Word Study on Holiness and Sanctification

This is so important to God. It should be to us too.

The Old Testament is written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. Let’s start there.

Hebrew and Greek

As noted in other posts on our sanctification and God’s holiness at this website, William Mounce in his Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words says the Hebrew adjective for holy is qadosh and is used 117 times. “It describes that which is by nature sacred or that which has been admitted to the sphere of the sacred by divine rite. It describes, therefore, that which is distinct or separate from the common or profane” (p. 337).

In the New Testament, the Greek words are hagios (holy, sacred) and is used 233 times. The verb hagiazō (make holy sanctify, consecrate) is used 28 times (p. 338).

Then Mounce gives us this nugget: “The proper sphere of the holy in the NT is not priestly or ritual, but the prophetic. The sacred no longer belongs to things, places, or rites, but to manifestations of life produced by the Spirit” (p. 338). In other words, when the believer is filled with the Spirit—the Holy Spirit, he is on his way to work out this holiness day by day. It is a process.

Definition of sanctification

It literally means the process or act (-ion) of making (fic-) holy (sanct-). It could be called by the made-up and awkward term “holy-fication.” So once God consecrates you at your salvation-conversion, it becomes a process; don’t feel bad if you stumble once in a while. Just get up and realize that your walk in holiness is a long, long process of growing in Christ.

What theologians say

Renewal theologian J. Rodman Williams teaches that the basic connotation of holy and holiness in the Old Testament is that of separation / apartness from the common, mundane, and profane things of everyday life. This true of God in His total otherness, also of persons and things set apart for Him and His service (vol. 1, p. 60, note 41).

God’s majesty speaks of God’s awesomeness and majesty. “At the heart of divine majesty is the white and brilliant light of His utter purity. There is in God utterly no taint of anything unclean and impure” (p. 61).

Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof says that there is an ethical aspect of holiness. “The fundamental idea of the ethical holiness of God is also that of separation from moral evil or sin. Berkhof continues: that holiness is manifested is moral law, “implanted in man’s heart, and speaking through the conscience, and more particularly in God’s special revelation,” the Bible (p. 74).

Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck tells us that sanctification or the process of making a thing or person holy in the Old Testament “is something more than merely being set apart; it is, by means of washing, anointing, sacrifice, and sprinkling of blood (etc.), to divest a thing of the character it has in common with all other things, and to impress upon it another stamp, a stamp uniquely its own, which it must bear and display everywhere (Lev. 8:15, 16:15-16; Job 1:5).” (Reformed, p. 206). In the New Testament, “God’s holiness is finally supremely manifest in Christ, in whom God gives himself to the church, which redeems and cleanses from all iniquities” (ibid.). The Holy Spirit become the purifier and sanctifier.

Bottom line: There are two spheres in God and the world he created: the sacred and profane. Wherever God moves, he makes the space sacred. He established the mobile tabernacle in the wilderness. He ordered the temple in Jerusalem. When Jesus “moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, Message translation), he made the places where he ministered holy. The same is true for us. Through Christ, we make our spaces sacred. But we must not be polluted by the world, the flesh (our sin nature) and the devil.

Can you explain sanctification into parts?

Renewal theologian J. Rodman Williams breaks it down into three parts (vol. 2, pp. 83-86).

First, holiness or the sanctified life means separateness or apartness.

In the OT, Israel was called to be a separate and holy people. Deut. 7:6 says that Israel were a people holy to the LORD God; the LORD has chosen them out of all the nations of the world. The people of the New Covenant are also a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people (1 Pet. 2:9). We are a holy or separate people. But this holiness does not withdraw us from the world, but encourages us to reach out to unbelievers. We can do this if we understand we are holy and evangelistic, holy while we evangelize, not holier-than-thou, but a streamlined life without encumbrances.

Second, holiness or sanctification (the process or act of making you holy) includes purity and cleanness.

