Whose Sanctification Is It, Anyway?

In the New Testament, the word often translated as “sanctification” is sometimes translated, “holiness.” The Greek is hagiasmos (ἁγιασμὸς), the noun form of the verb “to sanctify,” “to make holy” (hagiazo, ἁγιάζω). The basic meaning of the verb is to set apart from that which is common or unclean and to consecrate unto God. The Hebrew counterpart qadash (קדשׁ), which is translated by this Greek word in the Septuagint, is sometimes used of inanimate objects. For example, in the Old Testament we read of the holy mount on which the law was given to Moses. Mount Sinai was sanctified in the sense that it was separated from common use and consecrated to God as the special place from which He gave the revelation of His law. We also have reference to holy buildings, vessels, utensils, and other things used in the tabernacle and in the temple. These things were separated from common use and devoted to God’s service. In the case of these inanimate objects, they were separated from ceremonial defilement and uncleanness and devoted to God.

In the New Testament, when applied to Christians, to be holy (i.e. sanctified), refers primarily to being set apart from sin and uncleanness and devoted to God and righteousness. It is also used to refer to the attitude of heart and walk of life reflecting this separation and devotion. This is the truth we find in chapter 13 of the 1689 London Baptist Confession:

1. “They who are united to Christ, effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, are also farther sanctified, really and personally, through the same virtue, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts of it are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of all true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.”

This first paragraph establishes the fact that those who are in Christ undergo the work of sanctification. It also describes the nature of this sanctification of which they are made partakers.

The subjects of sanctification are described as, “they who are united to Christ, effectually called, and regenerated.” It should be noted that chapter 11 on justification begins in a similar way: “Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth.” Chapter 12 on adoption begins, “All those that are justified, God vouchsafed, in and for the sake of His only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption.” And now chapter 13 describes the subjects of sanctification as “they who are united to Christ, effectually called, and regenerated.”

It is not my place in this post to address all of these terms used to describe various elements of the salvation sinners receive in Christ: effectual calling, regeneration, justification and adoption (you can read more about these in an upcoming volume from Mentor Books). However, it is important to see that the writers of the Confession understood that all who are in union with Christ receive all of these blessings of salvation. Those who are effectually called and regenerated are also justified, those who are justified are also adopted and those who are adopted are also sanctified. The Confession does not condone a view of salvation in which a believer may be made a partaker of one or more of these blessings without also being made a partaker of all of them.

One reason for this is that the benefits of salvation are never separated in the New Testament from the Savior Himself. Notice, again, that this chapter begins with these words, “They who are united to Christ…” Calling, regeneration, justification, adoption, and sanctification are to be found in Christ and our union with Him. When a sinner is experientially united to Christ by the Spirit through faith he becomes a partaker of all that Christ has purchased by His blood.

This doesn’t mean that every blessing of salvation is the same thing. Justification is not adoption or sanctification, adoption is not justification or sanctification, and sanctification is not justification or adoption. There are important distinctions to be made when it comes to what comprises each of these blessings of salvation consists and the manner in which we experience them.

Consider just a few distinctions between justification and sanctification:[1]

Justification has to do with our forgiveness and acceptance with God for the sake of Christ’s righteousness freely put to our account. Sanctification has to do with our being made righteous in our own life experience by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Justification has to do with our bad record being once and for all cleared in heaven. Sanctification has to do with our bad hearts and behavior being changed on earth.[2]

Justification is a finished and completed work, and a believer is perfectly justified forever from the moment he is joined to Christ through faith. Sanctification is an imperfect work that begins at conversion and progressively grows and increases and is never perfected until we reach glory.

Justification is a declaration of God about us, that we are forgiven and accepted by Him as righteous for Christ’s sake. Sanctification is the work of God within us by which we are more and more conformed to the image of His Son.

Whether in our teaching or in our own consciences, justification and sanctification must be distinguished. However, the two must never be separated. Throughout the history of the church, some have taught that a person can have one of these blessings without having the other. This is an idea that has survived (and even thrived in some circles) down to the present day. The idea is conveyed that a man can be a saved man and only be justified and not also be sanctified. He can have his bad record cleared in heaven without also having his bad heart and behavior changed and redirected toward the pursuit of holiness here on earth.

The Confession is completely opposed to this kind of teaching. In agreement with Scripture, it makes clear that when a sinner is united to Christ by the Spirit and by faith, he is justified and sanctified. Sanctification is not an optional extra for Christians; it is an essential part of the salvation God gives to all who are in union with his Son. Every Christian is sanctified.

How, then, does sanctification begin? We’ll take a look at how the Confession describes it in our next post.  

Editor's Note: This post has been adapted from A New Exposition of the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, edited by Rob Ventura, slated for release by Mentor Books in November 2022.

Jeffery Smith has been in pastoral ministry since 1990 and since 2009 has been serving at Emmanuel Baptist Church, Coconut Creek, FL. In addition to his regular pastoral and preaching responsibilities, Jeff serves on the governing board and as a lecturer for Reformed Baptist Seminary. He is the author of: The Plain Truth About Life After Death (Evangelical Press, 2019) and Preaching for Conversions (Free Grace Press, 2019). 

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[1] I draw some of the pithy comparisons in this paragraph between justification and sanctification from the similar ones given by J. C. Ryle, Holiness (1879 reprint, Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1991), 29-30.

[2] The coupling of “bad record” and “bad heart” is taken from the gospel booklet entitled A Bad Record and a Bad Heart based on a sermon by that title by Albert N. Martin (Avinger, Texas: Simpson Publishing Company, 1989).