I had the great honor of asking renown scholar and prolific author Craig S. Keener (PhD, Duke University, and F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies, Asbury Theological Seminary) a few questions regarding the nature of sanctification.
What does the Bible mean when it uses the term “sanctify” or “sanctification?” Does the English translation do the original Greek word justice, or should we find a different word?
Craig: I might prefer the translation “consecrate,” since there is less theological-historical baggage attached. The term means “set apart” for ritual purposes; in biblical usage this especially means set apart from what is profane for exclusively holy use (in the Greek translation of the OT, see e.g., Gen 2:3; Exod 19:14, 22; 28:41; 29:1). By Christ’s sacrificial death for us, God has consecrated us, or set us apart, as “saints” (literally, “the consecrated ones”) for his exclusive use. We belong to him. Now, what are the implications of this? If we are “saints” in Christ—i.e., those consecrated to Christ—we ought to live wholly for his purposes, not for our own or others.
We don’t act holy to get holy (“holy” being the usual translation of the adjective cognate of the term translated “sanctify”). We are holy to God because he has set us apart in Christ. Thus Paul calls the Corinthians “called saints, sanctified in Christ” (1 Cor 1:2; cf. 3:17; 6:1-2; 14:33; 2 Cor 1:1). The Corinthians!!! That is because of what Christ has done (1 Cor 6:11; cf. Heb 2:11; 9:13-14; 10:10, 14, 29; 13:12). Christ is our sanctification, or consecration to God (1 Cor 1:30), for we are set apart in him. (The expression “saints” or “consecrated/holy ones” and other descriptions of holiness are frequent in the NT: see e.g., Acts 9:13, 32, 41; 20:32; 26:10, 18; Eph 1:1, 15, 18; 2:19, 21; 3:18; 4:12; 5:3; 6:18; Phil 1:1; 4:21; Col 1:2, 4, 12, 26; 2 Thess 1:10; 1 Tim 5:10; Phlm 5, 7; Heb 3:1; 6:10; 13:24; Jude 3; Rev 5:8; 8:3-4; 11:18; 13:7, 10; 14:12; 16:6; 17:6; 18:20, 24; 19:8; 20:9.)
But the terminology is used more than one way in Scripture, and of course Paul often exhorts us to live in light of our new identity in Christ (many scholars speak of the tension between the indicative and the imperative: be what you are). We are to recognize our identity in Christ (Rom 6:11), and accordingly use our bodies for righteous, divinely-consecrated purposes (Rom 6:19, 22). We must be consecrated in practice, set apart from false values (2 Tim 2:21); this includes maintaining sexual purity (1 Thess 4:3-4, 7). We must present ourselves holy (consecrated) to God (Rom 12:1), consecrate Christ in our hearts as holy (1 Pet 3:15), and the holy must yet consecrate ourselves to God (Rev 22:11). Believers must continue to embrace this consecration for God (Heb 12:14), which may include welcoming tests that keep our attention on him (12:10). As 1 Peter puts it succinctly, because God is holy, we should be holy in all our behavior, because Scripture says, “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet 1:15-16). Clearly this evokes the status of God’s redeemed people in the Old Testament, as “a holy nation” (1 Pet 2:9; see Exod 19:6). God set Israel apart for himself by redeeming them at great cost; God has set the church apart for himself the same way, with an even greater price (1 Pet 1:18-19).
When Jesus prayed for the Father to consecrate his followers in the truth of his message (John 17:17, 19), that means that we no longer belong to the world (John 17:14, 16). Nevertheless, we are sent into the world (17:18), so the world through our unity in Christ may believe that Jesus was sent (17:21). Being consecrated does not mean we are not in the world, but that we are kept from the evil one’s values in this world (17:15). Do we engage the culture? Absolutely, when such avenues are available. But we are here to promote God’s perfect values, not to absorb the world’s values.
In short, God has set us apart for himself in Christ. That means we should recognize this consecration and live accordingly.
