On sanctification in Christ (a word study)

This post is a study of the Greek words used to speak of sanctification in the epistles credited to Paul. For a related series of posts on this blog, click here.

"The Master's Touch" by Greg Olsen (used with artist's permission)

The declarative sense of sanctification

Most frequently, the apostle Paul uses the Greek word hagios to refer to objects and persons as holy, including scripture (Ro. 1:2); the Spirit of God (Ro. 5:5; 9:1; 1Cor. 2:13); the law and commandments (Ro. 7:12); first-fruits/lumps and roots/branches (Ro. 11:16); living sacrifices (Ro. 12.1); kisses of greeting (Ro. 16:1); the temple (1Cor. 3:17 of the physical temple, and Eph. 2:21 of the church as spiritual temple); children in a Christian family (1Cor. 7:14); unmarried Christian women (1Cor. 7:34); Apostles (Eph. 3:5); the church (Eph. 5:27); and a Christian’s calling (2Tim. 1:9). In these instances where hagios is used as a designation/appellation, the thought is of the special character/status of the referent due to its association with, establishment by, and/or belonging to a holy God. Note that the holiness of the referent is not intrinsic; rather it is acquired by association and/or divine decree (imputation).

When Paul refers to the people of God as hagios, the sense is of a status derived from God and his declaration. For example, Christians are chosen by God before time to be hagios and without blame before God in love (Eph. 1:4) and, because of Christ, are in God’s sight viewed as hagios, which is synonymous with being without blame and without accusation before God (Col. 1:22). Because of this declared status in God’s sight as a result of Christ’s work on their behalf, Christians are said to be hagios (as in Col. 3:12), or more frequently in Paul simply referred to as saints (hagios) of God. There are dozens of such uses of hagios in Paul’s epistles, and Paul refers to Christians as saints more frequently than by any other appellation. Moreover, Paul refers to Christians as saints rather indiscriminately. We see this most particularly in the case of the Christians in Corinth whose behavior was quite often far from the Christian ideal. Note how Paul begins his letter to them: 

To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified [hagiazo] in Christ Jesus and called to be holy [hagios, translated "saints" in the KJV], together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1Cor. 1:2)

For Paul, Christians are hagios (holy/saints) not because of their behavior, but because they have been sanctified (hagiazo) by God’s declaration based on the finished work of Jesus. Though Paul uses hagiazo in this way only eight times in his epistles (see below), this usage is nonetheless significant in Paul’s thought. 

  1. Ro. 15:16 where Gentiles are acceptable to God through the sanctification of the Holy [hagios] Spirit.
  2. 1Cor. 1:2 where all Christians in Corinth (despite their rather checkered behavioral patterns) are said to be sanctified.
  3. 1Cor. 6.11 where the Corinthian Christians, though once participants in all sorts of non-Christian behaviors and professions, are now sanctified, where sanctified is synonymous (or at least parallel) with ‘washed’ and with ‘justified’. We will return to this passage in a moment.
  4. 1Cor. 7:14 where the sanctified status of a believing wife or husband is somehow transferred to the unbelieving mate and (by implication) to their children.
  5. Eph. 5:26 where Christ’s work in the church is identified as “sanctifying it”, in particular through the washing of water by the word” (where ‘word’ is to be understood as the Apostolic testimony to the gospel of the living Word, Jesus).
  6. 1Thes. 5:23 where Paul’s prayer for the church in Thessalonica is that God might ‘sanctify’ them ‘through and through’—that is, wholly, in ‘spirit, soul and body’ by which they will ‘be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.’
  7. 1Tim. 4:5 where abstention from certain foods is spoken against, “for everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated [hagiazo—‘sanctified’ in the AV] by the word of God and prayer. As an interesting side note here it may be that certain Judaizing Christians were abstaining from certain foods that the Law of Moses declared to be ‘unclean’—a designation that is abrogated in the new covenant where uncleanness is intrinsic to the fallen human person, not of what the person eats, wears, etc.
  8. 2Tim. 2:21 where a Christian is said to be ‘made holy’—an act that makes the person ‘useful’ to God. Through sanctification, Christians are “prepared to do any good work” in the Lord’s service—thus becoming a "workman who does not need to be ashamed.”  

The progressive/ethical sense of sanctification

Though in 1Cor. 1:30 and apparently in 2Thes. 2:13, Paul uses hagiasmos and hagiosune to refer to the initial/declarative sense of sanctification, he most often uses those words (six instances total) to speak of how a believer who has been sanctified by God’s gracious declaration is now called upon to live a sanctified life. A believer does so through God’s gracious provision of Jesus’ sanctified life shared by the believer through the agency of the indwelling, sanctifying Holy Spirit. Thus Paul calls upon the sanctified (saints) to yield their bodies as servants to righteousness unto holiness (Ro. 6:19); and in so doing to bear fruit unto holiness (Ro. 6:22). 

This ethical living out of their sanctified status is “God’s will” and involves abstaining from fornication and thus “possessing” one’s “vessel in sanctification” (1Thes. 4:3-4 AV—and note that the ethics of sanctification in Paul’s epistles most often involve the issue of sexual purity—probably the most prevalent area of moral failure among the saints in his day). As Paul notes further to the Thessalonian Christians, “God has not called us unto uncleanness, but onto holiness” (1Thes. 4:7, AV). 

