When we preach and teach about holiness, we must be sure to explain our terms and use the contextually correct verses to support our teaching. It is not helpful to have the right message and use the wrong verses to support it.
Definition of Terms
Holiness has as its most basic meaning the concept of “separation”—being set apart to God and being set apart from that which is sinful. Holiness is required of all Christians from the moment of the new birth until we die (1 Pet. 1:13-16; Heb. 12:14).
When we are saved, we are made holy—separated to God as His possession, separated from that which is sinful or defiles; and we begin to undergo separation from the common/ordinary as God speaks to us about things that will hinder our spiritual development. Jesus is the prime example of what a separated (holy) life looks like.
Therefore we can say the fruit of holiness is Christlikeness. When Paul writes to the Christians at various churches, he calls them “saints,” which literally means “holy ones.”
The words “holiness” and “sanctification” are synonyms. Sanctification is the gracious working of God in us through the Holy Spirit to transform us into holy people (Christlike people). We are sanctified (made holy) the moment we are born again.
Note that Paul refers to the Corinthian believers as people who are “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:2; see also 1 Cor. 6:11). Yet, the Corinthians believers were not yet entirely sanctified (see 1 Cor. 1:13; 3:1-3). The process of sanctification (or developing in holiness = becoming more Christlike) continues as we maintain a saved relationship with Jesus.
Eventually, the Holy Spirit makes us aware of our need to be entirely sanctified (1 Thes. 5:23, 24). After we are entirely sanctified, we continue to progress further in sanctification (Christlikeness).
Therefore the word “entire” in the phrase “entire sanctification” does not mean “incapable of improvement.” The word “entire” refers to every part of us, our spirit, our soul, and our body. Every part of the Christian is to experience sanctification.
For the person who is entirely sanctified, there is no conscious, willful self-centeredness in our lives. Nor is there retreat from anything God says in His Word, nor any reservations about following where He leads, and no rivals for our love and loyalty.
We are totally devoted to God. Entire sanctification is entered into by faith. We must unreservedly surrender ourselves to God’s complete control and ask Him to cleanse our born-again hearts from the self-centeredness (inherited depravity) that remains in us (Rom. 12:1; 6:13,19; Psa. 51:7, 10; Acts 15:9).
We exercise faith to believe that He does cleanse us and fill us with His Spirit, and then we rest by faith in His promises (Heb. 11:1, 6). After we are entirely sanctified, we daily maintain a fully surrendered life and continue to develop in sanctification (holiness—see 2 Cor. 7:1. After we have cleansed ourselves as Christians of all defilement of flesh and spirit, we are to continually “perfect holiness in the fear of God”).
John Wesley observed in his Methodist Societies that wherever entire sanctification was not regularly preached and strongly urged upon Christians, believers grew cold and dead. In 1776, when he was 73 years of age, he wrote this to a friend:
“Where Christian perfection [entire sanctification] is not strongly and explicitly preached, there is seldom any remarkable blessing from God; and consequently little addition to the society, and little life in the members of it. Speak and spare not. Let not regard for any man induce you to betray the truth of God. Till you press the believers to expect full salvation [entire sanctification] now, you must not look for any revival.” (Works, Vol. 6, p. 761).
Establish from the Context that the Readers Are Already Saved
In order to use a passage of Scripture to establish the nature of entire sanctification following salvation, one must be able to establish from the preceding context that the people being written to are already Christians.
I have listed below some passages that teach the concept of entire sanctification. Only one of the passages uses the phrase, “sanctified wholly,” but all of these passages emphasize the need for people who are already saved to appropriate by faith a further working of God in their hearts and lives.
It is probably best, when seeking to teach these truths to others, to use the terminology used in the passage itself rather than always use the phrase “entire sanctification.”
1 Thessalonians 5:23, 24 — Be Entirely Sanctified
This is the “golden text” for using “entire” sanctification terminology. Do not use 1 Thessalonians 4:3 — “this is the will of God even your sanctification that you abstain from fornication,” as a proof text for entire sanctification.
As we have already seen in 1 Corinthians 1:2 and 6:11, sanctification begins at the new birth. 1 Thessalonians 4:3 is explaining that the sanctification begun at the new birth requires separation from everything that is sinful or defiles.
