The generic meaning of sanctification is "the state of proper functioning." To sanctify someone or something is to set that person or thing apart for the use intended by its designer. A pen is "sanctified" when used to write. Eyeglasses are "sanctified" when used to improve sight. In the theological sense, things are sanctified when they are used for the purpose God intends. A human being is sanctified, therefore, when he or she lives according to God's design and purpose.
The Greek word translated "sanctification" (hagiasmos [ἁγιασμός]) means "holiness." To sanctify, therefore, means "to make holy." In one sense only God is holy (Isa 6:3). God is separate, distinct, other. No human being or thing shares the holiness of God's essential nature. There is one God. Yet Scripture speaks about holy things. Moreover, God calls human beings to be holyas holy as he is holy (Lev 11:44; Matt 5:48; 1 Peter 1:15-16). Another word for a holy person is "saint" (hagios [ἅγιος]), meaning a sanctified one. The opposite of sanctified is "profane" (Lev 10:10).
From time to time human beings are commanded to sanctify themselves. For example, God commanded the nation of Israel, "consecrate to me every firstborn male" (Exod 13:2). God said through Peter, "in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord" (1 Peter 3:15). One sanctifies Christ by responding to unbelievers meaningfully, out of a good conscience and faithful life. God calls his own to set themselves apart for that which he has set them apart. Sanctify, therefore, becomes a synonym for "trust and obey" (Isa 29:23). Another name for this action is "consecration." To fail to sanctify God has serious consequences (Num 20:12).
Human beings ultimately cannot sanctify themselves. The Triune God sanctifies. The Father sanctifies (1 Cor 1:30) by the Spirit (2 Thess 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2) and in the name of Christ (1 Cor 6:11). Yet Christian faith is not merely passive. Paul calls for active trust and obedience when he says, "Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God" (2 Cor 7:1). No one may presume on God's grace in sanctification. Peter reminds believers to be diligent in making their calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10).
A person or thing can be sanctified in two ways—according to God's creative purpose or according to God's redemptive design. All sanctified in the first sense are used by God in the second sense. Not all God uses in the second sense are sanctified in the first sense.
Sanctification According to God's Creative Design. God created the universe and human beings perfect (i.e., sanctified). Everything and everyone functioned flawlessly until Adam and Eve believed Satan's lie. The fall plunged the human race and the universe into a state of dysfunction (Gen 3:14-19). Neither was so distorted by the fall so as to obliterate God's original purpose and design completely. Fallen human beings still bear God's image (James 3:9-10). Fallen creation still witnesses to God's existence and attributes (Psalm 19:1-6; Rom 1:20). Yet both, depending on the analogy employed, are skewed, broken, fallen, dysfunctional, "unsanctified."
The imperfect state of creation is a reminder that God's fully sanctified purpose for it has been disrupted by sin. Evil is the deprivation of the good that God intends for the creation he has designed. The creation groans, awaiting its sanctification when everything will be set right (Rom 8:21-22; Rev. 20-21 ).
Human beings, made in God's image, were the pinnacle and focus of his creation. The sanctification of human beings, therefore, is the highest goal of God's work in the universe. God explicitly declared it to be his will (1 Thess 4:3). He purposed that human beings be "like him" in a way no other created thing is. Human beings are like God in their stewardship over creation (Gen 1:26-31). Yet this role is dependent on a more fundamentally important likeness to God—moral character. By virtue of God-given discretionary autonomy (faith), human beings may so depend upon God that his moral character (communicable attributes) are displayed.
The unsanctified state of fallen humanity is not caused merely by lack of effort or poor motivation. It constitutes an inherent structural flaw. When Adam sinned, he and his race forfeited that which made it possible for them to function as designed—the presence of God himself. Adam and Eve's prefallen sanctification was not a result of their inherent capabilities. God's indwelling presence was responsible for the manifestation of his attributes in them. Sanctification always requires God's presence. His presence is more than his "being there"—a corollary of his omnipresence. It is his dynamic presence, producing fruit for which he alone is the source. "Indwelling" is not God's way of getting close to us sensually. It is a theological, rather than experiential, reality; it is "experienced" by faith, not by feeling.
