Philippians 2:12-13 • Spiritual Growth: What Is Sanctification? Part 1

This folly has been derived from the following message:


One year ago, we started a verse-by-verse, sequential exposition of Philippians. As new themes are introduced, I will occasionally preach a more general, topical sermon (or two) by way of introduction. This is one of those messages. Due to the shift in arrangement, our typical “folly” format will be replaced with a transcript of the message.


After 25 years at the same company, a man found himself doing the same job for the same pay. Finally, he got tired of it. He went to his boss and he told him that he felt neglected.

“After all,” he said. “I have a quarter of a century of experience.”

To which, the boss just sighed, “My dear fellow, you haven’t had a quarter of a century of experience. You’ve had one experience for a quarter of a century.”

If we aren’t purposeful, we can be just like that man when it comes to our walk with Christ. The Christian life is one of growth and progression and change. If you aren’t changing, you aren’t growing.

Over the next several weeks, we’re going to focus on spiritual growth and particularly the doctrine of sanctification. We’ll look at what it is, and what it isn’t. What sanctification is like, and what causes it. That’s our primary focus this week and next.

After that, we’ll dive deeper into the text with expositions of verses 12 and 13, there in Philippians 2. So we are going to find ourselves anchored in the text. Don’t worry. We aren’t glossing over it. We’re not skating over it. We are going to come back to Philippians 2 and we’re going to dive deep into these two verses. We’re going to spend a week on each one.

But for now, for these next two weeks, for this week and next, it’s really important for us to orient ourselves to this doctrine, for us to wrap our arms around it. So let’s look at the text together, first of all here, so that way we know where we’re going.

Philippians 2, verses 12 and 13. He says…

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

It’s been a while since we’ve been here in Philippians. So let’s not forget that Paul is writing this letter while under house arrest in Rome. He has always wanted to go to Rome to preach the Gospel because Rome is the heart of the empire.

But whenever he finally gets there after all these years of yearning and hoping and planning his trips with them just not working out, he does get there eventually… but he’s not publicly proclaiming the power of the Gospel unto salvation in the public square like he had hoped. Instead, he’s chained to a Praetorian Guard twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. He is over eight hundred miles away from the Philippians and they are still constant in his thoughts and in his prayers.

In chapter one, he takes the first twenty-six verses to give sort of a missions update, like a newsletter of how he’s doing and how things are going until he finally gets to the first imperative, the first command. Most of the chapter is spent telling them how much he loves them and not to worry about him or the Gospel because he’s fine and despite his imprisonment the Gospel is still going forward. It is still unchained. Even without the internet, people are hearing the truth and they’re getting saved while Paul is stuck at home.

In verse 27, he issues his first imperative. He says…

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.

He then transitions into chapter 2 with one of the greatest exhortations of church unity in the entire Bible. We spent a considerable amount of time there earlier this year and at the end of last Fall. He says there that the key to a united church is humility, humility. And by the way, Jesus is the supreme example of that. He lowering Himself, only to be lifted by God. And that’s what we are called to do.

And that brings us to the “therefore” of verse 12. Since Jesus humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross, you need to humble yourself by becoming more and more like Him. And that’s what the next section, verses 12 through 18, is all about. Paul says, “Put the work in, maintain a good witness, hold on to the Word, hold on to the truth, and make me proud.” That’s what he says. Those are the central ideas and themes that we see in the next section, in verses 12 through 18.

So with that in mind, let’s go ahead and wrap our arms around this biblical doctrine of sanctification. How do we put the work in, maintain a good witness, hold on to the Word, and make the apostle proud? How do we do that? Today, I want us to answer the question: what is spiritual growth? What is spiritual growth? What does it look like?

Next week, we’ll tackle the causes of growth and how we do it. But before we get there, we need to have a definite term. We need to be able to define our terms. We need to know what we’re talking about.

So let’s start with the definition of sanctification.

The Definition of Sanctification

What does it mean? Given the current state of the American church, a good place to start is probably not what it means, but what it doesn’t mean. What is sanctification… not? So let me give you a short list of some common misconceptions associated with the doctrine.

