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The Holy Spirit #7: The Spirit as Sanctifier of the Soul

The Holy Spirit #7: The Spirit as Sanctifier of the Soul

Have you ever seen a bumper sticker that says, "Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven"? Well, I know what they’re getting at and I agree with it, but aren’t we more than just forgiven? Are we forgiven by God and left living lives just as sinful as everyone else? Well, for each of us, I’m sure that there are times when it seems like that. Though we have become objects of the grace of Christ, sin is alive and well and living in our hearts — and coming out in our lives, isn’t it? The gospel tells us that there is hope for sinners. Our sins can be forgiven through the blood of Jesus Christ. But are we not transformed by God in any way that makes us, though far from perfect, reflections of the light and life of Christ while we are alive on this earth? Indeed, in addition to forgiving us, God has also unleashed His power to take the lives of these forgiven sinners and transform them into the image of His Son. That power is God’s Holy Spirit. And that’s what this article is about: the Holy Spirit as the One who sanctifies (or makes holy) our souls. With this article we begin talking about the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.

Gal.5:16-23 talks about the work of the Spirit in the life of a believer:

"But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law."

It is a miracle for a sinner to be transformed into the image of Christ. This simply cannot be done by human strength. We have no power to change ourselves. Everything that is human pulls us away from Christ-likeness. In and of ourselves we are totally depraved. Jesus said, "... apart from Me you can do nothing." (John 15: 5) Paul said, "There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. There is no fear of God before their eyes." (Romans 3:10-12, 18)

Every ounce of righteousness, every good desire, every godly thought, every way we seek after God, every truly good thing that we’ve ever done, every bit of the fear of God in us, it’s all the work of the Holy Spirit. None of it comes from us. Apart from Him we can do nothing. "‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,' says the LORD of hosts." (Zechariah 4:6)


The first miracle in the life of each believer is regeneration. The love of God is an objective fact, a fact that manifested itself 2000 years ago before we were born. We were unaware of it in our early days, most of us. It was there. It was real. But it hadn’t been made known to us personally yet. But by the power of the Holy Spirit God broke into our lives and opened our blind eyes to the reality of His love:

"The love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us." (Romans 5:5)

Just as Jesus was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, so every follower of Christ has been born of the Spirit. That is, the Holy Spirit has planted within our souls the seed of Jesus Christ, so that His life is now in us: that is regeneration.


But that’s not where it ends. The miracle continues! Once His seed is planted in us, it begins to live and grow in us; transforming us into the image of Christ, like yeast that permeates a whole lump of dough. This is what we call sanctification. Sanctification means to make holy. It comes from the same Greek root as the words saint, sanctuary, holy, and hallowed. What does holy mean? It means to set apart as special and different from all the others.

The point is this: God doesn’t stop at regeneration. "He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus." (Philippians 1:6) He is the author of our faith and also the perfector of our faith. "And we...are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." (2Corinthians 3:18) It’s a gradual process. It’s a glorious process. It’s a divine process, even though it is mostly an unconscious process.

The Holy Spirit is the One who wins our hearts by changing our appetites from loving sin to loving righteousness and revealing Christ in all the excellencies of His perfections so that we melt in adoration and appreciation and in awe. It is the Spirit who opens our eyes to spiritual realities, giving us faith to see the real riches and hope for future glory. It is the Spirit who makes a man love that which is good and hate that which is evil, which is not our nature to do. It is the Spirit who helps us to abhor our own pride and rebellion and lust and laziness and selfishness. It is the Spirit who makes the things of Christ seem like the most wonderful and beautiful and precious things in the whole universe. This is why it makes sense to pray for the changing of someone’s heart — because God through His Spirit does change hearts.

There are many examples of this in Scripture:

"For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline." (2Tim.1:7)

The Spirit is the One who produces in us divine power and love and self-discipline. He also gives us a love for God’s law and the power to obey it:

"I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances." (Ezek 36:27) This of course is what it means that through the Spirit the law has been written on our hearts. (See Hebrews 8:10; Rom. 2:25-29; 7:6.)

The Holy Spirit is the One who gives us hope:

"Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit." (Romans 15:13)

The Power to Live as Christ Lived

Romans 8:29 tells us that we have been "predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son." Gal 4:19 refers to the fact that Christ is being formed in us. Galatians 2:20 says "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me." It is the Holy Spirit who actually does this work in us. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus – who comes upon His people to make them like Jesus. Jesus lived His life and now comes back to us, not in body but in Spirit, to live His life through us, to help us along down the path that He paved. So, which one of us is most filled with the Holy Spirit? The one who is most like Jesus.

The Fruits of the Spirit

Gal.5 tells us what kind of results the Spirit is producing in our lives: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control."The Holy Spirit is where these things come from. That’s why these things are called the fruits of the Spirit. Love is worked in us by the Spirit (see Colossians 1:8 and Romans 15:30); whatever true love you have in your heart for God’s people was put there by the Spirit. Joy is also of the Spirit (1Thess. 1:6 refers to "the joy of the Holy Spirit", see also Romans 14:17 and Luke 10:21a): you can’t make yourself joyful; real joy comes from the Holy Spirit.