In Exod. 19:10-11, before the LORD descended on Mt. Sinai, the people had to wash their garments, which was an outward sign of ritual purity. On the Day of Atonement, the people were to be cleansed from all their sins, indicating an interior cleansing (Lev. 16:30). In the New Covenant, Jesus used the imagery of washing the inside and outside of the cup and plate, and it is not what goes into a man that defiles him (unkosher foods), but what comes out of him—his thoughts and words, so be sure the heart is clean (Mark 7:18-19). Paul teaches us that Christ gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds (Tit. 2:14). And he writes that we should cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, perfecting holiness in reverential awe of God (2 Cor. 7:1).

This notion of “perfecting” brings us to the next aspect.

Third, holiness refers to moral “perfection.”

In the OT God was perfect (2 Sam. 22:31). The animal to be sacrificed had to be perfect or without defect (Lev. 22:21). But in the New Covenant, the inside life has to be “perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Please note, though. 1 Cor. 1:30 says that “From him [God] we are in Christ Jesus, who has become wisdom to us from God, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” He already is our sanctification or holiness. It’s a done deal. However, perfection does not mean morally sinless, but complete maturity and growth towards the goal of being like Christ. We are positionally or declaratively sanctified, but not actually sinlessly perfect in our experience. But we instantly experience sanctification because the Holy Spirit lives in us.

Consider wisdom in 1 Cor. 1:30. Christ has become our wisdom, but we are not perfectly wise every moment of every day, are we? No. But we can experience wisdom day by day. Similarly, he has become our holiness or sanctification, but we are not now perfectly holy or sanctified, but we can experience it.


Think of a pure white cloth covering a tall glass of water, just above the rim. Imagine the water has some dirt in it. Positionally we are holy (the white cloth) in Christ. He has put the white robe of holiness on us. Now God is presently getting the dirt out of the old water by pouring in new water through the white cloth. The water spills over, and the dirty water will eventually leave and be replaced. This process takes a lifetime of growing in Christ.

This post is further divided into two parts: Sanctification and Holiness

I.. Sanctification

A.. We have been sanctified in Christ.

In 1 Cor. 1:2, Paul tells the Corinthians who they are in Christ: sanctified in him and called to be his holy people. The verb tense is in the past.

In 1 Cor. 6:11, Paul reminds the Corinthians of their past sins—a list of them!—but then the good news: They used to be like that, but they were washed and sanctified and justified (declared righteous) in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of God.

Acts 20:32 simply teaches that God will give those who are sanctified their inheritance, which is the fullness of the kingdom today and the eternal kingdom when Christ returns.

B.. We have been sanctified through the blood of Christ.

Heb. 10:29, an extra-strong warning passage, the author of Hebrews says that if certain Messianic Jews trampled underfoot the Son of God and treated the holy blood of the Covenant that sanctified them, they would be in trouble. The key word is the blood sanctified them. This verb is in the past tense, again.

C.. We have been sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

In Rom. 15:16, Paul says the Gentiles (non-Jews) have become an offering acceptable to God and sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

D.. We are sanctified by faith.

In Acts. 26:18, Paul recounts his conversion experience on the Road to Damascus. Jesus told him that Paul is called him to preach to the Gentiles to be sanctified by faith, as distinct from law keeping.

E.. We are called God’s holy people.

In 2 Cor. 1:1, Paul simply and straightforwardly says the Corinthians are God’s holy people.

And in Phil. 1:1, Paul affirms the same truth: they are God’s holy people.

F.. We are being sanctified through the Word of God.

In John 17:17-19, Jesus prays his high priestly prayer and says his disciples are sanctified by truth, and his Word is truth.

G.. We are sanctified through the work of God.

1 Thess. 5:23 teaches that God should sanctify us through and through.

H.. We have been sanctified through the work of the Holy Spirit.

In 2 Thess. 2:13, Paul plainly teaches that we are saved through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

And in 1 Pet. 1:2 Peter teaches the same truth—sanctified through the Spirit.

I.. We are sanctified through resisting sin.

1 Thess. 4:3-7 says that God’s will is that we should be sanctified by avoiding sexual immorality and control their own bodies in a holy and honorable way, unlike the unbelievers or pagans.

