As sinful humans, we are adept at taking what God gives as gift and making it into a work. Nowhere is this made more evident than in the universally misunderstood doctrine of sanctification.
Scripture teaches that faith is not something we do but something that is created within us as the promise of Christ is heard, “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Furthermore, we know that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). Herein, the things of faith are those things that we cannot wrap our minds around or place our hands upon. Things we cannot see. Our old Adam (the flesh) is never content with this truth, we want the very opposite, things we can see and control.
We understand the importance of this when it comes to justification; we are justified by faith not by any of our own works. However, when it comes to sanctification we quickly take it out of the realm of faith into the realm of works. This stems from a wrong theology around sanctification, a theology that believes sanctification is something we do in partnership with God instead of seeing it (like justification) as a work of Christ alone. The preponderance of biblical texts around sanctification give evidence that sanctification is not a subjective activity that we progress into, but an objective declaration that we receive by faith.
“And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).
If we agree that sanctification (a way to describe salvation not move away from it) is by faith then sanctification by its very definition is not something we should be able to “see” but something that we believe in, hope in Christ for, and place outside of the realm of the tangible. This, I believe, has tremendous implications when it comes to the Christian life. For instead of looking to earn or work our way into sanctification we are free to simply rest in its already finished work. This does not mean that there is no use for fruit or good works, for we know that the Christian is indeed known by their fruit (Matt. 7:15-20). However, this fruit is not the result of human effort but the natural byproduct of a "bad tree" being transformed into a "good tree'. Herein good trees quite naturally bear good fruit. Fruit that is not meant to be an indicator of our progress but the work of Christ in our life for the benefit of our neighbor.
Sanctification is not a work of the law it is the result of God’s promise to us in Christ, the gospel. Regarding sanctification as an activity, we partner with God on, is at its root a failure to understand law and gospel. It relegates law to a manageable list of “to dos” instead of what it is, God’s word of condemnation that puts us to death. For God alone knows how to handle the law, it’s his word and is never meant to be wielded by humans as they see fit. The law, which serves to magnify our sin (Rom. 3:20) does not aid us in our sanctification, it simply reveals our need for it. Here we must rest in the reality that the gospel alone can sanctify us, anything less pushes us away from Christ into ourselves; the very opposite of what it means to be holy.