Biblical Words and Theological Meanings: Sanctification as Consecration for Transformation
Protestants have traditionally understood sanctification as God’s work of gradual spiritual transformation over the entire life of every believer. Recent biblical scholarship has argued that such a definition does not actually correspond with the meaning of biblical terminology for sanctification, which refers to a single and definitive setting apart of believers at conversion. Some have also insisted that this calls into question the wisdom of using the word “sanctification” to describe how God transforms Christians throughout their lives. This article examines these competing perspectives, concluding that biblical terminology for sanctification, while indeed definitive in nature (indicating a once-for-all action occurring at conversion), is also integrally connected in the Bible with the process of spiritual transformation begun at conversion. The article then provides some reflections on how definitive and progressive dimensions of sanctification can (and should) be held together in a doctrine of sanctification.
Protestant Evangelical theology has traditionally explained sanctification along the lines of Louis Berkhof’s definition: it is “fundamentally and primarily … a divine operation in the soul, whereby the holy disposition born in regeneration is strengthened and its holy exercises are increased.”1Theologians along a wide denominational spectrum hold similar views. That sanctification is most fundamentally about moral transformation is a view held by Reformed theologians, like Michael Horton, who defines sanctification as “an ongoing work within believers that renews them inwardly and conforms them gradually to the image of God in Christ.”2 It is a view held by Baptist theologians such as Millard Erickson: “Sanctification is the continuing work of God in the life of the believer, making him or her actually holy.”3 It is also understood in this way by Lutherans such as Francis Pieper: “Sanctification designates the internal spiritual transformation of the believer or the holiness of life which follows upon justification.”4 The Methodist Thomas Oden writes similarly: “Through sanctifying grace the moral disposition is being gradually transformed so that one spontaneously loves good and resists evil.”5
Such an understanding of sanctification as the progressive transformation of the believer by God has a long pedigree in Protestant theology. The 1647 Westminster Shorter Catechism (Answer 35) defines sanctification as “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.”6 Francis Turretin (in 1679) writes that sanctification is the “real and internal renovation of man by which God delivers the man planted in Christ by faith and justified … more and more from his native depravity and transforms him into his own image.”7 The article on sanctification in the 1833 New Hampshire Baptist Confession states that sanctification is “a progressive work,” namely “the process by which, according to the will of God, we are made partakers of his holiness.”8 John Wesley insists that “by sanctification we are saved from the power and root of sin, and restored to the image of God” and that this is a process that “gradually increases” until the very end of the believer’s life.9 In sum, whatever differences there might be in parsing out the details of the doctrine, Protestant and Evangelical theologians in the past have consistently maintained that sanctification is the gradual, Spirit-worked transformation of believers into the image of Christ.
This basic definition of sanctification, however, has more recently been challenged, particularly among biblical scholars. The debate is not over whether God in fact transforms believers throughout their lives, but rather, whether this process should be called sanctification. D. A. Carson is representative: while he notes that sanctification in the NT can refer to “the progressive purifying of the believer, the process by which he becomes increasingly holy … it is a commonplace among Pauline scholars that … it commonly refers to the initial setting aside of an individual for God at his conversion.”10
David Peterson goes even further, insisting that in “systematic theology, sanctification has” wrongly “become the basket into which every theme related to Christian life and growth has been placed.”11Peterson insists that such a view of sanctification is premised on “an inadequate definition” which “obscures the distinctive meaning and value of the terminology in the New Testament, confusing sanctification with renewal and transformation.”12 In short, sanctification words do not connote progress, growth, or the like. Sanctification, biblically speaking, is “a once-for-all, definitive act and primarily has to do with the holy status or position of those who are in Christ.”13 For Peterson this fact is not merely a matter of defining words correctly. If biblical words for sanctification do not refer to transformation, he insists, one should not use the word sanctification for a doctrine of the moral transformation of believers either.
The purpose of this article, then, is twofold. First, I hope to shed light on the relationship between biblical terminology for sanctification and the classic Protestant doctrine of sanctification by examining whether it is biblically faithful to speak of sanctification in progressive and definitive senses, and if so, how they should be related. Second, I hope that in fulfilling this aim I might also contribute toward clarifying in general how biblical words should be related to doctrinal formulations, an issue that is a source of confusion and difficulty in many theological discussions.14 It is my contention that there is an integral connection between the definitive facet of sanctification terms (highlighted by Peterson) in the NT and God’s spiritual transformation of the believer (highlighted in the classic doctrine of progressive sanctification). If one only attends to the meaning of sanctificationwords then this vital connection will be obscured.
1. Sanctification as a Biblical Word
To assess competing claims about sanctification we must first attend to the biblical language of sanctification. Then, the biblical terminology for sanctification must also be related to ways of articulating a doctrine of sanctification, which we will examine in the next major section.
1.1. Old Testament Background
Before examining NT usage, a brief statement of OT sanctification terminology will be useful. In this section I am simply summarizing Peterson’s own work since it nicely captures the main thrust of OT teaching.15
The central reality in any discussion of sanctification is the holiness of God himself. One of the most common epithets for God in the OT is “the Holy One.”16 God is holy, which means that he is morally pure, separate from all sin and defilement, but also separate (transcendent) from all created things in his “majesty, sovereignty and awesome power.”17
Because God is holy, all that is unholy must be cast out his presence. “Nevertheless, many Old Testament passages indicate that holiness can be attributed or imparted to people or objects because they are cleansed and consecrated to the Lord and his service.”18 When one is sanctified one is set apart for God’s special use. However (and just as importantly), the consecration of God’s people is rooted in God’s election and work of redemption. Sinful people cannot be consecrated for service to God unless they are first purified and cleansed of their sinful defilements. God is the one who takes the initiative in sanctifying his people. Israel is specifically set apart by God as his “possession” (סְגֻלָּה), a “holy nation” (גוֹי קָדוֹשׁ). This consecration, however, is only possible because of the mediation and atonement that is worked by God in and through the priestly system, encapsulated above all in the Day of Atonement (Lev 16). In other words, Israel is called to be holy, but must first be cleansed by God and thereby granted a holy status.19 If it were not for this latter fact, God’s awesome holiness would have annihilated Israel (see e.g., Exod 19:22–24).20
Finally, because God is holy and has set his people apart as holy, He “demand[s] holiness of living as a response,” which is best summed up in the first half of Leviticus 11:44: “For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.”21 Peterson summarizes OT teaching about the sanctification of God’s people like this: “holiness means being set apart for a relationship with the Holy One, to display his character in every sphere of life.”22
1.2. New Testament Sanctification Terminology
Four main words must be attended to in a discussion of sanctification terminology in the NT: the verbἁγιάζω, the adjective ἅγιος, and the nouns ἁγιασμός and ἁγιωσύνη.23
The verb ἁγιάζω appears 28 times in the NT. Often it has an obviously “consecrational” (and thus definitive/positional) sense, as can be seen, for example, in Matthew 23:17: “You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred [ἁγιάσας]?” In this instance, the participial form of ἁγιάζω conveys the idea of ritual consecration; the temple is a place set apart for God’s special use, and because of this fact, the gold in the temple is also specially set apart, or consecrated. It is, as the ESV translates it, “sacred.”24 Ultimately, objects consecrated by God are “holy,” because God himself is holy (Matt 6:9 par; cf. 1 Tim 4:5). The idea that God and objects he sets apart are holy is a commonplace notion carried over directly from the OT.
As in the OT, people are also said in the NT to be consecrated to God. For this reason, these texts are the most obviously relevant when discussing the doctrine of sanctification. In the prayer of Jesus recorded in John 17 Jesus asks the Father to “sanctify [ἁγίασον] them in the truth; your word is truth” (17:17). God’s word sets Jesus’s disciples apart as specially consecrated for God’s own use. In context, this means that Jesus’s disciples, although still physically present in the world, are at the same time to be separate from the sin and defilement of the world (17:14–16). They are consecrated by God for this task, just as Jesus is (17:19).25 This act of consecration is not a process. It is something that happens “definitively” at the very inception of the believing life. This definitive consecration is evident in many NT texts, such as Acts 20:32: “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified [τοῖς ἡγιασμένοις].” This participle indicates a state of existence, namely the “status [believers] have received”26 in Christ rather than to the fact that they are being progressively “made holy.”27 This kind of sanctification is something that happens at the moment someone believes the gospel, as is particularly clear in the linkage between conversion and sanctification in Acts 26:18, which also uses a perfect participle when referring to “those who are sanctified [τοῖς ἡγιασμένοις] by faith in me.”
Old Testament cultic overtones reveal the “definitive” nature of sanctification words in texts like Romans 15:16, which speaks of Paul as “a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God,” who labors tirelessly in his ministry “so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified [ἡγιασμένη] by the Holy Spirit.” Like the consecration of OT sacrifices, Gentiles who believed the gospel under Paul’s preaching were specially consecrated by the Holy Spirit when they came to faith (15:17–21). In 2 Timothy 2:21 Paul also evokes OT notions of holiness as consecration when he states that “if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy [ἡγιασμένον], useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.” Vessels that are holy are “instruments” set apart for “special purposes” (as the NIV translates σκεῦος εἰς τιμήν).
This sense of definitive, positional sanctification is particularly evident in Hebrews. Hebrews 9:13 is perhaps the most obvious text in the letter where ἁγιάζω refers to consecration at a single moment in time. This verse speaks of the way in which the blood of OT sacrifices sanctifies (ἁγιάζω) “defiled persons” (priests in particular) creating an external “purification of the flesh.” At the moment blood was sprinkled on them they became ritually pure and were thereby consecrated for their priestly duties. In 9:14 this outward purification is contrasted with the spiritual, inward cleansing of the hearts of believers that comes through the blood of Jesus Christ. His blood purifies (καθαρίζω) the consciences of believers from their sinful (“dead”) works, which means that the crippling sense of standing under God’s condemnation has been dealt with once-and-for-all.28
There is a close connection in 9:13–14 between sanctification and purification, which is further fleshed out in chapter 10. In 10:1–4 we read that the OT sacrifices could not “perfect” (τελειόω) the worshippers of God who drew near to Him in the tabernacle (10:1). Perfection in Hebrews does not refer to flawless moral uprightness, but rather to God’s people having their sense of standing under His condemnation (their “consciousness of sins” [συνείδησιν ἁμαρτιῶν]) washed away, or cleansed (10:2). Perfection essentially means “wholeness” with regard to one’s sense of their standing before God.29 Animal sacrifices in and of themselves could not perfect, or cleanse, anyone, or else they would have ceased once they had done so (10:2). Instead, they remind God’s people that their sins have yet to be fully and finally dealt with (10:3).
