Rethinking Sanctification Because I Have To


Fifteen years ago I had it all figured out. My theology was perfect. My passions were flamed by the progressively growing belief that I was going to make a difference—a big difference. If someone was in need, I could fix it . . . or at least direct them to the right way to fix it. I had all the answers. I was sanctified and I was being sanctified . . . fast (like, Ferrari-fast).

Fast forward fifteen years…

Things are much different now. I don’t have quite as much figured out. Passions are secure, but have been nuanced by the scars of my soul. Things I was so confident about before now make my spirit blush with frustration, salted with a bit of shame and bitterness. Fixing things is not as easy as it seemed back then. Complications have arisen. People are complicated. I am complicated.

Not long ago, as I discussed spiritual growth with a discouraged Christian gal, I began to see my own plight in hers. She could not understand why she is not a “good” person. “I have been a Christian for thirty years and I feel as if I am less sanctified now than ever. I don’t understand. Maybe I am not even saved.”

As I reflected on this throughout the day, I realized that she and I are the same. Wait… Let me attempt to give you my previous definition of sanctification:

Sanctification n. The state of experiencing growth that is measured by becoming more Christ-like. Interpretation: You are getting better and better. You are not as mean as you were before. You don’t complain as much. You have a better outlook on life. You are never depressed. Your problems are dealt with in a more mature manner; you know, the way Christ dealt with them. Oh, and you also have more figured out than you did before.

Fifteen years after first subscribing to the above definition, I reflect on my own condition and find myself filled with frustration. Sure, I am not controlled by many of the sins that controlled me before, but I will have to call a strike on all the signs of sanctification listed above. New sins have arisen. Personality flaws. Grumpiness. Complaining. The inability to react to situations with a calm trust. Quick-temperedness. And you know what? There are some people I just don’t like and cannot be nice to. Sheesh, just over twenty years ago I was voted the nicest person at John Marshall High School. Don’t believe me? Check the yearbook. Finally (and you’re not going to believe this), I am progressively finding it harder and harder to not make up excuses about going to church on Sunday mornings, unless I am teaching or preaching—then I am gung-ho!

Why aren’t I getting “better”? I don’t know. I could blame it on so many things, but blame would just be another sign of my sorry state. (Don’t unsanctified people blame a lot? Adam?).

However, this has caused me to reassess myself and my view of sanctification. What does it mean to be made “holy” (the word from which we get “sanctification”)?

New life stages present you with new ways to show off your fallen nature. Kids. Four kids. Four kids under thirteen. Marriage. Death. Sadness. Time allows for more disappointment in others and yourself. You simply have more baggage to deal with than before. Oh, and then there are those times when you get depressed. Wait! Christians are not supposed to be able to get depressed. Especially those who teach theology. Goodness, what use is all that I do if I am now, fifteen years later, experiencing depression? I used to be able to straighten depressed people out with a wave of my magic wand of proper biblical interpretation! Guess that does not work quite as well as I thought.

Fifteen years later, either I am not being sanctified (which is possible) or I need to rethink sanctification.

My hopes and thoughts are here:

Sanctification n. The process of Christian development that has more to do with how dependent you have become on the Lord, not necessarily with simply being “good.” Sanctification has more to do with how often you are broken before him, not your stoic ability to deal with pain. Sanctification has more to do with a recognition of your weaknesses than of your strengths. Sanctification has more to do with repentance than with the things that don’t require repentance. In the end, sanctification amounts to the progressive movements you make toward the side of God because you have no where else to go.

But then there are the fruits of the spirit. Oh yeah, those. Doesn’t joy cancel out depression? Doesn’t peace defeat irritability? Doesn’t faith do away with being scared that something bad is going to happen to my kids? No perfect little red bow on this post.

I am trying to rethink sanctification because I have to.

24 Responses to “Rethinking Sanctification Because I Have To”

  1. Interesting post ! I think the process of rethinking in our faith is so vital to evolving better understandings. It’s led me to experience freedom and be encouraged in my faith.

    I’m interested to know where you have come up with ur new working definition of sanctification?

