Sanctification: You Shall Be Holy
Topic: Topical Sermons Passage: Leviticus 11:44–11:45, 1 Thessalonians 4:1–4:4, John 17:6–17:21
When in “the fullness of time” (cf. Galatians 4:4) God brought His Son into the world, He did through a young virgin named Mary. Upon receiving word from an angelic messenger that she was the one chosen to bear the Christ child, we are told that she was greatly perplexed and asked how such a thing could be possible. The angel answered, saying, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
For several weeks this year, many of us spent our Sunday mornings reading and studying together the Old Testament Book of Leviticus. As we repeatedly noted, the theme of that book is summed up in its key passage, Leviticus chapter 11, verses 44 and 45, where God tells His people: “I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy...For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”
On this Christmas morning, two millennia removed from the birth of Jesus Christ, it seems fitting that we return to the subject of “holiness.”
The basic idea of “holiness” relates to what is “set apart” or “separated.” The concept finds its origin in the revealed character of God, and is related to things, places, times, and persons that are engaged in His service. It is that attribute by which God is most clearly identified, and is therefore interwoven with what is righteous and pure. And it is because God is “holy” in all His ways, He demands “holiness” on the part of those who bear His name.
When our New Testament refers to God’s “holiness” and the “holiness” of God’s people, it employs a term that actually comes from the Latin word “sanctus.” It is a translation of the Hebrew (“qadosh”) and Greek (‘αγιοs”)family of words that are used to convey God’s unique character. Therefore, when we speak of “sanctification” we are referring to the “holiness” which characterizes God and by which He is known and represented.
In continuing to think about the salvation made available to those who have turned from their sin and entrusted themselves to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, we arrive this morning at the next level of the Ordo Salutis, the logical—although not necessarily chronological—order of salvation. So far we have seen that those who have experienced God’s gracious gift of salvation have been elected or chosen by God, effectually called by Him, regenerated and been “born again” by God’s Spirit, converted and changed into a spiritually new person, justified and declared “not guilty” through the imputation of God’s righteousness, and (as we saw last week) adopted into God’s family and made co-heirs with Christ Himself. No wonder the writer of Hebrews calls it “such a great salvation” (cf. Hebrews 2:3). Today we arrive at the doctrine of “sanctification.”
Before we go any further, I feel the need to wave a caution-flag lest we fall into the trap of being so preoccupied with “holiness” that we risk becoming self-centered and small-minded...thinking too much about ourselves and too little about God. There are those who equate “holiness” with having a strong-willed asceticism or abstinence toward certain things. We must understand that “sanctification” is much more than simply giving up “bad habits” and adopting new ones. Instead, it should be viewed as a progressive surrender to the will of God. In a very real sense, “sanctification” is synonymous the Christian life.
So what is “sanctification” and how are we to define it, especially in terms of its practical application for our lives? Our church’s statement of faith includes these words:
We believe that sanctification is the process by which, according to the will of God, we are made partakers of His holiness; that it is a progressive work; that it is begun in regeneration; that it is carried on in the hearts of believers by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, the Sealer and Comforter, in the continual use of the appointed means—especially the Word of God, self-examination, self-denial, watchfulness, and prayer.
In unpacking the doctrine of “sanctification” this morning, I would like for us to consider “holiness” along three distinct but related lines of thought. We will first reflect on the inherent “holiness” of God. Then we will think about the “holiness” that God requires of man. And then we will see how “holiness” becomes a gift from God to man.
We’ll begin with...
The holiness of God.
“Holy” is the word that the Bible uses to express all that is distinctive and transcendent in the revealed nature and character of the Lord. The Puritans referred to it as “the crowning attribute of God.” The term is meant to convey the infinite distance and difference that exists between the Creator and His creation, including His creatures. As one writer has expressed it, the word speaks to “the God-ness of God.”
Most of what the Bible teaches about the “holiness” of God comes from the Old Testament. There He is called “the Holy One” nearly forty times. He is said to swear “by his holiness” (cf. Amos 4:2). His revealed nature is regularly spoken of as “holy.” Angelic beings worship Him by crying “Holy, holy, holy” (cf. Isaiah 6:3). In fact, Psalm 111:9 tells us that “Holy...is his name.”
