The Mystery of Sanctification

Catechetical sermons preached in PCC Evening Worship Services, Feb 2013 to Dec 2017

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12 Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13 For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.

Philippians 2:12-13

WSC 35 What is sanctification? 

A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace,1 whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God,2 and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.3  

1 2 Th 2:13; 2 Eph 4:23,24; 3 Rom 6:4,6; Rom 8:1 

We continue our series of studies ordered according to our Shorter Catechism. We have seen how the Lord Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, suffered and died to purchase the benefits of redemption for us. We have also seen how these benefits are applied to us by the Holy Spirit in our effectual calling.  

We noted how those who are effectually called would receive justification, adoption and sanctification, as well as the several benefits that flow from or accompany these. We have considered the benefits of justification and adoption. In this sermon, the Lord helping us, we must consider the benefit of sanctification. 

Our Shorter Catechism, Question 35, teaches us: 

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 Lord helping us, we want to study this doctrine by expounding on the famous words of the apostle Paul found in Philippians 2:12-13: 

Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13 For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.

We may draw three lessons from this text vis-à-vis the doctrine of sanctification as taught in our catechism. First, let us consider how sanctification renews us in the whole man after the image of God. Secondly, we must examine how sanctification is a work of God’s free grace. Thirdly, we must see how sanctification involves a response on our part. 

1. Sanctification Renews Us In the Whole Man After The Image of God 

This is taught in our catechism, though it is not explicitly stated in our text. 

Paul says: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” The word salvation is comprehensive. It refers to our being delivered from sin and death, from the guilt of sin, the power of sin, the pollution of sin and the consequence of sin.  

There is a sense in which we have been saved. We were saved from the guilt of sin in our justification. Is Paul referring to working out our justification? No, for justification is completed once and for all.  

There is a sense in which we shall be saved. We shall be saved in our glorification when we are entirely freed from indwelling sin. Is Paul referring to working out our glorification? No, for we will receive glorification at our death. 

But there is also a sense in which we are being saved from sin. This is what our sanctification is about, for it is a process. Is Paul referring to working out our sanctification? Surely, he is, for Paul is writing to saints, Philippians 1:1. Saints are holy ones. We are holy on account of justification in Christ. 

So, Paul speaks to his readers as those who are justified. And since they are not yet glorified, it follows that he is talking about their sanctification! He is calling us to work out our sanctification.  

But now, let us pause for a moment and ask: What is the connection between what Paul is saying and the context in which it is being said? 

What is this chapter about? Paul says in verse 1: 

If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.

So, what is this chapter about? It is about church unity. After this opening statement, Paul immediately urges the Philippians to work on unity in the church. He gives them five steps: (1) Put aside selfish ambition (v. 3a); (2) Esteem others better than themselves (v. 3b); (3) Acknowledge and advance the interest of others and not only their own (v. 4); (4) Cultivate the attitude of Christ (v. 5); and (5) Emulate the example of Christ (v. 6-11). 

We looked at the heart of this passage when we studied the humiliation and exhortation of Christ previously. But do you realise that the text for our sermon today immediately follows? Our text begins with the words: “Wherefore, my beloved, &c” (v. 12). Do not these words immediately tell us that it is an application statement that flows from what has just been discussed? What has Paul been discussing? Unity in the church by imitating Christ! 

But Paul is in our text talking about our salvation. He says: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” What has our salvation or, more precisely, our sanctification got to do with the unity of the church? 

There seems to be no connection between the two subjects! For this reason, some commentators1 insist that Paul is not talking about individual salvation in these verses. They say that Paul is speaking about the spiritual health of the whole church as a witnessing community. That is to say that by “salvation,” Paul is referring to the whole church’s deliverance from disunity, pride and selfishness. 

But is this view correct? I do not think so. In this context, Paul is indeed concerned about the unity of the church as a witnessing community. But it would be quite unusual for Paul to use the word “salvation” to speak about the church’s spiritual health. I believe that Paul is indeed talking about the personal salvation of the members of the church, though having the unity of the church in view. 

There is a close connection between our personal salvation and the unity and peace of our church. Remember that the church comprises individual members of Christ. The only reason there is disunity in the church is that there is strife, selfishness, pride and other sin in the members of the church. The only way the church will recover from the schisms and division is that individual members overcome their conflict, repent of their selfishness and pride, and become more like Christ!  

Now, this is precisely what sanctification is about. It is essentially dying unto sin and growing in Christ-likeness! This is the main difference between sanctification and justification. Justification is an act of God that is accomplished once and for all. Sanctification is a progressive work of God. As Pastor Maurice Roberts once illustrated, justification is like switching on a light; it is done instantly. Sanctification, on the other hand, is like cooking a meal; it is work that takes time. 

