Sanctification in Scripture shows that we’re called to surrender every area of our lives to God’s sovereign work in us as we cooperate with him.
On Labor Day when I was ten years old, my dad had our whole family shovel rocks all day. As a result, I thought the Labor Day holiday meant you did physical labor. Little did I know, it was the celebration of the 40-hour work week.
We weren’t in particularly tip-top shape as a family, so shoveling all of Labor Day took it out of us. The rocks were small pebbles that filled an area of approximately twenty feet by twenty feet. The task seemed gargantuan—insurmountable for a family of four to tackle in a single day. I don’t think we finished.
That’s how sanctification can feel for many Christians: like hard work that seems impossible on what’s supposed to be a day off, and we’re not going to finish anyway, so why give it our attention?
But is that what sanctification is really like?
Sanctification in Scripture
In Scripture, you can find the word family of “sanctification” and “sanctify” used 22 times in the New Testament (NIV). This word family carries three main senses:
- We were sanctified at conversion (primary).
- We are being sanctified now (secondary).
- The Jews were ceremonially sanctified (minor).
Commonly we see the concept of sanctification in phrases like “be holy” (used 26 times in the Bible, six times in the New Testament alone (1 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 1:4; Heb. 12:14; 1 Pet. 1:15–16; Rev. 22:11).
I’m focusing on the second usage in this post: the process of becoming holy. Jesus uses it twice in John 17:17–19, and Paul uses it once in 1 Thessalonians 5:23.
So while “sanctification” might feel like a churchy word, let’s not shy away from using it. Because God uses it in his Holy Scriptures.
Scripture uses the word “sanctify,” so we should too.
What we find in Scripture, as we’ll see in this post, is not only does God call us to be holy—that is to be sanctified—but also that:
Sanctification is possible.
Imagine if it weren’t possible, but God expected it of us anyway. If anyone in authority asks us to do something that they know is an impossible task, isn’t that cruel and unusual? In the same way, if God asked us to be sanctified, and he knew it wasn’t possible, then he would be cruel and unusual.
Yet here’s what we find in Scripture about God’s expectations for our sanctification (emphases mine):
May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24, NIV)
That’s the most explicit expectation in the New Testament about our sanctification. But we see holiness language scattered throughout Hebrews and Paul’s and Peter’s writings too. For example:
- Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).
- For [God] chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight (Eph. 1:4).
- But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:15–16).
Clearly, God calls us in Scripture to be holy, which is to be sanctified. The English words “holy,” “be holy,” and “be sanctified” are all related to the same word group in Greek (hagiazō, verb, and hagios, noun).
But why do we need to become holy if we’re already called “holy ones” (“saints”) by God (e.g., Rom. 1:7, Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1)? This is where nuance comes in. Paul brings both aspects—the already and the not yet—together in one passage:
To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours. (1 Corinthians 1:2)
We’re considered “sanctified” already (something we already have) and we’re called to be “holy” (something that’s in process). So which is it? Are we sanctified or do we need to be sanctified? Let’s look at a few more Scripture passages before answering that question.
We see a similar dynamic in John’s Apocalypse:
Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy. (Revelation 22:11)
This is another explicit passage in Scripture where disciples are called holy yet called to “continue to be holy.” The nuance we’re unpacking here is important, and looking at the very words of Jesus on this topic in the Gospel of John is helpful.
Sanctification in the Gospel of John
Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel resolve for me this tension between “already but not yet” holiness.
John’s audience was primarily Jewish converts to Christianity, and they needed to understand the difference between ritual cleansing and deeper, spiritual holiness. So we see Jesus’ punny language throughout John, which appears to communicate a paradox.
I love the wordplay we find in John’s Gospel.
And there’s a wordplay about sanctification. Look with me at John 13 and 15 to see how Jesus talked about sanctification in two senses.
During the foot washing, Jesus told Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (13:8). Peter responded, to paraphrase, Well, then give me a full bath!
Then, Jesus switched from speaking literally to metaphorically to help Peter, the knucklehead, understand:
A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you. (John 13:10)
Jesus reconfigured notions of purity by using the Jewish, ritualistic understanding of purification and redeemed the deeper meaning. That is, he took a form of ritualistic cleansing—foot washing—and offered the new, deeper meaning: spiritual cleansing.
What is this spiritual cleansing?
