Stop Striving, and Let God Sanctify You

Dr. Brian Allison

A former student of mine is pastoring in the northern part of Hamilton, Ontario. He phoned me with a problem; but it was a good kind of problem. In the northern part of Hamilton, there seems to be a hunger for the Gospel, and various people are coming to a saving knowledge of Christ. This pastor phoned to 'pick my brains' in order to get some input concerning how to disciple a certain kind of new convert. Over the past year, about twenty people had been saved in his Church; and he said, "These converts fall into one of three groups. There is the group that eventually falls away. There is another group that is really excited about the Christian life. Having embraced the Lord Jesus Christ by faith, they persevere and pursue Him, and they grow steadily. Then there is a third group that struggles; and my concern is how to disciple these ones who spiritually struggle. These believers want to 'get on' in the faith; they seem to want to grow, but they are continually confronted with distractions, and they 'get off track'. They will show up on one occasion, and then they will drop out for a little while, and then show up again. These are struggling Christians. It seems that they have been attracted to the Christian culture, rather than being completely enamoured with Christ and taken up with Him. How can I minister to these ones? How can I disciple these struggling Christians?" A challenge, indeed!

There are many Christians who are spiritually struggling, and not simply new converts, but those who have been in the faith for awhile. These ones get discouraged over their lack of spiritual progress. They have a desire to be holy, they have a desire to please God, they are very serious about their faith; but they struggle, and they continually 'get off the track'. As a result, they become very frustrated. They get upset with themselves because they seem to have to start from square one again and again. Some of these people are what I call the 'fits and starts' Christians. They are always moving by fits and starts – they are irregular and impulsive. They hear an inspiring sermon and say, "Okay, that is it! I am ready to get serious about my faith again, and to follow the Lord with my whole heart. Enough is enough. I am tired of the way I have been living. I want to pursue Christ." These believers have the best intentions; and for a few weeks, they seem to be eagerly moving ahead in the Lord. They show up at the meetings, read their Bibles, pray...and then issues crowd into their lives again. They get busy again. They get distracted again. And, lo and behold, they have stumbled again.

And then, they will read a book, or maybe hear another sermon, and they say, "Yes, that is it! I am really serious this time. I am really going to seek the Lord now. I am really going to pursue Christ." And again, they have the best intentions; and they go along for a little while...but then their lives get busy again, and they get distracted again, and they drop off again. I know a Christian brother, a friend of mine, who is what I call a 'fits and starts' Christian. He would come to me and say, "Do you think we could pray and read the Scriptures together? I am serious this time about my faith and about growing in Christ. I really am." I would try to conceal my smile, for I know him well; and we would get together for a couple of weeks, and then I would get a phone call, "Sorry, can't make it tonight. I am too busy. Maybe next week." The next week comes, and I would hear, "Oh, I forgot about this appointment; maybe next week;" and so on...

Is that your situation? You may have the best intentions. You are very serious. But you never seem to follow through on those intentions. I suspect that one reason why you may be having difficulty, one reason why you may be struggling to follow through, is because (although you may not admit this) deep down inside you believe that you have the responsibility to achieve your goal. You believe that you have to make yourself holy, that you have to make yourself perfect. This is the language you may be using, "This time I am going to do it. This time I mean business. This time I am going to 'pull it off'." And you are trusting in yourself to do it. Now, to be sure, you are responsible to respond to the grace of God. You are responsible to obey the Word of God. But your sanctification – becoming holy, becoming more like Christ – is not dependent on you. You cannot achieve that; God has to do it, and only God can do it. We must realize that we cannot 'pull it off' – becoming holy and righteous – but that God Himself must 'pull it off'; and unless He does, we will not, we cannot, make any headway or progress in becoming more like Jesus. I tell you emphatically that when we understand this fact, when we come to the point that we are no longer trusting in ourselves to be good enough, but simply trusting in Christ to do what He has promised; when we come to the point where we acknowledge the Spirit's work in our lives and honour the Spirit to accomplish His work; when we come to that point, where we are willing to walk in faith, putting no confidence in ourselves at all, then we will experience the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, and then we will become just like Jesus. Salvation, which includes sanctification, is wholly of God.

