When most authors or speakers write or speak about sanctification, they almost always mean progressive (or present) sanctification.1In fact, many of the books and articles on sanctification never even mention past sanctification.
One wonders why there is such a neglect of the subject of past sanctification.
It is not because the Scriptures are silent on the subject.
One might well think that the reason for this lack of attention is because many more passages speak of present sanctification than speak of past (or future) sanctification. Before embarking on this study, I thought that way. However, after doing a study of all NT passages dealing with sanctification, I found that over three quarters deal with past sanctification! By comparison only 20% deal with present sanctification. See Appendices 1-4 for a listing of the actual percentages and passages.
One reason for the lack of attention to past sanctification may be a desire to oversimplify biblical concepts. That is, there is a tendency to want to reduce concepts like salvation and sanctification to one basic meaning. This tendency is misguided since both salvation and sanctification are complex concepts which have a wide range of meaning in Scripture. Another possible reason for this neglect of past sanctification is the understandable desire to focus on external transformation. Pastors, and often theologians as well, tend to be more interested in behavioral changes than in constitutional, legal, or positional changes.
A third reason is the failure to see a clear separation between justification and progressive sanctification. Lordship Salvation teachers believe that perseverance in the faith—and hence in personal holiness— is a condition of eternal salvation. Anyone who fails to persevere is said to have never been saved in the first place.
According to Lordship thinking, if progressive sanctification is not in clear evidence in a person’s life, then past sanctification probably never really occurred. This naturally leads Lordship teachers to view progressive sanctification as the sine qua non of past sanctification (rather than the other way around)!
A.W. Pink, himself a strong Calvinist, decried the tendency in Reformed circles to ignore past sanctification and to link assurance to progressive sanctification. Referring to the Westminster Confession’s statement on sanctification he writes:
Instead of placing before the believer that complete and perfect sanctification which God has made Christ to be unto him, it occupies him with the incomplete and progressive work of the Spirit. Instead of moving the Christian to look away from himself with all his sinful failures, unto Christ in whom he is “complete” (Col 2:10), it encouraged him to look within, where he will often search in vain for the fine gold of the new creation amid all the dross and mire of the old creation. This is to leave him without the joyous assurance of knowing that he has been “perfected forever” by the one offering of Christ (Heb 10:14); and if he be destitute of that, then doubts and fears must constantly assail him, and the full assurance of faith elude every striving after it… Let the young believer be credibly assured that he will “more and more die unto sin and rise unto newness of life,” and what will be the inevitable outcome?…Why this: if the Catechism-definition be correct then I was sadly mistaken, I have never been sanctified at all (italics his).2
Similarly he challenged the statement on sanctification in the 1742 Baptist Association Confession of Faith:
The approach which seems best to me is to consider (1) the various types of past sanctification, and (2) questions dealing with past sanctification.
II. The Various Types of Past Sanctification
A concordance study reveals that it is impossible to compress all references to past sanctification into one mold. There are, in other words, a number of clearly distinct types of past sanctification.
I have come up with four types of past sanctification: pre-conversion, forensic, intrinsic, and positional.5Let us briefly consider each now.
A. Pre-Conversion Sanctification6
Even before a person is born again, God is at work in his life. He works in the lives of unbelievers to draw them to Christ. He does this in a number of ways.
One way an unbeliever is sanctified—yes, unbelievers can be sanctified!—is by their home environment. An unbelieving spouse or child is sanctified if one of the spouses is a Christian:
By extension it would seem that any time an unbeliever receives a clear witness of the Gospel, he is sanctified in a pre-conversion sense. Of course, this sort of sanctification is iterative. That is, it only lasts as long as the witness continues. That is Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 7. If the believing spouse leaves, then the other spouse and the children lose that sanctifying influence.
A person who works closely with a Christian likewise experiences ongoing pre-conversion sanctification.
Similarly, an unbelieving college student is sanctified by his Christian roommate.
