We don’t want to remain spiritual children, perpetually stuck in infancy. We don’t want to be weak, vulnerable, and immature. Nor do we want to be ignorant about God’s truth, because we want to fully glorify Him for everything He has done. We want to appreciate Him in all His fullness, knowing and loving Him thoroughly. If that’s the goal, then how do we get there? How do we respond to the Word in a way that drives that progress?
I see three definitive steps in the biblical pattern of sanctification. The first is cognition. John 17:17 gives our Lord’s prayer: “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” We have to understand what the Bible says and what it means if it is going to produce growth in us. Sanctification begins with spiritually renewing the mind, that is, changing how we think. We need “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). There is no premium on ignorance or naivete in sanctification. The discipline of putting the truth constantly at the forefront of our minds is crucial.
If we lack spiritual maturity, we must read everything we can that faithfully and accurately explains the Word of God to us. We must study the Bible and memorize it; we must read commentaries from biblical scholars, listen to sermons from faithful expositors, and read the biographies of godly saints whose lives display the kind of maturity we want to see in our own lives. We must soak our minds in the Scriptures, fueling the Spirit’s sanctifying work.
That seems like an obvious first step, but it’s one that many believers fail to take. They can’t fathom why they keep succumbing to the same temptations and why their love for the Lord has cooled and their interest in His church has plateaued. They fail to understand that the absence of biblical knowledge retards spiritual thinking and slows spiritual growth.
Don’t confuse childlike faith with childish thinking. Legalism won’t lead us to holiness and spiritual maturity. Mysticism and sacramentalism won’t get us there, either. Pragmatism will likely lead us in the wrong direction, and it invites us to pursue quick fixes and worldly wisdom instead of grounding us in the truth of God’s Word. The only activity that catalyzes the ongoing sanctifying process is taking in the truth of Scripture. Cognition—knowing and understanding the truth—is the first step in pursuing spiritual growth through the Word of God.
After cognition comes conviction. As we learn the truth of Scripture, we must begin to develop beliefs into convictions. Our lives are controlled by our convictions. As the truth of God’s Word begins to occupy our minds and shape our thoughts, it will produce principles that we desire not to violate. This is what sanctification is about—being inwardly compelled to obedience.
The Apostle Paul suffered many things during his ministry—imprisonment, severe beatings, shipwrecks, and a constant stream of unfounded accusations from false teachers.
In 2 Corinthians 4, he describes the difficulties of his life: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (vv. 8–9). In verse 11, he continues, “For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake.” Every day, he understood that any one of the several plots against him could come to fruition. At any moment, he could be dead. Everywhere he went, he offended people. He was constantly being thrown out of synagogues and into prison. He lived in a perpetual cycle of opposition and oppression.
What made him keep going in spite of all the hardship he faced? In verse 13, he quotes the Psalms, saying, “I believed, therefore I spoke.” That is conviction. Paul might as well say: “What else do you want me to do? There is no alternative for me. This is my conviction from the Word of God.”
That conviction shaped Paul’s life and ministry. Earlier in 2 Corinthians, he testified, “For our proud confidence is this: the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you” (1:12). Paul was true to the wisdom of God, and his conscience did not accuse him, regardless of the accusations against him. In Acts 23:1, he says, “Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day,” and in Acts 24:16, “I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men.” Paul’s firm convictions, rooted in Scripture, helped him live a righteous life, with nothing to be ashamed of.
John Bunyan, the great Puritan preacher and author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, remained in jail for twelve years, but it wasn’t the prison bars that held him there. He could have walked free if he would simply promise to stop preaching. Facing that option, Bunyan wrote, “If nothing will do, unless I make of my conscience a continual butchery and slaughter-shop, unless putting out my own eyes I commit me to the blind to lead me, I have determined, the Almighty God being my help and shield, yet to suffer, if frail life might continue so long, even till the moss shall grow on mine eyebrows rather than thus to violate my faith and principles.”1 That is conviction. When we read the Bible, we are learning the Word of God in order to develop convictions that will rule our lives and hold our consciences captive, activating them when we start to violate God’s righteous standard. Biblical truth establishes cognition in the mind and develops restraint in the conscience.
The third feature is affection. The love of God’s truth is a consistent theme throughout Scripture, and particularly in the Psalms. Psalm 119 is an exhaustive account of the psalmist’s love for the truth and his delight in the law. We’ve already looked at Psalm 19, where David says that God’s Word is “more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb” (v. 10). Or look at Psalm 1, which describes the great blessing for the one whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night” (v. 2). As we expose ourselves to the Word, we begin to understand what it says. It begins to form our convictions, and then it becomes our sincere affection.
How strong should that affection be? Peter put it this way: “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). Spiritual growth comes when we know the Word, when it shapes our convictions, and when we learn to long for the sustenance it alone can provide.
Psalm 42:1 says, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God.” The psalmist is not referring to the way some people read the Bible as a curiosity or as ancient literature. He’s not talking about perusing the Bible for intellectual stimulation or gathering ammunition to win an argument. This is studying Scripture eagerly and earnestly, hungry to extract all of the nourishment we so desperately need out of the Word.
The Word of God is our spiritual sustenance. May we have the same solitary longing for it that a baby has for milk—because by it, we are conformed to the image of Christ, who sanctified Himself for us. The Word reveals Christ to us, and the Word transforms us into His likeness. We are reminded of what our Savior repeated three times in the upper room—that He would send us the Holy Spirit. We know that sanctification is a divine work through the Word by the Spirit of truth. So, we must plead with the Spirit that He would mold and shape us into the image of Christ, through the truth, from one level of glory to the next. As the Apostle Paul explains, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).