What is Sanctification For Christians?

By Jessica Wolstenholm



During your time at church or in Sunday school, you may have heard how Jesus was perfect because He is the Son of God. While it is not possible for any of us to be perfect because we are humans, God calls us to be more like Jesus. The process of becoming more like Christ is called sanctification.


The Definition of Sanctification

Sanctification is a very large word that you may have heard at church from your pastor or Sunday school teacher. It simply means to sanctify: that is, to make holy or to set apart. When God sanctifies us, He makes us holy and sets us apart.

The word holy means to be different – to be set apart – from those around you. God wants to save us from the stain of sin; this is known as justification. When God justifies people, He puts a “righteous” stamp on them; He takes away their “sinful” label and replaces it with a “righteous” one. He cleanses them of their sin and puts a new label on them. To justify is to change something’s label from “wrong” to “right.” This is a one-time event; once God justifies a person, the “sinful” label is thrown away forever.

God also wants to save us from the power of sin; this is sanctification. Sanctification is not a one-time event. It is something that takes place over the rest of a Christian’s life. Even though God cleanses us of our sin and takes away our “wrong” label, this does not mean that we are perfect. Sin is still present, and we still sometimes listen to it and make wrong choices. God wants us to stop listening to sin and doing what it wants us to do. God wants us to do what He tells us to do through the Bible and through His Spirit. He wants to save us from the power of sin, so that sin no longer has control over us. Sanctification is the power to say “yes” to God and “no” to sin.


A Deeper Look at Sanctification in the Bible

Sanctification is the call to put off the old self, one wrought with sin, and put on the new self, one filled by the Spirit. It is the process of our hearts, minds, and desires being brought into greater conformity with God’s. Sanctification is the Christian’s growth in grace. Sanctification means to become more Christlike, an aspiration that seems all but impossible to reach – but the Lord calls all Christians to holiness and Christlikeness (1 Peter 1:15).

When sanctification is talked about in the Bible, it is viewed in different stages and the concept is understood in a variety of ways. Initial sanctification occurs with our justification (1 Corinthians 1:2, 6:11). Progressive sanctification is occurring now, as we are being sanctified (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 1:6). Future sanctification happens at death when we are glorified and then made perfect (Romans 8:29-30; Philippians 3:21). Full sanctification is not possible in this life; it can only occur when we have been united to Christ in heaven.


The Basis for Sanctification in Scripture

At the time of justification, we are united to Christ. In Romans 6:1-14, Paul explains that if we have been united to Christ, we have also been united to him in his death and resurrection. We have died to sin and been raised to new life. This passage teaches that we have been freed from the power of sin, enabled to live in newness of life under the reign of grace, unified with Christ in his resurrection, and made new creatures. This passage emphasizes definitive sanctification, however Christians will always struggle against sin and fall into it this side of glory. According to 1 Corinthians 1:2, those who have been united to Christ have been sanctified, but there is still the reality that we will not be fully sanctified until glorification.

It is Christ’s righteousness that is the basis for our righteousness. “Jesus is the author of our sanctification, in the sense that he created it for us, but he is also the ‘pioneer’ of our salvation, because he does so out of his incarnate life, death, and resurrection.”[1] The Westminster Shorter Catechism answers that sanctification is: The work of God’s free grace (2 Thessalonians 2:13) whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God (Ephesians 4:23-24), and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness (Romans 6:4, 6; 8:1).[2] Sinclair Ferguson notes that Christians should not focus on their own spiritual progress but focus on what Christ has accomplished in redemptive history.

The basis for our sanctification is always the Lord himself. Sanctification is not only discussed in the New Testament but is a work of the Lord’s faithfulness that is repeatedly brought to light in the Old Testament. In the New Testament the Lord sanctified His children by His grace. In the Old Testament, the Lord saved Israel from Egypt out of his loving-kindness. Deuteronomy 7:6-8reads:

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.


The Process of Sanctification

So how does a Christian reach for sanctification? Some, like Pentecostals, believe sanctification happens instantaneously alongside justification and the Christian is immediately set apart from sin. Most believe it is a process that takes the entirety of our lives. The Bible speaks frequently about God’s sanctifying work in the Christian’s life, but what does the process look like? John MacArthur highlights three key steps in the sanctification process [3]:

    1. Cognition – understanding what the Bible says and means and renewing your mind (Rom. 12:1-2).
    2. Conviction – allowing the convictions that come from understanding Scripture shape how you live your life (2 Corinthians 4:13-14).
    3. Affection – loving God’s word (Psalm 119).

