We are often fond of saying that justification is a gift, and sanctification is a lot of work, which is true in one way. But what we often mean by it is that we do nothing in justification, and then sanctification is quid pro quo all the way. That needs a rethink.
In Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul says that salvation — by which he means being made alive with Christ, raised with Christ, and seated with Christ in the heavenly places — is not of works, lest anyone should boast. Boasting is excluded by God’s grace.
Thing is, this is also true of sanctification, is it not? We don’t buy our way into spiritual blessing in this life any more than we buy our way into the family to start with. Everything we have — everything — is given by God. “What do you have, that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as though you did not?”
God blesses us in sanctification, to be sure, but it’s not a quid pro quo type of transaction, any more than justification is. Sanctification is hard — very hard, at times. But it’s hard because we’re sinners, and it runs counter to our nature to cooperate with God instead of rebelling against Him. God is seeking to give us His blessings, to pour out far more than we can imagine, but there are certain relational blessings He simply can’t give us without our cooperation. You can give a rebellious 2-year-old a hug whether he wants it or not, but you can’t give him the experience of a good hug unless he’s willing to receive it. If he fights you, you may succeed in getting your arms around him and squeezing, but relationally speaking, it’s hardly the same experience, is it?
Sanctification is, above all, a relationship with the living God. Like all good relationships, it requires that we be willing to receive the other person.
But is this so different from justification? As long as a person insists on working, on taking his destiny into his own hands, on keeping Jesus out of the picture, then he cannot be born again. “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to be called sons of God….”
The difference is in scope more than in kind. But we ought to expect nothing else: “Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?”