The Secret of Sanctification

The Secret of Sanctification

Is there a silver bullet for increasing Christlikeness? It’s doubtful that speaking like that will bring more clarity than confusion. But there is biblical precedent for talk about finding “the secret.”

In Philippians 4:11–13, the apostle Paul, having thanked his friends for their generous provision of his needs, concedes,

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

There it is, “the secret.” Paul says he’s learned “the secret” for contentment in any situation: Jesus, the one who gives his soul strength.

This Is Risky

If there’s a secret for contentment, might there be any help in talking similarly about “the secret” to sanctification? It’s a risk, but one that may be worth taking, if there’s need to highlight a centrally important truth that often gets short shrift.

Horatius Bonar thought it was worth the risk. Bonar, who lived from 1808 to 1889, was a Scottish pastor and poet. He is the author of classics still in print, like The Everlasting Righteousness and Words to Winners of Souls. Bonar is a profound lover of the gospel and of Christian holiness, and has a way with words. Jerry Bridges turned up this little gem and quoted it in his book The Gospel for Real Life. It’s from Bonar’s book God’s Way of Holiness.

The Secret to Holiness

You may want to sit down for this one, and read it slowly:

The secret of a believer’s holy walk is his continual recurrence to the blood of the Surety, and his daily [communion] with a crucified and risen Lord. All divine life, and all precious fruits of it, pardon, peace, and holiness, spring from the cross. All fancied sanctification which does not arise wholly from the blood of the cross is nothing better than Pharisaism.

If we would be holy, we must get to the cross, and dwell there; else, notwithstanding all our labour, diligence, fasting, praying and good works, we shall be yet void of real sanctification, destitute of those humble, gracious tempers which accompany a clear view of the cross.

Far be it from Bonar to minimize the power of the Holy Spirit in sanctification, or the indispensible role of subjective faith in sanctification. But Bonar’s concern is that we can be quick to forget the objective. We subtly can begin to lose focus on the great object to which the eye of faith looks — God himself, as revealed in Jesus crucified for sinners and raised in cosmic triumph over our sin.

How We Actually Do More

So, let’s not forget the role of God’s Spirit, nor our faith, in sanctification. And let’s in no way minimize the role of God’s crucified and risen Son as the one on whom our faith fixes for divine empowerment.

It turns out Bonar is not alone in talking about secrets. Kevin DeYoung says something similar, if not quite as poetic, that’s packed with implications for sanctification: “The secret of the gospel is that we actually do more when we hear less about all we need to do for God and hear more about all that God has already done for us.”


David Mathis is a seminar speaker at our National Conference (September 28–30) on the topic "Mission and Disciple-making." Visit the event page to learn more or register.

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David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor at desiringGod.org and an elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis. He has edited several books, including Thinking. Loving. Doing., Finish the Mission, and Acting the Miracle, and is co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary.