A Special Study by Gareth L. Reese
The word "sanctification" (hagiasmos) does not appear in the Old Testament, and is used but ten times in the New Testament.1 However, the root word from which it comes and its cognates appear more than a thousand times in Scripture; this makes it one of the most important concepts in Biblical and historical theology.
The importance of the subject could not be stated in clearer terms than one finds in Hebrews 12:14, "Pursue after ... the sanctification (hagiasmos) without which no one will see the Lord."
As long as the use of the word in the Bible is the topic of study, there is little disagreement among the lexicons. But when one passes from Bible times into church history, there is great difference of doctrine discernible. The goal of this Special Study is to help students of the Bible to understand what the Bible says, and also to recognize what certain theologians are saying when they explain what "sanctification" or "holiness" means.
I. ETYMOLOGY AND DEFINITION OF TERMS
The Hebrew word meaning "sanctify" is qadosh, and seems to mean "to cut" or "to separate."2 "Separation," too, is the main idea found in the Greek words hagios (holy), hagiazō (to make holy, to sanctify, to consecrate), hagiasmos (sanctification), and hagiosunē (holiness).3 "Generally, sanctification (hagiasmos), as an act or a process, begun by God and ever going on 'in Christ,' is distinguished from holiness or sanctity (hagiotēs) and moral purity (hagiosunē), which are a state and quality respectively."4
It soon becomes evident that whatever "holiness" or "sanctification" a thing or person has, it is derived from its relationship to God. Each of the members of the Godhead are intrinsically "holy;"5 God's children are "holy" only in that they are consecrated or separated to Him, separated to sacred service. A sanctified person is one who is separated from a sinful world and put into a special relationship with God. He is not out of the world; but while in it, he is consecrated or dedicated to God for divine service.
Thus far, there is fairly general agreement among Bible students. It is only in regard to the questions of the manner by which sanctification is accomplished, the time it occurs (whether before or after justification), and the degree to which sanctification may be carried in this life, that there is dispute among the various theologians and churches.
II. THE DOCTRINE IN HISTORY
The Catholic View – Sanctification Precedes Justification
None of the questions in dispute were much of a topic of discussion until the time of Augustine. His dispute with Pelagius, his doctrine of original sin, and his doctrine of the church all influenced his teaching about sanctification. In opposition to Pelagius, Augustine taught that the whole process of sanctification was accomplished by the grace of God, and even man's cooperating effort was itself a divine gift. His doctrine of an inherent taint in man's nature led him to explain sanctification as being a supernatural impartation of divine life to the believer. Augustine's doctrine of the church led to the statement that God's grace which produced sanctification was available only in the church, and only through the sacraments. Augustine allowed for the possibility of entire sanctification in this life, but also taught that it was never realized because God judicially so decreed it.6 Augustine's theology influenced the Roman Church for 1000 years.
Aquinas refined Augustine's doctrine, and this in turn became official Catholic doctrine at the Council of Trent. Briefly summarized, this is the Catholic dogma: Because of a sinful human nature, supernatural grace is imparted by God to save lost man, and raise the soul to a new level of being, in order that it may achieve its heavenly destiny and beatitude of knowing, possessing, and enjoying God. An inexhaustible treasury of grace, provided originally by Christ and increased as a result of the saints' works of supererogation, available only through the church and the sacraments, is what produces sanctification. Note that in Aquinas' theology, the manner of sanctification has both a divine and a human side.
