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The Doctrine of Sanctification

Sanctification is an “inside-job,” performed by the Holy Spirit (1 Thes. 5:23; Eph. 5: 25-7; Tit. 2:14; Heb. 13: 20-1; Gal. 5:15-16). It is a subjective work – happening (perennially) within us, transforming the character and condition of the person. It is a supernatural work – performed by God through the Holy Spirit (Phil. 1:6); Col. 3:9-10). Sanctification is “the continuing work of God in the life of the believer making them holy – a process by which one’s moral condition is brought into conformity with one’s legal status before God (Justified! You are the righteousness of God; cf. 2 Cor. 5:21).[1]

This ongoing process of sanctification implies holiness – a separation from; to be set apart for the purposes of God; of dedicated use; to be cut off from (קָדוֹשׁ, qadosh).

Israel was set apart for God’s purposes. God commanded that certain instruments be designated for use in His service (only). Peter calls believers “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Pet. 2:9). Paul, in speaking to the Corinthians stated, “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). We can therefore argue that believers are God’s property, set apart for His purposes and called to a life of purity and goodness.

Sanctification occurs at the moment of conversion, but is also progressive – an ongoing activity with an eye toward an eschatological hope:

“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Phil. 1:6).

“The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).

“Don’t lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds. Put on your new nature and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him” (Col. 3:9-10).

Sanctification’s aim is image-renewal (Christlikeness) – living out Christ-like attributes; to reflect Him, and to be connected to Him:

            “For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son”

(Rom. 8:29a)

Sanctification is a partnership between God and man. God does the work of sanctifying, but there is the expectation of working out one’s salvation. There is no room for passivity here. The believer is actively engaged in the process as they rely upon the power of the Holy Spirit:

“Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives” (Gal. 5:25)

What does living by the Spirit look like practically?

“But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against behaving in these ways!” (Gal. 5:22-3).

The apostle Paul in the Book of Romans 8 describes this reciprocal relationship:

·         Christians walk by the Spirit (sanctification) – “He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit” (v. 4-5).

·         Christians have the Holy Spirit dwelling within – “But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to him at all.)”[v.9]

·         Christians can be assured of their relationship and provision for the journey toward Christlikeness – “For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children” (v. 16). And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will” (vv. 26-7).

·         Christians are commanded/expected to participate in this reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationship – Dear friends, you always followed my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away, it is even more important. Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Phil. 2:12-13).

“And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom. 12:1-2)

·         Christians are expected to practice holiness – “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good” (Rom. 12:9); Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all! Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable” (vv. 16-17).

Sanctification – The Process

The goal of sanctification is Christlikeness, and the “standard is for complete freedom from sin.”[2] It is possible to avoid giving in to temptation and to live blameless. Paul puts it this way: “The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure” (1 Cor. 10:13). But the reality is that Christians sin. No one is entirely free from sin. This is why Jesus commanded us to pray “Forgive us our sins…and lead us not into temptation” (Luke 11; Mat. 6). Perfection is the aim, sinlessness as the standard. However, whether or not a Christian can live the sinless life continues to be the subject of debates. Two schools of thought:

1.      The Perfectionists (Arminians, Pentecostals, Nazarenes) – We can get to the state here on earth where we never sin. Not that it is impossible, rather, one can master the flesh in such a way as not to sin. Here are supporting texts: (Mat. 5:48; Eph. 4:13; 1 Thes. 5:23; Heb. 13:20-1).

2.      The Non-perfectionists (seek to be blameless) – This school of thought argues that “perfection cannot be attained in this life; theoretically possible (freedom from and victory over sin), but doubtful to be attained in this life.”[3] Here’s the line of reasoning. Scripture affirms:

a.       John alludes to the struggle and the need for God – “If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts” (1 Jn. 1:8-10).

b.      Paul alludes to the struggle post-conversion – “And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway” (Rom. 7:18-19).

c.       Jesus describes sinning as being more than explicit activity (the struggle from thoughts and actions) – But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mat. 5:28; context 5:21-8).

d.      John also describes the life of the believer as a struggle – “And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure. Everyone who sins is breaking God’s law, for all sin is contrary to the law of God. And you know that Jesus came to take away our sins, and there is no sin in him. Anyone who continues to live in him will not sin. But anyone who keeps on sinning does not know him or understand who he is” (1 Jn. 3:3-6).

The Source of our Salvation

Jesus Christ is the source of our salvation (Mat. 7:21-4). It is He who paid the price for our sins and reveals His heart for His people in John 17. He tells us that God’s Word is the (only) sanctifying source, realized through His Spirit (Jm. 17:17). He expresses that sanctification is the priority of the believer (Jn. 17:22-3). Jesus states that He lived blameless and sanctified so that we could live the sanctified life as well – ““For their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth” (17:19).[4] Jesus paid a hefty price:

21 For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ sufferedfor you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps. 22 He never sinned, nor ever deceived anyone. 23 He did not retaliate when he was insulted, nor threaten revenge when he suffered. He left his case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly. 24 He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you are healed (1 Pet. 2:21-4).

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, sanctification is made possible.

The Pursuit

Christ, then, lived, and modeled righteousness in order to empower the sons of Christ to do the same. The aim is for believers to become “servants of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18). Paul the apostle frequently called himself a “bondservant or slave of Christ” was instructed by Christ to pursue sanctification in order that others may do the same:

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1); “Brothers, join in imitating me” (Phil. 3:17); and “Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am” (Gal. 4:12).

Sanctification, then, is the priority of the believer, and Christian leaders should ensure that sanctification informs all areas of biblical philosophy.

[1] Erickson, M. Christian Theology, Baker Academic (2013), 897.

[2] Ibid., 902.

[3] Ibid.

[4] MacArthur, J. Sanctification: God’s Passion for His People, Crossway (2020).


Written by Kevin A. Hall



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