What is Sanctification?





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by Pastor Vincent Nicotra

The basic meaning of the verb “to sanctify” is to separate, or to set apart. Sanctification in the Scriptures is the sovereign act of God whereby He sets apart a person, a place, or an object for Himself in order that He might accomplish His purpose in the world through those means.

The doctrine of sanctification, as it relates to believers, is seen as a process of moral and spiritual transformation flowing from the initial event of justification and adoption through faith in Christ. Therefore, sanctification is “a one-time event and a process, the believer’s being and becoming holy and acting correspondingly.”1 It is based upon a believer’s relationship to God and the indwelling Holy Spirit. Regeneration, otherwise known as the new birth, is accomplished through the work of the Holy Spirit alone. However, believers are instructed to cooperate in the process of sanctification (Philippians 2:12).

In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was commanded on several occasions to “be holy” because of their relationship with the holy God who had redeemed them from their bondage in Egypt. (Exodus 19:6; Leviticus 11:44-45, 19:2). Additionally, material things such as the Tabernacle furniture (Exodus 40:10, 11, 13) and a mountain (Exodus 19:23) were sanctified or set apart unto God.

In the New Testament believers are given the same instruction to “be holy” or “sanctified” (John 17:17; I Thessalonians 5:23. I Peter 1:15-16), yet at the same time they are often addressed as “saints” and “holy ones” because they had been set apart from the world unto God. In other words, they were already holy, yet they were instructed to pursue holiness. You might be wondering how a person can already be sanctified, and yet not be sanctified at the same time.

A Three-Stage Process

Throughout church history few subjects have been more vigorously debated than the way a person becomes sanctified. Over the centuries some have mistakenly attempted to grow in holiness through various rituals, asceticism and self-discipline. Others view sanctification as primarily the work of the Holy Spirit, yet see varying degrees of human effort involved in the process. Some disagree on how many stages or aspects there are in the process. Still others in their quest for holiness have completely withdrawn from society attempting to draw near to God through various spiritual disciplines. Is there a right answer? And if so, why do so many disagree on the subject? Fundamentally, the diversity of viewpoints finds its genesis in the way groups and individuals interpret the Scriptures.

We believe the Scriptures clearly teach that all three members of the Godhead are involved in the work of sanctification (Jude 1; Hebrews 2:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2) and that there are three distinctly different aspects to the process of sanctification: past, present, and future.


At conversion a believer is positionally set apart in Christ (Acts 20:32; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 1:30; 6:9-11; Hebrews 10:10, 14). By virtue of his or her union with Christ, every believer is sanctified and transferred from the power and dominion of Satan into the kingdom and service of God (John 1:14; Galatians 4:4-6; Colossians 1:12, 13). This work is accomplished by God, without human aid, through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. The moment a believer receives God’s Son by faith he is said to be “in Him,” a phrase used more than seventy times in Paul’s Epistles denoting the believer’s unalterable position. Those who trust in Christ are sanctified through the cleansing of His Blood. For example, the Corinthian believers, while far from sinless, were called saints and were said to have been sanctified (1 Corinthians 1:2, 30). In this sense a believer is already sanctified.


This is the process by which the Holy Spirit gradually changes the believer’s life and grants him or her victory over the remaining vestiges of sin. Though sanctification is the work of God in the heart of an individual, it is accomplished in harmony with the human response.2The present aspect of sanctification has also been referred to as practical sanctification because believers must “practically” work out their salvation in everyday life. Practical holiness involves putting to death in our lives what God has already sentenced to death on the cross and living out the new life given to us by the indwelling Spirit of Christ. Human effort is required but is not distinct from the word of God and the activity of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the empowering agent in the believer’s struggle against sin. The New Testament epistles address this aspect of growth, as putting away sin and putting on godliness (Romans 6:19, 22; 1 Thessalonians 4:3, 4; 1 Peter 1:14-16). Perfection in holiness is unattainable in this life therefore the ongoing process of sanctification never ends until a believer’s glorification (1 John 1:8-10). The Christian must resist sin and mortify his flesh until he is taken from this world at death or at the return of Christ. In this sense a believer is becoming sanctified.


This is the perfection the believer will enjoy at the resurrection (1 Thessalonians 5:23). When Jesus Christ returns every believer will receive a new body that will be free from the corruption of sin. The Christian will no longer have to resist the temptations of sin and lust nor will he have to continue to try to grow toward perfection. His sanctification will be complete. He will be wholly and forever set apart to God from sin. In this sense, a believer will be perfectly sanctified.

The Role of the Law in Sanctification
Despite the Law’s divine authorship, and the fact that it is holy and just and good, it can neither save nor sanctify, because of the ongoing power of sin. The law only inflames us to sin (Romans 5:20). The Apostle Paul made it clear that bondage to the law must cease if one is to be joined to Christ. In the New Covenant Christians are ruled by Christ through the indwelling presence of the Spirit, no longer being enslaved by the external law (7:1-6). In the New Covenant, God’s Spirit allows believers to have a proper appreciation for the law and a desire to obey it from the heart, despite our inability apart from His grace (Romans 7:22). In summary, the good news is that our union with Christ means that we are God’s possession (Romans 6:12-13) and that we have been united with Christ through His indwelling Spirit (Romans 8:9-13). The bad news is that we will continue our struggle with our sin and our flesh, as long as we maintain residence in mortal bodies.

But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. Romans 6:22

This article is copyright 2006  by Vincent Nicotra. This article may be quoted, in part or in whole, without permission.

You may contact the author through: http://www.christianfallacies.com/contact.php


1. Peterson, David, Possessed by God, Inter Varsity Press: Downers Grove, Illinois, 1995, 14.

2. Walvoord, John, in Five Views on Sanctification, Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids: MI, 1987, 225.

For further study we recommend the following:

Essential Truths of the Christian Faith – R.C. Sproul
Pleasing God – R. C. Sproul
A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith – Robert L. Reymond
Holiness – J. C. Ryle
The Law and Grace – Alva McClain