2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. – 1 Corinthians 1:2 ESV
As we continue our discussion of sanctification, one of the aspects of this vital doctrine that creates confusion is the biblical language used to describe it. In the verse above, Paul is addressing the believers in Corinth as those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus. Writing in the Greek language, Paul used the word hagiazō, which is in the perfect passive participle verb form. As such, it describes an action which is viewed as having been completed in the past, once and for all, not needing to be repeated. In other words, Paul was telling the Corinthian believers that they had already been set apart by God. It was a completed task. And later on in the same letter, Paul reemphasized this past-tense action when he reminded them, “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ESV). In a sense, Paul is telling them that they were, but they still are. It was an event that happened at the point of their salvation, but it has long-term ramifications. Their sanctification by God was permanent, not temporary.
And this past-tense language used in reference to sanctification is not uncommon in Scripture. In Acts 20, Luke documents Paul addressing the elders from Ephesus and providing them with the following words of encouragement.
And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. – Acts 20:32 ESV
But look closely at Paul’s words. He used that same perfect passive participle verb form and yet, he describes God as being able to build them up. God had set them apart as His own, but He was not done with them. He had more in store for them. And Paul used similar language in his letter to the believers in Corinth. He addressed them as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus” but then provided them with God’s purpose behind their sanctification: They were “called to be saints.” The Greek word translated as “called” is klētos and it refers to someone being divinely selected and appointed for something. And Paul was challenging his readers to understand that their sanctification by God was so that they might be “saints.”
The word “saint” is another one of those biblical terms that carries a lot of baggage. But in its simplest form, it refers to one who has been set apart. The Greek word is hagios, and it has to do with something or someone that is considered holy or having been consecrated to God and His use. But it is not just a statement about status. It carries the idea of purity and moral blamelessness.
Paul was letting the Corinthian believers know that they had been set apart by God, but he wanted them to know that their status as God’s sanctified ones was so that they might live holy lives. They were to live up to their status as God’s special possession.
There is a sense in which every believer in Jesus Christ is a saint, having been set apart by God and belonging to Him. And because of the imputed righteousness of Christ, God sees us as holy in His eyes. We are positionally and practically holy because we have been imputed the righteousness of Christ. Paul found great comfort in that reality
I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. – Philippians 3:9 NLT
Paul emphasized this same powerful truth to the believers in Rome when he told them:
For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile. This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” – Romans 1:16-17 NLT
Our righteousness comes to us by virtue of faith in Christ. It is His righteousness that God looks at and uses to deem us as worthy to be saints. At no point in the Christian life does our merit before God shift from Christ’s righteousness to our own. In other words, Christ’s righteousness is what saves us, but it is also what keeps us saved. Sanctification is not man attempting to live up to the righteous standard of Christ in order to keep his standing before God. And yet, that is how far too many Christians view the doctrine of sanctification. While we firmly believe that salvation is through faith alone in Christ alone, we somehow think that our sanctification is up to us.
But Paul would have us remember that we have already been sanctified. We stand before God as His set apart ones, having been sprinkled by the blood of the unblemished Lamb of God. And, as a result, we have been cleansed and made righteousness in the eyes of God.
Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. – Hebrews 9:13-14 NLT
Just like the Corinthian believers to whom Paul wrote, we have been sanctified by God. We enjoy the unique and undeserved status of being His children. And it is because the blood of Jesus has cleansed us and made us acceptable to a holy God. The doctrine of sanctification is not about believers earning brownie points with God. It is not to be understood as some kind of divine contest by which we prove to God our worthiness to be His children or attempt to earn a ticket into His eternal kingdom.
Our sanctification is a present reality, made possible by God and paid for by the blood of Christ. God has set us apart as His own. Now, we are to live as who we are: His children. While we live on this planet, waiting for the return of Jesus Christ, we are to live as those who belong to God. We are to emulate the life of Christ, following His example of selflessness and sacrificial service to others. But we do not do so to earn favor with God. We don’t pursue righteousness in order to make God love us. He has already proven His unwavering love for us by sending His Son to die for us.
But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT
We are already sanctified, set apart by God for His use and His use alone. We no longer belong to ourselves. His will superseded our own. His plan for our lives takes precedence over any goals or objectives we may have. And while we enjoy status as God’s sanctified saints, Paul would have us know that God’s will is our continued sanctification.
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor. – 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4 NLT
Our status as God’s chosen ones comes with an expectation that we live up to our calling. And Paul emphasized this divine expectation when he addressed the believers in Ephesus.
Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. – Ephesians 4:1-4 NLT
We have been set apart, and our greatest desire should be to live in keeping with who we are. And as we continue to explore the deep doctrine of sanctification, we will discover the rich and rewarding blessings that come to those lead lives worthy of their calling.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.