In the broad sense anything God does to set an unbeliever apart for special influence from His truth is a form of pre-conversion sanctification.
Space does not permit a detailed consideration of 1 Pet 1:2, another passage which appears to deal with pre-conversion sanctification. However, a strong case can be made that Peter is discussing that very thing:
Obedience (i.e., obedience to the faith, obedience to God’s command to trust in Christ, cf. 1 Pet 2:7; Acts 6:7; 16:30-3 1) and sprinkling of the blood of Christ are something which occur at the moment a person is born again.
The middle element, sanctification, mediates the two. That is, the elect are set apart by the Holy Spirit before they believe—by giving them a Spirit-wrought witness of the Gospel—with the result that they might ultimately believe and thus be cleansed by the blood of Christ.
A third passage which deals with pre-conversion sanctification is 2 Thess 2:13. It reads:
B. Forensic Sanctification7
This type of past sanctification is identical to justification, hence the name forensic sanctification.
Forensic sanctification is a legal declaration by God that a person has right standing before Him.
In the Book of Hebrews the terms sanctification (hagiasmos), and sanctify (hagiazo) occur four and two times respectively. Most, if not all, of these uses concern forensic sanctification.
By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (Heb 10:10).
For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified [or, better, those who are sanctified—compareHeb 10:10, 29] (Heb 10:14).8
All but one of these references clearly links the sanctification under consideration with the Cross. Three of the references indicate that this sanctification is accomplished by or with the blood of Christ (Heb 9:13-14; 10:29; 13:12); one refers to the offering of the body of Jesus Christ (Heb 10:10); and another (Heb 10:14) is in that immediate context. The Cross is the basis of forensic sanctification.
Commenting on the meaning of sanctification in the Book of Hebrews, Denney writes:
This type of past sanctification is a product of the new birth. When a person is regenerated, he or she experiences an internal transformation.
This inner change is something which cannot be felt or directly observed. Only its effects are capable of scrutiny—and even then human observations are by no means infallible.10
All born-again people have within them a sinless, perfectly holy self. This is the eternal self or the essential self. In the NT this is called “the new man.” In Eph 4:24 Paul wrote, “put on the new man which was created according to God, in righteousness and true holiness” (see also Col 3:10). It is also called the one “born of God.” In I John 3:9 John wrote, “whoever has been born of God (= the born-again new man) does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.”
Passages which speak of intrinsic sanctification include the following:
…that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word (Eph 5:26).
For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Heb 9:13-14).
He who is unjust, let him be unjust still; he who is filthy, let him be filthy still; he who is righteous, let him be righteous still; he who is holy, let him be holy still (Rev 22:11).
Note that the last two passages cited (Heb 9:13-14 and Rev 22:11) link intrinsic and progressive sanctification. He who is holy intrinsically is expected and commanded to be holy extrinsically.
D. Positional Sanctification
New Testament positional sanctification is accomplished by the baptism of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:13). The Holy Spirit places people into the Body of Christ. Anyone who is in the Body of Christ is no longer in the world in a positional sense. That is, such a person has been set apart in Christ (en Christo).12
On the one hand, there are three NT passages which deal with positional sanctification which use the verb sanctify (hagiazo):13
Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, to those who are called, sanctified 14 by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ (Jude 1).
On the other hand, there are sixty-four NT passages dealing with positional sanctification which use the noun saints (hagioi). All of these passages are listed in Appendix 3. A few representative passages are as follows:
To the church of God which is 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).
For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints (I Cor 14:33).
To the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in all Achaia (2 Cor 1:lb).
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons (Phil 1:lb).
Greet all those who rule over you, and all the saints. Those from Italy greet you (Heb 13:24).
As can be easily seen in the passages just cited, the term saints is a synonym for Christians. Christians are saints. Thus, positional sanctification (being put into the Body of Christ by the Holy Spirit) is very common in the NT, although the words sanctify or sanctification are not found in most of those references.