From the divine side, the presence of this sanctifying or sufficient grace within the soul remits original sin, imparts a permanent habit of inherent righteousness, and carries within itself the promise and potency of all perfection. Out of it, as from a divine seed, emerges a tree of spiritual life, which branches out into the three theological and four cardinal virtues and yields ultimately the seven ripe fruits of the Holy Spirit. Only by mortal sin can its operations be neutralized or destroyed, the guilt which is contracted subsequently to baptism being removed by the eucharist in the case of venial sins and by the penitential system of the Church in the case of those that are more serious. From the human side, good works or supernatural acts of faith working through love have merit before God and secure increase of grace on that account: yet no such meritorious works are possible without the continuous assistance of actual, co-operating, or efficacious grace, which supplements the sanctifying grace originally bestowed, and mysteriously inclines the will, by its own effort, to give a free assent to righteousness. The resulting process and goal of holiness are spoken of, not as sanctification (which was already bestowed in God's initial act), but as justification, or the actual making just or righteous through infused grace leading to final perseverance, of him who was once a sinner but can now stand before the bar of God, deserving eternal life.7
It can be seen from this summary that in the Roman system, there likely is no entire sanctification in this life, sometimes not until considerable time has been spent in Purgatory after this life. It can also be seen that when a Catholic theologian reads these verses about "sanctification," and the ones previous about "justification," he usually thinks something considerably different from what a Protestant means when he talks about "justification" and "sanctification." Catholic theology has sanctification before justification, whereas Protestant theology has justification preceding sanctification. No wonder there is so much religious confusion in the world.
Following the Reformation there were two prominent views about sanctification in the Protestant world – often called the Wesleyan and Reformed views.
The Wesleyan View – "Saved and Sanctified"
John Wesley's doctrine was being formulated between 1739 and 1760. After that, in his sermons, he used such terms as "Christian Perfection," "Perfect Love," and "Holiness" to refer to an instantaneous act subsequent to conversion, wrought by the Holy Spirit, by which man's old sinful nature that lingered after his conversion was finally subdued, and entire sanctification (sinless perfection) resulted.
Justification (salvation) was supposed to be the work of grace by which sinners are made righteous and freed from their sinful habits when they come to Christ. But in the merely justified soul there remains a corrupt principle, an evil tree, or a "root of bitterness," which continually prompts to sin. If the believer obeys this impulse and willfully sins, he ceases to be justified; therefore the desirability of its removal, that the likelihood of backsliding may be greatly lessened. The eradication of this sinful root is sanctification. It is therefore the cleansing of the nature from all inbred sin by the blood of Christ (applied through faith when a full consecration is made), and the refining fire of the Holy Spirit, who burns out all dross when all is laid upon the altar of sacrifice.8
Followers of this Wesleyan-Holiness tradition are accustomed to express it by the simple slogan, "Saved and Sanctified." "Saved" refers to initial justification, and "sanctified" refers to this second work of grace, this subsequent experience at which the old sinful root is eradicated. Even the hymnology from this movement reflects this second work of grace idea: "Take away our bent to sinning" ... "Let us find that second rest" ... "Make and keep me pure within" ... "Love divine, all loves excelling."9
The Reformed View
Calvin, like Luther, rejected the Catholic doctrine of sanctification. Instead, for Calvin, sanctification was a process aided by the indwelling Holy Spirit – a process of growth in grace and mastering fleshly lusts that is never entire or complete in this life.
Sanctification is the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness. Sanctification is the same work which is commenced in regeneration and it is wrought by the Holy Spirit. It is a work of God in which the believer co-operates by use of the means of grace placed at his disposal. It occurs over the believer's whole life, and is never complete in this life but only at death. It consists of mortifying the old sinful nature and deeds by crucifixion and the quickening of the new nature unto good works affecting the whole man.10
The Reformed view may be differentiated from the Wesleyan in that there is no second work of grace, no single act of the Holy Spirit by which a man is made entirely holy. In Reformed theology, sanctification is a process that continues on through the whole life. However, there is similarity between the Reformed and Wesleyan views, in that both posit that there is an old sinful nature that lingers on after conversion that must be subdued, and this subduing (in one form or another) is sanctification.11
For the sake of being current, it is necessary to briefly review how the doctrine of sanctification has been treated since rationalism and existentialism have become prevailing philosophies in the world.
Rationalism stressed man's efforts for his own moral perfection, rather than what "God" might do for man. Sanctification became a way of describing a man's inner disposition which resulted in behavior that would please God.
