WORDS OF SALVATION
© Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2002
STUDY TEN: SANCTIFICATION
Most of us for some time during our Christian lives, and some of us probably at the present, make the mistake of thinking of sanctification as relating solely to our manner of life. We have this almost unavoidable tendency to feel that sanctification refers to the process of becoming more and more like God, and only to that. We think this way because of one or both of two reasons:
- we have been taught that this is what sanctification or being holy means, and therefore understand it that way whenever we read the words saint, holy, holiness, sanctification, and sanctify;
- we are so blindly self-centred in our understanding of Christian truth that when we read in the Bible what God has actually done for us in Christ we do not hear what the words are telling us, and so misinterpret them.
But when we take a close look at what the Bible says about sanctification we find that this word also is a word of salvation, teaching us of an incredible, unexpected purpose of God in the death of his Son.
The meaning of words
Perhaps the root of our difficulty in understanding sanctification comes from our misunderstanding of the concept of God's holiness. When the Old Testament teaches us that God is holy, his goodness is but a part of that description. More specifically and more importantly the holiness of God speaks of his absolute otherness, his total uniqueness, his complete disassociation and difference from all else that might call itself 'god'. He is the only one of his kind: he is holy: he is totally set apart. He has no equal. His beauty, his goodness, his power, his majesty are all unequalled and unparalleled. He cannot be likened to anything or anyone, for there is none like him (study Isaiah 40:12-31).
We must remember this, and keep it in mind whenever we think of sanctification, for the sanctification words - sanctify, set apart, make holy, saints, holy, sanctification - stem from the one root. They are variously translated in different translations and in different texts, but all have the basic meaning of being set apart, and, specifically, set apart solely for God.
Thus, sanctification is a saving act of God in which he chooses, by the power of his Holy Spirit, and on the basis of the work of Christ on the cross, to set apart people for himself. This action is called sanctification, and it has nothing to do with the actions or spirituality of the believer, and everything to do with saving action of God in Christ.
The New Testament refers to Christians as:
- 'all those who are sanctified' (Acts 20:32);
- 'those who are sanctified through faith in me' (Acts 26:18);
- 'sanctified by the Holy Spirit' (Romans 15:16);
- 'sanctified in Christ Jesus' (1 Corinthians 1:2).
In each of these 'sanctified' is in the perfect tense, which indicates a completed action in the past, the effects of which remain in the present. We also must note that in each text 'sanctified' is written in the passive voice, which means that the action is done to us, not by us.
In addition we read in the New Testament that believers are those who 'have been made holy (another perfect passive) through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all' (Hebrews 10:10); that we were 'sanctified ... in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God' (1 Corinthians 6:11); that Christ Jesus is 'our ... holiness' (1Corinthians 1:30); that 'from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth' (2 Thessalonians 2:13); that Christians 'have been chosen ... through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood' (1 Peter 1:2).
In all of these the message is clear: sanctification is the action of the Spirit of God in which he sets a person apart as his own. As such it embraces several other aspects of salvation: the gift of saving faith, the converting, regenerating work of the Holy Spirit; the redemption in which God delivers us from the dominion of darkness and places us safe in the kingdom of his Son; and as such it can only be done on the basis of those other aspects of salvation: the justification/righteousness from God which is given to us, the substitutionary atonement in which Christ took our place and bore our sin, and the forgiveness coming out of that. All of these grand aspects of salvation merge here in sanctification: God's action in which he makes us his own special treasure.
This is why repeatedly the New Testament calls Christian believers 'saints': those set apart by God for God. It was not that these believers were pure or godly, or that they had done remarkable feats in the name of God: it was rather that God had made them his own.
It is also why we come across a few amazing statements, which, if we did not understand this saving action of God, could be quite threatening to us. Colossians 1:22 tells us that God's purpose in reconciliation was 'to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation', and Ephesians 1:5 teaches that God 'chose us in (Christ) before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.'. These verses speak of the purpose and result of the work of Christ on the cross. They speak of our status or position in Christ, not of the state or condition of our daily living.
In Colossians 3:12 Paul addresses the believers as 'God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved'. In 1 Peter 2:5 and 9 believers are called 'a holy priesthood' and 'a holy nation'.
Rather than being a threat and causing us to perhaps doubt our salvation because we do not perceive ourselves to be 'holy', these verses, speaking of God-given sanctification, are the motivation for lifestyle, or responsive, sanctification. So Paul is telling us in the Colossians passage: because you are holy (chosen and dearly loved by God), then pursue a lifestyle that reflects that (Colossians 3:12-4:6). And Peter is telling us in his letter: because you are a chosen people, a holy nation and a royal priesthood, then make God known by the way you live among people who do not know God (1 Peter 2:9-12).
Just as Jesus told his disciples: you are salt, so be salty; you are light, so be lights (Matthew 5:13-16), so in these passages God is telling us: you are holy, so be holy; you are sanctified, so be sanctified in your living. No matter how much we try to be holy or sanctified in our selves it all counts for nothing if we are not first sanctified, made holy, set apart by God for himself. Only a light can be a light. Only salt can be salty. Only the sanctified can be sanctified.