Discipleship: Sanctification

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, to sanctify is “to set apart or observe [something] as holy” or “to purify or free from sin.”1 These definitions reflect the fact that the Bible uses the word “holy” in two main ways: 1) a special status, that is, set apart for God’s use, and 2) moral behavior—thoughts and actions appropriate to a holy status; thoughts and actions in keeping with what God wants.2

We cannot sanctify ourselves. God is the one who sanctifies his people. He sets them apart for his use, and he is the one who produces holy behavior in our lives. There is little controversy that God sets people apart for his use. But there is controversy regarding the divine-human interaction involved in sanctified behavior.

The questions include: How active a role should Christians take in sanctification? To what extent should Christians expect that their thoughts and actions will be conformed to the divine standard? How should pastors exhort their congregations?

We will present the following points:

  • Sanctification is a result of the grace of God.
  • Christians should try to bring their thoughts and actions into conformity with the will of God.
  • Sanctification is a progressive growth in responsiveness to God’s will.

Initial sanctification

From the beginning, God created humanity for a holy purpose: eternal fellowship with God. But humans rejected this purpose and became morally corrupt. Humans cannot of themselves choose God. Reconciliation must be initiated by God. God’s gracious intervention is needed before a person can have faith and turn toward God. No one can understand the gospel except by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:6-16). God chooses people and thereby sanctifies them or sets them apart for his purpose. Anciently, God chose the people of Israel, and within that nation he further sanctified the Levites (e.g., Leviticus 20:26; 21:6; Deuteronomy 7:6). He set them apart for his use.3

Christians are set apart in a different way: “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:2). “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 10:10).4 Christians are made holy through the crucifixion of Jesus (Hebrews 10:29; 12:12). They have been declared holy (1 Peter 2:5, 9) and throughout the New Testament, believers are called “saints”—”holy ones.” That is their status. This initial sanctification accompanies justification, a declaration of righteousness (1 Corinthians 6:11). “God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit” (2 Thessalonians 2:13).

But God’s purpose for his people goes beyond this declaration of a new status—it is a setting apart for his purpose, which is eternal life with God, and that involves a moral transformation in his people. People are “chosen…for obedience to Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:2). They are to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). They are not only declared to be holy and righteous, they are also regenerated. A new life begins to develop, a life that is exhorted to live in a holy and righteous way. The initial sanctification leads into behavioral sanctification.

Behavioral sanctification

In the Old Testament, God told his people that their holy status should be accompanied by a change in behavior. The Israelites were to avoid ceremonial uncleanness because God had chosen them (Deuteronomy 14:21). Their status depended on their obedience (Deuteronomy 28:9). The priests were to avoid certain behaviors because they were holy (Leviticus 21:6-7). Nazirites had to change their behavior while they were set apart (Numbers 6:5).

Our election in Christ has ethical implications. Since the Holy One has called us, Christians are exhorted to “be holy in all you do” (1 Peter 1:15-16). As God’s chosen and holy people, we are to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle and patient (Colossians 3:12). We are invited to share in the divine life not only in the future, but to participate in it now (2 Peter 1:4). If we do not want to live God’s way in this life, the danger is that we will not want it in the future, either.

Sin and impurities “are improper for God’s holy people” (Ephesians 5:3; cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:3). If people eliminate ignoble things from their lives, they will be “made holy” (2 Timothy 2:21). We should control our bodies in a way that is holy (1 Thessalonians 4:4). “Holy” is frequently linked to “blameless” (Ephesians 1:4; 5:27; 1 Thessalonians 2:10; 3:13; 5:23; cf. Titus 1:8); it is a life of righteousness.

Christians are “called to be holy” (1 Corinthians 1:2), “to live a holy life” (1 Thessalonians 4:7; 2 Timothy 1:9; 2 Peter 3:11). We are told to “make every effort…to be holy” (Hebrews 12:14). We are urged to be holy (Romans 12:1), told that we “are being made holy” (Hebrews 2:11; 10:14), and encouraged to continue being holy (Revelation 22:11). We are made holy by the work of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit in us. He changes us from the inside out.

This brief word study shows that holiness involves our behavior. God sets people apart as “holy” for the purpose that they live holy lives in Jesus Christ, both now and in eternity. We are saved so that we might produce good works and good fruit (Ephesians 2:8-10; Galatians 5:22-23). The good works are not a cause of salvation, but a result of it – when God declares us holy, we should respond by living in a holy way. Good works are evidence that a person’s faith is genuine (James 2:18). Paul speaks of the “obedience of faith” and says that faith expresses itself in love (Romans 1:5; Galatians 5:6).

Lifelong growth

When people come to faith in Christ, they are not perfect in faith, love, good works, or behavior. Paul calls the Corinthians saints and members of God’s family, but they have many sins in their lives. The numerous commands in the New Testament indicate that the readers need not only doctrinal instruction but also exhortations about behavior. The Holy Spirit changes us, but does not suppress the human will; holy living does not automatically flow without any guidance or effort. Each Christian must make decisions whether to do right or wrong, even as Christ is working in us to change our desires.

