It is particularly true that Bible doctrine suffers through misunderstanding and misstatement of the revealed facts about sanctification. Since one aspect of this doctrine deals with Christian living and experience, it is the more easily perverted and its exact statement the more imperative.
1. Essentials to a Right Understanding. Three general conditions govern a right conception of this subject.
a. must be rightly related to other bible doctrines. Disproportionate emphasis on any one doctrine, or the habit of seeing all revealed truth in the light of one line of Bible teaching, leads to serious error. No person really understands a doctrine or is prepared to teach a Bible truth until he is able to see that truth in its right position, proportion, and relation to every other truth of the Word. Sanctification, like all other great doctrines of the Scriptures, represents and defines an exact field within the purpose of God. Since it aims at definite ends, it suffers as much from overstatement as from understatement. This doctrine must be considered, then, in its exact relation to all other aspects of truth.
b. cannot be interpreted by experience. Some persons conclude they understand the doctrine of sanctification because it is their belief that they have been sanctified. Only one aspect of sanctification out of three, however, deals with the complexity of human experience in daily life. Therefore, an analysis of some personal experience must not be substituted for all the teaching of the Word of God. Even if sanctification were limited to the field of human experience, there would never be an experience that could be proved to be its perfect example, nor would any human statement of that experience exactly describe the full measure of the divine reality. It is the function of the Bible to interpret experience rather than the function of experience to interpret the Bible. Every experience which is wrought of God will be found to be in accord with the Scriptures. If not, it should be judged as a device of Satan. To some people an uncertain experience has become more convincing than the clear teaching of the Scriptures.
c. depends for a right understanding upon consideration of all the scripture. The body of
Scripture presenting this doctrine is much more extensive than appears to the one who reads only the English text, for the same root (Hebrew and Greek) words which are translated "sanctify," with its various forms, are also translated by two other English words, "holy" and "saint," with all their various forms. Therefore, to discover the full scope of this doctrine from the Scriptures, one must go beyond the passages in which the one English word "sanctify" is used and include, as well, the portions wherein the terms "holy" and "saint" are employed. Very much is thus added to the field of investigation.
Observance of these three general conditions just named will avoid practically every error connected with the doctrine of sanctification.
a. "sanctify," with its various forms. This word, which is used 106 times in the Old Testament and 31 times in the New, means 'to set apart,' and then the state of being set apart. It indicates classification in matters of position and relationship. The basis of the classification is usually that the sanctified person (or thing) has been set apart, or separated, from others in his position and relationship before God, that is, from that which proves unholy. This is the general meaning of the word.
It is also important to consider that there are three things which the word sanctification, in its general use, does not imply: (1) The Bible use of the word does not imply past improvement in matters of holiness, for God is said Himself to be sanctified, and He has experienced no improvement in holiness.
(2) The Bible use of the word does not necessarily imply a state of sinlessness. In the Old Testament it is stated that the people washed their garments and separated themselves from some defilement and so were sanctified before God. This is far from sinlessness. Even the Corinthian Christians, who were "utterly at fault," are said to be sanctified. Many inanimate things were sanctified, and these could not even be related to the question of sin.
(3) The Bible use of the word does not necessarily imply finality. Being sanctified once did not save the Israelites from needing to be sanctified again and again. They were for the time being set apart unto God. Hence there are aspects of this truth, it will be seen, which do not imply finality.
b. "holy, " with its various forms. This word, which is used about 400 times in the Old Testament and about 12 times of believers in the New Testament, refers to the state of being set apart, or being separate, from that which is unholy. Christ was "holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners." Thus was He sanctified. Similarly, also, there are certain things which the word holy in its Biblical use does not imply: (1) No past improvement need necessarily be implied, for God is Himself holy. It is the state itself which is indicated by this word, and not the process by which it has been attained.
