The process by which the Holy Spirit applies the sovereign election of the Father and the atoning sacrifice of the Son to the life of every true believer is sometimes called sanctification. It is tempting to define sanctification as the results of the Holy Spirit’s blowing around – in other words, the damage caused by the storm, the evidence of God’s existence that believers produce. After all, the New Testament does encourage believers to see our bodies as a temple, and set it apart for God’s use by “cleans(ing) ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”
But the results of cooperating with the Holy Spirit within and cleaning up our lives for his use – however noble they are – are not what the Bible calls sanctification. Theologians usually divide the doctrine of sanctification into three tenses:
- positional sanctification, or the change in our status or standing before God.
- progressive sanctification, or the change in our present experience because of the Holy Spirit within.
- perfect sanctification, or our ultimate future condition when we are glorified at Christ’s return.
When seen in that light, the vast majority of the Bible’s treatment of the subject concentrates on the first tense, on what is called positional sanctification. Consider these texts as examples:
- “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”
- “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:”
- “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption”
- “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
- “Therefore, to sanctify the people by his own blood, Jesus also suffered outside the camp.”
There is a process of sanctification. The New Testament refers to believers as “those who are being sanctified.” The Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, turning us into the people we are going to become. He’s changing us. He is manifesting himself in us and through us.
Ultimate sanctification (or glorification) is our destiny. When Jesus appears, raising us from the dead, or transforming us so that we will never taste death, we will be like him. A transformation will have occurred. We look forward to the day when “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet … the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.”
So, why does the Bible mostly present sanctification as a done deal? To understand this, readers have to stop thinking of sanctification as something that happens to us, and see it as something that happens from God. The Holy Spirit is the Sanctifier and the Regenerator. Our problem is that (like Nicodemus) we see things too much from our perspective. But the new birth could not be best explained from the perspective of those who experience it – the ones begotten. It had to be explained from the perspective of the one who begat – the one who caused the birth to happen.
The apostle Paul understood this quite well. Here is how he described sanctification to the Romans:
For those whom (God) foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
While he does not use the word “sanctified” in this text, he does use the word “glorified” – and put it in the past tense. But glorification is the future hope of the saints. We do not yet conform fully to the image of Christ, but we have been predestined to do it. It is our future destiny, not present reality.
But Paul spoke of God as having already glorified us. He skipped the process of sanctification and mentioned the event of glorification at the return of Christ and implied that both divine actions have already been accomplished. Did Paul slip in his grammar? No, he said what he meant to say. Paul understood something about God. He is not the God who was, and he is not the God who will be. God is always and eternally the “I AM.” He is within time and outside of time at the same time. He has already accomplished all that he ever will accomplish.
Sanctification was accomplished the very moment the Father chose us to be his own. Sanctification was accomplished the moment the blood of Jesus Christ was shed on the cross. Sanctification was accomplished the very moment the Holy Spirit moved into our lives, and separated us unto God, reserving our lives for his purposes forever. We may not feel sanctified. We usually do not think of ourselves as having already been made holy. But from God’s perspective, it is a done deal.
The Holy Spirit is inside us, indwelling, transforming and regenerating us. He is changing our lives so that we reflect our destiny as glorified saints. He assists in the battle against Satan and sin, and guides us in the process of making decisions that reflect our new status before God. We do not always accept his guidance. We often stubbornly choose to do things our own way. But the God of all time is patient. He sees us not as we are now, but as we will be. So, it does not bother him to put up with our present, unfinished brand of foolishness.
Of course, if we do rebel against the divine Resident within, there is a price to pay. We often suffer simply because we refuse to walk in the Spirit. Our flesh wrestles with our spirit, who wants to cooperate with his Spirit. When we refuse to walk according to God’s wisdom, he will graciously allow us to stumble from our own foolishness. It is all part of the process.
The evidence that the process is indeed occurring includes three things that will be addressed in the next three sections:
- conversion: an immediate and ongoing change in our minds.
- testimony: our attempts to communicate our faith to others.
- life of faith: actions and attitudes that demonstrate that change has occurred.
Salvation is a miraculous work which the Father began in eternity past with our election. The Son made it possible by atoning for our sins on the cross. The Holy Spirit orchestrates its affects in our lives by applying it through a process of sanctification. That work of salvation affects an immediate and on-going change in the mind of the believer, which in turn transforms the believer’s behavior. This miraculous change of mind is called repentance. After conversion, the believer’s eyes are opened to the reality the Bible reveals about God, Christ, sin, Satan, the world and the church. The believer’s self-awareness is forever altered.
By Rev. Jefferson Vann
(Rev. Jefferson Vann is a graduate of Berkshire Christian College, Columbia International University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He and his wife Penny have been involved in Advent Christian ministry since 1984, serving as missionaries in the Philippines and New Zealand. Jeff is the author of “An Advent Christian Systematic Theology” and “Another Bible Commentary” and is a contributing editor to “Henceforth …”)