The “old self” may be dead, but Christians must also put it off (Romans 6:6-7; Ephesians 4:22). We must continue to kill the deeds of the flesh, the remnants of the old self (Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5). Though we have died to sin, sin continues to be in us, and we should not let it reign (Romans 6:11-13). Thoughts and emotions and decisions must be consciously shaped after the divine pattern. Holiness is something that must be striven for (Hebrews 12:14).

We are commanded to be perfect and to love God with all of our being (Matthew 5:48; 22:37). Due to the limitations of the flesh and the remnants of the old self, we are unable to do this perfectly. John Wesley, who boldly talked about “perfection,” explained that he did not mean complete absence of imperfections.5 Growth is always possible and commanded. If a person has Christian love, he or she will strive to learn how to express it in better ways, with fewer mistakes.

The apostle Paul said that his behavior was “holy, righteous and blameless” (1 Thessalonians 2:10). But he did not claim to be perfect. Rather, he pressed on toward his goal, and he admonished others to not think that they had attained their goal (Philippians 3:12-15). All Christians need to grow in grace and knowledge (2 Peter 3:18). Sanctification should increase throughout life.

Our sanctification will not be completed in this life. Grudem explains: “When we appreciate that sanctification involves the whole person, including our bodies (see 2 Corinthians 7:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:23), then we realize that sanctification will not be entirely completed until the Lord returns and we receive new resurrection bodies.”6 It is then that we will be freed from all sin and be given a glorified body like Christ’s (Philippians 3:21; 1 John 3:2). Because of this hope, we grow in sanctification by purifying ourselves, by putting away wrong behaviors (1 John 3:3).

Biblical exhortation to holiness

Wesley saw a pastoral need to exhort believers to practical obedience resulting from love. The New Testament contains many such exhortations, and it is right to preach these exhortations. However, these commands should not be isolated from God’s grace and love, because it is only in the context of God’s grace that we can obey them correctly. Behavior should be anchored in the motive of love, and more ultimately, in our union with Christ and the Holy Spirit, which is the source of love. God must initiate all holy behavior, and his grace is present in the heart of all believers, so we exhort them to respond to that grace.

McQuilken offers a practical rather than a dogmatic approach.7 He does not insist that all believers must have similar experiences in sanctification. He advocates high ideals, but without implying perfection. His exhortation to service as a result of sanctification is good. He emphasizes the scriptural warnings about apostasy rather than get boxed in by theological conclusions about perseverance. His emphasis on faith is helpful, since faith is the basis of all Christianity, and faith has practical consequences in our lives. The means of growth are practical: prayer, Scripture, fellowship, and faith in trials. Robertson exhorts Christians to greater growth and witness without overstating the demands and expectations.

Christians are exhorted to become what they have been declared to be; the imperative (command) follows the indicative (statement of fact). Christians are to live holy lives because God has declared them to be holy, designated for a holy purpose: a never-ending life of love, joy and peace with the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and each other.


1 R.E. Allen, ed. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 8th ed. (Oxford: Oxford, 1990), 1067.

2 In the Old Testament, God is holy, his name is holy, and he is the Holy One (about 100 occurrences altogether). In the New Testament, “holy” is applied to Jesus more often than to the Father (about 14 times versus three times), but much more often to the Spirit (90 verses). The Old Testament refers to holy people (Nazirites, priests, and the nation) about 35 times, usually in reference to status; the New Testament refers to holy people about 50 times.

The Old Testament refers to holy places about 110 times; the New Testament only 17 times. The Old Testament refers to holy things about 70 times; the New Testament only three times, as metaphors for holy people. The Old Testament refers to holy times in 19 verses; the New Testament never calls time holy. In reference to places, things and time, holiness refers to a designated status, not a moral behavior. In both Testaments, God is holy, and holiness comes from him, but the way his holiness affects people is different. The New Testament emphasis on holiness concerns people and their behavior, not a special status for things and places and times.

3 Especially in the Old Testament, sanctification does not imply salvation. This is obvious for things, places and times that were sanctified, and it applies to the nation of Israel, too. A non-salvific use of “sanctification” is also seen in 1 Corinthians 7:14—an unbeliever is in some way placed in a special category for God’s use. Hebrews 9:13 uses the term “sanctify” to refer to a ceremonial status under the old covenant.

4 Grudem notes that “sanctified” in several passages in Hebrews “is roughly equivalent to ‘justified’ in Paul’s vocabulary” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology [Zondervan, 1994], 748, note 3).

5 John Wesley, “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” in Millard J. Erickson, ed. Readings in Christian Theology, Volume 3: The New Life (Baker, 1979), 159.

6 Grudem, 749.

7 J. Robertson McQuilken, “The Keswick Perspective,” in Five Views of Sanctification (Zondervan, 1987), 149-183.

For more detailed studies of sanctification, you may want to consult:

Melvin Dieter et al., Five Views on Sanctification. Zondervan, 1987.

Donald Alexander, ed., Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification. InterVarsity, 1988.

Author: Michael Morrison

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