The Meaning of Sanctification

“’Twas most impossible of all that here sin’s reign in me should cease;
Yet shall it be, I know it shall; Jesus, I trust in Thy faithfulness!
If nothing is too hard for Thee, all things are possible to me.”

Here we begin to investigate what the Scriptures teach on the subject of Biblical Sanctification rather than how men or denominations explain it. While we will quote from theologians from both the Reformed and Wesleyan Theologies the emphasis will be upon what the Bible actually says. The quotations of men simply being added to show the common understanding of certain terms and insights.

What does the word Sanctification mean? Two Greek words are used in the New Testament to explain what sanctification is, [1] Hagiasmos, [2] Hagiazo. Both words are similar to hagioi which means ‘saints’. From this we see that sanctification has something to do with the believer living a saintly life. Thus sanctification as used in Scripture means to make holy, to consecrate, to separate from the world, and to be set apart unto God from sin so that the believer can serve Him. This is the work of the Holy Spirit and is necessary if we are to have fellowship with a Holy God.

The foundational truths concerning sanctification are found in the Old Testament, especially in direct relationship to the people of Israel. They were meant to be a sanctified people, that is, they were to keep themselves separate from the other nations around them, “And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel” (Exodus 19:6). They were to stay away from all that God said would pollute them, “For I am the LORD your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Leviticus 11:44). Vessels, tools, altars, and people were sanctified unto the Lord (set apart for His purposes only). In the New Testament the believer is expected to maintain holiness and sanctification, “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).


Biblical terminology covering sanctification includes: “Unblameable in holiness” (1 Thessalonians 3:13); “Perfecting holiness” (2 Corinthians 7:1); “Servants of righteousness unto holiness” (Romans 6:19); “Dead to sin” (Romans 6:2) and “Overcometh the world” (1 John 5:4) to name but a few. These terms describe the operation of the Spirit of God as He separates us, with our co-operation, from sinfulness and brings us to maturity in Christ, thus enabling us to live a victorious life of dedication to God.

God has made us new creatures in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17) for this very reason,. For though we are in the world, we are not of the world, but born again to experience a personal relationship with the Almighty (John 17:14). It is through Christ alone that all of our sinful attitudes and actions are put to death, that our character is renewed, making us fit to serve and obey God, so that our lives will bring Him both glory and honour. “We believe the objective of redemption to be not merely that of getting people to heaven but to people the earth with believers who are living holy lives.”

The Need

Our need for personal holiness springs from the fact that God is holy, “Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). The verse teaches us that what is true of God must be true of His people also. This lofty principle means that in some way, regardless of our personal misgivings, we must be like Him. Scripture teaches us that no sin or sinner is permitted into Heaven or His presence. Further it suggests that only those who are as holy as He is can stand in His presence. This thought is expressed well by Aeron Morgan, “Do you think it is possible for any person to be at home and happy in Heaven, where a Holy God is going to be eternally celebrated in the glory of His holiness (Revelation 4:8), if they die unholy?”

The Purpose

So we see that Biblical Sanctification means to be set apart. There is a fourfold purpose for this setting apart:

1: We are set apart by God. This is the most obvious fact regarding sanctification. We cannot set ourselves apart nor does the flesh have any desire to do so. It is therefore a direct act of God upon a person who submits himself to His will. “Know that the LORD hath set apart him that is godly for himself” (Psalm 4:3).

2: We are set apart for God. Those who study their Bibles will have no difficulty accepting this fact. Unfortunately there are some who set themselves apart for other reasons, this usually involves some religious duty or observance. Unless God sets the person apart for His use alone true Biblical Sanctification is not manifested in that life.

3: We are set apart from sin. Herein lies the chief difficulty with understanding sanctification. There is nothing in Scripture than is difficult to understand, but problems arise when we have difficulty believing it. Few even want to know the true nature of their hearts, for as Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Sanctification cannot come unless we are separated from sin by the power of God, but God will not do it until we are conscious of the need; “In order to get a clean heart, a man must know and feel its depravity, acknowledge and deplore it before God, in order to be fully sanctified.”