When God is called “holy,” He is conceived as Deity. The particular emphasis is on His infinite superiority, namely His perfections and powers. The word points to a standing above and apart from all that He has made. It focuses attention of every aspect of God that sets Him apart as a proper object of worship and reverential awe, all of which serves to remind His human creatures how ungodlike we really are.
But not only does God’s holiness demonstrate His greatness and power in contrast with the smallness and weakness of man, but it denotes His perfect purity and uprightness which stand in glaring contrast with the uncleanness and unrighteousness of sinful humanity. That distinction calls forth His retributive justice, which the Bible refers to as His “wrath” and “condemnation.” That is because God is determined to uphold—no matter how much it may be resisted and opposed—His righteous rule.
The connection between God’s holiness and His judgment of sin is a repeated theme throughout Scripture, and one we dare not ignore. Isaiah 5:17 says, “The LORD of hosts is exalted in justice, and the Holy God shows himself in righteousness.” It is this display of His holiness that causes His name to be known. In Ezekiel (38:23) we read, “So I will show my greatness and my holiness and make myself known in the eyes of many nations. Then they will know that I am the LORD.”
By declaring His holiness in this way, men are held accountable to honor and worship Him accordingly (cf. Numbers 27:14, Isaiah 8:13). That same responsibility carries over to the New Testament as well. Peter writes in his first epistle that we are to “sanctify the Lord God in (our) hearts” (1 Peter 3:15, KJV). We do that by taking on His “holy” character.
And that leads us next to consider...
The holiness of man.
J.I. Packer points out that when God calls His people to “holiness,” it “is not an aspiration...but an imitation.” In other words, man has no inherent “holiness” in and of himself. There is no way a person could ever make himself “holy.” Although a “holy” God requires it, it is an impossibility for man to attain such a lofty standing apart from Divine intervention. “Sanctification,” then, is that ongoing progressive work of God in making man “holy,” gradually conforming him to “the image of his Son,” Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 8:29).
“Holiness” of life is what He requires of all those whom He has brought into fellowship with Himself. It is the very foundation of all of the Old Testament legislation: “You shall...be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45). And lest you think that command passed off the scene with the close of the Old Testament, it is repeated in the New. First Peter 1:14 through 16 read, “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.’” The “holiness of man,” therefore, denotes that state of being dissociated from the practice of sin and devoted to a life of God-likeness.
The New Testament enlarges on this by presenting the “double-edgedness,” or the negative and positive sides, of “sanctification.” In earlier times, the negative side was referred to as “mortification,” while the positive side was called “vivification.” The former spoke of “dying to sin,” while the latter referred to “living to God.” The state of “holiness” and the practice of “unholiness” are diametrically opposed to each other.
Paul speaks to these two aspects of sanctification with his fellow Christians in the first eight verses of 1 Thessalonians 4, writing...
“Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore, whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8).
While this passage emphasizes sexual sin in particular, it is not limited in scope to that particular weakness of fallen man. In fact, every thought, word, and act of “unholiness” is merely evidence of an “unholy” heart. “Be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing” (2 Corinthians 6:17).
John Owen’s famous line—“Be killing sin or it will be killing you”—is critical to keep in mind. But there is more to the essence of living the “sanctified” life than that. It is essential that “mortification” and “vivification” be balanced in our lives. Killing worldly lusts is not sufficient in attempting to live the life that pleases God. While we must never give up the fight against sin, we must also be on guard that we do not grow cold in our zeal of living lives of “holy” righteousness.
Men’s “holiness” does not imply “moral perfection” or even “moral improvement.” “Sanctification” is rather that progressive work of God—in cooperation with man—that makes us more and more free from sin and more and more like Jesus Christ. The positive side of “holiness,” therefore is maintaining loyalty to God and living a life that shows forth to others qualities such as faithfulness, gentleness, goodwill, kindness, forbearance, and uprightness, even as God displays these qualities in His gracious dealing with us. According to the New Testament, “holiness” is neither a feeling nor an experience, but rather a God-produced quality of living in which the character of our Heavenly Father and His Son is mirrored in one’s outlook and conduct.
The life of a “holy” person will not center on things. “Holy” people do not undervalue the “good things” God grants them to enjoy, but they refuse to be enslaved by them. That distinction can be subtle. Perhaps “detachment” would be a helpful way of describing their attitude toward things. They know that something better awaits as they live in a way that is patterned after the model God has set before us in Christ.
