But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Pet 1:15-16).
Blue-eyed British monk Pelagius (Ca. A.D. 360-420) taught that if we should, we can. Denying original sin, he made grace essentially equal just to forgiveness, and he maintained that man was capable of doing good on his own. Pelagius naturally clashed head-on with Augustine (AD. 354-430). The latter taught that man can do no good in God’s eyes on his own, that his will is bound by Satan, and that only God’s grace can set people free.
Augustine won the day. By the end of the 6th century Pelagianism had largely disappeared. Later in church history, however, semi-Pelagianism triumphed over Augustinianism in Western Christendom. This is a modified form of grace plus works, and is still popular today, especially in Roman Catholicism.
The verse quoted at the head of our article is addressed to the saved— the saints. And yet how difficult it is to practice this command—yes, impossible to do so perfectly or at all on our own.
We who have read the NT know what the standards are: Christ, and the glory of God. It is hard to see how anyone could believe in Pelagius’s views and the NT at the same time.
Many people can and do believe in semi-Pelagianism, however. “We’re sinful,’ they say, “but not that bad!” With the help of the sacraments and by “co-operating” with God’s grace, they think they can earn God’s favor. Others, in Protestantism, believe similarly. To them sanctification is not all of God’s grace. Some even teach that we can attain Christian perfection while here on earth. They say we can be totally sanctified on a practical level.
One of my father’s favorite stories on the subject of sanctification was about a large interdenominational testimony meeting in New York City, probably before World War I.1 A man was on his feet facing the front of the auditorium. He announced to the assembled believers:
“I praise the Lord that I haven’t sinned once for six months.”
Some were impressed. Others were skeptical because they realized that his definition of sin would have had to be severely restricted to make this even a remotely credible possibility. Suddenly a feminine voice was raised from the back row of seats, along with a wave of a hand:
“Yoo-hoo, John—I’m here!”
Crestfallen, the speaker sat down in some confusion. He hadn’t realized that his wife had also come to this testimony meeting!
Neither the Bible nor experience offers any encouragement to us to expect Christian perfection in this life. However, the fact that we can’t expect to be sinlessly perfect until we are glorified should not be used as an excuse not to strive to be ever more holy each month and year. If we aim low, we will not hit a high target!
In this series of four articles we2 would like to discuss sanctification and its three aspects and three tenses.
Many well-meaning Christians are not well taught on this supremely important and practical subject. A common phrase heard in Christendom (and sadly even by supposedly evangelical Christians) is ‘I’m a Christian, but I’m no saint.” The idea is that while we can expect a person to go to church, give, and keep away from the grosser sins, don’t expect too much more.
Actually, if you’re not a saint, you’re not saved! Don’t misunderstand this: we are not saying if you’re not very saintly you’re not saved.
First Corinthians is addressed to the church “at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours” (1 Cor 1:2). Yet just read the epistle! The Corinthians were proud, divisive, litigious, careless and selfish at the Lord’s Supper and agape (love feast), and permissive of gross sin (incest) in one of the believers.3
Why would Paul call the Corinthians “saints” if they were so unsaintly? The answer lies in the different usages of the root words that are used for sanctification in both Testaments.
English, unfortunately for us, used Anglo-Saxon-based words (holy, holiness) and Latin-based (sanctify, sanctification, saint, saintly) to translate the same cluster of words in the original. In the OT the words are from the Semitic root qdsh. In the NT they translate words with the hagi- root.4 The basic meaning of all these words is the same: “to set apart for a special use.” In contexts of “sanctification,” this will be for a good use, and one for God’s will and pleasure.5
Sanctification involves a believer’s conduct and character. It is both negative and positive. Too many conservative Christians accentuate the negative, as in the somewhat light-hearted (but often accurate) summary of some people’s idea of sanctification: “I don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew, or run with those who do.”
