Sanctification is a difficult doctrine. One complication is the way the Bible talks about sanctification both as an accomplished status, calling Christians saints who have been sanctified, and how sanctification is an ongoing, lifelong process of God’s work on the Christian.

Another complication is that the means and ends of progressive sanctification are told in metaphors and concepts that do not speak to Christians in a univocal way. We disagree about the means and goals of sanctification. We might say easily that the goal is to be conformed to Jesus Christ, but then we do not agree what that means.

Here are some further questions: Are the sacraments necessary for sanctification? Is sanctification simply living justification each day? Are we to let go and let God? What is God’s role and what is our role? How do we know that we have progressed in maturity as Christians? What are the metrics of growth?

I propose that Martin Luther’s theology of the cross (see the Heidelberg Disputation, 1518) gives the much-needed clues to understanding and responding to God’s work in sanctification. The theology of the cross shows that God is constantly active providentially to accomplish his purposes in creation. This is especially true in the troubles people experience, God’s so-called alien work of devastation, that makes possible God’s proper work of building up and forming people in proper functioning with him.

Luther’s theology of the cross has two aspects. First, God reveals himself and his works preeminently in the cross. The cross is how reconciliation was accomplished, and the cross is revelation that God works through suffering. Jesus suffered the fullness of hell’s pain (the wrath of God), which shows the paradox of God’s use of suffering and evil for salvation and good. Second, since the cross is God himself saving through suffering, the theology of the cross means that all human works in salvation are void and counterproductive. The problem of good works is that we are tempted to trust in them alongside or instead of God’s works in the cross.

By contrast, what Luther termed the theology of glory is a way of doing theology with human performance at the center. First, the way of glory is to view sanctification as progress in holiness through good works by our initiatives. Human capacities for good, though damaged by sin, are redeemed by God to enable the pursuit of virtuous living. Second, the theology of glory objectifies God and his works for rationalistic coherence and articulation. Human powers of reason see and catalog God. Everything can be shown to make perfect sense in a system of beliefs. This is theology about the cross, concluding principles and facts about God, by contrast to encountering God who is infinite in his wisdom and mysterious in his works.

Theology of the cross means that God is at the center, displacing human agendas, illusions and moral performance. This theology envisions sanctification as fully God’s work on the Christian to annihilate illusions of self-sufficiency and make us dependent children responsive to our Father’s love. God works through the suffering of the cross and the Christian for sanctification by which he operates on us, even as we are his workmanship (Eph. 2:10). Sanctification cannot be our own project, not even with God’s help. Accordingly, the theology of the cross sees God’s work in the cross and suffering as the clue for seeing God’s work in our daily life. Like Job, we are overwhelmed by the glimpses of God’s greatness and strangeness, but we may surrender ever more deeply to his mysterious agenda to conform us to live as suffering servants, vessels manifesting the gospel. God looks not for our performance, but for our trust in his strange operations to devastate and transform us. By his works, we are led into deeper humility, moments of self-giving love, and occasions of reliance on his work to save us. To apply the theology of the cross to sanctification as God’s work through daily life suffering of the Christian, here are six theses.

1. God works through suffering

Artwork of man climbing rocks

Living in the West with religious freedom and abundant material prosperity, we have the tendency to distinguish between suffering of everyday strains and pains and religious suffering, the trouble that is caused by explicit witness to Jesus. According to this distinction of religious suffering, the hundred or so references to suffering and affliction in the NT are commonly assumed to be limited to the troubles specifically incurred as part of Christian witness (e.g., persecution for preaching the gospel, martyrdom). I appreciate the severity of abuse that many Christians around the world continue to suffer because of their identification with Jesus, starting with the imprisonment of Peter and John for preaching about Jesus (Acts 4) and the assassination of Stephen (Acts 7). Clearly, Christians share in persecutions and hatred after the pattern of what Jesus suffered because they bear witness to Jesus. Nonetheless, for the Christian, suffering as part of witness to Jesus is not the only sort of pain that has value and afflicts people for Christ’s sake.

2. For the Christian, all suffering is religious suffering

By these providential troubles, God is attacking our self-sufficiency (“the flesh”) for increased dependence upon him. By all suffering, I mean all of the everyday strains and pains, in a range from mild to severe, and inclusive of physical, psychological and social distresses. For example, one Christian is afflicted with a lifelong and unwanted same-sex attraction; another battles against heterosexual lust in recovery from a pornography addiction of a decade earlier; one endures imbalances of hormones that incline him to depression; another faces cancer with a sequence of painful therapies by surgery, radiation and chemotherapy; another suffers daily with chronic back pain; and many people suffer the daily distresses of cruel family members.

