The word may conjure up lists of dos and don’ts. In some Christian subcultures it may mean not watching rated-R movies, only listening to Christian music, not dancing, not drinking alcohol, or voting Republican. Maybe you have your own list that equals sanctification in your mind. We probably all do.
During Jesus’ last earthly Feast of the Passover — the night of his arrest — Jesus prays for our sanctification. And in doing so, he reveals something about how sanctification occurs. Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet. He has indicated that one of them will betray him and Peter will deny him. Then, Jesus encourages his disciples with what has become some of the most beautiful and beloved scripture in the Bible. In the Gospel of John he ends this encouragement with what is now called the High Priestly Prayer. He even prays for future believers: you and me. In this prayer he prays:
“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17, ESV)
This verse indicates that we are sanctified not by creating a list of dos and don’ts but by the truth. The verse goes on to define that truth as God’s word.
An important part of being sanctified, then, is interacting with and meditating on God’s word. “The Bible is God’s voice in our lives,” write Sally Clarkson in her book Own Your Life. “When we spend time in the living presence of the divine, our lives will be transformed.” The Bible consistently describes God’s word as having a renewing and cleansing affect on our lives and minds. In Ephesians 5:26, the church is described as being sanctified by being cleansed “by the washing of water with the word.” Romans 12:2 credits our transformation as coming from the “renewal of your minds.” Ephesians 4:23 speaks of putting off our old selves and being “renewed in the spirit of your minds.”
We are not sanctified by the outside in, but by the inside out. Yes, sanctification will change our behavior. Yes, it is good to obey God even when we don’t feel like it. But we can’t change our behavior first and then hope our hearts will change to go with it. It’s not list making and rule making that makes me Christ-like. It’s spending time with Jesus, who is the ultimate Truth because he is the ultimate Word. The Word made flesh that dwelt among men. The Word who now dwells in my heart.
Jesus isn’t a measuring stick to figure out how well I’m doing or how badly I’m failing, but someone to become like by being with him. When I spend time in the word, I also spend time with the Word. Which changes the whole way I look at picking up my Bible.
So I can take my exhausting self-made list of things that I think make me sanctified and crumple it up and throw it away.
Because only one thing is needed: Jesus.