Prelude to Acting the Miracle: Putting Sanctification in Its Place
Desiring God 2012 National Conference
Act the Miracle: God's Work and Ours in the Mystery of Sanctification
This message appears as a chapter in Acting the Miracle: God’s Work and Ours in the Mystery of Sanctification.
1) What Is Sanctification?
The English word sanctify or sanctification is built on the Latin word sanctus, which means “holy.” In English, we don’t turn the adjective holy into a verb. The world holify does not exist. But in the Greek language of the New Testament, the adjective holy (hagios) can be made into a verb (hagiazō), which means “to make holy” or to “treat as holy.” In Greek, that same adjective for holy (hagios) can be made into three different nouns (hagiosmos, hagiōsunē, hagiotēs), which sometimes mean “the condition of being holy” (“holiness”) or “the process of becoming holy” — which would be “holification” if such a word existed in English, but since it doesn’t, we use “sanctification.”
Here’s the crucial point: any time you read in the New Testament any form of the word “sanctify,” you know you are reading about holiness. So a book like this on sanctification is a book on being or becoming holy. And the reason I use the terms “being” or “becoming” holy is that the New Testament refers to our holiness in both of those senses — a condition of being holy and a process of becoming holy.
The clearest place to see both of these in one chapter is Hebrews 10. Hebrews 10:10 says, “By [God’s] will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” So there is a sense in which all those who believe in Jesus “have been sanctified.” They are holy. And then four verses later (verse 14) we read, “By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” So there is a sense in which Christians are both perfected already (are perfectly holy) and are being sanctified (being made holy).
Both the condition of being holy and the process of becoming holy are prominent in the New Testament. Neither is minimized. The most obvious way to see the prominence of the Christian condition or state of holiness is to see that Paul calls Christians “saints” forty times in his thirteen letters. Paul’s favorite name for Christians is saints. The New Testament word behind the English “saint” is simply the adjective for “holy” turned into a noun — “holy ones” (hagioi).
You can see the connection between the condition of being sanctified and the name “saints” in 1 Corinthians 1:2: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified (hēgiasmenois) in Christ Jesus, called to be saints (klētois hagiois).” So the picture is that God calls us, and unites us by faith to Jesus, so that “in Christ Jesus,” we are holy, sanctified, and the name that we get, therefore, is “saints” or “holy ones.”
But the process of becoming holy (sanctification) is also prominent in the New Testament. We saw Hebrews 10:14, “By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” We see it in 2 Corinthians 7:1: “Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” So if we are bringing holiness to completion, there is a process of becoming fully holy. We are not there yet.
Or 1 Thessalonians 5:23: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely.” This prayer shows that our becoming holy is not yet complete. So Paul asks God to complete it. Or Hebrews 12:10: “[Our earthly fathers] disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but [God] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.” So a fuller holiness is coming through God’s discipline.
The upshot of all this so far is that whenever the New Testament talks about sanctification, it is talking about holiness. And when it is talking about our holiness, it is either talking about the condition of our being holy (because we are in Christ Jesus — and thus saints), or it is talking about the process of our becoming holy through God’s work in our lives.
Holiness as a Family Trait
That’s the first part of our answer to the question, What is sanctification? But notice what we’ve done. We have pushed the question back to another question, What is holiness? Or what does it mean to be holy and become holy? And it seems to me that the most important thing in defining our holiness is to notice its connection to God’s holiness. For example, 1 Peter 1:14–16 says, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”
So the basis of God’s command that his people be holy is that he is holy. Peter explains this not as an arbitrary demand but as a family trait. “As obedient children . . . be holy in all your conduct.” Peter is thinking the same way the apostle John is in his first letter, when he says, “No one born of God [that is, who has God as his Father] makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God” (1 John 3:9–10). The command to “be holy” is a command to show that we are God’s seed. We have his spiritual DNA, the genetic code of his holiness. That is, we are his children.