Moreover, sanctification involves actual changes in our hearts, unlike justification. In justification, God declares that we are legally righteous in His sight. It does not involve any inward change. In sanctification, however, God works actual righteousness in us beginning from the new birth. In justification, righteousness is imputed to us in an instant. In sanctification, righteousness is infused into us in a lifetime. Justification gives us a new identity; sanctification changes our personality gradually. In sanctification, we are day by day, little by little, made more and more like Christ! 

This is essentially what our catechism is saying when it teaches us that sanctification involves a renewal of the whole man after the image of God.  

You see, Christ is the God-Man; He is the perfect image of God. To become like Christ is essentially to be renewed in the whole man after the image of God.  

Or, to put it in another way, Christ is the second Adam. He is the perfect man. Adam was created in the image of God in knowledge, righteousness and holiness. He lost it all in the fall, and so we have lost the image of God. As Paul puts it in Romans 3: “There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God” (Rom 3:10-11). 

But thanks be to God, when we are born again, a beginning of these attributes of knowledge, righteousness and holiness is restored to us. This is what Paul teaches us in Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10. In Ephesians 4:24, Paul tells the Ephesians that they have been taught to “put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.” Likewise, in Colossians 3:10, he tells the Colossians that they have “put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him”. 

When Paul tells the Philippians that God is working in them to will and to do according to His good pleasure (v. 13), He assures them that the Spirit is working in them to make them more and more conformed unto to the image of God that they may be more and more Christ-like! For to be like Christ is to be like God. To be like God for finite man is to have the image of God restored unto them.  

This, then, is what the Holy Spirit does in the process of sanctification. Thus, sanctification is the work of God’s Spirit whereby “we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God.” 

2. Sanctification Is a Work of God’s Free Grace 

We have almost assumed this to be true in our first point. But we need to look deeper into it because Paul seems to suggest it is not entirely a work of God. 

He says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13 For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” 

So he seems to be saying that we are to work, and God will also work. Does this not suggest that sanctification is not entirely gracious? After all, Paul says in Romans 11:6, “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise, grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise, work is no more work.” 

In other words, it is no more grace if we have to contribute anything. Well, the Arminians say: “God graciously helps the sinner. God does His part; man must do his part.” But Paul is saying: If God needs our contribution to do anything, then it is no more gracious!  

Someone may say, “That is true in regeneration but not in sanctification.” But does Paul make the distinction? No, we are saved by grace through faith. The just shall live by faith. Paul says: “I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain” (Gal 2:21). In other words, we are not only justified by grace through faith, we live the Christian life by grace through faith! 

Clearly, in Paul’s mind, our salvation is gracious from beginning to end. That is to say, we contribute nothing to our salvation at all: “To him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt,” says Paul (Rom 4:4). As our salvation includes justification, sanctification and glorification, it must follow that our sanctification is also entirely by God’s grace. If our sanctification depends on our works, then we can lose our salvation because sanctification is part of our salvation. We will lose our salvation when we cease to work. 

This is an important point. If we fail to understand this, we will misunderstand what Paul means when he says: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” 

Notice that he does not say: work for your salvation, but work out your salvation. In other words, we are not to work to obtain salvation, but to confirm our salvation that is graciously given to us.  

Can you see why he immediately adds: “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (v. 13)? Paul is anxious to guard the gracious character of our sanctification even as he exhorts us to respond to the work of sanctification.  

We will talk about this response in our next point. But for now, let us consider what God does in our sanctification. Paul says: “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (v. 13). What does God do specifically? 

Well, the word of God suggests that He does two things: First, He enables us more and more to die unto sin. Paul says in Galatians 5:24, “And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.” But there is a remnant of corruption in us, so we are still tempted to sin. Our heart has been changed so that we love righteousness, but sin continues to tempt us because of the remnant of corruption in us. The Holy Spirit gradually removes this corruption and the pollution that comes with it. 

The believer is like a fortified city. The king, which represents the heart, used to love sin, but the king has been changed. He now loves righteousness. He hates sin. He disowns sin.  

But the enemy is still active. He is constantly trying to get into the city. At the same time, the king’s subjects are not all agreeable with the king.  

What does the Holy Spirit do in the work of sanctification in this city? He strengthens the hand of the king in his fight against the enemy. He subdues and educates the subjects of the king who are still opposed to the king so that more and more they cease to side with the enemy to fight against the king. This is the first thing that the Holy Spirit does. He enables us more and more to die unto sin by mortifying the remnant of our corruption. 

But conversely, the Holy Spirit enables us to live unto righteousness more and more. That is to say, he enables us to walk in newness of life by strengthening our inward graces. In other words, He makes us more and more “alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 6:11). In the illustration of the fortified city, the Holy Spirit not only subdues the subjects of the king so that they learn to hate sin, but He also teaches them to love righteousness so that more and more they are conformed to the desires of the king.  