I think that this understanding of devotion to Christ motivated many of the Christians a few generations ago who opposed playing cards, going to movies, fashionable dressing, and the like. Unfortunately one generation’s devotion too easily becomes the next generation’s tradition and the next generation’s legalism. We need to remember what we are consecrated for: the honor of our Lord.
I do watch films like Selma, Hacksaw Ridge, or A Case for Christ. I normally don’t watch television, but not because I think that everything there indoctrinates me in unhealthy values (though much of it probably would). I don’t normally watch television because time, like money, is a limited commodity, and I need that time for the work of the kingdom. Sometimes I imagine what would happen if just 40 million North American Christians gave up three hours of entertainment each day and devoted it to meeting the needs of their neighbors, caring for poor, prayer, sharing their faith, and so forth. That would be 43 billion, 800 million more hours per year invested in God’s kingdom. Imagine the impact that would have!
Why do you think it is that so many Christians have no idea what this word means? On a similar track, why are there so many disagreements among denominations on “sanctification?”
Craig: The English word “sanctification” is not one with which people are normally familiar unless it is used a particular way in their church tradition. (It doesn’t even appear in my older Word program’s dictionary, though the verb “sanctify” does.)
I suspect that a lot of Christians yearning for lives of full devotion to God in practice encountered that in different ways in their own lives and tried to communicate that to others as best as they knew. That was a good thing, but sometimes it hardened into particular expressions that did not really encompass or even correspond to the use of this and related terms in their Bible translations.
Some divisions are semantic; we use the same terms in different ways. The idea behind what some Christians call “progressive sanctification” is not wrong; it might be better termed, however, “growing in grace” (2 Pet 3:18). We may have a new identity in Christ, but our very adaptive brains (through what scientists call neuroplasticity) have been shaped by our past choices; they need to be reshaped through the renewing of our minds with Christ’s values (Rom 12:2; thus my book The Mind of the Spirit).
The idea behind a special, single encounter with the Holy Spirit through which we dedicate our lives to serve God wholly is also not wrong; but it is not a model that fits every person’s encounter. Some people recognize by faith their new identity in Christ, commit themselves to undivided devotion to the Lord, and stay on that course all their lives, by the Spirit’s power in their lives. (This doesn’t mean that they never sin, but that they have embraced the understanding that Christ is Lord and they continue consistently on that path.) Some people might need a few more encounters. If we want to talk about the ideal, in principle this should follow immediately from conversion. In practice, though, the Spirit often keeps working on us to get our attention. And even those walking normally on the right path need to walk by the Spirit’s power regularly and grow in grace as the Spirit brings more matters to their attention.
When we get past semantics, though, the Bible is clear that Christians should live lives consecrated to God. It’s clear that only God’s Spirit empowers us to do that, so God gets the credit for it in our lives. And it’s also clear that this can happen only because God has already consecrated us for himself in Christ, an act that defines the identity in Christ of all those who trust him for salvation.
Some view sanctification as something difficult to attain while others make it out to be something that is only God’s doing. Are Christians passive (acted upon by God) or active in this process?
Craig: The Bible terms traditionally translated this way refer especially to what God has done for us in Christ and to summon us to live accordingly. We don’t set ourselves apart to God by our own efforts apart from God’s action; God saves us through our faith in Christ. But now that we trust in Christ, we should be consistent enough with the trust that he has saved and consecrated us that we should live that way. This is God’s act and invitation, and we embrace the invitation the same way we embrace the act: by faith in Christ. We live it because we believe God’s finished work in Christ.
Far from being difficult to obtain, it’s God’s gift. To live it out, we embrace that gift in faith and choose to consistently be what we are in Christ. Is that “difficult”? Only in the sense that we find faith difficult. But since trusting Christ for our salvation is the beginning of our Christian life, we may as well keep on trusting more and live like he really has saved us from sin! There’s no need to wonder whether I have enough strength in myself to resist all temptation; I don’t. But when I remember that Christ died and rose again to save me from sin, there’s no temptation or habit or demon more powerful than that. At the same time, until we form new patterns of thinking and behavior, it is difficult because our faith has to face off against all the feelings, thought patterns and neurochemistry that we previously developed.