To be sure, there is a strong negative side to the doctrine. We are to be separated or set apart from evil. First Thessalonians 4:3 speaks of progressive sanctification as having to do with turning away from immorality—so rampant in today’s culture, as it was in the days when the NT was written.
However, we should not merely become set apart from evil but we should be positively set apart and dedicated to God. In OT times a person could sanctify his house (Lev 27:14), part of his field (Lev 27:16), or his firstborn (Num 8:17). If the OT believers could do so, surely we NT believers should be able to set apart our homes, cars, and possessions, for God’s use! We can dedicate our children through prayer and a consistent example. In the final analysis, though, they will have to consecrate their own lives to Christ’s holy service.
Since God is all-holy, the word sanctify cannot mean “make holy” when applied to Him. On the practical level, sometimes progressive sanctification does mean this for us. In Ezek 36:23 the Lord speaks of Himself as sanctified, or set apart from all unholiness: “When I am hallowed in you before their eyes.” God is infinitely holy, but only as this is reflected in the lives of his saints will the world ever believe it. Likewise in the so-called “Lord’s Prayer” (better, “the Disciple’s Prayer,” since Christ could not pray for forgiveness, being sinless) we pray that God’s name would be “hallowed” (hagiazo, the same verb usually translated “sanctify”).
It is already a most holy or sanctified name. Our part is to regard it as such ourselves and influence others to set it apart as holy as well. For example, this rules out all false remarks in His name and any light or “vain” use of God’s name. The Son of God, likewise, was sanctified when the Father sent Him into the world for our salvation (John 10:36). He consecrated Himself or set Himself apart to the great task of redemption. Because He has redeemed us by grace we can indeed practice holiness (= set apartness).
Our story of the man who thought he had reached sinless perfection illustrates the difference between what we are as set apart in Christ (perfect) and what we are in everyday life (hopefully progressing on a practical level toward holiness, but still plagued by many “warts’ on our character). A little poem that illustrates the difference between our daily progress in practical sanctification and our final sanctification goes like this:
To dwell above with those we love,
That will indeed be glory;
But here below with some I know,
Well, that’s another story!
Yes, it is sadly true. Born-again Christians (the only kind there are, really) can be hard to get along with, and downright mean at times. Also, we are only too aware of some of these flaws in ourselves, if we are honest. But there are usually other blemishes that are “blind spots.” Unfortunately, those closest to us are not blind to these unholy “warts.”
But just knowing that sanctification is not just one generalized, vague concept can really help us to understand other Christians’ failings—not to mention our own!
Three Phases of Sanctification
God’s Word presents three different aspects of sanctification: (1) Positional Sanctification; (2) Progressive Santification and (3) Perfected (or Final) Sanctification.
In this first study only a brief summary of all three will be given.
1. Positional Sanctification
First Corinthians 1:30 is a good verse to summarize our sanctified, or set-apart, position in Christ: “But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”
This is an absolute, perfect, and objective thing. Positional sanctification takes place instantaneously at salvation, irrespective of how little it may or may not immediately show up in our lives. The Corinthians, who had a long way to go before they would be considered “saintly” by outside observers (and who did, after all, often have rather rough backgrounds), are addressed by Paul in these words: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11, emphasis supplied).
Many evangelicals hesitate to use the word saint for all Christians, letting the Mormons, the so-called “Latter-day Saints,” have a corner on the word.6 The NT has no such reticence, because of the doctrine of positional sanctification. Whereas the word Christian occurs only three times in the NT, the word saints (plural, not “Saint John’ or “Saint Paul”) as a term for all believers is widespread (e.g., Acts 9:13; Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2; Eph 4:12; Phil 4:22; Col 1:4; Phlm 7; Heb 6:10; Rev 13:7).
William Evans writes bluntly, but truthfully, on this question of being a “saint”: “If a man is not a saint he is not a Christian; if he is a Christian he is a saint.”7
2. Progressive Sanctification
John 17:17, in our Lord’s high-priestly prayer for his saints, is a good introduction8 to the practical or experiential side of sanctification: “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.”
