God's Word For You is a free Bible Study site committed to bringing you studies firmly grounded in the Bible – the Word of God. Holding a reformed, conservative, evangelical perspective this site affirms that God has provided in Jesus Christ his eternal Son, a way of salvation in which we can live in his presence guilt free, acquitted and at peace.


A Short Study on Sanctification
This study explains the meaning of the two different aspects of sanctification taught in the Bible: the complete and unchanging sanctification which the Christian already possesses as part of salvation, and the process of sanctification in which is on-going throughout the Christian life. It also contains a section that explains how progressive sanctification takes place.


Copyright © Rosemary Bardsley 2003


There are a number of intimately related Biblical words: 'sanctify', 'sanctified', 'holy', 'make holy', 'holiness', 'sanctification'and 'saints'. In the New Testament they are derived from the common root hagios ... which means 'separate from common condition and use' and/or 'dedicated to God'. If you go to the Studies on the Lords Prayer on this website you will find a study on 'hallowed be your name' ('hallowed' is the verb 'to make or regard as holy'). What is said in this study will help you to understand the meaning of 'holy', which is also the meaning of 'sanctify'. 'Sanctification' is the noun form of the same word.


  • 'Sanctification' is one of the words used in the Bible to identify what God does to us when he saves us. Thus:
  • 'Justification' refers to our legal status - God's declaration of acquittal by which he announces us 'not guilty' because of the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ;
  • 'Reconciliation' refers to our relationship with God in which enmity is replaced with peace;
  • 'Regeneration' refers to our new identity and our state of existence as children of God blessed with new life from God,
  • 'Sanctification' , assuming and embracing the fact of justification and the crediting of Christ's righteousness to us, is that act of God by which he separates us and sets us apart, dedicating and devoting us to himself and for his own exclusive purposes. [As you read the Old Testament you find a number of physical images of this dedication of objects and people to God's exclusive use and purpose.]

When the New Testament speaks of 'sanctification' in reference to our salvation it refers to God's act by which he declares us to be his own - distinct and different from the world (from the unsaved, unreconciled and unregenerated), set apart by him and for him, for his own purpose: through Jesus Christ he has made us his own, he has called us his own, and has devoted/dedicated us to himself. We are no longer 'for common use', we no longer, in his eyes, part of the world. We are his.

There are some very startling verses in the Bible, so startling that many Christians seem to ignore them. They can be found in both the Old and New Testaments.

The New Testament repeatedly refers to Christians as 'saints' - that is 'holy ones' or 'set apart ones'. This is not referring to moral purity, but to the fact that we belong to God as his own special possession.

The NT also uses the word 'sanctified' - that is, 'made holy' or 'set apart'. This is the verb which refers to God's action in which he separated us and set us apart for himself. It is something God himself did. Check out these verses:

Acts 20:32


Acts 26:18


Romans 15:16


1 Corinthians 1:2


In all 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 Acts 26:18 believers are 'sanctified by faith in me.' In Romans 15:16 they are 'sanctified by the Holy Spirit'. In 1 Corinthians 1:2 they are 'sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy'. Note how this sanctification is achieved: it is 'by faith in me', it is 'by the Holy Spirit', and it is 'in Christ Jesus'.

In addition:

1 Corinthians 1:30: states that Jesus Christ is our ' ... holiness' ('sanctification' in KJV), just as he is our righteousness and our redemption.

1 Corinthians 6:11: '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.' In this verse the voice is again passive voice; the tense, however, is Aorist Tense, which refers to a decisive, once-for-all action in the past. Note that the sanctification, along with cleansing and justification, is 'in the name of the Lord Jesus' and 'by the Spirit of our God.' The fact that we are sanctified has nothing to do with us.'

Ephesians 1:4: 'For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight'. This statement is part of the 'every spiritual blessing in Christ' for which Paul is praising God (verse 3). It is not a command to be obeyed or a purpose to be fulfilled by us, but the eternal purpose of God which he fulfilled and executed in and through Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 5:25-27: 'Christ loved the church and gave himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or other blemish, but holy and blameless.' This is an amazing description of the purpose and result of the death of Christ. In list form, the purpose and result of the death of Christ for the church:

  • make her holy
  • cleansing her with water through the word
  • present her to himself as a radiant church
  • without stain or wrinkle or other blemish
  • holy and blameless.

The Greek verb translated 'to present' means: to place beside, to place at the disposal of, to dedicate, to consecrate, to devote. All of this is involved in this word. All of this is the purpose and result of the death of Jesus. The mood of the verb is subjunctive - which speaks of purpose/result. This 'sanctification' is not something still in the process of happening. It is the already effective result of the death of Jesus.

