Sanctification, Part 3

Sanctification, Part 3

*This is a continuation of a multi-part blog post on sanctification.

Sanctification is not a passive activity for the Christ follower or for the Lord who is our Sanctifier.  The believer must intentionally engage his will to abstain from evil and practice the scriptural disciplines that God designed to assist in encountering His Spirit.  Yet, sanctification “should never be represented as a merely natural process in the spiritual development of man, nor brought down to the level of a mere human achievement, as is done in a great deal of modern liberal theology.”[1]  It should be represented as a work of God keeping the believer sanctificed.  Ridderbos states, “the new life in its moral manifestation is to bear the stamp of having died and been raised with Christ, in that it breaks away from the jurisdiction of the old center and the centripetal powers pertaining to it, to find the new meaning of its existence and center in God.”[2]  It is with this understanding that this essay will seek to more fully understand God’s role in maintaining the believer’s sanctification through the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit and the trust God gives the believer in the finished work of Christ.


Throughout the theological discussion of sanctification, there is an undeniable thread of causation that rests in the work of the Holy Spirit.  Both the Spirit’s role as an outward agent, imputing the grace of sanctification in the life of the believer, and the Spirit’s indwelling ministry are aspects that scholars and researchers have probed for answers to the question of God’s work in sanctification.  The following section will examine several passages of Scripture that identify the power of God working through the Spirit to bring about sanctification in the believer.

The Spirit’s Role in Sanctification

It should first be noted that sanctification, while having a moral dimension, is primarily concerned with the believer being set apart for God. “This is why the most common use of hagios in Paul is to designate all Christians as saints—the people of God.  Christians are holy even in their bodily existence when they give themselves to God (Rom. 12:1).”[3] Arrington agrees stating, “Sanctification, first of all, means the believer in Christ is consecrated to God and belongs to Him.  The sanctified are God’s people.”[4] Once the believer is set apart for God, the Spirit’s work continues in him throughout his life.

The book of Romans provides great insight into the Apostle Paul’s thinking on the Christian life.  Beginning in chapter 12 and working through chapter 15, Paul discusses the believer’s act of worship by presenting themselves as a holy sacrifice to God (Romans 12:1).  As he is wrapping up his discussion, he shares a key phrase in Romans 15:15-16, “But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”  The Gentiles—those ritually unclean according to Jewish thought—are now made holy by the work of the Spirit.

In examining the implications on Romans 15:16, Peterson states:

The perfect passive participle in the expression ‘sanctified by the Holy Spirit’ suggests a state or condition brought about by their conversion or initiation in Christ.  When the Spirit brings people to faith through the preaching of the gospel, they are set apart from their unbelieving contemporaries and are bound together with other believers in an exclusive relationship with God.[5]


Peterson sees the work of the Spirit both in terms of drawing the believer to salvation and setting the believer apart to God.  Ridderbos agrees, viewing sanctification as being derived from the “gracious activity of God.”[6]  In addition to the Spirit’s sanctifying work at conversion, the Spirit also works to keep the believer sanctified.  Arrington states, “The Holy Spirit is in the believer, always working to conform the believer more and more to Jesus Christ in thought, word and deed.”[7]

This brings us to an understanding then, that sanctification is not just a judicial declaration upon conversion.  It is also a present, continual work of the Spirit.  The believer is set apart to God, yet God is also at work in the believer through the Spirit bringing him into conformity with the righteous image of Christ.  We are sanctified and we are being sanctified.  This is not to discount the human strivings in this life to live holy and free from sin.  2 Corinthians 7:1 states, “…let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”  Colossians 3:5 also gives us a picture of the believer working against the power of sin.  It states, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”  Both passages point the believer to struggle against the power of sin, yet mysteriously, the believer is not alone in this struggle—the Spirit helps in our weakness (Romans 8:26).

This continual relationship between the Holy Spirit and the believer begins even prior to conversion.  Most orthodox believers from across the theological spectrum agree that it is the Holy Spirit that convicts the sinner of their need for salvation through Christ.  God acts first.  It is God’s kindness that draws men to repentance (Romans 2:4).  Once one believes on Christ, the Spirit indwells the new believer.  This sets the believer on a course for growth in the grace of God toward a life of holiness.  Most theologians agree that full perfection is not possible in this world, yet the strivings of the believer coupled with the merciful work of the Holy Spirit lead one to be conformed more and more into the image of Christ.  The Spirit’s goal then, is to make the believer more Christ-like (2 Corinthians 3:18).

