What is Sanctification? Definition and Meaning in Christianity

Sanctification is one of those religious sounding words that people in the church use, but may not understand what it means. So, what exactly does it mean?
Updated Feb 26, 2024
What is Sanctification? Definition and Meaning in Christianity

Sanctification is God's will for us, as stated in 1 Thessalonians 4:3. The term "sanctification" is closely related to the word "saint", both of which are concerned with holiness. To sanctify something means to set it apart for a particular purpose while sanctifying a person involves making them holy.

"For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality;" (1 Thess. 4:3)

"Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect." (Matthew 5:48)

Definition of Sanctification

According to Merriam-Webster, Sanctification is defined as:

1. the state of being sanctified or made holy
2. the state of growing in divine grace as a result of Christian commitment after baptism or conversion

The Greek word translated "sanctification" (hagiasmos) means "holiness." To sanctify, therefore, means "to make holy." In one sense only God is holy (Isa 6:3). God is separate, distinct, and other. No human being or thing shares the holiness of God's essential nature. There is one God. Yet Scripture speaks about holy things. Moreover, God calls human beings to be holy — as holy as He is holy (Lev 11:44; Matt 5:48; 1 Peter 1:15-16). Another word for a holy person is "saint" (hagios), meaning a sanctified one. The opposite of sanctified is "profane" (Lev 10:10). ~ Excerpt from Baker's Bible Dictionary

Sanctification involves more than a mere moral reformation of character, brought about by the power of the truth: it is the work of the Holy Spirit bringing the whole nature more and more under the influences of the new gracious principles implanted in the soul in regeneration. In other words, sanctification is the carrying on to perfection the work begun in regeneration, and it extends to the whole man (Romans 6:13; 2 Cor. 4:6; Colossians 3:10; 1 John 4:7; 1 Corinthians 6:19). It is the result of the Holy Spirit in the plan of redemption to carry on this work (1 Corinthians 6:11; 2 Thes. 2:13). 

Faith is instrumental in securing sanctification, inasmuch as it (1) secures union to Christ (Galatians 2:20), and (2) brings the believer into living contact with the truth, whereby he is led to yield obedience "to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come." ~ Excerpt from Easton's Bible Dictionary

What is Sanctification?

Sanctification is one of those religious-sounding words that people in the church use but may not understand what it means. In its most basic sense, to sanctify something is to set it apart for God's special use and purpose. Therefore, God's people are sometimes said to be sanctified because they are set apart for God's special purposes in the world: “Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy; for I am the LORD your God. Keep my statutes, and do them; I am the LORD who sanctifies you” (Lev. 20:7-8). As this verse helps us see, the word sanctification is closely related to holiness. The word sanctification can be used in a similar sense in the New Testament, and in one sense, believers are already sanctified because of what Jesus has done for them. Hebrews 10:10 tells us that as followers of Christ, “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

But most of the time, when Christians use the word sanctification, they are referring to the progressive work of God to make a believer more like Jesus Christ. As such, Paul can write, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thes 4:3). He commands Christians to “present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (Rom 6:19). Because believers have been set free from their slavery to sin, "the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life" (Rom 6:22).

In sanctification, both God and the Christian have specific responsibilities. Paul commands believers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12–13). God is the one who does the work of making us more like Christ, and we participate in that work by a life of continually turning away from sin and demonstrating our faith in Christ by obeying God's commands. The Holy Spirit plays a key role in this process: as we walk in the power of the Spirit we “will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal 5:16).

Progressive vs. Positional Sanctification

Where Christians tend to split on progressive sanctification comes when holiness (achieving a blameless life) occurs. Most assert it happens when a believer dies and goes to heaven, as nothing impure can enter heaven (Revelation 21:27). However, some Christians believe one can attain this holiness in life.

One could easily swap out the words “positional sanctification” with the singular word “justification.”

This refers to the one-time event the Holy Spirit brings sinners out of darkness into wonderful light (Ephesians 2:5). Every Christian agrees with the biblical stance on positional sanctification. Most Christians agree that once a person is saved, they will always be saved.