Colossians 1:21-22: 'Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation'. Again, God presents (same Greek word as it Ephesians 5:27) us to himself:

  • holy in his sight
  • without blemish
  • free from accusation.

Again, it is the result of Christ's death. It is something God achieved through that death. The only connection it has to us is whether or not our faith is genuine (verse 23). It is a truly incredible statement, detailing the amazing perfection in which we stand in the presence of God in Christ. When God looks at the believer, that is, the person who is in Christ, what does he see? He sees not the believer, but Christ. Not only has Christ taken our sin and its punishment, removing forever the barrier our sin caused between us and God, freeing us up to once again stand in God's presence; God, in his act of reconciliation, also presents us to himself holy, without blemish, and free from accusation.

This is so awesome it is almost impossible to believe. How does God see the believer? This verse tells us: holy, without blemish, free from accusation. We would accuse ourselves. God doesn't, for Christ has already taken all the accusation. We would look at our spiritual spots and stains. God doesn't. He sees not us, but Christ. We would feel so unholy. But God counts us holy: his precious treasure purchased at great price.

2 Thessalonians 2:13,14: ' ... from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.' Here 'the sanctifying work of the Spirit' (in the Greek, literally 'the sanctification of the Spirit') is seen as the way we are saved.

  • Hebrews 2:11: 'Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family'.
  • Hebrews 10:10: 'And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.'
  • Hebrews 10:14: ' ... because by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy.'
  • Hebrews 10:29: 'How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him ... '
  • 1 Peter 1:2: ' ... chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit ... '
  • 1 Peter 2:9-: 'you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God'

These verses put sanctification or being made holy in the hand of God; they also identify the death of Christ as the means by which this is achieved. Note the 'once for all' and 'for ever'. This sanctification is the permanent and perpetual present possession of all who are genuine believers. [The many warnings in Hebrews, such as the one in 10:29, are there to exhort us to make sure we do not give up our faith in Christ, for if we do it will indicate that it was never real faith to begin with.]

All of this has been about sanctification as part of our salvation: something that God (Father, Son and Spirit) did to us. It is possible only because of the death of Christ. Because of that same death it is also the present, perpetual and permanent possession and position of every genuine believer.


Progressive sanctification is the essential expression and outworking of positional sanctification. This is expressed in the Bible in a variety of ways:

  • we are light ... therefore we must shine [Matthew 5:14-16; Ephesians 5:8-14; 1 John 1:5-7; 2:9-11]
  • we are salt ... therefore we must be salty [Matthew 5:13]
  • we have been loved ... therefore we must love [John 15:12; Ephesians 5:1,2; 1 John 4:7-16]
  • we have been forgiven ... therefore we must forgive [Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13]
  • we live by the Spirit ... therefore we should keep in step with the Spirit [Galatians 5:25]
  • we have been crucified, dead and buried in death of Christ our substitute [Romans 6:1-8; 2 Corinthians 5:14; Galatians 2:19,20; Colossians 2:12, 20; 3:3a ... therefore put to death those things in our lives for which Christ (and us in him) died (that is, paid the legal death penalty) [Colossians 3:5ff]
  • we have been called by God to be his own special people [Ephesians 1 to 3] ... therefore we should live lives worthy of our calling [Ephesians 4:1-6:18]
  • We have been showered with the mercies of God [Romans 1 to 11] ... therefore we should present our bodies as living sacrifices to God, which is a reasonable act of worship, and, not letting the world push us into its shape, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds [Romans 12:1,2 ... to the end.].

The flow on from sanctification or being made holy, is in the same manner:

  • you are holy ... so be holy
  • you are sanctified ... so live sanctified lives
  • you have been set apart by God for his own ... so live lives set apart for God.

The overall impression gained from both the Old and New Testaments is that an absence of progressive sanctification indicates an absence of positional sanctification, that is, an absence of salvation - and an absence of genuine faith.

When we consider the fact that God created and saved us for his glory, and that the overwhelming passion of the Old and New Testaments is the honour, holiness and glory of God and his name, we understand the importance of our progressive sanctification ... our becoming more and more like God. He first made us 'in the image of God' [Genesis 1:26,27] and the process of sanctification is the restoration of that image as we learn more and more of him and increasingly reflect or image him.

The flipside of all of this is quite powerful:

  • only light can shine
  • only salt can be salty
  • only the loved can love
  • only the forgiven can forgive
  • only the holy can be holy
  • only the sanctified can be sanctified.
  • Only the children can be like the Father.