The English reader must remember whenever he reads the word saint that it is merely a noun form of the Greek word for sanctify.
It would have been helpful, albeit cumbersome, if each place the Greek noun hagios occurred it had been translated “the sanctified one” (or “the sanctified ones“).So, for example, Rom 15:25 could be translated, “But now I am going to Macedonia and Achaia to make contributions for the poor among the sanctified ones who are in Jerusalem.”
Saints are sanctified people. They are not a special category of “super-Christians.” If you are a Christian, you are one who has been set apart, placed into the Body of Christ.
III. Key Questions About Past Sanctification
The following are some of the specific questions that can be asked about the subject of past sanctification.
A. Question #1: What Is Past Sanctification?
As noted in the introductory article to this series on sanctification, the word sanctification basically means set apart.15In this article we are considering those aspects of sanctification that have already fully occurred for every believer—hence the name past sanctification.
Every believer has already been sanctified or set apart in four ways.
First, before being saved, all believers were drawn by the Holy Spirit via pre-conversion sanctification. Second, at the moment of faith all believers are forensically sanctified. This is a synonym for justification. Third, when a person believes, he is intrinsically sanctified—that is, he gains the life of God so that the inner (i.e., born-again) man is totally holy and pure. Fourth, all NT believers at the moment of belief are positionally sanctified by being placed into the Body of Christ by the Holy Spirit.
B. Question #2: How Is Perfection Related to Past Sanctification?
Experiential perfection (i.e., sinless perfection) will occur for every recipient of forensic, intrinsic, and positional sanctification; however, it will not happen until he or she dies or is raptured (cf. 1 John 1:8, 10; 3:2). That is called future (or ultimate) sanctification. See also question 4 below.
C. Question #3: How Does Past Sanctification Relate to Progressive Sanctification?
Past sanctification is the ground upon which progressive sanctification is built.16 Without past sanctification, progressive sanctification would be impossible.
No level of progressive sanctification is guaranteed in this life to the person who has experienced past sanctification. Great growth in holiness is possible. So, too, little growth—or even a decrease in holiness!—is a sad possibility. Believers must be diligent in order for progressive sanctification to be experienced to the fullest degree.
D. Question #4: How Does Past Sanctification Relate to Ultimate Sanctification?
At the point of faith, God sets every believer apart forensically, intrinsically, and positionally. No longer is a believer a member of the world—at least not in a positional sense. Henceforth he is a citizen of heaven.
Past sanctification guarantees that ultimate sanctification will occur when one dies or is raptured. Another way to say that is this: What is now true of believers in their position (i.e., forensically) will eternally be true of them in their experience. Or, what is now true of believers intrinsically (in the innermost self) will be true of them totally at the Lord’s coming (1 John 3:2).
E. Question #5: How Does Past Sanctification Compare with Justification?
Justification is a legal term in all of its biblical uses relating to justification by or before God. When God justifies people He declares them righteous. That is, He legally grants them right standing before Him.
Forensic sanctification is that type of past sanctification which is synonymous with justification. The author of the Book of Hebrews largely referred to this type of past sanctification. Intrinsic and positional sanctification can only take place because justification (= forensic sanctification) has occurred as well. Thus justification is the ground of intrinsic and positional sanctification.
F. Question #6: Does Intrinsic Sanctification Necessarily Result in a Constitutional Change?
All whom God has set apart have undergone a change in their inner self. God grants them “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3). He destroys sin’s lordship over their lives (Rom 6:1-14). He gives them a new view of the world (2 Corinthians 5). Other believers are seen as brothers and sisters, and unbelievers are viewed as outside of God’s family and needing reconciliation (2 Cor 5:16-21).
Yes, intrinsic sanctification does necessarily result in a constitutional change.