This is exactly confirmed by the words of Hebrews 12:10 that we just looked at a moment ago: “[Our earthly fathers] disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but [God our heavenly Father] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.” It’s not a contradiction to say, on the one hand, that we share in God’s holiness because we are born of God (and have his spiritual DNA, as it were, his genetic code of holiness), and to say, on the other hand, that God must discipline us so that we share in his holiness. If a child is to grow into the fullest expression of his Father’s character, he needs both the DNA by virtue of birth and the practice of that character with the help of his father’s discipline. In other words, we need regeneration by God’s seed, and we need sanctification by God’s Spirit — in order to grow up into the full participation in his holiness.
Or here’s the way Paul puts it. We need a “new self” — a new man, a new creation — “created after the likeness of God in true . . . holiness”; and we need to “put on” that new holy self (Ephesians 4:24). In other words, Christians are holy and must become holy. We have the seed of God’s likeness (God’s holiness) imparted to us when we are born again, and we must grow into that likeness (that holiness) to show who our Father really is. “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God” (1 John 3:10). “As obedient children, . . . ‘be holy for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:14–16) “[Our Father] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). “If you are left without discipline . . . then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (Hebrews 12:8). So, in asking the question, What is holiness? and in seeing that the holiness we need is to share in God’s holiness, the question now becomes, What is God’s holiness?
The Holiness of God
The root meaning of the Old Testament word for holy (chadōsh), where the biblical idea starts, is the idea of being separate — different and separated from something and devoted to something else. When applied to God, that meant God’s holiness is his separateness, his being in a class by himself, and thus being supremely valuable in every way. You can see this meaning of holy in these illustrations:
When Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it the way God said, God said to him, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12; see 27:14). In others words, Moses treated God not as separate from man, and thus supremely trustworthy, but as a mere man along with others whose word could be ignored.
Or in Isaiah 8:12–13, God says to Isaiah, “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.” In other words, don’t lump God into the same group as all your other fears and dreads. Treat him as an utterly unique fear and dread and set apart from all the ordinary fears and dreads.
God’s Transcendent Completeness and Self-Sufficiency
So here is how I conceive of the holiness of God. God is so separate, so above, and distinct from all else — all that is not God — that he is self-existent and self-sustaining and self-sufficient. Thus he is infinitely complete and full and perfect in himself. Since God is separate from, transcendent above, all that is not God, he was not brought into existence by anything outside himself. He is self-existent. He depends on nothing for his ongoing existence and so is self-sustaining. And therefore he is utterly self-sufficient. Complete, full, perfect.
The Bible makes plain that this self-existing, self-sustaining, self-sufficient God exists as three divine persons in one divine essence. Thus the Father knows and loves the Son perfectly, completely, infinitely; and the Son knows and loves the Father perfectly, completely, infinitely. And the Holy Spirit is the perfect, complete, infinite expression of the Father’s and the Son’s knowledge and love of each other. This perfect Trinitarian fellowship is essential to the fullness and perfection and completeness of God. There is no lack, no deficiency, no need — only perfect fullness and completeness and self-sufficiency.
But Something’s Missing
This is the holiness of God: his transcendent completeness and self-sufficiency. But there is a missing dimension in that description of holiness. Because God is utterly unique and self-existent, there is nothing besides God except what God wills to create. Therefore, God is absolute value. He is absolute worth. His transcendent completeness makes him infinitely valuable. Of infinite worth. It’s necessary to introduce this dimension of holiness into the definition because the Bible presents God’s holiness in terms of morality as well as terms of transcendence. Holiness is not just otherness. It is good and pure and right.
Introducing God’s infinite worth helps us conceive of God’s holiness in moral categories. Before creation, there were no standards of goodness and righteousness outside of God that could be used to say, God is good or right according to these standards. All there was was God. So, when there is only God, how do you define good? How can there be holiness with a moral dimension, and not just a transcendent one?