Human beings "fall short of God's glory" (Rom 3:23) because they lack God's presence, which produces glory. "Glory" is always the manifestation of the attributes of God resulting from the presence of God. God's presence was the essential missing factor in Adam and Eve's postfall state. God called out to the fleeing man, "Where are you?" (Gen 3:9). God was not seeking information. He was clarifying to sinful humanity that his presence was now lost.
God sought Adam and Eve, indicating that restoration of the original purpose would be undertaken by him. Sanctification, therefore, is exclusively the work of God in grace (Lev 21:8; Ezek 20:12; Heb 2:11; Jude 1). Functioning moral likeness to God, lost in the fall, is restored through God's redemption in Christ (Eph 4:23-24; Col 3:9-10). Human beings are "made holy" through Christ's work. The blood of Jesus Christ sanctifies (Heb 13:12) because his substitutionary atonement reversed all of the dysfunctional, as well as legal (i.e., guilt), effects of sin. Human beings are progressively sanctified now through faith in Christ and by the indwelling Spirit (2 Cor 3:18), while awaiting full sanctification at the resurrection. Believers under both the old and new covenants are sanctified the same way—by grace through faith.
Sanctification According to God's Redemptive Purposes. In addition to designing the goal of creation (functioning human beings in a fittingly perfect environment), God has also designed the means of achieving that goal. He not only wants to make the universe, especially human beings, sanctified. He also uses sanctified (set-apart) means to accomplish his end.
God calls specific people at specific times to be sanctified for a particular role in his redemptive program. God uses all people for his purposes, even those who defy him (Rom 9:21-22). For example, God used Pharaoh even though he did not let Israel go (Rom 9:17). God also used Cyrus, a pagan ruler, to discipline Israel (Isa 45:1). The Scripture, however, is largely the story of how God wants to use willing "vessels." He set apart some to be kings, priests, and prophets. God sanctified Jeremiah even before birth for his prophetic ministry (Jer 1:5). The Holy Spirit "set apart" Paul and Barnabas for missionary service from among the gathered church (Acts 13:2). Every believer has a "calling" or "vocation" based on "gifting." Just as each Israelite had a role in the corporate life under the old covenant, so the church functions by the ministry of gifted and called individuals. Each one has a gift. The prominence of ministry will vary from person to person. Yet each sanctifies his or her calling through faithfulness.
It is possible, to one's peril, to confuse God's calling to "be redeemed" and God's calling to "be a redemptive agent." The former is a prerequisite for the latter. The latter cannot substitute for the former. Many Israelites were unsanctified personally because they presumed that their calling to be a redemptive nation guaranteed God's sanctifying grace. They disregarded God's Word, lacked faith in God (Heb 4:2), and became proud of their achievements. Jesus spoke his harshest words against the unsanctified Pharisees (Matt 23). God judged Israel as a nation by setting them aside as God's channel of blessing for the world (Matt 21:43)—this but for a time. God is determined to fulfill all of his promises to his redemptive channel (Rom 11:25-29). God used Israel, nevertheless, as a disobedient people. From a remnant within ethnic Israel, God built his church. Paul confronted an oft-posed question, "How can an elect [i.e., sanctified] nation be lost?" (Rom. 9-11). He reminded his Jewish audience that when God elected Israel to be a redemptive agent (Gen 12:1-3), he did not guarantee redemption for every Israelite. Paul also warned non-Israelite believers, likewise blessed as redemptive agents (the church), not to confuse privilege with standing when he said, "Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches [Israel], he will not spare you either" (Rom 11:20b-21).
Jesus Christ: The Sanctifier and Model of Sanctification. The singular means of God's sanctifying grace is Jesus Christ: "We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Heb 10:10). Christ was qualified to sanctify because he himself had been sanctified through suffering (Heb 2:10-11). First, Jesus Christ was the only human being since the fall to live a continuously, perfectly sanctified life. He was without sin, therefore, without guilt or dysfunctionality. He was sanctified from the moment of his conception (Matt 1:18-20; Luke 1:35). He was rightly called the "Holy One of God" (Mark 1:24), sanctified by the Father (John 10:36). In his character, therefore, Jesus Christ was morally sanctified. Second, he was vocationally sanctified. Christ did what the Father called him to do (John 5:19, 30, 36; 6:38; 8:28-29; 12:49). He accomplished his vocational purpose through time, yet he continually fulfilled his moral purpose. He sanctified himself by fulfilling his unique calling as the Messiah (John 17:19), being declared the Son of God at his resurrection (Rom 1:4). Jesus Christ, therefore, is the model human being for both moral and vocational sanctification (Php 2:5-11).