Kant rejected the idea of supernatural or revealed religion, so he had little use for the church's doctrine that "God" had something to do with a man's sanctification. Kant, and men like him, was trying to hold on to the values that Christianity taught without holding on to the sources from which Christianity springs. Thus, they talk about "moral law" and "holiness" and even "God." But for Kant, the necessity for sanctification rested solely on the nature of the thinking, experiencing, acting self, and on the categoric claims of moral law. "Holiness" and "moral character" were almost equated, and since man must act in an ethical way, else he cannot be happy, sanctification was progressive, something a man could will to do, something to be striven for as long as a man lives.12
Schleiermacher's doctrine of sanctification was similar to the Catholic Church’s, in that he conceived of sanctification as preceding justification, but different in that one need have no relationship to the church in order to be sanctified. To him, faith is a subjective thing (a religious attitude toward God), even mystical (a feeling of satisfaction and of communion with God, a feeling even people outside the church could experience), and was the seed or germ from which sanctification and justification grew. Perhaps there was a vague similarity to the Biblical doctrine of sanctification in his presentation, for he spoke of the progressive domination of the God-consciousness within us over the morally defective world-consciousness, and he also spoke of how the Holy Spirit rouses our free loving surrender to the attractive and formative personality of the Redeemer.13 While Kant's sanctification implied a personal immortality in order to be completed, Schleiermacher's sanctification was something that could be completed in this life.
Ritschl's teaching was like the Reformers, in that sanctification followed justification. Ritschl also spoke about how the Holy Spirit helped the members of God's kingdom to have behavior characterized by goodness, righteousness, and love. However, to Ritschl, the "Holy Spirit" is not one of the members of the Godhead, not a person at all, but is an attitude produced by the "complete knowledge of God which is common to believers in Christ." He defined sin as a relative failure to do the good, right, and loving thing; in fact, there is no absolute standard of right that all are expected to conform to, and the breaking of which is "sin." Sanctification, the opposite of "sin," therefore is something that can be complete in the present life, since all one must do is fulfill his duties to his neighbors.14
Neo-orthodox and Neo-liberal theologians tend to understand that the Bible presents its message in terms of "symbolism." Expressions such as Christ's deity and incarnation are treated not as historical truths, but as symbols. In fact, in Tillich's theology, "Christ" is an ideal that men associate with the man Jesus. This ideal is called "New Being," and is simply another way of saying that wherever love is manifested in the world, "Christ" is there. For Tillich, sanctification is this "New Being" progressively overcoming evils in the church and in society.15
Reinhold Niebuhr also gives a symbolical interpretation to Biblical truths. He postulates that the image of God in man is man's "original righteousness," or simply the conscience. He explains that the law written in man's heart is agape or love. The best example of love in history is in Jesus, thus He is the Christ. For a man to be saved, he needs no relationship to the Jesus of history, but only to the symbol of the Christ.16 Love, or the "hidden" Christ, is the original righteousness God gave to all men. As man grasps this truth he is converted, and sanctification is this "Christ" in us, growing more and more as man by his own effort comes to love more and more. There is no Holy Spirit within to lead, guide, transform, or help. "Christ lives in me" means that at last I have caught the agape spirit.
This commentator has rejected both rationalistic and existential world views, and therefore also rejects the misguided efforts of some theologians to make the Bible fit such a world view.17
Still there remains the question – which of the other three views (Catholic, Wesleyan, or Reformed), if any, is an expression of what the Scriptures themselves say about sanctification?
III. A SURVEY OF REPRESENTATIVE VERSES
People, things, and even the Lord are the objects of sanctification.
- Inanimate objects, such as the Tabernacle's laver, altar, and vessels, were sanctified (Exodus 40:9,10, 19: 23); that is, they were set apart to sacred service. However, we would not suppose that this sanctifying involved any inherent or internal change to the nature of these objects, or that there was any evil element rooted out of them.
- Believers are called upon to sanctify the Lord in their hearts (1 Peter 3:15). How are we to understand such an exhortation if sanctification depends wholly upon God's initiative alone to provide an inward cleansing, or to make holy what was before unclean and evil?
- The Christians addressed in 1 Corinthians 6:11 are already sanctified (set apart to God), yet they were also still "carnal" (1 Corinthians 3:1,3 ASV).
- Unbelievers are sometimes sanctified. In 1 Corinthians 7:14, the life-partner of a Christian, though unsaved, is said to be sanctified. Does that mean that such a one is free from sins?
In the New Testament, the manner or means of sanctification is attributed both to God and to men.