In John 15:2, Jesus told the disciples that the Father prunes every fruit-bearing branch in order to make it more fruitful. The Greek word for “prune” here is closely related to the Greek word for “cleanse.” In other words, Jesus issued a pun to talk about being fruitful (horticultural analogy) and growing in him via sanctification (spiritual reality).
This wordplay helps us know that we can at once be clean in a literal sense (Jesus’ comment at the foot washing in John 13:10) and be cleansed spiritually in a metaphorical sense (we are still being pruned in John 15:2).
So to take this nuance and apply it to the broader discussion …
We can be holy and at the same time be in the process of becoming holy.
That is, we can have a sanctifying event—our conversion—and still be in need of a deeper cleansing—our sanctification. That’s part of what Jesus was getting at with Peter. He wanted to wash Peter’s feet, which represented the metaphorical cleansing of his conversion (John 13), and later he unpacked how there’s more cleansing (“pruning”) work to do (John 15).
It’s already but not yet.
It’s produced in the past, yet it’s still in process.
Sanctification Is a Journey
Sanctification is a journey and we must walk it. In fact, “walking” as an analogy for discipleship is the driving metaphor Jim Putman and I use in our book, “The Revolutionary Disciple,” to talk about the process of discipleship.
Sanctification is part of the discipleship process.
I use “sanctification” and “discipleship” somewhat interchangeably because being a disciple and becoming holy are two ways to connote “becoming like Jesus.”
As the passages above show, sanctification—the process of being made holy, which is like being purified and pruned—is part of discipleship.
The subtitle to the book is “Walking Humbly with Jesus in Every Area of Life,” which communicates the nature of discipleship. Here’s what we sought to emphasize when we settled on this subtitle:
- “Walking Humbly” means discipleship is a journey.
- “With Jesus” means discipleship is a relational journey with Christ.
- “In Every Area of Life” means discipleship involves every nook and cranny of our lives.
If sanctification is required of us on our discipleship journey, then we learn it by walking humbly with Jesus.
We don’t let someone “cut on us,” to use Jesus’ pruning analogy, if we’re proud. That’s too vulnerable! Also:
Proud people have nothing wrong with them.
But disciples of Jesus know that they’re imperfect, on a journey, and going through the process of sanctification. That’s why discipleship requires humility, which at its core involves submission.
We must submit ourselves to Christ in order to be made holy.
Note that sanctification in Scripture is both passive and active. Jesus does the work in us, and we let him do it. That’s how it was with Jesus and Peter in John 13, and that’s how it is with us. That’s also why we often talk about discipleship as surrendering to Christ. We’re surrendering to his lordship, his reign—his rule in our lives.
Jesus is our King, not just our Savior. And our King assumes our total surrender.
Sanctified Through and Through
We talk about discipleship in “every area of life” in the book, which is hard for some people to accept as God’s expectation. Some people like to silo their salvation, or keep their sanctification at bay. But Scripture tells a different story.
Christ wants us to be sanctified through and through.
That’s what we read from Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24, as he’s inspired by God, which is worth quoting again:
May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.
What does it mean to be sanctified “through and through”? Some translations write “sanctify you entirely” (NRSV) or “sanctify you completely” (ESV). Wait, is entire sanctification biblical? Let’s talk.
The next sentences of this verse help explain it: God wants our entire being—spirit, soul, and body—to be blameless. The kicker? God is the one who does this (v. 24).
The fact that God does this doesn’t, however, mean that we’re passive participants. He is the one who called us to Christ, he is faithful to us, and he will do this in us. This passage is a prayer after all! That means Paul asked God to do this work in the Thessalonians. That’s true for us today as well.
Yet we’re active participants in the same way that Peter had to let Jesus wash his feet.
Sanctification is the work of God, but he’s chosen to work with us to accomplish it.
And according to 1 Thessalonians 5:23, it’s thorough, complete, whole, total, entire. Paul says, “May God … sanctify you through and through.” What does this mean?
Analogies for Thorough Sanctification
Here’s how I explain this thorough sanctification we see in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians: to be free from sin does not mean we’re flawless. It’s about progress, not perfection. In the end:
Sanctification is about surrender.
So let me offer you three analogies for sanctification.
1. The House of My Heart
In the 1990s, a popular analogy for our personal relationship with God was named after a pamphlet called “My Heart, His Home.” Since then, I’ve continued to think about that analogy.