First of all, sanctification is not doing the right thing.

1. Doing the Right Thing

If you are involved in church or Christian activities, this is a very easy trap to fall into. You might be quick to think that…

Oh yeah… sure, sanctification, that’s doing the right thing. That’s putting the right time in, the right work. That’s yielding the right results and seeing that in my life. I mean, after all, I attend church on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, and small groups throughout the week, and Equipping Hour. My family is here and involved. I have a midweek small group, or I make time for the Lord every day with just a little bit of Bible reading and prayer. Surely, I’m good. Surely, I’m growing.

But as important and helpful as all of those activities are, none of them are sanctification. In fact, they aren’t even by-products or indicators of sanctification. You can spend your entire life just spending your life for the good of the church and die no closer to Christ than the day you first believed.

You might recall Samuel’s famous response to Saul in 1 Samuel 15:22. Samuel said…

Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord?

Does He care about your rituals? Does He care about all those things that He has commanded you to do, those good things? Does He care about that more than obedience? And then, he answers his own question. He says…

Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.

Saul thought that he could willingly disobey God in one area and make up the difference by doing the right and religious thing in another area. He was wrong. God doesn’t even care about the other stuff if the heart isn’t right.

So turn with me for a moment to Isaiah chapter 1, Isaiah chapter 1. Here we have a similar indictment to the one that I just read. Isaiah chapter 1. Only it comes from the mouth of God Himself and it’s directed not towards an individual, but towards a people, His people, who are living in covenant disobedience. Listen to this and put yourself in their shoes. Imagine if this were being written to you.

Starting in verse 10, God says…

Hear the word of the Lord,
    you rulers of Sodom!

That’s off to a good start, isn’t it?

Give ear to the teaching of our God,
    you people of Gomorrah!
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
    says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
    or of lambs, or of goats.

Now, remember, he is not writing this on the other side of the book of Hebrews. The temple is in full force when this is written. The sacrifices are there. The Mosaic Law is still law. I mean, it is commanded for them to do these things. And yet, God is saying, “I don’t even care about your obedience to my commands. It doesn’t matter to me.” Why? He then goes…

“When you come to appear before me,
    who has required of you
    this trampling of my courts?
Bring no more vain offerings;
    incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
    I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
    I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood.

God says…

“Look, I hate your religious pursuits. I can’t stand them. They are a burden to me. They are heavy and I am God.”

I mean, what kind of an indictment is this? He says, “I can’t stand the good things that you do for me because your life doesn’t match your profession.” Listen, you can do all of the right things and remain not only distant from God, but offensive to Him. Worse than that, you can even do the right thing and still be an unbeliever and die in your sins.

Listen to this. This comes from the February 11th, 1962 edition of Parade Magazine. Let me share this with you…

At the village church in Kalonovka, Russia, attendance at Sunday school picked up after the priest started handing out candy to the peasant children. One of the most faithful was a pug-nosed, pugnacious lad who recited his Scriptures with proper piety, pocketed his reward, then fled into the fields to munch on it. The priest took a liking to the boy, persuaded him to attend church school. This was preferable to doing household chores from which his devout parents excused him. By offering other inducements, the priest managed to teach the boy the four Gospels. In fact, he won a special prize for learning all four by heart and reciting them nonstop in church.

Now, 60 years later, he still likes to recite Scriptures, but in a context that would horrify the old priest. For the prize pupil, who memorized so much of the Bible, is Nikita Khrushchev, the former Communist czar.

February 11th, 1962. This same man would later declare that God couldn’t possibly exist because his cosmonauts had failed to see Him. You see, you can do everything right. You can do it all right, you can earn that piece of candy in your pocket and not be saved. You can be miles away from true biblical change. Sanctification is not doing the right thing.

In the same way, sanctification is not having the right experience.

2. Having the Right Experience

This one’s really popular today. As a child, I can’t tell you how many hours I personally spent rocking back and forth, crying out to the Lord down at the altars of my church, thinking that the more time I spent in a heightened emotional state of entranced fixation upon God, that the closer I would get to Him as a result and the more like Him I would become.