II.. Holiness

Let’s begin in the Old Testament.

A.. Israel was holy to the Lord.

Exod. 19:6 says that the ancient Israelites will be a nation of priests and a holy nation, compared to the neighboring pagan nations (see also Deut. 7:6 and Jer. 2:3)

B.. They formed a holy race.

Ezr. 9:2 rebukes the Israelites for marrying pagan women, when the Israelites were called to be a holy nation.

C.. They were expected to be holy.

Lev. 11:44-45 teaches that the people are holy because God is holy.

D.. The priests were holy.

Lev. 21:5-6 says that priests are supposed do certain things so they can be different or apart from the surrounding pagans—holy, in other words.

Now let’s turn to Christians who are supposed to be holy.

E.. Christians are a holy people.

Col. 3:12 says that we are God’s chosen people, holy and loved. Love and holiness must go together.

1 Pet. 2:9 teaches us that we are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, and holy nation. That means we are different from the unbelievers and have special access to and a clear relationship with God.

F.. We are a holy temple.

Eph. 2:20-21 says we are built on the foundation of apostles and prophets, and then we are built up or constructed and joined together to form the holy temple. Cessationists use this verse to say that after the apostles died, the gifts of the Spirit died out. In reply, however, too many of these gifts appeared throughout church history, and v. 20 is silent on the future of those gifts in 1 Cor. 12:7-11 and Rom. 12:6-8. The gifts of teaching and hospitality, for example, did not die with the apostles.

G.. We are chosen to be holy.

In Eph. 1:4 Paul writes that God chose us before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless. A remarkable thought.

H.. We are called to a holy life.

1 Thess. 4:7 teaches us that God did not us to be impure, but to live a holy life.

Heb. 12:14 says that we are to make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy. One strong way to live a holy life is to be at peace with everyone.

In 1 Pet. 1:15-16, Peter says that since God who called us is holy, so we are to be holy in all you do.

I.. We are must serve God in holiness.

Luke 1:74-75 says that we were rescued from the hands of the enemies for a purpose: to serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness.

J.. We must purify ourselves in holiness.

In 2 Cor. 7:1, Paul quotes a series of OT verses that talk about coming out from the world and unclean things. Therefore, he concludes, we are to purify ourselves from contamination in body and spirit, perfecting (or maturing or completing) our lives in holiness out of reverential awe of the Lord.

K.. We will be presented to God as holy.

Col. 1:22 teaches us that Christ bought us with his body, so he can present us holy and unblemished and free from accusation. This means that at the end of the age, his work in us will be complete. And “free from accusation” means that we have not achieved sinless, moral perfection, but our neighbors cannot point at our unrighteousness in our social behavior.

How can I grow in Christ with this information?

Being holy in Christ means you are positionally and experientially holy, in the sense of being transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Col. 1:13). He positions you to be holy or sanctified by your being in him. And when he fills you with his Holy Spirit, you experience sanctification or holiness on a much deeper level, day by day.

Stated differently, your perfection is positional because his sacrifice on the cross is perfect, and now you are positioned in Christ. And so for the rest of your life you will work out what the Spirit worked in. You can experience his (not your) perfection, as you grow in him.

It works out like this (1 Cor 1:30):

Positional or declarative: Christ has become your sanctification or holiness (or perfection).

Experiential: Christ works out in you his sanctification or his holiness (or his perfection) daily.

The positional and experiential happen at the same time. If you have any perfection in you, it is Christ alone living in you through the Spirit, not you. And now he is working in you to make you more like him. There is daily progress in the process.

In other words,

Initial sanctification ≠ Sinless, moral perfection

There’s progress in the process, until you die or when the Lord returns. Only then will you have sinless perfection.


Do I Really Know God? He Is Holy

What Is Sanctification?


What Is Sanctification?

Bible Basics on Sanctification and Holiness

Sanctification of the Whole Person: Spirit, Soul, and Body

Sanctification: Can Christians Achieve Sinless Perfection Now?

Sanctification: Past, Present, Future


Works Cited

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