(2) Sinless perfection is not necessarily implied, for one reads of a "holy nation," holy priests, "holy prophets," "holy apostles," "holy men," "holy women," "holy brethren," "holy mountain," and "holy temple." None of these was sinless before God. They were holy, nevertheless, according to some particular standard or issue that constituted the basis of their separation from others.
(3) The word does not necessarily imply finality. All these people just named were repeatedly called to higher degrees of holiness. They were set apart for some holy purpose; thus were they sanctified. Leviticus 21:8 illustrates the similarity of meaning between the words "sanctify" and "holy" as used in the
Bible. Speaking of the priest, God said: "Thou shalt sanctify him therefore; for he offereth the bread of thy God: he shall be holy unto thee: for I the Lord, which sanctify you, am holy." Here the root word, employed four times, is twice translated "sanctify" and twice "holy."
c. "saint." This term, used of Israel about 50 times and of believers about 62 times, is applied only to living persons and relates only to their position in the reckoning of God. It is never associated with the quality of their daily life. They are saints by reason of being particularly classified and set apart in the plan and purpose of God. Being sanctified thus, they are saints. In three Epistles, according to the Authorized Version, believers are addressed as those who are "called to be saints." Such a translation is most misleading. The words "to be" should be omitted; indeed, the fact that they are italicized in the A.V. only means the translators added this expression themselves. Christians are saints by their present calling from God. The passages, then, do not anticipate a time when they will be saints. They are already sanctified, set apart, classified, "holy brethren," who therefore may be called saints. Sainthood is not subject to progression. Every born-again person is as much a saint the moment he is saved as he ever will be in time or eternity. The whole Church, which is Christ's Body, proves to be a called-out, separate people. They are the saints of this dispensation. According to certain usages of these words, they are all sanctified. They are all holy.
The Spirit has chosen to give believers the title of "saints" more than any other designation except one. They are called "brethren" 184 times, "saints" 62 times, and "Christians" 3 times. It would not be amiss to attempt the rescue of such a divinely emphasized but misunderstood title from its present state of disuse and ruin. Many Christians do not believe they are saints because they do not know of their position in Christ.
The right understanding of the Bible doctrine of sanctification must depend, then, upon consideration of all the passages wherein the words "sanctify," "holy," and "saint" appear. Reference to all the passages, of course, is impossible in this limited study.
a. god is eternally sanctified. Because of infinite holiness, God Himself—Father, Son, and Spirit— is eternally sanctified. He is classified as distinct, set apart, and separate from sin. He is altogether holy. He is Himself sanctified (Lev. 21:8; John 17:19).
b. god sanctifies persons. God—Father, Son, and Spirit—is said to sanctify other persons. (1) The Father Sanctifies. "And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly" (1 Thess. 5:23). (2) The Son Sanctifies. "That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word" (Eph. 5:26; cf. Heb. 2:11 ; 9:13-14; 13:12). (3) The Spirit Sanctifies. "Being sanctified by the Holy Ghost" (Rom. 15:16; cf. 2 Thess. 2:13). (4) The Father Sanctified the Son. "Whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world" (John 10:36). (5) God Sanctified Israel. God sanctified the priests and people of Israel (Ex. 29:44; 31:13). (6) Sanctification Is God's Will. "For this is the will of God, even your sanctification" (1 Thess. 4:3).
(7) The Believer's Sanctification Comes from God. (a) By Union with Christ. "To them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus" (1 Cor. 1:2); Christ has been made unto believers their sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30). (b) By the Word of God. "Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth" (John 17:17; cf. 1 Tim. 4:5). (c) By the Blood of Christ. "Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate" (Heb. 13:12; cf. 9:13-14); "The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin" (1 John 1:7). (d) By the Body of Christ. "By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Heb. 10:10). The cross has separated believers from the world: "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world" (Gal. 6:14). (e) By the Spirit. "God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit" (2 Thess. 2:13; cf. 1 Pet. 1:2). (f) By Choice. "Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14; cf. 2 Tim. 2:2122). (g) By Faith. "Sanctified by faith that is in me" (Acts 26:18).
