By showing that the sanctification of the believer rests in the work of the Triune God, this article makes plain the dangers of legalism and liberalism.

Source: The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, 2013. 4 pages.

How We Are Sanctified and Live Penitently

And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.

Galatians 5:24-25


It is safe to say that the major concern the apostles had for the lives of those under their care was that they should live sanctified lives. The edification of the church was always in the heart of Paul – “but we do all things, dearly beloved, for your edifying” (2 Cor. 12:19b) – and in the heart of Peter: “be holy in all manner of conversation” (1 Pet. 1:15b). Paul prays for the Thessalonians that God would sanctify them wholly (1 Thess. 5:23), and John wrote in his first letter,

Hereby know we that we are in him. He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked. 1 John 1:5-6

We are to make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy (Heb. 12:14). Sanctification is so critical that professing believers who have no desire for it reveal the dangerous state of their soul, for “without holiness no one will see the Lord.”

Sanctification is perhaps the one key word that summarizes all of religious life in the Old and New dispensations. In the Old, virtually every single person and item connected to the worship of God was to be sanctified or set apart for a holy use. We read of the priests, the people, the tabernacle, and everything in it, the altar, the offerings and even the utensils being sanctified. When hearts are sanctified, as is expected of God’s people also today, it refers to a disposition, an activity, a progress. It is a process of being set apart from sin unto holiness. Therefore, sanctification has a direction. It is in motion. It is never stagnant. For sanctification to be true, there must be a decreasing of sin and increasing of holiness.

To know how to live a sanctified life, therefore, must be a top priority for the Christian. How are we sanctified and how do we live penitently? We hope to consider three foundational truths regarding sanctification found in God’s Word, followed by a look into the fifth chapter of Galatians, which portrays two of the dangers as well as two descriptions of what comprises a life of sanctification.

Three Foundational Elements of Sanctification🔗

The first foundational element is to know and trust in the Trinity’s involvement in the nature of sanctification. Sanc­tification is, very simply, to grow in the likeness of our God and Father. All of God’s communicable attributes are characteristics which ought to be visible in our lives. The holiness of God is, in itself, the attribute most emphasized in the Bible. It is the only attribute elevated to the third degree of emphasis as the angels sing, “Holy, holy, holy” unto the Lord. Christ Jesus, having come into the world as a man, has made it whereby we can see God’s holiness before us. By conforming to the image of Christ, we inevitably become more like God. In considering Christ Jesus, one must begin, of course, trusting His finished work on the cross whereby His people are saved and made able to be sanctified. Without His life and death, there would be no justification and therefore no sanctification. Finally, the Holy Spirit is actively involved in sanctification as He indwells and sanctifies us by quickening us, giving us a heart for the things of God, applying the Word to our hearts, and creating His fruit in our lives. Thus, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all involved in the grace of sanctification. Without the Triune God, we would all be relinquished to our natural state of being dead in our sins and trespasses, in the grips of a tri-fold enemy: Satan, the world, and indwelling sin (Eph. 2:1-2).

heavy case

A second foundational element is to trust that God has given us, in His Word and specifically in the Ten Com­mandments, all we need to know to live a sanctified life. The Bible contains what we must repent of as well as what we must obey – what we must stop doing, thinking and feeling, and what we must begin doing, thinking and feeling. It commands us to “cease to do evil,” as well as to “learn to do well” (Isa. 1:16-17); to “cast off the works of dark­ness,” and to “put on the armour of light” (Rom. 13:12); to “put off” and to “put on” (Eph. 4:22, 24); to “crucify the flesh,” and to “live in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:24-25). The Word explains profusely what are the works, of darkness as it casts light upon what it means to do well.

Finally, a third foundational element is to be assured that God has given all the power necessary for sanctifica­tion to take place in the life of His children. What is this power? In Ephesians 1:16-20, Paul mentions his prayer requests on behalf of the Ephesians. He prays that they would:

  1. know God;
  2. have hope;
  3. know the riches of the glory of their inheritance; and
  4. know the exceeding greatness of God’s power toward believers.

Then he proceeds to explain that this mighty power is the very power with which Jesus was raised from the dead and “set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:17-20).

