In evangelical circles, talk of “personal growth” is eclipsing the traditional concept of sanctification in a turn toward “self realization” that reflects a culturally conditioned shift in the reference point for Christian growth toward the individual and away from God and away from His community.
Is the dove landing or flying away?
Does it make a difference?
Sanctification means “to set apart.” “To set apart” means to make distinctions– to choose. In scripture, the Holy Spirit sanctifies– or chooses– most prominently through signs and wonders. Signs and wonders therefore represent God’s definitive way of choosing.
For example, God’s mighty acts in the Exodus signified His choice of Israel (Dt 7:7ff). In a similar light, God used a miracle to demonstrate His choice of Moses over Dathan and Abiram (Num 16:31-32). In the case of King Saul, God’s endowment and later withdrawal of His Spirit demonstrated divine election and divine rejection (1 Sam 10:9-10; 16:14). Later on, God chose Solomon’s Temple with a mighty display of power (2 Chron 7:1). That same Temple, in turn, came to signify God’s choice of Jerusalem as His city and the Jews as His people (Eze 37:28). As a final example, the most notable characteristic of God’s “Chosen Servant” was his possession of God’s Spirit (Isa 42:1-7; 61:1-3).
The point in all of the above is to say the Spirit’s role in setting apart– in sanctification– in choosing– was commonly understood in New Testament (NT) times. Thus we can understand the mechanism for answering the central question behind much of the NT– who are the children of God?
In heaven, there was neither Jew nor Greek, but on earth the situation was unclear. The Holy Spirit therefore intervened at pivotal points to distinguish– to sanctify– God’s people via miraculous demonstrations. Examples include (1) the ingathering of Jews at Pentecost, (2) the assimilation of the Samaritans in chapter eight of Acts, (3) the conversion of Cornelius and other Gentiles in chapter ten, and (4) the assimilation of John’s disciples in chapter 19.
All of that meant Peter could say of the Gentiles, God “accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us” (Acts 15:8). Likewise, 1 Peter 1:2 could also speak of believing Jews as “chosen through the sanctifying work of the Spirit.” And Paul could say, “so too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace” (Rom 11:5)– “grace” in that case being a metonym for the miraculous sanctification of the Spirit.
That miraculous sanctification is best described as “positional” in that it was not predicated on the inherent holiness of its recipients. Thus Paul could call the Corinthians “saints” despite their rather unsaintly behavior. But saintly conduct was indeed the ultimate design or “telos” of the Spirit’s miraculous works. Through the Spirit, the Corinthians were “called to be holy” (1 Cor 1:2), with the intent of their “chosenness” — their sanctification of the Spirit– being holiness and blamelessness in God’s sight (Eph 1:4).
Although sanctification of the Spirit only established a ceremonial or positional holiness, it did, nevertheless, prefigure progress toward real holiness– real moral improvement– on the part of Christians. That genuine holiness was to be both individual and corporate. It was to be individual in that each Christian was to be a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19), “avoid[ing] sexual immorality (1 Thes 4:3), sanctif[ied] through and through (1 Thes 5:23). It was also to be corporate in that Christians as a whole were to be built together into “the temple of God” (1 Cor 3:16; Eph 2:21), being “blameless and holy in [His] presence.” (1 Thes 3:13).
Finally, sanctification also seems to have a missional aspect. In John 17:19, Jesus says, “For them [my disciples] I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” In that statement, Jesus may be saying that he “set Himself apart” via the “emptying” of the Incarnation so that His disciples could be set apart (called out) from a fallen creation. His subsequent prayer would suggest something like that. Implications of the preceding thoughts for ministry are numerous.
Sanctification has a salvific function (Mt 5:8; Heb 12:14).
Holiness (sanctification) seems to overflow out of Trinitarian fullness the same way fellowship does.
Although the positional holiness imparted to Christians via miraculous demonstrations has a once-for-all character, the associated call to individual and corporate holiness extends to all generations with the imperative that God’s people call others into holiness by responding to their inherited sanctification with real personal and congregational holines. Recasting this overflow of sanctification simply as “personal growth” misses the inherently communal nature of Christian life.