G. Question #7: Does Intrinsic Sanctification Necessarily Result in Behavioral Change?
A change in one’s inner self need not necessarily result in a change of behavior. Hypothetically, at least, a person could undergo intrinsic sanctification and manifest absolutely no behavior changes prior to death. In reality, however, unless a person dies immediately upon believing in Christ, there surely will be some behavioral changes— though they may not be observable to others.
Each day we are faced with a myriad of moral choices. When God changes a person constitutionally, it is fairly certain that some, if not many or most, of those choices will be handled differently by the one who has been intrinsically sanctified.
In addition, it is important to remember that all who have been intrinsically sanctified will one day be ultimately sanctified. While believers may experience major behavioral changes in this life, they will experience more radical changes once they die or are raptured. Calvin said that all believers sin daily.17That is true only in this life. Once believers are ultimately sanctified, they will never sin again. Their behavior will then be sinless (1 John 3:2).
Intrinsic sanctification lays the groundwork for ultimate sanctification and experiential perfection.
H. Question #8: What Must One Do to Obtain Past Sanctification?
As indicated above, forensic, intrinsic, and positional sanctification occur at the moment of faith. Thus the sole condition for those three types of past sanctification is faith in Christ and Him alone.
Pre-conversion sanctification is something God sovereignly does without any stated condition imposed upon the unbeliever.
I. Question #9: What Is the Role of the Trinity in Past Sanctification?
All three members of the Trinity are involved in past sanctification.
Pre-conversion sanctification is evidently the work of the Holy Spirit primarily. He does the drawing (cf. John 16:9-11). However, God the Father and the Lord Jesus both send the Holy Spirit to do this and hence They are directly involved as well.
Forensic sanctification is grounded in the work of Christ and is a legal declaration made before God the Father.
Intrinsic sanctification is seen to be the work of the Holy Spirit, who is sent by the Father and the Son.
Positional sanctification, likewise, is the work of the Holy Spirit, who is sent by the Father and the Son.
J. Question #10: Does Gal 3:3 Refer to Justification or to Some Type of Sanctification?
Galatians 3:3 reads as follows: “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?”
While there are many who suggest that the issue here is progressive sanctification, there are compelling reasons to reject that conclusion.
The Judaizers were proclaiming a false gospel, a false way of justification. See Gal 1:6-9 and 5:1-6. Note particularly that in 5:4 Paul speaks of those who “attempt to be justified by law” (emphasis added).
The Judaizers were evidently saying that salvation could be lost if one failed to keep the law. Thus one began his salvation by the Spirit—that is, by faith in Christ—but finished his salvation by being made perfect in the flesh—that is, by obedience to the law. According to the Judaizers, perfection was not obtained merely by believing in Christ.
Justification, not progressive sanctification, is in view in Gal 3:3.
Past sanctification is much more prominent in the NT than present or future sanctification. For this reason, it is a mistake to use the word sanctification to refer only to progressive sanctification.
There are four types of past sanctification. One of these, pre-conversion sanctification, occurs before salvation. God draws unbelievers to Himself via pre-conversion sanctification.
Three types of past sanctification occur at the moment of faith in Christ. Forensic sanctification is the same as justification. It is a legal declaration that one has right standing before God.
Intrinsic sanctification refers to the internal constitutional changes which occur at regeneration. Believers are internally set apart.
Positional sanctification looks to the believer’s being set apart in the Body of Christ, the Church. All believers are saints—not only the heroes of the faith!
Past sanctification is the ground upon which progressive sanctification is built. A proper understanding of past sanctification is a vital aid to progressive sanctification.
All who are the recipients of past sanctification are guaranteed ultimate sanctification, and it is for that sanctification that we long. Come quickly, Lord Jesus! Maranatha.
1. Past Sanctification
2. Present Sanctification
3. Future Sanctification
Number of Passages
*N.B. See Appendices 2, 3, & 4, for a listing of these passages by type of sanctification.
