Big Words: Sanctification

Pastor Craig Carter

Earlier in our current series we identified a term that is somewhat distinctive to us as Methodists – prevenient grace. Today we’re going to explore another term that has traditionally caused our denomination to stand out from the crowd – sanctification. 

Whether we’re Methodists by upbringing or by choice, we hold tightly to the big word, sanctification. We also refer to it as holiness, or Christian perfection (the term our founder, John Wesley preferred). 

According to John Wesley, “This doctrine (Christian Perfection) is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; for the sake of propagating this [doctrine] He appeared to have raised us up.” 

Nearly 300 years later, it is still an important part of our Methodist tradition. Here’s what is said about it in our Book of Discipline.

Sanctification and Perfection: We hold that the wonder of God’s acceptance and pardon does not end God’s saving work, which continues to nurture our growth in grace. Through the power of the Holy Spirit we are enabled to increase in the knowledge and love of God and in love for our neighbor. New birth is the first step in this process of sanctification. Sanctifying grace draws us toward the gift of Christian perfection, which Wesley described as a heart “habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor” and as “having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.”

Despite its prominence in our church’s thought, this word conjures up negative images:

“The preacher thinks he’s super-sanctified. So don’t you dare criticize him.”

“My aunt has a holier than thou attitude and looks down on everybody.”

“According to my friend, her daughter is little Miss Perfect.”

Adverse reaction to this term is not new. Listen to what John Wesley said in a sermon titled Christian Perfection: “There is scarce any expression … which has given more offence than this. The word perfect is what many cannot bear. The very sound of it is an abomination to them; and whosoever preaches perfection, that is, asserts that it is attainable in this life, runs great hazard of being accounted by them worse than a heathen man or a publican.” 

This danger of being misunderstood did not deter John Wesley: “We may not lay these expressions aside, seeing they are the words of God and not of man. Neither you nor I can in conscience object to it, unless we would send the Holy Spirit to school, and teach Him to speak. It is the doctrine of St. Paul, St. James, and St. John…I found it in the Old and New Testaments …”

Here’s just a few scriptural references to support his conclusion:

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 NRSV)

But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15-16 NIV)

Be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48 NIV)

Let us, as many as are perfect, have this attitude. (Philippians 3:15a NASB)

We cannot deny the emphasis on sanctification, holiness, and Christian Perfection in Scripture. So that leaves us with a dilemma: What are we going to do with these big words? Take them seriously? Or, write them off as “pie-in-the-sky” concepts?

Let’s look at this subject and then you can make up your own minds. 

Since I’m a United Methodist pastor, well-grounded in the Wesleyan tradition, I’ve preached on this subject a number of times including at least twice in less than a year. In the past, I’ve generally referred to it as holiness, but in this message I want to address the big word, sanctification, primarily through the lens of Christian perfection. 

That’s because I doubt you’ve heard much on that subject and it tends to rub us the wrong way, just as it did Wesley’s audience in the 18th century.

So, what is meant by Christian Perfection?

First of all, it is not “a state of being without fault or defect” (the dictionary definition). Neither is it absolute purity, angelic behavior, sinless conduct, following a list of rules, flawless performance, or immunity from life’s problems. 

It is Christian Perfection. 

Thought of in this way, perfection means “having attained its intended purpose; completeness.” The Greek word is commonly translated as “mature.” 

That being the case, what is involved in Christian Perfection? How does a Christian fulfill his/her purpose and become complete or mature? 

These are some components of it described by John Wesley in his pamphlet, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.

Sanctification, or Christian perfection, is…

1) Singleness of Intention

This means we are totally sold out to Christ and desire nothing but to please Him. So the heart of Christian perfection, or sanctification, lies in one’s will or motives. It is “perfect love.” 

Jesus’ admonition in the Sermon on the Mount (see below) comes right after a discussion on loving others, even our enemies. 

“Be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48 NIV)

Here’s the way, John, the disciple of love, describes it:

“And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.” (1 John 4:17-18 NLT)

While not to minimize actions, being is more important than doing. Actions may vary or go awry, but intentions remain constant. 

How can love be perfect even though its display is flawed? 

Here’s an example: I love my wife Lee perfectly and completely, but is my conduct perfect? No! But despite the fact I mess up, my love for her is wholehearted, or perfect. 

It is possible to be perfect before God when we view Him as a loving Father rather than as a righteous Judge who demands perfect performance. God accepts our shortcomings when our motives are pure. 

It has to be this way because in light of His holiness, even our best actions fall woefully short (i.e. our “righteous deeds” are like “filthy rags” Isaiah 64:6). 

We cannot match God in performance, but we can be one with Him in motive. The Lord calls this “perfect.”

God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. (1 John 4:16b-17a NLT)

2) Power over Sin

John Wesley did not believe a Christian has to sin. In other words, “The devil made me do it” is not an excuse! But he did not go so far as to say a Christian is not able to sin. 

Rather, according to Wesley, a Christian is able not to sin. 

That’s why Jesus could tell the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more.” (John 8:11b NLT)

But how is that possible? John gives us the answer in his first epistle: You know that Christ came to take away sins. He isn’t sinful, and people who stay one in their hearts with him won’t keep on sinning. (1 John 3:5-6a CEV)

Jesus came, not only to pardon us for past sin, but also to give us the power to overcome present and future sin. God’s grace is truly greater than all our sin. 