  2. Ivailo Atanasov July 15, 2012 at 2:46 am

    Michael, thanks for this post. It’s good to know that other people have similar issues. Right now I’m going through a similar crisis. Thoughts about have I been saved at all occurred to me too. At times I have the amazing capability of forgetting all evidences about that (that I am a new person) through my 12 years walk with Christ. I guess that is why it is so often repeated in the Psalms: “forget not all his benefits!”

    I think this is just a sign that I am too preoccupied with myself. I think that all I need here is a bit more trust in the Lord. Things are very often (if not always) different from what they appear to us. And as you rightly mention, the challenges are different than before and from one person to another. (You, guys, who don’t have that issue and who don’t understand what all this is about, praise the Lord. You don’t have to.) As we shall not be judgmental to others, we shall not be judgmental to ourselves too. Critical – yes, but that’s different. We really don’t have any objective basis to compare the challenges we are going though. We are growing and we are changing. That’s simply life and I guess that’s the essence of sanctification.

    Looking forward for your next revision in another 15-year period :)

  3. Greetings Michael,
    Do you have Biblical warrant for the new definition you posited?

    Your definition sounds like the Puritan interpretation of Romans 7; that the holy recognize even more how wretched they are.

    Having read your post “On Talking to those who doubt” I don’t want to sound naive, I understand the struggle with sin. Yet I also know the power of Christ mentioned in Romans 8 to put to death sin.

    In light of this post, it seems you are redefining it based on experience and not what you are finding in the Bible.
    Peter says we should continually be growing in self-control, godliness, steadfastness, faith and love… Else, he says, it shows we’ve forgotten that we’ve been cleansed from our sin. That sounds as though growing in health, rather than recognizing weakness.

    It seems worthwhile to quote the passage in full: 2Pe 1:3-10
    His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.

  4. On the subject of questioning if you are saved from time to time, I have found that question troubling me once in a while, but thank God in his goodness that He always brings things to mind quickly that reassure me. Maybe that will change. I am always brought to a place of deep gratitude in response and I pray and worship appropriately. So, I’m grateful for those moments of doubt – they’re like a corrective for my heart’s focus.

    Additionally, the idea that big part of sanctification is seeing your brokenness and leaning on God instead of yourself makes sense. I keep thinking about how you must die to self in order to live for Jesus. Dying to one’s self can mean many things. Killing pride, killing idols, making God’s priorities my priorities. It’s a process that only ends when we’re in glory. Perhaps the struggle we have during these times is just a consequence of sinful thought patterns that we haven’t been able to unlearn yet.

    With respect to depression: I have some low moments, and I believe I’m okay because I have put my hope in Jesus to be in charge of these situations and not myself and I find that very comforting. Even so, I feel as though I reach a threshold now and then and I sinfully escape into alcohol for a night or two. This isn’t a frequent thing mind you, but sometimes I just want to numb my pain without making the effort to let go of it. Is that sanctified behavior? Certainly doesn’t seem like it. But my flesh is weak and I know that I do this far less than I did 15 years ago or 10 years ago or 5 years ago, etc. I see that as God’s work in me. And I’m deeply thankful.

    Very thoughtful post. We appreciate your vulnerability, brother. I hope you are encouraged in some way by knowing that you’re a real person to some of us who read your blog and interact with you on Facebook. And you’re prayed for too. May His peace be with you.

  5. Incidentally, Matt Chandler just started a new series on Holiness at The Village. It’s classic Chandler. Check it out:

  6. Michael, You and I are beginning to think alike. The simplistic answers of my youth aren’t working any more. And after reading some responses you have, my dark side tends to want to show itself. As I grow older, in my late 60’s, I have fewer answers to fix myself and others. I’m recognizing more and more how really broken I am and why I need to lean more on the Grace and Mercy of God.

  7. Do I have biblical warrant for which part?

    I love the story of Peter who could not get rid of his prejudice. I identity with his plight with sin. There are many example of brokenness, progressive recognition of sinfulness, and the reality that we will never be fully sanctified. I would hope that the closer we get to the light the more we see our deformity.

