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Sanctification, Biblically Speaking


Thomas R. Fletcher


What is sanctification? Is it simply one of those big, "Christianese," words we like to toss around to impress our hearers? Christians are often guilty of doing so. At times the word isn't adequately defined for hearers because the meaning isn't clear in the mind of the speaker. What does the word mean as it is used in the Bible?

The Bible speaks of sanctification process in three separate tenses: past, present, and future. The Bible also speaks of sanctification, as applied to the Christian, in two distinct manners: positional and progressive (or actual ). A working definition of sanctification is to be separated from sin and dedicated to God, literally, the state of being set apart. The words translated from the Greek to the English words "saint," "sanctification," and "holiness," all have this root meaning of separation from sin and dedication to God.

All Christians, according to the terminology used in the Bible, are "saints," though the recorded behavior of many is less than saintly. Any person who has decided to follow Christ is a saint, even though that person still may have some worldly ways about him or her. Those ways do not make one any less a "saint." In 1 Corinthians 1:2 Paul refers to the Christians of Corinth as "sanctified" and "holy." If you have read through the Corinthian correspondence, you know the behavior of those Christians was less than holy. Yet positionally they were sanctified and holy. In fact part of Paul's reason for writing was to bring the Corinthian Christians' actions into line with their position.

The Bible speaks of sanctification in the past tense. In doing so, it is speaking of that which occurred at the moment of salvation. At that very moment the Christian was separated from sin and dedicated to God. This is "positional" sanctification. God does a work of cleansing at the new birth, as 1 Corinthians 6:11 makes clear. God sees the new Christian as being completely separated from sin and totally dedicated to himself. God no longer sees that person as a sinner, though he or she still commits occasional acts of sin. God sets the Christian on a new course of life.

If you have been a Christian any length of time you should know the difference between "positional" and "actual" or "progressive" sanctification--though you may not have defined it as such in your mind. Positionally God sees you as completely separated from sin and totally dedicated to him, but you know better (or should know better). You know that you are not always totally dedicated to God. Sometimes you do things for selfish reasons. At times you may entertain less than holy thoughts. The reality is, you are still dealing with sin in your life--we all are. Which brings us to another way the Bible speaks of sanctification, in the present tense as an ongoing work.

As we grow in the Christian life, those times of giving in to temptation should become less frequent. Entertaining less than holy thoughts should occur more infrequently. In short, we should actually become set apart from sin, dedicated to God. We are progressively becoming what he has already declared us to be. We are in the process of really, truly becoming holy, sanctified. Progressive sanctification begins the moment of salvation and continues throughout the life of the Christian (Philippians 1:6).

Positional sanctification is completely God's work. He separates the Christian from sin and sets that person apart for himself. Progressive or actual sanctification occurs as the result of a working partnership with God. As He allows our faults to be revealed, we work to overcome those faults with the aid of the Holy Spirit. One primary means of being sanctified is the study and application of the Word, the Bible, to our lives (John 17:17, Ephesians 5: 25-27). Another primary method in doing so is through the practice of self-control. Many sins are the result of our giving in to bodily appetites. Progressive sanctification takes places when we take control (1 Thessalonians 4:3-4; 2 Peter 1:4-8; and 2 Peter 3:18). Each time we do so we become more holy, more separated from sin, more dedicated to God. In this sense, sanctification is within our control. We can choose self-control and denial of fleshly desires or we can give in to those desires.

The goal is absolute sinless perfection--a goal which we will never see completed in this life. That is why the Bible also speaks of sanctification in the future tense. The pervasiveness of sin is such that we can never fully eradicate it in this life. We all have sin in areas of our lives that we don't, at this moment, know we have.

I have met some who believe they are now living in a state of perfection in which they no longer commit acts of sin. In reality, these people change the definition of sin. They label it a "mistake," or say "I was amiss," instead of simply calling their failures sin, which they are. Such fallacious thinking stands in direct contradiction of the Bible. 1 John 1:8 (NIV) says "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." A close walk with God reveals how far short we actually fall. Progressive or actual sanctification involves, first of all, our willingness to admit failure. Secondly it involves our willingness to do something about it, our willingness to change.

Sanctification is a growth process in the life of each Christian. It begins at the moment of salvation (and is positionally complete at that moment) and continues throughout the life of the believer (Philippians 1:6) until the day of Christ Jesus. That ongoing work is a partnership between the believer and God (2 Corinthians 7:1), done out of reverence for God. One day, at Christ's return or when we pass from this life the work will finally be completed, we will be completely sanctified (1Thessalonians 3:13). Only then will the work be complete. Only then will we truly be blameless in holiness--completely, actually, fully sanctified. Until that time we are to pursue perfection with our whole being, yet always aware of how far short we fall.

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