Just as all forgiveness of sin was provisional until the ministry of the Messiah was complete, so all sanctification was provisional (Heb 9:13-14; 10:10-12). The incarnation was an indispensable means for sanctifying humanity because it was necessary that the sanctifier be from within humanity (Heb 2:11). Christ's sacrificial offering of himself to God achieved comprehensive sanctification for all people (Heb 10:10, 14, 29; 13:12). In addition, the return of Christ will mark the beginning of remade heaven and earth (2 Peter 3:10-13).
Anything that prefigured the work of Christ was holy in a redemptive sense. Something need not be inherently holy to serve a sanctifying purpose. Though God instructed his people to choose animals for sacrifice that were "without spot, " this was technically impossible. Only the unblemished Lamb of God was qualified to sanctify the world. Nevertheless, the lambs, bulls, and goats used in the ceremonial sacrifices in the Old Testament were sanctified because they anticipated the one sacrifice for sins forever. Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament offices of prophet, priest, and king. Yet many of these are not numbered among God's faithful. Everything is rendered holy by its proper use. The New Testament emphasis is that everything can be sanctified in a redemptive sense. When the believer glorifies God by thanking God for everything (1 Cor 10:31; 1 Thess 5:18), the believer thereby sanctifies everything. Nothing that God has created is unclean in itself. Its misuse renders it unclean.
God has ordained specific means, however, by which the church sets Christ apart. For example, participation in the new covenant "Table of the Lord" sanctifies the believer. Apart from what Christ has done, the exercise of eating bread and drinking wine would be common. God sanctifies a believer through his or her faithful remembrance of Christ's redemptive work according to the command of the Lord. People may so profane the Lord's Supper so as to receive judgment prematurely from God (1 Cor 11:27-32).
Worship under the old covenant foreshadowed Christ. Israel was ever conscious of the "sanctuary" (hagion [ἅγιος])—the place where God resided and which he loved (Mal 2:11). During Israel's captivities, the people were separated from the sanctuary and, hence, alienated from the assurance of God's saving blessings. It was the geographical and spiritual center of the nation's life.
The material used for the earthly sanctuary was made "holy" by virtue of its use. God stipulated strict standards for the sanctuary's construction (Exod. 25-40) and operation (Leviticus). Everything to do with the tabernacle and temple was holy: garments (Exod 28:2), anointing oil (Exod 30:25), crown (Exod 39:30), linen tunic (Lev 16:4), convocation of the people (Lev 23:2), water (Num 5:17), vessels (Num 31:6), utensils (1 Kings 8:4), ark (2 Chron 35:3), day (Ne 8:11), and place (Exod 28:29; 1 Kings 6:16). The items and procedures had typological significance. Although every typological feature cannot be established with absolute precision, Scripture indicates that the tabernacle and temple, including its priestly service, foreshadowed Christ (Heb 8:5; 9:23).
The old covenant sanctuaries were merely provisional. Only Christ could take away sin, "perfecting for all time those who are being sanctified" (Heb 10:14, marginal reading ). The Hebrew writer contrasts the earthly sanctuary of Israel with the heavenly sanctuary. It was the latter that Christ entered and opened for all who come to God through him (Heb 8:1-6; 9:23-26; 10:19-22).