The Spirit’s Indwelling

In the Old Testament, Israel had intermittently been unfaithful to Lord.  A cycle of punishments and restorations began.  As Israel would turn their hearts away from the Lord, He would punish them with captivity and then as they cried out in repentance to Him, they would be restored.  In the book of Ezekiel, the nation was in captivity to Babylon.  Many of the people had been forcibly removed from their homeland.  In the latter portion of the book, God gives Ezekiel a prophetic word about the future restoration. He states, “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them (Ezekiel 36:27).  This passage is fulfilled as the Holy Spirit indwells the believer at salvation for the purpose of bringing the believer into conformity with Christ.

In the New Testament, Jesus affirms the plan for the Holy Spirit to indwell believers.  During the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus was sharing in the Temple.  On the last day, He stood and said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘from his innermost being will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38).  John clarifies the meaning of this in verse 39.  He says. “But this [Jesus] spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”  In reference to this passage, Ladd states:

Jesus was the source of living water.  Those who drink this water would never thirst again.  However, Jesus was going back to the Father and people would no longer be able to hear His word.  Instead of his personal presence his disciples would continue his ministry, and the Holy Spirit would be given them so that their words and deeds would no longer be merely human acts but channels of divine grace.[8]


The work of the Spirit was to continue the work of Christ both in the world and in those who would believe.

In the epistles, the Apostle Paul affirms the indwelling of the Spirit in Romans 8:9-11:

However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.


In this passage, one finds the work of Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit clearly linked together.  If the Spirit dwells within us, we are “dead to sin” and “alive to Christ” (Romans 6:11). While imputing righteousness to the believer, the Holy Spirit is also seen as giving the believer hope of the future resurrection.  In addition, Paul also affirms that if we do not have the indwelling of the Spirit, we are not part of the body of Christ.  The indwelling of the Spirit brings to believers the desire to fulfill the mission of Christ both in proclamation of the gospel—leading to sanctification in others—and in humble, righteous living.

The Spirit’s work in the believer is also a sign of the future inheritance of the full righteousness of Christ.  Ephesians 1:13-14 states, “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.”  The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is a sign of God’s present and continual work.  It is an affirmation in the heart of the believer that what God has said He will accomplish, He will assuredly do.  The Holy Spirit brings a promise of future glory, but it is not only limited to that.  The blessing of the indwelling Spirit can be experienced “here and now”[9] as one grows in sanctification.

In addition to the Spirit being given as a guarantee of our growth in sanctification, the believer is also strengthened by the Holy Spirit to live righteously for the glory of God.  Romans 8:13 shares that it is “by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body.”  Ephesians 3:16 shares that the power of the Holy Spirit strengthens us in the inner man and Romans 8:26 shares that “the Spirit also helps our weakness…”  These passages affirm that the Holy Spirit is active in the process of sanctification.  God is not a passive observer, requiring His children to meet subjective standards, rather He is an active participant in the reforming of His image in each man and women who accepts Christ as the sacrifice for their sin.

Finally, the indwelling Spirit works not only to strengthen the believer to withstand the onslaught of sin, He also leads the believer to produce the fruit of the Spirit.  Through the Scriptures we see that sanctification is not just the absence of sin, rather it is progress in righteousness and holiness.  In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul shares a list of what the fruit of the Spirit should look like, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is not law.” This understanding however, should not give the impression that the believer does not participate with the Spirit in resisting sin.  Ridderbos agrees stating, “The power of the indwelling Spirit is not a spontaneous, all possessing power; it requires a human response.  Walking after the Spirit means to live each moment and to make each decision under the guidance of the indwelling Spirit.”[10]

[1] Berkhorf, Louis.  Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996) 533

[2] Ridderbos, Herman. Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975) 258-259.

[3] Ladd 564

[4] Arrington 232

[5] Peterson 59

[6] Ridderbos 262

[7] Arrington 235

[8] Ladd 325

[9] Bruce, F.F. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing) 1984, 265-266.

[10] Ridderbos 536

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