Evening Sermon: What Is Sanctification?, Baptist Catechism 38, Proverbs 3:1–12

Baptist Catechism 38

Question: What is sanctification?

Answer: Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Scripture Reading: Proverbs 3:1–12

“My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you. Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man. Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. Honor the LORD with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine. My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” (Proverbs 3:1–12, ESV)


Please excuse any typos and misspellings within this manuscript. It has been published online for the benefit of the saints of Emmaus Reformed Baptist Church, but without the benefit of proofreading.


The question that is before us today is, what is sanctification?

Sanctification is the third of the three fountainhead blessings that our catechism identifies as  belonging to those who have faith in Christ. I call them “fountainhead blessings” because there are other blessings — indeed many other blessings! — but these either accompany or flow from the three that are mentioned: justification, adoption and now sanctification.  To be justified is to be pardoned, that is, declared not guilty and made righteous in God’s sight. To be adopted is to be received into God’s family as beloved children. It is not difficult to see that there are many other blessings that are attached to or flow from these benefits. But as I have said, sanctification is the third of the three fountainhead blessings. 

What is sanctification? The answer provided by our catechism is very good. It is carefully worded, brief, and a true summary of the teaching of Holy Scripture. 


 Catechism Explained

The Work Of God’s Free Grace

The first thing that our catechism says is, “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace…” 

This phrase should sound very familiar to you by now. Remember that both justification and adoption were called “an act of God’s free grace.” So whatever we say about sanctification we begin by confessing that it is God’s work, and that it is by his grace. We are justified, adopted and sanctified by God, and these three benefits come to us as a gift from God. We do not earn them in any way. They do not come to us because we are deserving, but because God is gracious and kind.

The introductory phrases to the questions regarding justification, adoption, and sanctification are very similar. But perhaps you noticed a slight difference in the answer regarding sanctification. Whereas justification and adoption are said to be “an act of God’s free grace”, sanctification is said to be “the work of God’s free grace.” 

There is a reason for the change. Justification and adoption are called an act of God because they are things that happen to us in a moment. In a moment God justifies us. In a moment God adopts us. There is nothing progressive about justification and adoption. And neither is there anything required for us to receive these benefits (except faith, which is also a gift from God). And so justification and adoption are rightly called acts of God. But sanctification is called “the work of God”, and this is a fitting description. 

One, sanctification is a work that God does in us. 

Two, though sanctification is God’s work ultimately, we do also contribute to it as we pursue holiness and maturity by God’s grace.  

And three, though sanctification is in one sense an instantaneous act of God, it is in another sense a progressive work. Your sanctification, friends, is a work in progress.

As in the previous two questions the word “whereby” signals that we are about to be told what sanctification involves. And two things are to be noted. One, the one who has faith in Christ is sanctified personally and positionally the moment they believe. And two, the one who has faith in Christ is sanctified progressively throughout the Christian life. It is a process that will only be finished when Christ returns to make all things new, or the Lord call us home through death.

Positional and Personal Sanctification

First, let us consider our personal and positional sanctification. This is what our catechism is referring to when it says, “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God…”

To be sanctified is to be made holy. And there is a sense in which this happens really, truly, and fully at the start of the Christian life the moment we believe. We are in a moment changed from being unholy to holy. 

We are positionally sanctified the moment we believe. This means we are set apart from the world and unto God as holy.

Paul uses the word “sanctified” in this sense when he greeted the Corinthian church, saying, “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:1–3, ESV). Here he speaks of sanctification as something accomplished perfectly in their past. They were set apart to the Lord. And so it is for you, if you are in Christ Jesus. You have been set apart from the world to be holy and to belong to God.  

We are also personally sanctified the moment we believe. And personally I mean, we are changed to the core of our being. Our catechism uses the word “renewed”. We are “renewed in the whole man after the image of God…”

This reference to the “image of God” is very helpful, I think. It reminds us of what we learned earlier in our catechism about the creation of man. In question 13 we learned that “God created man male and female, after His own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the creatures.” And in questions 16 through 22 we learned about man’s fall into sin and its effects. Question 21 was particularly enlightening concerning the effects of sin. Q. 21: Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereunto man fell? A: The sinfulness of that estate whereunto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin, together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.

If you wish to connect that section of our catechism which talks about our sin and its effects (questions 16 – 22), and the section that talks about our salvation in Christ Jesus and the benefits that accompany it (questions 32 – 41), then notice that justification takes care of the problem of “the guilt of Adam’s first sin” and “the want [lack] of original righteousness”, and personal sanctification takes care of the problem of “the corruption of his whole nature.” Man is made in the image of God, but now that we are fallen into sin, man’s nature is corrupt. But in Christ we are renewed. 

Paul speaks of this renewal in 2 Corinthians 5:17, saying, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17, ESV). And in Ephesians 4:20 he says, “But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” If you are in Christ, you have a “new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness”. And it is this “new self” that you are daily to “put on”. 

Progressive Sanctification

That Ephesians 4:20 passage that I have just read provides us with an opportunity to transition over to progressive sanctification. Perhaps you notice that personal sanctification and progressive sanctification are intertwined in that passage. Again, if you are in Christ, you have a “new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness”. And it is this “new self” that you are daily to “put on”. Learning to “put off the old self… and to put on the new self” is a process. The process of renewal is only possible because we have been renewed.

This is what our catechism is teaching when it says, “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”

The word enabled is important. It helps us to see that we have a role to play in our sanctification. We must choose to mature in Christ. We must choose to walk worthy, and to be holy as God is holy. We must choose to put sin to death and to live unto righteousness. And we must choose to put off the old self, and to put on the new. But the word “enabled” reminds us that it is God who makes the progress possible. The progress is possible because God, by his grace, has sanctified us positional and personally. And it is possible because God, by his grace, is finishing the good work that he has started within us. We have a part to play in sanctification, but it is God who enables the progress. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6, ESV). 



As we begin to move towards the conclusion, let me make some suggestions for application. 

One, if you are in Christ you ought to be eager to make progress in your sanctification. Contentment is a good thing. But complacency is deadly. Never should the Christian grow complacent, but should be eager to see whatever corruptions remain within them driven out. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” (1 Thessalonians 4:3–8, ESV)

Two, as you pursue sanctification, do not be so foolish to go it alone, but pursue it with the strength that God supplies. Rember, sanctification is God’s work, and he is the who enables the progress. Abide in Christ. Walk in the Spirit. Make use of the means of grace that God has provided — fellowship, the word of God preached and read, the sacraments, and prayer. And how very important it is to pray! For when we pray, we are taking a posture of humble dependence, saying, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:9–13, ESV). If we hope to make progress in our sanctification then we must begin here, in prayerful dependence upon God, who sanctifies his people. 

And three, let us understand how God sanctifies us. Indeed, he uses many things to sanctify us. He uses his word as it is read and preached to teach us how to live. In particular the Spirit of God uses the law of God to show us our sin and to convict us. God also uses other people to sanctify us. You have heard the proverb , “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17, ESV). And God uses the circumstances of life to sanctify his people. This is especially true of difficult circumstances. They are like a refining fire. The Lord often uses them to drive away impurities — pride, love of self, and love of the world. This is why James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4, ESV). And this is why the Proverb said, “My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” When we face trials and tribulations in this life, or when the Lord chastises us in some other way, we are to rejoice in it, knowing that the Father loves us, and is working all things together for our good and his glory.  

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