Old and new covenants are linked by Christ. For example, the Sabbath and other designated days were to be kept "holy" (Gen 2:3; Exod 20:11; Num 29:1). Christ is the Sabbath rest for believers (Heb 4:1-11). Because of the sanctifying ministry of Christ, each day may be lived equally to the glory of God. Even in cases when believers differ in this matter, Paul urges all to live each day for the Lord (Rom 14:5-12) for he is the "substance" (Col 2:16-17). God's name is to be sanctified (Psalm 103:1; Isa 29:23). We sanctify God's name when we worship him properly. Christians are "sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy" (1 Cor 1:2). Jesus taught us to pray, "Our Father … hallowed [sanctified] be your name" (Matt 6:9). Praying in Jesus' name sanctifies our prayers (John 15:16).
Key Concepts. God's usual modus operandi is to sanctify common things for his redemptive purposes, rather than to employ perfect heavenly things (1 Cor 1:26-31). He sanctified common coats of skin to cover Adam and Eve's nakedness (Gen 3:21). He sanctified a common man, Abram of Ur, in order to make a great nation (Gen 12:1-7). He sanctified a common bush in the Sinai desert from which to commission a man to lead Israel out of bondage. Moses stood on "holy ground" (Exod 3:5), on a "holy mountain" (Eze 28:14). God made Jerusalem a "holy city" (Neh 11:1; Isa 48:2). In dramatic fashion, God sanctified the common womb of a common virgin girl by which to incarnate his Son. God's presence was with her (Luke 1:28). Jesus sanctified the world by his presence, "tabernacling" with us (John 1:14). God's method is grace. He alone is to be credited.
God's law is holy (Rom 7:12). Christ sanctified God's Law by fulfilling it (Matt 5:17). That means Christ fulfilled the ceremonial purpose of the Law by being the antitype of all that it prefigured, and fulfilled the moral demands of the Law by living perfectly according to its standards. The "law of Christ" (Gal 6:2) is synonymous with the moral demands God places on all humanity. We sanctify God's Law by obeying it. Obedience is not contrary to faith. It is not works-sanctification. Biblical faith is a faith that works (James 2). The New Testament is full of commands, imperatives—laws. God is pleased when the believer does "good works, " for he designed them from the beginning (Eph 2:10).
It is understandable why some downplay or even deny any present usefulness of "law" in the sanctification of believers. They appeal to such verses as, "you are not under law, but under grace" (Rom 6:14b). They are right that "law" is not the dynamic that sanctifies (Heb 7:18-19). But the Law was never given for that purpose (Gal 3:21). Its purpose for unbelievers is to show them how far from the original design they have come. It has an evangelistic purpose (Gal 3:24). Its purpose for believers, however, is to guide them to where grace is leading them. The old covenant anticipated a fuller application of the Law. God said to Old Testament Israel that he would inaugurate a new covenant in which he would put his Law within them, and write it on their hearts (Jer 31:33; Heb 8:10; see Ezek 36:27). Jesus reiterated, however, the continuing sanctifying function of the moral law, which can never be superseded (Matt 5:17-20).
Legalism threatens sanctification by distorting the biblical teaching about the Law to the opposite extreme. In short, legalism is substituting law for grace, achievement for faith. The Pharisees followed the Law, having first tinkered with its meaning and application. Yet they would not come to Christ (John 5:39). The Judaizers followed after Paul, preaching a pregospel "gospel" of legalism. Paul flatly condemned it (Gal 1:6-9; 2:16; 3:11). It is legalism when one obeys in order to glorify self before God or others (John 5:44). Similarly, insisting that forgiveness from unremitted guilt requires more "work" or "penance" from the supplicant is legalism masquerading as humility.
Sanctification is applied justification. By its very nature justification does not have a progressive character. It is God's declaration of righteousness. The focus of justification is the removal of the guilt of sin. The focus of sanctification is the healing of the dysfunctionality of sin. Since all spiritual blessings, justification and sanctification included, are the Christian's the moment he or she is "in Christ" (Eph 1:3), sanctification is total and final in one sense (Acts 20:32; 26:18; 1 Cor 6:11). Yet, unlike justification, sanctification also continues until it will be consummated when Jesus Christ returns. For then we will be like him (1 John 3:2)—perfect and complete. Sanctification, therefore, has an initial, progressive, and final phase. A believer's present preoccupation is with progressive sanctification (2 Cor 3:18, note the present continuous tense, "are being transformed" ), by which the child of God lives out the implications of initial sanctification with an eye to the goal of final sanctification. The sanctified life is victorious (Rom 8:37), though it is lived out in the context of temptation and suffering. God promises the "overcomers" in Revelation 2 and 3 to restore all that was lost in the fall (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12). In sanctification, the believer is simply applying the implications of his or her justification.
