Sanctification and Holiness

Because of sin, grace has a way of inviting abuse. Paul fights against this misunderstanding extensively in his letter to the Romans. Sin prompts the equally sinful idea that once God’s favor has been gained through Christ, sin no longer has the same consequence as before. “Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:15)? Not at all!

To demonstrate his point, Paul uses the analogy of slavery, one which he fully recognizes has its shortcomings (Romans 6:19). However, no other image can suffice in explaining the all-encompassing nature of God’s grace in the life of a Christian, even if it is imperfect and should not be taken to extremes.

Paul asks: “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness” (Romans 6:16)? A Christian, therefore, always has a master, either sin or God. There is no neutrality, nor does being set free from sin imply a master-less existence. This does not mean that we will win favor with our new Master with such obedience. Paul makes it abundantly clear that no man will be justified by what he does in God’s sight (note especially Romans 3:28 among others). But it does mean that a transfer of ownership has occurred, using Paul’s imagery. “But having been set free from sin, you have been enslaved to righteousness” (Romans 6:18).

This leads to an important theological question: what is the nature of the Christian life? To put it another way, what is sanctification? In Romans 6:19, Paul uses the word hagiasmos. This Greek word comes from hagios, which means “holy.” Adding “mos” to the end changes the adjective holy into a noun. But how should it be translated? “Holiness” typically means a state, that is, a static way of being. But sanctification comes from the Latin sanctus, which also means “holy,” and ficio, which means “to make.” Sanctification strictly speaking means “to make holy,” which implies a process or a movement. Which one of these does Paul have in mind here?

After admitting the imperfection of the metaphor in Romans 6:19, Paul then sets up an important parallel. You were once slaves to uncleanness, while you walked in your former sins. Further, you were enslaved to lawlessness. But note especially the wording here. The word often translated as “to” has a directional force. The Greek reads most literally as “lawlessness to lawlessness,” but that direction in the word “to” implies increase, which is why many translations render it as “lawlessness leading to more lawlessness.” But Paul sets it in parallel to the rest of the sentence and states that we should present all our members as “slaves to righteousness to hagiasmon.” He uses the same wording as before, which implies the same kind of movement, or in other words, “slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” This is reemphasized in Romans 6:22, because the end or the goal of hagiasmos is everlasting life.

There is, of course, a great tendency to misunderstand Paul here. Paul is not saying that sanctification means that we become more acceptable in God’s sight. He explicitly states that what we do does not make God favorable toward us. Paul is also not saying that perfection is possible in this life. In the following chapter, he says “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Sin remains close at hand through this earthly life. Nor is Paul saying that this happens on our own, as if sanctification was something that man does all on his own. As he says at the very end of chapter 6, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

But we are being made holy in Christ, formed into Christ. “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 among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). Many other such examples could be multiplied. But the point is clear: because Christians have a new Master in God, they are no longer subject to the old master of sin, and the Christian life is therefore a war.

However, this does not mean that translating hagiasmos as “holiness” is illegitimate. Holiness in the Biblical sense has to do with being “set apart” (such as in 2 Timothy 2:21). It is God who sets us apart (Galatians 1:15), and it is God who calls us in holiness (1 Thessalonians 4:7). Holiness does not happen because we make it happen apart from God. Rather, “as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).