  8. Michael,

    Excellent. Seems like allot of us that have previously relied on our intellect and shunned our emotions are having to re-think things and come to a more balanced state…… It’s cool to see guys like you change over the years and become vulnerable. It gives me hope and encouragement for myself.
    But we all have the example of Martin Luther to stop us from becoming full Emo and flog ourselves or believe that God hates us.Anyway,thanks.


  9. Michael,
    “Do you have biblical warrant?” Was in reference to your definition of sanctification. As in, how would you support that Paul or anyone else viewed sanctification that way as opposed to your first definition in the post.
    In your posts I see more of an emphasis on brokenness and less of an emphasis on a God who heals brokenness. I would assume that it is because of you are not experiencing healing and strengthening; but rather brokenness and weakness. So can you justify by use of the scriptures that God prefers one over the other? That we should expect one over the others? I ask not because I want to prove myself right, or hold onto what I’ve been taught; but because I see the scriptures teaching healing and strengthening. And thus far, you’ve only presented experience and not scripture.

    Regarding your reply: Your hope seems a bit queer to me…. I can see how things would be more exposed, but I don’t see why you stop there. My hope is that we’d be more conformed to Christ as we approach closer.
    Sure Peter had flaws, but he was corrected for it nevertheless. Likewise, we should all be dissatisfied with our flaws and need to be corrected because of them.

  10. Yes, you are right. I don’t have any solutions. From the outsiders perspective, they see much change in me for the better. It is harder for me to see. I am sure it is true. But from my perspective, if I am getting closer to the light, i realize, like Isaiah, that I am a man of unclean lips. Read my latest post on the Lordship salvation.

  11. Thank you for the response. I can definitely see how the story of Peter relates and it is beautiful!
    For me I can relate with the plight of Peter and with your plight. There are things i still struggle with and hate doing but somehow keep doing. There are also things i struggled with but no longer struggle. But I think the longer it’s been the more i recognize the darkness and brokenness within and come to appreciate God’s grace all the more. Even though it’s hard to accept grace sometimes because I put this guilt trip on myself.

    That raises a good question though: am I, or do we, feel a guilt trip because of how the church has handled sin and failure , a lot of times in very ugly ways?

    I think church discipline, posive or negative, affects how we feel and process through sin and failure.

    But then are there better ways to deal with disciplining people in our churches? Is church discipline even necessary? I think so, because Paul had to exhort his churches to discipline people, so maybe it’s about our methodology?!

  12. Michael,

    i think we can all identify. Santification is a lot harder, IMHO, than just merely accepting eternal life, ala John 3:16 and letting it go at that.

    Lot of things we hold dear that we don’t want to give up in the latter, but somehow the Lord accomplishes what he wishes anyway through life crisis or suffering.

    Hard, hard, hard. But no one ever said it would be easy, Paul is a great example. He may have thought he was free and clear after being an apostle, but history tells us he was not.

    Have often wondered what he thought after dedicating his entire life to the Lord about all his hardships along the way, and if despite what he wrote and if he thought he chose the right path. I’m sure he doubted too, being human.

  13. I like what Gerhard Forde said about sanctification;

    “Sanctification is getting used to your justification.”


    “Sanctification is forgetting about yourself.”

    Yes…God does this, too.

  14. Michael,
    I appreciate this post very much. Your contrast between the former you and the current you are refreshing.

    To some degree or other we all may think we should improve but sanctification is not self-improvement. Sanctification is not something we can do outwardly.

    It is probably safer for all of us to be more aware of our faults, shortcomings, deficiencies, sins, etc. than we are of our practical sanctification.

  15. Thanks Michael.

    I can sympathize with this, I’m pretty sure I had it all figured out twenty years ago. Now I just look back at my younger self and laugh. I believe it was Chesterton who said, “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.’

    Whatever you do though, don’t doubt your salvation. Maybe that’s a Calvinist thing where if you’re not saying and doing the right thing you were never a Christian to begin with. Whatever crazy permutation of cause and effect you want to put on it, you are called by Christ and saved by faith (trust/loyalty) in him. Everything else is exposition.