In contrast, the death of Jesus Christ has sanctified (ἁγιάζω) all believers (10:10). The action ofἡγιασμένοι (a stative participle) in 10:10 takes place when the redemption accomplished through the cross is applied to the believer. It is a definitive, once-for-all action, in contrast with the repeated sacrifices of the Old Covenant (10:11). Christ’s death, as seen in 10:14, is the means through which he “has perfected” (perfect tense of τελειόω) “those who are being sanctified” (τοὺς ἁγιαζομένους). This text is the one text in Hebrews which, on the surface, seems most amenable to being read as indicating progressive transformation, rather than a once-for-all action.30 However, this is more a result of common English renderings than what the author is actually saying. In context 10:14 is seen to retain the definitive sense that obtains for the rest of the instances of ἁγιάζω in Hebrews, as is especially evident in 10:10, which explains that believers “have been sanctified” (ἡγιασμένοι ἐσμέν) “once-for-all” (ἐφάπαξ) through Christ’s death.31
Although ἁγιάζω is imperfective in aspect in 10:14, this does not by itself indicate that sanctification is a process. It could just as easily be read as indicating that Jesus’s “single offering” is the basis for the sanctification that will occur every time someone turns in faith to Jesus Christ. In other words, the perfection mentioned in 10:14 was brought about once-and-for-all through the death of Christ, and is then applied to each and every believer at the moment of conversion, which constitutes their sanctification, or consecration unto God.32 Just like the priests of the Old Covenant, believers have had their “hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience” and their “bodies washed with pure water,” both phrases in Hebrews indicating the true, spiritual cleansing that became theirs when Christ’s blood washed away their sins (10:19–20). The language of sprinkling and washing is OT sanctification language, even though it does not use words in the ἁγ– word group. It is clear in 10:19–22 that this consecrational/ sanctificational cleansing is a definitive action that occurred in the past, just like the sanctification described in 10:10 and 10:14. The last instance of ἁγιάζω in Hebrews makes much the same point: “Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify [ἵνα ἁγιάση] the people through his own blood” (13:12).
In sum, in Hebrews, the verb ἁγιάζω, in line with OT usage, refers to a once-for-all cleansing of believers through the blood of Jesus Christ. The one thus sanctified has been cleansed and consecrated so that he (like the priests of the OT) can “draw near to God” (Heb 4:16; 7:19, 25; 10:1; 11:6; cf. Lev 9:7; 21:18; Num 16:40; Ezek 43:19).33
Returning to Paul’s letters we find many instances of ἁγιάζω being applied to believers, several of which have been very influential in the development of the doctrine of definitive sanctification. In 1 Corinthians 1:2 Paul describes the church in Corinth as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus” (ἡγιασμένοις ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ). Just as in Acts 20:32, the stative force of this participle indicates the state of existence into which these believers have been brought rather than progressive spiritual growth in their lives. “Those sanctified in Christ Jesus” is simply another designation for “the saints” (ἁγίοις), a designation Paul also uses in this verse. A saint is someone who has been sanctified. One does not become a saint through a long travail in personal faithfulness. Rather, one is “called” (κλήτος) a saint at the moment he or she is converted. It is a status that comes to the believer through union with Christ.34
1 Corinthians 6:11 is another important example of the definitive use of the verb ἁγιάζω. In context Paul warns the Corinthians that those who persist in unrepentant unrighteousness “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9), going on to list a variety of offenses that will exclude one from the kingdom (6:9–10). In 6:11 Paul sharply contrasts these unrepentant sinners with the believers in Corinth: “such were some of you.” This radical change in their spiritual conditions took place when “you were washed” (ἀπελούσασθε), “you were sanctified” (ἡγιάσθητε), and “you were justified [ἐδικαιώθητε] in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” As Murray notes, Paul here coordinates believers’ “sanctification with effectual calling, with their identity as saints, with regeneration, and with justification.”35 These are all aspects of the salvation accomplished by Christ and applied at the moment of conversion by the Spirit.36 Sanctification, here, does not indicate a process, any more than does justification or washing.
The definitiveness of this sanctification perhaps can be seen no more clearly than in Ephesians 5:26, which like 1 Corinthians 6:11, places sanctification at the beginning of the Christian life. In this verse Paul writes of Jesus having given himself up for the church so “that he might sanctify [ἁγιάσῃ] her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” Evoking the language of priestly consecration, this sanctification is said to be brought about through the cleansing that occurs in the “washing of water with the word,” a phrase which (whatever else it invokes) refers to the moment of conversion, and the instrumentality of the preached word in that conversion.