After a Christian receives saving grace, he or she seeks to lead a life that looks more and more like the one of Jesus’ example (2 Corinthians 3:18). Although some Christians do push back against this journey-model of holiness—arguing sanctification is more about a position of holiness rather than a process—many do agree that we cannot stop our Christian walk from the moment we say the sinners prayer.

Sanctification matters because we need to strive to live more like Christ every day. Also, when discussing positional sanctification (justification), that matters more than anything else in one’s life. (excerpt by Hope Bolinger, What is Progressive Sanctification?)

How to Grow in Sanctification

In addition to empowering us with His Spirit, God has given us other tools to grow in our sanctification:

  • Reading, studying, and being taught the Bible enables us to understand better who God is, what he has done for us, and how he calls us to live.
  • Praying expresses our faith in the sovereign power of God to accomplish what only he can do.
  • Fellowship with other believers encourages us to put our faith into practice by loving and bearing with one another.
  • Giving weans our hearts off putting our trust in the fleeting things of this world shows that we value the work of God even more than our own comfort.
  • Sharing the gospel with others brings us the joy of participating in God's work of extending his kingdom.

All of these are different tools that God uses to make us more like Jesus.

As believers, our hope is fixed on the day when Jesus returns. But in the meantime, we are called to pursue our sanctification in anticipation of that day. John explains how these two realities relate to each other: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:1-3).

Because of what God has done for us in Jesus, we have already been set apart for his special purposes. By the power of God's Spirit, we pursue growing in godliness to more clearly reflect Jesus Christ in our lives. We do so in anticipation of the day when Christ will return and complete the process of sanctification by making us perfect reflections of Christ.

What is Sanctification in the Lives of Christians?

Sanctification is a theological term for basically Christian living, it's called progressive sanctification. But if you step back and look at how the Bible uses the term, it's a little different actually. The New Testament, when it talks about sanctification, it just means being set apart. And that happens when a person becomes a Christian, God sets that person apart. The older translations call that being a saint. So I'm Saint Andrew, Saint Andrew because I'm set apart, I'm a holy one of God because He saved me from my sins.

Now, throughout the Christian life, you think of it as that past event, the Christian life, and the future. That past tense, I am saved, I am sanctified. Right now I am being saved, I am being sanctified. And future tense, I will be saved, I will be sanctified, that's glorification. So usually the term sanctification is talking about that middle progressive sanctification of gradual growth. And there are several major views on this, different models of sanctification. There's a Wesleyan view that says basically a Christian can live in a state of perfection, Christian perfection, not divine perfection, not angelic perfection, Christian perfection, where basically they live free from known sin.

There's a Keswick view, K-E-S-W-I-C-K. That basically says when you become a Christian, there may be a state later where you become a better Christian, and there are different terms for it. We think of it like a second tier, a deeper life, a higher life, the Christ-life. All kinds of different terms where basically there are two stages, the first stage where there's the lower life, the second stage where there's a higher life. The stage where you're not Spirit-filled, where you are Spirit-filled, where you're carnal, then spiritual, all these different dichotomies. And they happen usually distinct in time from becoming Christian and then later becoming a super Christian. That's not a term they use. So the Keswick view is pretty common.

And a similar view to that is a Chaferian view, which sees it as Spirit filling is that key. A Christian is either Spirit-filled or not Spirit-filled and kind of jump back and forth. When you're Spirit-filled, you don't sin. When you sin, you're not Spirit-filled. So this jumping back. And then Pentecostalism, another model, says that Spirit filling is one of the keys, but there's another key, and that's Spirit baptism. And often that's evidenced in speaking in tongues.

I respect those views. I would hold to what's called the reformed view, which just means basically you become a Christian, and if you chart it off on a graph, it's gradual growth till you die. And sometimes it's up, sometimes it's down, sometimes there are big steps of growth, sometimes there aren't. But the trajectory is growth, and that growth is what's often called progressive sanctification.

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