To modern man, the word “holiness” suggests something weak, anemic, negative, and boringly passive. As followers of Christ and those who are being progressively conformed to the image of Christ, we may want to ask ourselves why that is and if we are “imaging” Him correctly.
Contrary to these notions, biblical “holiness” is the most positive, powerful, and passionate quality of life one can imagine. But that is only true if we understand...
The gift of holiness.
Most of us are clear in knowing that Jesus Christ yielded up His life on our behalf in order to provide for our salvation. But are we equally clear in recognizing that He died in order to “sanctify” us as well? We see this in our Lord’s great priestly prayer found in John 17. There, only hours before being arrested, tried, tortured, and crucified, Jesus’ primary concern was on completing the mission that the Father had sent Him to fulfill. Rather than agonizing over the inevitable fate that awaited—a fate which was the culminating purpose of His coming into the world—He prayed for His own. Let’s look together at a portion of that prayer, beginning with John 17, verse 6. Addressing the Father, Jesus prays,
“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:6-21).
There is much to see here, but that which is of most relevance to our topic this morning is in noting that Jesus prayed for our “sanctification.” That which we could never attain for ourselves, Jesus asked the Father to provide on our behalf. I am reminded of Augustine’s famous prayer: “Give what you command, and command what you will.” And. as the angel told Mary when declaring to her that she had been chosen to bring Christ into the world, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).
The “holiness” which God required of His people is also His gift to them. It is God Himself who “sanctifies” sinners. “Holiness,” therefore is set forth as a gracious gift from the Father. And it is truly “the gift that keeps on giving.”
What I mean to imply is that there are three aspects or “tenses” to our “sanctification.” In the first place, it begins when we are regenerated and converted. Then, it increases throughout our earthly lives. And finally, it is completed at the end of this life when we at last enter into the presence of our Lord. These three “tenses” of “sanctification” are generally referred to as “positional,” “progressive,” and “perfected.”
“Positional sanctification” is the initial phase. It is not equated with justification, but is an aspect and direct result of it. “Sanctification” does not lead to justification, but flows from it. It is not a condition for salvation, but the fruit of it. Striving to be justified by living a so-called “sanctified” life is impossible because it puts the proverbial cart before the horse. In this initial sense, God “sanctifies” sinners once and forever when He calls them to Himself, separating them from the world, delivering them from sin and Satan, and welcoming them into the fellowship of His family.
For those who are “in Christ,” this is the “past tense” of “sanctification.” We find it illustrated in passages such as 1 Corinthians 6:11, where after listing a litany of abhorrent sinful behaviors, Paul writes, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God.” We also see it in Romans 6:11 where believers are told to consider themselves to be “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
The New Testament does not teach that Christians must lead “holy” lives in order to become “saints.” Instead it tells them that, because they are “saints,” they must now, therefore, lead “holy” lives. This is the first and fundamental aspect of what it means to be “sanctified.” If you are a Christian, then this represents the “past tense” of your “sanctification.”
The second aspect of God’s gift is known as “progressive sanctification.” Because it addresses where we are presently living, the greater emphasis of the New Testament teaching on “sanctification” falls within this aspect of the term’s meaning. In 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul described this process as our “being transformed...from one degree of glory to another.”
As might be expected, God gives us commands to obey. It is at this point—“progressive sanctification”—that we “cooperate” with God in the sanctification process. Not all theologians are comfortable expressing it that way because the Scriptures say that “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). Nevertheless, it is still incumbent upon the Christian to apply and appropriate what God supplies. Seeking to emphasize both aspects of God’s enabling grace and man’s responsibility, Francis Schaeffer refers to man’s involvement as “active passivity.”
Numerous verses could be cited with regard to the believer’s “cooperation.” Consider these for example:
- Romans 6:12 and 13: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourself to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.”
- Romans 8:13: “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
- Hebrews 12:14: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
- 1 Peter 1:14 and 15: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also shall be holy in all your conduct.”
These verses stress God’s commands for us to live “sanctified” lives. What’s more, they and other passages remind us that God has also provided the means by which we may avail ourselves in our application of these commands...namely, the Word of God, the Spirit of God, the Church of God, and—yes—the discipline of God. To ignore any one of these means is to do so to our own peril. It is imperative that we continue to grow, both in our passive trust in God to “sanctify” us, as well as in our active striving for “holiness” and greater obedience in our lives. As the old hymn expresses it, we are to “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way” to become what Jesus gave His life for us to be.