Ἅγιος appears 233 times in the NT. Most foundationally, as in the OT, God is the “holy one” (see Rev 15:4). In the NT this manifests itself in a Trinitarian fashion: God the Father is ἅγιος (e.g., Luke 1:49; John 17:11), God the Son is ἅγιος (e.g., Mark 1:24; Acts 4:30), and God the Spirit is ἅγιος (e.g., Matthew 1:18; Acts 1:8). Because God is holy, he calls his people to be holy. While the word is sometimes applied to people who manifest especially great degrees of righteous living (e.g., Mark 6:20; Luke 1:70; 1 Peter 3:5), it is much more frequently used (especially in the NT letters) simply to designate believers as such. To be a believer is to be a “holy one,” one set apart by God for his special use.37 In fact, this is one of Paul’s most common appellations for believers (e.g., Rom 1:7; 2 Cor 1:1; Eph 1:1; Phil 1:1; Col 1:2; cf. Heb 3:1). Being holy in this sense is not about acquired righteousness but is simply the result of union with Christ. The definitive, or positional, nature of holiness is also seen in a text like 1 Corinthians 7:14, which employs both ἁγιάζω and ἅγιος: “For the unbelieving husband is made holy [ἡγίασται] because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy [ἡγίασται] because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy [ἅγιά].” The unbelieving spouse is holy because he or she is married to a believer. For this reason, their children are also holy. This is an objective status, which is the normal way the word is used in the NT.
1.2.3. Ἁγιασμός and Ἁγιωσύνη
Ἁγιασμός and ἁγιωσύνη are two different ways of referring in nominal form to the state of existence that believers enter into when they are converted, a status they must maintain throughout their lives.38 This is the state that is verbally indicated using ἁγιάζω.
Ἁγιωσύνη only occurs three times in the NT, and two of the occurrences refer to believers.39 In 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1 Paul calls the corporate body of Christ “the temple of the living God” (6:16). To support this claim, in 6:16–18, he stitches together wording from Leviticus 26:11–12, Isaiah 52:11, and 2 Samuel 7:14, verses which promise that God will dwell with his people and bless them with his fatherly, saving love.40 In 2 Corinthians 7:1 Paul exhorts the Corinthians to recognize that these promises should lead them to “cleanse” (καθαρίζω) themselves “from every defilement of body and spirit,” a cleansing he defines as “completing holiness in the fear of God” (AT; ἐπιτελοῦντες ἁγιωσύνην ἐν φόβῳ θεοῦ). In this verse ἁγιωσύνη can still be understood in its normal positional sense of consecration. Holiness is the quality, or status, of separation from defilement. However, the way in which this status is connected to transformation is obvious: one must complete one’sἁγιωσύνη in the sense of bringing it to its intended goal, which means maintaining one’s holy status over time. While the word ἁγιωσύνη by itself does not indicate this transformation, transformation isseen in the use of ἁγιωσύνη in conjunction with the verb ἐπιτελέω. Another way to put this is that Paul is commanding the Corinthians to constantly strive to put into practice what is true of them in Christ: if they have been set apart from sinful use for God’s own special (sanctified) use, then they must live this out in the concrete realities of life by actually striving to remain separate from sin. This holiness will not be complete until the end of one’s life, and, in fact, will not be manifest in its fullness until the return of Christ. This dimension of holiness is described in 1 Thessalonians 3:13, where we read Paul’s prayer for the hearts of believers to be established (στηρίζω) “blameless in holiness” (ἀμέμπτους ἐν ἁγιωσύνῃ) on the day of Christ’s return. Although ἁγιωσύνη means separateness from sin (a separation that began at conversion [see ἁγιασμός in 2 Thess 2:13]), a connection with Christian growth is evident in 3:13 too: the very means of believers’ hearts being established blameless in holiness is the Lord causing them to “increase [πλεονάζω] and abound [περισσεύω] in love for one another and for all” (3:13).41 An increase in love, in other words, is necessary for holy blamelessness to be established.42 It is the surrounding context of ἁγιωσύνη in Thessalonians 3:13 rather than the meaning of the noun itself, however, that shows that Paul has spiritual growth in mind.