c. god sanctified days, places, and things (Gen. 2:3; Ex. 29:43).
d. man can sanctify god. This he may do by setting God apart in his own thought as holy. "Hallowed be thy name." "But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts" (1 Pet. 3:15).
e. man can sanctify himself. Many times did God call upon Israel to sanctify themselves. He likewise says to believers in this age: "Be ye holy; for I am holy." Also, "If a man therefore purge himself from these [vessels of dishonor so as to depart from iniquity], he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master's use" (2 Tim. 2:21). Self-sanctification, however, can only be realized by the divinely provided means. Christians are asked to present their bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God (Rom. 12:1) . They are to "come out from among them, and be ... separate" (2 Cor. 6:17). Having the Christian's promises, they are to cleanse themselves "from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness [i.e., sanctification] in the fear of God" (2 Cor. 7:1). "This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16).
f. man can sanctify persons and things. "For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy" (i.e., sanctified; 1 Cor. 7:14). "And Moses sanctified the people." "So they sanctified the house of the Lord."
g. one thing can sanctify another. "For whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? ... For whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?" (Matt. 23:17, 19).
From a very limited consideration of the Scriptures on the subject of sanctification and holiness, it is evident that the root meaning of the word is to set apart unto a holy purpose. The one set apart is sometimes cleansed and sometimes not. Sometimes this one can partake of the character of holiness and sometimes, as in the case of an inanimate thing, it cannot. Yet a thing which of itself can be neither holy nor unholy is just as much sanctified when set apart unto God as the person whose moral character is subject to transformation. It must also be evident that where these moral qualities exist cleansing and purification are sometimes required in sanctification, but not always.
4. Three Aspects. Though the exact meaning of the words "sanctify," "holy," and "saint" is unchanged, there is a far deeper reality indicated by their use in the New Testament than is indicated by their employment in the Old. After all, the Old Testament is but a "shadow of good things to come." The New Testament revelation, then, may be considered in three divisions:
a. positional. This is a sanctification, holiness, and sainthood which comes to the believer by the operation of God through offering of the body and shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Those who are saved have been redeemed and cleansed in His precious blood, forgiven all trespasses, made righteous through the new headship in Him, justified, and purified. They now are the sons of God. All of this indicates a distinct classification and separation, deep and eternal, achieved through the saving grace of Christ. It is based on facts of position which are true of every Christian. Hence, every believer is now said to be sanctified positionally, holy, and by so much a saint before God. This position bears no relationship to the believer's daily experience more than that it should inspire him to holy living. His position in Christ is, to be sure, according to the Scriptures, the greatest possible incentive to holiness of life.
The great doctrinal Epistles observe this order in teaching the truth. They first state the marvels of saving grace and then conclude with an appeal for a life corresponding to the divinely wrought position (cf. Rom. 12:1; Eph. 4:1; Col. 3:1). Christians are not now accepted in themselves; they are accepted in the Beloved. They are not now righteous in themselves; He has been made unto them righteousness. They are not now redeemed in themselves; He has been made unto them redemption. They are not now positionally sanctified by their daily walk; He has been made unto them a sanctification like that. Positional sanctification is as perfect as He is perfect. As much as He is set apart, believers, since they are found to be in Him, are set apart. Positional sanctification is as complete for the weakest saint as it is for the strongest. It depends only on one's union with and position in Christ. All believers are classified as "the saints." So, also, they are classed as the "sanctified" (cf. Acts 20:32; 1 Cor. 1:2; 6:11; Heb. 10:10, 14; Jude 1:1). The proof that imperfect believers are nevertheless positionally sanctified and therefore saints is discovered in 1 Corinthians. Corinthian believers were unholy in life (e.g., 1 Cor. 5:1-2; 6:1-8), but they are twice said to have been sanctified (1 Cor. 1:2; 6:11).
