Its Meaning

 •  11 min. read  •  grade level: 10
In commencing our inquiry on the subject of sanctification as taught in the Scriptures, it is of importance first of all that there be a clear understanding of the meaning which writer and reader attach to the word. For if the writer have one thought in his mind when he uses this expression, and the reader be thinking of something totally different as he peruses the treatise, it is not to be supposed that a common conclusion will ever be reached.
I propose, then, first of all, to let the theologians and the holiness teachers define the word for us; and then to turn to Scripture, there to test their definitions. Examples: “In a doctrinal sense sanctification is the making truly and perfectly holy what was before defiled and sinful. It is a progressive work of divine grace upon the soul justified by the love of Christ. The believer is gradually cleansed from the corruption of his nature, and is at length presented faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy.” This is a fair statement of the views held by ordinary Protestant theologians, and is taken from the Bible Dictionary edited by W. W. Rand, and published by the American Tract Society.
The secular dictionary definitions generally agree that “sanctification is an act of God’s grace, whereby man’s affections are purified and exalted.” And this, it will be observed, practically accords with the definition already given.
Holiness writers are very explicit, and generally draw attention to what they suppose to be the difference between justification and sanctification. I shall not quote any of their authorities as to this, but put the teaching in my own language rather, as I often taught it in past years. My reason for this is that all holiness professors reading these pages may be able to judge for themselves as to whether I was “clear” as to the matter when numbered among them.
Justification, then, was supposed to be a 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. This, and this only, is true sanctification — a distinct second work of grace, subsequent to justification, and without which that justification is very likely to be lost!
The correctness of the definition will, I think, be acknowledged by even the most radical of the “holiness” school.
Now let us test these statements by Scripture. And in order to do so intelligently, I purpose first to look at a number of passages in both Testaments, and see if in any of them either of the definitions given above would make good sense and sound doctrine. I would observe that holiness and sanctification are equivalent terms; both words being used to translate the one Greek or Hebrew noun. Twelve prominent examples may suffice to show how the term is used in our Bibles.
(1) The sanctification of inanimate objects is distinctly taught in the Word: “Thou shalt anoint the altar of the burnt offering, and all his vessels, and sanctify the altar: and it shall be an altar most holy. And thou shalt anoint the laver and his foot, and sanctify it” (Ex. 40:1010And thou shalt anoint the altar of the burnt offering, and all his vessels, and sanctify the altar: and it shall be an altar most holy. (Exodus 40:10)).
Are we to suppose any change took place in the nature of these vessels? or was there any evil element rooted out of them?
Again, in Exodus 19:2323And Moses said unto the Lord, The people cannot come up to mount Sinai: for thou chargedst us, saying, Set bounds about the mount, and sanctify it. (Exodus 19:23) we read, “Set bounds about the mount [Sinai], and sanctify it.” Was any change effected in the composition of the mountain when God gave the law upon it? Let the reader answer fairly and honestly, and he must confess that here at least neither the theological nor the “holiness” definitions apply to the word “sanctify.” What it does mean we shall see later, when we have heard all of our twelve witnesses.
(2) People can sanctify themselves, without any act of divine power, or any work of grace taking place within them. “Let the priests also, which come near to the Lord, sanctify themselves” (Ex. 19:2222And let the priests also, which come near to the Lord, sanctify themselves, lest the Lord break forth upon them. (Exodus 19:22)). Were these priests then to change their own natures from evil to good, or to destroy from within themselves the principle of evil? Once more it is the readers’ province to judge. I adduce the witnesses: they must be the jury.
(3) One man could sanctify another. “Sanctify unto Me all the firstborn  ...  it is Mine” (Ex. 13:22Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine. (Exodus 13:2)); and, again, “The Lord said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them  ...  let them wash their clothes” (Ex. 19:1010And the Lord said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them to day and to morrow, and let them wash their clothes, (Exodus 19:10)). What inward change, or cleansing, was Moses to perform in regard to the first-born, or the entire people of Israel? That he did not eliminate their inbred sin, the succeeding chapters amply testify.
(4) Persons can sanctify themselves to do iniquity. “They that sanctify themselves, and purify themselves in the gardens behind one tree in the midst, eating swine’s flesh, and the abomination, and the mouse, shall be consumed together, saith the Lord” (Isa. 66:1717They that sanctify themselves, and purify themselves in the gardens behind one tree in the midst, eating swine's flesh, and the abomination, and the mouse, shall be consumed together, saith the Lord. (Isaiah 66:17)). How monstrous a sanctification was this, and how absurd the thought of any inward cleansing here!
