A Primer on Sanctification

By Reed Benson

The word sanctification is such a commonly used term in our Christian jargon that it has lost some of its luster. What does it really mean? It is not difficult. Sanctify simply means set apart for a holy purpose. Thus in the Old Testament there were sanctified events, places, and people. The sabbath day was set apart from the other six as a holy day of rest and spiritual reflection. In Leviticus we find sanctified houses, fields, and other items. The Levites themselves were an entire tribe set apart to serve God in a formal unique manner.

These sanctified places, objects, and people were outward symbols of what hopefully was an inward condition of a person. In Psalm 51 we discover that David perceived this and understood that sanctification had much more to do with a proper frame of mind and heart toward God than mere actions. He stated: "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me and I shall be whiter than snow. . . . Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me" (Psalm 51:7,10). The New Testament profiles this more highly and today most people intuitively understand that events and rituals are not enough for a successful Christian life. From1 Peter 1:2 we learn that genuine sanctification is actually a work of God, specifically, the Holy Spirit: "Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit . . . ." From the New Testament we also discover that it eventually affects the whole man: "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" (1 Thessalonians 5:23). But how does sanctification work out in daily Christian living? What does it mean for me in the routines of life?

Three Major Views on Sanctification

There are three major views of sanctification in Protestant Christianity: Wesleyan, Pentecostal, and Reformed. All of them agree on certain core principles. These include the following: First, man is depraved from inherited original sin. Second, Christ’s atonement pays the price of sin—sometimes this is called prevenient grace, the grace that comes before sanctification. Third, the Holy Spirit plays a key role in sanctification. This is easily proven from Scripture: "But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you" (John 14:26). "That I should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost" (Romans 15:16).

However, beyond these broad common precepts, there are substantial distinctions between these three major views of sanctification. It is in the differences that we find the area of practical application and what sanctification comes to mean for us on a daily basis. To discern what is correct we must now briefly examine each of the three major positions regarding sanctfication.

Unique Features of Wesleyan Sanctification

This view is a direct outgrowth of John Wesley, the great evangelist of eighteenth century England. Advocates of this position believe that a Christian can be "entirely sanctified," or delivered from all willful sin. They thus distinguish between sin that one consciously knows exists in one’s life and that which is present but is not known. Although they would never assert that any person could reach a point where they cannot sin, proponents of Wesleyan sanctification do insist that believers have the ability not to sin for extended periods of time. This opinion is based on their interpretation of Matthew 5:48 which reads, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." Such a condition comes, not at conversion, but at a second life crisis. The desirability of having a second watershed moment in life is thus stressed, as this is the vehicle by which entire sanctification is obtained.

Problems with Wesleyan Sanctification

First, the perfection of Matthew 5:48 does not mean without sin, but rather means complete, of full age, that is, mature. This can be easily comfirmed by any concordance or Webster’s 1812 Dictionary. Perfect in Elizabethan English was not infrequently used to describe any person or condition that was ready for action, as a soldier is perfectly equipped for battle, a teacher is perfectly equipped for the classroom, or a painting is perfect and needs no more attention from the artist. It certainly does not mean a sin-free condition. Furthermore, Scripture does not distinguish between sin of which you are aware and sin in your life that you do not notice—except to stress that the sin of which we are not aware is more prevalent than we realize. Complete sanctification only comes with a redeemed body according to1 Thessalonians 5:23-24: "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."

Second, continuous struggle against sin is normal in the life of a believer, even a seasoned mature one. Consider Galatians 5:17 which reads "For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would." Paul himself provides a very personal window into his life to show that us that we are foolish to think that we can live for extended periods without sin: "For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that I do not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not . . . O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (Romans 7:15-18, 24). Oswald Sanders, a prominent evangelist and Christian writer, recognized such a struggle and at the age of eighty-eight stated: "The older I get, the more deeply I am aware of how sinful I am." One of the key features of wisdom is recognition of your own limitations. Even pagan Socrates, reputed by the ancient Athenians as the wisest among them, knew this and quipped, "I only know that I do not know."

Unique Features of Pentecostal Sanctification

Most Pentecostals also believe that a second life crisis (the first being conversion) is desirable. They call this the baptism of the Holy Spirit and assert that such an experience yields greater resistance to sin. How is it known if one has experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Pentecostals teach that the mark of baptism of the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues. The gift of tongues is therefore a badge of distinction. While most Pentecostals acknowledge that the gift of tongues is not necessarily a superior manifestation of spiritual grace and power, they teach that it opens the door to the other gifts of the Spirit.

