On the Way and Already There: The Dual Nature of Sanctification

By Carter Lemons, Class of 2015

What does it mean to become a Christian? Is it simply walking up to the altar and praying a prayer, or is it something more? The answer to this question often involves the term “sanctification,” but few Christians have a sound understanding of this term’s meaning. The dictionary definition of “sanctify” is to set apart or make holy, but there is so much more to it than that. The Bible describes it as a process that is integral to salvation itself. In this regard, one might think the Bible is inconsistent, since salvation is also described as a one-time event. The challenge is determining how to reconcile this tension; but to do this, one must define sanctification with more theological depth. To this end, we will define sanctification as the act and process through which people who accept Christ as their Lord and Savior are made more like Him through the Holy Spirit who aids in resisting temptation.

The process of sanctification is mentioned multiple times in the Bible. In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, he writes, “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” (5:23). The word “completely” indicates a process with multiple stages, the end goal of which is blamelessness. Earlier in the book, Paul gives an example of what this sanctification looks like. He says one who is sanctified will avoid sexual immorality. Jesus also references sanctification in his high priestly prayer. When he prays for his disciples, he asks the Father to “sanctify them in truth” (John 17:17). This request shows that sanctification is a process because the disciples had already submitted to Jesus as Lord and had been following him for years, but they were evidently not yet fully sanctified.

Other passages of Scripture convey that sanctification is a one-time event. Paul describes it this way in his defense before Agrippa. In speaking of the people of God, he describes them as “. . .those who are sanctified by faith in [Christ]” (Acts 26:18). If faith is the only thing necessary for sanctification, then it is a one-time event and not a process. A more obvious reference comes from the Book of Hebrews. The author shares the gospel in terms of sanctification. “So Jesus also suffered outside the gate to sanctify the people through his own blood” (Heb. 13:12). Since Jesus only died once, and his death was to sanctify the people, it follows that sanctification is a one-time event.

So how to resolve this apparent contradiction? Perhaps by analogy. In a way, sanctification is a lot like marriage. It is a one-time event and a process at the same time. A couple gets married, and the ceremony is a one-time event. At that ceremony they “get married.” However, it is also an ongoing process. The got married in the past, are still married in the present, and, Lord willing, will still be married in the future. Their marriage grows in depth and becomes something more than it was at that ceremony so many years prior.

Finally, Paul writes that part of being sanctified is abstaining from sexual immorality and by implication abstaining from all sin (1 Thess. 4:3). This cannot be done on earth. The process is never fully completed. Humans can never be without sin. The beautiful truth of the matter is that sanctification does not have to be completed to spend eternity with God, it just has to be in process.

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