Ask Steve: The Meaning of Sanctification







Question: Steve, I’ve been a believer for three years but lately I heard a brother mention a word I have never heard before–“sanctification.” What in the world is sanctification? Is this concept important to me as a Christian? If so, how?

Answer: Sanctification is an indispensable part of the Christian life. The word sanctification comes from the word sanctify, which according to both the OT and NT, means being cut out and set apart in holiness for God’s purposes. It is a state of separation from the world (and sinful things) onto God in which all believers enter into after conversion. If a believer is not sanctified, then he has never been regenerated and justified. In other words, he has never truly been saved. It is important to understand the doctrine of sanctification for the welfare of your spiritual health, and for the others whom you evangelize and disciple.

There are three stages of sanctification. The first one is called positional sanctification, which happens upon justification. After we are justified, we have been declared holy and righteous because of the imputed righteousness of Christ to our account (2 Cor 5:21). Therefore, we are officially set apart as children of God. It is a once and for all separation onto God and our connection with Christ. It is an unrepeatable event and is a guarantee on someone’s inclusion into as heir of thekingdomofGod. It basically means we have been saved, and delivered from the penalty of sin (1 Cor 6:11).

The more practical aspect of sanctification is what is called progressive sanctification, which is the experiential aspect of sanctification. It is the practical experience of being set apart for God’s purposes, in which we grow in holiness, righteousness, and seek to do God’s will. In other words, progressive sanctification is the process of growing into Christlikeness, and decreasing in the ways of the former life of sin and disobedience (1 Pet 1:15; Heb 12:14). God is the one who controls the degree to which we are sanctified in this life. Some are holier than others, and some bear more fruit than others. However, this does not negate human responsibility, as we are constantly commanded in Scripture to obey the Lord (Jn 14:15), even to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). In the process of doing so, it is God the Holy Spirit working in us to accomplish His sovereign purposes. We grow in Christlikeness through biblical discipleship, through which we learn everything we need to know from God’s word and put it all into practice. Progressive sanctification is God delivering us from the power of sin, which is a lifelong journey.

This is not to say that in our experiential sanctification (post-salvation) that we can somehow attain a state of perfection. The Bible affirms that those in the sinful flesh, even Christians, cannot become sinless and perfectly holy in this life (1 Jn 1:8). We should never teach perfectionism, which is not only unrealistic, but unbiblical. It advocates somewhat of a works-based faith that wrongly elevates human potential and merit. At the same time, we must not see this as an excuse to give up and be licentious in life. We are definitely not called to live an antinomian life and to abuse grace. We are called to be set apart to be God’s people, representing the character of God in all of His love, righteousness, justice, and holiness. Sanctification is essentially about direction of life, not perfection of life.

Such direction is prompted by heart motivation and a love for Christ that can only be experienced by those who are born again by the Holy Spirit and saved. Unsaved believers cannot live a sanctified life, and properly submit to Jesus as their Lord, because they are still dead in their sins (1 Cor 12:3). This is why they exhibit an untransformed heart, do not care about discipleship, or are trying to earn salvation based on their external works rather than trusting in Christ. Progressive sanctification is a heavy indicator of whether someone has been positionally sanctified (or saved). Those who advocate a salvation without sanctification is essentially preaching a false saving message, since there is no such thing as a Christian who can get saved but not sanctified.

Though we never achieve a state of perfection through sanctification in this life, this is what sanctification ultimately leads to. The third, and final, stage of sanctification is called final sanctification, which is when God delivers us from the presence of sin forever by glorifying our bodies (1 Jn 3:2; Phil 3:20-21). This happens at the rapture of the church. We become completely sanctified in holiness, regaining the perfect image of God, when we experience glorification at the rapture of the church. Only then will we be perfectly sanctified (freed from all sinful habits) and made holy as Christ is holy. As I previously mentioned), positional sanctification removes us from the penalty of sin. Progressive sanctification removes us from the general power of sin. And final sanctification removes us from the entire presence of sin.

Those whom God elected will experience salvation, and in turn experience sanctification and then glorification. Those who do not undergo sanctification or fall away from the faith show that they were never saved to begin with. True salvation always leads to transformation of character that is displayed during the lifelong process of maturing like Christ in character and conduct. This is what sanctification is. This is why understanding sanctification is important to every Christian, so that they know what they are getting themselves into when if they want to become a true Christian. Understanding sanctification also informs one of their identities in Christ and gives them good motivation and instruction on what kind of life they should be living and what they are not called to pursue, which is sin. The doctrine of sanctification is entirely necessary when evangelizing, teaching the gospel, building up new believers, and defending the faith against skeptics who question the power and efficacy of the gospel in a person’s life.

Understanding the right view of sanctification is also necessary because of the opposing views that constitute a threat to the gospel and proper Christian living. Some views include the theory of sanctification as the process of personal reformation, which places undue emphasis on the power of human ability and teaches that sanctification is all about following the precepts of Jesus so that they can one day live a sinless life. Another view of sanctification is the sacramental process which is characteristic of the Roman Catholic Church, meaning that sanctification is the process in which people become righteous enough to gain God’s favor at the final judgment. Sanctification and justification are the same process in this view.

Another view is the second blessing experience popular within the Wesylan tradition. This view states that Christians experience a “second work of grace” sometime in their life when they become anointed and inspired enough to enter the sphere of Christian perfection, Christian love, or entire sanctification. This means that once Christians experience this “second blessing” in life, they can reach perfection and become sinless.

These views do not have enough biblical support. The gradual process of becoming holy, which is characteristic of most evangelicals, is the biblical model of sanctification. This model rightly informs us of the sovereignty of God in the salvific and sanctification process, humbling us to know our weaknesses, but also giving us the responsibility to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Having the right view of sanctification is important because it informs us of what kind of Christian life we are living: a works-based system, a licentious faith, a legalistic type of moral faith, and an experience based type of faith. 


Recommended Resource: The Cross and Salvation by Bruce DeMarest