The moment you are saved, Christ becomes your sanctification. Now he works it out in you in slow, steady progress until the day you die, when sanctification will be completed.
Sanctification could be rendered with the made-up word “holy-fication,” an ugly term in English, but it explains the idea well enough.
The vast majority of Renewalists do not believe that they can achieve sinless perfection in their earthly bodies. Instead, believers grow in Christ, day by day. Progress in the process. They are right.
Let’s see why they are right to believe this.
This Question and Answer format is designed for clarity and conciseness.
1.. How is the new believer sanctified from the beginning?
When you are declared righteous (justified), you begin a new journey. However, your experience in righteousness is not flawless or morally perfect. You are positionally or declared righteous because Christ is your righteousness. You are in him, and union with him is your righteousness.
His sanctification or holiness instantly fills your heart and soul and spirit. Now you work out what God worked in your mind and body and spirit.
In contrast to the Old Testament system that could never perfect the persons who sacrificed animals and drew near to God by the blood of bulls and goats, Heb. 10:14 says that Christ’s sacrifice has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified or being made holy. The verb “perfected” is in the past tense that indicates a one-time action, but the participle “being made holy” (or “being sanctified”) is in the present tense, indicating continuous action.
Likewise, 1 Cor. 1:30 says that “From him [God] we are in Christ Jesus, who has become wisdom to us from God, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” He already is our sanctification or holiness. It’s a done deal.
Now let’s interpret Heb. 10:14 and 1 Cor. 1:30 a little more closely. Perfection does not mean morally sinless. We are positionally or declared sanctified, but not actually sinlessly perfect in our experience. Consider another virtue in 1 Cor. 1:30. Christ has become our wisdom, but we are not perfectly wise every moment of every day, are we? No. We grow in wisdom through the Spirit’s guidance and Scripture reading over a lifetime. Similarly, he has become our holiness or sanctification, but we are not now perfectly holy or sanctified every moment of every day. We grow in holiness or sanctification. We catch up to his holiness over a lifetime.
Heb. 9:14 teaches us that the blood of Christ purifies our conscience from dead works so we can worship the living God. The verb purifies is in the present tense, so it is an ongoing process.
Acts 26:18 says that Jesus told Paul that Paul’s mission was to open the eyes of the unbelievers and turn them from darkness to light, so they can receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who have been sanctified by faith in Jesus. The tense of the participle is in the perfect tense, so it is in the past and completed.
Heb. 10:10 says we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once and for all. “have been made holy” is a participle in the perfect tense, so it too is completed action, but then see v. 14, where the same word is a participle in the present tense. So in one section of Scripture we have the past and present sanctification. The lifetime process of sanctification—past and present—cannot get any clearer than that.
1 Cor. 6:9-11 lists some common vices of Paul’s days (and ours), as he reminds the Corinthians of their old way of life: immoral, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, greedy, drunkards, revilers, and robbers. “Such were some of you,” he adds. Then he proclaims the good news: “But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (v. 11). The series of “buts” is emphatic, really, really emphatic. You used to be those things, but now you are sanctified. So sanctification or separateness from those things has already begun.
For example, let’s say that before God saved you and filled you with the Spirit at conversion and subsequently, you were addicted to meth or cannabis. Now he saves you. Christ is your sanctification, and he calls you to be separate from unclean meth or cannabis. (Sanctification is related to your being separate from unclean things). Your sanctification or calling to be separate is instant, but you have to work it out, through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit helps you to get rid of it. Only the Spirit can help you in the “holy-fication” or sanctification process.
All those verses speak of the beginning of the new believer’s life.
2.. How is the believer sanctified as he progresses day by day?
Phil. 2:12 says, “Work out your salvation.” The command is in the present tense, so it could be translated as “continue to work out.” It is a process in our present life.
At the beginning of our Christian walk we are sanctified or set apart from the pollution of the world, and Christ has become our holiness or sanctification. We stand right now in his (invisible) white robe. As we move along in our Christian walk, he still works on us and calls us to be holy.
Recall that in Heb. 10:14 the participle “being made holy,” which is in the present tense, so it could be translated, “continuing to be made holy.”
