The Sanctifying Work of the Holy Spirit

Dr. Brian Allison

The Spirit powerfully frees the believer from the bondage and dominion of sin. Now, the freeing power of the Spirit particularly results in, and leads to, the sanctifying work of the Spirit. In being freed from the bondage and dominion of sin, Christians are simultaneously freed to a life of holiness. Thus, the Scriptures read, "Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:17,18). Our concentration in this article will be on this matter of sanctification, which is simply the demonstration of the Spirit's liberating ministry. There are two aspects involved in the Spirit's sanctifying work: 1) the Spirit enlightens; 2) the Spirit transforms.

The Spirit enlightens

We read, "But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord." Spiritual blindness is pictured as being 'veiled'. Thus, we read, "But their minds [i.e., the Jews' minds] were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ" (2 Cor. 4:14). In their natural state, people are blind to the truth of the Gospel. They do not understand and appreciate the contents of the Gospel. For example, a number of years ago, I was witnessing to an unbelieving couple (who subsequently became very good friends of my wife and mine) on Yonge Street in front of the coffee shop at Evergreen. For a lengthy period of time, I tried to witness to them about Jesus Christ. They told me sometime afterwards that even though I talked for so long, they apparently did not understand anything that I said. They said that the only reason they listened was because I was so passionate. Subsequent to that meeting, another Christian led them to a saving knowledge of Christ. Yet, at the time that I was witnessing to them, they were blinded spiritually; they could not understand nor appreciate the content of the Gospel.

Spiritual blindness is not merely the result of human deficiency or inaptitude; and it is not merely because of the "sin factor;" but spiritual blindness is a result of the deceiving, blinding power of Satan. So, we read, "And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God" (2 Cor. 4:3,4). The devil has cast a deceptive cloak over the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot understand the Gospel. Why is it that your unbelieving son, your unbelieving daughter, your unbelieving husband, your unbelieving wife, etc. have not responded to the presentation of the Gospel? Why is it that they have not embraced the simple message of salvation? Yes, because of their sin indeed, but also because of the deceiving, blinding power of Satan. They may not realize it, but Satan has them in his bony grasp. The Scriptures read, "If perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will" (2 Tm. 2:25f.). Ephesians 2:1,2 reads, "And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience." Unbelievers are being motivated by the evil one. He blinds their minds to the truth.

A number of years ago, I was witnessing to a young man. He was rather uncouth. I invited him out to Church to hear a well-known preacher. That evening this preacher brought an evangelistic message, and he 'bore down' upon the consciences. Afterwards I asked him, "Well, what did you think?" He said, "Oh, I think that guy could make it in the theatre. He would be a great actor." He failed to really perceive the spiritual realities and feel the spiritual impact of the preaching. His mind was spiritually blinded. No one can understand the Gospel until God enlightens him.

So, spiritual blindness is being veiled; and obviously to be unveiled is to know spiritual enlightenment or illumination – "But we all, with unveiled face, beholding in a mirror the glory of the Lord." To be spiritually enlightened is to receive and understand the truth of the Gospel (and, of course, when we talk about the Gospel, we are ultimately talking about the whole of the New Testament). It is to appreciate the teaching of the knowledge of God and Christ. It is to grasp and embrace the preached message of salvation – "And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing" (2 Cor. 4:3). When the Gospel is unveiled (that is, the contents are truly grasped), one has eternal life.

Practically speaking, to be spiritually enlightened means that the Bible has become an open, living book. It means that the Bible 'speaks' to you, and 'speaks' into your experience. It means that you 'hear' God through the pages of the Scriptures. I have a student who has been converted for about 4 years. Before he became a Christian, he used to read the Bible, but he could not understand it. It was a dry, boring book to him; but when he became a Christian, the Scriptures began to 'live.' He, in effect said, "That which I did not understand at one time became patently clear. It seems that the Bible just opened up to me and I understood its truth and its content." Luke 24:45 confirms this experience, "Then He [Jesus] opened their minds to understand the Scriptures." Is that true for you? Do you find the Bible a dry, boring, and, at times, tedious book? Do you close the Bible and say, "Well, I didn't get anything out of that." That does not happen when the veil has been lifted; you begin to understand and appreciate the content of the Scriptures. 1 John 2:27 reads, "And as for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him." Through the Spirit, Who is the anointing, the Christian understands God's truth. Similarly, we read in 1 John 5:20, "And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding, in order that we might know Him who is true, and we are in Him who is true, in His Son, Jesus Christ."