- At times God is declared to be the One who sanctifies. Paul wrote, "May the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely ..." (1 Thessalonians 5:23). The Holy Spirit has a "sanctifying work" He does as men become Christians (1 Peter 1:2; Romans 15:16; 2 Thessalonians 2:13). The Son was sanctified by the Father (John 10:36). Did the Son have an evil nature to be changed? Hardly, for the Bible indicates that Jesus was sinless perfect.18
- But it is also stated that Jesus sanctified Himself (John 17:19).
- Likewise, at 2 Corinthians 7:1, believers are exhorted to sanctify themselves in these words, "... let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God." And again in Romans 6:19-22, we read that when a Christian consciously presents his bodily members to God in order to do what is righteous, this results in his sanctification. Thus, the man himself had something to do with his own sanctification. In the Old Testament we read that men could sanctify themselves to do iniquity (Isaiah 66:17). How absurd the thought of any inward cleansing here, just because the word "sanctify" is used.
Notice, the teaching of these verses does not appear to support the Wesleyan view of "sanctification" wherein a Divinely-initiated second work of grace is provided to effect an "inward cleansing" to eradicate the old sinful root.
What about the time when sanctification is said to take place? In some verses, it is taught that there is a "sanctification" (setting apart to sacred service) at the time of conversion (e.g., 1 Corinthians 6:11; 1 Peter 1:2).19 In other verses, persons already addressed as sanctified are afterward exhorted to be holy (compare 1 Peter 1:1,2 with 1:15,16; and compare Romans 1:7 ["saints"] with 6:19-22; and compare 2 Corinthians 1:1 with 7:1). The Hebrews are exhorted to continually pursue (present tense, continuous action) holiness (Hebrews 12:14), and perhaps 1 Thessalonians 5:23 suggests that sanctification is something that is not completed this side of heaven.
Thus, it appears that neither the Catholic nor Wesleyan views present sanctification as the Scriptures themselves do. But does that mean that the Reformed view is wholly correct, and the one to be embraced and taught?
Standard Wesleyan arguments that sanctification is a one‑time act that follows conversion include the following:
- If sanctification is something God wills (1 Thessalonians 4:3), and something God Himself does to a man (1 Thessalonians 5:23), why should not this sanctification be instantaneous and entire?
- There may be a gradual growth in grace and knowledge of the truth, but entire sanctification is instantaneous. For example, Romans 6:6 ("our old self was crucified") and Galatians 2:20 ("I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live") present the picture of a sudden death.20
- The aorist tense verbs (indicating a single act) found in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 ("sanctify") and in Romans 6:19 and 12:1 ("present") point to a definite, decisive moment in time.21
- The use of the word "perfect" or "mature" in certain passages (e.g., 2 Corinthians 7:1 and 1 Corinthians 2:6) is alleged to teach that the act of sanctification is past, and the person has been "perfect" ever since.22
Reformed theologians have replied to these standard Wesleyan arguments, pointing to the fact that even in 1 Thessalonians, one finds that side by side with Paul's prayer for sanctification are admonitions to growth and progress (1 Thessalonians 3:12 and 5:14).
- Some verses may indeed look at sanctification as a one-time act, but those are verses which look back at the time of conversion, where a man is "sanctified" (set apart to the Lord) as he begins his Christian life. When a man becomes a Christian, when he comes out of the world, and with true faith and repentance dedicates himself to God in baptism, these very acts are sanctifying in their effect. The apostles, consequently, do not hesitate to characterize such persons as "saints."
