A Broader Understanding of Sanctification

The definition of sanctified is simply: set apart and made holy. In the Bible, sanctification seems however to be a process of God, in mending our broken nature, that goes far deeper than such a simple definition. In the circles I study in, the term sanctification is most commonly used to label the lifelong, progressive process by which God (via the Holy Spirit) conforms believers to Christ’s likeness. In other places I have heard the term sanctification used to label the one time imputing of grace (at salvation) by which a believer is set apart and given the enabling grace to cast off the shackles of sin and endeavor to be more like Christ.

While in a sense each of these explanations are correct, in another sense they seem to fall terribly short of communicating the full majesty and scope of sanctification as I read about it in the Bible. To be honest, I’m not even sure that I, or anyone for that matter, fully understands every aspect of sanctification. Sanctification is, after all, a work of God, and it is surely more important that we receive it than that we fully understand it. Still, I am going to try here to map out the contiguous phases of God’s sanctifying process. Hopefully this will prove fruitful in enhancing our understanding in the receiving of the LORD’s imputed grace and His process in bringing us to glory.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Message of Faith 2000 descibes sanctification as:

“The experience, beginning in regeneration, by which the believer is set apart to God’s purposes, and is enabled to progress toward moral and spiritual maturity through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in him. Growth in grace should continue throughout the regenerate person’s life.”

This becomes confusing when considering that we are set apart and made holy (forever) at the time we are saved, yet we are still called to pursue holiness and increase in righteousness throughout the rest of our walk with Christ.

To understand, we must first remember that God is omniscient and does not operate within the constraint of time. He sees the beginning and end in the same moment. True salvation assumes the end of the process from the very beginning. So in this sense, God considers believers holy and set apart from the moment of salvation simply by Christ’s justifying sacrifice. This however does not mean that His purifying work in us is complete at that moment. It is just assumed that it will be brought to completion because it is promised by God. God never fails to complete a work, and to God the end is already assured.

1 Corinthians 1:2 To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy…

Paul here demonstrates that Christians are simultaneously “sanctified in Christ Jesus” and “called to be holy.” In terms of time, the call is only the beginning, not the end or completion of our journey through purification to holiness. The Greek words for “sanctified” and “holy” are from the same root word. So, a Christian is both labeled holy and called to become holy at the same time. 

The process of sanctification is three fold…

1. Positional Sanctification. Positional sanctification refers to being set apart and labeled holy upon salvation. At salvation we are imputed sanctifying grace, our hearts are regenerated, and the bond of sin is broken.  We are justified by the atoning sacrifice of Christ, and in the great exchange, Christ takes our sin, and imputes us His righteousness.  In justification we are placed into a position of perfection in God’s eyes.  From this time on, when God looks at us, He sees the righteousness and holiness of Christ. However, while we are deemed holy and righteous, we remain in a continuing war against our sin. We will continue to pursue righteousness and holiness, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, until death.

Justification is specifically the imputing of Christ’s righteousness to us. Sanctification is the imputing of the grace necessary to enable us to exercise that righteousness. The term sanctified, when applied to this point, still assumes that the progressive act of God in perfectly purifying us and bringing us to glory will be carried through to completion as promised.

2. Progressive Sanctification. This is the phase of sanctification that is most typically referred to. Progressive sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit in believers hearts in gradually producing less acts of the sinful nature and more bearing of the fruit of the Holy Spirit…love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. It is during progressive sanctification that God’s people separate from the ways of the world and become progressively transformed to the image of Jesus Christ. The process of progressive sanctification is a journey that continues from the time we are saved until death.

3. Ultimate Sanctification. Ultimate sanctification occurs at glorification. At the resurrection, Believers will be raised and given new, pure, glorified, heavenly bodies. We must first be made new and pure before coming into the presence of God. Nothing corrupted by sin can exist in the presence of the LORD. God said, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live (Exodus 33:20).” But Jesus tells us, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matthew 5:8).” At this time We will be ultimately sanctified – glorified and given pure, sinless hearts, we will then be able to gaze upon the face of God and live in His presence forever.

Phillipians 3:20-21 …our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

Revelation 21:5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new…”

Revelation 22:3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servantsc will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

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