Spiritual enlightenment, according to this particular passage, involves a number of things. First, spiritual enlightenment only comes through the prescribed means of the preaching, teaching and reading of the Gospel. The Gospel is the ordained instrument through which spiritual light comes. Again, we read, "Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.... For we do not preach ourselves [in presenting the Gospel] but Christ Jesus and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus' sake" (2 Cor. 4:3,5). What we are saying is: only through the Gospel is there saving knowledge.

Secondly, the fruit of spiritual enlightenment – personally receiving the truth – is the act of repentance. So, we read, "But whenever a man turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away [i.e., he is spiritually enlightened]." Now, the second part of this statement is not a consequential phrase, that is, one first turns to the Lord, and then he is enlightened. No, some light (the truth) must first come, before any turning is possible (for one must first understand why he must turn and what he is turning to). The second part of this statement is an explanation of what is involved in the actual turning, that is, if one turns, that indicates that one has been enlightened. Acts 26:17,18 provides us with the logical order. Jesus addressed the apostle Paul, "Delivering you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes [i.e., to enlighten them] so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God [i.e., to repent], in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me." So, 2 Corinthians 3:16, could be read thus, "But whenever a man turns to the Lord, it means that the veil is taken away."

Third, spiritual enlightenment has a deeply subjective side. When we talk about spiritual enlightenment, we are not simply talking about understanding and appreciating the Gospel objectively, although that is true; but spiritual enlightenment also entails a spiritual 'seeing' of Christ. Spiritual enlightenment is an internal enlightenment, as well as an intellectual one, which is equally achieved through the medium of truth – "But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord." We spiritually see Christ through the truth of the Gospel. Again, we read, "In whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God.... For God, who said, 'Light shall shine out of darkness,' is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Cor. 4:4,6). The glory of Christ and God actually constitute the spiritual light. The knowledge received is intensely experiential. The shining of God into the heart [i.e., His illuminating work] brings a spiritual vision of Christ. Spiritual enlightenment is an inner realization of the beauty, glory, and majesty of Christ (and I am not talking about having some picture or image of Christ in our minds). I am talking about something that is deeply experiential and subjective on the background of, and based on, the objective Word of God. When we are spiritually enlightened, we do not simply acknowledge that the Gospel reveals the beauty and wonder of Christ, but we personally perceive and witness that beauty and wonder. Through the Word of God, the Spirit impresses on the heart the glorious reality of Jesus Christ.

That kind of an experience does not leave one indifferent or complacent. When Isaiah beheld the glory of the Lord in the temple, he was overwhelmed. When Daniel beheld the Apocalyptic vision of Christ, he became enfeebled and his countenance changed to a deathly pallor. The vision of Christ can shatter you. When the Apostle John beheld the Apocalyptic vision of Christ on the Isle of Patmos, he collapsed. When you behold His glory, you cannot be indifferent, you cannot be unmoved. It humbles you, and strips you of all carnal confidence and pride; and you fall down and worship the One who is the fairest of ten thousands to the soul; the altogether lovely One. Do you know what I am talking about?

Last week, I was speaking to a good pastor friend of mine. During our conversation, we talked about revival and renewal. He said, "For about 15 years I have heard about revival and renewal, but I did not really know what that was really all about until about three months ago. Then I understood. The Lord came in and removed the scales from my eyes; and I saw the glory of Christ, and I was changed." Even as Christians we can have scales upon our eyes; we know Him, but we do not clearly see Him. We hear about Him, but we do not truly behold Him. When you behold the Lord Jesus Christ, you are transformed.

The Spirit transforms

Not only does the sanctifying work of the Spirit entail spiritual enlightenment, it also entails spiritual transformation. In having this vision of Christ, informed and sustained through the truth of the Gospel, one is spiritually transformed by the Spirit – "But we all, with unveiled face [that is, now spiritually seeing clearly] beholding as in the mirror [through Gospel in the heart] the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image [of Jesus Christ] from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit." We talk about glorification being the end of the application of salvation; that when Christ comes again, we shall be perfected; and yet this text indicates that we are now in the process of being glorified. We are presently going 'from glory to glory'; and one day we shall enter into the fullness of glory.

