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Soteriology Series: Sanctification

Updated: May 2


After the simultaneous events of regeneration and justification, believers begin the process of sanctification. Since the term sanctify means “to set apart,” sanctification means “setting apart to holiness” or “making righteous.”[1] God is the primary one who sanctifies believers. Second Thessalonians 5:23 says, “Now may the God of peace himself make you completely holy and may your spirit and soul and body be kept entirely blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Also, Hebrews 13:20-21 says, “Now may the God of peace … equip you with every good thing to do his will, working in us what is pleasing before him through Jesus Christ.” God sanctifies us through the Holy Spirit. First Peter 1:2 (ESV) talks about the “sanctification of the Spirit” and 2 Thessalonians 2:13 calls it “sanctification by the Spirit.” It is the Holy Spirit’s role to make us holy by producing the fruits of the Spirit in us, including love, joy, peace, patience, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). But Scripture also teaches that believers have a role in their sanctification. Romans 8:13 says: “(for if you live according to the flesh, you will die), but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.” Also, Philippians 2:12-13 (NIV) says,

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Therefore, a good definition of sanctification, as given by Wayne Grudem, is: “Sanctification is a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives.”[2]

God’s Role in Sanctification

What role does God play in sanctification? Again, Philippians 2:12-13 (NIV) says,

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

(1) God works in our hearts by giving us the “will” (NIV) or “desire” (NET) for righteous things. (2) God empowers us to “work for his good pleasure,” including serving others, reading his Word, prayer, and repenting of sin. (3) In addition, God uses hardships to train us in godliness. Hebrews 12:7-11 says:

Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? But if you do not experience discipline, something all sons have shared in, then you are illegitimate and are not sons. Besides, we have experienced discipline from our earthly fathers and we respected them; shall we not submit ourselves all the more to the Father of spirits and receive life? For they disciplined us for a little while as seemed good to them, but he does so for our benefit, that we may share his holiness. Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it.

In God’s sovereignty, he uses all hardship for our good—to train us and make us holy. In fact, 1 Corinthians 10:13 says God won’t allow us to be tempted or tried beyond what we can endure. God controls our trials and uses them for his purposes. (4) Also, God gives us godly, mature believers to help us grow in righteousness. Ephesians 4:11-13 says,

It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God—a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature.

God, specifically, gives us gifted teachers to help us grow and mature. No doubt, God does much more to sanctify us.

The Believer’s Role in Sanctification

What is the believer’s role in sanctification? Some believe that sanctification is monergistic—a work that only God does. This is seen in statements like, “Let go and let God!” However, sanctification is synergistic—in that believers also have a role in their becoming more like Christ. The believer’s role in sanctification is both passive and active. For example, the believer’s passive role is seen in verses like Romans 12:1: “Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice—alive, holy, and pleasing to God—which is your reasonable service.” Many are not growing in Christ simply because they are not willing to “present” themselves to God. In presenting ourselves to God as sacrifices, we are saying, “God, use me for your kingdom in whatever way you deem best, even if it hurts!”, “Lord, your will be done and not my own!”, and “Lord, send me where you want me to go!” This is the passive aspect of our sanctification.

But, also we have an active role which is represented by verses like 1 Timothy 4:7 where Paul says to Timothy, “train yourself for godliness.” “Train” can also be translated as “exercise.” Just as exercises help a body grow in endurance, flexibility, and strength, spiritual exercises help believers grow in sanctification. These are often called spiritual disciplines. They include Scripture reading, prayer, fasting, attending a Bible preaching church, and serving others, among other things. As we practice spiritual disciplines, we grow. Also, our active role in sanctification is seen in our enduring trials. James 1:4 says, “And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything.” We must “let endurance have its perfect work” by not complaining, quitting, or rebelling in our trials and also by seeking the Lord in them. When we do this, God sanctifies us in ways that won’t happen when we’re living at ease.

Sanctification is synergistic—in that God has a role in our sanctification, and we also have a role.

Past and Future Aspects of Sanctification

Not only does the Bible refer to sanctification in a present/progressive sense but also in past and future senses. When the word sanctify is used in the past sense, it is called positional sanctification. This overlaps with justification; it is when God calls us “sanctified” or “saints,” as though we are holy, even though we are not. In 1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul said this to the Corinthians: “to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, and called to be saints, with all those in every place who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.” He said they were “sanctified” and called them “saints,” though there was great sin happening in the church. They were idolizing their teachers and getting into factions around them (1 Cor 1:10-13); they were suing one another (1 Cor 6); they apparently were practicing sexual immorality by visiting temple prostitutes (1 Cor 6:1-8); one man was having sex with his father’s wife and the church was boasting about it (1 Cor 5:1-2). They were abusing spiritual gifts (1 Cor 14), and some in the church were even teaching heretical doctrine—that the resurrection had already passed (1 Cor 15:12-14). Though they were clearly not holy, Paul called them “sanctified” and “saints.” He did this, no doubt, because Christ’s righteousness was deposited in their account in their justification and because they were set apart by God for holiness. Paul called them the same in 1 Corinthians 6:11, “Some of you once lived this way. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Positional sanctification is important to understand because it teaches us our identity in Christ. Yes, we are still sinners, but we are also saints. We are ones that God declared righteous, whom he is developing into his image, and whom he has set apart from the world for good works—all for his glory (Eph 1:6, 12, 2:10). Positional sanctification reminds us of God’s amazing grace (unmerited favor) towards sinners.

In addition, Scripture not only speaks about sanctification in past and present senses, but also in a future sense, often called final sanctification, future sanctification, or glorification. Romans 8:30 says, “And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified.” Because God has predestined certain individuals to salvation, he will one day effectually call them to salvation and justify them—declaring them righteous based on Christ’s righteous life and death. Then, God will glorify them by freeing them from sin, making them righteous, and giving them resurrected, glorified bodies. Final sanctification is also referred to in Scripture when “salvation” is spoken of in the future tense. For example, Hebrews 9:28 says, “so also, after Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many, to those who eagerly await him he will appear a second time, not to bear sin but to bring salvation.” Even though believers have experienced salvation, there is a future sense in which we wait for it. Salvation, and therefore sanctification, will be complete when Christ returns and gives us resurrected bodies. First John 3:2 (ESV) says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”

There are two steps to final sanctification: (1) When a person dies and goes to heaven, God will sanctify their spirit in the sense of getting rid of sin and making them completely holy. We see this in Hebrews 12:23 when it talks about “the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect.” (2) Then, final sanctification is complete when God gives the “spirits of the righteous” glorified bodies at the resurrection. Philippians 3:20-21 says,

But our citizenship is in heaven—and we also await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of his glorious body by means of that power by which he is able to subject all things to himself.

For those who are alive when Christ returns for his saints, final sanctification will have only one step, as their bodies are immediately transformed into glorified bodies, without them ever dying (cf. 1 Thess 4:16-17).


  1. What stood out most to you in the reading and why?

  2. What is sanctification? What are the different aspects of it—past, present, and future?

  3. What is God’s role in sanctification and what is the believer’s role?

  4. What are some spiritual disciplines? Which have you benefited from most? Which ones do you hope to try or do more of in the future?

  5. What are the two parts of final sanctification?

  6. What questions or applications did you take from the reading?


[1] Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 746). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

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