I suspect that some who are reading this message are struggling, and are frustrated, because you think that you have let yourself down, believing that you are the one who is responsible to 'pull it off'. You apparently believe that you need to try harder, that you need to strive more. And there is a place for striving, but we are to strive after Christ, through the strength of God, and not strive out of our own energy, through our own efforts. Are you a striving, struggling Christian? If you are, then you are probably one who continually wrestles with guilt, anxiety, and fear. When we do it God's way, then we come to rest; and if you are not resting in Christ, then you are probably trying to 'pull it off' yourself. Jesus says, "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you SHALL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light" (Mt. 11:28-30).

Blessing other believers

The text that we shall consider in this message is 1 Thessalonians 5:23, "Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." Keep in mind that this verse is in the form of a wish-prayer. The apostle Paul prays for these Thessalonian believers, but he does so in the form of a wish – that is, he desires a blessing for them. In fact, this text may be identified as a benediction. It is the second time we find this kind of language in this epistle. The first time is in chapter 3:11-13, in which the language is similar to 5:23, "Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you; and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all men, just as we also do for you; so that He may establish your hearts unblamable in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints."

As we think of ourselves as the body of Christ, we ought to be continually seeking and pronouncing the Lord's blessing to rest upon God's people. Have you prayed wish-prayers on behalf of believers this past week? Have you prayed, for instance, "Lord, may Your holy presence be with Your people in a special way. May You send them Your grace and Your peace. May You direct their steps;" or "Lord, may Your comforting Spirit be with that sister. May Your strength enable her to live faithfully for You;" or "Lord, may Your keeping-mercy be with that brother who is suffering. May You help him to maintain his godly walk;" etc. Let us daily offer wish-prayers on behalf of God's people, and pronounce benedictions for them.

The God of peace

The apostle addresses God in a special way – "Now may the God of peace." Seemingly Paul uses this description of God in anticipation of what he is about to say. He sets the backdrop, as it were, presenting to us a certain aspect of God's character in order to give weight and force to his prayer. If you like, he presents a particular attribute of God, endeavouring to arouse faith in that which he is about to state. God is the source of peace. God is pleased to supply His people with peace. Paul emphasizes this particular attribute of God. This epistle begins, "Paul and Silvanus and Timothy to the Church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace" (1:1). In 2 Thessalonians 3:16, he writes – again in the form of a wish-prayer – "Now may the Lord of peace Himself continually grant you peace in every circumstance. The Lord be with you all!"

Paul knew how much we need the peace of God in order to endure and survive in this world. Our lives are constantly characterized by upheaval, confusion, pain, and suffering. This past week in the news we heard of a three year old girl who was shot in the head and killed. What suffering must her family be going through? We also heard of a Sri Lankan teenager who is missing. I saw her parents on the newscast. They were broken up, distraught, devastated. As a parent, I have some idea of the kind of pain one would experience if his or her child went missing. That is a heavy burden to carry. But we serve the God of peace Who is pleased to come and grant us serenity and tranquillity, as we rest in Him, in the most horrendous situations. He is able to give us peace that will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. He is pleased to stabilize our troubled spirits – inner peace – as well as order and override our unfortunate circumstances – outer peace – because He is the source and supplier of peace.

God makes us holy

Even in this whole matter of sanctification – becoming more holy – it is good to remember that He is the God of peace, especially during our times of struggling. We need not become upset or overwhelmed by our sin and our failures. He will sustain us and provide for us. The God of peace is the One Who is engaged in this tremendous act of making us more like His Son. The God of peace is changing our hearts that we might reflect His holy character – "Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you."

