My wife has a cherished collection of hand-painted, fine china tea cups that she keeps on the top shelf of a cupboard. These cups are kept separate from our ordinary coffee mugs and brought down from their place of safety and display on special occasions. When we wash these cups and place them carefully on the top shelf we say we’re “sanctifying the tea cups.”
The Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, speaks of “sanctifying” particular objects, events, and people. The word sanctify literally means “to set apart” for a special purpose, and the process of setting apart is what makes something or someone holy.
Within Christian theology, the word sanctify typically refers to God’s work of transforming an individual or a community into a more Christlike creation. Their sanctification is accomplished through being “set apart” from the unholy things of this world—the things that are directly counter to who Jesus is and what he’s about. In the Old Testament we see that Abraham was set apart from his relatives in Ur and Haran, Joseph from his brothers, Moses and the prophets from their families for the service of God and the nation of Israel. In the New Testament, we see John the Baptist, the apostles, Paul, and the church all set aside for God’s particular purpose.
Once-for-All and Day-by-Day
Words synonymous with sanctification in the New Testament speak of both the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross and the process of our being matured in Christian character. The death of Jesus completed the final payment for sin; the resurrection of Jesus fulfilled the promise of new life. Through Christ’s death and resurrection we are made clean and new. Because he died for us, our lives get a fresh start.
But as young children learn to toddle, so we must learn to walk in his Spirit and grow in the qualities of our new nature in Christ. This process is also a part of being sanctified. And this sanctification occurs through the power of the Holy Spirit and the faith of a believer.
The process of sanctification can be like walking on stormy water. But when we are sinking, we may be assured that Jesus is there, just beyond the fog, his arms outstretched and beckoning us to draw near. This Jesus is no phantom but the Son of God with scarred hands and feet. He knows our struggles; he has felt our pains. He calls us to be holy as he is holy, set apart for a sacred purpose. He beckons us, “Come. Be sanctified.”
In Heaven or on Earth?
Christians have been thinking about sanctification for a long time. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says that sanctification is “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”
But the church has not yet entirely figured out sanctification theologically, and that is cause for some humility about the subject. So it should be admitted that some Christian churches believe sanctification will only be completed in heaven when God’s children are glorified, while other Christian denominations assert that complete sanctification is possible in this life.
While sanctification neither eradicates our sin nature nor merely counteracts our sinful behaviors, it does truly free us from our enslavement to sin by transforming us into more Christlike children of God. So, paradoxically, our sanctification was accomplished once-for-all by Jesus on the cross, and our sanctification is accomplished by the Holy Spirit in our lives daily. In both cases, we benefit from God’s grace and are enabled to mature in the fruit of God’s Spirit.
But our expressing the fruit of God’s Spirit serves a greater purpose than just the improvement of our character. The final end of our sanctification is the glory of God. As a result of our being conformed to Christ’s character and holiness, as a consequence of our growing in the fruit of the Spirit, we share in Christ’s glory and become an eternal testimony to the glory of God. And, in expressing such glory, our lives show that we have great value in God’s eyes.
As fine tea cups are set aside for special occasions, so we are sanctified by God for special use in this world for his kingdom. In Christ we are sanctified creations, set apart for his glory.
Jonathan Rice is the Senior Editor of InterVarsity's Communications Team.