1 Pet. 1:15-16 says, “But just as the One who has called you is holy, you also are to become holy in all your conduct, for it is written, ‘Be holy as I am holy’” [Lev. 11:44]. Being as holy as the Holy One is a high standard for us to attain, but there it is. Once again, we grow in our positional or declared holiness—positional or declared because Christ has become our holiness (Phil. 2:12; 1 Cor. 1:30). Now we work it out in our experience because he fills us with his Holy Spirit.
1 Cor. 6:18 says that we are to avoid immorality, indicating a repeated process every day.
In 2 Cor. 6:17, Paul admonishes his readers (and us) to come out from among them and separate from them; don’t touch the unclean thing (freely quoting Is. 52:11). This verse originally was written for the Jewish nation, to be distinct from the unclean Gentiles. However, it applies to us because we too are called to be distinct from worldly behavior and stand apart from the world’s pollution.
Another important aspect of our continuous growth is that we go from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18). This change occurs as we behold Jesus and his glory. It’s progress in a process.
And in Heb. 12:1, we are ordered to lay aside every entanglement and run with endurance the race set before us. Christian sanctification is a marathon, not a sprint. It lasts a lifetime.
In Heb. 12:14 the author exhorts us to make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy. If we were completely holy now, then why would he say to make every effort now? Are we at peace with everyone? Probably not, unless you are very reclusive. It is a present-day and every day process, to be holy.
Jams. 3:1-12 speaks of the tongue, and how we are to tame it. The one who does is mature; the one who doesn’t is immature. It takes walking daily with Christ to grow in our speech.
2 Pet. 1:5-9 says that we are to make every effort to add a list of virtues, one on top of the other: faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and then love. We are to possess these qualities in ever-increasing measure. If we do not have them, then we are blind and have forgotten he has cleansed us from our post sins.
So sanctification is not only an accomplished fact, because Christ is our holiness or sanctification, but we also grow day by day. Let’s remember your meth addiction before you were saved. (And your problem does not have to be meth; it could be marijuana or porn.) You were declared holy or separate from it, and instantly you walked away from it experientially. You have been tempted to go back, and one time you did meth with your old friends. You repented. His Holy Spirit lives in you and never left you during your fall. He’s the one who wooed you back and enabled you to repent, in the first place. Even in your relapse you were and are still progressively walking in holiness to become like Jesus. In Christ you grow towards complete holiness and perfection.
3.. How is sanctification worked out in our future life in Christ?
That question could be reframed as follows: What is the goal of sanctification for the believer? The goal is to grow in holiness and to be like Jesus until he returns, which is in the future, and then the process will be completed.
Heb. 12:2 says that Jesus himself is the leader and perfecter of our faith. The Greek noun “leader” (or “ruler”) is sometimes translated as “author,” which is nice because it makes it seem like he is writing our story. But the new translations are more accurate. And the Greek noun “perfecter” could be translated as “maturer” or “he who matures” or “completer” or “he who completes” your faith. Whichever translation you choose, you are not sinlessly perfect, nor does this verse teach it. Rather, Jesus the ruler and perfecter of your faith is carrying you along from day to day, to grow you up; he is perfecting or maturing your faith, though never ending the process, until your life is finished.
Paul writes in Phil. 3:12-15: “Not that I have already taken hold or have already been perfected, but I pursue so I may take hold of that which I have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained, but one thing: forgetting what is behind, I reach towards the things in front of me; I pursue the goal, the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus. As many as are mature, let us think this. And if you think otherwise, God shall reveal this to you.”
This passage clearly teaches forward progress in the process. The words “perfected” and “mature” come from the same Greek stem (tel-). We grow in Christ towards maturity or completeness.
Phil. 3:21 says that the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, shall transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. The epistle to the Romans says our flesh is our sin nature (8:1-13), and here in Phil 3:21 it is promised that our flesh will be transformed. Only then will the holiness or sanctification process be completed.
