Over the past few days, we have been examining some fundamental biblical truths about the doctrine of sanctification. On Tuesday, we considered three of those truths. First, we saw that sanctification is a fundamentally internal and supernatural work. Second, as a result of that, we considered how sanctification is a sovereign work of the Spirit of God. But then we quickly observed how the Spirit’s sovereign work doesn’t cancel our work, because the Spirit employs means in sanctifying the believer. And yesterday, we looked into five of those means which we are to avail ourselves of in order to grow in Christlikeness.
Today I want to focus on how it is that those means actually work. In other words, I want to look at the actual dynamics of sanctification. Why is it that the Word of God, and prayer, and fellowship with the saints, etc., sanctify us?
“Beholding is Becoming”
The answer to that question comes by considering one other means of sanctification that Scripture reveals. But it’s not just another means among many. It’s actually the foundational means that renders all the other means efficacious. We find that in 2 Corinthians 3:18. Paul writes, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” Here Paul tells us it is as believers behold the glory of Christ with the eyes of their heart, they are thereby progressively conformed into His image.
Or, as the writer of Hebrews tells us, we run the race of the Christian life by “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:2). Like Moses, our faith is strengthened to endure all manner of temptation by “looking to the reward” (Heb 11:26) and “seeing Him who is unseen” (Heb 11:27). Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 4:18 that “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen” (cf. Heb 11:1) And in 1 John 3:2, we learn that even unto glorification our degree of Christlikeness is directly proportional to our beholding His glory: “We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.”
And so these texts teach us that “the pathway to Christ-likeness is ‘beholding the glory of the Lord’ [2 Cor 3:18]. Beholding is becoming” (Piper, God is the Gospel, 90).
The Dynamics of Sanctification
Now why is this so? How does the spiritual sight of Christ supernaturally cause us to increase in holiness? It’s because the spiritual sight of Christ, by virtue of the delightfulness and beauty of His glory, causes us to admire Him in such a way that we are satisfied by Him, and therefore we don’t seek satisfaction in lesser, sinful pleasures. The glory of Christ captures our affections and causes us to love what He loves. Then, our renewed affections inform and excite our will, and we joyfully obey the commands of God.
Charles Hodge puts it this way:
“The Spirit, we are taught, especially opens the eyes to see the glory of Christ, to see that He is God manifest in the flesh; to discern not only his divine perfections, but his love to us, and his suitableness in all respects as our Saviour . . . . This apprehension of Christ is transforming: the soul is thereby changed into his image, from glory to glory by the Spirit of the Lord.” (Systematic Theology, 3:229)
And in one of the greatest paragraphs I have ever read outside the Bible, John Owen summarizes this teaching beautifully. He writes,
“Let us live in the constant contemplation of the glory of Christ, and virtue will proceed from Him to repair all our decays, to renew a right spirit within us, and to cause us to abound in all duties of obedience. … It will fix the soul unto that object which is suited to give it delight, complacency, and satisfaction. … When the mind is filled with thoughts of Christ and his glory, when the soul thereon cleaves unto him with intense affections, they will cast out, or not give admittance unto, those causes of spiritual weakness and indisposition. … And nothing will so much excite and encourage our souls hereunto as a constant view of Christ and His glory.” (The Glory of Christ, 1:460–61)
The Foundational Means of Sanctification
The implications of this for the practical pursuit of sanctification are staggering. This teaches us that in all our diligent efforts to appropriate the means of grace the Spirit uses to accomplish His work of sanctification, the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ stands at the very center, giving life to all the other means. In our Bible reading, in our prayer, in our times of fellowship with other believers, in all of our experiences of divine providence, and in our obedience, we are looking to saturate the eyes of our hearts with the all-satisfying vision of the glory of God revealed in the face of Christ.
Let’s cycle back through each of those means that we discussed yesterday, and see how beholding the glory of Christ undergirds each.
1. Beholding Glory in Scripture
Why does Jesus pray that the Father would sanctify His people by His Word? When we consider that question in light of 2 Corinthians 3:18–4:6, we’re driven to the conclusion that it’s because the Word of God reveals the glory of God shining in the face of Christ. Undergirding and vivifying the sanctifying power of the written Word is the sanctifying glory of the Living Word.
When Moses cried from the depths of his soul for the Lord to show him His glory (Exod 33:18), the Lord responded not merely by passing by in a cloud, but by passing by and proclaiming the essence of His character (Exod 34:5–7). This illustrates the intimate relationship between God’s glory and His Word, and shows how His Word is a vehicle for revealing His glory. Further, in a day when “word from Yahweh was rare” and “visions were infrequent” (1 Sam 3:1), the Lord spoke to Samuel and called him into prophetic ministry. Commenting on this momentous event, the author writes, “And Yahweh appeared again at Shiloh, because Yahweh revealed Himself to Samuel at Shiloh, by the word of Yahweh” (1 Sam 3:21). Here again, the Word of God is shown to be the means of revealing God Himself, and thus the Scriptures are the vehicle for communion with our Father in the person of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Holland, Uneclipsing the Son, 70–71). In this way, the Word of God rests on the broader sanctifying foundation of the glory of the God who is revealed thereby. Scripture sanctifies because Scripture reveals the glory of God in the face of Christ.
Can you see how this transforms your daily devotions? This means that you don’t go to the Word every morning just to check off the boxes on the reading plan. You’re not just reading to gather information, to learn new theology, or new apologetic arguments. It means you’re going to the Word every day to see Jesus. To get to know Him. To admire Him. It means every time your Bible is open you’re praying what Moses prayed in Exodus 33:20: “Show me Your glory!” And you’re asking the Father to give you a heart to treasure Him, to worship Him, and to obey Him.
