By Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.
GOD’S ULTIMATE AIM FOR believers is to be sanctified and grow in holiness. The Hebrew (qdš) and Greek (hagias-) roots are applied to any person, place, occasion, or object “set apart from” common, secular use onto some divine power. Under the Old Covenant, persons and things devoted to God’s use had to be ritually cleaned, not merely set apart by taboo, decree, or tribal caste. “Fitness” for use becomes increasingly moral. Consider, “You shall be holy to me; for I the LORD am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Lev. 20:26, NRSV). Peter wrote, “But as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy'” (1 Pet. 1:15-16). Israel is inherently holy, separated by God from “the peoples” to be His own. Yet Israel had to become holy, by obedience, fit for the privilege allotted them” (1).
I have wondered whether God uses exile to set His people apart for further sanctification. The Jews were set free from slavery under Pharaoh only to wander in the wilderness for forty years. Leviticus tells of two ideas of sanctification. The first is that which relates to ceremonial laws (purification). The other is sanctification itself. In this idea, two factors are important: sanctification is called “the way” if it is related to ceremonial laws (e.g., blood sacrifice as a type of purification); and, sanctification is a “progressive work” as it is related to obedience to God’s commands.
Christians are set apart for God’s use. The community of believers is called by Paul as “…those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2). The true church of God is comprised of all who are sanctified in Christ, called to be saints, and who call upon Him as God incarnate; who acknowledge Him as their Lord (2). It is through this relationship that believers obtain pardoning mercy, sanctifying grace, and the comforting peace of God. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). This use of “peace” refers to the Hebrew shalom, a rich blessing that includes peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. The Greek eirēnēn means peace, prosperity, rest, quietness. Christ was saying “peace I let go [aphiēmi] to you,” signifying to leave with, send out, or permit.
Sanctify Me Lord!
To be sanctified by the Lord requires a desire to be set apart for His purpose. This is not synonymous with salvation or redemption; rather, it is an inevitable consequence of the same. Sanctification is a critical part of Christian doctrine, the roots of which began when God sanctified the sabbath as a day of rest and continued with the priesthood as outlined in Leviticus. The Hebrew word for sanctification is qâdash, meaning to separate from a profane to a sacred use. Sanctification in the New Testament is from the word hagiazo as used in John 17:16-17, where Jesus said to the Father, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth” (emphasis mine). Progressive revelation of sanctification throughout Scripture allows for a clearer understanding of God’s desire for believers under the Old and the New Covenants to come out from the world and be set apart for His glory.
Under the Old Covenant, God consecrated the places where He dwelt. God was unable to occupy any space or dwell among His people without first setting the place apart as holy. This concept is easier to grasp when holy or sanctified is compared to its opposite: profane or defiled. This is evident in Exodus 3:4-5 where God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush. He summoned Moses to Him, instructing Moses to remove his sandals because he was standing on ground that had been sanctified and declared holy. Similarly, God cannot come and dwell in us until we have been sanctified. God is holy and separate from nature and from people. He can only be approached through mediation and sacrifice. It is through Christ that both have been established. Although Israel was corporately holy (set apart from other nations and peoples for a divine task), in order for them to be fit for what they had been called to do (provide the bloodline through which the Messiah would come) they had to deepen their holiness through obedience.
R.E.O. White compares sanctification and justification, stating sanctification means “…keeping oneself unspotted,” but he adds that this is not simply self-discipline. Attempting to obtain complete obedience through self-discipline is an impossible task. It is impossible to perform the will of God without being led, called, or sanctified by God. White believes sanctification is “chiefly the outflow of overflowing life within the soul, the ‘fruit’ of the Spirit in all manner of Christian graces” (Eph. 5:22-23). Justification, however, which White calls the privileged status of acceptance, is acquired by only one means: the cross (3). Sanctification under the New Covenant is not a matter of once-and-done; rather, it is an ongoing process of conformity to Christ, which is achieved through the Holy Spirit. Although New Testament Christians cannot hope to achieve sinless perfection, we are instructed to cleanse (remove) ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness (2 Cor. 7:1). This is considered repentance (“turning away from”), which is the first step in sanctification (setting one’s self apart from the world) under the New Covenant. Our “fitness” for God’s purpose becomes increasingly moral.
Justification, on the other hand, is a one-time act performed by God which declares the believer “not guilty,” and is based solely on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ at Calvary. Sanctification occurs on a continuum and includes past, present, and future. Isaiah 50:8 confirms the vindicating aspect of justification (“he who vindicates me is near”). On closer examination, one finds that justification through faith is the foundation upon which Christianity is established as a religion of grace and forgiveness through grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone. Paul informs us of this truth: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live” (Rom. 1:17).
The changes God expects in us can only take place in the inner man, through the power of the Holy Spirit. The term “perfecting holiness” used in 2 Corinthians 7:1 is derived from the Greek epiteleô, which indicates further fulfilling or completion – bringing through to an end, finishing (see Gal. 3:3). Jesus Christ is the author and finisher of our faith (see Hebrews 12:1). Paul said, “Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint, until faith should be revealed (Gal. 3:23). Second Corinthians 7:1 refers to these promises. This correlates with Paul’s remark, “What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty'” (2 Cor. 6:16-18).
Christians are set apart for God’s use. They are chosen, destined, and sanctified. The writer of Hebrews urges, “Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Paul wants us to understand that we are washed, sanctified, and justified (1 Cor. 6:11). White writes, “Sanctification is not merely justification’s completion (correlate or implicate); it is justifying faith at work. In the faith counted for righteousness, actual righteousness is born” (4). A believer is justified (deemed “acquitted”) when he or she accepts Christ as the Messiah; the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Sanctification, on the other hand, is the method by which God brings a believer into alignment with His will. Justification is the single act of God’s grace, whereby he pardons the believer’s sins and counts him or her righteous by assigning to them the righteousness of Christ without regard to works.
Romans 3:24 says we are justified freely by the grace of God made possible by the redemption that came through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Paul notes in verse 25 that this is accomplished with the shedding of Jesus’ blood on the cross. This is mirrored in Hebrews 9:14-15. Jesus died as a ransom for the sins of mankind. Verse 22 reminds the reader that under the Law nearly everything had to be cleansed with blood, adding that there is no forgiveness without a blood sacrifice. It is therefore appropriate to conclude that God justifies the new believer at conversion, declaring him or her “acquitted.” Regarding sanctification, however, God calls the Christian to be “set aside,” no longer of this world, holy, sanctified, and called according to His purpose. Certainly, this is the very heart of the Gospel. It is through justification that the believer is considered righteous in God’s eyes. This imputing of the righteousness of Christ comes in an instant, at conversion.
Sanctification occurs over time, and includes past, present, and future. As God is holy and set apart from Creation, so too is the believer to be separate from the secular world. Because as Christians we are incapable of self-sanctification (unable to keep ourselves “unspotted”), it is imperative that we yield to the Holy Spirit and begin the work of maturing in the faith.
(1) R.O.E. White, “Sanctification,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd. ed., Daniel J. Treier, ed. (Grand Rapids, IL: Baker Academic, 2017), 770-71.
(2) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1095.
(3) White, Ibid., 771.