The sanctifying work of God basically consists of two aspects: consecration and separation. God is pleased to sanctify us, first, by setting us apart for Himself and for holy use – consecration. We are God's special possession. That is our standing. Second, God sets us free from sin and worldliness – separation. We actually become more pure in heart. That concerns our state. That is what God is pleased to do, and we need to remember this.

Notice the emphasis of our text. God Himself performs this sanctifying work. We cannot emphasize this truth enough. It is God Himself, and no one else, Who makes us holy. He will do it; He must do it, because we cannot. It is impossible. This truth is our confidence, and our peace. Job 14:4 reads, "Who can make the clean out of the unclean? [This is a profound question that Job raised over four thousand years ago; and he goes on to answer his own question] Not one!" You cannot make yourself good enough. You may appear to be fine and decent on the outside, you may go through the religious motions, you may appear to be morally upright and a law-abiding citizen (and many people put the emphasize on the externals, on appearances), saying, "We have to look like Christians, even though we do not really act like Christians; but do not let others know that." Many wear masks and facades, and appear like good little Christian people, but God knows the heart. No one can make himself good enough. It is impossible. Thank God for the emphasis on 'Himself' – "May the God of peace Himself sanctify you." Thus, we need to trust Him to do it.

Now, I have already mentioned that we have a responsibility in this matter of sanctification. It is not the case of mindlessly and passively 'letting go, and letting God' take over. Someone may say, "Well, pastor, it is great to read these words. I do not have to do anything. God has to make me holy." No, this does not give you a way out; this does not remove your personal responsibility to respond to God's working. You are not to be passive, indifferent, complacent, saying, for instance, "Oh God, You have to change me. I am just going to sit here until You change me. I have a terrible anger, I have a terrible temper. I cannot do a thing about it. You must spiritually 'zap' me." God does not work that way. We have a responsibility to respond to the grace He gives us. Philippians 2:12,13 provides us with right perspective, "So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed [that is quite a commendation, isn't it?], not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling [recognizing that we are engaged in the most serious, crucial, significant, and important work in which one may be engaged, knowing that we are completely dependent upon God. And here is our confidence...]; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure." God's working in does not exempt us from working out; and if we are not working out, that proves that He is not working in, because if He is working in, there will necessarily be a working out. Yet, it is according to what He wants. He is in control; He is sovereign. God wills that we love, He wills that we forgive, He wills that we humble ourselves, He wills that we repent. And He is pleased to bring to realization that which He wills, not by violating or bypassing our wills, but by making us willing. By His grace, we delight both to will, and to do, His will.

How does God sanctify us? He uses means. John 17:17 reads, "Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth." As we read and meditate on the Word of God, God changes our hearts. His words are spirit and life. Did you give yourself to the Word of God this past week? Not only does God use His Word to sanctify us, but also prayer. Jude 20 reads, "But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith; praying in the Holy Spirit." We will not become more like Christ unless we are praying; and not just for five or ten minutes a day. If you gave an infant a thimble full of milk every day, would he or she survive? I do not think so. Then why do we think that when it comes to spiritual growth that we can get by on a thimble full of spiritual food a day, falsely believing that such a regimen will sustain us? Where is our logic here? If we want to be full of Christ, we have to be full of His Word and of prayer.

But experientially speaking, how does God sanctify us? How does the change of heart actually occur? He sanctifies us by revealing Himself to us. It is only as we are abiding in the Vine, and sharing in Christ's life that we become more holy. We receive His life, and thus we reflect His character. God is pleased to communicate His grace to us; He is pleased to supply all our needs by His very presence manifested within us; but there is no divine presence apart from His Word and prayer.

God sanctifies through and through

God sanctifies us completely – "Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely." Last January we had a major snowfall. A few feet of snow rested on the roof of our house. During the day, when the sun came up the snow would melt. The water leaked in through the window into my daughter's bedroom. I remember that my wife went into her bedroom and said, "This rug is sopping wet." It was wet 'through and through'. That is what this term 'entirely' means. The God of peace sanctifies us 'through and through'. God never does a 'half baked' job. He never does slipshod work. No, He is the Master Craftsman, and He always does a perfect work. Philippians 1:6 reads, "For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus." That is our confidence.

