by the Reverend Edward Lobb


‘Sanctification’ is an unfamiliar word. Because it is not a word we use in everyday English, we approach it with care. Few of us have recently been questioned about the state of our sanctification, if we were, we might feel uncomfortable, as though being questioned about the state of our bunions. It remains true, however, that sanctification is an important Bible word, and an essential ingredient in the dish that constitutes Christian teaching and experience. Derived from the Latin ‘sanctus’, ‘holy’, and ‘facere’, to make, at its face value the word means the process, or the state of being made holy. But we shall seek to answer two questions: first, what does the word mean as used by the Biblical authors? Secondly, what relevance ought sanctification to have to our own lives?

The twofold meaning

In the Bible, sanctification has two chief meanings, which, while being distinct from each other, are closely linked:

  1. Sanctification is being set apart for God. God says to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1; 5), "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated (sanctified, AV) you." For Jeremiah, sanctification meant being set apart for God, for the particular purpose of being a prophet to the nations’. But sanctification applies to things as well as people; God says of Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 7; 16), "For now I have chosen and sanctified this house, that my name nay be there forever" (AV). The temple was set apart, dedicated for God’s special purposes.
  2. Sanctification is being separated from defilement. Because the primary force of the word ‘holiness’ is to indicate separation from defiling sin, to be ‘made holy’, or sanctified, necessarily involves such separation. God’s holiness will not tolerate the presence of sin. Thus the Israelite law (Leviticus 20; 7) says, "Sanctify yourselves, therefore, and be ye holy: for I am the Lord your God" (AT). St Paul writes, "For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from immorality" (i Thessalonians 4; 3).

We can readily see the close link that exists between these two Biblical meanings of sanctification: because of God’s sinlessness, it would be nonsense to talk about being set apart for Him, if that setting apart did not also involve being separated from defilement.

The relevance of sanctification

But is all this relevant to us? After all, we are at a far remove from Solomon’s temple and the 03d Testament law, and, as we have seen, ‘sanctification’ is not a part of our common vocabulary. The clue lies in St. Paul’s bold proclamation, quoted above, that our sanctification is the will of God. This ought to make us prick up our ears, for anything which is His will is of the utmost importance to us. If God wills it, we must aim for it. And this is precisely what we are encouraged to do in Hebrews 12; 14 - "Strive for peace with all men, and for holiness (sanctification, RV) without which no one will see the Lord". An instinctive reaction on our part may be to shrink from making sanctification our goal; but if we do, it is because we misunderstand what holiness is Many people think of a holy person as being waxen-faced, effeminate and withdrawn, someone whose thoughts are so abstracted in heavenly places that he is only half-human. If we think that way, the origin of our conception of holiness is not the Bible! Biblical holiness, Biblical sanctification is a strong and positive thing. A holy person is a good person to be with; he is loving and understanding, at peace in his heart strong-minded yet tender, bold yet sensitive, vital yet self-disciplined. His energies are directed by a zeal for God. Holiness finds its perfect expression in the character of Jesus. To be like Him is one of the Christian’s larger goals, and to be like Him is to be holy. Holiness then, or sanctification, is worth pursuing, for the pursuit of it is not the pursuit of weakness, but of strength.

