In its simplest terms being sanctified means being set apart for God. It also includes the thought of holiness. The Westminster Catechism describes it as ‘the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness’.
The New Testament thought of sanctification has a deeper moral and spiritual meaning than the Old. It now conveys the believer’s position as righteous in Christ, Col. 2. 10; condition as yielded to His will, Rom. 12. 2; and aspiration towards the eternal day when we stand sinless in His presence, Jude 24.
A wide-ranging, cardinal doctrine indeed! But one which has been misunderstood and sometimes neglected. At times, even among the assemblies of the Lord’s people, this has resulted in believers not adequately understanding what is meant by being sanctified.
In many cases problems of interpretation have arisen from a lack of balanced understanding of the teaching of sanctification. Among some, the practical aspect has been over emphasized. It has been called, for example, ‘the second blessing’ following on from conversion. As such it is presented as a means of deliverance from the power of sin, some even claiming that it is possible to be without sin in this life. This unattainable standard has caused bondage, not liberation.
Others have neglected the doctrine of sanctification to the point where they believe that there is no victory over sin in this life. This has caused a joyless, jaded experience preoccupied only with the letter of doctrine without any thought of personal holiness.
Clearly there is a need for a balanced presentation and understanding of sanctification.
As always, the need is rightly to divide the word of truth. The frequency with which the same Hebrew and Greek words occur in various forms should be understood. In English these are rendered ‘holy’ (some 400 times), ‘sanctify’ (over 100 times), and ‘saint’ (well over 100 times).
It is also necessary to distinguish between the meaning of sanctification in the Old Testament compared with the New. In the Old, the English words ‘consecrate’, ‘dedicate’, ‘sanctify’, and ‘holiness’ are all used to represent the same Hebrew word. None of these conveys an ethical meaning except where God or angels are referred to, e.g., Lev. 11. 45; Dan. 4. 13. The thought is primarily that of being set apart for God.
In the New Testament morality is very much to the fore when the Greek word in its various forms is used. Believers are seen to be righteous in Christ, are becoming progressively more righteous in Christ and will be entirely righteous when they appear with Christ in glory.
The practical message of sanctiftcation is important in the New Testament although it should always be balanced against our sanctified position in Christ, now and in the glory of His immediate presence to come. We are here and now being progressively changed into the image of Christ through the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures, 2 Cor. 3. 18; Eph. 5. 25, 26. This process can only be obstructed by disobedience to the will of God, Eph. 4. 30; 1 Thess. 5. 19.
Sanctification and Separation
It is important to realize that the doctrine of sanctification overlaps with the New Testament teaching on separation. While separation by definition does not include the thought of holiness (although it is implied), the thought of separation is included in sanctification.
Separation involves not only being apart from sin, but being set apart for God. When separation was required in the Old Testament the ethics of it were not dealt with, e.g., Gen. 12. 1; Exod. 12. 17. It was simply an act of obedience. In the New Testament the reasons for separation became clear and were shown to be very much part of sanctification: Paul writes of believers being separated as a ‘peculiar people (a people for God’s own possession), zealous of good works’, Tit. 2. 14. They were not to be unequally yoked together with unbelievers, 2 Cor. 6. 14-18. They were to withdraw themselves from any whose walk was discrediting to the Lord, 2 Thess. 3. 6. They were to separate themselves from any who taught false doctrine, 2 John 9-11. In all things Christ was to be their Model, 1 Pet. 2. 21, 22.
They were set apart for the purpose of holiness, or sanctification. This practical aspect of sanctification has therefore become extremely important in our day.
The Present Situation
In the past assemblies have not involved themselves in the extremes of what has been called ‘the holiness movement’. In teaching sanctification the Lord’s people known as Brethren have realized the importance of teaching sanctification as a balance of our holy position, condition and prospect in Christ. It is important that we continue to maintain this balance.
The days we live in are pleasure-seeking, anarchic, and violent. There is a need for the ‘sanctified, fearless band’ referred to by the hymn-writer. ‘God has not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness’, 1 Thess. 4. 7. There is therefore a need that in teaching the doctrine of sanctification, we should not forget to emphasize its practical aspects.
Surrounded as we are by sin, it is important that we take to heart Paul’s words to Timothy, ‘If a man therefore purge himself from these (those who concerning the truth have erred, v. 18), he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work’, 2 Tim. 2. 21. That is practical holiness, the application of the cardinal doctrine of sanctification.