“This is the will of God, even your sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3).
There is today and always has been debate regarding the process of sanctification. Largely in the circles I run in, I see two major ditches:
- The doctrines of justification and sanctification are blended together. Those who are proponents of this position say that when one is justified, they are entirely sanctified in Christ Jesus. The idea that a pastor would call Christians to be obedient to God’s Law and to bear good fruit often give those who subscribe to this position angst.
- The doctrine of sanctification is emphasized to the exclusion of the doctrine of justification. Those who often fall into this ditch do so unknowingly. They communicate a works-based salvation which often leaves the first group reacting against those in the second group.
Both of these approaches to the doctrine of sanctification fail at putting this essential doctrine in its proper place. How can we as faithful Christians have our minds transformed on this important doctrine? I believe that J.C. Ryle can help us on this.
Introducing Bishop J.C. Ryle
J.C. Ryle was a writer and pastor. Specifically, he was an Anglican bishop in the 1800s in Liverpool who made tremendous investments in the Kingdom of God that have far outlived his life through his writing ministry. His written sermonic commentaries and published works on the doctrine of sanctification continue to leave an impact on Christians today.
In his book Holiness, Ryle defines sanctification as “that inward spiritual work which the Lord Jesus Christ works in a man by the Holy Ghost, when he calls him to be a true believer. He not only washes him from his sins in his own blood, but he also separates him from his natural love of sin and the world, puts a new principle in his heart, and makes him practically godly in life.”
Ryle goes on to say that “[sanctification] is the outcome and inseparable consequence of regeneration.”
Personally, I have yet to find a crisper definition of sanctification than that. Now that we have a working definition, how does Ryle say one is sanctified?
How Are We Sanctified
“The instrument by which the Spirit effects this work is generally the Word of God, though he sometimes uses afflictions and providential visitations ‘without the word’.”
So, according to Ryle, the sanctifying work of God happens by
- The Holy Spirit
- The Word of God
- Providential Visitations (Christian community)
Now, having Ryle’s thoughts are helpful for us, but are his thoughts and comments biblical? Let’s fact check him with a few passages of Scripture.
On the Holy Spirit
Ryle says that the Holy Spirit does a sanctifying work in us. Do we do the work or does the Holy Spirit do the sanctifying work?
Peter ties sanctification to the Spirit in 1 Peter 1:1-2 when he states:
“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,  according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you” (ESV).
How about Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:11 where he speaks of justification and sanctification as being a work of Christ and the Holy Spirit?
Paul in Romans 8:13 says that we put the “deeds of the body” to death by the Holy Spirit. And we shouldn’t forget Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit” discourse in Galatians.
On the Word of God
Ryle says that God’s Word is a primary means by which Christians are sanctified. This seems to be right in line with the Apostle Paul’s thought in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 when he states, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (ESV).
Or elsewhere when he charges Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:1-2, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom:  preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (ESV).
This side of eternity we suffer. Suffering can often discourage us. It often turns many people bitter toward God because of their persistent suffering. Instead of becoming bitter, what if our minds are daily renewed by the Word, thus resulting in us having a different perspective about our suffering? What if Ryle is correct when he says that God uses afflictions to sanctify us? That would be that our suffering isn’t meaningless. There is a real purpose behind our suffering and pain since the Lord uses suffering to prepare us for all eternity. Can this really be true? Yes! Hear the words of the Apostle Paul:
Romans 8:16-18, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (ESV).
and later in Romans 8:28-29, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (ESV).
On Providential Visitations
Ryle says that God uses Christian community as a means by which we are being sanctified. Hebrews 3:12-14 gives us insight into the fact that the local church is a means God uses to help the elect persevere in the faith:
Hebrews 3:12-14, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.  But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.  For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (ESV).
We also have Christ’s discourse on church discipline as a means to call His sheep away from sinful dangers (Matt 18: 15-20).
It is clear that Ryle’s thoughts on sanctification are deeply grounded in the Word, but there remains one lingering issue that needs to be addressed. What’s the difference between justification and sanctification? I leave you with Ryle’s very own words regarding the differences between the doctrine of justification and sanctification.
Ryle on The Difference Between Justification and Sanctification
(a) Justification is the reckoning and counting a man to be righteous for the sake of another, even Jesus Christ the Lord. Sanctification is the actual making a man inwardly righteous, though it may be in a very feeble degree.
(b) The righteousness we have by our justification is not our own, but the everlasting perfect righteousness of our great Mediator Christ imputed to us and made our own by faith. The righteousness we have by sanctification is our own righteousness, imparted, inherent, and wrought in us by the Holy Spirit, but mingled with much infirmity and imperfection.
(c) In justification, our own works have no place at all, and simple faith in Christ is the one thing needful.
(d) In sanctification, our own works are of vast importance, and God bids us fight, and watch, and pray, and strive, and take pains, and labour. Justification is a finished and complete work. Man is perfectly justified the moment he believes. Sanctification is an imperfect work, comparatively, and will never be perfected until we reach heaven.
(e) Justification admits of no growth or increase: a man is as much justified the hour he first comes to Christ by faith as he will be for all eternity. Sanctification is eminently a progressive work and admits of continual growth and enlargement so long as a man lives.
(f) Justification has special reference to our persons, our standing in God’s sight, and our deliverance from guilt. Sanctification has special reference to our natures and the moral renewal of our hearts.
(g) Justification gives us our title to heaven, and boldness to enter in. Sanctification gives us our meetness for heaven and prepares us to enjoy it when we dwell there.
(h) Justification is the act of God about us and is not easily discerned by others. Sanctification is the work of God within us, and cannot be hid in its outward manifestation from the eyes of men.
 J.C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots. (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2016), 22.
Joey Tomlinson (DMin, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a husband, father, and pastor at a local church in Newport News, Virginia. He blogs regularly on broadoakpiety.org and hosts a weekly podcast called The Broad Oak Piety Podcast with another local pastor in the community.