The process of sanctification

Is sanctification something that happens to us instantaneously, or is it a process? The answer to this question is not as simple as is sometimes supposed. We often hear that ‘justification’, (being set right with God through Christ’s death) is a once-for-all event in a believer’s life, whereas sanctification is an on-going process of growth in holiness and Christian character; and while this is broadly speaking what the New Testament does teach - and it is a truth to be rejoiced in - some further clarification is needed. In Hebrews 10; 10, we read "we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." Here, sanctification is a once-for-all event achieved by Jesus through His death. By His death we are made holy, set apart, and that is not an on-going process. The idea expressed here is closely akin to St. Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith (see, for example, Remains 5; 1 or Galatians 3; 24) when we turn from self-reliance, and lean in confidence upon Christ. Our position in relation to God is once and for all changed. We are no longer aliens, barred from His land; we have become His citizens and subjects, and the former divisive barrier of our un-forgiven sins is completely removed. This is what takes place at our conversion. And in the sense of Hebrews 10; 10, we are at the same time sanctified. However, this same epistle the Hebrews (see Chapter i2, verse 14 quoted above) pictures sanctification as something to be pursued; and that is a lifelong process. In the New Testament, them, sanctification has two emphases.First we are sanctified, set apart, by the death of Christ, as an unrepeatable event. Secondly, we are being sanctified, as we make growth in holiness, and that is a lifetime’s endeavour. A baby boy born in this country is as much an Englishman, in one sense, as his nonagenarian great-grandfather; but in another sense, it will take him a lifetime of living and thinking as an Englishman to become as deep]y English as the old man. At our conversion we are sanctified. But the process continues.

To recognise that sanctification is a process is most encouraging. We often meet older Christians whose lives are warmly aglow with Christ’s holiness, Christians who have evidently undergone a considerable personal transformation, and we may be tempted to think despairingly, "I could never match up to that standard!" But that is simply not true, for two reasons. First, we cam be sure that they were once struggling youngsters in the faith like ourselves. No barnyard cock is so glorious a specimen that he was not once a helpless chick. Secondly, the responsibility to grow in holiness does not rest upon our unaided shoulders. If it did, we would not get far. But Christ is our yoke-fellow, and He gives us the Holy Spirit to transform and strengthen us from within. We find, to our joy, that as we apply our wills to the pursuit of holiness, our wills are mysteriously strengthened by the power of God. As Paul puts it in Philippians 2; 13, "God is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure." And even the youngest Christian will recognise that, though he may not be what he ought to be, yet he is not what he once was.

The pursuit of sanctification

Understanding, then, that God is the author of our sanctification, just as He is the author of our conversion and new birth, what steps do we need to take in the pursuit of sanctification? We willlook at three:

  1. We must stick close to Christ. In John 15, He commands us to abide in Him. To illustrate this point, He pictures the union of a vine branch and its parent stem. What closer union can there be than that? The sap that gives life to the stem gives life to the branch: it is the same sap. Christ’s life-blood beats in the veins of the Christian who sticks close to Him. If we spend tine in the sunshine, it changes the colour of our faces. If we spend time in the sunshine of Christ’s presence, it will change the colour of our personalities. We need to cultivate the habit of conscious awareness of His presence, and of much talking to Him. When He was on earth, He never wasted a word, and His company is still just as spicy. Because His words and His history are recorded for us, it follows that:
  2. We must stick close to the Bible. The Bible is our manual, our map, our work programme, our guiding light, our nourishment. The better it is known, the more it is enjoyed. Steak gives strength to the oarsman, and the Bible gives strength to a Christian. The best food for a holy life is the holy Scriptures. It follows as inevitably as spring follows winter that where a Christian reads, ponders, discusses, assimilates and (this final verb is vital) obeys the Bible, he grows in sanctification. When Bible study is being taken seriously, it shows; when it is being done sketchily, it also shows.
  3. We must stick close to other Christians. Because our society exalts the strong, independent man, this can be a hard one to swallow. Not to stand aloof can be humbling; but there is no doubt that not only is the close mutual involvement of Christians the Bible ‘s picture of the Church, it is also a major means of growth in holiness. We learn from each other; we can encourage each other, spur each other on in Christian living, support each other in time of difficulty. We can even indulge in a little hilarity together. Christian love is a wonderfully strengthening things.


Let us make sanctification our aim, for it is God’s aim for us. No Christian’s life is so feeble that God’s power is unable to transform it into something strong, radiant, fruitful and holy.

Suggested further reading

The best that I can be - J.0. Sanders
The Christ-life for your life - F.B. Meyer
Holiness - J.C. Pyle
Holy Living - Jeremy Taylor
For a complete listing of Biblical references:
What the Bible teaches - R.A. Torrey

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