How to Look More Like Christ – 3 Ways Sanctification Happens in the Life of a Believer

 Justification occurs at salvation. The word justification is just a fancy way of saying “God saved me”. It happens to all believers at conversion. Once God saves us, then the process of sanctification occurs. Sanctification comes from the root word sanctify, which means to be set apart, to be declared holy.

Basically then, sanctification is the life long progression of looking more and more Christ-like (holy) as we mature, not only in age years, but mature spiritually as well. This spiritual maturity affects our whole person- emotionally, psychologically, mannerisms, personality, worldview, interpersonal relationships, etc. In the life of a follower of Christ, sanctification leaves no “stone” unturned. 

The interesting thing about sanctification, other than looking more like Christ, no one can put a definitive measuring stick to gauge how one is growing or progressing. Unlike education, we cannot earn diplomas or degrees to prove we have attained a certain level of spiritual growth or maturity. 

There may be believers in specific church vocations who become pastors, preachers, Bible study leaders, theology book writers, worship leaders, youth ministry leaders, etc, that commit their life dedicated to helping others understand the Bible better, but this does not mean they are higher on the sanctification pole. As a matter of fact, people in these roles of ministry need to be more aware of the danger of assuming they are more “holy” simply because they serve the church. 

Remember Paul? The mac-daddy missionary/disciple who said he was the worst of all sinners (NIV), foremost of all sinners (ESV), chief of sinners (KJV). That’s a far cry from thinking/assuming he was more holy than the other disciples. 

There are approximately 41 blatant scripture references that tell us our goal as believers is to look more and more like Christ. How do we attain looking more like Christ without the ugly sin of pride or self righteousness rearing it ugly head?

If we are looking more and more like Christ, then  sanctification is happening, but how? Does God do all the work and we just sit back and let life happen? 

Thankfully, sanctification happens in three ways. Three ways that are beautifully harmonious. 


Adversities that strike our lives or the lives of people we love, encouragement/exhortations from others are all things we cannot control. (The Disciplines of Grace). These out-of-the-blue things just seem to happen, seemingly unexpectedly. 

We can honestly say that none of us go out looking to get sick. We purposely wash our hands often to prevent sickness from spreading. We might even attempt to change our diets to improve our health and deter cancer and various types of diseases.

What about accidents? I can safely assume no person on earth purposely tries to have an accident where life or limb is in jeopardy. Many times, big and small businesses or corporations, even our military, hire specially trained personnel to help deter accidents from happening and give training sessions to other employees on how to be safe on the job.

I will be honest and admit that as a mom, one of my biggest anxiety producers is sickness or accidents that happen to my children. I hate that my first reaction is anxiety….then I pray. I want to pray first and not have anxiety.

Another out-of-our control thing that can happen is when a person from church or a long lost relative/friend reaches out to us or shows up on our doorstep, unexpected, bringing with them havoc, in the form of troubles they want us to help solve, or folly, which often times cause us to jeopardize our walk as Christians. What do we do? 

Unexpected/out-of-our-hand events do not always bring negative aspects. These could also be positive.

For instance, there might even be a random family member or friend that shows up and speaks into our lives beautiful words of encouragement or edifying acts of grace. How do we respond to these things? 

When we are faced with new challenges or events we need to figure out how to maneuver through these positive or negative events. We will surely respond and react to any and all unexpected events. 

The question then is…….how? Either we will react in such a way that is Christ like, or we wont.

How we react or respond will allow us to see our into our hearts and we can either fall to our knees in repentance or fall to our knees in gratitude.

Things that are out of our control yet not out of God’s control, have a beautiful way of making us more Christ like- sanctifying us- without us purposely seeking it out.

2) I did It

A second way we grow in sanctification is “on-purpose” studying the Bible, theology, doctrine, etc. in conjunction with application of scripture to our hearts and our minds. Actually, applying scripture to our lives and living in such a way that reflects knowing God’s Word does not make us legalists – it make us Christians. However, we won’t know what and how to apply God’s Word to our lives if we are not first purposely seeking to know what is IN God’s Word. Listening to great sermons on Sunday morning does not count as purposely digging into God’s Word. It makes us pew sitters. Not Christians. 

There is also the tendency to place pastors or preachers in the role of Jesus and blindly follow what a pastor says to do or not do. If we are not on-purpose reading our Bible for our own understanding, then we will not have the knowledge to discern error in others that teach the Bible.

When God saves a person, He gives us new desires. One of those new desires is know Him better. To help us know him better, He gave us the Bible. The Bible is all about Jesus, who is the perfect representation of our God who saves us. So part of having new desires will be the ‘want’ to read/study our Bibles. 

