What Is Sanctification?

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Sanctification is a word that we often throw around in Church and in Christian conversations. But what does it really mean? What is sanctification? In chapter 2 of Holiness on the topic of sanctification, J.C. Ryle defines it as follows: “Sanctification is that inward spiritual work which the Lord Jesus Christ works in a man by the Holy Ghost, when he calls him to be a true believer. He not only washes him from his sins in his own blood, but he also separates him from his natural love of sin and the world, puts a new principle in his heart, and makes him practically godly in life” (22).

Following this definition, Ryle proceeds to discuss 12 “Propositions” to define the exact nature of sanctification. Those these 12 propositions are incredibly helpful, they are certainly not exhaustive and comprehensive. I pray that perhaps the Lord would ignite in you, through these, a desire to dive deeper into this topic of sanctification. What follows are Ryle’s 12 propositions, including some of the quotes that I found most helpful in the section.

#1 Sanctification is the invariable result of that vital union with Christ which true faith gives to a Christian

Put very simply, truth saving faith in Christ will result in a changed life (sanctification). As Ryle says, “Where there is not sanctification of life, there is no real faith in Christ” (24). This is a point that he will drive home throughout the rest of this book, but one that we must not forget. As the popular saying goes, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” Ryle also says:

“The union with Christ which produces no effect on the heart and life is a mere formal union, which is worthless before God. The faith which has not a sanctifying influence on the character is no better than the faith of devils” (24).

#2 Sanctification is the outcome and inseparable consequence of regeneration

This is essentially the same point as the first, yet instead of tying sanctification to our union with Christ, Ryle makes it clear that it is also tied to our regeneration, our being born again through the sovereign work of the Spirit. Ryle puts it like this:

A regeneration which a man can have, and yet live carelessly in sin or worldliness, is a regeneration invented by uninspired theologians, but never mentioned in Scripture … In a word, where there is no sanctification there is no regeneration, and where there is no holy life there is no new birth. This is, no doubt, a hard saying to many minds; but, hard or not, it is a simple Bible truth” (25).

#3 Sanctification is the only certain evidence of that indwelling of the Holy Spirit which is essential to salvation

Ryle makes it clear throughout the book that one of the primary ways that we gain assurance of our own salvation, and are able to examine others’ professions of faith, is to look at the evidence of a changed life through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. A few important quotes on this topic:

The Spirit never lies dormant and idle within the soul: he always makes his presence known by the fruit he causes to be borne in heart, character, and life” (25).

“The Spirit is compared to the wind, and, like the wind, he cannot be seen by our bodily eyes. But just as we know there is a wind by the effect it produces on waves, and trees, and smoke, so we know the Spirit is in a man by the effects he produces in the man’s conduct” (25).

Where there is no holy living, there is no Holy Ghost. The seal that the Spirit stamps on Christ’s people is sanctification” (25).

#4 Sanctification is the only sure mark of God’s election

How can you know that you are one of God’s elect? We see the teaching of God’s election throughout Scripture, but how can you know if you are God’s elect. Ryle says that sanctification is the one sure mark that you are God’s elect. This is not to imply by any means that good works make you elect or earn your salvation. Rather, sanctification is the outworking of God’s grace in and through us because of our union to Christ through justification by faith alone. And as we come to Christ by faith alone, and the Spirit effects in us a changed life, we are able to look at that changed life and be assured of God’s election of us.

“He that boasts of being one of God’s elect, while he is willfully and habitually living in sin, is only deceiving himself, and talking wicked blasphemy” (26).

#5 Sanctification is a thing that will always be seen

You cannot see, visibly, what goes on in a man or woman’s heart or mind. You cannot see their trust in Christ. You cannot see their regenerated heart. But what you can see is the effect of those things on their life, as the Spirit effects change in them. You can see a man or woman’s sanctification. There are varying degrees of sanctification for sure, as Ryle will discuss later, but whether there is but a flicker of light, it will be seen.

“But whether he sees it himself or not, others will always see in him a tone, and taste, and character, and habit of life unlike that of other men. The very idea of a man being ‘sanctified’, while no holiness can be seen in his life, is flat nonsense and a misuse of words. Light may be very dim; but if there is only a spark in a dark room it will be seen. Life may be very feeble; but if the pulse only beats a little, it will be felt” (26-27).

On the flip side, if sanctification is not seen, it is good evidence that there is a likely chance that man or woman has not truly been born again. Ryle says it this way:

A ‘saint’ in whom nothing can be seen but worldliness or sin, is a kind of monster not recognized in the Bible!” (27).

#6 Sanctification is a thing for which every believer is responsible

Sanctification is one of those mysterious things in Scripture where we see that both we and God work toward it. Unlike justification, which is entirely of God’s doing, sanctification is something that we are responsible for. Certainly the only reason that we are able to be transformed is because of God’s work of grace in and through us by His Spirit. Yet we have responsibility in the matter to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness. Ryle says:

Whose fault is it if they are not holy, but their own? On whom can they throw the blame if they are not sanctified, but themselves? God, who has given them grace and a new heart, and a new nature, has deprived them of all excuse if they do not live for his praise. If the Savior of sinners gives us renewing grace, and calls us by his Spirit, we may be sure that he expects us to use our grace, and not to go to sleep” (27).

