Holiness: It’s not a process.

What is “holiness”?

Saint Elizabeth of PortugalThe term “holiness” conjures ideas of piety and moral uprightness. In fact, the word translated as “saint” from the New Testament is literally “holy person”. So we might well imagine very religious piety.

Sanctification is a word based on the same Greek root word as “holy”. It means making something holy. Modern commentators will say that “Sanctification is a process”, by which the believer is transformed into the likeness of Christ, which is a “holy” nature.

That is what the word has come to mean in common use. But when it is used in the Bible, that’s not the actual meaning of the term. This is quite obvious when we notice objects and places being “sanctified” (made holy), but clearly those objects are not becoming any more moral or spiritually minded, or in any other way “Christ like”! The objects are not materially transformed, let alone improved, in any way at all.

What happened?


Some key words:

Sanctification and the Saints

ἁγιος

There is a Greek word, “ἁγιος”, which is translated “holy”. It’s an adjective (a “description” word). It can be used to describe people or objects. In a clinical sense it simply means “set apart [for a purpose]”, generally assumed, in the Biblical context, to be God’s purpose.

ὁ ἁγιος

The word can also be used in a sentence to mean “holy person” by adding a definite article (the equivalent of adding “the”, resulting in, “the holy”). In that form, (“ὁ ἁγιος”) it is readily recognisable in the Greek as “the holy [one]”, meaning a “holy person”, often translated “saint”.

οἱ ἁγιοι

In its plural form, “ἁγιοι”, it is again used with a definite article to mean “those who are holy” (“οἱ ἁγιοι”). In this form it is often translated, “the saints”. Literally it is “the holy [ones]”.

Now, when this same root word is used in it’s verb form (an “action” word), it refers to making something holy. It is translated to sanctify. It can be noted here that there is no other word that gets translated from Greek as “sanctify” other than this one. An English synonym is “consecrate”.

ἁγιάζω

In English, we use the infinitive form of the verb in our lexicons, so we would say that this is the verb “to sanctify“. In Greek, the lexicon uses the first person present indicative form of the verb, so the Greek speaker would say that this is the verb “I sanctify“. 

That is the word you see above: “ἁγιάζω”: “I sanctify”. Literally it says, “I make [something] holy”.

ἁγιασμος

This is the noun. It is translated, “sanctification”. Grammatically, in English, that could refer to a process or to a state-of-being. As an example, “satisfaction” can be a process of satisfying, or the state of being achieved once you have been satisfied.

“Sanctification”, insofar as it does describe a state of being, is equivalent to saying “holiness”. That is, “God has granted me sanctification” = “God has granted me holiness”.

Why I disagree with the Scholars

Scholars recognise that sanctification refers to an event, but say that it also refers to a process. I’m not happy with that. Why? Because the Bible says very clearly and explicitly that we (believers) are already sanctified. So to then say that we are also being sanctified in a process that is not completed, is like saying that someone has their “satisfaction” already, but is yet to be completely “satisfied”. It doesn’t make any sense at all.

In fact, in every place where we see a word which is based on that Greek root word “ἁγιος”, the meaning can always be understood in the simple sense of “set apart”, and can only be understood to refer to “a process” on the basis of ambiguity. I will comment later on why I think commentators sometimes read into it a reference to process.

The following are the passages that Millard Erikson “M.J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Baker Book House, 1998), 980-95″ uses to describe the “two senses” of Sanctification in the New Testament. Bear in mind that he begins by pointing out that the Hebrew source word “qados” (“קֹ֖דֶשׁ”) has only one “sense”, the simple meaning of “set apart”. Yet he describes two senses of the equivalent Greek word.

Erickson’s Proof Texts for “set apart”

1 Peter 2:9

1 Peter 2:9 – “a holy nation, a people belonging to God”

This is pretty straightforward. In context, this cannot mean anything but “set apart”.

1 Corinthians 1:2

1 Corinthians 1:2 – “those who are sanctified, called to be saints”

Note that “are sanctified” here is in the perfect tense, meaning that this is a current state of being resulting from a past action, more literally “those who have been brought to a state of sanctification/holiness”.

“Saints” here, is literally “holy ones”.

Erickson’s proof texts for “process”

Matt 5:42-45

Matt 5:42-45 – “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

Any mention of “sanctification”, or “holy”, or “saint”…? No. But it does describe something of the Christian life. Erickson says that this conveys the “idea” of Sanctification. I disagree. I think it describes another idea.

