Yesterday, we looked into some baseline biblical facts about the nature of sanctification. We saw, first, that sanctification is a fundamentally internal and supernatural work. And so true holiness of heart is not something that we can accomplish directly in ourselves. Instead we learned, secondly, that sanctification is a sovereign work of the Spirit of God. The Scriptures everywhere attribute that work to Him.
But while it’s unmistakable that the Spirit is the sovereign agent of sanctification, that fact in no way contradicts the reality that He effects this transformation through the use of means which the believer must appropriate. God has ordained that the Spirit accomplish this glorious work through means. So when Scripture commands us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, it is commanding us to make diligent use of the means the Spirit employs in effecting our holiness.
Today, I want to look into what Scripture has to say about five of those means of sanctification—five means which we can appropriate, and, by doing so, put ourselves in the way of the Spirit’s sovereign, sanctifying work.
First is Scripture. And I hope you would have expected me to start here. The Word of God itself is often hailed throughout its own pages as a means of sanctification and spiritual growth. In that “ground-zero” text on bibliology, Paul tells us if we want to be equipped for every good work, we must go to the Scriptures, which teach us, reprove us, correct us, and train us in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16–17). In Psalm 19:7–11, David tells us that the Word of God restores the soul, makes the simple wise, makes the heart rejoice, enlightens the eyes, and warns us from engaging in what is dishonoring to God.
The Scriptures are also likened to a mirror that reveals the true condition of a man in James 1:23–25; to a probe that discerns the thoughts and intentions of our hearts in Hebrews 4:12; and to a light and a lamp that guides our path in Psalm 119:105. And so the Scriptures are an aid in our sanctification, because they “disclose the state of the heart and point out the remedy for failure” (Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology, 292).
And so it’s no wonder that Peter exhorts the churches that have been entrusted to his care to “long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Pet 2:2). See? By the pure milk of the Word of God, we grow in respect to salvation. And no wonder Paul, though sorrowful over the prospect of no longer seeing the Ephesian elders, is nevertheless confident to commend them to the word of God’s grace, because God’s Word is “able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Ac 20:32). And of course, we have the matter stated so plainly on the lips of the Lord Jesus in His prayer to the Father in John 17:17, in which He prays for you and me: “Father, sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.”
And so one of the ways we can be working out our salvation with fear and trembling is to be diligent and disciplined in reading the Word of God. And not just reading it, but studying it—meditating on it and ruminating on it throughout the day, submitting our thinking and our opinions to what we find in its pages. If we are commanded to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2), we must saturate our minds with the Scripture by which our minds are renewed.
A second means of grace that we must appropriate as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling is prayer. Now, the very nature of prayer identifies it as a means of grace, because the Father has ordained that His children receive the good gifts of His grace by means of their asking for them. And He has ordained it to be that way because He is glorified by demonstrating Himself to be the all-sufficient fountain that meets each of our needs.
Jesus teaches that the gracious operation of the Spirit in transforming the soul into Christlikeness is obtained by petitioning the Father in prayer (John 14:13–14). The writer of Hebrews teaches us that prayer is a means of finding grace to help us in our various times of need (Heb 4:16). One example of that comes in Philippians 4:6–7, where Paul says that prayers of supplication and thanksgiving are the means of banishing anxiety from the spirit and bringing peace.
And so if we acknowledge that the work of sanctification in our own hearts is fundamentally a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, we need to ask Him to do His work. We need to confess our sins, because He is faithful and righteous to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). We need to ask Him to increase our faith, to strengthen us against temptations, and to cause us to walk in His way. We need to do battle against specific sins that we face, praying that God would incline our hearts to Him, and that our various temptations would lose their luster in our sight (cf. Ps 119:37).
And besides serving as a means of obtaining divine blessings, even the very act of humbling ourselves before God and expressing our dependence on Him in prayer exercises the soul in grace. Fred Zaspel, quoting B. B. Warfield, writes,
“Prayer by the nature of it is a confession of weakness, need, and dependence. It is a cry for help. And ‘no one can take this attitude once without an effect on his character,’ for in it we learn to look away from ourselves to one higher and greater and acknowledge our utter dependence on God.”