Now someone might say, "But it is certainly possible for a non-believer to have some of these qualities. How can they then be the fruits of the Spirit?" Well, what a non-believer has is very different than virtues that are produced in a believer by the Holy Spirit. They bear a resemblance certainly. But they are not the same. You see, in a sense there are two kinds of love, and two kinds of joy, and two kinds of peace, and two kinds of patience, and kindness, and goodness, and faithfulness, and gentleness, and self-control.

The world has love, parents love their children, this person loves that person, a man and a woman love each other. That is not Spirit-produced in the sense we’re talking about. The love that the Spirit produces, for instance, is a love that doesn’t stop loving even in the face of rejection and betrayal:

"Love is patient, not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered,...bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails." (1Cor.13:4-8)

The love produced by the Spirit loves even the person that has nothing to offer me:

"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men." (Luke 6:32-35)

That’s the kind of love that the Spirit produces. And the world has nothing of that kind of love. And the joy that the Spirit produces is not like the world’s joy, that comes when things go well. It’s a joy that endures even in the face of agony and loss and disappointment. And the Spirit’s peace is a peace that passes human understanding. That kind of love and joy and peace cannot be produced by that which is human. They are the fruits of the Spirit.

Conflicting Interests

But you can also see that we have two conflicting sets of desires at work in us. We have the Holy Spirit who is at work in believers promoting Christ-likeness. But we also have the flesh, which is the remnant of our sinfulness that remains even after we come to faith in Christ. The flesh is totally depraved. "For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh..." (Romans 7:18) The flesh is against God. It loves sin and hates righteousness. "For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another." (Gal.5:17) Our passage also lists the kinds of fruit that are produced in a person’s life by the flesh: "immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these." (In other words, the list could go on a lot longer.)

This is the tension of the Christian life. This is the battle that every believer must fight: the Holy Spirit’s influence drawing us to Christ and remaking us in His image vs. the orientation toward sin that still resides in us.

The Spirit Glorifying Christ

In the last article we talked about the Holy Spirit as the One who glorifies Christ to us. "He shall glorify Me; for He shall take of Mine, and shall disclose it to you" Jesus said in John 16:14. So one primary ministry of the Spirit is to magnify and glory and promote Christ to His people. [This may be what 1Cor.12:3 means when it says, "no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is accursed’; and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit."]

Satan, on the other hand, is the great diminisher of Christ. Every ploy, every trick, every heresy takes something away from Christ. Whenever Satan tempts us to sin, he is tempting us to think less of Christ. Eat this food, look at this girl, buy this luxury. Every temptation is Satan’s attempt to make us think of Christ as not big enough or good enough or satisfying enough, so that we need this other thing to be really happy.

So the Holy Spirit is working to promote Christ and Satan is working to detract from Christ. Whenever we see Christ as our all in all, it is the Holy Spirit who is doing that in us. Whenever Christ doesn’t seem like enough for us, or when His provision seems inadequate, that is Satan’s influence. And our flesh is in cahoots with Satan.

Weapons of the Spirit

This means that the battle against Satan and against the flesh can only be fought by the power of the Spirit. "If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live." (Romans 8:13) It is by the Spirit that we put to death the deeds of the flesh. So being filled with the Spirit means that you have to be emptied of yourself. Notice also that putting to death the deeds of the body is a process, not an accomplished fact.

How do we pursue this if it is the Spirit’s work? If it is the fruit of the Spirit, what can we do? There are means God has graciously given us by which we can pursue these things.

First of all, we must realize our need for them. Christians today are so desperate to feel good about ourselves that we are too easily encouraged. So often we compare ourselves to the world around us and pat ourselves on the back. Through our neglect of Scripture, we lost sight of what we are meant to me and we settle for a meager spiritual existence. We have such little sense of grief of how far short our lives fall with regard to the law of God. We have such little sense of desperation to become what God wants us to become. We have such little zeal to pursue change in ourselves. We have such little passion to seek God’s help to remake us into the image of Christ.

The second thing we must do is pray. If you’re missing love or joy or peace or patience, etc. you now know where to go. In Eph.3:16 Paul prays that God "would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man." Jesus assures us in Luke 11:13 that the "heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him." It is not enough to understand about the Holy Spirit, we need to pray. And yet even in our praying, we aren’t so much asking to get something we don’t have as we are asking that our eyes might be opened to something we already have – see Eph.1:18-19.

The third thing is to act. It is not just a matter of knowing our need and praying; it is also a matter of doing. It is a matter of stepping out in faith. The Levites stepped into the jordan when it was still water. We need to step out in confidence that God has given us the Spirit to strengthen us in His service. We need to step out saying, "I can do all things through Christ who strenthens me." (Phil.4:13) Earlier we saw in Ezek.36:27 that we acquire obedience through the Holy Spirit. But the Bible also teaches us that in another sense we can obtain the Holy Spirit by stepping out in faithful obedience:

"He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him...If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him." (John 14:21-23)

Galatians 5 and these other passages clearly imply that we are not supposed to just sit around and wait for the Holy Spirit to move us to be and act like Christ. We are to step out in obedience. But that doesn’t mean it is not the Lord who is moving us to obey. As Philippians 2:12-13 says, "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, giving you the will and the power to achieve His good pleasure."