Mark 3:35

Mark 3:35 – “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

There is no mention of “holy” or “sanctify” here, but Erickson cites it as an example.

Ephesians 4:1

Ephesians 4:1 – “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called”

Seeing a pattern? This describes what Erickson wants Sanctification to mean, but doesn’t actually use that term.

1 Thessalonians 5:23

1 Thessalonians 5:23 – “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

At last we get to a verse which at least employs the term we are trying to define!

The term “sanctify” here is in the optative mood, indicating a wish or desire. That leads people to assume that this sanctification has not yet been achieved. But be careful…

Elsewhere, abundantly, Paul has described sanctification of the believer as already complete. Here, in context, he is talking to a congregation, so he quite possibly means, “may God set apart your entire congregation [leaving none out]”.

Also, the “entirely” word is very difficult to translate! This is the only place in the entire New Testament that we find this word, “ὁλοτελεις”. In other literature of that period it has been used to mean, “full continuity (unbroken, complete)”. In other words, it could mean “may God set you apart until the Lord comes“, because Paul has just been talking about the “day of the Lord” at the beginning of this chapter.

It also could be an emphasis on being set apart “entirely”, rather than being only semi-committed. This comes at the end of a long list of instructions which are consistent with being fully set apart. The fact that such instructions are necessary is a clear indication that some individuals were apparently not “entirely” set apart from the evils of the world.

Any of these fit the context, and are consistent with a simple meaning of “set apart”. To say that this represents a process is both very tenuous, and flies in the face of the rest of the entire Bible.

Ephesians 5:26

Ephesians 5:26 – “… in order to make [the church/the wife] holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word…”

This verse also relates to our key term “holy”. But it doesn’t relate to a process. It is a simple instruction to set one’s wife apart, by a technique involving “the washing of water by the word”. What that phrase means is not important to explore here, instead we can simply note Jesus’ own words using the same metaphor:

You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” – Jn 15:3

Clearly, this is an action done once, or even possibly multiple times, but not an extended process.

Titus 2:14

Titus 2:14 – “He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds”

Presumably Erikson includes this because he equates “purify” (“καθαρισῃ”) with Sanctification. But the connection is not in the text. Erickson is bringing the connection himself, and then using this verse as a proof-text to demonstrate that the connection is valid. This verse does not mention Sanctification, and does not have anything to do with it.

Hebrews 13:20-21

Hebrews 13:20-21 – “Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

Again, this passage has nothing to do with Sanctification.

Phil 1:6

Phil 1:6 – “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

There is no mention of Sanctification in this verse.

1 Corinthians 1:18

1 Corinthians 1:18 – “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

There is no mention of Sanctification in this verse.

Colossians 3:9-10

Colossians 3:9-10 – “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”

There is no mention of Sanctification in this verse.

Romans 8:29

Romans 8:29 – “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.”

There is no mention of Sanctification in this verse.

Galatians 5:16

Galatians 5:16 – “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

There is no mention of Sanctification in this verse.

Galatians 5:25

Galatians 5:25 – “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”

There is no mention of Sanctification in this verse.

Romans 8:4-5, 9, 13-14, 16-17, 26-27

Romans 8:4-5, 9, 13-14, 16-17, 26-27 – “so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit…But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him…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. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God…it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all…Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

There is no mention of Sanctification anywhere in any of these verses.

Philippians 2:12-13

Philippians 2:12-13 – “Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

There is no mention of Sanctification in this passage.

Romans 12:9

Romans 12:9 – “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good”

There is no mention of Sanctification in this verse.

Romans 12:1-2

Romans 12:1-2 – “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Aha! This passage does include our key word, “holy”. Unfortunately (for Erickson), it is clear that the instruction to present one’s body is not something that is a process over time. It is a simple imperative, “do this”.

It is in the second verse that we have a verb implying a process, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds”. This is not “Sanctification”, but something which follows. The language is very clear: “Present your bodies” (relates to Sanctification), “be transformed” (an obligation which presumably results from the sanctification).

A neat paraphrase of the core idea would be, “Present your bodies as though they were a sacrifice, in which case they would be set apart completely for God and therefore acceptable to Him … and then of course, don’t continue acting the way you have, but learn a new way to behave, which is consistent with your now set-apart state.”

Do Saints commit Sins?

Erickson then continues with a discussion on whether or not a believer, whom Paul describes as “holy”, can actually sin or not. It’s a completely silly question, which only arises because Erickson assumes that “holy” means “sinless”, which it doesn’t. It simply means “set apart”, in our case, “for the purposes of God”.