All this is happening in your heart, beloved brethren and children. If you are a child of God, an inner battle is going on in your soul. There is a battle between your Spirit and your flesh. The Spirit represents your new nature. The flesh is the remnant of your corruption. Paul says in Galatians 5:17, “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.” This is why you struggle against sin. 

But the Holy Spirit is working in you powerfully to strengthen you so that your old man or the flesh becomes less and less influential while the new man or the Spirit becomes stronger and stronger.  

This is what the Spirit God is doing in you in the work of sanctification to renew you in the whole man after the image of Christ! 

3. Sanctification Involves a Response on Our Part 

Our Catechism does not teach this directly. But can you see how Paul teaches it in our text? “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” he says (v. 12).  

It is clearly in the context of sanctification that Paul exhorts us to work out our salvation with “fear and trembling.”  

We could spend some time talking about why Paul tells us to work out with fear and trembling. But without going into details, let us understand that Paul is saying we are to work out our salvation with a deep humility, holy reverence toward God, and a fear of ourselves, knowing how inclined we are to disobedience and wandering. In effect, Paul is telling us that we must have holy vigilance and circumspection regarding our spiritual life. It means being serious and not taking for granted our salvation.  

Are you, beloved brethren and children, working out your salvation with fear and trembling? 

In Greek, the word translated “work out” (κατεργάζομαι, katergazomai) is in the present imperative tense. The present imperative suggests a continuation of effort. That is, “Continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”  

Now, we must be careful not to fall into two errors regarding what Paul is telling us to do. 

We have already seen the first error, which is to think of sanctification as partly God’s work and partly our work. In other words, sanctification is the work of the believer with the help of God’s Spirit. But this is far from what Paul is saying. He says “work out”, not “work for” your sanctification.  

Sanctification,” according to our catechism, “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.”  

Arminianism teaches that a man is sanctified by cooperating with the Holy Spirit or doing his duties with the Holy Spirit’s help. Our Confession of Faith corrects this error when it says in chapter 16, paragraph 3: 

“[The] ability [of believers] to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ. And that they may be enabled thereunto, beside the graces they have already received, there is required an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them to will, and to do, of His good pleasure…” (WCF 15:3). 

The fact is that we are not called to work to effect salvation or sanctification. Instead, we are called to work out our salvation by responding to God’s work of sanctification. 

Were this not the case, then woe are those who are bedridden and unable to attend church! And woe to those who, because of health reasons such as depression, cannot consistently make use of the public means of grace. Thank God my sanctification depends not on me but on the grace of the Spirit of Christ. 

But now, conversely, the second error pertaining to sanctification is to assume that working out our salvation is optional. One who entertains this error says: “Since I have already obtained salvation, then working out my salvation must be optional—once saved, always saved, no matter what I do. After all, sanctification is a work of God’s grace. It does not depend on what I do, does it? I want to enjoy life today and am glad I can and still get to heaven.” 

Beloved brethren and children, be clear that this position is blatantly false! A person is not saved simply because he made a profession of faith or prayed to receive Christ. When God saves a person, He changes the person’s heart so that all things become new, and it becomes part of his nature to want to live in righteousness or work out his salvation. 

In other words, if anyone professes to be a believer but is not changed from within, that person is likely to be still foreign to the grace of God in salvation. When he hears the command to work out his salvation with fear and trembling, the child of God will say: “Yes, I want to. I am lacking in many areas. I will ask the Lord to change me so that I become more and more like Him, but I will exercise my responsibility to do what He requires of me.” 

You see, our salvation can be reckoned in five steps: (1) Regeneration or Effectual Calling, (2) Justification, (3) Adoption, (4) Sanctification, and (5) Glorification.  

All these benefits come in the same package known as our salvation. The Puritans call it a golden chain. No one can be glorified in Christ who was not first regenerated by the Spirit of Christ. 

So, all who are genuinely regenerated will be justified and will experience sanctification. Thus, when the apostle Paul tells the Philippians and us, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” he assumes that we have already been regenerated and justified. When a person is regenerated, justified and adopted, he may be said to have obtained salvation. But that is not all. A truly regenerated and justified person will go on to the next step in salvation, even sanctification. 

He will experience sanctification and will work out his salvation in the context of his sanctification. 

Indeed, the way the apostle brings across the doctrine suggests that sanctification is not a work in which we may remain passive, for Paul calls us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.  

But why? Why does God require our response if it is He who works in us graciously? The is that God ordinarily uses means in our sanctification.  