My answer is this: the moral dimension of God’s holiness is that every affection, every thought, and every act of God is consistent with the infinite worth of his transcendent fullness. In other words, I am defining holiness not only as the infinite worth of God’s transcendent fullness but also as the harmony that exists between the worth of that transcendent fullness and all God’s affections, thoughts, and acts. That harmony is the beauty of holiness.
In sum, then, God is transcendent in his self-existent completeness; and is, therefore, of infinite worth; and there is perfect harmony between the worth of his transcendent completeness and all his affections, thoughts, and acts. This is God’s holiness. Or to shorten it even more: his holiness is his transcendent fullness, his worth, and the beautiful harmony of all his acts with that worth (Stephen Charnock uses a quaint phrase to say something similar. God’s holiness is that he “works with a becomingness to his own excellency.” The Existence and Attributes of God, vol. 2 [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979], 115).
So when God says in 1 Peter 1:16, “Be holy, for I am holy,” or when Hebrews 12:10 says, “He disciplines us . . . that we may share his holiness,” what aspects of his holiness do they mean? Not that we should be transcendent as God is transcendent. Nor that we should be self-existent as God is self-existent. But, rather, that in all our affections and thoughts and acts, we, like God, should be a beautiful harmony with the infinite worth of God.
So I would define human holiness as feeling and thinking and doing only what is consistent with God being the supreme and infinite treasure of the universe. Our holiness is our conformity to the infinite worth of God. The opposite of holiness is sin, which is any feeling or thought or act that shows that for us God is not the beautiful treasure that he truly is.
This leads me then to define the process of sanctification as the action by which we bring our feelings and thoughts and acts into conformity to the infinite and all-satisfying worth of God. And I realize that I just said, “the action by which we bring our lives into conformity to the worth of God.” No doubt, I could have said, “the action by which God brings our lives into conformity to the worth of God.” Or better, both. That too is what this book is about. Who does it? And how is it done? We have much work to do.
2) What Is the Place of Sanctification in the Process of Salvation?
With that definition of sanctification before us, we now ask, What is the place of sanctification in relation to the other works of God in our salvation? To do so, we look at Romans 8:28–30:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
So here we have one great sequence of God’s saving acts. Starting in verse 29, God foreknows, God predestines, God calls, God justifies, and God glorifies. The question is: Where is sanctification in that sequence, and how does it relate to the other works of God
The answer is: it is in the beginning as the goal of predestination, and it is at the end as an essential part of glorification. And in between there are two works of God that make it possible for spiritually dead, wrath-deserving sinners to be sanctified — calling and justification. So let’s look very briefly at the beginning and the end and these two works in the middle.
Verse 29: “Those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” God predestines a group of people to be conformed to the image of his Son. In other words, he predestines our sanctification, our holiness. Here’s the way Paul says it in Ephesians 1:4–5: “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy. . . . He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ.”
Our Destiny: Holiness
The reason God has chosen a people for himself is to give them a particular destiny, and that destiny is their holiness, their sanctification, their conformity to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The aim of this conformity to Christ (according to Romans 8:29) is “that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” This means two things. It means that our being changed into the likeness of Jesus is because we are brought into the family and given a family likeness with God as our Father and Jesus as our brother. The other thing it means is that Jesus is not just another brother but the unique “firstborn” who is exalted and worshiped by his brothers.
From the very beginning, God predestined that his people would be sanctified, that is, that they would be transformed into the likeness of his Son. Or, we can say, we were predestined to share the Son’s holiness, and in that holiness be able to see him and celebrate him as we ought.
Glorification Includes Sanctification
But not only do we see sanctification at the beginning in this sequence in Romans 8:29 but also at the end in verse 30: “Those whom he justified he also glorified.” You might ask, “Why didn’t Paul say, ‘Those whom he justified he also sanctified, and those whom he sanctified he also glorified’?” One of the reasons Paul didn’t say that is that “glorification” includes sanctification. Paul thinks of glorification beginning in this life as we are incrementally changed into the likeness of the all-glorious Christ.