The idea is that our heart is where God dwells, and our heart has various rooms, closets, nooks, and crannies. Applying the analogy to the sanctification conversation, our salvation is the initial cleansing moment. In this moment, we surrender the keys to God, whom we’ve given full access to our heart, his home. He cleanses us.
But the process of sanctification is just beginning. Our sanctification is that God’s continues to access our hearts to issue his cleansing effects. To take it a step further:
Thorough sanctification, which Paul describes, means God has access to every square inch of our heart, his home.
When we allow God this access to every part of our lives, we give him permission to order that space how he desires. So he might ask us to:
- Give up pornography
- Speak more kindly to our spouse
- Donate time or resources to the poor
- Spend more time in discipling relationships
- Invest in the youth of our church
A disciple of Jesus says yes when God says go.
Yet even so, we might say yes imperfectly, or say yes only part of the time. Sanctification is different from perfection. We’re talking about freedom, not flawlessness.
Here’s how to know the difference between a fully surrendered life and half-hearted discipleship in your life: When you’re confronted with your sin, how do you respond? Is your initial reaction to surrender, to repent, and to seek renewal in that area of your life? Or is your reaction to deny it, hide, and pretend it doesn’t exist?
How you answer this question reveals where you’re currently at on this issue.
2. The Layers of an Onion
Another helpful analogy I like to use is the layers of an onion. I learned this analogy during a DiscipleShift1 training with the Relational Discipleship Network in the early 2010s.
Our lives are like the layers of an onion, and God wants all of it.
One layer might be our church life, another layer our home life. We might put on a good face at church, but at home we’re terrible to our family. We speak harshly, rashly, and crudely. Or we might be a great disciple at work, even sharing our faith and witnessing to people, but we’re not involved in a deep way with other Christians at church.
God wants to sanctify every layer of our lives.
I like this analogy of the onion because when you cut an onion, the layers just keep going! And it gets messy, and you cry. Going through the layers of an onion is a task for sure if you stay with it long enough.
Discipleship is not child’s play. God seeks our whole heart, if only we will give him full access.
3. The Five Spheres of Discipleship
The final analogy comes from my book with Jim Putman, “The Revolutionary Disciple.” It’s called the Five Spheres of Discipleship. We use the analogy of spheres throughout the book. Here they are:
- Abiding in Christ Sphere
- The Church Sphere
- The Home Sphere
- The World Sphere
- The Spiritual Realm Sphere
The spheres are similar to the layers of an onion, but this analogy offers a unique perspective. Here’s how they work together:
The center sphere is our abiding in Christ, which connects to all the other spheres. The spiritual realm sphere is more like a metasphere than a separate realm. It encompasses all the others because the spiritual realm—which is really the spiritual dimension of life—is the context in which we experience all of life.
God wants to reign in every sphere of our lives.
When we apply this to us as individual disciples, God’s actualized reign in our lives means our sanctification, and when he has full access to every sphere, it’s called thorough sanctification.
Going Deeper into Sanctification
Remember, God himself is doing the work of sanctification in us. But we must cooperate with his work by surrendering to him and obeying him. We can take solace in his sovereignty in sanctification because otherwise it feels like an insurmountable task.
Sanctification is impossible on our own!
So we must dig deep into the dwelling places of God in our hearts, and as we do, we discover that he wants to sanctify every nook and cranny of our lives. We’ll realize that it’s good, he’s good, and he’s for our good.
Sanctification might feel daunting, but God uses it to make us better. Remember Jesus said, “Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15:2).
Perhaps the reason you’re not producing more fruit in your life is because you don’t want his pruning. Instead, you “kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). Kicking against the goads, Jesus pointed out in Acts 26, was hard for Paul, and it’s hard for anyone who constantly bucks at God’s leading.
We can embrace the beautiful messy process where God makes us holy, and in Christ, we’re called to that.
If you want to go deeper into what I’ve introduced here, read my book with Jim Putman, “The Revolutionary Disciple: Walking Humbly with Jesus in Every Area of Life.” We unpack sanctification in terms of discipleship with a focus on surrender—which is another way to talk about humility. We walk readers through the Five Spheres of Discipleship with stories and Scriptures to help you unpack this and apply it to your life.
Our message has the potential to change your life. I know the message has changed mine, and it continues to do so.
Let me end by quoting Paul’s prayer from 1 Thessalonians 5:23:
“May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.”
Yes, Lord, do this for us, in us, and through us. For your glory and for the sake of your church.
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