How the Spirit Sanctifies

I myself am satisfied about you, my brethren, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another. But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that from Jerusalem and as far round as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ, thus making it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on another man's foundation, but as it is written, "They shall see who have never been told of him, and they shall understand who have never heard of him."

"Sanctification" is a very irrelevant word, but it is not an irrelevant reality. It's like a hundred technical medical terms. Nobody but doctors use them, but your life depends on the reality they stand for. "Sanctification" comes from two Latin words: sanctus which means holy, and ficare which means make. So to sanctify means to make holy. But, of course, the word "holy" isn't much more relevant today than sanctification—what with "holy mackerel" and "holy cow" and "holy buckets"—we've just about ruined one of the highest and most valuable words in the Bible.

An Irrelevant Word and a Crucial Reality 

I don't think there is any point in trying to invent new words for these old realities. It would take too long and by the time the new words got established people would already be using them for a banged finger. Instead, I think we should dig into the minds of the biblical authors until we see the reality they were talking about when they said "sanctified." And then, whether we use their word or not, we should make sure of the reality behind the word "sanctification." You don't ever have to use the word "insulin," but if you are a diabetic, your life may depend on the reality. You may never have heard of the word hyperopia, but you won't be able to read unless you get glasses to correct it.

As irrelevant as the word sanctification may be where you work and in your neighborhood, the reality is very crucial, very contemporary, and very relevant. Suppose you've always concealed private sources of income when filling out your tax returns. Then you come to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and begin to tell the truth on your tax returns—that's sanctification. Suppose you're always on your husband's case, and then the Word of God pricks your conscience and you begin to preach less and look for ways to show respect—that's sanctification. Suppose you're sleeping with your girlfriend, and you meet Jesus Christ and get the courage to move out—that's sanctification.

There are living images of sanctification in our world today which are more real, more authentic than all the people put together who think sanctification is passé. Malcolm Muggeridge takes Mother Teresa as an example:

I think a person like her comes into the world, not by chance, and radiates the Christian faith at its most simple, most pure, most effective level. She takes any baby that is given to her and looks after it. She brings in dying people from the streets who might live for only a quarter of an hour. When they leave this life with a loving Christian face beside them instead of one of rejection, she would say that it is well worth it. She is diametrically opposed to the spirit of the age—abortion is a horror to her, and all the attitude of mind associated with it. (Eternity, April 1984, p. 27)

When a young woman living in the security and comfort of middle class Western society moves to Calcutta in obedience to Jesus, that is sanctification, and it is not irrelevant. Don't let the irrelevance of the word mislead you. The reality is immensely important.

Three Questions About Romans 15:14–21

Let's look at our text and try to answer three questions:

  1. What is sanctification?
  2. Why is it so important?
  3. How can we be sanctified?

1. What Is Sanctification? 

At the end of Romans 15:15 Paul says, "Grace has been given to me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit." Focus for a moment on this one fact: sanctification is the goal of Paul's missionary labor. He pictures himself as a priest. His ministry as a priest is to preach the gospel. And the offerings he brings to God as a priest are Gentiles. And these Gentiles are acceptable because they are sanctified. Paul is not merely aiming for converts; he is aiming to make people sanctified.

As soon as we see clearly that the aim of Paul's missionary labor is sanctification, we can get a very clear idea of what sanctification is by reading verse 18 which describes the aim of his life in different words: "I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles." What is the aim of Paul's missionary labor in this verse? Or more precisely, what does Christ aim to achieve through Paul's missionary labor? Answer: he aims to win obedience from the Gentiles.

So here's what I conclude. Since the aim of Paul's ministry in verse 16 is to present Gentiles to God who are sanctified, and in verse 18 Christ's aim in Paul's ministry is the obedience of the Gentiles, therefore sanctification means obedience to Christ. Jesus himself told us what the aim of missionary labor should be: "Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." The aim of Christian missions is to cause people to obey a new Commander. Sanctification is happening where the words of Jesus are being obeyed.

Romans 6:17–19 confirms that we've gotten on track with Paul in connecting obedience and sanctification. Verse 17: "Thanks be to God that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed." Then verse 19b: "For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification." If you put verse 17 beside verse 19, you see the same thing we saw in Romans 15. Obedience to the teaching of Christ in verse 17 is the same as sanctification in verse 19. So the process of becoming sanctified is the process of more consistently and more fervently (note "from the heart," Romans 6:17) obeying Jesus Christ. (See also 1 Peter 1:2 for another connection of sanctification and obedience.)

2. Why Is Sanctification So Important? 

One of our goals at Bethlehem is to be a people with a wartime mentality and a wartime lifestyle. A people who see the warmth and beauty of spring but do not forget that vast populations of our world and vast regions of the human heart are ice-bound by unbelief; that every season of the year Satan is fighting with his forces to resist the liberation troops of the gospel and expand his own deadly kingdom. God helping us, we will not be a people with a peacetime mentality. Daffodils and tulip blossoms and Aspen leaves and carpets of grass will not make us think the millennium has come.

The war rages on right through the summer. Every new, fresh, beautiful leaf is an offer of love from God to a rebellious world. The deep blue sky and the warm sun and the cumulus clouds are a merciful call to repentance before the final storm gathers. Every softball game, every fishing trip, every hour in the garden, every day at the lake is a field of conflict. And there are a hundred ways for you to gain victory over evil in the power of Christ and advance his cause in the way you work and play this summer—if you maintain a wartime mentality.

And what Paul has done for us in Romans 15:16 and 18 is to define sanctification so that it can be a part of our wartime vocabulary. Sanctification is obeying the Commander-in-Chief. Sanctification is a wartime word. A sanctified person has unswerving commitment to his cause. A sanctified person has uncompromising loyalty to the Commander and to his comrades in arms. So whenever you think of sanctification, think of wartime missions and wartime character. It was the goal of Paul's mission strategy, and it was the radical obedience that fulfilled that goal from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum (Romans 15:19).

3. How Does Sanctification Come About? 

If we go back now to Romans 15, we can see how sanctification comes about. Let's start again at the end of verse 15. The first and highest foundation of sanctification is the grace of God. According to verse 15, God's grace turned Paul into a minister of Christ. Moved by this grace, then, Paul undertakes the service of the gospel—he preaches the good news that Christ died for sinners and offers eternal joy to those who believe. According to verse 16, then, the result of this preaching is that Gentiles become sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

Let's try to picture it like this. Visualize a triangle with the grace of God at the top point. The free grace of God is the foundation of everything. On one side of the triangle this grace is poured out into a man named Paul. It utterly revolutionizes his life and he becomes the ambassador of Christ preaching the gospel to Gentiles. So one of the bottom corners of the triangle is the apostle Paul. Now he moves out along the base of the triangle to preach the gospel to the unbeliever at the other corner of the triangle. The goal of this preaching is a sanctified believer (verse 16).

But verse 16 says that a person is sanctified by the Holy Spirit, not just by the preaching of the gospel. So the other side of the triangle is the power of the Holy Spirit flowing out from God's grace and opening the person's heart to receive the gospel (Acts 16:14). Sanctification happens when the gospel preached and the Spirit poured out meet with power in the human heart.