The Lord Jesus Christ has appointed outward and ordinary means by which we may receive the benefits of redemption purchased by Him. What are the means? Well, there is prayer, the reading and hearing of God’s word, the singing of God’s word, and the sacraments. Although it is God the Spirit who sanctifies us, He ordinarily uses the means of grace to do so, and so the Christian must use the means to grow in sanctification. In other words, although it is the work of God to sanctify, the believer is not entirely passive. 

Now, we will say more about the relation between the work of the Spirit and the means of grace when we come to the subject in our catechism. But for now, think of sanctification as requiring two keys. The Holy Spirit holds one key. The second key is the means of grace available to the believer. Now, the Holy Spirit has the master key. He can open the door of sanctification with or without the second key. The second key can also open the door of sanctification if the first key is already in the keyhole. But this second key is so tight that it cannot be turned without the Holy Spirit’s enablement. Now, ordinarily, the Holy Spirit does not turn the master key. Instead, He waits for the believer to put his hand on the second key. Then, He puts His hand on the believer’s hand and enables him to turn the key, which he would otherwise be unable to do. This is how the Holy Spirit ordinarily opens the door of sanctification.  

This is why Paul says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13 For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” 

The appointed ordinances such as preaching, prayer and sacraments are the most usual means of salvation. Without using them, we cannot ordinarily expect to receive any of the benefits of redemption purchased by Christ, and so we cannot expect to grow in sanctification. 

So beloved brethren and children, make use of the means of grace. The means of grace, as I mentioned, include prayer, the hearing, reading and singing of God’s Word, and the sacraments. We will study these means in greater detail when we come to them in our Catechism. But for now, let us understand that using the means of grace is not optional. The more significant part of working out our salvation is the faithful and diligent use of the means of grace. 

Therefore, brethren and children, neglect not your daily reading and prayer. As you will not neglect to eat and drink to maintain your body, do not neglect to read and pray to maintain your soul. 

Fathers, if you do not wish your family to grow worldly and materialistic, you must not neglect faithful family worship. 

What about the worship services and the Sabbath classes? Are they optional? No, they are appointed for our sanctification! 

What about the sacraments? Is it optional whether we baptise our children? Is baptism optional for believing adults? What about the Lord’s Supper? Is it of no consequence if our covenant youths fail to confess faith and do not partake of the Lord’s Supper? Well, if we have no confidence that they can eat and drink worthily, then we better not have them come. But if we have any hint at all that are in Christ, then are we not guilty of hindering their sanctification if we do not encourage them to seek confession of faith so that they may come to the table? 

But let us not stop at the means of grace. Let us also remember to flee from sin and obey God’s commandments. We must realise that fleeing from sin and obedience are not means of sanctification. They are our reasonable duties as those redeemed and freed from sin by the blood of Christ. 

But it is evident that if we give in to sin, we pollute ourselves and hinder our sanctification. Sin always blinds us and hardens our hearts. And sin separates us from God and grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph 4:30). Thus, we are taught by the Psalmist: “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Ps 66:18; cf. Isa 59:2). If God would not hear our prayer when we sin against Him, how can we expect Him to sanctify us?  

This is why Paul urges the Corinthians to cleanse themselves “from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor 7:1). Similarly, this is why he tells the Thessalonians, “For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication” (1Th 4:3). 

Sin is the greatest enemy to our sanctification. So, working out our salvation must involve battling against sin as the Spirit of Christ enables us.  

Now, we must realise that battling against sin is not just repenting of our sins when we fail. It is not even just fighting temptation when it arises. It also involves not putting ourselves in situations where we can easily be tempted to sin. Thus, Joseph refused to be alone with Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39:10). Thus, Job made a covenant with his eyes not to look upon a maid (Job 31:1). Thus, our Lord teaches us, “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee:… And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee” (Mt 5:29-30).  

Therefore, beloved, if you will work out your own salvation, flee from all occasions, activities and persons that are detrimental to your spiritual health. “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Cor 15:33). And don’t forget to use the means of grace. 


We must now conclude. This sermon is entitled The Mystery of Sanctification

What is sanctification? 

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” (WSC 35). 

We considered three things today. (1) We saw how sanctification is a lifelong work of God in which He renews us in the whole man after the image of God. (2) We considered how sanctification is the work of God’s free grace. (3) We also noted how sanctification requires a response on our part as the Spirit enables us more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness. 

How should we respond to this doctrine? Well, let me very briefly leave you with two related questions. 

First, ask yourself: Am I working out my salvation by fleeing from sin and diligently using all the available means of Grace? 

Secondly, Am I growing in grace? If I am being sanctified, I should be growing. Do I exhibit growth by way of godly character and good works? If I am not growing, is it because I have backslidden? Is it because I have taken my salvation for granted and ceased to work it out with fear and trembling? Am I only doing things to be seen by men rather than out of a grateful heart towards Christ for my salvation? Amen.  

—JJ Lim