The Holy Spirit is the dynamic of sanctification. Jesus said that he had to go away so that the Holy Spirit would indwell believers (John 14:16-20). The "Holy" Spirit is so named not because he is more holy than the Father and the Son, but because his specific ministry vis-ˆ-vis salvation is sanctification (Rom 15:16; 1 Thess 4:3-4; 2 Thess 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2). The Spirit that inspired the Word of God now uses it to sanctify. Jesus, therefore, prayed concerning his own, "Sanctify them by the truth" (John 17:17). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth (John 16:13). The blessing of the new covenant is the presence of the Spirit (Ezek 36:27; Gal 3:14).
The Holy Spirit not only is the restoration of the presence of God in believers; he also equips believers to serve the church and the world. As the fruit of the Spirit are the result of the reproduction of godly character in believers (Gal 5:22-23), so the gifts of the Spirit (Rom 12:4-6; 1 Cor 12, 14) are the means by which believers serve others.
Though God sanctifies by grace, human beings are responsible to appropriate God's grace by faith. Faith is "the" means of sanctifying grace. The Bible indicates that there are other means at the disposal of believers to promote the direct faith—the Word, prayer, the church, and providence. The Word reveals God's will (John 17:17). Prayer allows the believer to apply faith to every area of life. The church is the context in which mutual ministry takes place. Providence is God's superintendence over every detail of life so that a believer will always have a way to grow in grace. Whether abounding or not (Php 4:11), whether certain of the outcome or not (Est 4:11-5:3), the people of God may sanctify each situation knowing that God has allowed it and is present in it. In the case of temptation, the believer knows that there always will be a sanctifying faith response available (1 Cor 10:13). When God disciplines his children, it is for their good, that they may "share in his holiness" (Heb 12:10).
God detests sacrifices that are not offered by faith (Psalm 40:6; Heb 10:5-7). On the other hand, a person is sanctified by presenting to God offerings that he proscribes (1 Sam 16:5; Job 1:5). In New Testament language, we present ourselves as "living sacrifices" (Rom 12:1). According to the old covenant, sacrifices are usually slain. Yet in the new covenant a believer dies with Christ in order to live a new holy life in the power of Christ's resurrection and in identification with Christ's suffering (Rom 6:1-11; Gal 2:20; Php 3:8-10).
A believer grows in sanctification by living according to his or her new identity. Before being "in Christ" the believer was "in Adam" (Rom 5:12-21). To be "in Adam" is to be spiritually dead. Death means "separation, " not "annihilation." A spiritually dead person is separated from God, the Life which alone can make one "godly." While separated from God, the unbeliever develops a working relationship with three related counter-sanctifying influences—the world, the flesh, and the devil. "The world" provides an allure to which "the flesh" readily responds, so that the believer has a topsy-turvy outlook that places created things before the Creator (Rom 1:23-25). All the while "the devil"—Satan, the liar and slanderer of God—along with those under his sway, give hearty approval.
Faith in the gospel places the believer "in Christ, " where everything becomes new (2 Cor 5:17). Scripture calls all that the "new" believer was outside of Christ the "old man" or "old self." That identity has passed away through faith-solidarity with Christ in his death. The new identity is characterized by faith-solidarity with Christ in his resurrection so that "we might bear fruit to God" (Rom 7:4b; cf. Rom 6:1-11; Col 3:1-4). Formally, the transformation by faith is immediate, but does not automatically result in changed thinking or behavior. The world, the flesh, and the devil still operate in their usual insidious way, but the power of each has been rendered inoperative (Rom 6:6; Heb 2:14) for those who live by faith according to their new identity. Faith includes repentance—identifying and forsaking everything that characterizes the "old man." Faith also includes trust—living in the light of everything that characterizes the "new man, " even if it doesn't "feel" right. All of this is done in hope, or forward-looking faith—confidence that God will carry out his sanctifying purposes to the end. When Christ returns to complete his work, he will remake the world, resurrect believers, and banish Satan eternally.