Some treat sanctification as if it is a particular experience that makes sin impossible; that’s not really biblical. We are sanctified in Christ, and living as such is not a state to be attained but a life to be lived. At the same time, for many, living that life consistently begins with a conscious decision and dedication (and for others, for a series of such choices). Such a dedication certainly does not make one incapable of sinning or lapsing, but again, the choices we make and build on do shape our new thinking and transformation. Some refer to their Spirit-empowered dedication not as making them incapable of sinning, but rather as making them incapable of sinning and enjoying it. It’s hard to enjoy sinning once you know better.
We need to be careful not to fight over nomenclature (1 Tim 6:4; 2 Tim 2:14). Dedicating our lives wholly to God is consistent with what God has done for us in Christ. A few Christians make the mistake of supposing that everyone should attain a wholly and permanently dedicated state in a moment. I think more Christians make the mistake of ignoring the matter of consecration altogether. Too many Christians live as if Christ came to guarantee us heaven while we basically live like the world around us in other respects, excepting some “big” sins. Even though I don’t agree at all with the exegesis of those who insist on a second Christian experience of sanctification, I think we have something important to learn from their valuing of holiness.
If we strip away the legalism, I think we have something to learn even from some older Christian traditions about separation. I used to dislike the term “holiness” because in my mind it was associated with people saying, “Don’t wear earrings,” “Don’t dance,” or, “Don’t wear a beard.” (I don’t wear earrings, and I am not coordinated enough to try to dance in front of anyone, even liturgically. But I do have a beard.) But one day when I was praying I felt in my heart a consuming passion for holiness, like a burning fire. I felt that God was showing me that, in practice, holiness means loving God so much that nothing else matters compared to him. That passion for God consumed me.
I want to love the Lord with all my heart and soul and strength. I want to pursue God. I can pursue God’s ways passionately because God has already set me apart for himself and made me new in Christ. He has welcomed me in his presence and promised that he is always near. And that is true for each of us who have called upon Christ as Lord.
What’s the difference between justification and sanctification? Does one come before the other, or do they both spontaneously occur?
Craig: Again, if we’re referring to the terms translated that way in most of our Bible translations, they happen together. “Justification” translates the same Greek term also translated as “righteousness”; in Christ, God puts us right with him, acquitting us of all guilt. Moreover, when God says, “Let there be light,” there is light; when God says, “put right in Christ,” he makes a new creation. You can’t have justification without regeneration. And when God puts us right with him, he consecrates us to himself. The terms do not mean the same things, but they are all different aspects of what God does for us in Christ when we become believers in him. In terms of living accordingly, living by Christ’s righteousness is also living as one made new and consecrated in him. God gets all the credit for his fruit in our lives. Such righteousness and sanctification can never belong to those who want to take the credit for it themselves. God forbid!
For those who want to delve further in the study of sanctification and the topic of the Holy Spirit in general, where should they start? Do you have any recommended resources?
Craig: For those who want to study different Christian traditions’ approach to what is commonly called “sanctification,” helpful places to start are Zondervan’s Five Views on Sanctification, and Broadman & Holman’s (B&H) Perspectives of Spirit Baptism: Five Views. Those wanting to study the usage in Paul will find very helpful Ayodeji Adewuya, Holiness in the Letters of Paul (Cascade). I also treat the topic of transformation, though not the particular language of “sanctification,” in two books for Baker: Gift & Giver, and (more recently and academically) The Mind of the Spirit. There are surely many other helpful works, but because my research has been more on particular passages than on the general topic, others would be able to provide more resources on this topic than I am.
Thank you for your time!
Craig S. Keener is author of twenty-two books, which have received six major national or international awards. He has also authored more than seventy academic articles; several booklets; and more than one hundred fifty popular-level articles. One of his books, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, now in a second edition, has sold more than half a million copies. Dr. Craig Keener is the New Testament editor for the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible and is editor of the Bulletin for Biblical Research and is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who was a refugee in her home country of Congo for eighteen months; her experience and their romance appears in Impossible Love: The True Story of of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016). See here for his blog site.