Few biblical doctrines have generated as much controversy as sanctification. Even as recently as 2014, writers and bloggers across the world have engaged in debate as to its nature and meaning. Much of this controversy is generated by confusion surrounding the nature and purpose of salvation, but, additionally, it is not helped by an unhealthy desire by some to dilute this biblical teaching. Controversy and confusion lead to conversation, with questions raised, such as ‘can I be sinless in this life?’, or, worse, ‘am I free to live as I like?’ These questions arise from a misunderstanding of sanctification, and the aim of this article is to take a look at what the Bible teaches, so that clarity might be achieved. But first we need a basic definition.
English is a fusion of Old German and Norman French, and consequently often has two or more words for the same Greek word. This creates a situation where, in the King James Version, two different English words are used to refer to the same idea. For example: justification and righteousness; and liberty and freedom, to name but two. The same is true for sanctification and holiness, both of which are used to translate derivatives of the one root word hagios, meaning ‘pure’ or ‘holy’. From that is derived the verb hagiazo, meaning to ‘make holy’, or ‘sanctify’, and the noun hagiasmos, describing the state of ‘being holy’ or ‘sanctified’. In total the root and its derivatives occur over 300 times in the New Testament, but has only one meaning, and that is to be ‘set apart’, or ‘holy’, whether it be of things, places or people. The focus of this article is the sanctification of people; thus, we are concerned with the aspect of salvation in which God has set us apart, making us holy and fit for heaven.
But is our fitness for heaven the extent of sanctification? It is contended that scripture outlines four aspects, an understanding of which will protect the believer from making the mistakes of others, and provide blessing in our salvation. This article will investigate each in turn.
Since sanctification is part of our salvation, a biblical perspective will dictate that we understand that we were sanctified when we first trusted in Christ. However, there is an aspect of sanctification that is effectual prior to our conversion. We will refer to this as preparatory sanctification. In his first epistle, Peter reminds his readers about their election which is in accordance with the foreknowledge of God, through sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ, 1 Pet. 1. 2. Paul tells the Thessalonians that God had chosen them to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth, 2 Thess. 2. 13. Both reveal that the Holy Spirit is operative in our experience as sinners prior to salvation, calling us to believe in the truth, convicting us of our sin, and convincing us of the need of obedience to Christ. In reality, no one would ever have been saved but for the sanctifying intervention of the Holy Spirit, Rom. 15. 16. While we rely on the objective statements of scripture for our assurance, believers can often look back to days prior to salvation when worldly desires were replaced by eternal concerns, and satisfaction previously enjoyed became illusory. But what does this preparatory sanctification by the Holy Spirit bring us to?
Our definition reminds us that sanctification is a work of God; therefore, it is eternal and irreversible, 1 Cor. 1. 30; 1 Thess. 5. 23. It describes what we are as a result of our faith in Christ, and is our possession apart from any effort of ourselves. He has made us holy. This is referred to as positional sanctification. Paul taught it when he quoted the words of the Lord Jesus to King Agrippa to explain the purpose of his calling, ‘That they [Gentiles] may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me’, Acts 26. 18. Notice that sanctification is imparted at the point of our placing faith in Christ and through our link to him, 1 Cor. 1. 2, 30. This is why we are confident that a sinner is immediately ready for heaven upon conversion. They have been made holy. In Hebrews, the writer outlines how our sanctification came to be: we are sanctified through (by means of) the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all, Heb. 10. 10, and, by the blood of Christ, who offered Himself to God by means of the eternal Spirit, 9. 13-14. We conclude that as to its origin we are sanctified by means of the offering of the body of Jesus Christ, and as to its outcome we are sanctified by the blood of Christ, which has purged our conscience from dead works to serve God. Often we focus on what we have been set apart from, but notice the two aspects presented in Hebrews chapter 9 and verse 14: we have been set apart and this has purged our conscience from dead works, but, more, we have been set apart to serve the living God. The Bible always presents sanctification in a balanced manner; the negative, what we have been delivered from, beautifully balanced by the positive, what we have been brought to.
The question might be asked, how then is there controversy surrounding something that appears to be so clear? Surely, if God has set us apart then we are holy, sanctified and pure, and no one can say otherwise? It might shock readers to learn that it is erroneously taught by some that our sanctification is dependent entirely on us, while others suggest that complete perfection is possible on earth. The biggest cause of this confusion is a failure to distinguish between different uses of the word in scripture. As always, how a word is used in its context will determine the doctrine, and sanctification is no different.
When approaching a scripture such as Romans chapter 6 verse 19 we might be inclined to think that the apostle Paul is teaching that it is our responsibility to guarantee our holiness (sanctification) by yielding our members servants to righteousness. But this casual reading of the text overlooks the fact that in this chapter Paul raises a hypothetical question concerning the possibility of a Christian continuing to live in sin following conversion. He states emphatically that it is impossible, because we have died to sin, breaking the mastery of sin over us so we need not obey its lusts any longer. Therefore, says Paul, practice righteousness so that the sanctification that we have by faith might be ours by experience also. In fact, this is one of the enduring themes of the New Testament: that our spiritual condition should reflect our position. Sanctification is no different. Peter exhorts his readers by quoting the Lord in Leviticus: ‘Be ye holy, for I am holy’, 1 Pet. 1. 16; Lev. 11. 44. Paul encourages the Thessalonians that this practical sanctification, sometimes called progressive, is God’s will for them, 1 Thess. 4. 3, having been called to it, v. 7.
While it is true to say that a desire for practical sanctification is not natural, Rom. 7. 15-24, it should be the ambition of every believer to become more like their Saviour. However, this is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit, and, contrary to the teaching of some, has no bearing on our eternal destination. Our personal holiness will not take us to heaven – God has done that by making us holy – but it will count in heaven when we stand before the judgement seat of Christ. It should be pointed out that a professing believer who has no desire for practical holiness is out of line with the teaching of scripture, 1 John 2. 6.
But what of the other error, believing that we can achieve full sanctification or sinlessness in this life? For as long as the church has been in existence there have been those who believe that it is possible to achieve perfection in this life, 1 John 1. 8. They even suggest that God requires it for us to get to heaven. As with the error that springs from conflating practical and positional sanctification, so this emerges from a failure to distinguish between positional and prospective sanctification. God has promised that we will be like His Son, 3. 2, that He might be the first in rank amongst many brethren, Rom. 8. 29, and, accordingly, deliverance from sin, being like God’s Son, was Paul’s desire, 7. 24-25. But he clarifies when this will be: at the redemption of our body, 8. 23, at the rapture, 1 Cor. 15. 51-52. The pursuit of holiness might present us with numerous difficulties, discouragements, and disappointments, but we should be encouraged. The fact that God has started a work in us is evidence that He will finish it, Phil. 1. 6.
Our attitude to sanctification will determine our style of Christian life. Will I allow myself to indulge in aspects of the world that I find tempting, or will I abstain from certain activities and pleasures on the basis of what I am – sanctified? But while it is true to say that the negative aspect of sanctification is vital, ‘Flee also youthful lusts’, we must remember that sanctification is positive and liberating; ‘but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart’, 2 Tim. 2. 22. A believer who pursues practical sanctification is ‘a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use’, 2. 21. May God provoke in our hearts this most noble and necessary of biblical desires.
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