Notice the parallel statement of our text, "May your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame." The apostle talked about entire sanctification; and now, in effect, he says, "Let me repeat myself, fleshing out this concept a bit further, 'May your spirit [that is, the religious, moral faculty, that capacity which gives us the ability to commune with God] and soul [your personality, what makes you, you] and body [the vehicle through which spirit and soul are expressed. We are made up of an immaterial side and a material side] be preserved [be kept intact, be guarded] complete, without blame'." God is able to render us morally and spiritually faultless, first, because of the shed blood of Jesus, which forgives us of all our sins and is the ground of Christ's imputed and imparted righteousness; and, second, because of the Holy Spirit's presence and power.

My Christian friend, if God has begun a good work in you, He will most definitely preserve you faultless "at the coming of the Lord Jesus." The return of Christ is the ultimate and pivotal reference point. How we are in that Day will make the difference between securing heaven or receiving hell. It is necessary to be in a certain religious and moral state at the coming of the Lord Jesus because He will come to receive His bride, His Church, who will be with Him forever. The bride is now in the process of adorning herself for the coming of the Bridegroom. Will you be ready? Our joyful confidence is that God will make every true believer ready for Christ's coming. Jude 24,25 reads, "Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen." God will preserve our whole being in and through the righteousness of Christ in order to receive, and be found worthy of, the eternal inheritance.

A final encouragement

Let me ask you who are struggling: Are you trusting in your own works to either save or sanctify you? Are you trusting in yourself to 'pull it off'? Do you see yourself as having the ultimate responsibility for making yourself holy? Are you saying, "I will just try harder. This is what God expects. I have to make Him favourable toward me. I have to make Him happy. I have to keep His commandments in order to be accepted by Him. I have to do it right this time"? If that is your thinking, you will get frustrated, upset, and discouraged; you will feel guilty and anxious; and perhaps you will get to the point where you say, 'There is no point in even trying to be a Christian. I cannot do it. I am tired, I am exhausted, and I cannot do it." Right! You cannot do it. It is impossible. But God does not leave you there. God is pleased to come by His Spirit; and I trust He is coming to you to set you free. He says to you, "You cannot do it. Let me do it. Simply give yourself over to Me. Surrender everything you are and have to Me. Stop fighting. Stop striving to be perfect or holy through your own efforts. Give yourself up, saying, 'Enough is enough. I cannot live this Christian life in my own strength, and by my own resources.'"

Let God, by faith, live His life through you because that is exactly what He wants to do. Jesus wants you to be the branch, not the vine. He wants to live His life through you; and all that you have to say is, "I am crucified – nailed to the cross – with Christ, nevertheless, I live, yet, not I ('I' has been dethroned – it is no longer 'I' will do this, or 'I' will do that, or 'I' will turn over a new leaf, or 'I' resolve to do that, etc.), but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live, I live simply by the faith of the Son of God Who loved me and gave Himself for me" (see Ga. 2:20). That is it – faith! And when you learn this simple truth (and I suspect that some have not learned this, having been a Christian for so long), you will know the rest of God. Again, Jesus says to you, "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest" (Mt. 11:28). Jesus does not say come to the Church, nor to tradition, nor to more works, nor to trying harder, nor even to trying to find faith (because that is what some are trying to do, saying, 'Oh, I need faith, I just have to find faith; if I have more faith, then I would get God's power.' You have the wrong focus. Our focus should be Christ, not faith, nor self). Jesus simply says, "Come unto Me, just acknowledge Me, just believe in Me, just accept Me, and I will be your holiness, I will be your sanctification, I will be your peace, and I will be your joy." Won't you do that now?