- A second point used to show that sanctification is a process is the very use of the Greek word hagiasmos, since in Greek grammar words with a ‑mos ending indicate a process. 1 Corinthians 1:30, in which Christ is called our "sanctification" (hagiasmos), likely means that Christ has become the cause or ground that makes sanctification possible.23
Sanctified people, like the Corinthians were (1 Corinthians 1:2), could still be contentious (1:11-13), carnal (3:1-6), puffed up (4:18,19), condone immorality in their midst (5:1), defraud one another (6:1-8), have domestic troubles (7:1-5), worship idols (8:1-13), partake of the Lord's Supper in an improper manner (11:20-34), and wrangle over spiritual gifts (12:1-31). This hardly can be harmonized with the Wesleyan doctrine that one who is sanctified is beyond sinning.24 Romans, too, which is addressed to "saints," is filled with admonitions to stop sinning (as for example, 6:12).25
There is no terminus ad quem for us in this world; no stage at which we may sit down and say it is enough. There are always heights beyond heights, and blessings beyond blessings – blessings whose affluent fullness would be too great for our present capacity, and which, therefore, await our approach to them, and our spiritual preparation to receive them ... There is no recorded example among men of perfect holiness. The best and brightest of Old Testament worthies were not spotless; and those who lived and walked with the Savior of men, and who drank deepest of his Spirit, never succeeded in reproducing his sinless and glorious character. Whatever their attainments in grace and goodness, they had still, even from their loftiest height of excellency, to look up with humble spirits and adoring praise to Him who, alike in the glory of His majesty and the shame of His humiliation, was pre-eminently the Holy One. John says, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). Paul remarks, "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect; but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:12). Surely if this was true of him, there is no one who may claim to have gone further, and to have attained more. The fact that God Himself is the standard model of perfect holiness should teach us to be at once humble in our pretensions and most aspiring in our aims. We may never in this world be holy as He is holy, but it is something ... to strive for; and even in the world to come, we may sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, and enter into eternal fellowship and fraternity with the spirits of just men made perfect, even there we shall take up the strain of the four living beings – representative of the whole creation – and looking up to Him who is still infinitely above us, say: "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty" (Revelation 4:8).26
The word "sanctify" carries the idea of consecration, devotion, or set apart to sacred service. As such, sanctification can be thought of as both an act and a process. If one looks back at the time of his baptism and consequent initial justification, "sanctification" (set apart to sacred service) can be viewed as an act in the past (as it is in 1 Corinthians 6:11). If one looks at the growth in grace and knowledge and the determination to pursue a right course of living (as Romans 6, or Hebrews 12:14 exhorts), then "sanctification" may be viewed as a process, and a life-long process at that.
There is both a negative and a positive side to the process. Negatively, there is to be a separation from sin; positively, there is to be a presentation of one's members to God to be used in His service.
The sanctified are set apart or separated to a sacred service or purpose. It does not mean that they were sinless, or free from temptation to sin, but consecrated to the service of God. All who have entered into Christ, and have obligated themselves to serve Him, are said to be sanctified in Christ Jesus regardless of their degree of consecration or perfection of character. There are degrees of sanctification just as there are degrees of Christian knowledge and fidelity to Christ. The growth in sanctification and holiness is to be attained by a constant and persistent study of God's will and a daily effort to bring oneself into obedience to the same.27
Our chief concern while we remain here below is to "follow after holiness, without which no man shall see God." And although we may not hope to reach here the ultimate state of that relative holiness which is possible to redeemed humanity, we may, by the help of the Holy Spirit, gradually approach unto it. And the pursuit itself, if faithfully and earnestly made, will cause us to be acceptable to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.28
Barber, Burton W., "Scriptural Studies in Sanctification," Voice of Evangelism, 9 (January 1954), p.4ff. (A nine-lesson series is found in the January through June issues.)
Bartlett, J.V., "Sanctification," in Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, edited by James Hastings. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1903. Vol.4, p.391‑395.
Berkouwer, G.C., Faith and Sanctification, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1952.
Ironside, H.A., Holiness: The False and the True. Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, nd.
Orton, H. Wiley, Christian Theology, Vol.2. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1960.
Rall, Harris F., "Sanctification," in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, edited by James Orr. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1952. Vol. 4, p.2681‑2686.
Turner, G.A., "Sanctification," in Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, edited by Merrill C. Tenney. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975. Vol.5, p.264‑267.
Weisiger, Cary N., The Reformed Doctrine of Sanctification. A 24‑page booklet included in the Series "Fundamentals of the Faith," included at page 24 in Christianity Today, 11:23 (September 1, 1967).
Young, Warren C., "The Nature of Sanctification," in Christian Faith and Modern Theology, edited by Carl F.H. Henry. New York: Channel Press, 1964. Pages 371‑386.