The seventh great effect of God’s Word is that of cleansing and sanctification. The key text for this is Ephesians 5:25-27.
Jesus also loved the church and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that He might present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish. There are several important points in this passage that deserve attention.
Notice, first, that the two processes of cleansing and sanctifying are closely joined together. However, although these two processes are closely related, they are not identical.
The distinction between them is this: That which is truly sanctified must of necessity be pure and clean, but that which is pure and clean need not necessarily be in the fullest sense sanctified. It is possible to have purity, or cleanness, without sanctification, but it is not possible to have sanctification without purity, or cleanness.
Thus cleansing is an essential part of sanctification but not the whole of it. Later in this study, we shall examine more closely the exact meaning of the word sanctification.
Turning again to Ephesians 5:26 we notice, second, that one main, definite purpose for which Jesus redeemed the church is “that He might sanctify and cleanse it”.
The purpose of Jesus’s atoning death for the church as a whole, and each Christian in particular, is not fulfilled until those who are redeemed by His death have gone through a process of cleansing and sanctifying. Paul makes it plain that only Christian’s who have gone through this process will be in the condition necessary for their final presentation to Jesus as His bride – and the condition which he specifies is that of a glorious church, “not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing . . . holy and without blemish” (v. 27).
The third point to notice in this passage is that the means which Jesus uses to cleanse and sanctify the church is “the washing of water by the word” (v. 26). It is God’s Word which is the means of sanctifying and cleansing; in this respect, the operation of God’s Word is compared to the washing of pure water.
Even before Jesus’s atoning death upon the cross had been consummated, He had already assured His disciples of the cleansing power of His Word which He had spoken to them.
You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you (John 15:3).
We see, therefore, that the Word of God is a divine agent of spiritual cleansing, compared in its operation to the washing of pure water.
Side by side with the Word, we must also set the other great agent of spiritual cleansing referred to by the apostle John.
But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).
Here John speaks of the cleansing power of Jesus’s blood, shed upon the cross, to redeem us from sin.
God’s provision for spiritual cleansing always includes these two divine agents – the blood of Jesus shed upon the cross and the washing with water by His Word. Neither is complete without the other. Jesus redeemed us by His blood so that He might cleanse and sanctify us by His Word.
John places these two great operations of Jesus in the closest possible connection with each other. Speaking of Jesus, he says:
This is He who came by water and blood – Jesus; not only by water but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who bears witness because the Spirit is truth (1 John 5:6).
John declares that Jesus is not only the great Teacher who came to expound God’s truth to men; He is also the great Savior who came to shed His blood to redeem men from their sin. In each case, it is the Holy Spirit who bears testimony to Jesus’s work – to the truth and authority of His Word and the merits and power of His blood.
John teaches us, therefore, that we must never separate these two aspects of Jesus’s work. We must never separate the Teacher from the Savior, nor the Savior from the Teacher.
It is not enough to accept Jesus’s teaching through the Word without also accepting and experiencing the power of His blood to redeem and cleanse us from sin. On the other hand, those who claim redemption through Jesus’s blood must thereafter submit themselves to the regular, inward washing of His Word.
There are various passages concerning the ordinances of the Old Testament sacrifices which set forth, in type, the close association between the cleansing by Jesus’s blood and the cleansing by His Word. For instance, in the ordinances of the tabernacle of Moses, we read how God ordained that the laver of bronze containing clean water was to be placed close to the sacrificial altar of bronze and was to be used regularly in conjunction with it.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “You shall also make a laver of bronze, with its base also of bronze, for washing. You shall put it between the tabernacle of meeting and the altar. And you shall put water in it, for Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet in water from it. When they go into the tabernacle of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn an offering made by fire to the Lord, they shall wash with water, lest they die. So they shall wash their hands and their feet, lest they die. And it shall be a statute forever to them – to him and his descendants throughout their generations” (Ex. 30:17-21).
If we apply this picture to the New Testament, the sacrifice upon the bronze altar speaks of Jesus’s blood shed upon the cross for redemption from sin; the water in the laver speaks of the regular spiritual cleansing which we can receive only through God’s Word. Each alike is essential to the eternal welfare of our souls. Like Aaron and his sons, we must regularly receive the benefits of both, “lest we die.”
