Sanctification is a very important doctrine to understand for the Christian life. As we, by God’s grace, plant a church in Boerne, TX, we must have a Christ inspired desire to be holy as God is Holy (1 Pet 1:16). This process of becoming more holy is called sanctification.
Sanctification is the progressive (or continuing) work of God in a believer where he is made more holy (sanctified), more Christ-like, throughout his Christian life. Sanctification is not an optional process but will occur in the life of every genuine believer. There also needs to be a clear distinction between justification and sanctification.
Justification is the payment of our sins and removal of our guilt by the righteousness of Christ. It is what Christ has done for us. Sanctification is the ongoing removal of the pollution of sin in the believer’s life. It is the work that Christ does in us. Justification removes the penalty of sin, whereas sanctification frees us from sin’s power. Justification is completely the work of God, but in sanctification we participate. Justification is a onetime event, sanctification continues throughout one’s life. Justification is equally applied to all true Christians, but sanctification happens at different levels. Sanctification involves living a holy life completely committed to God and separated from all sin in the word and in us.
The Bible speaks of our sanctification in two different ways. The first one is called positional sanctification because it speaks of the position of being declared holy before God based on our faith in Christ. Because through our faith union with Him, we have received Christ’s righteousness and are declared to be in a position of holiness based on this imputation. When Jesus speaks to Paul, he says Paul’s mission will be to preach the gospel to the Gentiles so that they may receive “an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:18). Notice the past tense use of the verb “have been sanctified.” Jesus speaks as if they have already been sanctified when they are converted. Paul writes a similar expression when he says “you were washed…you were sanctified…you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). Three passages in Hebrews also speak of sanctification as being in the past, at the point of conversion (Heb 10:10–12, 14; 13:12–13). Through the NT letters Christians are called saints, meaning “holy ones.” This means that God sees them as holy in Christ, although they still have sin in their lives.
The other type of sanctification is called progressive (or ongoing) sanctification. This is often what most people are referring to when they use the term “sanctification.” Although believers are seen as holy by the work of Christ, they continue to have sin in their life. A believer cannot attain perfect sanctification in one’s life and to claim this is to exhibit bad fruit (1 John 1:8, 10). Even though David trusted in Yahweh, he still sinned (Ps 32). Jesus told His disciples that “he who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you” (John 13:10). This indicated that the true disciples were already righteous but that their remaining sin needed continual confession and cleansing (see 1 John 1:9).
Sanctification is done by God through us. Jesus prays, “sanctify them in truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17). Paul prays that “the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely” (1 Thess 5:23). He also spoke of sanctification being passive, being done by the Spirit, when he wrote “we all…are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18). But man’s role in sanctification is not passive either. This need for ongoing sanctification is why the apostles continue to exhort believers to walk in holiness throughout the New Testament.
Peter tells his readers to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ (2 Pet 3:18). Paul tells the Romans to renew their mind and be transformed (Rom 12:1–3), the Galatians to walk by the Spirit (Gal 5:16–26) the Ephesians to put off the old man and put on the new man in Christ (Eph 4:22–24; Col 3:9–10), and the Colossians to set their minds on the things in heaven and not earthly things (Col 3:2). A major part of sanctification is sexual purity (1 Thess 4:3–7). The writer of Hebrews says to “pursue peace and sanctification” (Heb 12:14). Paul says “present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification” (Rom 6:19). Peter commands believers to “be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you” by pursuing sanctification (1 Pet 1:5–10).
We see the concurrent work of God and man in sanctification when Paul says, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:12–13). Here Paul exhorts believers to work towards a higher level of sanctification based on the fact they have been saved, but at the same time He tells them that it is God doing the work in them! God is both willing and doing in us as we work. Yet from our standpoint we are to pursue holiness in our lives and mortify sin.
Since God is holy he demands holiness for His people. Sanctification is God’s method of bringing about holiness in our lives. We are both declared holy at justification by Christ’s righteousness and are progressively sanctified throughout our lives as Christians through the work of the Holy Spirit. This is both a work of God and a work of man. Sanctification is a glorious doctrine where we can become more and more like Christ and serve our holy God.