I understand that sanctification is used as a post-reformational theological term to refer to the ongoing process of Christian growth.

But, biblically speaking, is this always what is meant? I know that the word literally means "to make holy," which does not necessitate an ongoing process (and neither a one-time event). I am a bit nervous about limiting the semantic range when something broader may be intended in scripture.

So what is the semantic range of the word as used in scripture?

  • This seems like a simple question, but there is a huge debate over it, whether it's "positional" (a state), a relationship, a process, or more than one of these. There's also debate over which verses are using which senses. So I'm voting to close for now. Perhaps it could be edited into an overview question.
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 15, 2016 at 0:35
  • This is an old question. And currently it seems more appropriate for Biblical Hermeneutics.SE than for Christianity.SE. Apr 15, 2016 at 0:47

3 Answers 3


The word "sanctification" derives from the Latin noun "sanctificio". This original Latin word means "to separate and set aside" (source--using the WayBack Machine).

To me, this rings of Israel being set aside as God's holy people. (As seen in Deut. 7:6-8 and Leviticus 20:26) Also, it seems to reverberate in the New Testament with Jesus' words in the gospel of John.

John 17:16 (NIV)

They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.

Sanctification, in this sense, is to be set apart from the world--to be a different people.

However, this original Latin word was actually translated from Greek. It's not actually the source word. The original Greek word is often translated into English as "wash" or "cleanse".

This implies that we are to be washed of our sins.

There's an excellent use of this in Ephesians 5:25-26. The NIV translates this as "cleanse"

Ephisians 5:25-26 (NIV)

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word

(emphasis added)

However, the original King James uses the word "sanctify"

Ephesians 5:25-26 (KJV)

25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;

26 That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word

(emphasis added)

This cleansing from sin can also be seen in the Old Testamant.

Leviticus 16:30 (KJV)

30 For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the LORD.

It should be noted, though, that the translation of "sanctify" in the Old Testament didn't suffer from this same duality of definition. It's just an example of how God's holy people should be both "set apart" and "cleansed".

So, there is kind of a two-fold definition. My source article puts it well:

  1. In position believers are eternally set apart for God by redemption and are positionally, therefore, holy and righteous from the moment of believing.
  2. In experience the believer is being sanctified by the work of the Holy Spirit and scripture.

(emphasis in the original)

  • Excellent! Do you know anything about sanctification in the OT?
    – deps_stats
    Aug 25, 2011 at 16:28
  • 1
    Here's an excellent article about sanctification in the old testament (PDF). I'll reference a couple of those versus in my answer.
    – Richard
    Aug 25, 2011 at 16:36
  • Your source in para one now goes to a drivers license site. Could you update the link, please. I would like to follow your argument.
    – Waeshael
    Aug 9, 2013 at 15:51
  • @Waeshael Aah, thanks. Unfortunately, it looks like it's completely dead. I changed it to the internet archive (Way Back Machine) link. It really helps for dead sites like that.
    – Richard
    Aug 12, 2013 at 11:28

I don't like the word "sanctification" because it makes a process out of something God has declared/decreed. As Christians we are both justified (saved/made right before God) and sanctified (set apart, consecrated for God's purpose).

This goes against the general evangelical practices of using the term "sanctification" to mean, "being made holy". The problem is that we still sin so we needed a way to talk about being saved but still living as a sinner - sometimes living in gross sin. So the term was invented to talk about spiritual growth. The reason I don't like the term is because it is not the best translated meaning - it is a stretch or ore of an interpretation/application to translate the idea of "being made holy" as sanctification, (e.g. 1 Thes 4:3). Where it is okay to translate it as sanctification (1 Peter 1:2) it is something God did, thus it is done and it could be translated as consecrated. Even so, it's a done deal - we are sanctified by God. My other reason is that spiritual growth is the basic idea anyway, so why not say spiritual growth.

I have not done an exhaustive study, and I'm really not rebelling against the use of the term in and of itself. I would simply like to help Christian focus on the real issue that God has called us to be responsible for - our spiritual growth (Add to your faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control... etc from 2 Peter 1:5-7).

Thus, we need to live consistent with the purpose for which God has set us apart. Even when we don't do so, we are STILL set a part for that purpose. A fork doesn't stop being a fork simply because someone uses it to dig a hole in the ground. It's still a fork and it it is set apart for being used as a fork. With you and I, we need to constantly be growing spiritually so that we can be better used by God according to our purpose - he set us apart for His glory.

That's my short answer....


What is the biblical meaning of “sanctification”

1 Thessalonians 5:23 And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

sanctify = hagiazō

Strongs definition

to make holy, that is, (ceremonially) purify or consecrate; (mentally) to venerate: - hallow, be holy, sanctify.

Paul prays the God will make holy completely the believers in Thessalonica. Jesus prays that God will make holy the disciples using his word.

John 17:17 Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.

We get a picture of the active work of God in the life of a Christian bringing him to increasing holiness. This involves cleansing and purifying that encompasses a transition from a flesh (self) filled life to a Spirit filled life. This also pictures a transition from a worldly life to one that is "unspotted" by the world.

When considering the Christian life it can be advantageous to consider what things God does and what things we have responsibility for. Consider the words of Peter to those who are about to undergo persecution.

1 Peter 3:15 But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:

There is an act of sanctification that we can continue in that can gird us for difficulties. If we keep a view of God as holy and righteous in our hearts, it can sustain us when we might otherwise be tempted to surrender to dark forces of persecution.

It can also be helpful to consider those things we do that hinder the work of God in sanctifying us.

1 Thessalonians 5:19 Quench not the Spirit.

Galatians 5:16 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.

James 4:4 Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.

It is also interesting to note the utility of truth in the work of sanctification. When the cold light of truth is upon us, who can boast or show pride? Truth can only produce in us humility. This in turn opens the door to God's grace.

James 4:6 But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.

There is a judicial sanctification of position that we have because of our new life in Christ.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.

However, it is for us to participate in an experiential process of sanctification that we should be experiencing as a result of being made more like Jesus.

Ephesians 4:11-15 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ:

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