The English word “sanctification” is derived from from the Latin noun sanctificio. Its most generic Latin meaning is “to separate and set aside.” Since the early days of the Roman church its Latin usage has been primarily related to Christian theology, which uses it in a religious sense, “to separate and set aside for holiness,” or “to make holy.” However, The Latin word from which we derive the English word sanctification is, itself, a translation from the original New Testament language, which is Greek. Some English Bible translations preserve but slightly modified the Latin word. The King James version is an example, and is used in the quotes in the following paragraphs.
The original Greek word is usually translated into English as “wash” or “cleanse.” You will find these words in many English Bible translations instead of the word sanctification because many translators relied more on the original Greek than on the subsequent Latin translation. The traditional use of the transliterated Latin word “sanctification” is in some ways unfortunate because it implies that there is something mysterious about it. English speakers have no context for the Latin word sanctification aside from its use in religious language. The word tends to take on whatever meaning it is given by the religious context within which it is learned. As a consequence, if a church or religious authority teaches its adherents that sanctification is something mysterious that can be imparted only by some equally mysterious process or person, those adherents are deprived of the simple understanding that sanctification is the natural result of a relationship with God.
On the other hand, I deliberately chose to use the word “sanctification” in the subtitle of this column because I want to attract the attention of people who are looking for answers about the concept. Thousands of people type the word “sanctification” into internet search boxes every day!
The term “sanctification” is used in two ways in scripture (when speaking of people in their earthly life):
1. In position believers are eternally set apart for God by redemption and are positionally, therefore, holy and righteous from the moment of believing.
Hebrews 10:14 “For by one offering He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.”
2. In experience the believer is being sanctified by the work of the Holy Spirit and scripture.
Ephesians 5:25-27 “… as Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it; That He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That He might present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.“
People sometimes ask me whether sanctification is an event or a process. It is both, as you can see from the above usage examples. In one sense, it is an event that happens when God redeems us. At that moment, he sets us aside, apart from those who are not redeemed, to be with Him for eternity and to serve Him on Earth. He cleanses that part of us that is eternal and declares that eternal part to be holy, or righteous. That moment also begins the process of sanctification in the second sense. He begins to change our attitudes and behaviors to the extent that we are willing to be changed. He uses the Holy Spirit and the holy Scriptures as instruments to accomplish this. Because our bodily nature has been corrupted through its presence in the sinful world, this is a process that never ends as long as we are in the body and in the world. Nevertheless, when we leave the body and come into his eternal presence, we will be both holy and “without blemish.” The process of sanctification will be complete.
It is not uncommon in human language to use one word in several ways. There is nothing spiritually or linguistically wrong about understanding that sanctification is such a word when used in Scripture. In fact, this understanding will clear up many of the disputes that occur over the meaning and usage of the word. It is not necessary to believe that sanctification is either an event or a process. It can be, and is, both.Please let me know if you have any comments or questions about this definition, by using the form below.