  16. “Getting better and better” sounds more like modernism that has crept into our Christian perspective. Thomas Watson defines Godliness as “the workmanship of God in a man.” That surely means understanding our need for grace, so the more we see our unworthiness the the closer to God we draw. I like your definition.

  17. Michael, I appreciate the tone, the heart-felt aignst, and the “wrestling” that is conveyed through your thoughts regarding this path of sanctification in Christ. Your voice, as one who “wrestles”, is so refreshing in a world of self-absorbed, man-centered, five-step preachers selling their wares of humanism to churches full of “goats”. I for one, really want to hear truth.

    While I am troubled to remember a lesson of much worth that does not contain pain and suffering, and appreciate your “voice” on this matter, I am uneasy about “redefining” a doctrine based on our personal experience. Forgive me if I have misunderstood your intent. I would grant great value to the reality of your observations as well as their emotional consequences in so far as they do not lead to redefining Biblical doctrine.

    I for one do not have the answer (at times I wonder if I even know the question), but maybe our traditional interpretation of Sanctification is too linear. Maybe the process is more spherical, and your expressions might due well to shed light on the opposite side of the same coin of which we both view. Maybe? I don’t know.

    Thank you for your obedience to the Father to act as a vessel that reflects a “wrestling” voice.

  18. Sorry for above post, I posted something eloquent but it did not make it (joking!), so I had to test. It sounds to me from your post and the tone that it is depression that is making you feel this way. I have gone through this myself and I learned that depression clouds your vision, all you see and focus on is the bad even if good is present. And there is a tendecy to obsess about one particular thing, ruminating on this thing drives you deeper and deeper down. It is a lot like Jesus parable about your eyes being dark. I think this is common to men as I have seen it among my peers (aged in the early 40’s). It is hard to break from this cycle, almost impossible without God’s help. I pray that you will find your way out of this, that you will know God again as you did in your younger days (He has not changed), that you will find the hope that you misplaced somewhere.

  19. it seems to me that on part of sanctification is missing in this discussion and that is the part that the Holy Spirit plays in the life of the believer! The Bible teaches that He lives and abides with in all who believe and that He leads us into truth through the living Word of God and convicts of sin. He can be grieved and we should be filled with Him, obeying Him. He is a person the third part of the God head and without Him we can have no victory! The believer is of course not sin less but we can live pleasing our Lord and Savior, Jesus. He promised a helper the Holy Spirit would come and we as believers today can live in that power growing and maturing and obeying enjoy victory over sin.

  20. CMP: depression and suicide run in my family.

    Depression was known to the Old Testament Patriarch Job who tells us: “My eye has grown dim from grief [depression], it grows weak because of all my foes.” (Job 17:7). The prophet Jeremiah tells us: “My grief [depression] is beyond healing, my heart is sick within me.”(Jer 8:18).

    The Apostles and Church Fathers equally knew the deleterious effects of depression. “…worldly grief produces death,” states St. Paul. (Rm 7:10). This ‘death’ is in the world of personal, family social and occupational functioning, and more importantly “spiritual death” of the soul blocking out the light of God’s love and leaving the depressed individual in the darkness of despair.

    St John Cassian tells us: “But first we must struggle with the demon of dejection who casts the soul into despair. We must drive him from our heart. It was this demon that did not allow Cain to repent after he had killed his brother, or Judas after he had betrayed his Master.” (Philokalia I).

    Because we are made in God’s image and likeness, we can use our intelligence to help understand and treat mental disorders such as depression. The best use of our “intelligence” today is scientific research. One of the fruits of this research is the Cognitive-Behavioral Model of Emotional Dysfunction (Beck, Rush, Shaw & Emery, 1979,; Ellis, 1962; Morelli, 2001, 2004; Morelli, 2006 January 01; 2005 September 17).
    Of course, Job was faithful to God despite his adversity and in the end God rewarded him. Rather a prayer of hope can be made: “But thou, O LORD, be not far off! O thou my help, hasten to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog. Save me from the mouth of the lion, my afflicted soul from the horns of the wild oxen! I will tell of thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee:” (Ps. 21:19-22).

    if interested in rest of info:


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