Q&A: Holiness and Sanctification

Q&A: Holiness and Sanctification

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Q: I've heard many terms used to describe holiness in the lives of believers. Are some terms more correct than others?

The holiness of God is majestic, awe-inspiring and wonderful. (Perhaps we should also include fearful.)

God's gracious invitation for us to be called by His name and participate in His holy character is an invitation to be holy as God is holy. Holiness in the lives of believers is humbling, powerful, life-changing, and hopeful. It cannot be easily captured in a single word or phrase.

In the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, leaders, theologians, and preachers have endeavored to use scriptural, theological, and experiential language and metaphors to describe holiness in the life of believers.

Over the years, words and metaphors of holiness have developed that contribute to our overall understanding of the holy work of God in our lives. Recently, I jotted down a list of some holiness phrases.

Holiness in the lives of believers is...

  • Full consecration of ourselves to God
  • Being filled with the Spirit
  • Absolute surrender
  • Loving God with our whole heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbors as ourselves
  • Placing our "all on the altar"
  • God's straightening of the "bent toward sin" in our nature
  • Being set apart for the purposes of God
  • Being made "perfect" or complete in love
  • Victory over the "principle of sin" in our lives
  • Being part of a community of believers who bear witness in the world to God's kingdom of righteousness, peace, and justice
  • A second definite work of grace
  • Wholeness in Christ
  • Dying out to self
  • Empowerment to serve and give witness to the world of the love of God
  • Being restored in the image of God
  • Purity of heart and life
  • Sanctified wholly
  • Christlikeness1

Let me add a footnote to the discussion. Growing up in the holiness tradition, one of the phrases I heard most frequently was "sanctified wholly." As a youth, this sounded to me like "sanctified holy" rather than "sanctified wholly." And for most of my life, that is how I heard it in my mind. But "sanctified holy" is redundant. To be sanctified and to be made holy as God is holy are synonyms. So, to say "sanctified holy" would be similar to saying, "sanctified sanctification" or "holy holiness." But to be "sanctified wholly" means that all we are, all we have, and all we ever hope to be are completely, fully, radically surrendered to God. Thanks be to God!

Q: What is a sanctified believer? Is it not true that when we are given a pure heart we are no longer sinners and no longer have the old nature? 

Let us consider your questions in reverse order.

2. Your second question indicates that you may be locked in to a certain terminology that you no longer hear used. Although basically correct, you state the issue in a way that may not communicate well in today's world.

The term "old nature" is a bad translation of the New Testament Greek word sarx, which means "flesh," even though the New International Version translates it that way. Holiness preachers have come to understand more and more that such terms can be misleading from a biblical standpoint.

Furthermore, your question "puts the cart before the horse" by starting with what is removed rather than what is received. Reversing that order may be helpful. This leads to a possible answer to your first question.

1. John Wesley, one of our chief theological mentors, defined sanctification as "love excluding sin" or "love expelling sin." That puts the accent on the positive infilling of love, rather than on the removal of sin.

To do the latter leaves unanswered the issue of what is in the heart after sin has been expelled. When love fills the heart, sin is thereby expelled, for sin is the opposite of love. Again, Wesley said, in describing entire sanctification or Christian perfection: "It is nothing higher and nothing lower than this, ... loving God with all the heart and soul, and our neighbor as ourselves."

In this, Wesley was true to our Lord's Great Commandment (Mark 12:29-31). But it is not a love we can conjure up of our own accord. It is a love that God must implant in the heart, made possible by Christ's sacrificial death on the Cross.

Therefore, to reply to your first question, a sanctified believer is one who loves God and neighbor with all the heart, and one from whom sin is thereby excluded. However, this must not blind us to the fact that at times we may fall short of this ideal and need to practice what Wesley called "the repentance of believers" which he said was necessary "in every stage of the Christian life."

A sanctified believer is one who is willing to do that. With this in mind, if you listen carefully, you might discover that sanctification is being preached more than you thought.

 1Adapted from the foreward I wrote for Oord and Lodahl's Relational Holiness. Beacon Hill, 2005. Page 11.

Holiness Today September/October 2008