Is obedience sanctification's cause?

[Updated on 1/19/2017]

Several years ago, I attended a seminar with a well-known Christian author who for many years had written about sanctification. He shocked us by proclaiming that, "the books of mine that you own should be discarded--I have discovered that they do not work!" What his books and small group curricula had advocated was a strategy for ordering one's life in obedience to God. Why doesn't that work? The author answered: "I learned that no one overcomes a 'besetting sin' until they realize that they are forgiven already." What he came to understand is that obedience is the fruit of sanctification, not its cause. God sanctifies us by his grace, not by our efforts

Scrovegni's "Expulsion of the Money-changers"
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

This is a vital truth to understand (and to live by), for it is essential to the gospel of God's grace, which proclaims that every aspect of our salvation (justification, sanctification and glorification) is the work of the triune God, by grace, on our behalf. And so the above-mentioned author changed how he writes about sanctification, now encouraging people to "run to Jesus"--to put their trust in him to sanctify them through the Holy Spirit.

Does that mean we have no part in our own sanctification? Well, that depends on what we think our "part" is. One thing is sure,--we don't cause our own sanctification through our own acts of obedience. That would be to think that God, having justified us by grace, now places the responsibility for our sanctification upon us. Though, with this wrong-headed approach we might acknowledge that God does augment our own efforts, we would still be viewing sanctification (typically seen as "becoming holy") as fundamentally what we do to "get our act together."

But as the aforementioned author came to see, that view of sanctification is wrong. Not only is it unscriptural, it simply does not work. Why? Because we are no more able to sanctify ourselves (even with some help from God) than we are able to justify ourselves or, eventually, glorify ourselves!

The author of Hebrews says it well: "Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate" (Heb 13:12, KJV; also see Heb 2:11). Jesus, through the indwelling Spirit, is our sanctifier. As Paul notes, “God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13). Sanctification is the progressive work of the triune God in our lives. It is his work, not ours--though as I will note below, we are called to share in it.

Through his work to sanctify us, the triune God frees us from the power of sin and death: “If you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13 and see Romans 8:2). God works in us from the inside out--turning the basic orientation of our thinking, which then leads to changes in our behaving.

Again, this change is not the result of self-effort. Rather, it is the fruit of the Spirit--fruit described in Scripture as God's love, joy, peace, etc. (Galatians 5:22-25). The Holy Spirit works to help us share in the perfect, fruit-bearing life of Jesus, who is the one fully sanctified human.

How do we share (participate) Jesus' life? Consider these two points:
  1. We trust Jesus to be who he is for us. In faith (also his gift of grace to us), we run to Jesus, understanding that all our sins (even the "besetting" ones) are forgiven already. In faith, we understand that, in Christ, the power of sin has been broken--he has overcome all our sins. In faith, we trust him; in faith we rest in him.
  2. We walk in the Spirit (Romans 8:4 and Galatians 5:16, 25). We yield to what the Spirit is doing in our life to cleanse us--to help us grow into the fullness of Jesus' sanctified humanity.
The message of sanctification is the message of the gospel--the triune God saves us in every respect, including our sanctification: Trust in him. And for those battling a besetting sin (like an addiction), I urge you to find a counselor who understands the gospel of God's grace and will help you find and embrace the forgiveness that is your's already in Christ. There you will find freedom and power to walk in newness of life.

For a GCI article on sanctification, click here. For a GCI video, click here. For previous
Surprising God posts on this topic, click here and here (note the sections on "holiness").