Given the centrality of Romans 6 in defenses of the doctrine of definitive sanctification, it is interesting that most defenders of the doctrine do not actually spend substantial time discussing the two actual uses of explicit sanctification terminology in that chapter (Rom 6:19, 22). Both of these verses employ the noun ἁγιασμός in order to indicate the status of the believer who pursues righteousness (6:19), a status that must be maintained until such a person enters into eternal, heavenly life (6:22). In both verses, ἁγιασμός is not the objective status one receives when one is first united to Christ, although it should not be disconnected from that initial consecration. Instead, ἁγιασμός in this chapter is the status that can be said to apply to the person who is obeying God more and more. In other words, righteousness (6:19), or good fruit (6:22), is how one continues to reflect his or her sanctification/consecration.43
First Corinthians 1:30, in distinction from Romans 6:19 and 6:22, places ἁγιασμός at the very beginning of the Christian life. When a person is united to Jesus Christ (placed by God ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ) Christ “becomes” (γίνομαι) for that person “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification [ἁγιασμός] and redemption.” In this verse the central reality depicted is Christ becoming wisdom for the believer, with each of the three subsequent nouns describing what it means for Christ to be our wisdom, rather than introducing three additional things that Christ “becomes.”44 Ἁγιασμός comes to the believer through union with Christ; it is an objective possession of the believer from the very inception of the Christian life. In this verse Paul is talking neither about progressive transformation, nor about a definitive break with the power of sin. Instead, as Herman Bavinck puts it:
Christ is their righteousness (δικαιοσυνη, dikaiosynē) but in the same sense also their sanctification (ἁγιασμος, hagiasmos; 1 Cor 1:30)…. Christ, that is, by his suffering and death has not only accomplished the righteousness on the basis of which believers can be acquitted by God; he has similarly secured the holiness by which he can consecrate them to God and purify them from the stains of sin (John 17:19).45
Sanctification, in the sense of 1 Corinthians 1:30, is the objective possession of the believer, just like righteousness (δικαιοσύνη) and redemption (ἀπολύτρωσις) are.46 Or put differently: the believer possesses sanctification, righteousness, and redemption, because he or she possesses Christ, who, as God’s wisdom, has brought all of these realities into the world through his death and resurrection. Michael Allen puts it well: “holiness is not only a task but also a gift. It is not only a calling but also a reality evoked by God’s declaration.”47
First Peter 1:2 also places ἁγιασμός at the moment of conversion, but in a slightly different way than 1 Corinthians 1:30: rather than indicating an “imputation” of holiness, Peter writes of the consecrating work of the Holy Spirit at the moment of conversion. When believers are united to Christ they are once-and-for all set apart for God’s special use, making them “elect exiles” in this age. Thus, 1 Peter 1:2 can be said to have a definitive sense. However, the link with spiritual and ethical growth is also seen in this verse: believers are sanctified by the Spirit “for obedience to Jesus Christ” (εἰς ὑπακοὴν… Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ). Obedience must follow sanctification.
2. Sanctification as a Doctrine
Toward the end of his book Peterson provides a helpful summary of the meaning of biblical sanctification terminology: Sanctification “is primarily another way of describing what it means to be converted or brought to God in Christ and kept in that relationship.”48 This definition captures the two aspects of sanctification that we have seen above: first, that sanctification is a status entered into at conversion, and second, that sanctification is a status that must be preserved. Peterson is also correct to argue that (on the level of terminology) “instead of speaking in terms of progressive sanctification, the NT more regularly employs the language of renewal, transformation and growth, to describe what God is doing with us here and now.”49 Sanctification words do not denote transformation. On the surface, this would seem to be a decisive argument against using the language of “progressive sanctification.”
It is, however, also true that definitive sanctification understood (by Murray, Hoekema, etc.) as a decisive break with enslavement to sin is a theological category that does not correspond precisely with the use of sanctification terminology in the NT. Sanctification words (by themselves) do not denote spiritual release and freedom. On the surface of things this too might seem to be a decisive argument against using the language of sanctification to refer to transformation, even if one restricts this to transformation at conversion.
Does this mean that the doctrines of definitive and progressive sanctification are unbiblical? Peterson (representing a dominant trend in biblical scholarship) is not only opposed to defining biblical sanctification words in a way that denotes spiritual growth but is also leery of applying the word sanctification to a doctrine of Christian moral development. Nor does he use the term like Murray does to describe definitive sanctification as a “once-for-all definitive and irreversible breach with the realm in which sin reigns in and unto death.”50 Although Peterson (like Murray) does focus on thedefinitiveness of sanctification terminology, unlike Murray he does not see sanctification words as having reference to spiritual transformation at the moment of conversion.
For Peterson, the test of the biblical fidelity of a doctrine is whether it corresponds with the biblical terminology from which it derives its name. When theologians use the word sanctification to refer to the whole process of Christian spiritual growth, he insists, the word has “become such a broad concept that its particular New Testament meaning has been obscured.”51 We should not speak of the “process of moral and spiritual transformation following conversion” as sanctification at all.52 On the one hand, the doctrine of sanctification should be restricted to expressing the believer’s consecration and separateness from sin. On the other hand, when speaking of the spiritual and moral development of believers the biblical terminology of transformation, glorification, regeneration, and renewal should be used.53
It is this dimension of Peterson’s argumentation that can be questioned. Must biblically faithful doctrines correspond in a one-to-one way with the biblical words from which they are derived? It is my contention that it is illegitimate to insist that they must. The remainder of this article will attempt to show why arguing that they must is not theologically helpful. What matters when assessing the faithfulness of a doctrine is whether its concepts are biblical, not whether or not it uses biblical words only in the ways in which they are employed in scripture.54 If one were to follow Peterson’s logic with complete consistency, one’s systematic theology would not merely be altered, but in fact, systematic theology would become impossible. A Christian could know what individual words mean in their individual contexts but could never move beyond this to synthesizing the Bible’s teaching on a given topic. The reason for this is simple: words do not mean doctrines; words like sanctify or sanctification could only be defined as they are found in each concrete instance in the Bible. Nothing more could be said about sanctification. The question to ask is not: “Do biblical words correspond with doctrines that use the same word?” Instead, the questions to ask are these: “Are the doctrines of definitive and progressive sanctification biblical in their content? Do they accurately summarize and synthesize biblical teaching?” The answer on both accounts is “Yes.”55