Now do you see how this transformation is taking place? The Spirit transforms us through the means of beholding the Son in His glory. By looking into the 'mirror', we do not behold ourselves; but, paradoxically, we behold Christ; and thus we assume His image – He "who is the image of God" (2 Cor. 4:4). In other words, you are only transformed while you are living in His presence. The face of Moses changed 'in glory' because he was in the very presence of God; and being in the presence of God you too will assume His glory. If you are not in His personal presence, you will not be spiritually changed. You may become a better person, but you will not be changed.

You may ask yourself the questions: How can I be more spiritual? How can I be more holy? How can I become spiritually alive? You will not become more spiritual, you will not become more holy, you will not become more spiritually alive through your sheer determination and effort to do so, saying, for instance, "Just a bit more reading, just a bit more praying, just a bit more serving, and then I will be change spiritually." These means are helpful and necessary, but they are not the source of actual spiritual change. There is a grave danger when you emphasize and confuse the means as being the source for becoming more spiritual. Do you see what that leads to? It leads to a 'works religion.' It is a very subtle thing. The problem is that you become dependent on the religious exercises and (if I may put it this way) 'Christian ritualism' as a way for you to become more spiritual. It does not work! You may become more moral, you may even become more religious, but you will not necessarily become more spiritual. Is it any wonder that so many believers become frustrated and disappointed in their Christian walk? They are confusing the means as being the source, and thus they have a 'works religion.'

You will become more spiritual, more holy, more spiritually alive only by 'seeing' Christ; only by 'gazing upon' Jesus; and in that vision, you will desire to be more like Him; and the Spirit will use that vision to actually transform you. We cannot transform ourselves. The Spirit alone is the Agent of spiritual change – "We are changed from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit." It is God who does it; He brings about the change, and unless you understand that, you will set yourself up for constant failure and frustration.

Are you spiritually discouraged? Do you really have a desire to be spiritual, but in light of this teaching, you are drawing the conclusion that you cannot do anything about it? In one sense, you are right – it is the Spirit who enlightens; it is the Spirit who transforms. You may then say, "Well, I can't do anything about my spiritual condition." And as a result, you are disappointed, frustrated, and discouraged. But is it true that you cannot do anything? First, though it is the Spirit's work, you have a responsibility to strive, to seek, and to be obedient to the Lord. But more crucially, with respect to 'entering in', you can facilitate the process, by yielding; or, as Lewis Sperry Chafer has put it, there must be a new adjustment to the Spirit.

When we talk about yielding to Jesus Christ, when we talk about a new adjustment to the Spirit, we are talking about submission or surrender to God's will. I want to suggest a very practical exercise for you in order to guide you in this process of yielding. Now, this exercise is not a key, but I think you may find it helpful. When you come to the point of really being sure that you want to 'enter in', when you come to the point where you are sure that you desperately want to change spiritually, I suggest that you do this: get away by yourself and pray a prayer of consecration. And in that prayer of consecration, say something like this to the Lord (and you need to be very careful before you do this because God will take note of every word that comes out of your mouth): "Lord, I will do anything You want me to do, I will go anywhere You want me to go, and I will be anything You want me to be." There is power in the verbalization; there is power in the confession. In making this kind of prayer, you are not simply saying, "I want God's will in some particular area of my life;" but rather, you are saying, "I want God's will in every area of my life; and I only want God's will, and it does not matter what it is. He is sovereign, and He can do anything with me that He wants to do; and I am giving my wholehearted consent to that."

When you get to that point where it does not matter what He does with you, and you can say as Job, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him" (Jb. 13:15a); when you get to the point where the only thing that delights you is the will of God; and you can say affirmatively, "Lord, I will do anything You want me to do, go anywhere You want me to go and be anything You want me to be;" and continue to accept, acknowledge, and live in the light of that confession, then the Spirit will make Himself known to you and He will show you Christ's glory, and you shall be changed spiritually.

God wants conquered wills from us so that we will only live for His will, and we will only will His will. This prayer of consecration is just a practical exercise, but I think it could be very helpful to some. But I know that you may struggle with uttering the actual words during this particular kind of prayer. It is a major step which will involve the total offering of yourself to God without reversal. You most likely will wrestle in your soul; you will be anxious, and even fearful, realizing what is at stake here. But once you 'get through', you will be on your way to freedom and fullness. In your surrender, you will behold God. God wants your heart now. Why do you delay?