Problems with Pentecostal Sanctification

As a beginning point, Pentecostals cannot have it both ways. If speaking in tongues is not elevated above other gifts, and it is not according to 1 Corinthians 12:6-10 and 1 Corinthians 14:19, then it cannot alone be singled out as the mark of baptism of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Paul’s comments in 1Corinthians 14:19 indicate that the church of Corinth made the same error as modern Pentecostals, that is, elevating the gift of tongues above other gifts. Note what Paul stated: "I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all: Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue" (1 Corinthians 14:18-19).

Perhaps more to the point, there is no biblical evidence to suggest that a second life crisis is necessary to enjoy the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It comes through the power of Jesus Christ, as witnessed by John the Baptist’s words about Jesus: "I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost" (Mark 1:8). Such power was inaugurated on the Day of Pentecost. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is now available to all believers at the point of conversion. This is proven in Acts 11:12-18 and Acts 19:1-6, two separate conversions that were immediately followed by the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it can be safely concluded that second life crisis, subsequent to conversion, is not required before the baptism of the Holy Spirit is conferred to the believer. Sanctification, as a function of the Holy Spirit, begins immediately after one is converted.

Unique Features of Reformed Sanctification

Advocates of the Reformed position teach four major points regarding sanctification. This view is the most accurate reflection of the teachings of Scripture regarding sanctification and should be carefully considered.

First, the initial goal of sanctification is to conform to the likeness of Christ as referred to in 1 John 3:2: "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 bee like him; for we shall see him as he is." This will be accomplished when we are fully redeemed in spirit, soul, and body at the general resurrection of the dead.

Second, sanctification is fulfilled with a steady addition of godly virtue: "And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; And to knowledge temperence; and to temperence patience; and to patience godliness; And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they shall make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:5-8). Sanctification thus is an ongoing process more than a singular event. An illustration that may be useful likens sanctification to a fresh breeze blowing through open windows to remove stale air from a house.

Third, the process of sanctification is accomplished in our lives as the "old man" is daily "put to death" and the new spirit within you is made the functioning reality. Saint Paul taught this in Romans 6: "Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. . . . Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 6:6-7,11). However, this is a daily challenge for as long as we live our flesh is still unregenerate and is the springboard for varied and subtle temptations (Romans 7:22-25).

Fourth, the final and ultimate end of sanctification is the glorification of God. Our lives are not redeemed and improved for our own blessing and edification, but rather that God’s mercy, power, and glory can be exhibited. Our sanctification is thus a demonstration of God’s mighty works among his people. In Ephesians 1:12 Paul expressed it this way: "That we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ."

Practical Application—Pitfalls to Avoid

I can gain righteousness through holy living. False. You can never live holy enough to please God. Righteousness is a judicial condition granted by God who does not declare us never to have been in sin, but merely not to be held guilty because another has paid. Christ paid the penalty for sin and we are thus free to acknowledge Him as our master. Therefore we seek to please Him and are eager to partake of the power of the Holy Spirit to minimize our future failures. This is sanctification.

With God’s help I can avoid all conscious sin in deed, word, and thought. False. This is Wesleyan perfectionism and feeds the most subtle of all sins—pride.

I should expectantly hope for a second life crisis after my conversion that will enable me to lead a more holy life. I should seek the gift of tongues. False. Two conversions are not necessary to be a mature Christian. Some foolishly try to precipitate a crisis. Others suffer discouragement when one does not come. Set your affections on things above and seek to please your master, Jesus Christ, in all that you think, say, and do.

Spiritual crises should never come my way if I am a mature Christian. False. We learn and grow through the challenges of life to prepare us for leadership in the world to come. Christ did not come to alleviate all sickness, pain, and problems. He healed the sick merely to validate his message and authority. His real purpose was to pay our penalty for sin. It is through the afflictions of this life that our souls are polished and improved so that we can assume the responsibility of reigning with Christ in his restored Kingdom on Earth.

Holy living leads to conversion. False. This is the mistake that chief priests and pharisees made. They thought that sanctification was a process of cleansing one’s life from the outside that would ultimately please God. That is impossible. Only a repentant heart pleases God. After repentance, God sends His Spirit to begin a process of cleansing from the inside. Jesus said to the chief priests and pharisees, "Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him" (Matthew 21:31-32).


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