Christians often wonder what God’s will for their lives is, and how can they find it. Usually, questions about God’s will are asked in terms of very specific circumstances: Whom should I marry? What career should I pursue? Should I take this job promotion that I’ve been offered?
John MacArthur has authored a little 60-page booklet titled Found: God’s Will in which he argues that God’s will is actually quite clearly set out in Scripture. “It’s not a difficult concept,” he writes, at least three or four times in the little book. He argues that there are five basic elements to God’s will—five things that God specifically says in the Bible is his will for his people: that they be saved, Spirit-filled, sanctified, submissive and suffering. When you are in God’s will in those areas, and are faced with a decision, MacArthur counsels: “Do whatever you want! If those five elements are operating in your life, who is running your wants? God is!”
The third clearly-revealed aspect of God’s will, argue Macarthur, is sanctification. He cites 1 Thessalonians 4:3, which reads, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” Psalm 119:9–16 highlights this theme of sanctification, and it teaches three basic things about sanctification.
God Desires Your Sanctification
The psalmist notes, first of all, that God desires our sanctification. He highlights this truth by means of a question: “How can a young man keep his way pure?” (v. 9).
To ask a question is to show interest in the subject of the question. Since the psalmist asks this question under inspiration, it means that both he (the human author) and God (the divine author) are interested in the answer. God saying to his people, “Think about this! Pursue sanctification!”
God is deeply interested that his people grow in holiness. He is not ambivalent about sanctification. He is not a God who does not care whether or not his people grow to be more like him. He wants—expects—you to grow in Christlikeness. Before getting more specific about this particular text, we can observe note three things about sanctification in general.
Sanctification is about You
First, sanctification is about you. What I mean is that the call to grow in holiness is a call that must first be personally applied before it is extended to others.
It is quite probable that the psalmist himself is the “young man” to whom he is writing. Rather than condescendingly telling young men how to do things, he is preaching to himself—looking back at his own life, and wishing that he had learned some lessons about sanctification in his youth. Even in his advanced age, with regrets in his past, he is interested in knowing how a believer can keep his way pure.
When we think about sanctification, we should be thinking primarily about ourselves. Yes, as with any area of the Christian life, we are interested in pursuing sanctification together. But it begins with you! You should not listen to preaching or read your Bible thinking about how much your neighbours or your spouse or your sibling needs to be sanctified. You must first present your own body a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service, before you can help others to do the same.
Sanctification is about Joy
Second, sanctification is about joy. We are sometimes tempted to think of sanctification in terms of things we can’t do, and therefore in terms of how it limits us. But, for the Christian, holiness enhances joy, because to the degree that we obey God, we experience his love, and therefore experience joy. Jesus said as much: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his live. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:10–11).
If obedience to God is a drudging duty, it is only because you do not understand the love of the Father. It may be because you have never experienced that love!
Sanctification is about Youth
Third, sanctification has as its particular focus the youth. It is interesting that the psalmist specifically addresses his exhortation to the “young.” One reason for this, I think, is because the sooner we start pursuing sanctification, the easier it becomes. When you have a life of sinful, foolish choices behind you, it often seems far more difficult to pursue what is right. And so the psalmist exhorts the pursuit of sanctification while you are young.
This is not the only Scripture that urges this. Solomon wrote, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw nigh of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’” (Ecclesiastes 12:1). Young people, there is no better time than the present to get serious about sanctification!
Our culture is not designed to help young people pursue godliness. But there is one place in culture that is designed to help you in this regard—if only you will listen to the counsel given—and that is the local church.
And so the first thing to say about these verses is that God desires our sanctification. Thankfully, when God desires something for his people, he provides what is necessary for them to achieve it. Therefore, the psalmist answers his own question: “By guarding it according to your word.” God’s Word is what he has provided in order for his people to grow in holiness. We will return to this theme in a moment, but first we must notice a second important truth about sanctification.
You Cannot Manufacture Your Sanctification
Second, we must note that sanctification is not something we can manufacture on our own: “With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments!” (v. 10).
The psalmist had resolve: “With my whole heart I seek you.” But he did not trust his resolve to produce holiness: “Let me not wander from your commandments!”
This seems almost contradictory, because surely those who seek God with their whole heart will not wander from his commandments? But God’s people throughout the ages have known that this is not the case. Robert Robinson, an eighteenth-century pastor and hymnist, wrote, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.” Paul understood the nature of this struggle when he wrote, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7:15, 18). We must realise that we cannot manufacture our own sanctification.
J. Ligon Duncan has observed, “You are not the engine of your sanctification; God is the engine of your sanctification.” And William Plumer wrote, “Let us cultivate a deep sense of our dependence upon divine grace relying solely upon God to keep us from going astray.”
God’s Word is the Means of Sanctification
Third, in the remainder of the psalm (vv. 11–16), the writer shows us that God’s Word is the means of sanctification. He has already hinted at that in v. 1; now he expands his thoughts.
The Word of God is referenced, in one way or another, in nearly every single one of these 176 verses. In this section, the key to sanctification is: your word (v. 9), your commandments (v. 10), your word (v. 11), your statutes (v. 12), the rules of your mouth (v. 13), your testimonies (v. 14), your precepts (v. 15), your statutes (v. 16). Note that it is not “the word,” etc., but “your word,” etc. The emphasis is the authority of God’s Word. Separate yourself from the authority of Scripture, and your sanctification will suffer.