It’s this idea that if you can feel it, it must be true. And unfortunately, when we adopt that sort of a mentality, our experiences become our valid tests of truth. Not only does such thinking open us up to all sorts of error, but eventually we start believing our own press and we assume that these mountaintop experiences will somehow propel us even higher into the heights of Christlikeness.

A man once testified at one of D. L. Moody’s revival meetings. He said that he had lived on the mount of transfiguration for five years. That’s just another way of saying that he had had a higher experience with the Lord for five years.

So Moody asked him, bluntly, in front of everyone. He said, “How many souls did you lead to Christ last year?”

The man hesitated. “Well, I don’t know… I’m not sure.”

Well, the pastor pressed him. “Have you saved any?”

The man admitted, “I don’t know that I have.”

“Well,” Moody said, “we don’t want that kind of mountaintop experience. When a man gets up so high that he cannot reach down and save poor sinners there is something wrong.”

You see, good feelings and warm fuzzies make for good memories, but they can also blind us to our true condition. Having the right experiences certainly doesn’t prove or guarantee growth.

Think about all of the experiences that the first wilderness generation had in the desert. They survived the ten plagues of Egypt. When they were trapped, God parted the Red Sea and they walked on dry land. Three months later, in Exodus 19, God shows up at Mount Sinai and He wraps the entire mountain in smoke. He shakes it and He descends upon it in fire and then He speaks to Moses in thunder so that everyone can hear it and He gives them the Ten Commandments. One generation experienced all of that, the plagues, the Red Sea, and Mount Sinai. And then, what happens? Forty days later, they make a golden calf and worship that instead of God.

They had all the right experiences, all of them. Experiences that you and I can dream about, that Hollywood has tried to capture, but they just can’t come close. They experienced those things firsthand. They saw them with their own eyes. And yet, even that doesn’t guarantee growth or even salvation.

They promised when Moses came back down the mountain the first time and he threw blood on them. They promised, they shouted out loud, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” How long did that last? Not very long. They were riding this high of their spiritual experience, but it faded quickly because sanctification is not having the right experience.

Number 3, sanctification is not keeping the right rules.

3. Keeping the Right Rules

It seems like every generation of Western American church culture has a set of rules for good Christian behavior. You might remember the old phrase, “I don’t smoke, I don’t chew, and I don’t run with (what) girls who do.” I heard that a number of times growing up. As a kid, my youth pastors would warn us of the dangers of listening to secular music or watching a movie that had a rating higher than PG.

At one time, whistling was considered a sin in the church. D. L. Moody said it was a sin for men to wear ruffled shirts and Billy Sunday said that it was a sin for women to chew gum. Ladies, if we see gum here this morning… just so you know, this is a holy church! No, no… we’re not going to come after you, but it’s interesting, right? To see how the church will create these sets of rules for sanctification.

Some of you, senior saints, remember a time when it was scandalous for a woman to wear pants. My, how things have changed! Throughout the years, dancing, long hair, short hair, piercings, tattoos, coffee, music with drums, and so many other preferences have become the standard by which we measure a person’s sanctification. And it all changes from one generation to the next. It never stays the same from one culture to the next and if we aren’t careful we assume that God has spoken, not through his Word, but through our preferences.

Now, that’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with staying away from certain types of movies or being a good steward with what God has given you. Please don’t misunderstand me this morning. But, at the same time, don’t confuse following the rules (or not following the rules) with sanctification, because that is not what sanctification is.

In Romans 7, Paul tells us that sin seizes the opportunity to deceive us and even kill us through the commandment. In other words, the law activates the flesh. It stirs up the wickedness of our sinful hearts. And that’s why you can’t regulate sanctification with a set of rules. You just can’t.

I have a few small children in my home. What happens if you tell a small child, “Don’t do that.” What do they immediately want to do? “That,” right? It doesn’t matter what it is. Even if they do obey, their heart is far from wanting what you want for them and we’re all like that, every single one of us. But as we have already seen, God is most concerned about what? He’s concerned about the heart. He’s concerned about the heart.

