Sanctification. The verb “to sanctify” means ‘to declare or set apart as holy’. God is holy (Rev. 4:8), and all that is in association with God or in proximity to Him must be holy too; “Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully” (Psa. 24:3-4). In the Old Testament, there were things that were used in the worship of Jehovah that needed to be sanctified in order to be fit for His presence. Even the persons that brought the sacrifices before Jehovah (the priests) needed to be sanctified. Finally, the earthly place where the Lord’s presence was, needed to be sanctified as well. When we come to the New Testament, the requirements are no different; “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). How can we be “partakers of his holiness” (Heb. 12:10)? The answer lies in the biblical subject of sanctification.
Justification and Sanctification. Justification had to do with being declared righteous, and sanctification has to do with being declared or made holy! Therefore justification is closely connected with the subject of righteousness, and sanctification with the subject of holiness. We get an example of sanctification and justification in Balaam’s first and second prophecies. Israel was seen as set apart from the world to Jehovah; “The people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations” (Num. 23:1-13). Then, although their state was one of imperfection, they are seen in a perfect standing before God; “He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel” (Num. 23:14-26). These two prophecies correspond to positional sanctification and justification.
Sanctification and Cleansing. Sanctification goes one step beyond cleansing. Cleansing is an inward change that God works, first through New Birth (cleansing by water), then through Salvation (cleansing by blood). Sanctification includes the inward change, but also has to do with being “set apart”. An old illustration will help. Suppose you are washing dishes. What if you washed a dish, then put it back in the pile of dirty dishes? Yes, you had cleaned the dish, but it needed to be “set apart” in a clean place. This is what it means to be sanctified. Not only are we “cleaned” from our sins, but we are “set apart” for God.
Three aspects of sanctification are discussed below. To know which aspect is being referred to, we must pay attention to the context in which the word occurs.
1. Positional Sanctification. This aspect of sanctification is something God does, and it is a once-for-all action, although it may happen in two phases. The point is, we can never lose this aspect of sanctification. Even if a believer is backslidden and not walking for the Lord, it doesn’t alter the fact that they have been set aside as holy in a positional sense. The scriptures that refer to this aspect of sanctification connect it with either the work of the Spirit of God to quicken a person (new birth), or with the application of the work of Christ to the soul (salvation).
Whenever sanctification is mentioned before justification or faith, it is a sanctification connected with our position; e.g. 1 Cor. 6:11; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:2.
2. Practical Sanctification. This aspect of sanctification is ongoing through a believer’s life; therefore it is sometimes called “progressive” sanctification. A believer may be positionally sanctified, but he may not “know how to possess his vessel in sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:4); i.e. he may not be practically sanctified to a large degree. God uses His Word to continually remind the believer of what he is in Christ, and to illuminate his moral state. Furthermore, Christ is working to sanctify us by occupying us with the perfectly sanctified One in heaven (John 17:19)!
Not only is practical sanctification something that God is doing, but we are exhorted to participate in it as well. We must make a conscious effort to be in the Word that we might cleanse ourselves, and live in a sanctified way. Furthermore, every right action a believer takes makes the next one easier, and so on “unto” a state of holiness. It is not only evil actions that a believer is to be separate from, but evil persons as well (2 Tim. 2:21).
Practical sanctification is something that touches every aspect of our lives. God’s desire is not that we should merely be holy in certain aspects, with other corners of our life untouched. We are to be holy in taking up with Divine things (spirit), in our emotions and desires (soul), and in our physical actions (body). If we are not “wholly sanctified”, our fellowship with the Lord will be hindered (Heb. 12:14).
- “the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:23)
- “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
It should be noted, that sanctification is this practical sense is never merely negative, it is positive also. There is something to separate from (evil), and an object to separate to (Christ). Separation without a positive object tends toward legalism.
3. Provisional Sanctification. Finally, we have a third type of sanctification that is quite different from the other two. Positional and practical sanctification are both internal things, with spiritual and eternal consequences. Provisional sanctification is an outward thing, with earthly and temporal consequences. It has to do with a holy “status” given to a person on account of some natural connection to God or some other sanctified person. We have a few variations of this in scripture:
- Sanctification by Nationality. In Rom. 11:16 we read of a holy “root” and holy “branches”; “if the root be holy, the branches also”. The branches had a holy status because they were connected to the root. The branches represent the nation of Israel, and the root represents their ancestor Abraham. The branches are “holy” in the sense of occupying a sanctified place by association with Abraham. Paul goes on to explain that the status was not irrevocable, and the Jews could lose that place of privilege. It had nothing to do with eternal salvation, but with a place of promise and blessing on the earth.
- Sanctification by Marriage. In 1 Cor. 7:14 we find that if a married person got saved while their unbelieving spouse refused to accept the gospel, the believing spouse was not compelled to leave the unbeliever on account of provisional sanctification by marriage. Not only is the unbelieving spouse sanctified, but the children which come from that marriage are holy as well! “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy” (1 Cor. 7:14). It doesn’t mean that God no longer holds the spouse and/or children responsible to have their own individual faith, but rather it frees the believer to keep company with them. This is unique to Christianity. The people of God in the Old Testament did not have this type of sanctification available. If you read in Ezra 10 you will see that those who sinned against the Lord by marrying strange wives could turn back to the Lord, but they had to put away their strange wives, and possibly even disown the children that resulted from those marriages. This is not the case in Christianity, because of provisional sanctification.
- Sanctification by Profession. In a similar way, the blood of Christ (Heb. 10:29) outwardly sanctifies all those who profess to rely upon its efficacy as the only true ground of relationship with God. This means that one who makes a profession of Christianity is brought into the House of God and therefore occupies an outwardly sanctified place in this world. Some among the Hebrews were in danger of apostatizing from the faith, and giving up that profession, and never making that outward place an inward reality. Therefore, the Spirit of God warns them; “Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?” (Heb. 10:29)
The Sanctification of the Son. Twice we read that the Son was sanctified; once in John 10:36, and again in John 17:19. Neither have to do with sin in the same sense as with the believer's sanctification. Sanctification is a broad term, and it means "set apart for a holy purpose". The Son was set apart, not from sin, but from every other occupation, to come into this world and accomplish the will of God (Heb. 10:5). This was a totally new position for the Son to take! In a certain way, He was set apart from the other Persons of the Godhead - not separated, of course - because He alone of the three became man. In that way, the Son was sanctified in incarnation. In John 17 we find that upon His ascension, the Son was sanctified again! That time it was the Son returning to heaven, setting Himself apart as a man in glory. Previously, there had been men on earth, but never a man in glory. Now there is! Christ has left this world, and taken a new position. By attaching believers to Himself in that sanctified position, we "also might be sanctified through the truth", by detaching our hearts from this world, and attaching them to an object in heaven. To review; first the Son was sanctified by the Father at His incarnation, and then the Son sanctified Himself at His glorification!