As I was digging into sanctification last week, I asked my community group their thoughts about sanctification and especially what their questions were. One of the questions that came up was simply, “Why does it take so long?” It’s a good question. If God can declare us justified by faith and call us saints, why does he choose to sanctify us over a lifetime and not in an instant?
As I was studying I came across several responses scripture offers to that question. I didn’t have time in the sermon to enumerate these, but I would like to offer them here for your consideration as we continue to walk through Romans together in the coming months.
Why does our sanctification take so long?
Because the goal of sanctification is dependence not independence.
Paul describes Christian maturity as growing “up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15). Continuing with the body metaphor, every organ is dependent on the head, the brain, which is the center of the nervous system and which in turn directs the whole body. Paul reminds us that maturity in becoming like Christ is about increasing our dependence on Christ, not moving away from him. Cutting your own head off is not a sign of maturity but a surefire way to choose death.
Because the goal of sanctification is dependence not perfection in this life.
Or maybe I should say the goal of sanctification is dependence in this life that will lead to perfection in the next life. We are exhorted to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48), however we know that we will not be perfected until we see the Lord face to face (1 John 3:2). In this world then, while we rightly anticipate growth we should not expect perfection of ourselves or of others. This expectation tends toward a severe attempt at sanctification that puts too much hope in human effort. There can be a subtle temptation to idolize Christian perfection in a way that is disillusioning to Christian growth.
Because the goal of sanctification is knowing Christ.
Paul considers knowing Christ as the purpose and destination of this life (Phil. 3:7-12). He testifies that he has lost all things for the sake of knowing Christ and being found in him having a righteousness that comes through faith and leads to eternal life. He admits that he himself, the great apostle, is not yet perfect, but he presses on because he belongs to Christ and longs to know him more even through all the struggles of this earthly life.
Because we live in this present evil age.
We know that Christ gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age (Gal. 1:4). However, Jesus taught that it will only be at the end of this age that the righteous and the unrighteous will be finally separated (Matt. 13:49). In the mean time, everyone on earth is heading toward one of two eternal destinations. This trajectory is determined by what is happening inside us, but is influenced by what is happening around us. In sanctification we are learning that although we live in this present evil age that is heading toward destruction, we do not belong to this present evil age but to the kingdom that is coming.
Because sanctification is a thorough, whole-being transformation.
Paul prays that God will sanctify us entirely (1 Thes. 5:23). Sanctification is not a matter of incremental improvement to a few character faults or shortcomings. Rather, sanctification involves our whole being: body, soul, and spirit. Paul’s point here is not to define the parts as much as point to the robust and thorough nature of God’s work in us. God’s transforming work to make us like Christ is vastly more involved than we know. Like any good workman, God has properly estimated the time involved in such a renovation. He is not just adding some paint or even tearing it down to the studs. He is laying a new foundation for a new house.
Because your sanctification contributes to the sanctification of others.
Paul employs the metaphor of a body to picture growth in the Christian life. In both Ephesians (see 4:16) and Colossians (see 2:19) he describes the importance of the individual organs and limbs functioning properly as they are knit together by joints and ligaments. When each part is working properly the body grows by building itself up in love. In this metaphor any individual member who is connected to Christ our Head must continue to grow in order to continue to contribute to the growing body. This growth is the growth of sanctification. This means that the intended result of our own sanctification is not merely our own complete sanctification, but also the sanctification of the body.
Because God is glorified as we find our satisfaction in him and not in idols.
Paul gives God the credit for our sanctification (Rom. 6:17) and goes on to describe sanctification not as wages that we have earned but as the free gift given to us by God (Rom 6:23). It is God’s grace that we continue to grow in our understanding of the unsatisfying nature of our idols and the satisfying nature of God. We are receiving our sanctification as a gift of grace and every day that we grow toward Christ we deserve this gift less. Someday when we stand before the Lord, we will not brag about our own efforts but give him the credit he deserves for his work in us.
Because God is magnified as we see God’s grace and patience in dealing with our depravity.
It is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). The longer we deal with our own depravity and idolatry the more thoroughly we understand God kindness and patience. He has not dealt with us one day according to what we deserve but has loved us instead. God’s approach to us and his work in us becomes increasingly clear as we look long at the reality of his surpassing power working in us (2 Cor. 4:7). Like a telescope, our life in this world helps us see God’s character and action clearly and proportionately.
Because we grow in thankfulness and joy as our sanctification increases.
So we join Paul in saying, “Thanks be to God” (Rom. 6:17). Though we were once slaves of sin we have become obedient from the heart to Christ’s teaching. We are thankful for the desire we find within ourselves to walk yoked together with Jesus and we give thanks to God for this new situation. The further we walk, the more thankful we will grow. We join Paul in rejoicing, even in our sufferings, because we know God uses even our sufferings to walk us down the road toward eternal reward (Rom. 5:3-5).
Because this long road of sanctification is how God has chosen to save us.
Finally, let’s remember God’s sovereignty in laying out our sanctification in this way. Paul tells us, “God chose you as the first-fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thes. 2:13). This process of sanctification by the Spirit is the road which leads to salvation. God chose this road. God chose you to walk this road. God is not dragging this process out unnecessarily but is right on schedule.
As we consider the truth of these things we have the opportunity to thank God for his good work in us and throw ourselves into the yoke alongside Jesus once again.