Subject Seven: Sanctification

 •  14 min. read  •  grade level: 8
Questions by E. C. Mais; answers by H. P. Barker.
The importance of the subject we are about to consider may be gathered from the fact that so much is said about it in the Bible.
Sometimes men divide the truths of divine revelation into “essentials” and “non-essentials.” By these terms they mean truths that are essential to salvation and those that are not. But this is a very selfish way of looking at things. Surely the fact that God has made a communication to us regarding any subject shows that He considers the matter to be essential to His own glory and to our blessing. We really cannot afford to be indifferent to any divine truth, whether or not we see its immediate bearing on ourselves. Certainly sanctification is a subject that we cannot neglect without being great losers.
What Is It to Be Sanctified?
The meaning of the word is “to be separated or set apart for a purpose.” There is a verse in Psalm 4 which conveys the thought: “The Lord hath set apart him that is godly for Himself.”
It is important that we should bear this in mind, for many look on sanctification as a process of betterment by which people are gradually made holier and fitted to dwell in heaven.
An examination of the passages of Scripture which speak of the subject will show the falsity of this idea. For example, in Deuteronomy 15:1919All the firstling males that come of thy herd and of thy flock thou shalt sanctify unto the Lord thy God: thou shalt do no work with the firstling of thy bullock, nor shear the firstling of thy sheep. (Deuteronomy 15:19) we find that young bullocks and sheep were sanctified. This certainly cannot mean that they were improved and made holier; it simply means that they were set apart for a purpose.
In John 17:1919And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth. (John 17:19) the Lord Jesus says, “For their sakes I sanctify Myself.” It cannot possibly be that He needed to be improved and made holier, for He was always perfect and spotlessly holy. But for the sake of “His own,” He was about to separate Himself from earth and the things into the midst of which He had come, and He was going back to heaven. He would thus set Himself apart to serve His people as their Advocate and Intercessor.
These passages clearly show the true meaning of sanctification.
Who Are the People Who Are Sanctified?
It is clear from the New Testament that all true believers in Christ are sanctified. With the forgiveness of sins goes “inheritance among them which are sanctified” (Acts 26:1818To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me. (Acts 26:18)).
The word “saint” simply means a sanctified person, and this was the usual name by which all God’s people in those early days were known. They were called “disciples,” “brethren,” “Christians,” “friends” and “believers,” but the name most commonly used was “saints.” And this name was not applied merely to certain holy and devoted men, but to all true Christians.
Nowadays the word has almost dropped out of use, and if we happen to speak of having been to see some of the “saints,” we are stared at as if we had been contacting the spirits of the dead! The truth is that poor, bedridden Elizabeth in the next street is as much a saint as Peter himself, and old Thomas, who breaks stones by the roadside, has as much claim to the title as Paul the Apostle.
Peter and Paul were not saints because of their zeal and holiness and devotion. They were saints because they were cleansed from their sins by Christ’s precious blood, and that is what has made every true believer a saint, or a “sanctified person.”
Are Even Those Believers Who Are Full of Imperfections Entitled to Regard Themselves As Sanctified?
If only those who had gotten rid of their imperfections were sanctified, we should have to search a long time before we found them. Even the best among us is full of imperfection, and those who live in closest communion with God feel their own imperfections most.
But sanctification does not depend on what we are in ourselves. Every Christian has what Scripture calls “the flesh” in him, and “the flesh,” whether in a saint or an unconverted sinner, is hopelessly bad. It is evident, then, that what constitutes our sanctification is not an improvement of “the flesh.”
In 1 Corinthians 1:22Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: (1 Corinthians 1:2) we see that it is in Christ Jesus that we are sanctified, not in ourselves. And in verse 30 of the same chapter we are told that Christ Jesus (not a holier or more perfect state) “is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification.
