The Bible doctrine of sanctification is easily misunderstood by Christians due to a variety of reasons—preconceived opinions regarding the subject, inaccurate teaching by religious authorities, and the triune nature of the subject as evidenced within God’s Word. False and preconceived notions regarding sanctification emanate from man’s inclination to achieve the approbation (approval) of God through self-effort (human good). Those who prefer to achieve their salvation by their own means will also be subject to an erroneous understanding of sanctification, most often one that frames it as a life of holiness conditioned on works.
Both the Hebrew word (qadash) and the Greek word (hagiasmos) for sanctification convey approximately the same meaning—of being “set apart,” “purified,” and/or “concentrated.” The primary idea in sanctification is “to set apart”—a separation from what is sinful and an attachment to what is righteous. Biblical sanctification does not convey the concept of “perfection.” This quality belongs to God alone. Furthermore, the idea of achieving a state of being totally without sin is unachievable for the Christian as long as he remains in this life connected with a “sinful nature.”
Nevertheless, biblical sanctification is a very real, a very practical and very encouraging doctrine within God’s Word. For the believer in Jesus Christ it is important that he understand that it is the will of God that he be sanctified, as seen in 1 Thessalonians 4:3a:
For this is the will of God, your sanctification . . .
But this verse addresses only one aspect of sanctification as defined in Scripture. The doctrine of sanctification, as taught in the Bible, is in reality a triune concept. It is very important that the student of the Word differentiates which type of sanctification is being addressed in any particular passage of Scripture, which can be done by examining the context, both general and specific, of the passage under consideration.
Three Types of Biblical Sanctification
The following excerpt, which suitably outlines the triune concept of sanctification, is from Divine Guidance, by Robert B. Thieme, Jr., pastor of the Berachah Church in Houston, Texas:
All three aspects of the doctrine can be seen in 1 Corinthians 1:30, 31:
But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness [Positional] and sanctification [Experiential] and redemption [Ultimate]—that, as it is written, "He who glories, let him glory in the LORD."
Positional Sanctification is the setting apart of a person permanently by the work of the Holy Spirit at the exact moment the person places his complete faith in Jesus Christ who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6).
But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. (2 Thessalonians 2:13)
Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit . . . . (1 Peter 1:2a)
It is a once-for-all change in the forensic (legal status) before God. At the moment a person receives Christ by faith as his personal Savior, he is totally justified (set apart permanently) by the sealing of the Holy Spirit. The very righteousness of Christ is attributed to him by God who henceforth sees him as having died, been buried and raised again in newness of life in Christ.
Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. (Romans 6:4-10)
Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. (2 Corinthians 1:21, 22)
In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory. (Ephesians 1:13, 14)
For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Ultimate sanctification, a foregone fact of the new birth, will take place when the Christian is set apart at either death or the Rapture, whichever occurs first, when his body is forever changed into the immortal image of the body of the risen Christ. This is the most encouraging (hopeful and comforting) aspect of biblical sanctification.
And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:49-54)
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself. (Philippians 3:21) See also 1 John 3:2.
But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
For the Christians, nothing more can be done in regards to positional sanctification—it has been secured by faith alone in Christ alone (Acts 26:18); and nothing will stop the certain attainment of ultimate sanctification—it too has been secured by faith alone in Christ alone; but experiential sanctification is another matter.
Experiential Sanctification is not vicarious (cannot be transferred or imputed) but is accrued progressively (moment-by-moment) as a result of the Christian’s obedience to God’s will as revealed in His Word.
It is often referred to as Christian growth, and, most significantly, it is a balance or union between God’s sovereign work by His Spirit and man’s responsiveness (will), as seen in Philippians 2:12, 13:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out [Gk. “katergazomai”—cultivate] your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.
The concept in this passage is similar to a farmer who owns a field. The field is his possession, but what is produced on it depends on how he cultivates it. The field can produce little to nothing, or it can bring forth a rich crop. It all depends on the farmer and how he cultivates it. In the case of the possession of salvation, the property of every Christian, there is always God’s way of cultivating and man’s way of cultivating. God’s way is always to “work through” the believer, which produces divine good (works accomplished under the power of the Holy Spirit with proper motivation on the part of the Christian and which will always glorify Jesus Christ). Man’s way is to function under his own will and self-effort, which produces human good (works conducted under his own power with improper motivation and which glorify only him).
Kenneth S. Wuest, Teacher Emeritus of New Testament Greek of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois, translates these two verses in Philippians this way:
Wherefore, my beloved ones, as you always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, carry to its ultimate conclusion [likeness to the Lord Jesus] your own salvation with a wholesome, serious caution and trembling, for God is the One who is constantly putting forth His energy in you, both in the form of your being desirous of and of your doing His good pleasure.
Experiential Sanctification always correlates to the production of divine good, which will then result in eternal rewards (not eternal life) as is best expressed in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15:
For no other foundation [Positional Sanctification] can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds [Experiential Sanctification] on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones [divine good], wood, hay, straw [human good], each one's work will become clear; for the Day [of Judgment] will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is. If anyone's work which he has built on it endures [as in divine good], he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned [as in human good], he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved [Ultimate Sanctification], yet so as through fire.
The Essentials of Experiential Sanctification
There are four very practical and essential aspects of experiential sanctification, which are inviolable. They follow:
1. Grounded in Bible Doctrine.
Experiential sanctification cannot be properly achieved apart from an in-depth understanding of Bible doctrine (God’s Word). It is serious error on the part of any Christian who believes it can be done otherwise. It is only through the continuous study of God’s Word that one learns and can therefore emulate the “mind of Christ.”
