The Holy Spirit and Sanctification

Without the Spirit of God, we can do nothing. We are as ships without wind; like branches without sap, we are withered; like coals without fire, we are useless.”[1] In order to be regenerated, we were utterly dependent upon the power of the Holy Spirit. And in order to be sanctified, we are still completely dependent upon the power of the Holy Spirit.

Our Inability to Sanctify Ourselves

“I am determined to be holy!” may sound spiritual, but we will never be able to fulfill it in our own strength. “The flesh is weak” (Mat 26:41),[2] the Lord taught, and our own experience confirms that sheer determination alone does not produce righteous living nor can it overcome the power of sin. “The flesh is no help at all” (Joh 6:63). Not only do we struggle with natural, physical limitations, but there is also an evil principle within us – also called “the flesh” in a negative, ethical sense[3] – and it is hopelessly corrupt. In no sense was our flesh improved at conversion.

Galatians clearly describes the war going on inside the Christian: “The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (5:17). The flesh wants to produce its evil works, listed in verses 19-21. The Spirit wants to produce His fruit, listed in verses 22-23. Let me reiterate, beloved – we do not win this war in our strength and determination. The fruit is not “of the flesh” but “of the Spirit.” It is His energy at work within us.

Romans 6-8 is teaching a similar lesson. According to Romans 6, in Christ Jesus we died to sin and are now alive to God. But if we pursue righteous living, for example, through a determination to keep the law, we will experience the despair of Romans 7. We each need to learn and remember that “nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Rom 7:18).

The Spirit Makes All the Difference

Tied to the frustration of Romans 7 is the almost complete absence of the Holy Spirit (He is mentioned only in verse 6, anticipating the next chapter). But once the ministry of the Holy Spirit is emphasized in Romans 8 (15 times in the first 16 verses), we find freedom and victory. Romans 6-8 have been helpfully compared to the experience of Lazarus in John 11. He died and was made alive again (Rom 6), but when he first came out of the tomb, he was still wrapped in grave clothes, bound by that limitation (Rom 7). “Unbind him, and let him go” (Joh 11:44), the Lord said – and that freedom corresponds to the Spirit’s work for us in Romans 8. The righteousness to which God calls us is only possible because we “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:4).

Neither the law nor the flesh (Scripture links them closely) justified us, and neither the law nor the flesh can sanctify us. “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:3). Of course not. Sanctification is only possible through the ministry of the Spirit of God within someone. Mercifully, though, “if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Rom 8:10). Our growth in holiness is possible because we, as believers, do possess the Spirit of holiness. This article began with the reminder that without the Spirit of God we can do nothing. But with Him, the most beautiful thing is possible – likeness to Christ.

So… Do We Just Wait for the Spirit to Sanctify Us?

No. Sanctification is a lot like regeneration. We did not save ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we had no responsibility in the matter. By God’s grace, we did obey the word of truth; we did believe God; we did submit to the work of the Holy Spirit to convict us and draw us to Christ. We do not sanctify ourselves, but we do have responsibilities. For example, in Romans 8:13, we are to “put to death the deeds of the body.” But do not miss the vital qualifier in the text – we do that “by the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit’s power will be operative in an obedient believer, submitting to the Spirit’s word and work. Final victory and likeness to Christ awaits the Lord’s return, but the Spirit will grant power over sin and growth in righteousness in a people who trust and obey.

Walk… Be Filled… Sow

In fact, God promises us victory in Galatians 5:16: “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” The walk of verse 16 is teased out in the verses that follow, including verse 25 with another phrase that most translations render something like, “let us also walk by the Spirit.” But the phrase is different from verse 16; verse 25 more clearly emphasizes the need to follow the Spirit’s leading, to “keep in step with the Spirit” (NIV). Obviously, the Spirit will never lead us to gratify the wicked flesh within us. But how do we learn and sense His leading? Thankfully, He has made His ways and desires clear in the Scriptures, which He has breathed out. If I prayerfully seek to follow the guidance of His Word, I will experience growth, power and victory.

“Be filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18) is another command to obey. Certainly, we already possess as much of Him as we can, but the first part of the text gives us a key interpretive clue: “do not get drunk with wine.” When someone is drunk, they are living under the influence of alcohol; when someone is filled with the Spirit, they are living under His influence. His holy desires control our behavior. This doesn’t mean we roll around out of control on the floor. In the context, a Spirit-filled individual will enjoy Christian fellowship, will sing, be thankful, and submit to their fellow believers. This is the fruit that the Spirit produces (love, joy, peace … self-control) – this is sanctification by the Spirit. And notice that this fruit is Christlike in character. This is an obvious contrast between being drunk and being filled with the Spirit – “one makes us like beasts, the other like Christ.”[4]

This text also helpfully blends human responsibility with divine activity. “Be filled” is a command, but it is in the passive voice, conveying our responsibility to let Him fill us, to yield to Him and His power. The passive voice does not mean we have no role; it means the power to truly enjoy fellowship and worship comes from Him. We actively choose whether or not to get drunk, and we actively choose whether or not to let the Spirit control us. If we grieve Him with critical words and bitter attitudes toward fellow saints, in whom He also dwells (Eph 4:29-30), we will restrain His liberty within us. Similarly, if we resist the Spirit’s voice when He speaks to us through the preaching of His Word, we quench Him (1Th 5:19-20), and again restrain His liberty among us. Being filled by the Spirit is yielding to His will. It is hard to imagine this being a practical reality without times of sincere prayer. We often approach prayer as a time to tell God our wills, but when we are “praying in the Spirit” (Eph 6:18), we learn to submit our will to His.

Galatians 6 is particularly helpful to me, personally, in practically uniting my responsibility with complete dependency upon the Spirit’s work: “Whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (vv7-8). Human strength doesn’t produce the life or the growth (cf. 1Co 3:6-7), but it is our choice where we sow. Imagine two fields before you, and where you plant determines which one will produce. You don’t cause the seed to bear fruit, and you don’t make it defy gravity and shoot up into various blossoms. But neither do you sit back and wait to see where the seeds plant themselves. You choose to sow, you choose where to sow, and you even contribute water to ensure the seed has a good environment (cf. Rom 13:14) – but “God gives the growth.” Fruit takes time to grow, but it does grow. Sanctification is gradual, but if we “set [our] minds on the things of the Spirit” (Rom 8:5), the Spirit will make us more holy. The choice is yours; the power is the Spirit’s. Do you want to be holy? Let the Spirit have His way with you, and He will produce the beautiful fruit of holiness – likeness to the Person of Christ.

[1] Charles Spurgeon, A Revival Promise, sermon preached Jan 11, 1874, on Isa 43:3-5.

[2] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.

[3] cf. Rom 7:5; Gal 5:13

[4] John Stott, Baptism and Fullness (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 74.