Sanctification of the Saints (series: Lessons on Romans)
by John Lowe
(17) Sanctification of the Saints
The concept of sanctification is not well understood, even in Christian circles, and I don’t hear it preached on today. However, it is in both the Old and New Testaments; Paul especially had a lot to say on the subject. I have always believed that the best way to understand scripture is to let scripture interpret scripture. In attempting to explain sanctification, I have followed that method.
Sanctification. Sanctification is a process through God’s grace by which the believer is separated from sin and becomes dedicated to God’s righteousness. It is accomplished through the Word of God—“Now they have known that all things which You have given Me are from You” (John 17:7); and the action of the Holy Spirit—“For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3–4). Sanctification results in holiness or purification from the guilt and power of sin. This holy character cannot be transferred or imputed, it is an individual possession, built up, little by little, as the result of obedience to the Word of God, and of following the example of Christ—“For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15), in the power of the Holy Spirit—“for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). The Holy Spirit is the Agent in sanctification—“That I might be a minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering of the Gentiles might be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit (“Rom. 15:16).
Sanctification, as separation from the world and setting apart for God’s service, is a concept found throughout the Bible. Many things are spoken of as “holy” or “set apart” in the Old Testament, such as the land of Canaan, the city of Jerusalem, the tabernacle, the Temple, the Sabbath, the feasts, the prophets, the priests, and the garments of the priests. God is sanctified by the witness of believers—“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Pet. 3:15); and by His judgments upon sin—“You will come up against My people Israel like a cloud, to cover the land. It will be in the latter days that I will bring you against My land, so that the nations may know Me, when I am hallowed (sanctified) in you, O Gog, before their eyes” (Ezek. 38:16). Jesus also was “sanctified and sent into the world” (John 10:36).
Sanctification in the Atonement. As the process by which God purifies the believer, sanctification is based on the sacrificial death of Christ. In his letters to the churches, the apostle Paul noted that God has “chosen” and “reconciled” us to Himself in Christ for the purpose of sanctification—“Who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify (sanctify) for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14).
Old Testament sacrifices did not take away sin, but they were able to sanctify—“For the purifying (sanctifying) of the flesh” (Heb. 9:13). The blood of the new covenant—“Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:29), however, goes far beyond this ritual purification of the body. The offering of Christ’s body—“By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10) and blood—“Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate” (Heb. 13:12) serves to purge our conscience from “dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14). Because our cleansing from sin is made possible only by Christ’s death and resurrection, we are “sanctified in Christ Jesus”—“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).
Sanctification: God’s Work. We are sanctified by God the Father (Jude 1), God the Son (Heb. 2:11), and God the Holy Spirit (2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:2). Perfect holiness is God’s command—“For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness” (1 Thess. 4:7); and purpose. Paul prayed, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely” (1 Thess. 5:23). Sanctification is a process that continues during our lives as believers—“For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14). Since every believer is sanctified in Christ Jesus—“By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (1 Cor. 1:2), a common New Testament designation of all believers is “saints,” meaning “sanctified” or “holy ones.” Therefore sainthood, or sanctification, is not an attainment, it is the state into which God, in grace, calls sinful men, and in which they begin their new life as Christians—“Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering” (Col. 3:12).” Only after death are the saints referred to as “perfect”—“to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb. 12:23).
Sanctification: The Believer’s Work. Numerous commands in the Bible imply that believers also have a responsibility in the process of sanctification. We are commanded to “be holy"—“But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Pet. 1:15–16); to “be perfect”—“Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48); and to “present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness” (Rom. 6:19). Writing to the church of the Thessalonians, the apostle Paul made a strong plea for purity: “This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thess. 4:3–5).
These commands imply effort on our part. We must believe in Jesus, since we are “sanctified by faith in Him” (Acts 26:18). Through the Holy Spirit we must also “put to death the evil deeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13). Paul itemized the many “works of the flesh” from which we must separate ourselves—“Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19–21). Finally, we must walk in the Spirit in order to display the fruit of the Spirit—“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:22–24).