(5) The Son was sanctified by the Father. “Say ye of Him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?” (John 10:3636Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God? (John 10:36)). They, not He, blasphemed; and equally vile would be the blasphemy of any who said that sanctification, for Christ, implied a corrupt nature eradicated, or a perverse will changed. He was ever “that Holy Thing  ...  called the Son of God.”
There are not wanting “holiness” advocates who impiously dare to teach that the taint of sin was in His being, and needed elimination; but they are rightfully refused fellowship, and their teaching abhorred by all Spirit-taught Christians. Yet He, the Holy One, was “sanctified by God the Father,” as Jude writes of all believers. Are we to suppose the expression means one thing in relation to Christ, and quite another in regard to saints?
(6) The Lord Jesus sanctified Himself. “For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth” (John 17:1919And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth. (John 17:19)). If either of the definitions given above is to stand, then what are we to make of the fact that He who had been sanctified by the Father, yet afterward sanctified Himself? Is it not plain that there is some great discrepancy here between the theologians, the perfectionists, and the Bible?
(7) Unbelievers are sometimes sanctified. “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by (in) the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by (in) the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy [or sanctified]” (1 Cor. 7:14). Here the life-partner of a Christian, though unsaved, is said to be sanctified. Is such a one, then, free from inbred sin, or undergoing a gradual change of nature? If this be too absurd for consideration, sanctification cannot mean either of the experiences specified.
(8) Carnal Christians are sanctified. “Paul, called an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus.” “I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ  ...  .For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?” (1 Cor. 1:1-2; 3:1,3). Carnal, and yet free from inbred sin? Impossible! Nevertheless they who are declared to be sanctified in chapter 1 are said to be carnal in chapter 3. By no possible system of logical reasoning can the class of the latter chapter be made out to be different from those addressed in the former.
(10) Believers are called upon to sanctify God! “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Pet. 3:15). How are we to understand an exhortation like this if sanctification implies an inward cleansing, or making holy what was before unclean and evil? Is it not manifest that such a definition would lead to the wildest vagaries and the grossest absurdities?
(11) Persons addressed as sanctified are afterward exhorted to be holy. “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ  ...  .As He which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:1-2,15-16). Think of the incongruity here if sanctification and holiness refer to an inward work whereby inbred sin is rooted out of one’s being. The sanctified are exhorted to be holy, in place of being informed that already they have been made absolutely that, and therefore need no such exhortation.
(12) The sanctified are nevertheless declared to be perfected forever. “For by one offering He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Heb. 10:1414For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. (Hebrews 10:14)). Who among the perfectionists can explain this satisfactorily? Nothing is commoner among the teachers of this school than the doctrine of the possibility of the ultimate falling away and final loss of those who have been justified, sanctified, and have enjoyed the most marvelous experiences; yet here the sanctified are said to be forever perfected — consequently shall never be lost, nor ever lose that sanctification which they have once been the objects of.
After carefully hearing these twelve witnesses, I ask my readers, Can you possibly gather from these varied uses of the word “sanctification” any hint of a change of nature in the believer, or an elimination of evil implied therein? I feel certain that every candid mind must confess the word evidently has a very different meaning, and I design briefly to point out what that meaning is.
Freed from all theological accretions, the naked verb “to sanctify” means to set apart, and the noun “sanctification” means, literally, separation. This simple key will unlock every verse we have been considering, and bring all into harmony where discord seemed complete.
The vessels of the tabernacle were separated for divine service, even as Mount Sinai was set apart to Jehovah for the giving of the law. The priests in Israel separated themselves from their defilement. Moses separated the people from uncleanness, and set apart the firstborn as dedicated to Jehovah. The apostates in Isaiah’s day set themselves apart, on the contrary, to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord. The Father set the Son apart to become the Saviour of the lost; and at the end of His life on earth, His work accomplished, the Lord Jesus separated Himself and ascended to glory, there to become the object of His people’s hearts, that they might thus be set apart from the world that had refused and crucified their Redeemer. The unbelieving wife or husband, if linked with a saved life-partner set apart to God, is thereby put in an external relation to God, with its privileges and responsibility; and the children are likewise separated from those who never come under the sound of the truth. All Christians, whatever their actual state, be they carnal or spiritual, are nevertheless separated to God in Christ Jesus; and from this springs the responsibility to live for Him.
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. The Lord God must be set apart in our hearts if our testimony is to count for His glory. One may be set apart to God in Christ, and yet need exhortation to a practical separation from all uncleanness and worldliness. And, lastly, all so set apart are in God’s sight perfected forever, as to the conscience, by the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross; for they are accepted in the Beloved, and eternally linked up with Him. Get the key, and every difficulty vanishes. Sanctification, in the Christian sense, is therefore twofold — absolute and progressive.