Several weeks ago I preached a message at Hope Church called The Sanctifying Work of the Holy Spirit (audio is above) as part of our 5 Marks of a Healthy Disciple series. A big chunk of this sermon was taken up by an explanation of what I call the sanctification cycle. I have found that sanctification happens in four general phases. (I use the word phases rather than steps because these do not always go in order, they often overlap, and sometimes happen all at the same time.) These phases represent the cyclical work of the Holy Spirit as he forms believers into the image of Jesus. Just as we are never truly done with phase one, we never truly master phase four in this life.
As you journey with Jesus, perhaps the sanctification cycle can serve as a sort of map for where the Spirit has you. On what is the Spirit focussing his sanctifying efforts in your life? Identifying the work of the Spirit in specific terms will help you cooperate with him to achieve his goals for your good. Is he convicting you of sin? If so, what sin? How can you focus your energies on overcoming that sin? Is he empowering you for mission? If so, has he given you specific direction? Of course, it may not be so easy to identify the work of the Spirit, but having a map could help you hear his voice more clearly.
Phase One: Conviction of Sin
The first phase of the sanctification cycle is the conviction of sin. As he was describing the work of the Spirit, Jesus told his disciples that one of his primary tasks was to convict the world of sin and righteousness. This is true for every believer, too. One of the most important tasks of the Holy Spirit is to name our sin and call us to repentance. Unnamed sins maintain their hold on our lives, but God longs to set us free from the power of sin. He wants us to live in the same freedom, and with the same power over sin, in which Jesus lived.
One of the most important tasks of the Holy Spirit is to name our sin and call us to repentance.
The Spirit’s intention in convicting us of sin is to bring us to the place of forgiveness – the cross of Christ. At the cross we find that God has already forgiven the sin that we are currently forsaking. But we cannot find forgiveness anywhere else. Repentance brings us to the foot of the cross where we can confess freely, and where we freely receive God’s empowering grace.
Phase Two: Inner Transformation
The second phase of the sanctification cycle is the transformation of our hearts and minds. When Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks,” he meant that our words and actions are a reflection of what is in our hearts and minds. The internal drives the external. Therefore, sanctification isn’t simply a matter of behavior, it is a matter of thought and desire. It is not enough to forsake sinful behavior in repentance, we must also be transformed in our inner beings. The greatest power in repentance is the permission it gives the Spirit to transform us on the inside.
The greatest power in repentance is the permission it gives the Spirit to transform us on the inside.
Phase Three: Bearing Spiritual Fruit
The third phase of the sanctification cycle is the bearing of spiritual fruit. Paul tells us in that famous passage from Galatians that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The person who is filled with the Spirit will have their life characterized by these qualities because the Spirit manifests the fruit in those he fills.
Wherever the believer’s personality runs counter to the fruit of the Spirit, there the personality must be surrendered to the sanctifying work of the Spirit.
In other words, the fruit are not optional. These nine character qualities are simply the description of a Spirit-filled person. But that doesn’t mean that the bearing of love, joy, peace, and all the rest is under our control. It isn’t. An apple tree doesn’t bear apples because it tries really hard; it gives apples because that is its nature. It is the same way with us and the Spirit. While we can certainly attend to the fruit of the Spirit, and we can do things that enhance this process, it is ultimately the Spirit who brings the fruit to bear.
Phase Four: Empowerment for Mission
The fourth phase of the sanctification cycle is empowerment for mission. The Spirit of God gives God’s people power to accomplish the mission of God. The Spirit is not satisfied to simply make good people; he commissions and empowers those people to bring God’s Kingdom into the world. God’s mission is more than making the world a better place, though it does that, too. His mission is to restore the goodness of creation by redeeming humanity from sin and death through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He has entrusted this mission and message to the Church, who, after 2,000 years of observation, we can safely say can only accomplish this mission and be faithful to this message when living obediently in the power of the fullness of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit is not satisfied to simply make good people; he commissions and empowers those people to bring God’s Kingdom into the world.
Having a map like the sanctification cycle can help you understand what, specifically, the Holy Spirit is doing in your life. Because all four phases overlap in some way, they all affect one another. If the Holy Spirit is convicting you of a sin but you are not repenting, your power for mission will be diminished. If you are refusing to cooperate with his transformational work, you will not bear spiritual fruit at the level you should. But the converse is also true. Repentance enhances your mission. Who knows what you can accomplish for the sake of the gospel when you respond to the Spirit’s conviction?