Sanctification is a concept that’s simple in principle but somewhat more complex in practice. Most broadly, sanctification is the process that takes place after conversion by which the Christian is grown into maturity and transformed into the fullness of Christ. It is the journey the Christian takes from conversion to death that is aimed at becoming what has already been declared to be true. We are declared innocent at the cross and now it’s time for us to begin to apply that declared righteousness to the current reality of our hearts. To put it simply, sanctification is the process of becoming like Jesus.
Amidst this process, some questions often come up: Who does the work of sanctification? Does God change me or does my hard work change me? This is an important distinction and even caused Paul to berate the Galatian church for trying to perfect themselves by the power of the flesh. However, the person that errs the other way becomes spiritually lazy — that’s also not the answer.
The difficulty comes because the answer to the question of responsibility in sanctification is not a simple “yes” or “no.” Rather, it’s a dual one. The often-elusive answer is that both God and the Christian work together toward sanctification in different ways. God does the changing work as the Christian chooses to be open to change. Sanctification is accomplished by God as the Christian works to surrender and open himself more deeply to the work of God through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
The next question is: “So, what do I do? If I’m not the one that does the changing, what’s my responsibility in sanctification?” Philippians 2:12,13 demonstrates the answer. Christians are called to “work out their own salvation,” yet the same sentence declares that “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work” (emphasis mine). This verse exhorts believers to be working, yet in the same sentence places the ultimate power to change in God’s hands. Thus, there is agency from both sides. God is the ultimate changer of hearts and He works His changing power through the presence and means of the Holy Spirit, to His own glory. The Christian also works, but since God holds the ultimate power of transformation, the Christian’s work is not in transforming himself. Indeed, as is made clear elsewhere in Scripture, we can do nothing apart from God (John 15:5). The work of the Christian in sanctification is to open himself, in faith, to the One who has the power in order to receive that power by the Spirit. God does the changing; the human responsibility is to be open to the changing. I can’t change my heart in any real way, but God can, so my responsibility is to let Him.
We open ourselves and let God in through the commonly prescribed spiritual exercises. Read your Bible, pray, and exercise all manner of spiritual disciplines — not to perfect yourself, but to train your heart to be open and receptive to the work God wants to do in you. So, take the pressure off your efforts. You can’t change you, but God can. Open yourself to His work in you.
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Danny Nathan grew up at Grace participating in the music and worship ministry. He’s currently a worship leader at Grace, ushering people into God’s presence through song in a variety of venues, including our Sunday worship services and Grace Students gatherings. Danny is a graduate of The Ohio State University with a degree in English. In June 2016, Danny married his high school sweetheart, Alli.