First, let us consider definitive sanctification, understood as the “once-for-all definitive and irreversible breach with the realm in which sin reigns in and unto death” (Murray). The central text used to support this doctrine is Romans 6.56 As has been noted above, Romans 6 only employs sanctification terminology in verses 19 and 22. Neither of those instances of sanctification words has anything to do with definitive sanctification in Murray’s sense. Conceptually speaking, however, Romans 6 does speak of a “once-for-all definitive and irreversible breach with the realm in which sin reigns in and unto death.” In Romans 5:20 Paul makes a claim that was bound to shock his Jewish contemporaries: God’s “law came in to increase the trespass.” God’s intention in this, however, was not simply that humans would sin more. Instead, God gave his law to stir up the sin already lying dormant in every human heart (cf. 4:15; 7:7–11). However, he did this with a more ultimate aim in view, namely, that grace might abound all the more, and that sinners would be led to seek salvation in Jesus Christ (5:21). In light of Paul’s claim in 5:20 that the increase of sin brought about an increase of grace, he anticipates that some might respond by thinking that they should “continue in sin that grace may abound” (6:1). Paul emphatically rules this conclusion out in 6:2. Why? Because “we who died to sin” (οἵτινες ἀπεθάνομεν τῇ ἁμαρτίᾳ) simply cannot continue to “live in it” (6:2). Death to sin’s mastery comes about by being baptized into Christ and his death (6:3). The divinely directed outcome (ἵνα) of death with Christ is resurrection to “newness of life” with Christ (6:4).57
Given that there are no sanctification terms in Romans 6 that refer to the spiritual freedom for the believer that is brought about through death and resurrection with Christ, why do Murray and others call this definitive sanctification?58 Here I must speculate slightly, but the overall gist of Murray’s article “Definitive Sanctification” appears to supply an answer. Murray, like Peterson, highlights the punctiliar, definitive sense of sanctification in numerous texts in the NT (e.g., 1 Cor 1:1; 6:11). Murray therefore concludes that sanctification words refer to definitive, once-for-all, realities that occur at conversion. This conclusion is correct, as we saw above. Murray also (rightly) recognizes that death and resurrection with Christ in Romans 6 (and elsewhere) is a punctiliar, definitive event. The final step in his reasoning, then, appears to be a combination of these two notions: if sanctification is a definitive event, and death and resurrection with Christ is a definitive event, and both of these events occur simultaneously at conversion, then it makes sense to say that believers are definitively sanctified at conversion. Murray appears to conflate the definitiveness of sanctification (on the level of word meaning) with the definitiveness of death and resurrection with Christ (on the conceptual level). One could, therefore, dispute the appropriateness of using the word sanctification to describe death and resurrection with Christ (and its results for the believer), but this would in no way invalidate the concept Murray articulates.59 A recognition that Murray’s doctrine of definitive sanctification is not a mere unpacking of the meaning of sanctification terminology does not overturn the doctrine itself.60If one desires (as Peterson and others do) to dispute the appropriateness of calling this reality sanctification, an alternative conceptual “tag” would be necessary to describe the reality at work in Romans 6. Even so, it is hard to imagine a single word, derived from Romans 6 itself, that could capture the entire theological dynamic of Romans 6. What word or phrase would be better? The doctrine of death and resurrection with Christ? Even that phrase is not found verbatim in Romans 6. Regeneration? Renewal? Those words are not found in Romans 6 either.
When we examine the doctrine of progressive sanctification we face an issue similar to the one faced regarding definitive sanctification: as we have seen above, the vast majority (if not all) sanctification terms in the NT do not describe a process at all; they describe a consecration of the believer by God for his special use. And yet theologians appeal to a variety of texts that use no sanctification wording to defend the doctrine of progressive sanctification.61 One could quibble with employing the word sanctification to describe this reality, but it is indisputable that the NT portrays the Christian life as one of progressive growth and advancement in righteousness. Even Peterson willingly grants this. For example, he states that “Scripture certainly envisages a process of spiritual maturation (e.g. 1 Cor. 3:1–4; Heb. 5:11–6:2) and urges progress in godliness (e.g. 1 Tim. 4:7–10, 15). There are also indications that we should increase and abound in love and holiness (e.g. 1 Thes. 4:1, 9–10).”62
If one is not going to call this idea of Christian spiritual growth progressive sanctification, what should it be called? As we saw above, Peterson makes a persuasive case for employing the language of transformation, glorification, regeneration, and renewal to describe this process. But none of these words by themselves can capture the entirety of the concept of the believer’s spiritual development. Thus, each of these words runs into the same issues as sanctification. No matter which word is chosen, the most important thing is whether or not the concepts described and placed under that doctrinal heading are biblical concepts. Again, unless one is willing to jettison systematic theology altogether, words are always going to be used as doctrinal headings that do not correspond in a simple one-to-one way with the concepts they serve as placeholders for.
Despite all that has been said about the way in which the doctrines of definitive and progressive sanctification do not correspond exactly with the lexical meaning of sanctification terms, there are very good reasons for maintaining the language (conceptually or doctrinally speaking) of definitive and progressive sanctification. To this we now turn our attention.
First, consider the definitiveness of sanctification language. As was noted above, in recent years biblical scholars and theologians alike have come to recognize that sanctification words in the Bible have a definitive sense to them: being sanctified means being set apart by God for his own special use. It means being holy in the sense of devoted to God. Sanctification is consecration. And yet it cannot be denied that sanctification also has a moral component. Being set apart is not merely an issue of objects used for special purposes. Being holy means reflecting the moral purity of God in righteous living (Lev 11:44–45; 19:2; 1 Pet 1:13–16).63 Thus, we could say that the biblical picture is this: to be sanctified means being set apart as holy in order that one might reflect the holiness of God himself. This holiness is a status received definitively at the outset of the Christian life, but it is also something that must be maintained throughout the entirety of a believer’s life.