1 Thess. 5:23 says that Paul wishes the God of peace would sanctify the Thessalonians through and through. The verb is in the aorist optative, which means possibly fulfilled, but possibly not. So Paul goes on to say that may their whole spirit, soul, and body be kept (aorist optative again) blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. So this will possibly happen (or not). The one who calls is faithful, and he will do it. “will do it” is in future tense, which in this context may speak of sureness, but only at the coming of the Lord. The point is that holiness or sanctification is a process until the day we die, when it will be completed. In the meantime, God gives us the grace to work it out in us.
Heb. 6:11 says that we have to be diligent to the very end, so that what we hope for many be fully realized. Right now, our hope is not fully realized.
1 John 3:2-3 says that we are the children of God right now. And when he appears shall we be like him (future tense), for we shall see (future tense) him as he is. Only then—in the future—is the sanctification process completed.
How does this post help me grow closer to Jesus and be more sanctified?
As noted in the other posts:
Sanctification literally means the process or act (-ion) of making (fic-) holy (sanct-). It could be called by the made-up and awkward term “holy-fication.” So once God consecrates you at your salvation-conversion, it becomes a process; don’t feel bad if you stumble once in a while. Just get up and realize that your walk in holiness is a long, long process of growing in Christ.
In the New Testament, it is used in the past tense, (believers have been sanctified), present tense (believers are being sanctified), and future tense (believers will be sanctified).
Nonetheless, complete maturity and growth towards the goal of being like Christ is the ultimate quest. You do this daily by praying, reading Scripture, and staying in fellowship with believers who are more mature than you. Sanctification begins when you are first saved. In fact, you are sanctified instantly, because the Holy Spirit fills you and because Christ is your sanctification or holiness, you leave the kingdom of darkness and are placed instantly in the kingdom of light; you are now separated off from the profane and common and are consecrated to God.
This is positional or declared sanctification—and yet you experience it instantly because the Holy Spirit lives in you. Compare holiness with wisdom that is also in 1 Cor. 1:30. You are the wisdom of Christ; that’s your declared position in him, though you are not perfectly wise in practice. However, this positional or declared or promised wisdom in Christ is experienced day by day, as you work it out.
It works out like this:
Positional or declarative sanctification: Christ has become your sanctification or holiness (or perfection).
Experiential: Christ works out in you his sanctification or his holiness (or his perfection) daily.
The positional and experiential happen at the same time. If you have any perfection in you, it is Christ himself alone living in you through the Spirit, not you. And he is leading you to become more like him throughout your entire life.
In other words,
Initial sanctification ≠ Sinless, moral perfection
There’s progress in the process.
And this leads to the next step: progressive transformation or progressive sanctification. You reach out towards or pursue the goal of the upward calling of God in Christ. So don’t be discouraged if you stumble and fall. God is not finished with you yet. Just repent and keep moving upward.
Finally, you will be completely sanctified after you die or when the Lord returns. Then those old addictions to meth or marijuana or porn or your other sins will never bother you again.
Justification is different from sanctification in these ways:
|Legal standing||Internal condition|
|Once and for all time||Continuous throughout life|
|Entirely God’s work||We cooperate with God|
|Perfect in this life||Imperfect in this life|
|The same in all Christians||Greater in some than in others|
|Source: Grudem, p. 746|
As noted in the other posts, the only slight disagreement is that God declares us holy only because he transfers us from darkness to light, from the profane to the sacred; we are consecrated to him, no longer to the world. But now we work it out. Justification and sanctification are linked, but distinct. The order is really logical, not sequential in time, according to NT theology. That is, logically, legal declaration by God comes before we humans practice holiness and righteousness. Logically, we receive righteousness as a free gift before we can have it infused in us by the work of the Spirit. (If we believed that our personal holiness logically came before God’s gift of righteousness, Paul would say his theology was turned upside down and out of order.) Logically, your personal sanctification never launches God’s declaration of your right legal standing and your being born again (regeneration), or else Christianity would resemble other religions, particularly certain strands of Saul’s / Paul’s old Judaism. Just the opposite is the case. Your repentance and your saving faith (by grace), and your new birth (by the Spirit) and God’s declared righteousness–all of this at the same time–launches your sanctification process.
Written by James Malcolm
Sanctification: Past, Present, Future