2. Beholding Glory in Prayer
The same is true for prayer. Rather than just praying to ease your conscience, or when you need something, or just as some sort of catharsis, you need to see prayer as the occasion for personal worship. This is the time for you to meditate on the beauty of the Lord’s manifold perfections as revealed in His Word and experienced in His providence; to praise Him for His goodness and bounty; to taste the goodness of His infinite sufficiency as you present your requests to Him. B. B. Warfield identified prayer as “conscious communion with God” (Faith and Life, 152). And as we behold His glory through that communion with Him, we are transformed into that same image of glory (2 Cor 3:18).
3. Beholding Glory in Fellowship
This impacts our fellowship as well. We tend to think of fellowship as simply having an enjoyable time with Christian friends, or that time in a worship service or a Bible study when the teaching is over and everyone hangs out and has some coffee and a nice snack. But because we are each being progressively conformed into the image of Christ, fellowship with other believers sanctifies us because of what we can see of Christ in each other. Anthony Hoekema writes,
“Believers learn what Christ-likeness is [in part] by observing it in fellow Christians. We see the love of Christ reflected in the lives of our fellow believers; we are enriched by Christ through our contact with them; we hear Christ speaking to us through them. Believers are inspired by the examples of their fellow Christians, sustained by their prayers, corrected by their loving admonitions, and encouraged by their support.” (Created in God’s Image, 89)
And so the lifeblood of biblical fellowship is the glory of Christ that is to be enjoyed in one another. Shouldn’t that transform your interactions with your brothers and sisters in Christ? It would mean that the focus of the time you spend with one another would be on seeing Jesus in each other and reflecting Jesus to each other.
4. Beholding Glory in Creation and Providence
Providence also stands on the sanctifying foundation of the glory of the Lord. When we learn to see all of the experiences of life—both joys and trials—as gracious dispensations of God’s providence, we can treasure the glory of the Giver that is revealed in His gifts, and give Him thanks and praise for “richly supplying us with all things to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17; cf. Jas 1:17).
And of course, since “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1), the conscientious believer learns to see all the beauties of the creation as streams of glory that trace back to the God who is the Fountain of all goodness and grace.
5. Beholding Glory in Obedience
And finally, the glory of Christ also undergirds and motivates our acts of obedience. In John 14:21, Jesus says, “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.”
So, keeping Christ’s commandments results in further disclosure of the Savior to the eyes of our hearts. This is the great motivator for all our efforts of obedience: that when I forsake sin and follow Christ in obedience, I get to see and enjoy more of Him!
So fight sin like that! When you’re tempted to sin and you don’t feel like obeying, reason with yourself! Tell yourself that all sinning will get you is a fleeting, false pleasure that destroys rather than satisfies. And remind yourself that obedience will bring you a greater vision of the glory of your Savior, who is the greatest satisfaction your heart can experience.
So how can we summarize our thoughts over the past three days?
Well, as you seek to put sanctification in practice, let the implications of Philippians 2:12–13 and 2 Corinthians 3:18 have a place of paramount importance in your thinking. We can’t fall into the error of the Quietists who prescribe that we simply “yield” and “surrender” and wait to be magically catapulted to holiness. We must be active.
But our study guards us from the opposite error as well—the error of the moralists. And that is to conceive of holiness as merely the modification of our behavior, which we achieve in the strength of our own moralistic will-power, as we clench our fists, grit our teeth, and bend our wills to perform external duties that we have no heart to do.
We don’t want to make either error. The Christian’s pursuit of holiness is, as Scripture says, a fight (1 Tim 6:12), a race (Heb 12:1), and a battle (Eph 6:10–18). But because the foundational means of our sanctification is beholding the glory of God in the face of Christ, we must recognize that that battle is fought first on the level of spiritual sight. That race is run, fixing our eyes on Jesus (Heb 12:2).
As we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, we are conscious that it is the Holy Spirit of God who is working within us. And He works by illumining the glory of Christ to the eyes of our hearts, winning over our affections by the delightfulness and beauty of that glory. And then our affections inform and direct our wills, so that as a result we might will and work for His good pleasure.
And precisely because He works in us in this powerful way, we arouse all diligence to put away anything that would cloud our vision of that glorious Savior, because the prospect of fellowship and communion with Him promises a greater pleasure than the false and fleeting pleasures of sin.
And we make every effort to saturate our minds with the loveliness of Christ’s glory, delightfully disciplining ourselves to behold Him in His Word, to seek His face in worshipful prayer, to enjoy Him in fellowship with the saints, to see Him at work in creation and providence, and to obey Him in the hope that obedience brings greater communion with Him.
It’s fitting to conclude with the words of the 18th-century Baptist pastor, John Fawcett. Fawcett said,
“Christ Jesus is the life of all the graces and comforts of a Christian in this world. By the knowledge and contemplation of Him, and of His death in our stead, faith lives, and is strengthened from day to day; all the springs of repentance are opened, and flow freely, when the heart is melted by views of a dying Savior; love feels the attractive power of its glorious object, and is kindled into a holy flame; sin is mortified; the world is subdued; and the hope of future glory is supported, enlivened, and confirmed, so as to become sure and steadfast, like an anchor of the soul.”
Let us, then, fix our eyes on Jesus, and run our race with endurance for the joy set before us.