But aren’t we all just sinners? And what do sinners do? They sin!

That may be our perspective, but it’s not the Lord’s. We were “sinners saved by grace,” but now we are “saints who live by grace” so we don’t have to keep on sinning.

The most common New Testament word for Christian is “saint.” Do you know what that word literally means? 

“Holy one.”

God is the Holy One and we are to be His holy ones. To the extent that happens, we become sanctified, or perfect. 

While sin may remain in believers (due to constant conflict between the flesh and Spirit), it is due to failure to depend on God (i.e. a failure of the will rather than the failure of grace). Consequently, there is a need for day-by-day assessment of one’s life. Repentance is required. 

We become saved when we repent and believe. We stay saved when we continue to repent and believe. 

Remember: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness … My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. (1 John 1:9; 2:1 NIV)

3) Radical Dependence on Christ

When we hear words like sanctification, holiness, or perfection, our typical response is to run off and attempt to become that way through our own willpower to follow rules. 

That works for a while … a very short while. 

Left to our own devices, try as we may, we cannot become holy or perfect. As Christians, we must realize that all that we are and do is a result of God’s grace. 

I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13 NLT)

Apart from [Jesus I] can do nothing. (John 15:5b NLT)

This principle especially applies to the subject at hand. Sanctification, or Christian perfection, is ultimately God’s doing. 

God’s children cannot keep on being sinful. His life-giving power lives in them … so that they cannot keep on sinning. (1 John 3:9 CEV)

So when we “stay one in our hearts” with Christ and receive “his life-giving power,” we become sanctified and holy like God is. 

Thought of this way, Christian perfection involves giving all that we are and have over to Christ. This is sometimes referred to as a “Lordship commitment” or “full surrender.”

We learned earlier that we are saved and converted when we repent and believe. In the same way, we are sanctified and made holy when we repent and surrender. 

John Wesley often described the Christian life as the “house of religion.” Repentance gets us on the front porch, saving faith takes us through the door, then sanctification is all the rooms in the house. We must be willing to give Christ access to every area of our lives. 

Not only that, we have to allow Him to rearrange the furniture and even throw out what doesn’t belong. That requires surrender. 

As one of my seminary professors, J.T. Seamands, liked to say: “We must move Jesus from being a resident in our lives to being the president of our lives.” 

When our faith becomes that sort of radical dependence on Christ, perfection isn’t far away.

4) A Growing Experience

There is life after conversion as we continue to receive and experience all God has for us. By relying on God, the gap between our motives and actions is narrowed. So even Christian perfection can always be improved upon.  

A child at age 4 may be developmentally perfect, but if he remains that way, he won’t stay perfect. He must continue to grow and develop. 

The same is true for Christians so Wesley urged his hearers to “go on to perfection.”

“Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13b-14 NIV)

Our goal is holiness or becoming like Christ and we must continue to grow. 

That means Christian perfection is not a one-time experience; it’s part of the process called the Christian life. 

With salvation, there is usually a point in time when we say yes (repent and believe). But we also have to continue to repent and believe from that point onward. 

In the same way, sanctification is experienced when we say yes (repent and surrender). But we then have to continue to do that day after day, week after week, year after year …

How does sanctification or Christian perfection happen? Hopefully you’ve figured it out. It is not what we do, it is what God does.

So be holy…for I am the Lord who makes you holy. (Leviticus 20:7-8 NLT)

That means sanctification, like salvation, is a result of God’s grace and so it is received the same way – by faith rather than achieved through good works. 

Seeing sanctification as a gift, “to be perfect” is not so much a demand as it is an invitation … to trust God to perfect us and do His life-changing work in us. 

This is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. (1 John 2:5b-6 NLT)

At its core, the doctrine of Christian perfection takes seriously the new birth. God does not simply want to forgive our sins and keep us from going to hell. He wants to re-create us and form us into the likeness of His Son Jesus. Praise the Lord!

This is why Wesley commonly preached sanctification to unbelievers and discovered evangelism efforts flourished as a result. 

For one, it gave sinners hope that things could be different. God doesn’t want to leave us where He finds us. That’s Good News!

For another, folks have a right to know where they’re going. So if you get on the bus called Christianity, you’re headed toward sanctification.

Friends, whether you’ve gotten on the bus called Christianity already or you’re simply thinking about it, be assured it’s headed to a place called sanctification. 

If that seems unimaginable and unfathomable, it’s not. Because all you’ve got to do is sit tight and go along for the ride. God will take you there if you’ll just trust Him and depend on Him to do, what seems impossible, but is fairly easy for Him to do. 

Trust me, the Holy One can make you holy. The Sanctifier can entirely sanctify you. The Perfect Son of God can perfect you in His love. 

Stop trying and start trusting. Don’t strive but surrender instead. It’s not what you can achieve on your own, it’s what you can receive by God’s grace.

Sanctification, a.k.a. perfection or holiness, might be a big word but it comes with even bigger benefits. It enables us to receive the fullness of God’s Spirit so that we fulfill our destiny and become like Christ.