Hagiasmos is thus most often a matter of holy living—a principal means by which one’s justification and sanctification is made manifest (‘worked out’). Admonitions for holy living are given to female Christians (1Tim. 2:15), and to all Christians who are called upon to live in ways by which they “cleanse themselves” from all “filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness (hagiosune) in the fear of God” (2Cor. 7:1). Out of his pastoral concern, Paul’s prayer is that the believers in Thessalonica will be established in both their hearts and in holiness (hagiosune—apparently here a reference to ethical behavior) before God… at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Thes. 3:13).

Seeing sanctification in its fullness

By carefully noting the context of these uses of hagiazo, hagios, hagiasmos, and hagiosune, a composite picture begins to emerge—one of variable, though related usage. At times (most frequently, it seems) sanctification involves God’s unilateral and sovereign action, declaring that the believer is holy in his sight. This declaration, rather than being related to something moral within the believer, is a status by which God declares the believer to be his own. In this sense, to be sanctified is to be made holy—to be declared to have a status by God’s action. The sanctified person is sanctified because they are ‘set aside’ by God and for God, and because God is holy, they are now holy (holy ones—saints of the Holy God).

This declared holiness is somewhat akin to justification (overlapping, though not coincident). Because God justifies believers, they stand before him acquitted (just in his sight); their legal (forensic) and filial  (relational) status having been radically and finally altered because of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice. Their guilt is exchanged fully for his righteousness, they have been adopted as chilren of God. 

Thus, justification and sanctification may be seen as occurring together, though not necessarily in tandem. Christians are ‘washed’ as they are justified and sanctified. This association of sanctification and justification together indicates that in both, Paul is speaking about God’s action to declare the believer to be both justified and sanctified. In fact, for Paul, this declarative sense of sanctification seems to be his primary one. 

Unfortunately, in much evangelical popular writing and preaching, this is not how sanctification is addressed. Instead, it is often spoken of as the work of the Holy Spirit that follows justification at regeneration and continues in a progressive way throughout the Christian life, culminating in the completion of sanctification at glorification. In this ordo saludis (order of salvation), justification comes first, then sanctification follows in a progressive sense, to be completed finally in complete sanctification at one’s glorification.  

The most unfortunate result of seeing sanctification primarily (or only) in this progressive, ethical sense is that sanctification is seen as a human work (albeit one enabled by the Holy Sprit) with the basis and organizing principle/structure for that work being obedience to law (where such law is usually defined as some sort of stripped-down version of the Law of Moses, typically centered on the Ten Commandments). This nomistic approach to sanctification (often referred to by theologians as covenantal nomism) tends to negate at worst, or diminish at best, both the declarative sense of a believer’s sanctification and the power for the ethical/moral outworking of that sanctification—that power being the life and love of the sanctified One, Jesus Christ and our sharing in and enjoying of that life and love through the indwelling Holy Spirit. 

In order to avoid this common misunderstanding of the meaning and basis for sanctification we would do well to pay heed to the old Scots Confession: “We willingly spoil ourselves of all honor and glory of our own salvation and redemption, as we also do of our regeneration and sanctification.” As theologian Thomas F. Torrance notes, commenting on this confession: 

Both justification and sanctification are by Christ alone—therefore in both we must look away from ourselves altogether in order to live out of Him alone. (“The Radical Consequences of Justification,” Scottish Journal of Theology [1960], vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 237-246)

Though Paul emphasizes the declarative aspect of sanctification, he does also speak of an ethical (which we might refer to as a progressive) aspect. As T.F. Torrance notes, Paul tends to do so by addressing the need for the Christian to experience in the hear and now 

a cleansing of themselves from all that defiles…. Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God (Ro. 5:1). Since we have been sanctified—set apart to be God’s people—we are to live as God’s people and shun all that would defile. Therefore the fact of accomplished sanctification is one of the motivations to which Paul appeals for ethical conduct, particularly in the sexual sphere. (ibid, pp. 237-246)

Theologian George Ladd concurs:

Sanctification is not... a synonym for moral growth... [it] is not in the first place an ethical concept although it includes the ethical aspect. It denotes first of all a soteriological truth that Christians belong to God.... [It also has an] eschatological goal. It is God’s purpose that the church should be finally presented to him and without blemish (Eph. 5:27; see Col. 1:22; 1Thes. 3:13; 5:23). Because believers do belong to God— because they have been sanctified—they are called upon to experience sanctification and to shun uncleanness. While sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit (2Thes. 2:13), it also involves a human response. (Theology of the New Testament, pp. 565, 564)


Thus we note that for Paul (particularly in 1Cor 6:11), sanctification is a declarative work of God in Christ—a work that accompanies and overlaps the declarative aspect of justification by which God acts solely on the basis of Jesus Christ’s finished work to declare the believer to be a saint: God’s own, holy one, belonging to a Holy God. And now, with this status, united to Christ in his sanctification, we through the power of the Holy Spirit may share in (and in sharing, enjoy) Christ’s own sanctified human life.


Note: for more on the topic of sanctification in Christ, click here for a series of posts exploring The Claim of Humanity in Christ by Alexandra Radcliff,