Sanctify them by Your truth. Your Word is Truth. (John 17:17)
. . . Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the Word. (Ephesians 5:25, 26)
How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your Word. (Psalms 119:9)
Till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:13)
For “who has known the mind of the LORD that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:16)
2. Apprehended by Faith.
It is an error of the most egregious degree when a child of God, having apprehended eternal salvation by faith alone, to then attempt to achieve experiential sanctification by self-effort. God abhors man’s efforts to please him through man’s will and strength (via. Legalism—the observance of God’s moral law and one’s own adopted “contemporary” taboos).
But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags . . . (Isaiah 64:6a)
God intends that the only way a person can be saved is by faith alone in Christ alone, and He intends that the only way a person can progressively achieve experiential sanctification is by faith alone in Christ alone.
As [in the same manner] you have therefore received [by faith alone] Christ Jesus the Lord, so [in this same way—by faith] walk in Him. (Colossians 2:6)
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith [starts and ends with faith]; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17, cf. Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38)
Trust [have faith] in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. (Proverbs 3:5, 6)
Commit your way to the LORD, trust [have faith] also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass. He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. Rest [have confidence or faith] in the LORD, and wait patiently for Him . . . . (Psalm 37:5-7a)
3. Conducted only in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The only enabling power capable of producing divine good is the Holy Spirit. At the moment a person accepts Jesus Christ by faith alone for his personal salvation, he is born of the Holy Spirit who immediately—in whole—enters and takes up dwelling in the believer and immerses (baptizes) him into the Body of Christ, as well as “seals” the believer for the Day of Redemption and grants him spiritual gifts for Christian service (not personal recognition).
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)
But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:39)
Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:5)
But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. (Romans 8:9)
Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? (1 Corinthians 3:16)
Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? (1 Corinthians 6:19)
And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” (Galatians 4:6)
Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us. (1 John 3:24)
For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:13)
Who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.
(2 Corinthians 1:22)
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Ephesians 4:30)
Spiritual gifts for Christian service: 1 Corinthians 12:11, 27-31; 13:1, 2.
At the “new birth,” each believer is under the control (“filling”—influence) of the Holy Spirit—a control that may only be limited by the believer’s improper personal (willful) choice. By making wrong choices the believer allows sin to crowd out the influence of God’s Spirit in his life, even though God’s Spirit will never depart from the believer—not in whole or part.
It is God’s will that each believer be always “filled” with (controlled, influenced by) the Holy Spirit in order to be divinely empowered for service. For this reason, once sin enters a believer’s life and thereby quenches (restricts) and grieves (causes hurt or emotional pain in) the Holy Spirit; it is up to the believer to enact 1 John 1:9, which if judiciously followed, will immediately reestablish the “filling” of the Holy Spirit in his life—a fact of faith, not feeling (emotion).
And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled [controlled or influenced] with the Spirit. (Ephesians 5:18)
Do not quench [restricts the influence of] the Spirit. (1 Thessalonians 5:19)
And do not grieve [cause emotional pain in] the Holy Spirit of God . . . . (Ephesians 4:30a)
If we confess [name or take accountability for] our [known] sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our [known] sins and to cleanse us from all [unknown or forgotten] unrighteousness [sins].
The “filling” (empowerment) by the Holy Spirit is not to be “prayed for” or “begged from God.” One doesn’t receive it by agonizing over the matter. It wasn’t because the disciples were praying that the Holy Spirit came on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2; it was because the Holy Spirit was predestined to come in order to start the Church Age and they were “waiting” as instructed (Acts 1:4) in faith (i.e., they believed God’s Word) for Him. At this time during the Church (Grace) Age (Dispensation), the Holy Spirit is more eager to “fill” (control) the believer than the believer is eager to have His control. But be sure of this. Nothing done apart from the Holy Spirit will honor God!
That the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:4)
4. Focused always on Jesus Christ.
One sure way a person may feel confident that the Holy Spirit is in control of his life will be if his primary focus is on Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It will be a focus that will always recognize the fact that Christ is truly God, and Christ will dominate his thoughts, his life, his praise, his gratitude, his testimony and his service.
It is unfortunate that many charismatic believers spend so much time in emotional displays and activities that primarily draw attention to themselves instead of their Lord and Savior. They apparently sincerely believe that they are only following the pattern that was apparent on the Day of Pentecost; but this writer sincerely believes they have misinterpreted this one-time event on that marvelous “day of demarcation”—the beginning of the Church Age.
And then there are the “faith healers” that travel the land and proliferate on “religious” television, who are quick to demonstrate their healing powers instead of faithfully conveying the gospel message of faith alone in Christ alone—the one healing message that Christ has commissioned all believers to share. But they subjugate the clear presentation of the gospel message to their healing prowess, choosing also to call attention to themselves and their multitude of commercial products.
Make no mistake about it. The Christian who is properly living by faith in accordance with Bible doctrine in concert with the Holy Spirit will always point others to Jesus Christ, and his life will be consumed with thanksgiving and praise for all the Son of God has and is doing in his life. He will not be majoring on “spiritual gifts,” and “healings” and other peripheral matters of the Kingdom of God.
But when the Helper comes, whom I [Jesus Christ] shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me. (John 15:26)
But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God--and righteousness and sanctification and redemption— that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the LORD.” (1 Corinthians 1:30, 31)
But “he who glories, let him glory in the LORD.” (2 Corinthians 10:17)
For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:2)