Just what is sanctification?

Ask any 21st century Christian the above question and you’ll no doubt hear that it’s the process of becoming more like Jesus. You’ll hear verses like these:

  • Romans 8.29: For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.
  • Romans 12.1: I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.
  • 2 Corinthians 3.18: And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.

Did you notice anything about these verses? None of them use the word sanctification. Now, I’m all for Christians becoming more like Jesus, but I think that using the word sanctification to describe this process robs the word of its most common biblical meaning, and does us a disservice.

Sanctification in the New Testament

The Greek word for sanctification in the New Testament comes from the root hagiazo. If you look at all the places where this word is used, the overwhelming reference is to a status or a state of being — not to a process.

Let’s take a look at the uses of the noun form of the word hagiazo. Here are all of them, with the appropriate English word in bold:

  • Romans 6.19: …present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
  • Romans 6.22: But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.
  • 1 Corinthians 1.30: And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.
  • 1 Thessalonians 4.3-4: For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor.
  • 1 Thessalonians 4.7: For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.
  • 2 Thessalonians 2.13: But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.
  • 1 Timothy 2.15: Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
  • Hebrews 12.14: Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
  • 1 Peter 1.1–2: To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood.

I think you are noticing something: the word doesn’t refer to a process; it speaks of a status. I’ll talk more about this a little farther on.

So much for the noun form. What about the use of this word as a verb? Here are all the New Testament uses of hagiazo in verb form.

First, here’s how it’s used in the gospels:

  • Matthew 6.9: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. (See Lk 11.2)
  • Matthew 23.17, 19: You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?…You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?

This doesn’t look at all like a process; instead, it’s a status or a condition. God’s name is holy; the gold is sacred. Neither becomes progressively more holy or sacred.

The word is used a couple of times in Acts:

  • Acts 20.32: And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
  • Acts 26.18: …that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.

Again, the reference is to a state, not a process.

Ok, on to how Paul uses the word:

  • Romans 15.16: …so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
  • 1 Corinthians 1.2: To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus.
  • 1 Corinthians 6.11: And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
  • 1 Corinthians 7.14: For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband.
  • Ephesians 5.25–26: Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.
  • 1 Thessalonians 5.23: Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
  • 1 Timothy 4.4–5: For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.
  • 2 Timothy 2.21: Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.

Reading through the passages above, being sanctified doesn’t look at all like a process, but a status — even a declaration. Take a look at the 1 Corinthians 6.11 passage above, for example, and note the three verbs: washed, sanctified, justified. We can agree that washed and justified are one-time events; let’s treat sanctified in the same way. God has set the Corinthians apart; he has changed their status. Formerly, they would not inherit the kingdom of God, and now they will.

Let’s move on to other uses of the word in the New Testament. Next up is the book of Hebrews:

  • Hebrews 2.11: For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source.
  • Hebrews 9.13: For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh…
  • Hebrews 10.14: For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
  • Hebrews 13:12: So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.

Again, the word refers to a status which is conferred upon the recipient, not to a process the recipient undergoes.

Just a couple more:

  • 1 Peter 3.15: …in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy.
  • Revelation 22.11: Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.

Again, the word is not referring to a process, but to a status or a condition. In my next post, I’ll comment on the use of this word, and why I think we are missing out when we define it differently than the Bible does.

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