When well-intentioned people rely on a set of rules for sanctification, they are using the flesh to fight against the flesh. And is it any wonder or surprise what wins in the end? The flesh, the flesh wins. True biblical change is not doing the right thing, having the right experience, or keeping the right rules.

Number 4, sanctification is not gaining the right knowledge.

4. Gaining the Right Knowledge

When I first came to this church a few years ago, I asked several of you what drew you to First Baptist Church? What is the thing that first brought you here? Why did you decide to make this church your home church, your spiritual family? I don’t think anyone said that they came here for the cupcakes, the coffee, or the cool atmosphere. I don’t remember hearing that once. But I did hear, over and over again, the answer that I heard most was the preaching, the preaching.

This church has been blessed with a long history of sequential expositional preaching, and that’s wonderful. I am thankful for that. A church needs that if it is going to grow. A church cannot grow without it. However, amassing spiritual knowledge is not a guarantee that growth will occur. You can’t grow without it, but don’t think that having it makes you sanctified.

According to 1 Corinthians 1:8, knowledge without love does what? It has this tendency to puff us up, to make us proud and conceited. At the same time, if you just love everyone indiscriminately according to the world’s standard and definition instead of God’s, you’re definitely going backwards.

You’ve got to know who God is, what He wants you to do, and how He wants you to do it, if you are going to grow as a Christian. If you are going to become more like Christ. But don’t think knowing the truth is enough to even save you or make you grow.

Just think about Judas. Judas is a classic example. Judas listened to every sermon Jesus ever preached. He sat on the front row. He took notes. He didn’t miss a word. But Judas wasn’t saved. When he killed himself, he wasn’t any more like Christ than the day before he met Him. Sanctification is not simply gaining the right knowledge.

Number 5, sanctification is not joining the right church.

5. Joining the Right Church

In our culture today, finding a good church can be a challenge. It can be hard. There are some churches that never open a Bible, ever. And then, there are other churches that their preaching is so bad it would be better for them if they didn’t. If they just left the Bible alone.

Not too long ago, I pulled up a livestream of a large well-known church in California. After a long time of emotional babbling around the altar, the so-called pastor took to the stage, and he went on to talk about how the pulpit and the act of preaching itself was a modern invention.

He said that people in the wilderness generation, they didn’t gather around a podium or a Bible or a man or the proclamation of God’s Word. No, they gathered around the presence. And again, this is right after an emotional time of just convulsing around the altars. He conveniently left out the part that most of them in that wilderness generation died in their sins. He also left out the fact that God had one Son and He made Him a preacher. But his point was simply that we don’t need the ministry of the Word. We just need more spiritual cowbell.

Now, it’s sad that so many churches have adopted a similar mindset. And sometimes it can be overwhelming when you’re visiting churches, when you’re looking for a church, when you move to another area. It can be downright depressing, because ministry success, by today’s standards, is often driven by self-help, entertainment, and memorable gimmicks instead of truth. I don’t think we will ever put on a big-scale production here of dancing stormtroopers or whatever else you find online. I’m sorry, but that’s not this church, but it’s out there and that seems to be the thing that sells, that draws people, that attracts them.

We thank God, though, for churches that equip the saints, evangelize the lost, and engage in worship. But darkening the doors of the right church doesn’t count as sanctification either. You can find the most Bible believing, Christ exalting, Gospel proclaiming church in the world, and be no better off than the guy who ignores Scripture while listening for a voice from heaven.

The Thessalonian church is a good example of this. They were one of the best churches in all of Scripture, in all of the New Testament period. Definitely, they were one of Paul’s favorites. In 2 Thessalonians 3:11, Paul says…

For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.

He says, “some among you,” even in a good church, some among you aren’t living right. Sanctification is not simply joining the right church. It’s more than that.

And then finally, sanctification is not avoiding the right pitfalls.

