On the night of the Savior’s betrayal, just as He was about to face Judas and the multitude which were coming to arrest Him, the Lord Jesus prayed what has often been described as His “high priestly prayer.” He made several requests to the Father on behalf of His disciples. One of these was “Sanctify them through Thy truth: Thy word is truth” (John 17:17).
The basic meaning of the verb “sanctify” is to separate, or to set apart. Sanctification is the action accomplished by God whereby He sets apart a person, a place, or an object for Himself. He does this so that He might accomplish His purpose in the world by means of that person, place, or thing. As we noticed when we considered justification, there is a very close link between the two doctrines. Justification is linked to my position, and although there is a positional aspect to sanctification it also links to my practice. Justification does not change me personally; this is the work of God in His sanctifying power. There are no degrees to justification. I can never become more justified. Sanctification has degrees; I can become more holy. Sanctification is a term which has both positive and negative connotations. It has often been pointed out that in the book of Hebrews, the term sanctification is linked with the word “purged,” speaking of something that has been removed (Heb 1:3). Sanctification is the positive aspect of the same truth showing that as those whose sins have been purged, we are set apart for God and fitted for His sanctuary (Heb 10:10, 19).
In the Scriptures, food (1Tim 4:5), marriage (1Cor 7:14), the temple and the altar (Matt 23:17, 19) are both spoken of as being sanctified. There are also certain things which are described as being holy, including: prophets (2Peter 3:2), women (1Peter 3:5), men (2Peter 1:21), priesthood (1Peter 2:5), and apostles (Eph 3:5).
In the New Testament sanctification is linked to the triune God. It is accomplished by God (1Thes 5:23), on the basis of the death of the Lord Jesus (Heb 13:12) and is brought about through the power of the Spirit of God (Rom 15:16). We will consider four aspects of the doctrine of sanctification as it is presented in the New Testament.
The age we are living in has correctly been described as the age of the Holy Spirit. One of His functions in this era was explained by the Lord Jesus: “He will reprove the world of sin” (John 16:8). This is what Peter speaks of when he writes, “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” (1Peter 1:1-2). Peter makes clear that the Holy Spirit moved in such convicting power that it brought these people to the moment of obedience. They experienced salvation through appreciation of the value of the blood of the Lord Jesus. This was all in keeping with God’s foreknowledge. One of the things which should be emphasized in our gospel preaching is the reality of conviction of sin produced by the Holy Spirit. Conviction of sin is one of the features marking those who have experienced true conversion to God.
This is what the believer experiences the initial moment they trust Christ as Savior. Paul confirms this as he writes: “But of Him are ye in Christ Jesus, Who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (1Cor 1:30). This aspect of sanctification then, is that relationship with God into which we enter through faith in Christ (Acts 26:18). This is why Paul wrote to those at Corinth as those who are “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called saints” (1Cor 1:2, Darby). At conversion I was washed, sanctified, and justified “in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1Cor 6:11).
While there is a positional aspect to this doctrine, it is also presented in Scripture as being something that continues. This aspect of sanctification is God’s will for the believer (1Thes 4:3) and touches all aspects of the believer’s life, including marital relationships (1Thes 4:4). Progressive sanctification is not something that is natural to us even as those who have been justified, but is something in which we continue as we are taught. This is accomplished by the Word of God (John 17:17, Psa 119:9). Paul mentions this as he writes, “for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness” (Rom 6:19). In the past we yielded ourselves to “iniquity unto iniquity” and in the context of Romans, one would think that the subject of righteousness would be emphasized – “righteousness unto righteousness.” However, it is the desire of the Spirit of God that believers be conformed not only to the character of God, righteousness, but also to the very nature of God, holiness (1Thes 3:13).
This is God’s ultimate purpose for us. We are reminded, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is” (1John 3:2). “As He is” reminds us of One Who is righteous, pure, and sinless (1John 2:29, 3:3, 5); we shall be like Him. In Romans we learn that God’s purpose is that we should “be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom 8:29). While we will be completely changed and conformed to Him in that day, God’s purpose is that Christ will have the first place in rank, honor, and dignity “among many brethren.”
At conversion all believers are positionally sanctified, we are presently being sanctified by the power of God through His Word, and we will yet be sanctified and perfected in glory into the very image of His Son.