By their position, then, Christians are rightly called "holy brethren" and "saints." They have been "sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Heb. 10:10), and are new men by reason of now being "created in righteousness and true holiness" (Eph. 4:24). Positional sanctification and positional holiness are "true" sanctification and holiness. In his position in Christ the Christian stands righteous and accepted before God forever. Compared to this, no other aspect of the present truth can merit an equal recognition. But let no person go on from here to conclude that he is holy, or sanctified, in life because Christians are now said to be holy, or sanctified, in position.
b. experimental. While all believers are said to be sanctified every whit positionally, there is never a reference in any of these Scriptures to their daily lives. Such an aspect of sanctification and holiness is found in another and entirely different body of truth which may be termed experimental Sanctification. As positional sanctification is absolutely disassociated from the daily life, so experimental sanctification is absolutely unrelated to position in Christ. Experimental sanctification instead may depend (1) on some degree of yieldedness to God, (2) on some degree of separation from sin, or (3) on some degree of Christian growth to which the believer has already attained.
(1) Result of Yieldedness to God. Whole self-dedication to God is one's reasonable service: "Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service" (Rom. 12:1). By so doing the Christian is classified and set apart unto God through his own choice. There is an element of finality and completeness possible in this. Within the sphere of his own knowledge of himself, the believer may definitely choose the mind and will of God as the rule for his life. This yielding to the will of God may be accordingly complete and final. Herein is self-determined separation unto God, an important aspect of experimental sanctification. "Now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness" (or, sanctification; Rom. 6:22).
Sanctification cannot be experienced as a matter of feeling or emotion any more than justification or forgiveness can. A person may nevertheless be at peace and full of joy because he believes these things to be true in his life. So, also, by yielding unto God a new infilling of the Spirit may be made possible which will result in some blessedness in life hitherto unknown. This felicity might come either suddenly or gradually. In any case it is not the sanctification itself that is experienced: it is rather the blessing of the Spirit made possible through sanctification or a deeper life of separation unto God. Experimental sanctification works in such a way as to have its effect upon the daily life, and by so much acts in contrast to positions which are in no way related to daily living.
(2) Result of Freedom from Sin. The Bible takes full acount of the many sins of Christians. It does not teach that only sinless people are saved, or kept saved; on the contrary, there is faithful consideration of, and full provision made for, the sins of saints. These provisions are both preventive and curative. The question of sin in the believer is taken up exhaustively by 1 John. One passage (2:1-2) may be taken as a key to the Epistle. It begins: "My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not." This much relates to the prevention of sin in the Christian. It continues: "And if any [Christian] man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins." This much refers to the cure of sin in Christians. Much Scripture indeed is written "that we be not sinning," but in addition believers are told that if they still fall into sin they have abundant provision from God for its cure. The things which are written are not set down to encourage any believer to sin; they however are written "that we be not sinning" longer. "Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid." He alone can forbid, and if requested He will forbid—such are the marvelous provisions in grace for eternal keeping of the child of God.
It may be concluded from these and many other Scriptures that a son of God need not sin. To that end the Savior has died (Rom. 6:1-14). To that end Christians have a message written them (1 John 2:12). To that end they are indwelt by the Spirit of God (Gal. 5:16). It is the purpose of the Father that His children be free from sin in order that He may have fellowship with them, for "truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ." The basis upon which Christians may have fellowship with the Father and His Son is specified: they must walk in the light as God is in the light (1 John 1:7), which means to live by the power of the Spirit and instantly to confess every known sin. Because of the Advocate's defense of him and because of the believer's confession of sin, God is free to forgive and cleanse from all unrighteousness. Christians then must not say they have no sin nature (1:8). This would be to deceive themselves. Such ones must not say, either, that they have not sinned (1:10). This would be to make Him and His testimony to what is in man untrue. It does not become a Christian to boast of himself, but instead every true victory should be acknowledged to the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Has any child of God reached complete deliverance from sin? This question should never be confused with the facts concerning positional sanctification, nor with the truths connected with sanctification through yieldedness to God. The answer to this query may be stated as follows: While the believer is definitely trusting the sufficiency of the Spirit and fulfilling every condition for enablement, he will be divinely kept from sinning (Rom. 6:14; 8:2; Gal. 5:16). That statement is not based upon any personal experience; it rests on the Word of God. The Christian never reaches a place where he cannot sin. On the other hand, the Scriptures plainly teach that, in spite of the fallen nature, there is deliverance for the believer from bond-servitude to sin through union with Christ in His death and resurrection (Rom. 6:1-10) and through the power of the indwelling Spirit to enable (Rom. 8:2; Gal. 5:16). This victory will be realized just so long as it is claimed by faith. Such is the divinely provided preventative for sinning.