Passages Dealing with Present Sanctification (Total = 24)
- John 17:17, 19 (both hagiazo)
- Rom 6:19 (hagiasmos)
- 1 Cor 7:34 (hagios)
- 2 Cor 7:1 (hagiosyne)
- 1 Thess 3:13 (hagiosyne);4:3, 7 (both hagiasmos); 5:23 (hagiazo)
- 1 Tim 2:15 (hagiasmos); 4:12; 5:2 (both hagneia), 22 (hagnos)
- 2 Tim 2:21 (hagiazo)
- Titus 2:5 (hagnos)
- Heb 12:10 (hagiotes)
- James 4:8 (hagnizo)
- 1 Pet 1:15, 16; 3:5 (all hagios)
- 1 John 3:3 (hagnizo)
- Rev 22:11 (hagios and hagiazo)
I. Pre-Conversion Sanctification (Total = 5)
I Cor 7:14 (hagiazo [twice] and hagios)
2 Thess 2:13 (hagiasinos)
I Pet 1:2 (hagiasmos)
II. Forensic Sanctification (Total = 13)
1 Cor 1:30; 6:11 (both hagiazo)
Col 3:12 (hagios)
Heb2:11 (hagiazo [twice]); 3:1 (hagios); 10:10, 14, 29; 13:12 (all hagiazo)
1 Pet 1:22 (hagnizo)
2 Pet 1:21 (hagios)
Rev 20:6 (hagios)
III. Intrinsic Sanctification (Total = 5)
Rom 6:6 (concept), 22 (hagiasmos)
Eph 5:26 (hagiazo)
Heb 9:14 (katharizo)
Rev 22:11 (hagios and hagiazo)
IV. Positional Sanctification (Total = 67)
A. Passages Using Hagiazo (Total = 3)
- Acts 20:32; 26:18
- Jude l
B. Passages Using Hagios (Total = 64)
- Acts 9:13, 32, 41; 26:20
- Rom 1:7; 8:27; 12:13; 15:25, 26, 31; 16:2, 15
- 1 Cor 1:2 (twice); 6:1,2; 14:33; 16:1, 15
- 2 Cor 1:1; 8:4; 9:1, 12; 13:13
- Eph 1:1,4, 15, 18; 2:19; 3:8, 18; 4:12; 5:3; 6:18
- Phil 1:1; 4:21,22
- Col 1:2,4, 12,26
- 1 Thess 3:13; 5:27 (in the Majority Text)
- 2Thess 1:10
- I Tim 5:10
- 2 Tim 1:9
- Heb 6:10; 13:24
- Jude 3, 14
- Rev 5:8; 8:3,4; 11:18; 13:7, 10; 14:12; 15:3; 16:6; 17:6; 18:24; 19:8; 20:9
Passages Dealing with Future Sanctification (Total = 3)
- Col 1:22 (hagios)
- Heb 12:14 (hagiasmos)
- 1 John 3:2 (concept)
1The following are some representative works: J. Sidlow Baxter, A New Call to Holiness: A Restudy and Restatement of New Testament Teaching Concerning Christian Sanctification (London: Marshall, Morgan, & Scott, 1967) and Our High Calling (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967); G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1952); Peter Toon, Justification and Sanctification (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1983); Jonathan H. Rainbow, “Double Grace: John Calvin’s View of the Relationship of Justification and Sanctification” ExAuditu 5 (1989): 99-105; H. A. Ironside, Holiness: The False and the True (New York: Loizeaux Brothers, n.d.); Philip Mauro, Sanctification: Notes of an Address (New York: Gospel Publishing House, n.d.). See also footnotes 2, 4, 6, 7, and 9.
2Arthur W. Pink, The Doctrine of Sanctification (Swengel, PA: Reiner Publications, 1966), 114-15.
