What is “Sanctification”?
Few elements of theology have suffered more from abstraction than has “sanctification”? Becoming “holy” or “set apart” or “growth” or whatever other terms are usually used in this regard, beg the question of “to what” are such terms directed. And I am convinced that this failure lies behind much of the all too evident lack of maturity in so much of North American Christianity.
A sculptor can already “see” his sculpture in the block of stone set before him. Similarly painters already envision the painting they want to produce. Neither simply starts chipping or painting away hoping something suitable to their purposes and vision emerges. But that’s just what happens to Christians. We’re supposed to “grow,” usually meaning some sort of emotional adjustment, becoming “nicer” people and, of course, good citizens. Or we adapt ourselves to already formed commitments (political, social, economic) and run our desire to be better Christians through those grids. Or we become more “spiritual.” That is, we seek to pray more, join a small group, take notes on sermons, go on a mission trip or the like.
However different the implicit goal toward which we think we are moving, if we’ve even thought about it, fail to provide a coherent image or vision of what God intends to do with and make of us. It’s not that the Bible doesn’t tell us in a variety of ways what God is up to with us. Not at all. We just can’t see it because we run those images through the kind of filters I just described. And none of them capture the fullness and specificity of the biblical image.
That image, in brief, is revealed by the apostle Paul in Romans 8:29: “We know this because God knew them in advance, and he
decided in advance that they
would be conformed to the image of his Son. his Son would be the
first of many ulfilled and realized in Jesus of Nazareth.
So what Jesus’ life was about, his person and wok, is the goal toward which God is moving us. It is the aim of our sanctification. And what Jesus’ life was about is well captured by Jürgen Moltmann: “The history of Jesus which led to his crucifixion was dominated by the conflict between God and the gods, between the Father of Jesus, on the one hand, and the God of the law as he was understood by the guardians of the law, together with the political gods of the Roman occupying power on the other hand.” (The Crucified God)
Jesus engaged in a running struggle, a battle against the gods on a number of fronts to wrest the control over creation they hijacked in the garden back for God, its rightful Lord. This includes his work for forgiveness of our sins but incorporates that into his larger struggle against these other powers which held us in their sway. Jesus defeated them at the cross and on the first Easter morn.
In World War 2 the decisive victory in the European theater was at Normandy. After this victory the outcome of the struggle in the European theater was no longer in doubt. Yet it took nearly another year of entrenched all-out battles before the guns were silenced and laid down and treaties signed to finally end the conflict (V-Day). So with Jesus’ victory at the resurrection D-Day. Though the outcome is no longer in doubt, battles remain to be fought to root out remaining pockets of resistance and extend and implement Jesus’ victory throughout the world. We, those who have in faith turned to Jesus, are now his “shock troops” to carry out with him that phase of his work (often called the “Church Militant” in ecclesiastical jargon).
To look like Jesus, then, means to be a churchly “militant.” We are to exercise the same “violence of love” Jesus used in gaining his victory over these powers. Nonviolently challenging and puncturing the illusions of power and rule they no longer have is now our job too. Being equipped and trained for such “militancy, then, is our sanctification. This is what it means for us to look like Jesus! Ian Provan put is as well as I think in can be said:
“Be dangerous to those who worship money and material possessions – the idols of mammon. Lay bare the utopianism at the heart of modern economic ideology. Deride the universal expectation of more … be dangerous to all who, in the pursuit of [false] gods, damage other people, and damage God's good creation. Be dangerous to the powerful who want to use and oppress the weak, and to the rich who want to use and oppress the poor.”
Yes, friends, fellow “militants,” let us be dangerous indeed. Not to other human beings, to be sure, but to powers like those Provan identified, and let us begin to remake this world to look as much like the world God intended to have in creation (Gen.1-2) and will have in new creation (Rev.21-22). This was always to be our vocation as God’s image-bearers to which we are restored in Christ.
We won’t fully remake this world over nor will we do what we do in our own power. It’s all of God. And what makeover work we do accomplish (sanctification) will be purged and purified by God at the judgment (1 Cor.3:10-17). Such will then be used by in the building and establishing in the New Jerusalem which comes down from heaven to encompass the new heavens and new earth as the dwelling place of God with his people. What a privilege and calling! What a shame to not enter into it, our sanctification, for whatever reason.