Let me here explain that as Christians we must learn to think of ourselves in two entirely different ways. First, as we actually are here in this world, with “the flesh” still in us, with temptations and trials around, and with our bodies still bearing Adam’s likeness. As such, our history will end when we leave this world. Second, as we are in Christ, standing in all the value of His finished work and set before God to enjoy His favor, without a spot or blemish or imperfection. The latter is what we shall actually be when in heaven, but God sees us thus already in Christ, and faith reckons as He reckons.
As men in “the flesh,” children of Adam, God cannot derive pleasure from us. He has declared that man after that order will not do for Him. His purposes of grace and blessing must be secured in Another, even in Christ, and as newly created after Christ’s order, God can have pleasure in us. Hence it is that our sanctification (or being set apart for God’s pleasure) must be in Christ. No imperfections in us can possibly affect our position in Him, nor touch what we have in Him.
This point may not be easy to understand all at once, but it is so important that we need to consider it carefully.
When Is a Believer Sanctified?
Scripture speaks of our sanctification in connection with more than one period of time.
1. Before the world was, in the mind and purpose of God.
2. At the cross, when Jesus died.
3. When, through the Holy Spirit, the gospel is brought home to us in power and we receive it.
Let me use a homely illustration to show how this can be.
One Monday morning a lady is doing some shopping at a large store. While making her purchases, a very pretty hat catches her eye. She thinks, What a charming hat! and is disappointed not to find enough money in her purse to buy it there and then. But she makes a mental note of that hat and determines to buy it at the earliest opportunity.
On Tuesday the lady is again at the store. She asks for the hat, pays for it, and becomes its owner. It is now her hat, to do with it as she pleases. “Keep it for me,” she says, “and I will send for it tomorrow.”
On Wednesday the lady sends her servant. The maid enters the store, states her errand, mentions her mistress’s name, and returns with the bag containing the hat.
Now let me ask you, When did the lady sanctify, or set apart, that hat for her own use?
On Monday, so far as her mind and purpose went; on Tuesday, in securing it by the payment of the price; on Wednesday, by sending her servant for it, by which means the hat was actually taken from the store to the lady’s house.
Now this illustration will at least serve to make it clear when we were sanctified or set apart by God for His own purposes.
Then, when Jesus died, the price of our redemption was paid. Every obstacle which sin had raised to our being God’s for all eternity was removed, and the way was opened for the accomplishment of His gracious purpose. We were thus set apart by the payment of the heavy price by which He bought us and made us His (see 1 Cor. 6:2020For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's. (1 Corinthians 6:20)). So, besides being sanctified by God’s purpose and will, “we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:1010By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Hebrews 10:10)).
Lastly, when through the operation of the Holy Spirit our hearts are opened to receive the gospel, we are actually and personally brought to Him. We are separated from our sins; we are no longer a part of this world that is hurrying on to judgment. We are effectually set apart for God. This aspect of our sanctification is referred to in 2 Thessalonians 2:13-1413But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: 14Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 2:13‑14): “God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: whereunto He called you by our gospel.”
Is There No Such Thing As a Process of Sanctification Going on From Day to Day in the Believer’s Life?
Indeed there is. We have not yet touched on this practical side of the subject, because I wanted everyone to be quite clear as to our being sanctified once for all by the purpose of God, the work of Christ, and the operation of the Holy Spirit.
But the practical aspect of sanctification is also of immense importance. In 1 Thessalonians 5:2323And 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 5:23) the Apostle prays that the God of peace may wholly sanctify the believers to whom he writes. What does he mean?
Let us revert once more to the illustration of the lady and her hat. After she has bought it and the servant has fetched it, is that the end of its history? By no means. Now that it has actually become the lady’s property, it is from day to day set apart for her own use; that is, she wears it. No one else uses it. It is set apart for the sole use of its possessor.
Now God having purposed our blessing, Christ having died to secure it, and the Holy Spirit having worked in us effectually so that we have been brought to God — is that the end of the matter? Not at all. The Holy Spirit continues His work in us, detaching us more and more from the things of this world, separating us from the lusts of the flesh, the evil ways in which once we walked, in this way promoting our practical sanctification.