So, my fellow Christians, how well are we doing in our walk of “sanctification”? Is there observable evidence that our faith is genuine? Are our lives characterized by repentance of sin and submission to the leading of God’s Spirit? Are others able to see progress in our march toward spiritual maturity? Are we being good stewards of the means with which the Lord has blessed us? Are we known for our good works which bring glory to God? Are we exercising our unique giftings and skill sets for the building up of His Body, the Church?
You see, “sanctification” affects the whole person, not just the side that people see on Sundays. As we are being transformed by His Spirit “from one degree of glory to another,” our minds (cf. Romans 12:2), our emotions (cf. Ephesians 4:31), and our wills (cf. Philippians 2:13)—as well as our spirits (cf. 2 Corinthians 7:1), and even our bodies (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:23)—will all become conformed to His likeness. Every moment of everyday is a call to “holiness.” In short, “sanctification” is the ongoing, lifelong demonstration that we are indeed the children of God.
In addition to the “past tense” of “positional sanctification” and the “present tense” of “progressive sanctification,” there is also “perfected sanctification.” “Holiness” is the ultimate goal—the end and the purpose—of our salvation, but its full attainment lies beyond this present world. Hebrews 12:23 speaks of “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect.”
Zechariah the prophet envisioned a day in which there would be a restored Jerusalem where “Holy to the LORD” will be “inscribed on the bells of the horses” and “every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be holy to the LORD of hosts” (Zechariah 14:20 and 21). And John was able to see “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” in the Book of Revelation (21:2).
It will be a day when God’s people will be separated not merely from the dominion of sin, but from its very presence. There will be no sin in heaven, and the “sanctification” of God’s people will be made complete. Our “holiness” will thus be forever perfected in heaven. We can only imagine the joy at being unable to sin ever again.
As we wait and as we hope, we must daily and continually “strive...for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
It would not be incorrect to say that “sanctification” is what propels the Christian to persevere to the end. God saves us to live “in Christ” and to walk in “holiness.”
- Jesus purchased those who are His would so that they would be able to partake of all of His benefits.
- The Holy Spirit is given to us for our growth in grace and “holiness” of life. Every moment of every day is a call to “holiness.”
- God the Father demonstrated His own heart for “holiness” by sending His Son to enter the realm of sinful humanity on that first Christmas in order to begin the journey that would take Him to the Cross, where He would lay down His life by bearing our sin.
As those who have been “positionally sanctified” through the call of God, who are being “progressively sanctified” by the Spirit of God, and who will one day be “perfectly sanctified” in the very presence of God, let us strive by His enabling grace to bring every thought, word, and deed into captivity to the obedience of Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:5).
In closing let me ask, can you remember a time when the “sanctification” in your life began? Did you sense a real break from the dominating power of sin that had until that time controlled you? Does your life now bear testimony to the fact that you have died to sin? If you have to answer “no” to those questions, it may just be that you have never truly surrendered to Christ as Savior and Lord. I would urge you—on this Christmas Day—to turn from your sin and entrust yourself to the one who was born, who lived, who died and who was raised from the grave to give you eternal life and to place you on the road of “holiness.” Remember, apart from holiness, “no one will see the Lord” (cf. Hebrews 12:14).
Fellow Christian, let me remind you that “the will of God” for your life is “your sanctification” (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:3). Please do not leave here today thinking otherwise. As you look back over the past year, can you detect a pattern of definite growth in “holiness”? What are some of the things that you used to delight in that no longer have the same appeal to you? As you have grown in the Lord, have you become more conscious of the weight of sin that remains in your heart, and do you long to be rid of it? Are you digging more deeply into the Scriptures, entrusting yourself to the leading of the Holy Spirit, availing yourself of every opportunity to gather with the “saints” for worship, praise, and mutual edification? Is your hope fixed on the fact that the day is coming when you will dwell forever in the personal presence of “the Holy One”?
In closing, let me leave you with this thought: We are not saved by sanctification, but neither are we saved apart from it. It is the identifying mark of our salvation...that we are truly the children of God. God did not send His Son into the world in order to correct our bad habits, but rather that we see our need for the One who alone is able to save and to sanctify us. Let us, therefore, admire Jesus more and more...and, in the process, to become like Him. Let us be “looking to Jesus (who is) the founder and perfecter of our faith” (cf. Hebrews 12:2).
O come, let us adore Him.