The word sanctification is uncommon. I’ve rarely heard it used in casual conversation except when the words, what is precede it. In this chapter we are going to look at the difference between positional sanctification and practical sanctification. Before we understand the difference, we need to get a grip on this heavy and rare noun.
The Greek word that is translated sanctify can be also translated make holy. Persons who are sanctified are either made holy once and for all, or they are in a process of being made holy. To discover which type of sanctification, whether once or a process, the context must be considered. Let’s take a look at 1 Corinthians 1:2. Paul says this in the opening of his letter.
To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours:1
The words “to be” do not appear in the Greek.2 Thus, Paul is calling his readers saints. It’s not a future hope that they are waiting on, but a present reality. This is valuable because being a saint is the fruition of being sanctified. Saint and sanctified come from the same root word, which in Latin is sanctus. If someone is a saint, it means that they have been sanctified at some point in the past.
Before you get the idea that the Corinthians were goodie-two-shoes, you have to understand that the church at Corinth was full of sin. In fact, it may be the most sin-filled church of all those mentioned in the Bible. A quick read through the letters that Paul sent to the church there gives a vivid image of how worldly these believers were. Why then, does Paul call them saints? How could they be made holy, if they are so sinful?
Easy. Jesus. All those who have believed in Jesus for eternal life are saints in a technical sense. Some call this forensic sanctification, which is to say, “it holds up in court.” Theses sinful saints have been made holy in terms of judgment and punishment. Believers can rest confidently in the fact that they will not have to stand before the final judgment that leads to Hell.3 In that sense they are saints. That’s why we call this use, positional sanctification. Like positional forgiveness, positional sanctification is not a process but a one time event in which the believer is cleansed. Thus, this type of sanctification stands as the believer’s holy identity for all time, regardless of his performance post-belief.
There is another type of sanctification, one not directly connected to salvation, but connected to discipleship. Let’s look at Acts 20:32 to get an understanding of practical sanctification.
So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.4
Taken on its own, it would be easy to miss the difference between this and positional sanctification. However, there are a handful of clues that tell us that Paul was talking about the process of sanctification rather than a single even sanctification.
Notice that Paul says, “build you up.” If the foundation is salvation in Christ, a concept that Paul himself addressed in 1 Corinthians 3, then building up would have to mean spiritual growth. Therefore discipleship is in view. A second clue is the word, “inheritance.” As we’ve seen in previous chapters, inheritance is most often tied to the reward that disciples receive in this life and the next. The biggest indicator that Paul is talking about practical sanctification comes only two verses earlier.
men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.5
You should be well trained by now to notice our trigger words. Disciple appears in the previous verses, which tells us that we are talking about practical sanctification and not positional. Secondly, only a few verses later he says,
“I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this…”6
Yet another one of our trigger words appears here, labor, sometimes translated work. The context clues us in. Sanctification can be connected to discipleship and certainly is here. Let’s build a definition of practical sanctification by looking at John 17:17,19. In Jesus’ famous prayer the night he was arrested he requested this for his disciples.
Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth… And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth.7
This if very telling. If both Jesus and the disciples who already had everlasting life could be sanctified, then this reference cannot be talking about the act of salvation. Here, Jesus points to the sanctifying power of truth that comes from God. The best way to understand this sense of practical sanctification could be described as being set apart.
Jesus set himself apart from the world, allowing himself to be different so that he could accomplish his father’s work. In the same way he expects his disciples to be set apart from the world, so that they can accomplish his work as well. It is by the word of God, and it’s truth that we are able to experience this practical sanctification. Another very clear picture of this kind of practical sanctification comes in 2 Timothy 2:21.
But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honor and some for dishonor. Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from the latter, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work.8
The purpose of this practical sanctification is obvious from the above verse. Those who engage in practical sanctification are useful for accomplishing the Master’s work. Paul tells us in another place that we are created for good works,9 and here we find that in order to be prepared for every good work, we must cleanse ourselves from dishonorable things. By this we become approved workers in Christ.
We’ve discovered that positional sanctification is the saint-status that all believers have when they believe in Jesus for everlasting life. Practical sanctification is the continual process that a disciple pursues on his journey toward becoming more holy. Practical sanctification prepares us for every good work.
1 1 Corinthians 1:2.
2 Dwight L. Hunt, “The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians,” in The Grace New Testament Commentary, ed. Robert N. Wilkin (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), 711.
3 John 5:24
4 Acts 20:32.
5 Acts 20:30.
6 Acts 20:35.
7 John 17:17–19.
8 2 Timothy 2:20–21.
9 Ephesians 2:10