The Sanctifying Spirit

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The opening greeting of Peter’s first epistle gives a clear example of the Trinitarian nature of our salvation. The “elect exiles” are saved according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, that they might be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled by his blood (1 Peter 1:2). We see here the Holy Spirit sanctifies in two ways. First, he sets us apart in Christ that we might be cleansed by his blood. Second, he works in us so we can be obedient to Jesus Christ. Through the sanctification of the Spirit we are given a new position and infused with a new power.

It’s the second element, the new power, that we usually think of when discussing “sanctification.” Though sanctification is positional too, as a theological term it usually refers to our progressive sanctification, the way in which God works in us for his good pleasure as we work out the life of salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12-13). Or as Romans 8:9-13 puts it, we are no longer in the flesh but in the Spirit (position); therefore, by the Spirit we ought to put to death the deed of the flesh (power).

Though we must make effort in our growth in godliness (2 Peter 1:5), the Spirit empowers through and through. The Bible is not a cheap infomercial telling us to change and then assuring our little ponytail hearts, “You can do it!” We have already been changed. We are already new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) and have a new strength at work in our inner being (Eph. 3:16), producing gospel fruit in us by the Spirit (Gal.5:22-23). The Bible expects that because God dwells in us by the Spirit, we can, by that same Spirit, begin to share in the qualities that are characteristic of God himself (2 Peter 1:4). Of course there is still a fight within us. But with the Spirit there can be genuine progress and victory. The New Testament simply asks us to be who we are.

How exactly, then, does the Spirit empower us for growth in godliness? Well think again of the metaphor of light. The Holy Spirit, as we’ve seen, is a like a light shining into our dark places, exposing our sin and leading us to repentance. The Spirit is also a lamp to illumine God’s word, teaching what is true and revealing it as precious (1 Cor. 2:6-16). And, as we saw in John 16, the Spirit throws a spotlight on Christ so we can see his glory and beauty and be changed accordingly. This is the stunning argument Paul makes in 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” Just as Moses had his face transformed when he saw the Lord’s glory on Mt. Sinai, so will we be transformed when we behold God’s glory in the face of Christ. Except we won’t just get a shiny tan face, we will grow more and more into the image of the one we see. We become what we behold.

My wife loves to watch figure skating (which wife doesn’t?). She loves the artistry and beauty of it. She also enjoys the puff pieces on the young women. I find them nauseating (the pieces not the women), but I have to admit it is pretty remarkable what the skaters can do. I imagine most of them grew up watching figure skating. They probably marveled at all the lay-back spins and double-axles and triple salchows (uh?). I’m sure many of them were mesmerized as little girls by Kristi Yamaguchi or Michelle Kwan. They probably thought, “I want to do that. That’s amazing! That’s incredible! How can I be like her?” Of course, it takes practice to be a world class figure skater, just like sanctification takes effort on our part. But the effort in both cases is inspired and motivated and modeled after glory. The sight of brilliance and majesty is transformative in and of itself.

That’s why when the Spirit is at work to sanctify us—by revealing sin, revealing truth, and revealing the glory of Christ—and we look the other way, it is a profound offense. The Bible refers to this as resisting (Acts 7:51), quenching (1 Thess. 5:19), or grieving the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30). There may be slight nuances among the three terms, but they all speak of situations where we do not accept the Spirit’s work in our lives. When we reject what the word of God has to say to us, when we turn our eyes from the Spirit’s exposure to sin, when we say one thing as Christians and do another, we sin against the Spirit. But when we finally see clearly to acknowledge our sin, accept the truth, and adore Christ, then we can be sure the Spirit is at work within us to will and to do according to his good purpose and for God’s good pleasure.

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