This is not brought to pass by the sinful nature within us being gradually rooted out or the flesh improved, but by our being led into the blessed secret of liberty from the irritating yoke of sin, victory over the power of evil within, and joy in the Holy Spirit. As our hearts get more and more attached to Christ, we turn with increased loathing from all that is of self, and the result is that in our walk and ways we are “holiness to the Lord,” truly separated unto Him.
What Is It That God Uses to Promote Our Practical Sanctification?
He may, and doubtless does, work by means of many things. The application of the truth to our souls is one of the most effectual means. When the Lord Jesus was praying for us in John 17, He said, “Sanctify them through Thy truth: Thy Word is truth.”
I hope those who have recently been converted will become diligent students of God’s Book. If you don’t feed on the sincere milk of the Word, your souls will starve. As you read, God will bless it to you, and it will have a separating or sanctifying effect on you. As you become more familiar with its wonderful truths, you will discern more clearly what is of God and what is of the world, the flesh and the devil. Many things in which you now see no harm will be exposed to you by the truth which you will learn, and in that way you will be separated from them. You will learn that your Lord and Saviour has no place on earth; He is rejected here and has been driven away from the world. Tell me, won’t the thought of that separate you, heart and soul, from the scene where He was refused?
Another thing which God uses is the anger and persecution of wicked men. We have an instance of this in John 9. The blind man had been healed by Jesus and had boldly confessed His name. This was too much for the Jewish leaders. It was intolerable that a man should stand up for the One whom they hated. So after scolding the man who confessed Him, they cast him out.
Do you not think that their action would have a very powerful effect on that man, detaching his heart from the system of things in the midst of which he had been brought up and entwining his affections around Christ? I am sure that his excommunication by the religious leaders of his day greatly helped towards his sanctification.
“Blessed are ye,” said the Lord Jesus, “when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake” (Luke 6:2222Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man's sake. (Luke 6:22)).
Why Is It Necessary for Us to Be Sanctified?
In order that we might be practically suited for God’s purpose and suitable for the Master’s use. See what is said in 2 Timothy 2:2121If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honor, sanctified, and meet for the master's use, and prepared unto every good work. (2 Timothy 2:21) about the vessel that is “sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work.”
Doesn’t that strike a chord of desire within your heart? Do you not ardently wish to be a vessel suitable for the Master’s use? You may be one, but in order that you may be suited for His use, you must be practically separated from all that is not of Him, your heart weaned from the world, and your soul freed from the bondage of sin and the flesh. In short, you must be set apart by the effectual working of the Holy Spirit in you for Christ.
You Were Speaking About the Means God Uses for Our Practical Sanctification. Is Not Affliction One of These?
Yes, God has to discipline us and pass us through tribulation, but it is always for our good, that what is of God in us may be developed and that we may be increasingly suited for God’s pleasure.
The word “tribulation” comes to us from the Latin tribulum, which was a kind of triple flail with which the Romans used to thresh wheat. The tribulum separated the husk from the wheat, and that is what tribulation does for us. There is a great deal of “husk” about us which needs to be gotten rid of — hence God’s discipline of His children. He purges us that we may bring forth more fruit.
Is Not the Hope of the Lord’s Coming Another Means of Practical Sanctification?
Yes. We read that “every man that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure” (1 John 3:33And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure. (1 John 3:3)).
It is easy to see how this is so. If we are expecting the Lord’s return at any moment, we shall be careful about what we do and say. We shall not wish Him to come and find us reading doubtful books or keeping bad company or sitting in places of worldly amusement or saying anything we would not like Him to hear. The thought of His coming, if kept before our minds and cherished as a hope in our hearts, is bound to have a marked effect on us. It will purify us from what is not of Him and sanctify or separate us more and more to Himself.
Does the Word “Sanctify” in Every Case Mean “Separate”?
I do not say that the two words can always be used interchangeably, but, generally speaking, they can. Certainly the usual meaning of the word as employed in Scripture is “set apart” for some divine purpose.
But we are too apt to confine our thoughts of the matter to what we are sanctified from. It is a happy thing to understand somewhat of what we are sanctified for.