How can this holy status be maintained and preserved? Here, the doctrine of definitive sanctification as elaborated by Murray and others is vital. There is no possibility of the believer preserving his or her holy status apart from the radical, renewing grace of God received at the moment of conversion that is described in Romans 6.64 When believers are united to Jesus Christ by faith they move from being “dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” to being made “alive together with Christ” and “raised … up with him and seated … with him in the heavenly places” (Eph 2:1, 5, 6). This movement out of radical spiritual inability into a state of spiritual life, along with the ongoing work of the Spirit, is the basis for any subsequent Christian growth (see Eph 4:20–24). Paul concisely captures this dynamic in Colossians 3:1 (NIV): “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”65 While the key supporting texts for the doctrine of definitive sanctification do not use sanctification words, it is nonetheless true that this definitive break with the power of sin occurs simultaneously with the definitive consecration that isindicated by sanctification words in the NT.66
Second, consider the connection between death and resurrection with Christ and ongoing spiritual development. The appropriateness of using the word sanctification to describe both definitive and progressive aspects of Christian transformation becomes evident when one examines several NT texts that explicitly connect definitive consecration at conversion and subsequent Christian growth.
In Revelation 21:11 John records one of the final admonitions of the angel who has been speaking with John throughout the book. It comes immediately after he tells John not to seal up the prophecy, since it is soon to be fulfilled (22:10): “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy [ὁ ἅγιος] still be holy [ἁγιασθήτω]” (22:11).67 For our purposes, the key lies in this: being holy is a definitive status one possesses (indicated by the substantive ὁ ἅγιος), but it is also a status that must be maintained (indicated by the passive verbal form of ἁγιάζω). Even here, the verb ἁγιάζω itself does not refer to a process. It still means “to consecrate” or “to set apart for special use.” However, a person who is holy could lose that status through doing evil, or being filthy, to use the language of the first half of the verse. The angel’s command is that a person who is set apart (sanctified) by God must actively work to ensure that he or she does not become defiled. Such a person must strive to continue (indicated by ἔτι) to be separate from sin, and in so doing to preserve his or her holy status.
In Romans 12:1 believers are called to act in accordance with their status as holy ones: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy [ἁγίαν] and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Devoting one’s body completely to the Lord means vigorously and continuously striving to remain separate (holy) from the world and all its sinful entanglements. The act of presentation as a holy, living sacrifice does not end at conversion, which is why it is called a living sacrifice.
The unmarried woman is said in 1 Corinthians 7:34 to be able to devote herself fully to the “things of the Lord in order that she might be holy [ἁγία] in body and spirit” (AT). She must strive, in other words, to live in a manner suitable for a person consecrated to God’s service by seeking after things that please the Lord.
Peter, quoting Leviticus 11:44, tells his readers that “as he who called you is holy [ἅγιον], you also be holy [ἅγιοι] in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy [ἅγιοι], for I am holy [ἅγιός]’” (1 Peter 1:15). Despite the fact that ἅγιός does not mean transformation, the link with transformation is obvious in the command to be holy, that is, to maintain one’s consecrated status and position, to keepbeing holy.68
In 1 Thessalonians 3:13 we see that only those who have striven constantly to maintain their separateness from sin throughout their lives will be confident (strengthened) in the end. Without the pursuit of lifelong holiness (not sinlessness), confidence in one’s acceptance by God will not be possible when Christ returns.
The close connection that ἁγιασμός has with moral transformation is also evident in 1 Thessalonians 4:1–8. In 4:1–12 Paul begins the final section of the letter by urging the believers in Thessalonica to remember what they have been taught, specifically with regard to “how you ought to walk and to please God,” which is something they currently “are doing” and something Paul exhorts them to do “more and more” (4:1). In this section he uses the word ἁγιασμός three times (vv. 3, 4, 7). God’s will for believers is their ἁγιασμός, primary aspects of which are abstinence from sexual immorality (4:3), and self-control in ἁγιασμός (4:4), which also manifests itself in sexual purity (4:5–6). The antithesis ofἁγιασμός is impurity (ἀκαθαρσία, 4:7). In each instance in this section, ἁγιασμός could be translated as holiness. The focus in each case is purity and separateness from that which is morally defiling. Whileἁγιασμός is indeed a status of separateness from sin, what is especially noteworthy in this section is that it is a status that one must maintain. Ἁγιασμός is what God wills that each believer pursue (4:3). It is a status that will only be evident as they strive to please God “more and more” (4:1). It is a holiness that must be preserved through a constant striving after sexual purity (4:3–8).69
Finally, the use of ἁγιασμός is Hebrews 12:14 should also be understood in the same way: if people do not “pursue” (διώκω) “holiness” (ἁγιασμός) throughout their lives they will not see the Lord (i.e., be saved) in the end. Even though ἁγιασμός means separateness from defilement and sin, this separateness must be continually manifest throughout the Christian life. Believers are set apart as holy, and they must strive to preserve that holy status until the final judgment. As Anthony Thiselton puts it, believers must be “holy in life, as a habituated pattern which has become reflected in settled character.”70 Thus, even in Hebrews, where the definitiveness of sanctification is the most pronounced in the whole NT, it is seen that sanctification/holiness must be maintained over the entirety of a believer’s life.71
The connection between definitive consecration at conversion and subsequent Christian growth can also be seen in two final texts that show the necessity of believers living in accordance with the holy status they have received in Christ.