6. Avoiding the Right Pitfalls

It’s easy to think…

So long as I don’t do this or do that, I am on my way. I am doing alright. You read about some of these people in the Bible who slept around, who had someone killed, who stole from others whenever they had the opportunity. I have to be better than them right? I mean, surely, I’m more godly than Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, or David… right? Or pretty much anybody else in the Hall of Faith? Because I have never done those things. I’ve never done them.

Let’s look at Luke 18, for a moment. Luke 18.

This is a very familiar portion of Scripture. But pay close attention to what the pharisee here… this is the story of the pharisee and the tax collector… pay close attention to what the pharisee says here in Jesus’ story.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:

So that’s His audience. Again, Jesus, Son of God… He knows all things. He knows who He’s speaking to and He is pushing that button. He’s talking to these people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt. He says…

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. [Who was hated by everybody at that time.] The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: [And listen to what he says.] “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” [And then, you know the rest of the story.]

This man believed that God would accept him because he had avoided so many pitfalls. He was wrong. He was dead wrong. Look, some of the nicest, most moral people I have ever met are Mormons, not even Christian. You don’t even have to be saved to do the right things and to avoid the wrong things.

Likewise, it doesn’t mean that you’re sanctified if you never commit adultery, but you carry around anger in your heart. Or, if you never steal, but you cultivate greed and discontentment in your heart. That’s not sanctification, friends. You see, none of the right things that I just listed out here, none of these six things, are distinctly Christian. An unbeliever can do the right thing, have the right experience, keep the right rules, gain the right knowledge, join the right church, and avoid the right pitfalls. And still die in their sins.

So if these things can’t even prove salvation, why would we ever turn to them for assurance of sanctification? Where’s the hope there? Because whenever we do that, whenever we turn to these things for assurance of sanctification, what happens? Our pride grows, our flesh awakens, and we fall further and further away from the Christ that we are called to be like.

So now, the obvious question is…

Okay, Hans. You have driven this into the ground. You have told me that all of the things that I need to do that are good and noteworthy and right, that none of those things prove sanctification… now what? Tell me what it is. You’ve told me what it’s not. What is sanctification? If sanctification isn’t any of those good things that we just looked at, what is it?

Now that we’ve seen what it’s not, let’s see what it is. Here’s a simple definition. Are you ready? Here is the definition of sanctification, a very simple definition. This is the smallest I could break it down to.

Sanctification is the process of real biblical change.

Real biblical change… sanctification is the process of real biblical change. It’s the process by which we become more and more conformed into the image of Christ. Now Scripture presents this process of sanctification in three different ways with three different aspects. So I want to share those with you here quickly.

First of all, sanctification is positional.

1. Positional

The basic sense of the word “sanctify” itself means, “to dedicate or consecrate.” It means, “to set apart from common use to holy use.” At least, that’s how it’s described in relationship to the tools and the artifacts and the different things that would be involved in the temple sacrifices and the tabernacle. A pot is just a common everyday ordinary pot, until it’s set apart to catch the blood for the sacrifices at the altar. At that point in time, it is no longer just a pot, but it is a special bowl that has been consecrated or sanctified for a holy task.

When a person becomes a Christian, they too are set apart. They are positionally sanctified for the purpose of serving God. They are also cleansed from their sins, set apart from their sins, and given a new life with new desires. So in a way, the process begins when a person is set apart at their new birth.

When Scripture talks about believers being sanctified in a past tense, in a completed sort of way, it’s talking about positional sanctification, positional sanctification. For example, 1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul writes, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified [past tense, complete, done, in the past, finished] in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Now, as you read the letter, it becomes clear that the Corinthian church is far from the model of Christlikeness. You’re not going to find a First Baptist Church of Corinth. Okay, it doesn’t exist, and nobody today includes Corinth into the names of their churches, because Corinth had some real issues. That’s why Paul is writing to them in this letter in the first place. In the first few verses, we discover that they were split into factions. In chapter 3, he calls them fleshly. In chapter 5, we discover that they have allowed gross sins of immorality to remain within their assembly. In chapter 6, they’re suing each other. And then we discover they’re getting drunk at communion and they’re abusing the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

I mean, what a church. And the list goes on and on. These people were Christians. They were sanctified. They were set apart for God, but they had problems. When Paul says that they have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, he’s talking about how they have been set apart for Christ.

