The Work of a Lifetime

At every stage of development our life may be perfect; yet if God's purpose for us is fulfilled, there will be continual advancement. Sanctification is the work of a lifetime .... {COL 65.2}

There are two significant things in this statement by Ellen White which we need to take note of. Firstly, she says that at every stage, our life may be PERFECT! Let us settle it then, that perfection is not the work of a lifetime, but it is an instantaneous work which is accomplished immediately when a person enters into Christ, so that his life may be perfect at the very first stage of his Christian experience.

Secondly, she says that there will be continual advancement and that this will continue for the person's entire lifetime. This highlights the fact that perfection is a relative thing and does not mean that a person is immediately perfectly mature, but simply that he is all that is expected of him at that particular stage. In that condition even God does not expect more, and that is effectively, perfection.

The popular concept of sanctification is that it is the process by which we are fitted (made fit) for heaven. In most cases this has been interpreted to mean that it is a process by which, little by little, we become more and more holy, more and more like Christ until eventually we are just like Him. It is interesting to note that the word sanctification carries a different meaning in the Bible and nearly always speaks of a finished work. For example, “God sanctified (finished action) the Sabbath day (Gen. 2:3).” Paul speaks of the Corinthian believers and says, “but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified … “(1 Cor. 6:11). Again he says, “for by one offering he has perfected forever them that are sanctified.” (Heb. 10:14). Here the word signifies to be set apart for a holy purpose and signifies an immediate experience.

But admittedly, the word as used today, and often in the writings of Ellen White refers to a process by which a person becomes progressively more holy. A process which Ellen White refers to as “the work of a lifetime (COL 65.2).”

Let us consider something right at the very beginning: When we say that sanctification is the “work of a lifetime,” whose lifetime are we talking about? Do we mean the lifetime of Methuselah which was 969 years, the lifetime of Enoch (365 years), the lifetime of Moses (120 years), or the lifetime of today's average person (70-80 years)? And what about the lifetimes of those whose lives are cut much shorter by sickness or accident? How long does it really take to be sanctified? How long did it take for the thief on the cross who lived for only a few hours after he was converted?

Immediately we can see that we have to revise our ideas of sanctification. The idea that sanctification is a process which comes to an end when we have attained to a certain level of holiness or perfection is a false idea. If it were true, then what it would mean is that most Christians never ever are fully sanctified. Maybe we all need a longer lifetime. Perhaps we all need 365 years like Enoch, but then again, even that may not be enough because it seems that even Methuselah who lived almost three times as long as Enoch never reached the place where he walked with God as closely as Enoch did.

If sanctification is what makes us fit for heaven then why did it happen so quickly as in the case of the thief on the cross and happen so slowly in the case of others whose lifetimes are almost a hundred years?

Is there some way that we can harmonize the biblical concept of sanctification, that is, being immediately set apart unto God, with the concept expressed by Ellen White, that is, a lifetime's work of being made holy? I believe that when we properly understand what the Christian life is about we will recognize that there is no disagreement between Ellen White and the Bible on this issue.

In Hebrews 4:9-11, Paul tells us that there is a rest which remains for the people of God. He explains that the person who has entered into God's rest has rested from his (the person's) own works just as God rested from His works at the end of creation. If we have rested from our works, does it mean that there will be no more works done by us? Absolutely not! As Paul again says, “it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).” Notice, there are works in the life of the believer, but they are not his works, they are the works of Christ. In a strikingly paradoxical statement, Paul tells us,

“Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.” (Heb 4:11)

I had to smile when I recognized what Paul was saying. Here he says that we must “labour,” we must work. For what purpose? So that we can rest! We must labour so that we may rest! Is this contradictory? Not at all, here we find the harmony between both ideas of sanctification, that is, that it is the “work of a lifetime,” as opposed to the immediate experience of being set apart wholly unto God.

The danger against which Paul warns us in Hebrews 4 is the danger of UNBELIEF. He says we must labour so that we can enter God's rest, but how do we enter? It is by faith that we enter! So it becomes evident that all our labour must be to help us to have faith, not to do works. Where works are concerned, we rest, we enter into God's rest. Our work is finished. Our only problem is that unbelief may keep us from this rest and so we must labour, we must struggle to keep the focus of faith. This is the sum totality of the Christian's struggle, the fight to maintain faith, because where there is faith, the fight is finished, where faith is, God works and the battle is over.

If the life of victory over sin is ours simply by faith in Christ, then it is evident that we may have this experience immediately, as soon as we have faith. However, it is equally evident that since this victory is ours purely by faith, then it is the maintaining of faith which determines whether or not we keep it. God's work is always perfect but His ability to work in us is dependent upon our faith. So there is a battle to be fought, but, notice, it is not a battle to do right, it is not a struggle to overcome sin, it is the “good fight of faith.” It is the struggle to maintain our faith.

This explains why sanctification, the work of being set apart unto Christ is an instant work which takes place as soon as we are in Christ, but at the same time is a process which lasts for the rest of a person's lifetime. A man in Christ is wholly acceptable to God and such a person is complete in Him (Col. 2:9). He is sanctified or set apart unto God. However, every day of his life for as long as he lives, whether it is 969 years or 70 years, this person must continually maintain this experience in Christ, by faith. It is not an automatic process in which the relationship maintains itself. Faith must be nurtured, fed, exercised, jealously guarded and this “fight of faith,” continues as long as a person lives. It is not that it takes a whole lifetime to become holy (!!). No, it is that this holy status which we receive at the very beginning, must be maintained for the rest of our lives whether that is 2 years or 969 years. It is the “work” of a lifetime.

So, the thief on the cross who lived only a few hours was sanctified during his lifetime, and so was Methuselah who lived 969 years. The work never came to an end while they lived. They never came to the place where they could say, “now I am sanctified and there is no need to have the experience tomorrow.” 

Notice, it is not sanctification which requires work. This was the work of God. It is the faith which brings sanctification which must be maintained during the “work of a lifetime.”

Restoration Ministries

Restoration Ministries is dedicated to the promotion of the truths contained in the word of God. In particular to the restoration of those truths which have been cast down to the ground and trampled underfoot by the papacy, and adopted by her daughters.

Our purpose is to motivate men and women to commit themselves wholly to the task of personal preparation for the coming of the Lord, and to the taking of the final warning message to every nation, kindred, tongue and people.



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