Play the Long Game of Sanctification

Christians often misunderstand sanctification. Many view it as a goal that must be attained. You’re “sanctified” only when a certain level of holiness is reached. This isn’t entirely false—there is, in fact, an absolute goal. The Bible tells us that when we see Jesus face to face, we’ll be like him. You’ll be entirely characterized by trust, love, joy, humility, and every good fruit. First John 3 urges us to purify ourselves because of the hope found in becoming like Christ on the day of his return.

However, while sanctification will one day be complete, right now it’s an ongoing process. It’s a journey, not a destination. The real key is the direction you’re heading, not the distance you’ve traveled or the place you’ve reached.

Sanctification actually starts when God claims you as his own. You are “chosen, holy, and beloved” (Col. 3:12). But the process of becoming what you are starts as you make a turn from sin toward God.

Sanctification is a journey, not a destination. The real key is the direction you’re heading, not the distance you’ve traveled or the place you’ve reached.

Imagine the vilest possible human being—violent, immoral, drunken, lazy, and profane. Such men and women, caught in such evil, can come to a moment when sanctification begins. They realize their sin. They become sick of their life and desire something different. They start to look in the direction of mercy. They turn to Christ. God makes them his own, and they begin walking in the direction of light.

Diminishing Immorality

During my first months as a Christian, I had a friend who showed me God’s patient power in sanctification. He was in his late 30s and had been a Christian for 10 years. Before that, he’d lived a life of immorality from his early teens on through his 20s. He told me, “If you could divide your mental and behavior life into a thousand moments per day, 900 of mine were immoral.” He said:

When I turned to Christ, I found mercy, I became a Christian, and I received the Holy Spirit. But, 900 immoral thoughts and behaviors each day did not immediately become 0. It became 700, which then became 500, and 500 became 100, and 100 became an occasional moment of lust of the eyes. I learned to rejoice in God’s grace with me, that his love is both patient and persistent.

Great healing had taken place in the area of his sexuality—but he wasn’t perfect and was still on a journey of sanctification. He sought to be transparent with his wife, accountable to several men, and committed to walking in the light.

While my friend experienced sanctification in the area of his sexuality, this kind of change can take place with any sin. Whether your moral failings be sexual sin, anxiety, gossip, complaining, or anger, change is possible by the grace of God.

Recognize that sin won’t be cleansed from your life at conversion, and wiped away at the snap of a finger. Turning from larger sins that have more public and obvious consequences, such as going to jail, may actually be easier. But turning from “smaller” sinful impulses takes a lifetime.

Sin will slowly die throughout our journey of sanctification as we walk in the direction of Christ and repeatedly come to him in repentance and trust. The “quantity” of our sanctification isn’t important. We’re simply called to walk in the direction of Jesus.

Sanctification Isn’t a Competition

We must be cautioned against comparing the speed of different sanctification journeys. For some, the entanglement with sin is much deeper, and they face repeated temptation in their lives. Those who deeply struggle with sin should be encouraged at even small steps in the right direction. By turning to God for his mercy, they have begun the process of sanctification.

The ‘quantity’ of your sanctification isn’t important. What matters is the direction you’re walking.

God calls us to be holy as he is holy—this is the highest imaginable bar. Christ’s vision for our sexuality is simple—and lifelong. Seek to become like him in holiness. Repent of your sins and turn to him to be washed. Seek his strength to protect you and change you. His life purpose is your sanctification.

However far you’ve traveled on your journey, what matters most is the direction you’re walking.


Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from David Powlison’s new book, Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually Broken (Crossway), and published here in partnership with Crossway.

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