‘Of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption …’ (1 Corinthians 1:30)
Growing in grace
In Reformed circles it is usual to view sanctification as something progressive; that is, sanctification is seen as a process in which, as time passes, the believer becomes progressively more holy. A distinction is made between ‘positional sanctification’ in Christ on the one hand, and practical real-life sanctification which is progressive, on the other hand. How rapidly this process occurs, or even whether it occurs at all, depends on the believer’s own diligence. Peter’s exhortation, ‘Add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control ….’, and so on, is relevant at this point. So are the words with which Peter concludes the same epistle, ‘Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 1:5-9; 3:18). Many other Scriptures could be quoted to the same effect. This process of growth and maturation is very important.
There are several places in the New Testament where the verb ‘sanctify’ is used in the present tense, and other verses which also imply that sanctification can be thought of as a process (see, for example, 1 Thessalonians 5:23). But is this what the New Testament usually means when it uses the term sanctification? The answer, surprisingly, is ‘no’. The clearest and most emphatic references to sanctification refer to ‘positional sanctification’, that is, to the holiness possessed by believers by virtue of their union with Christ. This, I believe, is the force of our text, which tells us that Christ has ‘become for us … sanctification’ in exactly the same way as he has ‘become for us righteousness and … redemption’ (1 Corinthians 1:30). All these things are ours only by virtue of our relationship to Christ, as the verse makes clear.
The purpose of this article is not to stir up controversy, nor to deny ‘progressive sanctification’. It is rather to help rediscover the glorious and practical nature of the doctrine of ‘positional sanctification’. As long as we limit our thinking to progression in the Christian life, we stand in danger of forgetting the very truth that will enable us to progress, namely that Christ is our sanctification.
The meaning of sanctification
What, then, is sanctification and how do we obtain it?
The verb ‘to sanctify’ means ‘to make holy’. But what is ‘holy’? Basically, it means ‘separated’ or ‘set apart’. Anything that is sanctified or holy, therefore, has been set apart for the use and glory of God. Thus the gold and silver vessels of the Old Testament temple were ‘sanctified’, that is, set apart from common use for the special service of God. It was Belshazzar’s profane use of these vessels for his drinking party that specially angered God and brought swift judgement upon him (Daniel 5:23-31).
In John 17:19 the Lord Jesus Christ said, ‘I sanctify myself’. Obviously he was not making himself holy in a moral sense, for he was already perfectly righteous. He simply meant that he had set himself apart for the work of atonement. In other words, he dedicated himself to a certain course of action, refusing all alternatives. In the same way, all believers are set apart, or sanctified, for the service and glory of God. Their lives can no longer be dedicated to sin or self-seeking, for they belong to God. ‘You are not your own …’ Paul tells the Corinthians. ‘You were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s’ (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
Who sanctifies the believer?
Jesus ‘sanctified himself’. But the New Testament never applies such an expression to the believer. In the Old Testament Moses was told to sanctify the people and the priests were commanded to ‘sanctify themselves’ (Exodus 19:10, 22). But this referred to an outward, ceremonial cleansing. In New Testament teaching the believer is never said to sanctify himself. He is always the object of sanctification; the one who sanctifies is God. Thus Jesus prayed to his Father for his disciples, ‘Sanctify them by your truth. Your word is truth’ (John 17:17). Likewise, Peter wrote to believers as those who were ‘elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of [that is, by] the Spirit’ (1 Peter 1:2). Again, Paul thanks God for the Thessalonians, ‘because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth’ (2 Thessalonians 2:13).
Our text in 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 declares, ‘Of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, that, as it is written, “He who glories let him glory in the Lord.”’ Notice again that all this is ‘of him’. It is all God’s work, whether justification, sanctification or redemption. If any of these things were in any way our own doing, we could glory in our self-achievement. But because they are ‘of him’, our glorying can only be in the Lord.
It is sometimes implied that while Christ justifies the sinner, the redeemed sinner must sanctify himself (make himself holy in a practical sense). Failure to do so inevitably brings discouragement and a sense of uselessness. But the whole idea is mistaken. Of course we must strive to obey the Word of God and make progress in the Christian life, but this obedience can never be perfect and cannot make us holy in the sight of God. It cannot, therefore, secure our sanctification. That is found only in Christ, as Paul makes clear to the Corinthians, who were certainly in need of moral reformation.
When are believers sanctified?
Again, Paul sheds light on the matter. ‘Do not be deceived,’ he warns. ‘Neither fornicators nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God’ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
Notice two things. Firstly, as we have already seen, the work of sanctification is the Spirit’s work, not our own. Secondly, sanctification for the believer is here presented as a past event, as are cleansing and justification. Evidently, Paul has in mind that the Corinthians, who had once lived in moral decadence, had been separated from their former lifestyle at their conversion. They had been set apart, or sanctified, for the use and honour of God.
The idea that Christian sanctification accompanies regeneration, or the new birth, is found throughout the New Testament. Look again at the verses cited earlier from 1 Peter 1:2 and 2 Thessalonians 2:13. In these references the sequence of events is as follows: (1) election; (2) sanctification by the Spirit; (3) belief or obedience to the gospel; (4) justification and cleansing. Again it is clear that to Peter and Paul alike, sanctification precedes even faith and justification. In these important Scriptures at least, the word ‘sanctification’ is used to signify God’s act of setting apart the elect, from among the generality of mankind, for his service and glory.
Nor can this ‘positional sanctification’ be dismissed as a theoretical truth which has no bearing on practical godliness. Quite the reverse is true. The situation at Corinth was a real-life crisis of immorality in the church. How did Paul deal with it? As we have seen, he first impresses upon these erring believers the fact that they have already been sanctified! God has, as an accomplished reality, set them apart for his glory. They are already in a sanctified state. Therefore, thunders the apostle, they must recognize this fact and act upon it. ‘You were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s’ (1 Corinthians 6:20). In similar terms Paul exhorts the Galatians: ‘If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:25). Again in Romans we read, ‘Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body’ (6:11-12).
These verses imply that to live a holy life, the believer must not so much seek sanctification, as recognize that he is already sanctified! When he truly understands this truth, he will walk worthy of his calling, strengthened by the indwelling Spirit, and continually cleansed from his inevitable sin through faith in the blood of Christ (1 John 1:7). The believer will not become complacent, forgetting that the spiritual warfare is life-long, since he knows that he has been set apart for God’s glory in the midst of a ‘perverse generation’ and an ‘evil age’. Since Christ is his only claim to holiness, he will not become proud of his spiritual attainments, as did the Corinthians and the Laodiceans, with disastrous results. Finally, since Christ is his sanctification, he will not become discouraged when he does sin, feeling that failure means he has made little progress, perhaps after many years as a Christian. Rather, he will mourn and confess his sin, and rejoice in the fact that his acceptance with a holy God resides in Christ’s holiness and not his own.