Sanctification: An Introduction

     It can sometimes be revealing to notice how certain terms or expressions from the Bible take on a different meaning once they find their way into the secular world, or even into other branches of world Christianity.  The term "saint" is a good example.  In a religious context, it can bring to mind a large room filled with images or icons, perhaps also the aroma and thick smoke of incense.  One might as a young child associate the term with the rather uncomfortable feeling of being in a place where the last thing one would ever want to do there is to make a sound, for fear of retribution. 

     In a secular vein, it might evoke the idea of someone who bears up under extremely disagreeable situations.  One who labors for years in a difficult marriage, or who puts up with the rude or inappropriate behavior of a supervisor is sometimes said to be a "saint" for sticking it out so long, when the average person would have bailed out years ago.  Another more general use, which actually on the surface level is not far away from a biblical application, describes one who is willing to do anything, at anytime, for anyone.

The Biblical Concept

    The biblical Hebrew and Greek terms have to do with the idea of separation or consecration.  Saints are "holy ones" who have been set apart by God for a particular purpose or function.  Even objects could be considered holy when they were used strictly for service to the Lord, for example the articles used in the tabernacle.  So a basin that looked like any other basin could nevertheless be called holy because it was not used for a common purpose around the home, but for the worship of God. 

     In a similar way, the same is true for the people of God.  A saint is not a person whose makeup is different from anyone else.  You cannot tell they are a saint by looking at them.  They are not walking around carrying a sign or wearing a button that tells everyone around them who they really are.  Nevertheless, such people are holy ones, consecrated by God for his glory.  In addition, it is not that people get the designation "saint" because they are used by God in a special way, distinct from most other Christians.  Rather, every Christian, no matter who he is, where he comes from, or what his work is in the world, is a saint because God has saved him from his sins and has therefore set him apart to honor God in his life.

Three Aspects of Sanctification

     Usually when we hear the word "sanctification" we have a specific definition in mind.  However, Scripture actually talks about sanctification in three ways.


     Also known as definitive sanctification, this first aspect stresses the fact that Christians are saints or holy ones by virtue of God's decision to set them apart for his use.  Thus, positional sanctification is closely tied to election.  Christians are sanctified because God chose to set his saving affection on them.  They are even called holy when at times they are living in ways that are less than holy.  Remember some of the problems in the Corinthian church that Paul deals with in his first letter to them.  Yet, at the beginning of that letter, in v. 2, he addresses them as those "sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be saints."  Because Christians have been justified in Christ, they have been marked by God as his holy people, which reveals itself by how they live.    


     This is the aspect we most readily think of when we hear about sanctification; yet we must remember that it is dependent upon God's act of positional sanctification in election.  Progressive sanctification refers to the process by which God changes us to make us more like Christ.  This is the aspect of sanctification that lasts throughout the Christian life, and for the vast majority of Christians' experience there are hills and valleys in their sanctification.  There are periods of significant growth and joy in the Christian life, and there are also periods of stagnation or even decline and discouragement.  The important thing to remember during those days of spiritual difficulty and genuine struggle against sin is that one is not striving to become a saint.  That person is already a saint because God has marked him for his own and therefore has brought him to salvation.  That discouraged and beaten down Christian can look back to his position as one who is holy, and he can look up to God in hope that such deliverance from sin's assaults will come— some of it in this life, and all of it in the life to come.

     There is a double component to this second aspect: vivification and mortification.  Vivification is the growing and maturing of what Paul calls the new creation (II Cor. 5:17) that has been formed in us by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.  This growth in grace takes place through the sustained use of the means that God has appointed and therefore promises to work through and bless.  The first category is public worship, which includes the preaching of the Word, the observance of two biblically-sanctioned ordinances or sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper), prayer, praise, Scripture reading, fellowship, stewardship, and service.  The second category is private and family devotions, which includes personal and family Scripture reading, study, and prayer.  These things are needed if we are going to grow as Christians.

     Mortification is more than merely trying to suppress or counteract a sinful impulse; rather its goal is the gradual killing or elimination of it.  It is the habitual weakening of the sinful inclination, seeking to abolish the power of sin little by little.  This means that it is a constant fight and contention against sin.  And because it is not only a war against external threats, but internal temptations as well, our striving must be done with humility and a spirit of constant dependence and trust for God to act in grace and power.     


     This last aspect refers to our glorification.  It is the decisive and instantaneous transformation of the Christian into the image of Christ.  It does not occur in this life; it concerns the future time of the consummation of the kingdom of God in the eternal state, when sin shall be no more.


     First, the foundation of sanctification is our union with Christ in his death and resurrection (Rom. 6:1-11).  Just as Christ's death and resurrection was the proof of his own victory over sin, death, and hell, so it is for all those who are united to him in his crucifixion and rising again.  Eventually, all God's people will be permanently delivered from sin because in Christ we share in his resurrection.

     Second, the Bible speaks of sanctification as being produced by both the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:12-13) and Scripture (II Tim. 3:16-17).  Christians increase in holiness because the indwelling Sprit works through Scripture, as one humbly approaches God in his Word, recognizing his need of mercy and help.  Conversely, as we read God's Word we do so with the prayer that the Holy Spirit will give us the understanding and grace so that we might live in obedience to it. 

     Third, while even our progressive sanctification is a work of God, we are accountable to him for our obedient response.  Our growth in holiness is fundamentally not the result of our own effort or inherent ability to tend toward righteousness.  Rather, our growth is rooted in the fact that we are already holy; God has already set us apart for it, and has therefore given us his Spirit to work this in us.  What we must do now is be who we are.  We belong to God; now we must act like it.

Michael D. Roberts is the Alliance editor of  He holds a DTh in New Testament from the University of South Africa.

Michael Roberts