Paul further explains in 1 Thessalonians 4:4-8 that fornication (sexual immorality outside the bond of marriage) is sinful. Since all Christians are to live sanctified lives and be examples of holiness, no Christian is to be immoral. God has called us to holiness of life. If you try to use 1 Thessalonians 4:3 as a call to be entirely sanctified, a thinking person may logically argue that Paul is teaching that the time to quit fornicating is when you get entirely sanctified. Therefore, if one does not claim to be entirely sanctified, he is not required to stop fornication. Anyone who has more Scripture available to him to read than just the first letter to the Thessalonians knows that is not what Paul meant.
It is in chapter five of 1 Thessalonians (vv. 23-24) that Paul introduces the terminology of entire sanctification. He is addressing Christians and is praying that God will work in their lives to sanctify them “wholly,” that is, entirely, or through and through—spirit, soul, and body.
Ephesians 5:18-21 — Be Filled with the Spirit
The command to be filled with the Spirit is a present passive imperative and should be translated, “be being filled” with the Spirit.
This passage is addressed to people already saved and therefore already “indwelt” by the Spirit (see Eph. 1:1; 2:1-22). If you have not yet learned that the Holy Spirit comes to reside in the heart and life of a person at the moment of the new birth as the Agent of spiritual life, please read the following passages:
- Romans 8:9-11;
- Galatians 4:6;
- 1 Corinthians 2:12; 3:16; 6:19-20; 12:13;
- 1 Thessalonians 4:8.
In Ephesians 5:18 Paul commands Christians to be “being filled with the Spirit.” There is a difference between being “indwelt” with the Spirit and being “filled” with the Spirit. To be filled with the Spirit does not mean you receive more of the Spirit. Rather, it means you give the Holy Spirit full control of all of you. To be filled with the Spirit is God’s requirement for all Christians and occurs by faith subsequent to the new birth. Further, one is to maintain daily this fullness (be being filled). Further, this passage, by its placement in the book, implies that being filled with the Spirit is essential to what follows: instructions on developing and maintaining proper relationships in marriage, family, and work.
Romans 12:1-2 — Present your Bodies a Holy, Acceptable, Living Sacrifice to God
This passage emphasizes the need for Christians to make a full surrender to God subsequent to the new birth, based upon the mercies of God. You have to be saved (“made holy”) before you can make this surrender. Just as God did not accept an unclean sacrifice under the Old Covenant, He will not accept the offering a sinner makes of himself under the New Covenant.
A sinner is not holy (Eph. 2:1-3; Isa. 64:6) and cannot offer himself to God as a holy, acceptable, and living sacrifice to God. A sinner must first “surrender” his rebellion, his sinful attitudes and activities, and experience the new birth.
At the new birth he is made holy and the process of sanctification begins (the process of being transformed into the image of Christ). That Paul considered his readers at Rome to be saved is seen in Romans 1:8, where he commends their faith, and is also seen in Romans 16:19, where he commends their obedience.
It is only after a person becomes a Christian that he is qualified to present his body to God as a holy, acceptable, living sacrifice. When a Christian obeys Romans 12:1 by faith, he enters into the fully surrendered life. As a fully surrendered Christian, he becomes more keenly aware of the need to stop being conformed to this world, but rather to be transformed by the renewing of his mind (Rom. 12:2).
And because the Bible considers any attitude or behavior that is not in harmony with God’s Word to be worldliness, a fully surrendered Christian prayerfully seeks to rid himself of any attitude, speech pattern, or behavior that is not fully in harmony with God’s Word.
Romans 6:11-19 — Reckon Yourselves to Be Dead Indeed Unto Sin; Let Not Sin Therefore Reign in Your Mortal Body; Yield Yourselves Unto God as Those That Are Alive From the Dead
This passage is similar in emphasis with Romans 12:1-2. That the readers are saved is emphasized by the indicative mood (factual statements) in Romans 6:1-10. Beginning at Romans 6:11, Paul shifts into the imperative mood (the mood of command). Paul commands Christians, subsequent to becoming a Christian, to reckon themselves to be dead to sin (Rom. 6:11).
This is done by taking into account what is true of them due to their union with Christ (Rom. 6:1-10), and appropriating by faith God’s grace and power to experience in daily life the freedom from sin that Christ provides.
In addition to the act of faith in “reckoning” oneself to be dead indeed to sin, Christians must also yield themselves to God, and use the members of their body only as instruments of righteousness and never again to use them as instruments of sin (Rom. 6:12-13).
Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.