What is sanctification?
This post is a chapter from Dr. Timothy Tennent’s book, 30 Questions: A Short Catechism on the Christian Faith available for purchase from our store. This resource makes for a great teaching tool in local churches, especially for catechesis purposes. We’re featuring a chapter each week in hopes of encouraging you to pick up the book and share it with others as well.
While justification is that doctrine which makes us think of all the ways in which Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection reconciled us to God, sanctification is the doctrine which reminds us that salvation is the work of the Triune God. Sanctification means to be “made holy,” and is one of the primary functions of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Once justified, God declares us righteous, but it is what Martin Luther, the great sixteenth century reformer of the church, said was an “alien righteousness.” In other words, we are not truly righteous, we are merely declared righteous because of the righteousness of another.
However, God is not merely interested in us being forgiven with an alien righteousness. He wants to see us actually transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ. This is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit. His work is to bring all the fruit of the Holy Spirit into our lives, including love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Sanctification is not just about what we avoid, but what we produce—fruitfulness. In the gospel, faith and fruit must meet and be joyfully wed.
Christians have different views as to how this process takes place. For some it is an incremental, day-by-day process which continues throughout our lifetime, never reaching completion until we finally meet Christ through death or his return, and we are then brought fully into conformity with his righteousness as we are removed from the very presence of sin. Other Christians, particularly those in the Wesleyan tradition, believe that sanctification is not merely a process, but also involves a specific event in the presence of the Holy Spirit in the same way that our justification involves a specific event in the presence of Jesus Christ. This event has many different names, including being “baptized in the Holy Spirit” or receiving a “second blessing” or being made “perfect in love” or “entire sanctification.”
It is important to point out that the idea of an experience like this with the Holy Spirit has often been misunderstood. It is misunderstood primarily because when we hear the word “sanctification,” we often think of it as a forensic term (i.e., being sanctified means that you are divinely certified before God’s court of justice as someone without any sin in your life and, once sanctified, you will never sin again). That is not what the Scriptures teach concerning sanctification.
For Wesley, sanctification is not really a legal or forensic term at all. You could be justified alone on a deserted island, but sanctification is inherently relational. In fact, it is relational to the core. It is what happens when we are brought back fully into relationship with the Triune God.
As we noted earlier, when we sin, in that moment of choosing sin, we are actually electing the absence of God in our lives at that point. Sanctification is what fully restores our relationship with God, not merely by justifying us, but by turning our hearts back towards God. Sanctification means that your whole life—your body and your spirit—have been reoriented. Entire sanctification means that our entire heart has been reoriented towards the joyful company of the Triune God. It is not merely a long road whereby we march out, step by step, from a long road of sin. It is our joyful union with the Triune God, wherein we actually desire and pursue holiness in our lives.
Holiness is the crown of true happiness. Sanctification is what turns our hearts to long for that holiness, to seek and pursue it, and to be purified from everything that “contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Cor. 7:1).
True righteousness is not merely God looking at us with a different set of glasses. Alien righteousness must become native righteousness—imputed righteousness must become actualized righteousness, declared righteousness must become embodied righteousness—wrought in us not by our own strength, but through the power of the living God. We are marked, oriented, and reoriented by love.
Sin is still encamped around us on every side, but it is no longer our ally. We burn the secret agreements we have—to nod and wink at sin in the night while we confess Christ in the day. We leave behind the agonizingly torn hearts, where we live under condemnation because sin is always creeping back into our lives. To be sanctified is to receive a second blessing—a great gift from God—a gift which changes your heart, re-orients your relationships with the Triune God and with others, giving you the capacity to love God and your neighbor in new and profound ways. It transforms your perspective—because your heart is re-oriented. Sanctified people still sin. However, the difference is that in the life of a sanctified person, sin is a permanent enemy and no longer a secret lover!
The language of “entire sanctification” uses the word “entire” in reference to Greek, not Latin. In Greek, “entire” or “complete” can still be improved upon. It is simply a new orientation which no longer looks back towards the old life, but rather looks forward longingly to the New Creation. It is a life which has been engulfed by new realities, not the realities of that which is passing away. A sanctified person is caught up into a higher frame of reference in which the heart has been reoriented. It is what Wesley once called a “self-forgetful heart,” and a life engulfed by “perfect love.”
One of the best stories I ever heard for “perfect love” was a story told by Robert Coleman, who taught at Asbury for twenty-seven years. Robert was working in the garden on a hot day, and sweat was pouring off his body. His son saw him through the window of the house working so hard, and decided to bring him a glass of water. He went down to the kitchen, pulled up a stool, and managed to reach up to the sink. He picked up a dirty glass laying in the sink, filled it with lukewarm water, and brought it out to his dad. Robert commented, “The glass may have been dirty and the water warm, but it was brought to me in perfect love.”
1 Corinthians 6:11
2 Corinthians 1:21–22
2 Corinthians 7:1
1 Thessalonians 5:23
2 Thessalonians 2:13