3Ibid., 116. For similar statements about the importance of recognizing the primacy of past, objective sanctification over present, subjective sanctification, see also Mauro, Sanctification, 11, 15; and Baxter, Our High Calling, 16-19, 205-206.
4Melvin E. Dieter, et al., Five Views on Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1987).
5I am indebted to a conversation I had with Zane Hodges and Art Farstad for this synthesis.
6I borrowed this term from an excursus on sanctification in Believer’s Bible Commentary, NT Edition, by William MacDonald (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990), 860.
7While he does not use the exact expression “forensic sanctification,” James Denney clearly speaks of that concept in his book, The Death of Christ, edited by R.V.G. Tasker (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1951), 126.
8Interestingly, the leading lexicon of NT Greek, Bauer, Gingrich, Danker (BGD, p.8), after saying “Christians are hegiasmenoi“cites Heb 10:14 (and Acts 20:32 and 26:18) as proof. While this may be an error (Heb 10:10 has hegzasmenoi;10:14 has hagiazoinenous), it seems that BGD may understand Heb 10:14 as having the same meaning as Heb 10:10, that is, “those who are sanctified.”
9Denny, The Death of Christ, 126; see also Thomas Hewitt, The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960), 71; and Pink, The Doctrine of Sanctification, 114-16.
10A believer may not outwardly manifest his inner self (see 1 Cor 3:1-3; Eph 4:1 ff). And an unbeliever’s works may outwardly appear to be those of a believer (see Matt 7:21-23).
11See Baxter, A New Call to Holiness. He argues (see 77 ff.) that Romans 6 concerns not experiential (i.e., progressive) sanctification, but positional sanctification, which he calls judicial (though I think intrinsic is a more accurate designation). Commenting on a common misinterpretation of Rom 6:6 he writes, “Misapplying the judicial to the experiential is as evidently wrong as saying that two and two makes five, or that a triangle has four sides” (104, italics his).
12While the word saints is used to refer to OT believers (cf. Deut 33:2-3; I Sam 2:9; Job 15:15; Ps 16:3; 30:4; 89:5, 7) and also to believers during the Tribulation (cf. Dan 7:18-27; Rev 5:8), neither of those designations looks to the positional sanctification which believers during the church age experience. Neither OT saints nor Tribulation saints are in the Church, the Body of Christ.
13BGD (see note 8 above) suggests that Heb 10:14; Acts 20:32; and Acts 26:18 are examples of the fact that “Christians are hegiasmenoi” (p 8). I have not included Heb 2:11; 10:10; or 10:14 in this group because I believe the author of the Book of Hebrews uses hagiazo to refer to forensic sanctification. See section II B above (pp. 7-8).
14Majority Text reads hegiasmenois (“to those who are sanctified”). Some early manuscripts (such as Aleph, A, and B), however, read egapemenois (“to those who are beloved”).
15See, for example, BGD, 8; and NIDNTT, Vol 2, S.v. “Hagios,” by H. Seebass, 229-30. Seebass writes concerning the expression the saints (hoi hagioi) in the Pauline epistles, “This was primarily not an ethical expression but a parallel to concepts like ‘called’. . .‘elect’. . . and ‘faithful.’ It implies association with the Holy Spirit” (229).
16For a different view see Jonathan Rainbow’s article, “Double Grace: John Calvin’s View of the Relationship of Justification and Sanctification,” 99-105. He argues that Calvin strongly rejected the idea that justification included an impartation of righteousness. Only imputation is in view. However, he also argues that Calvin believed in the inevitability of progressive sanctification because both justification and progressive sanctification proceed directly from the Cross. Both are seen as benefits of the crucifixion applied to all who believe.
17In his commentary on First John, Calvin wrote, “It hence appears that it cannot be but that the children of God are not free from sins, and that they sin daily, that is, as far as they still have some remnants of their old nature” (italics added). John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, translated and edited by John Owen, Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1948), 213. See also Institutes of the Christian Religion 3. 3. 10, 20.