You’ll not find the word sanctification in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. The process of sanctification, however, is what Paul describes in chapter 5 as the outworking of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life.
One of the Holy Spirit’s functions in the believer’s life is to cultivate Christian character, to transform us more and more into the likeness of Christ. This is sanctification, and this is foundational to the teaching of Galatians 5. Here are five things we need to know and teach about sanctification:
1. Sanctification is the work of God.
All our efforts toward holiness are useless apart from (1) the work of Christ on the cross (Heb. 10:10) and (2) the work of God’s Spirit in us. Paul highlighted the Holy Spirit’s role with repetition of the phrase “by the Spirit” in Galatians 5:16,18,25. He used the phrase “sanctified by the Holy Spirit” in Roman 15:16, and in Romans 8:13 he said it is “by the Spirit” that we are able to “put to death the deeds of the body.”
2. Sanctification involves our cooperation.
Take note of the imperatives in Galatians 5: “walk by the Spirit” (v. 16), “live by the Spirit” (v. 25), and “keep in step with the Spirit” (v. 25). Whereas justification is entirely God’s work, sanctification involves our cooperation with God. Christ has delivered us from sin’s reign, but the responsibility for resisting sin is ours. God has given us His Spirit, but the responsibility for walking by the Spirit is ours. “Pursue … sanctification” urged the writer of Hebrews (Heb. 12:14, NASB; see also 2 Cor. 7:1).
3. Sanctification is on ongoing process.
Whereas justification is once and for all, sanctification is a continuous process whereby we grow in holiness. The Greek verb translated “walk by the spirit” in verse 16 translates the Greek verb peripateo, which literally means “to go about” or “to walk around.” It’s the same word Jesus used of the paralytic, “get up, take your mat, and walk” (Mark 2:9). The word walk also can be used to mean a certain walk of life or conduct. Paul used a tense of the verb that reflects continuous, on-going activity. The word walk reminds us that sanctification doesn’t roll effortlessly down a superhighway; it treks resolutely up a more arduous path, steadily progressing toward the goal but never arriving until that day we “see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
4. The goal and measure of sanctification is Christlikeness.
God’s purpose in our sanctification is to transform us more and more into the likeness of Christ (Rom. 8:29). Refuse to be seduced into defining spiritual maturity in terms of religious activities (sanctification-by-checklist). The 8-point record system offering envelope I grew up using in church is not a gauge of spiritual maturity. (On the weekly envelope was a checklist: Sunday School attendance, Bible brought, lesson studied, giving, worship attendance, daily Bible reading, number of visits, and number of other contacts made. Check off the items on the list and you’re good for another week!) On the contrary, Christ-like character is the measuring stick of growth in sanctification.
5. The primary instrument of sanctification is the Word of God.
Jesus’ prayer for His disciples, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17), instructs us that God sanctifies us by His Word. Paul understood that God’s Word trains us in righteousness so that we may “be complete” (2 Tim 3:16-17). Let us drink deeply, then, from the Scriptures, for by them God will transform us more and more into the likeness of Christ. (See also Ps. 119:11; Acts 20:32; 1 Pet. 2:2.)
Remember, “this is God’s will, your sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3).
Mike Livingstone works at Lifeway Christian Resources as content editor for Explore the Bible materials.