Bible Question:

As believers in our process of sanctification, is it a must that we undergo all sorts of trials, tests, and sufferings, etc. (the refining process of fine gold)? Is sanctification referred to by what Paul said in 1 Cor 10:24 as the reward? How should I understand the relationship between being saved and sanctified? With this I mean, some believers believed and were baptized just before the moment of their death. There was no way for them to undergo the process of sanctification as such described in Zech 13:9.

Bible Answer:

Sanctification is the process of a person becoming more spiritually mature in Jesus Christ. It results in increasing victory over sin and the presence of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives leading to personal holiness. The fruit of the Spirit includes the following:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control . . . (NASB) Galatians 5:22-23

Sanctification is progressive and results in a Christian increasingly becoming more like God in attitudes, behavior, and conduct. Our passions and desires are more and more like His. It is a process that continues until we die. Christians will become spiritually mature only when they meet God in the new heaven and new earth.

There are three phases to sanctification. It starts at spiritual birth, continues throughout one’s life, and is completed and perfected when we meet God. Philippians 1:6 captures these three phases for us,

For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. (NASB) Phil. 1:6

Notice, that the apostle Paul says that God had started the work in the Christians at Philippi. It started at the moment they believed, and it starts for us the moment that one truly believes in Jesus Christ. The second phase is that He “will perfect it until.” This means that from the moment we believe and until we die and disappear from this world, God will continue working in us. He will continue sanctifying us. The last phase occurs after we die and meet God. Then we become spiritually perfect and immortal.

Philippians 2:12-13 reminds us that sanctification is ongoing in this life. It is a process whereby God works in us as we struggle against sin in our own lives. That is, it is a joint project. We struggle and God works in us too! That is the message of the following passage,

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. (NASB) Phil. 2:12-13

But it is impossible for us to make progress without the Holy Spirit working in our lives. Therefore, we would encourage you to read the study “Filled With The Spirit.” It provides more information as to how the process works.

Sanctification: The Start

Sanctification starts at the moment of spiritual birth, or when one is saved, resulting in a definite moral change (Titus 3:5). When one believes in Jesus Christ, his or her sins are forgiven (Acts 10:43) and they are divinely and legally declared to be righteous (Romans 5:9). He or she is also made into a new creature (2 Cor. 5:17) and is now free for the first time in life to do good (Rom. 6:11, 14, 18). Ephesians 2:1-7 describes it like this,

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (NASB) Ephesians 2:1-7

That is, we were once spiritually dead; but now we are spiritually alive. Those who truly believe in God are treated as if they are already seated in heaven. They have been declared by God to be legally holy and worthy of the new heaven and new earth.

Sanctification: The Continuation

But in reality we still live in this present world and live in our present sinful bodies. We are sinners who still sin even though God considers us legally qualified to enter heaven as holy people. There is a war within ourselves between sin and righteousness. The war reveals that we are new creatures who are in conflict with the old sinful flesh. The apostle Paul mourned his own sin and tells us that he still struggled with his old self.

For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate . . . For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. (NASB) Rom. 7:15, 18-19

God knows that we still sin, but yet He treats us as pardoned criminals. Our sins have been pardoned. We are not on parole and there is no purgatory. Yet, everyone who believes in Jesus Christ and accepts Him as his or her Savior will suffer in this life for some of the sins that he or she commits. In response, God will motivate His followers to stop sinning through trials and difficult situations in this life. Trials in this life are unavoidable. That is the message of Hebrews 12:8.

But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. (NASB) Heb. 12:8

This passage tells us that if we never experience divine discipline, if we never go though trials in this life, then we do not belong to Him. It will be a sign that one is not a true Christian. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, the apostle Paul warns us that one can act like a Christian or claim to believe in Jesus Christ and yet not be a real Christian. Hebrews 12:8 is another proof that one can use to determine if he or she is a Christian.

James 1:2-4 says that trials and tests are essential to a Christian’s spiritual maturity.

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (NASB) James 1:2-4

Here we are encouraged not to flee from a difficult situation but to continue in the situation. (The Lord is not talking about physically dangerous situations.) Trials are essential for us to grow spiritually. The goal in the Christian life is to become holy like God (1 Pet. 1:14-16) and to know Him (1 John 2:12-14).

Sanctification: Ultimate

Some day everyone will leave this earth and become immortal. But only those who have believed in Jesus Christ and have willingly yielded themselves to Him will spend eternity with God. That is, only those who are forgiven and have been declared to be holy by God will be with Him for eternity. Only the holy can live with Him. Who are these people? The answer is those who have been forgiven because they believe in Jesus Christ. That is, positionally we are holy in His sight.

. . . and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (NASB) Rev. 21:27

Even though we are positionally holy before God, in practice we are still sinners and sanctification continues to perfect believers.

Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. (NASB) 2 Cor. 7:1

In practice, a Christian who hungers and thirst after righteousness (Matthew 5:8) will approach his or her position in Jesus Christ. The process will continue until we die or are raptured and meet God.

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (NASB) 1 Thess. 5:23

Odds and Ends

Now to answer a few of your other questions. Sanctification is not a reward (1 Cor 10:24). It is included with the gift of saving faith in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:8-9). Next, if a person believes and accepts Jesus Christ and then dies immediately, only the initial step of sanctification will have occurred. Sanctification will have started. The person will have been declared to be legally holy and ready to meet God. Positionally, he or she will be holy. Third, Zechariah 13:9 is a future prophecy about the nation of Israel that has not yet been fulfilled and has nothing to do with sanctification.

Conclusion:

Sanctification is a process that starts immediately at the moment a person truly believes in Jesus Christ. God urges you to participate in the process of sanctification. A Christian can accelerate the process of sanctification by the study of God’s Word (John 17:17; Acts 2:42; Heb. 5:11-14; 2 Tim. 3:16-17), praying (1 Thess 5:17), using one’s spiritual gifts (Eph. 4:11-13), spending time with other believers (Heb. 10:24-25), making disciples and being discipled (Heb. 13:7), and pursuing holiness (1 Thess. 4:3-7). These are essential to the process of sanctification.

Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord. (NASB) Heb. 12:14

Reference Links:

Filled With The Spirit
Seated In Heaven!
Power Living
What is the meaning of work out your salvation which God is working within you?
The Church Is Missing - The Rapture