Sanctification thus expresses the very nature of our salvation, and our new relationship and standing with God.


4.1 Progressive sanctification is God's purpose/will for all of his children:

'It is God's will that you should be sanctified' [1 Thessalonians 4:3]

4.2 Progressive sanctification happens as we look at Jesus Christ

4.3 Progressive sanctification happens as the Holy Spirit transforms us bit by bit into the image of Christ

'And we, who with unveiled faces all contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.' [2 Corinthians 3:18].

4.4 Progressive sanctification happens as we submit more and more of our life to the direction of the Holy Spirit

'Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit' [Ephesians 5:18 - where the 'be filled' is present tense, referring to an on-going action, and passive voice, referring to the Holy Spirit as the subject of the action ... he does the filling.]

4.5 Progressive sanctification happens as we are led by the Spirit and he produces his 'fruit' in us:

' ... the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.' [Galatians 5:22,23; read also verse 18].

4.6 Progressive sanctification happens as we allow the word of God rich expression in our lives:

'Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom ... ' [Colossians 3:16]

To sum it up in a word: being sanctified is being obedient.


5.1 Positional sanctification is not being made just like Jesus.

When God 'makes us holy' or 'sanctifies' us this does not mean that he makes us pure and perfect in ourselves. In Christ, we are holy ... not in ourselves.

5.2 Positional sanctification is not being made sinless.

Some people teach that when we are saved Jesus washes the sin out of our hearts so that there is no sin left in them. They base this on a certain understanding of 1 John 1:9 and Psalm 51:7. If this is what happens then the commands in the New Testament are superfluous and redundant.

Jesus said that his word had made the disciples (except Judas) clean [John 13:10-11; 15:3]. Obviously this did not mean that they were sinless, because they all deserted him, Peter denied him three times, Philip evidenced lack of understanding, and Thomas doubted.

When God cleanses us he wipes/washes off [erases] the record of our sins; this is the meaning of the word used in ''having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and stood opposed to us' [Colossians 2:14]. He wipes our slate clean. He deletes our file.


6.1 Progressive sanctification is not being sinless or perfect.

  • Some people teach eradication or perfectionism. They teach that it is possible for a Christian to be perfect this side of heaven. As a result of this misunderstanding a number of things happen:
  • a reduction in the perceived holiness of God
  • a parallel reduction in the meaning of 'sin' - with only deliberate sins being understood as sin
  • a parallel reduction in what was accomplished on the cross
  • the potential for pride in those who believe they have arrived at perfection or sinlessness
  • the potential for despair in those who know that haven't
  • a melting pot of legalism.

6.2 Progressive sanctification does not occur instantly at some point of 'second blessing' or 'total commitment' or 'absolute surrender' at which one suddenly finds the 'secret' of living a 'victorious Christian life'.

Such a view is sometimes called 'holiness' teaching. People who teach this kind of sanctification believe that from this point of second blessing onwards, frequently understood to be a baptism or infilling of the Spirit, the now victorious believer lives on a higher plane on which temptation to sin is no more a problem. [Thich was being taught within certain evangelical groups quite apart from and prior to the modern pentecostal/charismatic movement]

The New Testament however presents the Christian life as a perpetual struggle and striving against sin and against the pressure to give up, so much so that there are constant warnings against sinning, constant encouragement to remain faithful to Christ, and the strong command to put on the whole armour of God so that, having fought and kept on fighting we will still be standing at the end. Paul uses such words as 'struggle', 'fight', 'run the race', 'press towards the mark' ... all indicating that we have not arrived yet in our fight against sin.

6.3 Progressive sanctification is not me 'letting go and letting God'.

Some people teach that to live the Christian life I have to be an empty vessel for Christ to fill, a glove for his hand, a channel through which he can flow, and so on. In such a view the believer has to be totally passive and quiet to allow Christ to have full access to his/her being so that Christ can live out his life through the believer.

This teaching sounds very spiritual and self-effacing, but there does not appear to be any Scripture verse which gives solid basis for this teaching. Galatians 2:20 is used to teach it, but is misapplied and understood out of its context.

Like the previous view, this understanding of sanctification makes the NT commands and exhortations meaningless. If all I have to do is let Christ live through me, then why does the NT tell me to love, to forgive, to be compassionate, to speak helpful words, to have nothing to do with immorality etc etc etc. And why is the Christian life so hard if Jesus is living it through me?