Warfield eventually concludes, “What is prayer but the very adjustment of the heart for the influx of grace?” (The Theology of B. B. Warfield, 503).
The fellowship of the local church and interaction with other believers is also a means of sanctification.
Solomon informs us that as “iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Prov 27:17). The encouragement from one brother to another serves as a means of perseverance and protection against being hardened by sin (Heb 3:12–13). We are not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together and so become derelict in this responsibility, but are to “consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds . . . encouraging one another; and all the more as [we] see the day drawing near” (Heb 10:24–25). This stimulation to good deeds and constant encouragement happens insofar as we sharpen one another with the sword of the Word (Eph 6:17; cf. Prov 27:17), speaking truth to one another (Eph 4:25) and thus enlisting the sanctifying power of the Word of God (cf. John 17:17). This works itself out in various ways as the members of the body employ the spiritual gifts given them for “the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ.” By such means “we all [will] attain . . . to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:12–13). The proper working of each individual member of the body “causes the growth of the body for the building up of its self in love” (Eph 4:16).
It’s in the fellowship of Christ’s church that we (a) expose ourselves to the regular, skillful preaching of the Word of God; that we (b) magnify the name of the Lord in corporate worship in a unique way as the gathered assembly; that we (c) minister to one another and build one another up as we use the gifts He’s given us; that we (d) lovingly confront one another and help each other deal with sin, and that we (e) partake in the ordinances of baptism and communion, which act as visible pictures of the Gospel, pressing the truths of Scripture afresh upon our consciences, which sanctifies us. And so if you would seek to grow in holiness, do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together with the body of Christ.
Scripture is also clear that all the providential workings of God serve as a means of our growth in holiness. One of our favorite verses tells us that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him” (Rom 8:28). That means that God providentially ordains everything we go through in our lives to work for our good. And Paul defines that “good” in the very next verse when he says, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom 8:29). Every experience we have is a minister of God’s providence that is designed to make us more like Christ.
And that’s especially the case with trials, which, when handled biblically, produce perseverance, character, and hope (Rom 5:3–5), proven faith (1 Pet 1:3–7), and endurance (Jas 1:2–4). In providential affliction the people of God are spurred on to greater holiness (Ps 119:71; Heb 12:10). Paul speaks about the believer’s sharing in the sufferings of Christ as a means of becoming like Him (Rom 8:17; Phil 3:10–11), as well as giving us the occasion to be comforted by the Father and thus comfort others (2 Cor 1:4–6).
And so as you navigate the joys and trials and all the experiences of life, you need to face those experiences in the knowledge that all of them are providentially designed by God to make you more like Christ. In the midst of trials, we can remember that His purpose in that difficulty or in that affliction is to conform you to the image of His Son. And so you can go to Him and say, “Lord, your Word says you’re working all things for my sanctification. Show me how to grow to be more like Christ through this experience.”
Yesterday, I argued that external acts of obedience are to be properly regarded as the result of the inward sanctification of the soul. It is error to simply equate holiness with acts of obedience as if the two were strictly synonymous. However, it can’t be overlooked that Scripture also presents obedience as a means of further progress in holiness.
We learn this from Jesus’ words in John chapter 15. In the opening verses of the chapter, He teaches the disciples that their fruitfulness is a function of their abiding in Him, just as a branch abides in a vine. So, we will be fruitful insofar as we stay sapped to our Vine. But in verse 10, we discover that obedience is a means of remaining vitally connected to Christ. Jesus says, “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love.” Love for Christ is the fuel for obedience—“If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). But here we learn that walking in the way of Christ’s commandments produces more love for Christ. It’s a glorious circle of the grace of God: love produces obedience, obedience produces more love, and love produces more obedience.
These are just a selection of the means which the Holy Spirit employs to accomplish His work of sanctifying believers. Sanctifying grace flows through all of these channels, and it is our responsibility to put ourselves in the way of their blessings. We cannot perform the divine operation upon our souls that would make us more holy. But we can pursue that holiness—indeed, we must pursue that holiness—by availing ourselves of these means by which that divine operation is performed.
There’s one more very important means of grace that I want to spend some time examining. And it has implications for the way we understand how all the other means work. Be sure not to miss tomorrow’s post.