whether we can expect salvation in heaven. There is an even larger business than the certainty of our own salvation—and that larger business is to bring glory and honor to God before the universe.

Sanctification is a matter of coming under God's control. Jesus often referred to our relationship to God in terms of the master/servant relationship. He said, "No man can serve two masters" (Matt. 6:24). A servant is under the control of his master. However, Jesus reminded us that coming under His control will bring us freedom. "If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed" (John 8:36). When we are controlled by God, He then works in us "to will and to do of his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13).

When we have come to the point of surrender, of crucifixion of self, of giving up on ourselves, and are under the control of God, we can know the ultimate power of God for overcoming. We don't have to wait until the end of our lives in the hope of getting in at least one good day. So long as we are surrendered to Him, we have victory and spontaneous obedience. The key words are so long as. The disciples are a case in point. One day they went and cast out devils. Another day they came to Jesus in disgrace and asked, "Why couldn't we cast them out?" On again; off again. Did this mean that they were lost? Did this mean they were no longer disciples? No! Jesus loved them and kept walking with them.

We see this same idea in Matthew 16. Peter says, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus replies that the Father Himself has revealed this to Peter. Yet in the same conversation Jesus has to say to Peter, "Get thee behind me, Satan" (verses 16, 23). Peter gets congratulations from Jesus at one point and a rebuke at another. One minute Peter was surrendered and trusting in God's power; the next minute he drew back and tried to handle things himself.

In John 11 we have the story of Martha. One minute she exhibits a beautiful trust in Jesus, that He can do anything, even raise the dead, if it pleases Him to do so. A short time later she resists His instruction to remove the stone, as her faith falters and she depends upon herself again. In the growing Christian life, there are times when we are looking to Jesus, and we experience victory and power. There are other times when we depend on ourselves and our own power, and we fail. Growth in the Christian life consists of depending on Jesus' power more and more constantly.

Since, as growing, immature Christians, we do not live in constant dependence upon Jesus' power all the time, we often fall and fail. God has made provision for this (see 1 John 2:1, 2). But as genuine Christians, we will remember that even though God has made provision for sin, we must never make such provision. He that is forgiven much, loves much; and he that loves much, obeys much (see Luke 7:41- 43, John 14:15).

Those who believe in sanctification by faith plus works can believe only in imperfect obedience until Jesus comes. But those who believe in sanctification by faith alone can believe that perfect obedience is possible any time that they are depending upon Jesus instead of their own power.

Sanctification comes by justification. Jesus said that the more one is forgiven, the more he loves (see Luke 7:47). What does that mean? What is the purpose of studying the Bible, of praying, of a daily relation ship with Jesus? It is for the purpose of understanding God's great love, His grace, His forgiveness, His death at the cross. The time spent in thoughtful contemplation of the life and death of Jesus is to lead us to know and love Him more. And as we understand His acceptance, His forgiveness, and His mighty love, we come to trust and love and obey Him more. The more we love, the more we will obey. This was shown by Jesus when the adulterous woman was dragged to Him and deposited at His feet. He said to her, "I don't condemn you" (John 8:11). That's the cross—that's justification. No one needs to feel condemned today. Jesus doesn't condemn—He justifies and forgives all who come to Him. Jesus came not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. And only when we have understood that great truth are we enabled to go and sin no more.

The only way we can ever hope to go and sin no more is to discover, and to continue to be reminded day by day, that God doesn't condemn us. The good news is that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The good news is also that Christ has made provision to keep us from sinning, that He may be glorified through us.


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January 1982

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