Artwork of person running through a rainstorm

All troubles and frustrations are the afflictions due to sin in a world that is hostile to God and life. All people suffer these large and small strains in daily life, to varying degrees of experience (some people have troubles much worse than others). The array of suffering includes sins by people against others, the consequences of our own sins, demonic afflictions (2 Cor. 12, Luke 4), and the chaos of earthquakes, diseases, harsh weather, psychological disturbances and physiological maladies. Notice how many times suffering is described in the NT with vague terms. The reason is so that we might see the full range of our everyday strains and pains according to this theology of God’s paradoxical and providential works for our sanctification: “a thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7); “various trials” (James 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:6); “afflicted in every way” (2 Cor. 4:8); “our tribulations” (Rom. 5:3); “our weaknesses” (Heb. 4:15); “discipline” (Heb. 12:5–14). We can interpret these examples of everyday strains and pains in at least two ways: 1) they are merely troubles to be borne in a world that was wrecked by sin, or 2) they are the instruments repurposed by God for the positive intentions of sanctification — religious suffering. I recommend the second interpretation.

3. God repurposes all these hardships and pains

Artwork of a man sitting in a scary forest

God repurposes pains as religious suffering for the Christian (Rom. 8:28) in a curriculum to conform people to the Suffering Servant himself (Rom. 8:29). The meaning of troubles as religious suffering is that God uses these negative forces for the positive results of sanctification. Christians suffer God’s use of these pains and strains because they are in Christ, to conform them to Jesus. Suffering “for Christ’s sake” is sometimes because of one’s faithful identification with Jesus, as a witness, and sometimes because of one’s need for God’s work to sanctify us in the pattern of Jesus. The everyday strains and pains are inevitable in daily life; for the Christian, these same troubles are leveraged by God to answer Jesus’ prayer that the Father would sanctify us (John 17:19; cf. 1 Thess. 5:23–24).

4. Daily bearing of one’s cross is the calling to deny one’s self

Embracing the death of our little identity structures in self-sufficiency is the price we must pay as part of engaging with costly grace (Luke 9:23, cf. Jesus’ self-denial in saying, “yet not My will, but Yours be done,” Luke 22:42). This “No!” to self at God’s provocation is the voluntary repudiation of self-sufficiency in response to God’s use of failures and distresses of many kinds.

Artwork of the word "identity" engulfed in flames

We cannot set out to deny our desires and attachments to our self-sufficient identity, since to do so is just further assertion of self! Moral performance is a fail because it leaves the self unchanged and entrenched, attempting to rule the soul. Instead, God initiates his own attacks on the aspects of our maladaptive functioning that obstruct us from him (compulsions, fears, illusions, wounds, etc.). This attack coincides with God’s call that we are to hate everyone (including our malformed self-concept) that would come between us and Jesus (Luke 14:26).

5. As we face troubles and distresses, we may call out to God

“What are you doing here?! How do you want me to respond here?!” Our hope is that God’s work to sanctify us will be effective even when we cannot see, make sense of, or track what he is doing. Being holy, God is very different from us, so his works are extremely strange and opaque to our ability to understand them.

Artwork of a man on dangerous terrain holding a torch

Sometimes we will not be able to see the purpose in our pain. Like the horror of the cross, we may only recognize God’s purposes in retrospect, with vision enhanced by the Holy Spirit. Nonetheless, we do have the assurance that God is at work, especially when things are troublesome in our lives. This assurance is a lens by which we can look for the paradoxical goods in the midst of the ugly pain. This is the wisdom that James says God offers us for seeing our pain as part of something larger and worthwhile, despite being an affliction of evil in the world. A trouble-free life is not God's goal on this side of the resurrection, since the afflictions of the present time are the means of conveying us (and converting us) to the resurrection.

Instead of dwelling on our temptation to despair and anger at God, we are assured many times that God is constantly at work in these everyday difficulties, so we can have “hope” (Rom. 5:3–5), “joy” (James 1:2–6), anticipation of future “glory” (2 Cor. 4:17), reminder of God’s love to us as “sons” (Heb. 12:1–14), and “we overwhelmingly conquer” (Rom. 8:37) in the many situations of our pain. This paradoxical antithesis of experiencing positive emotions towards God because of the negative experiences of many pains only makes sense because we “know” (Rom. 8:28; James 1:3) for certainty that he is working beneficially in us (Phil. 2:12–13).

6. Finally, we must beware pretending.

Artwork of a man celebrating because he sees the city at the end of the road

We must not pretend ourselves to the joy, hope, assurance and anticipation of glory told in these passages — as if we were responsible or capable to generate these paradoxical emotions and outlook on our circumstances of distress. The biblical passages declare what the situation is, an invisible reality of God’s work that transcends the misleading appearances of pain. If we have seen God encounter us for sanctification (progressive conformity to Jesus, the Suffering Servant) in the occasions of our everyday strains and pains, then we will also be conformed by God to the paradoxes of positive emotions and outlook. He will generate these in us. To perform the outcome for ourselves by reporting joy and hope in mere mimicry of the biblical witness is to damage ourselves further in self-assertion and hypocrisy. We might suffer and avoid the changes that God intends because we have persisted in asserting our will to feign joy and hope!

Our grasp of God in pain must be honest for our sanctification to be authentic. Instead of our pretense, God works miracles daily in Christians for Christ’s sake of conforming them to the dependence, humility and love of Jesus. When the Christian suffers everyday strains and pains of the normal and unusual severity of distress, and God paradoxically works hope and joy in us, then we have the result of sanctification. This result is a witness to the reality of God’s salvation through the gospel, suffering for Christ’s sake.