Another example is Hebrews 10:10. The author talks about Jesus’ will to obey the Father. Verse 10 says, “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Once for all. There are several places where positional sanctification is presented throughout Scripture.

Even the word, “saints” that we see and use all the time throughout the Word. The word, “saints” is always referring to believers, never to an unbeliever. But it literally means “the holy ones” or “the set apart ones.” So every Christian, even the Corinthian ones, even those that you scratch your head and you wonder, “what in the world are you doing,” every Christian has been united with Christ, released from the power and penalty of sin, and given a new heart to love and serve God with. That is positional sanctification. It is in the past and it marks the inauguration of a new life in Christ. But just as sanctification has a beginning it also has a definite ending. It starts and it finishes.

That’s number 2. Sanctification is positional but it will also be perfected.

2. Perfected

The day will come when we will no longer struggle against sin. Can I get at least one amen on that? I am so looking forward to that. So looking forward to the day when we will no longer struggle against the passions of the flesh and we will see right through the deceptiveness of sin. We will finally see Christ with our own eyes, and we will become like Him, perfected in sanctification.

Hebrews 12:23 refers to the believers in heaven as “the spirits of the righteous made perfect.” I can’t wait until that describes me. “The spirits of the righteous made perfect.”

This is the absolute transformation that Paul will talk about a little bit later on in Philippians 3, when he says, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior [that’s here and now], the Lord Jesus Christ, who will [in the future] transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself.” But notice that this is an end-game reality. This is something in the future. This is something we look forward to. This is not something we can or should experience here and now. This perfected work doesn’t happen now while we wrestle with sin and the struggle is real.

There are some groups, particularly Wesleyan and Methodist groups, that have subscribed to what they call a doctrine of complete or entire sanctification, or total sanctification. It’s a doctrine that came out of the Holiness Movement of the 19th century and it basically says that if you try hard enough, you can achieve a state of perfect love, righteousness, and holiness this side of the grave.

When you talk to someone who holds to that belief… I’ve had several friends who do hold to that belief… they typically say that someone who arrives at that level, they either don’t know that they’ve arrived, or they wouldn’t tell you that they’re there because if they did that would mess up their perfect record. They would have to start over again. These groups rely heavily on a bad reading of a few verses for support, but Scripture is clear (it’s clear friends) that perfected sanctification… it does exist, but it’s tied directly with glorification and it’s something to look forward to. It hasn’t happened yet.

Again, in Philippians chapter 3, Paul himself would go on to say, “Not that I have already obtained this [not that I’m perfect, not that I have arrived] or am already perfect [he says that], but I press on to make it my own.” I press on. If Paul didn’t make it before death, then I seriously doubt that you or I are going to achieve perfection this side of the grave. I seriously doubt it, but like Paul, we should all press on and push forward toward that goal of making it our own. And that leads to the third and final aspect of sanctification. The daily form that we’re going to look at in more detail here in the coming weeks.

Number 3, sanctification is progressive.

3. Progressive

While we have already experienced positional sanctification in Christ, and we look forward to the day when we will be perfected along with Christ, we still have to deal with sin. We still have to deal with it here and now. We still have Satan, the world, and the flesh fighting against us.

So more often than not, Scripture will refer to sanctification in an active, ongoing, present tense, not in the past, not in the future, but today. Sanctification comes in the form of commands telling us, “do this, do this, do this, do it now.” The New Testament is full of commands to continually pursue holiness, put on righteousness, put off wickedness, grow in grace and knowledge, increase in love, renew your mind, imitate godly examples, and so forth. These are all ongoing commands to incrementally become more and more like Christ.

Personally, I really like 1 Peter 2:2, because Peter doesn’t mince words there. He just simply says, “grow up.” Grow up. He says, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk [that is the Word], that by it you may grow up into salvation.” That’s the other sense of the word that we see throughout Scripture. It is certainly a set apart, a consecrating, a turning something that’s common into a vessel for holy use. We certainly see that throughout Scripture. But “sanctify” also means “to make holy” or “to clean” or “to purify” especially in the ongoing, present, active sense of the word.