All this being true – that we have all we need to know in the Word and all the power necessary to live holy lives­ one would wonder why it is so hard for believers to live as they ought, to be towering in majestic demonstrations of righteous living. It must be understood that there is absolutely no limitation in God’s Word or power. The deficiency is not in what God gives. The Bible informs us perfectly well; it gives lists, examples, doctrinal explanations, encourage­ments, and promises as well as every form of inducement to encourage us unto a life of sanctification. It is absolutely persuasive to hear the Son of God solemnly say, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matt. 16:26); or to inform us of the danger of being cast into hell with two eyes and two limbs because we considered it a greater sacrifice to pluck one out or cut them off as opposed to cease from evil (Matt. 18:8-9). The Word has powerful encouragement and teaching unto sanctification. The problem is not in the Word.

Neither can any weakness possibly be attributed to God’s power. Believers have available to them the very power God used to raise Jesus from the dead and ascend Him to heaven. This is tested power. It created all things from noth­ing, covered the whole earth with water, held back the sea, brought plagues upon God’s enemies and healing upon His friends, opened the eyes of the blind, and cleansed the leper. This power brought forth victory in battles, fulfillment of promises, protection of life, as well as restoration of life. The problem is certainly not in divine power. One might still argue that God gives us small amounts of this great power. However, we do not find in Scripture that God merely gives us a hand in holiness, or simply assists us, or provides primary help. Paul declares this power to be the very same one “which (God) wrought in Christ when he raised him from the dead and set him on his own right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:19). The same power that brought Jesus back to life gives us spiritual life. The same power that set Jesus on His heavenly throne is used in the sanctification of His own. The fact that it is impossible to live a perfectly holy life, even for the greatest of saints, bears testimony of how dead we were and how weak we still are in and of ourselves. It tells us how needy we are of the Spirit’s constant power, the Father’s constant love, and the Son’s constant mediation.

Having looked at these three preliminary points, we now consider the two great dangers and the two descriptions of sanctification found in Galatians 5. The two great dangers are legalism and liberalism.

The Danger of Legalism🔗

Paul begins by exposing the danger of legalism by exhorting the Galatians not to tolerate the false teachings of the Judaizers. The ceremonial law was being upheld alongside the work of Christ. Paul is very aggressive in announcing that such a belief ushers those who live this way into a “yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1). Theologically speaking, this bondage is in regards to the law and its demands. Those who seek to achieve righteousness by the works of the law place themselves under its condemning power and exacting demands.

hands bound

Every bondage brings loss. Paul identifies the loss of six blessings for all who are so entangled in legalistic living. The greatest loss of all is Christ Himself. This is the first one Paul mentions: “if ye be circumcised...,” that is, if you have taken upon yourself this sign as a supplement to Christ, “Christ shall profit you nothing” and “Christ is become of no effect unto you” (Gal. 5:2, 4). As William Hendriksen says, “A Christ supplemented is a Christ supplanted.”1 This is the saddest loss of all. In seeking to obtain the approval of God by their own merit, they had in effect disdained the Son. Christ having become to them of no effect, no purpose, and no profit meant the loss of all the other blessings.

Secondly, the very reality of bondage means the loss of freedom. Those who have so behaved have become a “debtor to the whole law” (Gal. 5:3). They are entangled, not free; in bondage, not in liberty. Thirdly, this brings them the loss of obedience. Ironically, in their efforts of obeying the law, they in fact forfeited obedience.

Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?Galatians 5:7

Fourthly, a loss of obedience means a loss of the hope of righteousness.

For we through the Spirit, wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.Galatians 5:5

There only is hope of righteousness through the obedience of faith (Rom. 16:26). To lose righteousness was to lose the very thing they were seeking to gain.

The fifth loss is that of living by way of grace. Those who live based upon their merit have ceased from depending and trusting upon God’s grace: “whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4). This does not denote a loss of salvation, which would be impossible, but a loss of living based upon the grace of God. While one is concerned to achieve his own merit, he is no longer trusting the grace of God is sufficient. And finally, all these losses mean one would also suffer the loss of love, for “faith ... worketh by love” (Gal. 5:6). Those who are busily working their own salvation have no love to give, for they cannot be grateful for that which they do not yet have or realize they have. They cannot obey the summons to “serve one another” (Gal. 5:13) while they are so concerned to serve them­selves. Their heart is not set upon loving their neighbor as themselves, for the love of self is their primary focus in life.

All these losses are sad and sober reminders of the sterile life that legalism produces: no Christ, no freedom, no obedience, no righteousness, no grace, and no love. It follows, thankfully, that the inverse situation is also true. Those who know Christ as their all and experience that faith justifies before God gain all of these graces. Christ being of all effect to you, He in turn profits you everything. You gain liberty from the law’s demands, obedience unto righteousness, the way of grace, and a life of love. Thus, in our pursuit of a sanctified life, we must watch carefully against the danger of legalism.