The fundamental error with this view is that it sees the work of Christ in me as substitutionary. The Bible never presents the indwelling Christ, or his Spirit, as my substitute. He was my substitute in his death; he also lived a perfect life so that his righteousness could be credited to me, but his work in me is never instead of me – it is never described as substitutionary.

At this point perhaps it is necessary to refine our understanding of the primary roles of each person of the Trinity:

  • the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. He did not die on the cross as my substitute, but he, along with the Holy Spirit, was actively involved in the whole cross event.
  • the Son, having lived as a human being to qualify himself to be our substitute, mediator and representative, died as our substitute, paying the entire penalty due to us because of our sin; having done so, he rose again, and now lives in the presence of God the Father as our Advocate, Mediator, Great High Priest and Representative.
  • As the message of the Gospel of Christ is preached the Holy Spirit takes that word and by it regenerates us, bringing us to repentance and faith. The Father and the Son are also involved in this work. From this point of time onwards the Holy Spirit lives within the believer; this indwelling of the believer by the Spirit, is also the indwelling of the Father and the Son in the believer, but is specifically the role of the Spirit. Christ in me is the same thing as the Holy Spirit in me - and is never substitutionary.

What does the Holy Spirit do in the believer? [This question is the same as asking 'What does Jesus do in the believer?' because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus.]

  • He seals us [2 Corinthians 1:22; (see also 5:5); Ephesians 1:13; 4:30]
  • He assures us we are God's children [Romans 8:15,16; Galatians 4:6; see also 1 John 3:24; 4:13]
  • He is gradually transforming us into the image of Jesus [2 Corinthians 3:18]
  • He teaches us the truth about Jesus [John 14:26; 16:13; 1 John 4:2; 5:6-8]
  • He convicts us about sin [John 16:8]
  • He produces his 'fruit' in us [Galatians 5:22,23; Ephesians 5:9]
  • He encourages us [he is called the parakletos - the comforter, the counsellor in John 14-16]
  • He helps us [Romans 8:26; Philippians 1:19]
  • He assists us in prayer [Romans 8:26,27; Ephesians 6:18]
  • His sword, the Word of God, is our only defensive weapon against the enemy [Ephesians 6:17]
  • He creates and produces unity [1 Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 4:3,4]
  • He strengthens our soul and spirit [Ephesians 3:16]
  • He, through the proclamation of the Gospel, reveals previously hidden truth [1 Corinthians 2:10-14; Ephesians 3:5]
  • He is building us into the body of Christ [Ephesians 2:22]
  • He facilitates our access to the Father through Christ [Ephesians 2:18]
  • He leads us in the way of grace [Galatians 5:5,18]
  • He opposes or fights with our natural inclinations [Galatians 5:17]
  • He brings freedom [2 Corinthians 3:17]
  • He gives gifts [1 Corinthians 12:4-11]
  • He empowers the proclamation of the Gospel [Romans 15:9; 1 Corinthians 2:4]
  • He enables us to count our own works insignificant [Romans 8:13]

None of the above is substitutionary. Much of it requires our active co-operation. It is possible, the Bible says, for us to 'grieve' [Ephesians 4:30] and 'quench' [1 Thessalonians 5:19 KJV] the Spirit, and to act quite contrary to his promptings and teaching whenever we disobey his teaching and his commands.


Historically many teachers have assumed that Paul stops teaching about our salvation at the end of Romans 5, and in Romans 6 to 8 speaks about our sanctification. This has led to a teaching about sanctification, with strong kinship to point 6.2 above, that views believers on two strata: the spiritual and the carnal (or fleshy). In this teaching, the ‘spiritual’ have progressed to a level, usually by the means of full surrender or total commitment, in which they now live victorious Christian lives: they live 'according to the Spirit' and not 'according to the flesh'. The Christians who live 'according to the flesh' are those who have not progressed to this second level; they are still troubled by sin and temptation, habitually giving in to the desires of the flesh.

An alternative understanding of the ‘according to Spirit’ ‘according to the flesh’ contrast is presented in the Studies in Romans on this website. These studies assume that in Romans 6 to 8 Paul is still teaching us about our salvation: they teach, briefly, that those who live ‘according to the Spirit’ are those who relate to God always and only in Christ; and those who live ‘according to the flesh’ are those who seek to stand in the presence of God on their own two feet.


Putting it simply: progressive sanctification is becoming more and more like Jesus as the Holy Spirit prompts and enables our obedience in the unfolding and ever changing aspects of our lives which continually expose us to new challenges/circumstances and new relationships in which we have to make choices which will bring glory to God.