Our sanctification occurs in the past, present, and future. In this episode, Barry Cooper considers this “time-traveling” word.
Are you longing for peace and comfort? Here’s something you should know, if you’re a follower of Jesus: you have been sanctified.
Sanctification is “the act of setting something or someone apart for a particular purpose.” In Scripture, the Sabbath is said to be “sanctified,” the tabernacle furniture was “sanctified,” Mount Sinai was sanctified, and even Jesus Himself is said to be sanctified—set apart by God for some special, glorious purpose.
So, what does it mean when the word sanctified is applied to you and me?
Well, the first thing to understand is that sanctification is a time-traveling word. It truly is the Marty McFly of theological words. That’s because biblically speaking, sanctification occurs in the past, the present, and the future.
It’s in the past, because it’s already happened. The Bible says you were “sanctified” by God when you were saved by Him.
It’s in the present, because the Bible says God is currently working through everything in your life to “sanctify you,” meaning that He is engaged in the ongoing project of making you more and more like His Son.
But there’s another sense in which our sanctification is in the future. Scripture says our sanctification will be complete when the Lord calls us home, or when He returns.
So, God has set you apart, God is setting you apart, and God will set you apart.
Now strangely, when we think of sanctification at all, we tend to think of it exclusively as the second of those three. We think of sanctification as the ongoing process of becoming progressively more and more sanctified. That’s what theologians call “progressive sanctification.” It’s what’s happening every day, as God the Father makes us more like His Son, by means of His Spirit.
But we forget that actually, in Scripture, the word sanctify is used most frequently in the past tense. That’s the way Paul uses the word when he says in 1 Corinthians 6, “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” You were set apart for some special purpose. This is something that God has done for you already, irrevocably, in the past. In that sense, you can never be more sanctified than the moment you first believed in Jesus. It’s what theologians call definitive sanctification.
Here’s something else we tend to forget about sanctification: whether past, present or future, ultimately, sanctification is not something we do. It’s something God does to us. It’s all Him.
Though it’s appropriate to speak of our cooperating in sanctification, it’s not true to say that we meet God halfway in our sanctification. If ever we do anything Christlike, how can we say it’s down to us? As one person put it, we can only draw on resources which have already been deposited for us in our name in the bank.
And what unimaginable rich resources they are. In John 17:19, Jesus says that He sanctifies Himself so that you and I would be sanctified.
According to 1 Corinthians chapter 1, verse 30, Jesus Himself is our sanctification. If we’re united to Him, then in terms of our definitive sanctification, we are fully sanctified —we’re hidden in Christ, and how much more sanctified could God the Son be?
The logic in Romans 6 is the same. When we’re united to Christ, we’re united to every part of His life and death. We have already shared in His death, His burial, His resurrection, His ascension; we now sit with Him in the heavenly places so that our life is hidden with Christ in God. And we will share in His return: when He appears in His glory, so also will we.
Sinclair Ferguson puts it so memorably: sanctification means that the determining factor of my existence is no longer my past. It is Christ’s past.
The Puritan John Owen wrote that there are two great pastoral problems. One is to convince committed sinners that sin does have control over them. The other is to convince Christians that sin does not have control over them. “And unless this can be done [said Owen], it is impossible [Christians] should enjoy solid peace and comfort in this life.”
Do you long for peace and comfort right now, as a Christian? Then understand that like Christ, you are a dead person brought back to life. You are dead to sin. Yes, you struggle with sin, but it no longer has dominion over you.
In Christ, you have been set apart by God for His special purpose. In Christ, you have been sanctified.