First Thessalonians 5:23, the first part of the blessing at the end of the letter, reads as follows: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely [ἁγιάσαι ὑμᾶς ὁλοτελεῖς], and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This verse highlights the connection between sanctification and spiritual growth. In the first half of the verse Paul prays that God would sanctify believers “completely.” Despite the use of the word “completely” (ὁλοτελής) there is no reason to understand this instance of ἁγιάζω as if it does not fit into the positional/consecrational pattern seen in the rest of Scripture. God sets believers apart (he sanctifies them) when he unites them to Christ by faith, but he also will preserve all true believers in holiness/separateness from sin throughout their lives. This is what Paul prays to God for on behalf of the Thessalonian believers. However, the second half of the verse shows that this preservation in holiness is not complete until death or the return of Christ. Being sanctified completely, in other words, is manifested in being preserved in blamelessness until the very end. Being sanctified does not mean growth, but it is a status that must be preserved throughout life. The way believers preserve their holy status (or rather are preserved by God) is by avoiding everything that is defiling, namely, sin.
In 2 Timothy 2 Paul charges Timothy to remind the “faithful men” (2:2) set apart for ministry to “present [themselves] to God as one approved,” (2:15) and to “depart from iniquity” (2:19). As an illustration of the obedience necessary among the “Lord’s servant[s]” (2:24) Paul employs the analogy of a “great house” that has both “honorable” (that is, valuable [τιμή]) and “dishonorable” (that is, common [ἀτιμία]) objects in it. Ministers of the gospel are to recognize that they are ordained by God to be “honorable” vessels in God’s house, having been “set apart as holy” (passive participle ofἁγιάζω) by God. The only way to be a “vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy” is to cleanse oneself “from what is dishonorable” (2:21). The necessary outcome of this sanctification, or consecration, is that one would be “ready for every good work” (2:21). In other words, God sets ministers apart (sanctifies them) for his own use, but they are required to maintain this holy status constantly by avoiding that which is dishonorable. In all of their labors they must pursue “every good work,” which includes fleeing youthful passions, pursuing righteousness, faith, love, and peace (2:22), avoiding foolish controversies and quarrels, and being patient and gentle while enduring evil (2:23–25). Sanctification is definitive, but it must lead to transformation.
Thus, believers can be encouraged that the holiness God requires of them is grounded in the holiness they have received through union with Christ. Despite the necessity of striving to grow in grace and to preserve one’s holy status, Christ’s holiness is the only holiness that can in the end bring one into the presence of a perfectly holy God. This is the reality so gloriously laid out in 1 Corinthians 1:30, where we see that Christ himself is our sanctification.72
3. Summary and Conclusions
The biblical word “sanctification” does not mean transformation, but it is clearly connected to transformation. The claim that linking sanctification with renewal and spiritual growth “obscures the distinctive meaning and value of the terminology in the New Testament” needs to be modified.73 The NT pattern can be summarized like this: at conversion believers are definitively set apart (sanctified) for God’s own special use. Also, at conversion believers die with Christ and are raised up with him to newness of life (the doctrine of definitive sanctification). Finally, believers must strive, in reliance on the Holy Spirit, to preserve, and live in light of, their holy status until the end of their lives (the doctrine of progressive sanctification).74 While neither the doctrines of definitive sanctification nor progressive sanctification are based narrowly on the meaning of sanctification words, both doctrines are integrally connected to the once-for-all setting apart of believers that is denoted by the biblical terminology of sanctification. Sanctification is consecration for the purpose of transformation. Thus, the argument that we should not speak (even doctrinally) of sanctification as transformation needs nuancing. Is there really a significant difference in arguing, as Peterson does, that “sanctification means having a new identity, with the obligation to live according to that identity,” rather than arguing that sanctification is a process?75
As we have seen, one could argue (like Peterson) that other terminology corresponds more closely with biblical usage. For example one could (as John Calvin does) use the word regeneration rather than sanctification.76 This could be said to have the benefit of simplicity: believers are regenerated by God at conversion, and God continues to regenerate (renew) them until the end of their lives. This, however, would simply be using different words to convey the same theological reality that is conveyed in the doctrines of definitive and progressive sanctification. And it is very doubtful whether the lexicographical meaning of any single biblical word (including regeneration) can capture the entire picture of Christian development from conversion to final glorification.77 What is of primary importance is the substance of the concept being described, not the specific word used as the doctrinal heading (sanctification, regeneration, etc.). Using the word sanctification to depict Spirit-wrought transformation of believers seems to have become so entrenched in theological discussion that employing a different term would probably introduce more confusion than clarity. And more significantly, we have seen that sanctification terminology does indeed have a close and vital link with transformation. Most importantly, the substance of the doctrines of definitive and progressive sanctification is indeed biblical.