The Danger of Liberalism🔗

As soon as Paul is about to expose the life of liberty, he reveals a second danger. Paul warns against the danger of liberalism. This danger is sly in that it apparently poses a greater threat to those who cherish their freedom in Christ.

He warns,

Brethren, ye have been called unto liberty, only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh.Galatians 5:13

As Paul writes, he makes it abundantly clear what this could look like by providing a distressing sampler of “the works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19-21). Four are sensual sins from the realm of sexual impurity; two are religious sins from the realm of false gods; the following nine are relational sins from the realm of strife; and the last two are sins related to dissoluteness, from the realm of excesses.

This list solemnly manifests our weakness. This is a picture of man without the hand of God upon him. This is you and me without grace. This is the human heart in unbelief. For a true believer to slip into any of these sins is not due to the Word or the power of God not being adequate; it is due to our own hearts being weak, our lack of faith, our lack of gratitude, our lack of sanctification. It is our slipping back into what our hearts once bowed unto as masters and lords of our soul.

Paul presents one word which is an antidote to both the dangers of legalism and liberalism: “use not liberty, for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). Serving others becomes a means by which we may evalu­ate if our love is real, which in turn proves the reality of our faith. Faith works by love, and love serves. The astounding truth is that in our relationship with God, our relationship to people matters. Not in the sense of merit but in the sense of truth. How you live among others, if you serve them or not, reveals if you have true love to God and faith in Christ.

hands reaching out

Crucifying the Flesh🔗

Finally, we look at the two elements which are part and parcel of true sanctification. In the terms found in Galatians 5, we may call them crucifying the flesh and living in the Spirit. Crucifying the flesh, or mortification of sin, is putting off the old man, actively putting off sin, developing a greater and greater hatred of sin as we live our lives. In a word, this is repentance. It is living penitently. One must realize how abhorrent sin is if there is to be any sanctification in the soul. Sin is completely opposed to God; it seeks to do nothing else but kill us and destroy any likeness of Christ in our lives. This is where repentance is an ongoing grace – always confessing, pleading for forgiveness, repenting of sin, repenting of our repentance (for it is never as penitent as it should be), and seeking to live a more pleasing life to God.

Paul’s list of works of the flesh presents a clear sample of sins that must simply be eradicated from our lives. God is simply saying, this is a list of things that must go! They were, by occasion of Christ’s death, crucified with Him; thus they have no place in your life if you belong to Him. We do not mortify such sins only by not committing them, but also by practicing graces that powerfully work to mortify these vices. As said before, sanctification is always in motion. A good indicator that mortification is truly underway is when one is truly ceasing to sin more and more and beginning to serve the Lord more and more by actively, specifically living and walking in the Spirit.

Living in the Spirit🔗

Living in the Spirit is growing in holiness. This works in a positive way by mortifying sin. It must do so, for it is to become more and more like Christ by the devoted reading of God’s Word, meditating upon it, praying, and praising the Lord in truth. The fruit of the Spirit, of which Paul gives a sample in verses 22-23, are graces diametrically opposite to the works of the flesh, so that in practicing them, we apply the most effective means for their mortification. Thus, love would in one blow exterminate adultery, hatred, strife, and envy, for you would not desire anything to be yours from the one you love. Temperance is a powerful weapon against uncleanness, drunkenness and revelings; meekness against murders; peace against seditions, and goodness against wrath.

These are graces that do not originate in the human heart, although they are made manifest there. They are fruit not of the flesh but of the Spirit. True love, joy, peace, and such are heavenly graces made visible in the heart of God’s people. They are a direct consequence of the indwelling of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s ministry is to make holy those in whom He dwells. When He quickens and enters a soul, He comes with the fullness of His power, glory, and holiness. It is a guaranteed work because it is His work. We are recipients, yet fully responsible to obey the command to trust the One who sent Him and make use of the means of grace in order to have such fruit produced in abundance in our lives.

Thus, we can understand our dire need of a triune God, His holy Word, and His powerful hand, that He may graciously lead us in the grace of sanctification, keeping us far from the dangerous rocks of legalism and precipices of liberalism – all to God’s glory.


  1. ^ William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, Exposition of Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1968), 195.

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