Although the Lord Jesus had been ministering to His disciples for three years, and eleven of them had indeed been already sanctified (positionally) by grace through faith in Him,9 He still prays for their sanctification through the application of the Word of God.
3. Perfected Sanctification
Final, ultimate, or perfect sanctification does not take place till we leave this planet through death or the Rapture. It is an event yet to come. First John 3:2 is a central passage for this:
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.10
II. The Tenses of Sanctification
Like salvation, which has a past, a present, and a future aspect,11 sanctification does as well.
1. Past Sanctification
Positional sanctification is past (and permanent): we were set apart in Christ at our conversion.
2. Present Sanctification
Progressive sanctification is present: we are daily being more and more conformed to His image in holiness.
3. Future Sanctification
Ultimate sanctification is future: one day we shall see Him as He is and we shall be like Him. There will be no more sin in thought, word, or deed—and no “old man” to make us even want a shred of that old, shoddy condition.
This, then, is sanctification: a setting apart from a profane, secular, or sinful purpose and a dedicating of a person or thing to the service and glory of a thrice-holy God (Isa 6:3).
We must not confuse the past, present, and future aspects of sanctification if we expect to understand NT doctrine.
For us, the easiest aspect of sanctification is the positional, which was earned for us in the past by the sacrifice of Christ and applied to us when we believed. This will be explained in the next issue of the Journal. The present, everyday, progressive aspect, which is so difficult for most Christians to handle, will be explained in the third issue of our series. The future and final aspect will be the fourth and last of this series called “We Believe in Sanctification.”
We close with some words penned many decades ago by William Evans:
The believer grows in sanctification rather than into sanctification out of something else. By a simple act of faith in Christ the believer is at once put into a state of sanctification. Every Christian is a sanctified man. The same act that ushers him into a state of justification admits him at once into the state of sanctification, in which he is to grow until he reaches the fullness of the measure of the stature of Christ.12
1My late father, although not a preacher, missionary, or theologian, remains one of my best sources of illustrations for sermons and articles. It was his privilege for about thirty years in New York, at the then well-known “Tent Evangel” and elsewhere, to hear some of the most influential speakers in evangelicalism, such as Fanny Crosby, W. H. Griffith Thomas, and Billy Sunday. And he remembered so much.
2It is planned that three different writers will handle the three types of sanctification.
3There is no suggestion that the incestuous man was unsaved, but rather that he might be removed in death if he didn’t change his ways.
4As in our English derivative, hagiography (a biography of a saint). This double set of root words needlessly complicates things, although giving a richer vocabulary than possessed by any other tongue.
5That the word doesn’t always mean “make saintly” is clear from the fact that the Hebrew root qdsh is used for those set aside to be cult prostitutes, including sodomites!
6In a street meeting in Utah, Dr. H. A. Ironside was once angrily challenged from the crowd by a man who said, “I’m an elder in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints!” Dr. Ironside answered pleasantly, but with truth, “I’m a junior in the Church of Jesus Christ of former-day saints!”
7William Evans, The Great Doctrines of the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1912, revised 1939 and 1949), 166. He adds, for the sake of those who obscure this truth with their doctrines of works and human merit: “In some quarters people are canonized after they are dead; the New Testament canonizes believers while they are alive” (!). Ibid.
8Other verses on this aspect are 2 Cor 3:18; Eph 5:25-26; 1 Thess 5:23; 2 Pet 3:18.
9Judas Iscariot, the “son of perdition” (John 17:12), was never sanctified at all.
10Another important verse on future sanctification is Rom 8:29.
11We were saved from the penalty of sin when we put our faith in Christ for salvation (past); we are being saved from the power of sin each day (present);we shall ultimately be saved from the presence of sin at our death or the coming of Christ in the Rapture (future).
12Evans, Great Doctrines, 166