Let me give you a few working definitions. One writer says, “Sanctification is the process by which Christians become renewed in the image of God.” Another theologian says, “Sanctification is the progressive disconnect in the life of a believer from sin toward righteousness.” Wayne Grudem, I think, has a particularly helpful definition. He says, “Sanctification is a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives.” I like that one. It’s a little wordy, it’s a little long, but it’s a good definition because it captures this dual nature of sanctification that we’re going to look at here in Philippians 2, verses 12 and 13.

It is this process that requires both the work of God and the work of man. And we’ll get into that a lot more here in the coming weeks. But for now, I want you to hold on to that basic definition of sanctification. What is sanctification?

Sanctification is the process of real biblical change.

Real biblical change. It’s not simply doing the right thing, having the right experience, keeping the right rules, gaining the right knowledge, joining the right church, or avoiding the right pitfalls. As good as those things are, true sanctification is a slow, incremental, process of change in a person’s life, as they are conformed more and more into the likeness of Christ over time. That’s sanctification. In other words, you begin to think and act more like Jesus. That’s the basic definition of sanctification.

Now, before we turn our attention to the Lord’s Table this morning, I want us to briefly look at one more aspect (or one more side) of this doctrine, and that is the nature of sanctification.

The Nature of Sanctification

What does it look like? What does it affect? How do I know if I’m growing? Well, the key to understanding the nature of sanctification is to recognize that this process of biblical change only occurs in a transformed heart. It only occurs in a transformed heart.

There’s a definite root and fruit principle at work in everyone’s life. If you have ever come in to me for counseling, odds are I have probably asked you to memorize this passage from Luke chapter 6. Jesus said…

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

Some of you who I have counseled are smiling right now and mouthing along and that just does my heart good. But that passage… what’s he’s saying is: you are what you think. What’s on the inside will come out. In this case, the good person who produces good is the one whose heart has been transformed by God. Listen, you can change your behavior, but you can’t change your heart. Only God can do that, and He does.

But what does that look like? What is the evidence of a changed heart? Let me leave you with two good products that grow from a transformed heart. And we will get through these quickly.

First of all, a transformed heart produces new affections.

1. New Affections

We change because we want to. One author writes, “Believers should not conceive of holiness as the reformation of external behaviors, in which people bend their wills to perform duties for which they have no Godward motive; rather, believers must recognize that sanctification consists fundamentally in the miraculous inward transformation of the affections.”

Charles Hodge compared outward works, devoid of inward change, to stapling fruit on the branches of trees. It just doesn’t work. He added, “Sanctification in its essential nature is not external holy acts, but such a change in the state of the soul, that sinful acts become more infrequent, and holy acts more and more habitual and controlling.” End quote.

True biblical change starts on the inside, but friends, it will eventually work its way out. So over time, you don’t find yourself laughing at the same jokes you did when you were younger. You don’t hang out with the same people or go to the same places or do the same things because your loves, your desires, your affections… change. And that’s a good thing. One of the strongest evidences of a transformed heart is new affections.

And then finally, a transformed heart produces new actions.

2. New Actions

New affections on the inside, new actions on the outside. If the root is good, so is the fruit. Like Hodge said, over time “sinful acts become more infrequent, and holy acts more and more habitual and controlling.” Your desire to please God goes up and your desire to fit in with the world goes down. Whereas, at one time, you were enslaved by sin… now, through informed and active obedience to the Word of God, you sin less and you serve more. This is what sanctification is. This is what it looks like, friends.

So I have to ask you the question: are you growing? Are you growing? Is this happening in your life? Is this your experience? Have you had a quarter of a century of experience or one experience for a quarter of a century?

Next week, we will look at the means of sanctification. And I hate to end it here and now. I wish we could go for another hour so we could just get right to it and you don’t have to wait a week for that. But I would encourage you, in the meantime, look it up. Dive into God’s Word. Search for the means of sanctification. We’re going to unpack that more next week. We’ll see what needs to be done in order for this growth to occur.