#7 Sanctification is a thing which admits of growth and degrees

As we said above, there are different degrees of sanctification. Man does not come to Christ and instantly see every aspect of his life transformed in an instant by God. Rather, it is a process unto death whereby we grow in godliness and holiness and conviction of sin. This is why it is called “progressive sanctification.” And as one grows in their sanctification, he sees more clearly the sin in his life and the grievous nature of it, which leads him to more repenting and more growth in Christ. Ryle puts it this way:

“If there is any point on which God’s holiest saints agree it is this: that they see more, and know more, and feel more, and do more, and repent more, and believe more, as they get on in spiritual life, and in proportion to the closeness of their walk with God” (28).

#8 Sanctification is a thing which depends greatly on a diligent use of scriptural means

As noted above, we have responsibility in our sanctification. But if we are to have true growth in our sanctification, it must be through the Scriptural means, particularly that of Bible-reading, prayer, the gathering of the local church, and the regular partaking of the Lord’s Supper. These are things that God himself has instituted and given us for the purpose of growing us in holiness by his grace. Though the following is a lengthy quote, it drives home this point excellently.

“I have in view Bible-reading, private prayer, regular attendance on public worship, regular hearing of God’s Word, and regular reception of the Lord’s supper. I lay it down as a simple matter of fact, that no one who is careless about such things must ever expect to make much progress in sanctification. I can find no record of any eminent saint who ever neglected them. They are appointed channels through which the Holy Spirit conveys fresh supplies of grace to the soul, and strengthens the work which he has begun in the inward man … There are no ‘spiritual gains without pains.’ I should as soon expect a farmer to prosper in business who contented himself with sowing his fields and never looking at them till harvest, as expect a believer to attain much holiness who was not diligent about his Bible-reading, his prayers, and the use of his Sundays. Our God is a God who works by means, and he will never bless the soul of that man who pretends to be so high and spiritual that he can get on without them” (28-29).

#9 Sanctification is a thing which does not prevent a man having a great deal of inward spiritual conflict

Make no mistake, sanctification is hard work. It is a war against sin, Satan, and the flesh. And in the midst of this battle, there will be a great deal of inner conflict that the Christian experiences, very similar to Paul’s battle in the latter half of Romans 7. 

“By conflict I mean a struggle within the heart between the old nature and the new, the flesh and the spirit, which are to be found together in every believer (Gal 5:17). A deep sense of that struggle, and a vast amount of mental discomfort from it, are no proof that a man is not sanctified. Nay, rather, I believe they are healthy symptoms of our condition, and prove that we are not dead, but alive. A true Christian is one who has not only peace of conscience, but war within” (29).

#10 Sanctification is a thing which cannot justify a man, and yet it pleases God

We must make it clear that sanctification cannot justify man. Good works cannot make us right with God. That is abundantly clear in Scripture, and will be the topic of another article soon where we will look at the differences and similarities between justification and sanctification. However, though our changed life cannot justify us — make us right with God — it is pleasing to God. As Ryle says, “Just as a parent is pleased with the efforts of his little child to please him, though it be only by picking a daisy or walking across a room, so is our Father in heaven pleased with the poor performances of his believing children” (30-31).

#11 Sanctification is a thing which will be found absolutely necessary as a witness to our character in the great day of judgment

This is one of those topics that cause many believers to scratch their head in confusion. We are justified, made right with God, by grace alone through faith alone. Yet at the final judgment, our sanctification will be a necessary component to our final salvation. As Ryle put it, our sanctification will be necessary as a witness to our character on that great day of judgment because, as said above, our sanctification is evidence that our faith was genuine and we were truly justified by faith alone. Ryle says:

It will be utterly useless to plead that we believed in Christ, unless our faith has had some sanctifying effect, and been seen in our lives. Evidence, evidence, evidence, will be the one thing wanted when the great white throne is set, when the books are opened, when the graves give up their tenants, when the dead are arraigned before the bar of God. Without some evidence that our faith in Christ was real and genuine, we shall only rise again to be condemned … He that supposes works are of no importance, because they cannot justify us, is a very ignorant Christian. Unless he opens his eyes, he will find to his cost that if he comes to the bar of God without some evidence of grace, he had better never have been born” (31).

#12 Sanctification is absolutely necessary in order to train and prepare us for heaven

Finally, Ryle introduces a theme that he returns to time and time again in the chapters to follow — that though most men and women today claim to hope to go to heaven, few understand what it is that they are saying. If they have not experienced a sanctified life now, they will in no way enjoy the perfected life to come. He says:

Most men hope to go to heaven when they die; but few, it may be feared, take the trouble to consider whether they would enjoy heaven if they got there. Heaven is essentially a holy place; its inhabitants are all holy; its occupations are all holy … When an eagle is happy in an iron cage, when a sheep is happy in the water, when an owl is happy in the blaze of noonday sun, when a fish is happy on the dry land — then, and not till then, will I admit that the unsanctified man could be happy in heaven” (31-32).

I pray that the 12 propositions above have been helpful to you in developing a biblical understanding of what sanctification is and what it is not. If any of the above has sparked in you a desire to dive deeper into this topic and you would like some guidance on where to start, please comment below or send me an email at ztford1@gmail.com and I’d be happy to offer some guidance.

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