Here’s 2 Corinthians 3:18: “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” We are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory. This is the very transformation into the image of the Son that Romans 8:29 was talking about. Sanctification is the beginning of glorification. We move from one degree of conformity to Christ to the next, that is, one degree of glory to the next.
Beholding Is Becoming
Just as seeing him through a glass darkly in this life means we are sanctified incrementally, the day will come, according to 1 John 3:2, when we will see him as he is. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” Beholding is becoming. Partially now. Completely later. We usually call it sanctification now. And we will call it glorification then. But they are all one process.
Now between predestination and glorification, Paul mentions calling and justification. Romans 8:30: “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Without these two works of God, sinners who are spiritually dead and who deserve the wrath of God could never be sanctified. Without God’s call, we would be dead and unresponsive to all his sanctifying influences. And without God’s justification, we would be found guilty as charged, and there would be no sanctifying influences but only wrath. So without divine calling and divine justification, there would be no sanctification.
The Work of God’s Call
The call of God can be either his general invitation to the whole world to come to Christ or his particular, effective call that creates what it commands. When Paul says in verse 30, “Those whom he called he also justified,” we know it does not mean God’s general invitation. It’s not true that all whom he invited he justified. He justifies only those who believe. The calling of God brings about the faith that we need to be justified. This is not a general call but a specific effectual call, like the call Jesus gave to the dead Lazarus: “Come forth.” The call produced what it commanded.
Here’s a description of God’s effectual call from 1 Corinthians 1:22–24: “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” The general call goes out to all Jews and Gentiles. “Come to Christ the crucified!” But not all come. To many the cross is folly; to others it is a stumbling block. But to those who are called, that is, those in whom God makes his call effective, their eyes are opened, and they see the cross not as foolish but as the wisdom of God and the power of God. This call is virtually the same as the new birth, regeneration. And without it, no one would be justified, because no one would believe. And no one would be sanctified because no one would have life.
The Work of Justification
But when God calls like this, faith in Jesus is awakened and by that faith we are justified — such that Paul can say, “Those whom he called, he justified,” because the call creates the faith that justifies.
So the call of God removes one barrier to our sanctification, namely, our spiritual deadness. Justification removes the other great barrier to sanctification — and that barrier is our guilt in the courtroom of God and the just wrath of God resting on us (John 3:36). If God’s wrath is resting on us because of our guilt, then we are not going to be sanctified.
God’s remedy for this barrier is the great work of justification. He puts Christ forward by his perfect obedience, climaxing in his death, vindicated by his resurrection, and then offers this Christ to be received by faith. He promises that whoever believes will have pardon for all his sins and the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness. Because of that pardon and that imputation we are declared not guilty but righteous. We are justified.
“As by the one man’s [Adam’s] disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s (Christ’s) obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21; see also Philippians 3:9). All this is by faith alone, apart from works of the law. “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28).
The Place of Sanctification
Putting it all together, from all eternity God has been holy — transcendently self-sufficient, of infinite worth, acting in beautiful harmony with the greatness of his worth. In that holiness, he foreknew a people for himself and predestined them to share his holiness — to be conformed to the image of his Son for the glory of his Son — and those whom he thus predestined for holiness, he called out of spiritual deadness into life and awakened saving faith, and those whom he thus called he justified so that all his wrath would be removed from us and there would be only mercy. All those whom he thus justified he is bringing from one degree of glory to another by his Spirit who dwells in us. His success in this work of sanctification is so certain that it is as good as done. Those whom he justified, he glorified.
The place of sanctification is embedded in the sequence of divine acts from eternity to eternity that infallibly come to pass. All whom he foreknew, he infallibly predestined. All he predestined, he infallibly called. All whom he called, he infallibly justified. All he justified, he will infallibly pursue with sanctifying grace till everyone is glorified.