"People don't change," the saying goes. We all know the experience of trying to change only to regress into well-worn patterns. We know the pain of watching a loved one fall into the same traps in spite of efforts to escape. And perhaps you are tempted to toss up your hands and give in to your worst behavior patterns. You are not alone.
Yet, in the midst of our false-starts and do-overs comes an event that changes everything. In a Jerusalem garden, a stone was rolled aside, and He who was dead came back to life. The resurrection of Jesus Christ was not only a historical event but also our hope that change is possible.
We are redeemed, and yet we await the day when we will no longer struggle with sin.
The Promise of Change
Sanctification in the Bible is the process of positive change in the life of a Christ-follower. The Greek root behind the word "sanctification" is the same root found in the word "holy." To be sanctified is to be set apart for a holy purpose or to be made more holy in practice. Both these meanings for sanctification are observable in the life of the Christian.
We see both these distinctions in the early church in Corinth, as well. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul addresses immorality and division in the church community. He reminds them, "Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). But then he adds this revealing statement: "And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Corinthians 6:11, emphasis added).
Paul's words stir up two thoughts. First, people actually can change! Former drunkards, former thieves, former immoral people can be so transformed by Jesus that they become the living and growing body of Christ. Paul, of course, knew this because he himself was transformed from a persecutor of Christ-followers to a Christ-follower.
Second, change is not the simple flip of a switch. Even though the Corinthians were no longer defined by their former lives, they still struggled with issues (like immorality and division) that had once held them captive. They were sanctified (set apart) and yet still needed to be sanctified (made holy in practice). This is still the struggle of most Christians today; we are redeemed, and yet we await the day of full redemption when we will no longer struggle with sin.
The Struggle of Sanctification
Think back to when you first placed your faith in Christ. God opened your eyes to the depth and weight of your sin, you confessed it to the Lord, and He forgave you. You probably saw some immediate change in your life. Perhaps you quit cursing the next day or restored a broken relationship. Maybe, like Zacchaeus, you reconciled a history of financial abuse. It was an encouraging start. However, after the initial change, perhaps you discovered a level of deeply embedded sin patterns. These rocks were harder to move, and change slowed. Eventually, you began to give up on seeing change in these areas and settled into a "sanctification stasis."
Many times, the sins that are so difficult to overcome are either internal (and therefore easier to hide) or are acceptable in our culture. Greed and gluttony are examples of these deeply embedded sins. You know they aren't the best, but everyone struggles with something, right? And pride is the king of sins that refuses to give way. Since pride can look like confidence (something we praise) or success (something we aspire to) and since pride lives at the heart level, it can be one of the hardest sins to uproot, undermining every effort we make to put on the new self (see Ephesians 4:17-24). And so many give up hope.
But this is where we come back to Paul and the Corinthians. Why would Paul remind the Corinthians that they have been sanctified? Because the foundational reason to walk the path of sanctification, to work to root out embedded sin patterns, is that we have already been sanctified (set apart). And this has everything to do with the resurrection.
The Power to Change
Paul clarifies this concept in his letter to the Colossian church. In the second chapter he makes a radical use of the preposition "with." He writes that we, as Christians, were "buried with [Christ] in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead" (2:12, ESV). The apostle is saying that when Jesus died, we died. When Jesus was buried, we were buried. And, when Jesus was raised to new life, we shared in His resurrection. Talk about experiencing change.