Established in Christ
The term sanctification is not a distinct word in the Greek New Testament. The meaning of sanctification, expressed by a number of words, is related to holiness. The adjective “holy” refers primarily to God. The holiness of God the Father is evident everywhere in the New Testament as represented in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit. Holy ones are God’s people, namely those who belong to Him, relate to Him, and are set apart by Him and for Him.
The Greek verb ἁγιάζω can express an action, such as “to make holy,” “to sanctify,” “to consecrate,” “to purify,” or a state that results from an action: “to be sanctified.” Logically, the subject of a sanctifying action is always God and not people. Consequently, objects consecrated by God are holy because He is holy.
In the New Testament, God the Father set Jesus apart and sent Him into the world (John 10:36). Jesus is explicitly referred to as the Holy One of God (Mark 1:24; John 6:69) who becomes the source for sanctification just like the Father and the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:16; 1 Peter 1:2). Jesus is able to sanctify Himself (John 17:19) and the Church (Ephesians 5:26). In 1 Corinthians, Paul emphasizes that Christ became for us “wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). Both Paul and the writer of Hebrews explain Christ’s ability to do the Father’s work of sanctification because of Christ’s act of atonement (Romans 3:22-26; Hebrews 10:10). In general, however, Paul speaks mostly of the sanctified in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:2) while Hebrews develops a full understanding of Christ’s atonement by comparing Christ’s act to the Old Testament sacrifices.
In the Old Testament times, the blood of animals was offered for defiled people (for priests so that they could enter the holy place to carry on their duties and to represent people before God and for others so that they could go on in their covenant relationship with God). But animal sacrifices in and of themselves could not perfect, cleanse, or sanctify anyone (Hebrews 10:2). Instead, sacrifices reminded God’s people that their sins had yet to be fully and finally dealt with (Hebrews 10:3).
Only Christ’s blood fully purifies the consciences of believers from their sinful works (Hebrews 9:14) once and for all, eliminating the need for further sacrifices.
Christ as a human being without blemish offered Himself as a sacrifice to God on behalf of all people. Since Jesus’ life on earth and His death on the cross demonstrate perfect obedience to God, His sacrifice was the perfect offering—holy and acceptable to God—with no need of further sacrifices. At the same time, as the High Priest, He could represent the people of Israel and the whole of humanity before God (Hebrews 9:25-28). Therefore, Christ’s offering depicts God’s initiative in Christ, which affects our state of sanctification (Hebrews 13:12; 1 Corinthians 6:11). In this sense, the concept of sanctification is related to reconciliation and demonstrates God’s prevenient grace.
Sanctification by Christ in the Holy Spirit
Furthermore, Christians are expected to share in the holiness of God exemplified in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 12:10). The Greek noun ἁγιότης occurs only once in the New Testament here in Hebrews; it means “holiness” and it describes God’s essential character. God prepares Christians to share His holiness in the fulfilment of the Old Testament promise, “You shall be holy, for I am holy" (Leviticus 11:44-45).
Another noun for “holiness” (ἁγιωσύνη) occurs three times in the New Testament and only in Paul’s writings. It refers to God’s incomparable majesty, and Paul uses this word to describe the activity of the Spirit (Romans 1:4) and the divinely created condition of holiness that demands completion (2 Corinthians 7:1; 1 Thessalonians 3:13). The third noun for “holiness” or “sanctification” (ἁγιασμός) signifies the effects of consecration—sanctification of heart and life (1 Corinthians 1:30; 1 Thessalonians 4:7; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Timothy 2:15; 1 Peter 1:2; Hebrews 12:14)—and a life of obedience to God in opposition to sin and lust (Romans 6:19, 22; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; 4:3). Although this third Greek word for holiness (ἁγιασμός) is also rare in the New Testament, writers of the New Testament emphasize the real change that occurs in those who are made holy by the sanctifying action of God in Christ and enabled by the Spirit.
Paul, for example, appealed to Christians to live a new life in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17-21), to present themselves as a living sacrifice to God, holy and acceptable, and to be transformed by the renewal of their minds (Romans 12:1-2). In fact, he reminded them that in Christ they are God’s holy temple (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; Ephesians 2:20). As a body, corporately and individually, they are God’s dwelling place and are called to live as holy people in the way that glorifies God. Peter described those who are sanctified in Christ as a holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:5) and urged them to be holy (1 Peter 1:16). He provided plenty of examples of what he meant by that: to love one another deeply from the heart (1 Peter 1:22), to abstain from the desires of the flesh (1 Peter 2:11), and to worship Christ as Lord (1 Peter 3:15).
Paul wrote that the sign of the new community sanctified by Christ is their participation in the baptism of Christ (Romans 6:3-14), which means dying to sin and rising with Him in a new life of obedience to God. Paul implied that death and sin do not rule over sanctified people because they are transferred into the sphere of Christ and fall under His grace.
God in His grace does what we cannot do on our own. We are brought into the realm of His Son and are thus empowered to obey.
With minds set on Christ and lives filled with the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:10), followers of Christ experience ongoing transformation. William Greathouse summarizes the concept of God’s grace in action in a nutshell: “God loves us enough to accept us just as we are . . . but he loves us too much to leave us as we are. He sets us free to enjoy a new quality of life” —a life of holiness.1
The Christian life is marked by obedience to God, established in Christ and empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit. The Gospel writers, John in particular, testify to the fact that Jesus promised never to leave His followers. The Spirit of Christ is poured out after Jesus’ ascension to enable Christians to live their lives personally and collectively as Christ’s true disciples—to love one another and to live out Christ’s holiness in the world. From the Day of Pentecost onward, the Spirit has been poured out as it was promised in the Old Testament (Acts 2:17; Joel 2:28), enabling disciples to spread the Word of God and to establish churches.
Initially, the holy ones were mostly Christians from Jewish backgrounds (perhaps even in Acts 2, 9:13, 32, 41), but eventually the holy people of God extended into the Gentiles’ world. “The holy ones” is the most common designation for all those who are united with Christ and led by His Spirit (Romans 1:7; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:2; Hebrews 3:1). Spreading the good news has always remained the mission of the sanctified Church.
In the Spirit, God unites His people to Him, literally adopting them so that together they could carry on in love, peace, and hope even through suffering (Romans 5:1-5; 8:14-30). Faith, hope, and love remain essential elements of the holy community in which God abides in the Spirit of Christ (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Even in moments of weakness and while awaiting final redemption, sanctified people ought to rely on the power of the Spirit (Romans 8:26-27). In such times, if we do not know what we ought to pray, the Spirit asks on our behalf because He knows our hearts and God’s will for us: “If we are faithless, he remains faithful” (2 Timothy 2:13). Furthermore, He “who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). In fact, God Himself sanctifies us entirely before the coming of our Lord Jesus and desires that our whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless until the day He comes again (1 Thessalonians 5:23; 2 Corinthians 7:1). This is not only a hope but also a blessed assurance that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love Him, conforming them to the image of His Son and giving them His glory (Romans 8:26-30).
Svetlana Khobnya is a lecturer in biblical studies at Nazarene Theological College in Manchester, United Kingdom.
1. William M. Greathouse with George Lyons, Romans 1-8: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2008), 154.
Holiness Today, January/February 2021
Please note: This article was originally published in 2021. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.