1 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
1 Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. – 2 Corinthians 7:1 ESV
23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 2 Thessalonians 5:23 ESV
22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect. – Hebrews 12:22-23 ESV
The four passages above provide us with clarification concerning the doctrine of sanctification, but they have also resulted in much confusion and debate over the centuries. Taken out of context or rad apart from one another, they can leave a range of different conclusions regarding sanctification and man’s role in it.
It seems that the Bible treats sanctification using three different tenses: past, present, and future; and with each occurrence a different aspect of sanctification is being communicated. These three different ways of looking at sanctification provide us with a multi-multidimensional frame of reference that helps us better understand the rich nature of this often overlooked and underappreciated doctrine.
But these verses, and others like them, have also been used to propagate a wide range of conclusions regarding sanctification. For some, the fact that sanctification is communicated as having taken place in the past, suggests that it is a one-and-done doctrine. They treat it as they do justification, concluding that it was accomplished at the point of salvation and is, therefore, complete. They rightly state that each and every believer has been set apart or sanctified by God at the point of their salvation. As the letter of Jude so clearly states, they have been called by God.
To those who are called… – Jude 1 ESV
The word, “called” in the Greek is hagiazō, and refers to those who have been sanctified or consecrated to God for His use. And the author of Hebrews tells us that who God has called or sanctified “have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10 ESV). That calling cannot be revoked. The believer’s state of sanctification cannot be lost. As A. W. Pink so aptly puts it:
…his sacrifice has purged his people from every stain of sin, separated them from the world, consecrated them unto God, setting them before him in all the excellency of his offering. – A. W. Pink, The Doctrine of Sanctification
As Paul told the believers in Thessalonica: “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13. ESV). So, there is a sense in which our sanctification is a past occurrence, having been accomplished through the Spirit when we placed our faith in Jesus Christ. At that point, we became God’s holy possession, set apart for His use and bearing the full righteousness of Christ. That’s why Peter describes us as “a chosen people,” and he calls us “royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession.” And then he tells us the wonderful consequences of our sanctification: “As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9 NLT).
But if we have been sanctified by God and it is a completed process, why do we still struggle with sin? If we have been made holy by God, why does unholy behavior still make up such a large part of our daily experience? When the Scripture talks of the believer as having been sanctified once for all, it is not speaking of a complete eradication of sin from the life of the one sanctified.
…scriptural sanctification is neither the eradication of sin, the purification of the carnal nature, nor even the partial putting to sleep of the “flesh”; still less does it secure an exemption from the attacks and harassments of Satan. – A. W. Pink, The Doctrine of Sanctification
Even Jesus, praying in the garden on behalf of all those who would place their faith in Him, said to His heavenly Father, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:15-17 ESV).
Jesus prayed for a specific group of people. He refers to them as “the people whom you gave me out of the world,” and Jesus reminds His Father, “Yours they were, and you gave them to me” (John 17:5 ESV). They had been set apart by God as His possession, and God had given them to Jesus to save. And on the verge of accomplishing His divine mission of substitutionary atonement, Jesus tells His Father, “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:9 ESV).
And Jesus asked that His Father “keep them from the evil one” and “sanctify them in the truth.” Yes, they had been set apart by God, and Jesus was going to seal their designation as God’s possession with His death on the cross. But Jesus knew that all those whom God had given Him would still wrestle with the attacks of Satan and the ever-present reality of sin. The New Testament repeatedly points to the reality of indwelling sin. Our own experience as believers provides ample proof that sin is far from eradicated in our lives. Yes, we have been set apart by God for His use. We now belong to Him, and we have even been given a new nature by virtue of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, but we still have to do battle with sin each and every day. That is why the author of Hebrews tells us: “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1 ESV).
It’s why Paul pleaded so strongly with the believers in Ephesus, telling them to “throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy” (Ephesians 4:22-24 NLT). And He warned the believers in Galatia to “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16 ESV). Paul also demanded that the Corinthian believers cleanse themselves from anything that defiled the body or spirit so that they might bring their holiness to completion (2 Corinthians 7:1 ESV).
So, while believers have been set apart by God for His use, we must live in keeping with our holy status. In other words, we have been dedicated by God and cleansed from our sin by the blood of His Son, so we must maintain the purity of our lives so that we might continue to bring Him glory through our lives. That is what Paul meant when he wrote to his young protégé, Timothy.
In a wealthy home some utensils are made of gold and silver, and some are made of wood and clay. The expensive utensils are used for special occasions, and the cheap ones are for everyday use. If you keep yourself pure, you will be a special utensil for honorable use. Your life will be clean, and you will be ready for the Master to use you for every good work. – 2 Timothy 2:20-21 NLT
We are to see ourselves as “expensive utensils” reserved for special occasions and for honorable use. That is the motivation behind our efforts to remain pure. We are not attempting to earn favor with God or gain access into His presence through good works. We are striving to live in keeping with His will for us.
…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, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God. – 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 ESV
We are to pursue holiness because we have been deemed holy by God. As Paul told Timothy, we are to “Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11 NLT). Why? Because it is God’s will for us and the very reason Jesus gave His life for us. Paul would have us remember that Jesus died so that we might live in newness of life.
For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives…We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. – Romans 6:4, 6 NLT
And the hope that motivates our pursuit of ongoing sanctification is the promise of our future glorification – when our sanctification will be complete and whole. The day is coming when we will become “the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:13 ESV) and “we will be like him”(1 John 3:2 NLT).
We have been sanctified by God. We are being sanctified by God. And the day is coming when we will be perfectly sanctified by God – not just positionally, but practically and permanently.
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.