But you can’t have growth at all without a transformed heart. You can’t. So today, especially as we approach the Lord’s Table, take a moment to evaluate the condition of your heart. Like 2 Corinthians 13:5, examine yourself to see if you are actually in the faith or not. See if you’re there. Test yourself and if you fail the test, cry out to Jesus. Call out to Him. He is full of mercy and grace and He will cast no one out who comes to Him. He has promised that.

Listen, if the fruit is bad, so is the root. If your affections and actions haven’t changed at all since you started doing the right things, joining the right church, and so forth, then you really do need to evaluate whether or not you have a transformed heart, whether or not you are really in this faith.

Odds are you’ve heard the Gospel. You know the good news. You know that the Son of God came to earth, lived a perfect life, and died in the place of sinners. On the cross, that He died a criminal’s death that He didn’t deserve to pay for the sins of those who would place their faith and trust in Him for salvation.

You’ve probably heard that. That God has raised Him from the dead and exalted Him to the highest position that is over everything as Lord. And if you simply repent of your sin and believe in this Lord, then you will be born again. You will be washed, and cleansed, and set apart to be used by God by becoming more like His Son. Odds are you’ve heard all of that before.

Friend, I hope, I hope that that truth has changed your life. That you are not the same as you once were before you heard it, accepted it, believed it, and repented of your sin to deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow Christ. I hope that you have experienced that new birth. That you are a new creature, a new creation in Christ. And that slowly, over time, as you fight against the flesh and you fall and you stumble and you get back up again… and then you fall and you stumble and you get back up again… I hope that slowly, over time as you are in that fight, I hope that your progressive sanctification becomes more and more evident to a point where it is undeniable to you and everyone else that you have truly been saved, set apart, consecrated, and that you are being purified, and that you are pursuing holiness, and that God is actively working in your life as you submit to Him and look forward to the day when you will be perfected along with your perfect Savior. I hope that that is true for you. I really do. For now, let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, Lord, again we thank you for this truth. We thank you for this precious doctrine that we see all throughout the pages of Scripture. That you have saved us, not in our sins, but you have saved us from our sins. Lord, that you have called us out of darkness, that you have given us a new heart, a heart of flesh to replace our hearts of stone. You have given us a new birth, that we have been born again from above. Lord, thank you for showing so much grace and mercy towards us and I pray that if there is anyone here, again this morning, who is not a believer, who has not placed their faith and trust you, that you would open their eyes to the glories of the cross, that you would hit them hard with the Gospel, the good new of Jesus Christ. Lord, that the blinders will be taken off of their eyes, that their ears would be unstopped, that they would have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to comprehend and accept the truth of your Word.

Lord, again, I pray for each and every one of us, those who have accepted this truth, that we would grow in holiness, that we would pursue Christlikeness, and that we would not do so for any other reason than to see you glorified and to see you honored and for us to become more and more like your Son from the heart, from a heart that has been transformed by your grace and your mercy.

Lord, thank you again for these truths. Thank you for not leaving us alone to ourselves or in the dark. Lord, I pray that we would grow in holiness. I pray that as we study your Scripture this week, you would open our eyes to new wonders and new majesties, and that we would just be in awe of what we see and discover in the days ahead. Again, we love you. We give you all the praise. We give you all the glory because you alone are worthy of it all. In your name, amen.

Reference Materials

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

J.C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, & Roots (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2017).

John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue, eds., Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017).

Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998).

Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994).

2 thoughts on “Philippians 2:12-13 • Spiritual Growth: What Is Sanctification? Part 1

Add yours

  1. Long, but good.

    I would like to offer another ‘version’:

    Matthew 5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him.
    2 He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying,
    3 ¶ “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
    4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
    5 “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.
    6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
    7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
    8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
    9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
    10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
    11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.
    12 “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
    13 ¶ “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.
    14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden;
    15 nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.
    16 “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

    I am not being ‘cute’ here. This is the process. No one should expect less, and be grateful for His Mercy along the way.

    Blessings, friend.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: