May 13, 1984
Bethlehem Baptist Church
John Piper, Pastor
How the Spirit Sanctifies
I myself am satisfied about you, my brethren, that you yourselves are full of
goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another. 15) But on
some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the
grace given me by God 16) to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in
the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles
may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. 17) In Christ Jesus, then, I
have reason to be proud of my work for God. 18) For I will not venture to speak
of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from
the Gentiles, by word and deed, 19) by the power of signs and wonders, by the
power of the Holy Spirit, so that from Jerusalem and as far round as Illyricum I
have fully preached the gospel of Christ, 20) thus making it my ambition to
preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on
another man's foundation, 21) but as it is written, "They shall see who have
never been told of him, and they shall understand who have never heard of him."
"Sanctification" is a very irrelevant word, but it is not an irrelevant reality.
It's like a hundred technical medical terms. Nobody but doctors use them but your
life depends on the reality they stand for. "Sanctification" comes from two Latin
words: "sanctus" which means holy, and "ficare" which means make. So to sanctify
means to make holy. But, of course, the word "holy" isn't much more relevant today
than sanctification -- what with "holy mackerel" and "holy cow" and "holy buckets" --
we've just about ruined one of the highest and most valuable words in the Bible.
I don't think there is any point in trying to invent new words for these old realities. It
would take too long and by the time the new words got established people would
already be using them for a banged finger. Instead, I think we should dig into the
minds of the Biblical authors until we see the reality they were talking about when
they said "sanctified." And then, whether we use their word or not, we should make
sure of the reality behind the word "sanctification." You don't ever have to use the
word "insulin," but if you are a diabetic your life may depend on the reality. You may
never have heard of the word hyperopia, but you won't be able to read unless you get
glasses to correct it.
As irrelevant as the word sanctification may be where you work and in your
neighborhood, the reality is very crucial, very contemporary and very relevant.
Suppose you've always concealed private sources of income when filling out your
tax returns. Then you come to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and begin
to tell the truth on your tax returns -- that's sanctification. Suppose you're always on
your husband's case, and then the word of God pricks your conscience and you
begin to preach less and look for ways to show respect -- that's sanctification.
Suppose you're sleeping with your girlfriend and you meet Jesus Christ and get the
courage to move out -- that's sanctification.
There are living images of sanctification in our world today which are more real, more
authentic than all the people put together who think sanctification is passť. Malcolm
Muggeridge takes Mother Teresa as an example:
I think a person like her comes into the world, not by chance, and radiates the
Christian faith at its most simple, most pure, most effective level. She takes any
baby that is given to her and looks after it. She brings in dying people from the
streets who might live for only a quarter of an hour. When they leave this life with a
loving Christian face beside them instead of one of rejection, she would say that it
is well worth it. She is diametrically opposed to the spirit of the age -- abortion is a
horror to her, and all the attitude of mind associated with it (Eternity, April, 1984,
When a young woman living in the security and comfort of middle class Western
society moves to Calcutta in obedience to Jesus that is sanctification, and it is not
irrelevant. Don't let the irrelevance of the word mislead you. The reality is immensely
Let's look at our text and try to answer three questions: What is
sanctification? How can we be sanctified? Why is it so important?
1. What is sanctification?
At the end of Romans 15:15 Paul says, "Grace has been given to me by God to be
a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God,
so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit."
Focus for a moment on this one fact: sanctification is the goal of Paul's missionary
labor. He pictures himself as a priest. His ministry as a priest is to preach the
gospel. And the offerings he brings to God as a priest are Gentiles. And these
Gentiles are acceptable because they are sanctified. Paul is not merely aiming for
converts, he is aiming to make people sanctified.
As soon as we see clearly that the aim of Paul's missionary labor is sanctification,
we can get a very clear idea of what sanctification is by reading verse 18 which
describes the aim of his life in different words: "I will not venture to speak of anything
except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles."
What is the aim of Paul's missionary labor in this verse? Or more precisely, what
does Christ aim to achieve through Paul's missionary labor? Answer: he aims to win
obedience from the Gentiles.
So here's what I conclude. Since the aim of Paul's ministry in verse 16 is to present
Gentiles to God who are sanctified, and in verse 18 Christ's aim in Paul's ministry is
the obedience of the Gentiles, therefore sanctification means obedience to Christ.
Jesus himself told us what the aim of missionary labor should be: "Go, make
disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the
Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." The aim of
Christian missions is to cause people to obey a new Commander. Sanctification is
happening where the words of Jesus are being obeyed.
Romans 6:17-19 confirms that we've gotten on track with Paul in connecting
obedience and sanctification. Verse 17: "Thanks be to God that you who were once
slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to
which you were committed." Then verse 19b: "For just as you once yielded your
members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members
to righteousness for sanctification." If you put verse 17 beside verse 19 you see the
same thing we saw in Romans 15. Obedience to the teaching of Christ in verse 17
is the same as sanctification in verse 19. So the process of becoming sanctified is
the process of more consistently and more fervently (note "from the heart," Rom.
6:17) obeying Jesus Christ. (See also 1 Peter 1:2 for another connection of
sanctification and obedience.)
One of our goals at Bethlehem is to be a people with a war-time mentality and a
war-time lifestyle. A people who see the warmth and beauty of spring but do not
forget that vast populations of our world and vast regions of the human heart are ice-
bound by unbelief; that every season of the year Satan is fighting with his forces to
resist the liberation troops of the gospel and expand his own deadly kingdom. God
helping us, we will not be a people with a peacetime mentality. Daffodils and tulip
blossoms and Aspen leaves and carpets of grass will not make us think the
millennium has come. The war rages on right through the summer. Every new, fresh,
beautiful leaf is an offer of love from God to a rebellious world. The deep blue sky
and the warm sun and the cumulus clouds are a merciful call to repentance before
the final storm gathers. Every softball game, every fishing trip, every hour in the
garden, every day at the lake is a field of conflict. And there are a hundred ways for
you to gain victory over evil in the power of Christ and advance his cause in the way
you work and play this summer -- if you maintain a war-time mentality.
And what Paul has done for us in Romans 15:16 & 18 is define sanctification so that
it can be a part of our war-time vocabulary. Sanctification is obeying the
Commander-in-Chief. Sanctification is a war-time word. A sanctified person has
unswerving commitment to his cause. A sanctified person has uncompromising
loyalty to the Commander and to his comrades in arms. So whenever you think of
sanctification think of war-time missions and war-time character. It was the goal of
Paul's mission strategy and it was the radical obedience that fulfilled that goal from
Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum (Rom. 15:19).
2. How can we be sanctified?
If we go back now to Romans 15 we can see how sanctification comes about. Let's
start again at the end of verse 15. The first and highest foundation of sanctification is
the grace of God. According to verse 15, God's grace turned Paul into a minister of
Christ. Moved by this grace then Paul undertakes the service of the gospel -- he
preaches the good news that Christ died for sinners and offers eternal joy to those
who believe. According to verse 16, then, the result of this preaching is that Gentiles
become sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
Let's try to picture it like this. Visualize a triangle with the grace of God at the top
point. The free grace of God is the foundation of everything. On one side of the
triangle this grace is poured out into a man named Paul. It utterly revolutionizes his
life and he becomes the ambassador of Christ preaching the gospel to Gentiles. So
one of the bottom corners of the triangle is the apostle Paul. Now he moves out
along the base of the triangle to preach the gospel to the unbeliever at the other
corner of the triangle. The goal of this preaching is a sanctified believer (verse 16).
But verse 16 says that a person is sanctified by the Holy Spirit not just by the
preaching of the gospel. So the other side of the triangle is the power of the Holy
Spirit flowing out from God's grace and opening the person's heart to receive the
gospel (Acts 16:14). Sanctification happens when the gospel preached and the
Spirit poured out meet with power in the human heart.
Now notice how verse 18 describes this process.
"I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me
to win obedience from the Gentiles." This verse shows that Paul considers it very,
very important to notice, when we look at the triangle, that not only on the
descending sides is Christ at work, but also along the base. "From him and through
him and to him are all things," the apostle said (11:36). Paul does not want us to
look at this triangle and say, "Sanctification is partly God's work and partly man's
work." Paul insists that even where he (or you or I) has been the necessary
ambassador to bring the gospel, it is all owing to Christ. He said in 1 Corinthians
15:10, "I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God
which is with me." Therefore, when Paul describes how an obedient, sanctified
people come into existence, he says, "I will only venture to speak of what Christ has
worked through me for the obedience of the Gentiles."
It was the grace of God that made Paul an ambassador for Christ, it was grace that
gave him a message, it was grace that motivated and empowered his preaching and
it was grace that opened the hearts of his hearers. Therefore, sanctification is all of
grace. And the first step toward becoming sanctified is to humble ourselves and
yield to the sovereignty of grace. And then step by step we learn to open ourselves
to the power of God's Spirit and to the truth of God's word. Jesus prayed in John
17:17, "Father, sanctify them in truth, your word is truth." The way to grow in
sanctification is to fill yourself with the word of God and the Spirit of God. Whatever
your age, whatever your vocation, whatever your intelligence, apply yourselves to the
study of God's word and pray for his power and you will advance in sanctification.
3. Why is it so important?
Someone may ask, "Why should I be so concerned about it? Sanctification is for
supersaints, not me. I'm no storm trooper. I'm content to be sealed by the Spirit like
you talked about last week. I'll leave sanctification for heaven." I hope none of you
thinks that way. Because people who leave sanctification for heaven don't get there.
Romans 15:16 says that Paul's aim in preaching the gospel was to present Gentiles
to God as an acceptable offering, that is, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Is it not right
then to conclude that without the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in our lives we
are simply not acceptable to God? We will not be accepted by him in heaven
without sanctification as an evidence of new birth. Hebrews 12:14 says, "Pursue
peace with all and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord." No one
will be admitted into heaven who has not pursued sanctification on earth. According
to Hebrews 5:9, eternal salvation belongs to all who obey Christ not to those who
disregard his teachings and cover their worldliness with a religious veneer. So the
first and most obvious reason to pursue sanctification is because without it we will
be rejected by God not accepted; we will not see the Lord, but be turned away into
The point of last week's message was that God wants us to enjoy the security of his
love and power. So he seals us by his Spirit and guarantees the salvation of those
who believe (Eph. 1:13-14). Is it a contradiction to say, "God sealed you forever the
day you truly believed," and to say, "You will not see the Lord without
sanctification"? It's only a contradiction if you try to be Calvinistic in your view of
eternal security and Arminian in your view of sanctification. That is, if you give God
the right to keep you secure but keep for yourself the work of sanctification. The
certainty of our security and the necessity of sanctification only make sense if God
is the sanctifier as well as the sealer. If God says, "I love you and I have sealed you
as mine for ever," and then says, "Pursue the sanctification without which you will
not see me," is it not clear that the guarantee of sanctification is included in the
guarantee of sealing?
Picture yourself as a car. God takes you off the junk heap of life and gives you a
new start. He has a road of sanctification for you to travel on this earth and your
destination is heaven. Now, you can think of God's sealing you in two ways. One
way would be that he sort of puts you on automatic pilot, points you in the right
direction and puts a sticker inside the front door: "Guaranteed to stay on the road to
heaven, or we'll come out and haul you in." That view of eternal security makes
sanctification depend on you and makes it optional. You'll get hauled in even if you
drive yourself into a swamp.
The other way to think about God's sealing is that it is not a sticker on the door but
a presence on the seat. He gets into the car, takes the wheel, and drives you to
heaven -- not always by the most direct and pleasant route (he has lessons he
wants you to learn along the way), but nevertheless with complete assurance. He is
an expert mechanic, and he knows the roads like the back of his hand. In other
words, when God seals you for eternity, he puts his Spirit within you as a guarantee
(2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13-14) and what he guarantees is not only that you will
reach the destination of glory but also that you will reach it on the route of
sanctification. Therefore, the command to pursue sanctification is not intended to
threaten your security in God but to threaten your security in everything but God.
1) Sanctification is obedience to our Commander-in-Chief. Not perfection but a
growing consistency and fervor of obedience.
2) The way we attain it is by the grace of God. We open ourselves to the power of
the Spirit in prayer and we seek to fill ourselves with his word in study. We pray,
we pursue, we study, we work, for it is God who is at work in us to will and to do
his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13).
3) We pursue sanctification because without it we will not see the Lord. We will
not be acceptable. We will not have the infinite, eternal joy of seeing God's beauty
in heaven, nor will we have the highest pleasures of this life, namely, seeing the
grace of God conquer our rebellion and conform us to the likeness of Christ.