God may have given us new desires, but He did not create puppet strings that He pulls on to make us walk over to our Bible, open it up and read. The act of opening up the Bible is something we must do on our own. Plain and simple.

Unfortunately, when it comes to applying scripture to our lives, there is a tendency for some to believe that we don’t really have to try and live Godly lives because it must mean somehow that we are trying to earn our salvation. If we know the gospel correctly, then we know that salvation is nothing we earned.  Romans 5:8 tells us that God saved us while we were still sinners, but God’s plan in saving us was/is not for us to remain blatantly living in sin. Through God’s perfect plan of redemption by the atoning death of Christ, sin no longer is allowed to rule and rein in our lives. 

Jerry Bridges describes it this way

“Sin is like a defeated army in a civil war that, instead of surrendering and laying down its arms, simply fades into the countryside, from which it continues to wage guerrilla war of harassment and sabotage against the government forces. Sin as a reigning power is defeated in the life of the believer, but it will never surrender. It will continue to harass us and seek to sabotage our Christian lives as long as we live” (The Discipline of Grace) 

As much as I hate it when I find myself sinning by using angry words directed at my loved ones or feelings of bitterness and resentment spring forth from my heart, I often find myself frustrated and tired…no drained…from having to combat these same sinful tendencies. So what do I do? Try harder? Do better? A better option is to pray! 

Prayer is the second “on purpose” sanctification tool. Praying to God to help us overcome sin is necessary…crucial even, in the life of a believer. Being a praying person does not happen by chance. Praying is something we have to commit to doing, then actually pray….either with our mouths, using words, (or our minds). It’s not enough to WANT to pray. The beautiful thing about prayer, cooperatively joined with an “on purpose” approach to reading the Bible, it’s a sure fire way to combat the pride of works based righteousness. Having a regular and continuous talking-relationship with God keeps us humble, or at least it ought to. Prayer strips down any self seeking qualities in a person and creates an instant “I need you God” kind of mindset. This idea of “needing God” makes us more Christ like – thus sanctifying us. 


3) The Holy Spirit Did It  

Even though the Holy Spirit is listed last, it is by far not the least in importance. The illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, not only convicts us of our sin at conversion and allows us to to see Christ for who He truly is and what His death on the cross meant and means for us, but it also allows us to make sense of point 1 and 2 in this blog post. 

The Holy Spirit is the primary agent of sanctification. Nothing happens in a believers life without the Holy Spirit’s power initiating a heart transformation, giving us the ability to react or not react in any given situation and respond in such a way that is Christ-like.

For instance, in the beginning of this year I was struck with an illness I did not ask for (bullet point 1 – I didn’t do it). The Holy Spirit sanctified me through my illness by showing me my selfish heart and my desire to be served. On the other hand, the Holy Spirit showed my husband that he needed to have more compassion in dealing with a wife with pain in her body. Both my husband and I did not purposely seek out sanctification through my illness. It occurred because God, through His Spirit and through adversity was the means in which both mine and my husband’s hearts were transformed to reflect a more Christ-like response towards each other. 

During that time, God did not force me or my husband to read our Bible or pray to Him for comfort (bullet point 2 – I did it)  Due to the new desires that the Holy Spirit gives us, we purposely sought out God in His Word and eagerly prayed to Him with fierce determination, not only for healing, but for peace, humility and reassurance. The beautiful byproduct of doing “on purpose” Godly things is sanctification. 

John Murray, a late 18th century theologian wrote 

“We do not know the mode of the Spirit’s indwelling nor the mode of his efficient working in the hearts and minds and wills of God’s people by which they are progressively cleansed from the defilement of sin and more and more transfigured after the image of Christ.”

We may at times know without a shadow of a doubt that the Holy Spirit is working but we honestly don’t know how. The Holy Spirit’s objective is to get us to look more and more like Christ, which is the opposite of a life filled with reigning sin.

The Holy Spirit will even move us in such a way that we know it is the Spirit’s power that is leading us to say, think, or react a certain way in any given situation, specifically if it is Christ that we reflect in how we react or respond. 

Unfortunately, some may be tempted to think they can  elicit the Holy Spirit to “show up” and move mountains in a way that make sense to us or worse…make us look more “holy”. 

The best response to the error of that kind of thinking is to reflect on the words of Murray once again. 

“We must not suppose that the measure of OUR understanding or experience (of the Holy Spirit) is the measure of the Spirit’s working”. 

In other words…we are not the Holy Spirit. 

God is the Holy Spirit. 

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