4: We are set apart unto a holy life so that God can use us as He wills. “If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21). Those who are sanctified desire to be useful to God and avoid all that would defile them before Him.

Twofold Application

By now we should clearly see what being sanctified means. To break it down even further into two useful points, we could say that, separation has a twofold application.

Firstly, it is a separation from all known evil, “Hear me, ye Levites, sanctify now yourselves, and sanctify the house of the LORD God of your fathers, and carry forth the filthiness out of the holy place … And they gathered their brethren, and sanctified themselves, and came, according to the commandment of the king, by the words of the LORD, to cleanse the house of the LORD. And the priests went into the inner part of the house of the LORD, to cleanse it, and brought out all the uncleanness that they found in the temple of the LORD into the court of the house of the LORD. And the Levites took it, to carry it out abroad into the brook Kidron. Now they began on the first day of the first month to sanctify, and on the eighth day of the month came they to the porch of the LORD: so they sanctified the house of the LORD in eight days; and in the sixteenth day of the first month they made an end. Then they went in to Hezekiah the king, and said, We have cleansed all the house of the LORD, and the altar of burnt offering, with all the vessels thereof, and the showbread table, with all the vessels thereof. ” (2 Chronicles 29:5, 15-18). In the New Testament the apostle Paul would describe this as “Abstain from all appearance of evil, And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:22-23). We could call this ‘Negative Sanctification – the cleansing from sin.

Secondly, it is a separation unto God. This can be termed ‘Positive Sanctification, since God is now in charge of the life that is submitted to His will. “This separation is to be followed daily; the believer seeking to become more and more conformed to Christ. Persons professing to be Christians and not following sanctification will not see the Lord; for they are unreal, and have no divine life” Separation unto God has to include obedience on our part or else it is a concept without any power. J. C. Ryle pointed out this fact very succinctly when he said, “Genuine sanctification will show itself in habitual respect to God’s laws, and habitual effort to live in obedience to it as the rule of life.”

 Other Scriptural words relating to Sanctification

Other words are used within theology to describe Biblical Sanctification. These are in common usage, but it is astounding that few Christians understand what they refer to when they make use of them in prayer or worship.

1: Dedication; “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). This means that we are to be deeply committed to the Lord. In a sense, to use a common expression, we need to have a one-track mind. No one says that this is easy, but it is vital if we are going to truly be the children of God. “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:15-18). If a person is dedicated to a sport or music then he will follow the prescribed order for his life so that he may achieve his goal. “The fact of the matter is that obedience to the Lord’s commands is the most sane and reasonable life and the one that yields the greatest joy.”

2: Purification: “And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as He is pure” (1 John 3:3). What a standard of purification! Men are too busy measuring their morality up against others, instead we need to measure the purity of our own hearts alongside the purity found in Christ. It is God’s will that we become pure before we reach death, for this is the reason why Christ came to save us. Yes, it may take a lifetime, but it must be accomplished. “Who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14). Please note that good works are for this earth, therefore such purification is available today. It seems that those who are truly sanctified are “peculiar” or special, and extremely useful to God. It must be added that the purification we are referring to can only be accomplished in a heart submitted to God, “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you” (Ezekiel 36:25).

3: Consecration: Again, to use a common expression, this is being sold out to God. Here God transforms our minds from a worldly perspective to that of godliness – the mind of Christ, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5) and “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). But how does consecration become part of our Christian experience? Romans 12:1-2 gives us the answer to that question, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” The consecrated one is he that lays all on the altar of God’s will.

4: Service: “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on Him shall not be confounded. Unto you therefore which believe He is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner, and a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed. But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:5-9). We are a people called into the service of and to serve the King of kings and Lord of lords. There is always a purpose for God calling a soul to Himself, therefore there is a reason why He calls us unto sanctification.

We began this chapter asking “What is the meaning of Biblical Sanctification?”. In a short space of time we have come to see that it is total surrender to a holy God. That is, we must surrender our lives to Him, separate from sin, be willing for Him to cleanse us completely through the precious blood of Christ, and be made useful to Him in obedience. Sanctification is living in that personal relationship that God intends for every believer. Unfortunately few of us take up His invitation.

“Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully” (Psalm 24:3-4).