When the Lord sanctifies His people, he demands that they live a sanctified life. Once we have been saved, it would seem illogical to continue to live as though we had not been saved. As it was in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 7:11), the Lord commands that we now live according to His Word. We learn to love the Lord’s Law not out of a desire to earn God’s favor but because His Spirit has changed our hearts. The indicative must follow the imperative. In Jesus’ day, religious leaders and Pharisees were more concerned with outward holiness than they were with the main teachings of the Law of Moses (love God and love others).[4]


Grace and Law in Relation to Sanctification

There has been much discussion of what role the Old Testament Law plays in sanctification. According to the Reformed tradition, it is only when we learn to love God’s revealed Law that sanctification becomes a reality in our lives. Lutherans and Reformers both see the Law as having three primary functions:

    1. To restrain sin from running rampant in the world;
    2. To serve as a mirror and to show us our need of Christ, since we are unable to keep the Law;
    3. To serve as a guide for how we are to live and teach the way of righteousness.


Lutherans and Reformers disagree on how much emphasis should be placed on the “Third Use of the Law.” Lutherans see the danger of works-righteousness (the idea that we can merit our salvation by our good works) and argue that the third use should only be used to point us back to our need for Christ. Reformers hold that the third use is the primary way in which the Law is used throughout Scripture since Christians are expected to bear good works.

According to Reformers, when a man is justified he becomes a new man and receives a new spirit, the Spirit of the living God (2 Corinthians 5:17) and his relationship to the Law changes. The Law is no longer seen as a means by which he might try to achieve salvation (and therefore a burden), but rather he sees the Law as the manifestation of God’s loving will. The Law then becomes a guide for Christian living, but our motivation for following the Law has changed. We no longer follow the Law to earn salvation, but rather our motivation is the delight to obey the Lord. Tim Keller puts it such,

You are saved by faith alone, not by faith which remains alone…If you are not getting sanctified, you don’t have saving faith (Galatians 5:6; James 1:22-25).[5]

We have to be careful not to fall to either side of legalism or licentiousness. Legalism states that we can earn God’s love and approval by obeying. Licentiousness states that the Law no longer serves any purpose, and we can find satisfaction apart from God’s Word. The Gospel states that we are accepted and loved, and therefore we obey.


The Lord’s Faithfulness in Sanctification

Sometimes the sanctification process looks a lot like suffering. Paul and James both remind us that suffering produces growth in grace (Romans 5:3-5; James 1:2-4). Often, suffering is the usher used to bring about sanctification in our lives. In 2 Thessalonians 1:4-6 Paul reminds the church that the Lord is faithful to bring about justice to those who have caused them to suffer. Their faithfulness to the Gospel in times of trials is evidence of God’s faithfulness.

What happens when we find these steps too hard and the process too slow? When we don’t have the desire to read our Bibles? When we don’t necessarily want to make the “right” decision? For the times when the sanctification process is hard and slow, John Newton has some words of encouragement. Newton was a former slave owner turned abolitionist who is known best for his lyrics to “Amazing Grace.” He urges a correspondent he is writing to, as well as you and me, to continue on in the faith.

Faithfulness to light received, and a sincere endeavor to conform to the means prescribed in the word of God, with a humble application to the Blood of sprinkling and the promised Spirit, will undoubtedly be answered by increasing measures of light, faith, strength, and comfort; and we shall know, if we follow on to know the Lord.[6]

A sincere heart and desire to know the Lord more deeply and richly is all that is needed for the Lord to work through our stubbornness and seeking after that which we know will not ultimately satisfy us. It is not our will or determination that evokes transformation and growth but the loving-kindness of the Lord. Even when our sanctification seems slow, the Lord is faithful to initiate and bring change. Paul reminds us of this truth in 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24:

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

So what is the motivation for sanctification? Why should Christians seek to be more Christlike? Sanctification is not what we do to keep God happy. Keeping the Law is not about looking at what we can get out of it. Rather, the process of sanctification ultimately results in a joy that comes from obeying the one who saved us. It is not possible on our own or by our own power and volition. It only comes about by the power of the Holy Spirit as He transforms our hearts and minds to delight in His will.


[1] Ferguson, Sinclair. “Reformed View.” Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1988), p. 49.

[2] Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 35. http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html

[3] MacArthur, John. “The Steps of Biblical Sanctification.” 13 September 2012. http://www.gty.org/blog/B120913

[4] See Matthew 15:1-2, 10:20 and 23:23-28.

[5] Parnell, Jonathan. “Piper and Keller Wrestle with Sanctification.” 18 July 2012. http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/piper-and-keller-wrestle-with-sanctification

[6] Newton, John. Letters of John Newton. As quoted at http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2013/05/28/sovereignty-and-sanctificatio/