Paul clearly teaches that such a person ought not sin, because they have been set apart for God’s purposes and not for their own. But can they sin? Obviously so, otherwise why all the exhortations not to?

Being holy does not make you sinless. Being holy obliges you to be sinless.

Is there a “process” in the Christian life?

Yes!

Yes, there is certainly a process by which the Christian is being transformed into the likeness of Christ. Erickson refers to many passages (above), which describe this process. It is a transformation, but it is not “sanctification”, in the Biblical vernacular. It naturally follows from the fact of being set-apart for God that a person would begin to be transformed. But those two ideas are distinct (at least, they are to the Paul, the Biblical author).

Actually, Erickson is right, in a way.

Erickson says that “Sanctification” is a process. In fact, he is right, in a way. But he is only right because the word “Sanctification” has come to mean “a process”. The Greek words that Paul uses however, all relating to “ἁγιος”, do not refer to a process. This extra meaning for the word has grown up over time, as part of the development of languages that have been used for theological study.

What we have is a word which, in it’s current use in Christian circles, does not actually reflect the meaning that the original author had in mind. Because Paul saw a clear implication that a sanctified person should amend their behaviour, commentators have taken two concepts and combined them under one word “Sanctification”. But what the texts actually say is that there is Sanctification-and-then-Transformation.

Why does it matter?

Well, it probably only really matters if you’re a theology student. If we took “sanctify” to mean what it literally means, our Theology textbooks would be a lot thinner! It’s a simple concept, which arises from ancient contemplation around consecrating items for sacrifice to God. The way Paul used it, it is not “a process” lasting the whole of a Christian’s life, it is not especially mystical, and it is not actually complex at all.

There are other words which have become loaded with additional meaning in a similar way. Words like, “Justification“, and “Righteousness”. Such words, properly understood, are perfectly simple, functional ideas. Unfortunately, 2000 years of contemplation has loaded them up with additional meaning, surplus to the meaning that was originally intended.

We ought, above all, to be looking for what the text actually says. In the case of “Sanctification”, our modern commentators are guilty of anachronistically reading later additional meanings into the original word.

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  1. I had some feedback on a separate forum, asking about the Levitical refrain, “be holy for I am holy”, and similar. This was my response (I think it adds something useful here):

    The expression “be holy as God is holy” doesn’t necessarily incorporate the “consequences” of holiness that we would tend to associate with it.

    I would suggest that the meaning is not “be sinless as God is sinless”. Jesus actually said something like that, in “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” in Matt 5:48. This was probably a deliberate expansion on “Be holy as I am holy”, but in Jesus’ case he did draw attention to the expected results. But without those expected results, “be holy as I am holy” actually means, “be removed from the world (and therefore be located in the heavenly realm), as completely as is God himself”.

    I see echoes here of the Hebrew insistence of the clear distinction between creator and created, as reflected in the consecration rites. Objects were consecrated, not so much as a symbol of removing their worldly “corruption”, but more as a metaphysical translation from one realm to another. Only sometimes did that involve a washing ritual. Sometimes it was a sprinkling with blood, and other times it was consumption by fire. The object is then available for use by God because it has been redeemed out of the created world for his purposes.

    Morality and purity is certainly what we have come to see holiness as, but I think that this qualitative dimension is still referring to the *obligation* which comes from having obeyed the instruction, not the actual instruction itself.

    I just searched Bible Gateway for “be holy”. It appears in a few other contexts (such as “[the object] will be holy”, meaning “consecrated”), but where you see it as an imperative (“you must be holy”), it is actually in the context of “be different from the nations around you”.

    In fact, scanning through those results, wherever it *appears* to be a qualitative instruction (like “be very good”), opening the surrounding verses reveals in most cases that it (at least) *probably* means “be different”, and in some cases it almost can’t mean “be very good”.

    For example, “Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the Lord your God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the Lord, who makes you holy.” (Lev 20:7-8) can’t really have anything to do with good behaviour. God is saying, “I am the one who is setting you apart from the other nations, so set yourselves apart”. He is surely not saying, “Behave well because I am the one who makes your behaviour good”.

    There is no doubt that the goodness and purity factors are the means by which the people should go about *demonstrating* and *experiencing* their set-apartness, but the setting apart in itself is not purity.

    By way of illustration, sailing is generally associated with relaxation, but “go sailing” is not a synonym for “relax”, any more than “be holy” would be a synonym for “behave well”. We may even tell someone to go sailing when they need to chill-out, but sailing itself is not relaxation.

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