Sanctification by Faith

Where most people think that the goal of discipleship is to get people to become something that they are not, the Scriptures call believers to become more and more what they already are in Christ.

When Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), He’s assuming that only disciples can disciple – and they can disciple because disciples know that the Great Commission is based on the previous verse: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to (Christ)” (v. 18). In grammatical terms, the imperative (the command to disciple) is based on the indicative (the factual reality of who Christ is). And why is this important? What Jesus has accomplished is the bedrock of true discipleship. (If we add the verse that follows, we have the assurance of His personal presence with us in the making of disciples).

So just how does one “make” a disciple? “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master” (Matt. 10:24-25). In short, disciples learn to be like Christ by being with Him.

To “make” one then is to “make” them a disciple of Jesus (not a disciple of ourselves or of some program). Jesus rebuked the religious leaders on this matter. “You travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15). I guess they went on lots of mission trips and exhibited evangelistic zeal – and yet they were not converting people to the Lord but rather to themselves, to follow their own religious traditions. Of them Matthew Henry wrote, “They were very busy to turn souls to be of their party. Not for the glory of God and the good of souls, but that they might have the credit and advantage of making converts.” Very busy, all right, counting up the numbers and getting people to sign up for their programs.

In contrast, Paul describes the Great (discipleship) Commission this way: “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). Apparently, Paul believed that justification (forgiveness) and sanctification (discipleship) are received by faith in what Christ has done.

If sanctification is by faith, then it must be centered on the factual reality of Christ’s finished work. Why must faith be in Him for our justification and sanctification? “May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:23). It is God Himself who sanctifies. We simply cannot sanctify ourselves. We are sanctified by faith in Christ. Faith is both a gift of God and our responsibility to believe (a baffling mystery that is not clarified in Scripture). So faith and grace always work together as a supernatural work of God’s Spirit (2 Thess. 2:13).

As we have faith in the Lord of the Scripture and share what Christ has accomplished, disciples are set free to be “made” (John 8:31-32). When sanctification is by faith in Christ, we understand that we are not growing in our own holiness, but bearing the fruit of our union with Christ and His holiness. Our sanctification then is realized or “worked out of us” as we identify with Christ in His death and resurrection.

I find it troubling that so many Christians have trouble with this. They want to sanctify themselves with some works-righteousness regimen of disciplines. They know that salvation is by grace through faith, but somehow live the Christian life striving for moral improvement. Though they believe they are declared righteous, they have become convinced that they must do things to become holier and maintain their place in church fellowship. Sadly, they really have no idea of the impact of Christ’s free gift of (imputed) righteousness (which is by faith!).

Either sanctification is by faith or it’s not. So which is it? Or better stated, which is the Gospel?

This article is used with permission from the author’s blog site:

Gloria Wiese, Ph.D. serves as Assistant Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN

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