The old nature, with its incurable disposition to sin, remains in every believer so long as he is in his present body. He is therefore disposed to sin. The sin nature itself is never said to have died. It was crucified, put to death, and buried with Christ, but since this death was accomplished two thousand years ago the reference must be to a divine judgment against the nature which was gained by Christ when He "died unto sin." There is no Bible teaching to the effect that some Christians have died to sin and others have not. The passages involved must include all saved persons (Gal. 5:24; Col. 3:3). All believers have died unto sin in Christ's sacrifice, but not all have claimed the riches which were provided for them by that death. Saved people are not asked to die experimentally or to re-enact His death; they are urged only to "reckon" themselves to be dead indeed unto sin. This is the human responsibility (Rom. 6:1-14).
If through weakness, willfullness, or ignorance the Christian does sin, there is a cure provided. On the human side there must be a genuine confession and repentance of heart (2 Cor. 7:8-11; 1 John 1:9). On the divine side there is "an advocate with the Father," and the Father "is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Experiences of failure and defeat should be growing less as the believer increasingly discovers the marvels of God's power and grace and the utter helplessness of his own strength. Every restoration, forgiveness, and cleansing is a renewal of experimental sanctification.
(3) Result of Christian Growth. Christians are immature in wisdom, knowledge, experience, and grace. In all such realms they are appointed to grow, and their growth should be manifest. They are to "grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ." Beholding the glory of the Lord as in a glass, they are "changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord." This transformation will have the effect of setting them more and more apart to God. They will, to that very extent, be more sanctified.
A Christian may be "blameless," though it could not be truthfully said of him that he is "faultless." The child laboring to form his first letters in a copybook may be blameless in the work he does, but the work is certainly not faultless. A believer may be walking in the full measure of what is his understanding today, yet he must know he is not now living in the added light and experience that will be his tomorrow through growth. There is a relative perfection, then, within imperfection. Christians who are quite incomplete, quite immature, and quite given to sin may nonetheless "abide" in the Vine. They may have fellowship with the Father and with His Son. There is also imperfection within perfection. Those saved ones who really are incomplete, immature, and given to sin, are even now positionally sanctified and complete "in Him"—the Lord Jesus Christ.
Christian growth and experimental sanctification are not the same. for one is a cause and the other its effect. The Christian will be more and more set apart as he grows into the image of Christ by the Spirit. To state that he will be more experimentally sanctified as he grows in grace and the knowledge of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ does not necessarily question his present purity or victory in daily life; it is only to declare that he will be more set apart as he develops in the likeness of his Lord. This is to consider experimental sanctification in the broadest and most general meaning of the word.
c. ultimate. The ultimate aspect of sanctification, which is related to the saved one's final perfection, will be his in the glory. By His grace and transforming power God will have so changed every child of Hisin spirit, soul, and body—that each will be "like him" and "conformed to the image of His Son." He will then present them "faultless" before the presence of His glory. His Son's Bride will be free from every "spot or wrinkle." It therefore becomes all Christians to "abstain from all appearance of evil. And 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."
5. Three Agents. Three agents of sanctification are emphasized in Scripture: (a) the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:11; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:2), (b) the Son (Heb. 10:10), and (c) the Truth of God (John 17:17; Eph. 5:26).
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