What is Biblical sanctification? Does it have to do with sinless perfection in this life?
The doctrine of sanctification is one of the great themes of Scripture and, perhaps, one of the most misunderstood of all the doctrines relating to our salvation. This should not be the case and, we believe, will not be the case when the doctrine is seen in its full truth.
The words "sanctify," "saint," "holy," "consecrate," and "dedicate," with their related words, "sanctified" "sanctification," "holiness," "consecrated," "consecration," "dedicated," "dedication," etc., have the same root meaning, which is to set apart. The Pilgrim Bible says (p. 1200, footnote 8): "HOLY. Set apart for God, or sanctified, is what this word means."
The Biblical use of the word "sanctify" is well illustrated by Exodus 13:1, 2, where we read that "the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Sanctify unto Me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is Mine." God's instruction here is that the firstborn, who were delivered from judgment by the blood of the Passover lamb, were to be set apart unto Him. This, then, is the meaning of the words "sanctification" and "holiness" throughout the Word of God.
It will be well for us to notice some of the things which sanctification does not mean. It does not mean, as is so often taught, sinless perfection. In His high-priestly prayer the Lord Jesus said of Himself: "And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth" (John 17:19). If sanctification means sinless perfection, then we would have to conclude, in view of the above verse, that there was a time when the Lord Jesus Christ was not sinlessly perfect, a thought that is abhorrent to any true believer. For we know that our Lord is the perfect Son of God, "who did no sin" (I Pet. 2:22), "who knew no sin (II Cor. 5:21), "and in Him is no sin" (I John 3:5).
Moreover, we are told: "But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear" (I Pet. 3:15). If sanctification means sinless perfection, then believers are told to make the Lord God sinlessly perfect. Such a thought is almost blasphemous! But when we see that sanctification means to set apart, then we can see that in John 17:19 the Lord Jesus was stating to the Father that He was setting Himself apart to a ministry of intercession for His own, the ministry which He entered upon when He returned to heaven, and which He is carrying on for us at this very moment. We can also easily understand Peter's statement that we are to "sanctify the Lord God in [our] hearts," which means simply that we are to set Him apart to the place of lordship in our lives.
Neither does sanctification mean moral improvement or betterment; for our Lord Jesus Christ, the One who is altogether righteous, who was and is morally perfect, said: "Say ye of Him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest: because I said, I am the Son of God?" (John 10:36).
Sanctification, or holiness, does not even necessarily mean salvation; for Paul wrote thus to the Corinthians: "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" (I Cor. 7:14). This indicates that those who are in the families of believers in Christ are set apart in a special way, for God has a more than ordinary interest in them simply because they are connected with His own dear children.
There is, in fact, a sanctification which precedes salvation, when the Holy Spirit, by His convicting power, sets us apart from the mass of mankind in enabling us to see our lost condition, so that we come to trust in the Saviour. This presalvation sanctification is seen in two passages. In one of them it precedes the "belief of the truth"; whereas in the other it precedes the "sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ." The first is II Thessalonians 2:13: "But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth." The second is I Peter 1:2, where Christians are told that we are "elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ."
Is every true believer in Christ sanctified, or are there some who, though saved, have never been sanctified? The Word of God answers this question: "Paul…unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours" (I Cor. 1:1, 2). Here we have the assurance that "all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord" are "sanctified in Christ Jesus.'' This clearly speaks of all believers, "for whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Rom. 10:13).
Let us notice that we are not sanctified because of anything we are, or anything we have done, but because we are "in Christ Jesus." At the very moment of our accepting Christ as Saviour, God sanctifies us, sets us apart eternally as His own. "But of Him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption" (I Cor. 1:30). So when Jude writes his Epistle to believers, he addresses them as "them that are sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ, and called" (vs. 1), and in Hebrews 3:1 we are called "holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling."
We have already stated that we were sanctified when we were saved. Let us notice another passage to this effect: "Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God" (I Cor. 6:9-11). At the very moment when we were washed from our sins and justified before God, we were also sanctified.
There is for every believer a past sanctification, a present sanctification, and a future sanctification. Our past sanctification is that we were eternally set apart unto God when we believed, by the work of Christ on the cross. "By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all...For by one offering He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified" (Heb. 10:10, 14). Because we are sanctified, God addresses us as "holy brethren," as we have already observed, and says: "Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering" (Col. 3:12).
Our present sanctification should be constant and ever-increasing, and God's Word calls us to such daily sanctification and holiness of life, "for this is the will of God, even your sanctification" (I Thess. 4:3). "But as He which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, "Be ye holy, for I am holy" (I Pet. 1:15, 16). This phase of our sanctification is effected by the Word of God, as we shall notice in the concluding part of this article.
Our future sanctification will be complete conformity to the image of Christ, set apart even unto His own likeness, and will be the result of His coming for His own. "Christ also loved the Church, and gave Himself for it; that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word, that He might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish" (Eph. 5:25-27). Paul looked forward to this future sanctification when he prayed: "And 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" (I Thess. 5:23).
Thus we may say that our sanctification as believers is (1) positional, for the finished work of Christ on the cross has enabled God to give us a perfect position before Himself; it is (2) progressive, as we "desire the sincere milk of the Word," we "grow thereby" (I Pet. 2:2); and it is to be (3) perfected, when we see the Lord Jesus, and share His likeness.
Our positional sanctification comes by receiving the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour; our perfected sanctification will come at His return. How does our everyday practical, progressive sanctification come? It comes, first of all, by our yielding of ourselves to the Lord. It is thus that we are enabled to live holy lives. "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God" (Rom. 12:1, 2). "I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness. For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness. What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life" (Rom. 6:19-22).
"For this is the will of God, even your sanctification" (I Thess. 4:3). If we would live lives set apart unto God, we must live in the light of God's Word which is His means of effecting our daily sanctification. The Lord Jesus prayed thus to the Father about us: "Sanctify them through Thy truth: Thy Word is truth" (John 17:17), and the Lord's present purpose for the Church is "that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word" (Eph. 5:26). Thus it is our responsibility to appropriate this Word unto ourselves in daily life.
"Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (II Cor 7:1). "The entrance of Thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple" (Psa. 119:130). May we have ears to hear the message of God's Word, and, hearing it, be enabled to say with the psalmist: "I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto Thy testimonies. I made haste, and delayed not to keep Thy commandments" (Psa. 119:59, 60).
"Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is. And every man that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure" (I John 3:2, 3).
From Great Doctrines Relating to Salvation by John B. Marchbanks. Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1970. Chapter 11.