In basic Evangelical Christian teaching, “sanctification” is a process in which a believer, by the working of God’s Spirit, is able more and more to put off sin and live in more complete obedience to God. That way of summarizing the teaching can be misleading since perception is not always the same as reality. After all, one part of the process might involve discovering hidden sin, which means one might, at times in ones life, be sanctified by (apparently) becoming more sinful, not less. Furthermore (or perhaps the same issue), new stages in life can bring new and more powerful temptations which one might initially fail to resist.
But another problem with “sanctification” as understood as the basic process and calling in the Christian life, is that Evangelical teaching cannot, on this definition, allow that Jesus, from the time he was born to the time he died, went through sanctification.
Here is the issue:
- The Bible teaches that Jesus was changed in his life.
- The Bible holds Jesus’ changes as a model, empowerment, and hope for believers to change in their lives.
- The Bible’s calling to believers to change as Jesus changed certainly seems to partly cover the ground that is commonly defined as “sanctification.”
To see an example of how Jesus underwent this process see here, and perhaps more under my old wisdom category in general. Aside from Luke 2.40, 52, the author of Hebrews seems to emphasize this point repeatedly:
For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere,
“What is man, that you are mindful of him,
or the son of man, that you care for him?
You made him for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned him with glory and honor,
putting everything in subjection under his feet.”
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, (Hebrews 2:5-11 ESV)
So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him,
“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”; [from Psalm 2]
as he says also in another place,
“You are a priest forever,
after the order of Melchizedek.”
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 5:5-10 ESV)
So Jesus undergoes a process that, in the letter to the Hebrews, the readers are supposed to undergo as well. And it is a path to the world being put under their feet. It involves both one’s death at the end of life, but it also entails the willingness to “die” all through life. Don’t let the word “priest” make you forget that this is also all about being a king as well. Psalm 2 is about ruling the nation, and Melchizedek was both a priest and king. Following Jesus, in order to rule you have to die.
Die to what?
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:1-15 ESV)
This is why we more or less forget how what Christ went through to be raised, or divorce it from our own experiences. Jesus didn’t struggle with sin in exactly the same way we do because he never succumbed to it in thought, word, or deed. Thus, we tend to think that all his life and suffering was entirely a matter of some other arrangement. Perhaps God wanted him to act out a bit of drama before he died and was raised so that he could teach us how to act. Or perhaps it was important that the Sermon on the Mount be written.
But that won’t do justice to Scripture. What we need to ask ourselves is, why might a righteous and sinless human need to “die” in order to “live”? What does he need to learn through suffering that enables him to rule wisely?
Here I’m going to offer to suggestions:
1. Men and women have to die to their own enjoyments because they are called to bring about a better future.
God made us to enjoy he gifts and he gives many of them to us freely. We rarely spend time thinking about the air we breathe because it is just given to us without cost or any effort needed on our part. Adam and Eve were put in a garden with free food. But while enjoying gifts is good, is there not also another good, perhaps even a better good, that God wants us to enjoy?
I think so. As creative partners, God wants us to learn to make things better than they already were.
But think about what this requires. It means you have to take a step beyond the blessing God originally gave you. You have to stop consuming God’s free gifts (as much) and devote time and energy to pursuits you hope will bear better fruit in the future. You have to “die” to your old self and “live” in a new way.
The book of Proverbs is filled with warnings about not being stuck in the first stage. It is one of sins temptations to stop there. Solomon calls such people “sluggards.”
2. Men and women have to die to their own enjoyments because they are called to bring about enjoyments for others.
God made us to enjoy gifts, but he made us to love others and consider their enjoyments. But this is a new way of living before God. Rather than simply receiving things you like, you have to learn to give them to another. You have to find enjoyment in the beloved’s enjoyment rather than only in your own direct enjoyment.
This, again, I submit, is a second stage. It requires a movement from an “old way of life” to a new one. It requires a “death to self” and a “living for” the beloved.
“More Than Conquerors”
As people who struggle with sin in our very being, this is all challenging, but I don’t think the challenges are completely unlike the challenges that Adam faced before he Fell. He needed to die to self in a couple of ways in order to resist the serpent’s temptation. But he chose not to do so. While Satan tempted Eve (who never directly heard God prohibit the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), he remained silent. He ate food that was a delight to the eyes. The result was slavery to sin and the struggle that we believers still face even with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
But if Adam had died to self he would have been raised to a new life as a king. Only people who can think of the future and of others are fit to be real leaders. And thus Paul says that, in the midst of persecution, we are “more than conquerors.”
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:31-39 ESV).
Paul is not saying that we simply endure these trials. After all Jesus was not raised to the right hand of God despite the cross and the grave but through the cross and the grave. And Paul’s choice of the word “conqueror,” is not random. Romans is about dominion and rule. Paul has already clarified the relationship between tribulation and our elevation by God:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Romans 5:1-5 ESV).
[Cross-posted at Christendom Underground]