Sexual purity is a frequently mentioned application in Scripture of a properly functioning sanctified life (1 Cor 6:18-20; 1 Thess 4:3-8). This is so, in part, because marriage is the most revealing context from which to understand Christ's sanctifying purpose for the Church (Eph 5:25-30). Believers' bodies are sanctified by controlling them in such a way that God's purposes are being fulfilled by them (Rom 6:19, 22; 12:1-2; 1 Thess 4:4).
Sanctification has a negative and positive orientation. Negatively, sanctification is the cleansing or purifying from sin (Isa 66:17; 1 Cor 6:11; Eph 5:26; Titus 3:5-6; Heb 9:13). The laver in God's sanctuary provided a place for those offering sacrifice to God to ritually cleanse themselves. Christ cleanses the sinner once for all. The believer testifies to this through a lifestyle of self-denial (Matt 16:24). Biblical self-denial is not asceticism—withholding pleasure or causing pain as an inherent means of spiritual growth. It is placing the interests of God before the interests of self. Believers do not deny or ridicule legitimate human desires. These desires, however, need to be continually prioritized according to God's purposes (Matt 6:33).
Positively, sanctification is the growth in righteous attitudes and behavior. Good deeds (Eph 2:10), godliness (1 Peter 1:15), Christ-likeness (1 Peter 2:21), and fulfilling the demands of the Law (Rom 8:4) are all ways of referring to the product of sanctification. The believer "presses on" by laying hold by faith on the promises of God (Php 3:12), striving according to his indwelling resources (Col 1:29).
The initial avenue of spiritual experience is the mind. Faith must have an object. God transforms believers from a worldly perspective and lifestyle by renewing the mind (Rom 12:2). The Word of God makes us wise (2 Tim 3:15), for "faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ" (Rom 10:17). We need the mind of Christ (Php 2:5), by which we take every thought captive (2 Cor 10:5).
The result of sanctification is glory—the manifestation of God's presence. Glory is symbolized by a fire that does not consume (Exod 3:5), by a visible pillar of cloud and fire hovering above the Holy of Holies (Exod 40:34-35), by fire and violent quaking accompanying the giving of the Law on Sinai (Exod 19:18), and by the splendor that will accompany Christ's return to earth (Rev 19). God's sanctifying presence among people results in the manifestation of his glorious moral attributes. The new covenant brings greater glory than the old (2 Cor 3). The Spirit occupies the place in the new covenant that the Lord did in the old covenant (2 Cor 3:17). He progressively grows believers into God's likeness from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18). So, whereas sanctification has been accomplished fully and finally in Christ and all those who are in Christ are positively sanctified, the Christian is progressively sanctified through the Spirit's ministry.
The New Testament stresses moral, not ritual sanctification. Christ's atoning work put an end to the ceremonial foreshadowing of Israel's cultic practice. Jesus' reference to the temple altar in Matthew 23:19 was from the perspective of the practice he came to supersede.
A sanctified believer has assurance that he or she is Christ's. The call to sanctification reminds the Christian that he or she cannot presume upon justification. Professing believers are to "pursue" sanctification (Heb 12:14). Apart from God's sanctifying work in human beings, "no one will see the Lord" (Heb 12:14). God will judge any person claiming identification with Christ while not actively engaged in pursuing sanctification (Matt 7:21-23). John bases assurance on a faith that perseveres in sanctification (1 John 2:3-6; 5:2-4). Though sanctification is never complete in this life (1 John 1:8-10), it is not an optional extra tacked on to justification.
Bradford A. Mullen
See also Ethics; Spirituality; Union with Christ
Bibliography. D. L. Alexander, ed., Christian Spirituality; J. S. Baxter, Christian Holiness: Restudied and Restated; G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification; M. E. Dieter, et al., Five Views of Sanctification; S. B. Ferguson Know Your Christian Life: A Theological Introduction; D. C. Needham, Birthright: Christian, Do You Know Who You Are?; J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit; W. T. Purkiser, et al., Exploring Christian Holiness.