God’s Word is the key to sanctification. The Word is the means by which God sanctifies his people. But it does not work by osmosis. It helps only by proper application. And the psalmist tells us that there are at least six things we must do in order for God’s Word to work for our sanctification.
Memorise the Word
First, we pursue sanctification by memorising God’s Word: “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (v. 11). Memorising Scripture is a great way to work toward sanctification.
As Jesus combatted temptation in the wilderness by appealing to and quoting Scripture, so storing up God’s Word produces in us sanctification. Again, there may be a particular application here to young people, whose ability to memorise is far greater than some of us! Solomon, in Ecclesiastes 12, urges young people to remember their Creator in their youth “before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened” (v. 2). This is a poetic way of speaking of the fading powers of memory and intellect.
One of the highlights each year in our church calendar for the youth is our annual holiday Bible club. During this time, children and teens have opportunity to memorise lots of Scripture. They earn points for their team by memorising verses, but it is always our prayer that the verses would hold more significance than just team points. It should be about hiding God’s Word in their hearts.
When you are able, like Jesus, in a particular moment of temptation, to recall Scripture pertaining to that temptation, it will help you in the war for holiness.
Learn the Word
Second, we pursue sanctification by learning the Word: “Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes” (v. 12).
Don’t rely on rote memorisation; seek to understand what you are learning. Having sound doctrine is not the be-all and end-all of the Christian life, but it is important! Right doctrine facilitates right living; belief affects behaviour! Take the time to try and understand what the Bible teaches. Dig down deep, so that you know not only what you’ve always been taught, but what the Bible actually teaches.
Declare the Word
Third, we pursue sanctification by declaring the Word: “With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth” (v. 13). Be willing to share what God is teaching you. The first purpose of learning and memorising God’s Word is to let it speak to you. But when God has spoken to you, it can be a sanctifying exercise to share what he has taught you with others.
What does your involvement look like in your small group? Do you just sit in stone silence, or are you an active participant? Are you in a discipleship relationship with someone? If so, is it just a rote exercise for you to get through the lesson, or are you eager to engage in discussion to share what you are learning? Are you sharing what God is teaching you with others—believers and unbelievers? Teaching others what God has taught you has a profound way of producing sanctification.
Prioritise the Word
Fourth, we pursue sanctification by prioritising the Word: “In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches” (v. 14). Sanctification is furthered when God’s Word is our priority. When we pursue our own thoughts and ways, we wander from the truth. When God’s truth remains our focus, we grow in Christlikeness.
This doesn’t mean that your Bible—the leather-bound book that you carry with you to church each Sunday—is necessarily your most prized possession, but that the truth of God’s Word should be your priority in any given situation.
Meditate on the Word
Fifth, we pursue sanctification by meditating on the Word. “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways” (v. 15). Sanctification is not furthered by passing time spent in the Word. By all means, read your Bible. Follow a reading plan if it helps. But do not read it just for the sake of getting through your plan. If we will grow in holiness, we should take the time to meditate on what we are learning from God’s Word.
Meditation encompasses all the above. It involves reading, praying, memorising and personalising the Word. You must take time to be holy, because it does take time to be holy!
Delight in the Word
Sixth, and finally, we pursue holiness by delighting in the Word: “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word” (v. 16). Everything above should rise from our delight in God’s Word.
One of the most consistent themes in Psalm 119 is the psalmist’s delight in God’s Word. The New Testament likewise highlights the necessity of this: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). To the degree that we delight in God’s Word, we will be eager to obey it, thus furthering our sanctification.
God’s Word is a Means of Sanctification
Psalm 119 is all about God’s Word, and this particular section of the psalm is all about how God’s Word is a means of sanctification. But if we take the full weight of Scripture, we know that the Bible is only one means of sanctification. There are several means that God has ordained to help further our sanctification. In the world of theology, we call those things “means of grace.”
The means of grace are divinely appointed means by which God, when they are properly practiced, administers sanctifying grace to his people. One of those means of grace is the Bible. Another is the Lord’s Supper.
When the Communion meal is properly observed, God ministers sanctifying grace to his people through it. There is nothing mystical about the elements on the table, but what they represent is profoundly meaningful for the gathered church. At Communion, we bread together in remembrance of Christ’s body that was broken for his people. We drink of the cup together as a symbol of the blood that Jesus shed for our sins. But, as Paul warns in 1 Corinthians 11, this meal must be observed in a “worthy” manner—a proper manner. Those who partake in an unworthy manner eat and drink judgement on themselves, says Paul.
How might one partake of the Lord’s Supper in “an unworthy manner”? Paul suggests three things.
First, you partake unworthily if you partake as one who has no saving interest in Christ. Second, you partake unworthily if you do so as one who does not examine himself for sin, or who, having examined himself, will not repent of known sin. Third, you partake in an unworthy manner if you do not properly discern the body (i.e. you have no interest in Christ’s body, the local church).
Christians, having been baptised upon a profession of faith, and who are members of a local church (or pursuing membership in a local church), and are repentant of known sin in their lives, have the joyful privilege of partaking in Communion. They do so “in remembrance.” Specifically, they remember five things: first, the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ; second, the great evil of sin, which cost Jesus Christ his life; third, the justice of God, which demanded the payment of a price for the forgiveness of sin; fourth, the victory of Christ, who paid the price in full and purchased eternal salvation for his people; and fifth, the return of Christ—at which point the war for sanctification will be over as we are made completely and forever like Jesus Christ himself.