Having thus noted the process of cleansing through God’s Word, let us now go on to consider the further process of sanctification.
First we must consider briefly the meaning of this word sanctification. The ending of the word – ification – occurs in many English words and always denotes an active process of doing or making something.
For example, clarification means “making clear”; rectification means “making right or straight”; purification means “making pure,” and so on. The first part of the word sanctification is directly connected with the word saint it is simply another way of writing the same word. Saint in turn is simply an alternative way of translating the word which is more normally translated as “holy.”
Thus, the simple, literal meaning of sanctification is “making saintly,” or “making holy.”
The New Testament mentions five distinct truths in connection with sanctification:
1) the Spirit of God,
2) the Word of God,
3) the altar,
4) the blood of Jesus,
5) our faith.
Following are the main passages which mention these various truths of sanctification:
God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth (2 Thess. 2:13).
Peter tells Christian’s that they are elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus (1 Pet. 1:2).
Thus, both Paul and Peter mention “sanctification of [or by] the Holy Spirit” as an element of Christian’s experience.
Sanctification through the Word of God was referred to by Jesus Himself when He prayed to the Father for His disciples.
Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth (John 17:17).
Here we see that sanctification comes through the truth of God’s Word. Sanctification through the altar is likewise referred to by Jesus. He told the Pharisees on Matthew 23:19:
Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift?
Here Jesus endorses that which had already been taught in the Old Testament – that the gift which was offered in sacrifice to God was sanctified, made holy, set apart, by being placed upon God’s altar. In the New Testament, as we shall see, the nature of the gift and the altar is changed, but the principle remains true that it is “the altar that sanctifies the gift.”
Sanctification through the blood of Jesus is referred to in Hebrews 10:29. Here the author considers the case of the apostate – the person who has known all the blessings of salvation but has deliberately and openly rejected the Saviour.
Concerning such a person Paul asks:
Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?
This passage shows that the true believer who continues in the faith is sanctified by the blood of the new covenant which he has accepted – that is, by Jesus’s blood.
Sanctification through faith is referred to by Jesus Himself, as quoted by Paul as he related the commission which he received from Jesus to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.
To open their eyes and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me (Acts 26:18).
Here we see that sanctification is through faith in Jesus. Summing up these passages, we arrive at this conclusion: Sanctification, according to the New Testament, is through five means or agencies:
1) the Holy Spirit,
2) the truth of God’s Word,
3) the altar of sacrifice,
4) the blood of Jesus and
5) faith in Jesus.
The process may be briefly outlined as follows:
The Holy Spirit initiates the work of sanctification in the heart and mind of each one whom God has chosen in His eternal purposes. Through the truth of God’s Word, as it is received in the heart and mind, the Holy Spirit speaks, reveals the altar of sacrifice, separates the believer from all that holds him back from God, and draws him to place himself in surrender and consecration upon that altar. There the believer is sanctified and set apart to God both by the contact with the altar and by the cleansing and purifying power of the blood that was shed upon the altar.
To accomplish their sanctifying work in each believer is decided by the fifth factor in the process; that is, by the individual faith of each believer. In the work of sanctification, God does not violate the one great law which governs all His works of grace in each believer – the law of faith.
As you have believed, so let it be done for you (Matt. 8:13).
Let’s examine a little more closely the part played by God’s Word in this process of sanctification. First, we must note that there are two aspects to sanctification – one negative and the other positive.
- The negative aspect consists of being separated from sin and the world and from all that is unclean and impure.
- The positive aspect consists of being made partakers of God’s holy nature.
In much preaching, both on this and on other related subjects, there is a general tendency to overemphasize the negative at the expense of the positive. As professing Christian’s we tend to speak much more about the “do not” in God’s Word than about the “dos.”
For example, in Ephesians 5:18 we usually lay much more stress upon the negative “do not be drunk with wine” than we do upon the positive “be filled with the Spirit.” However, this is an inaccurate and unsatisfactory way to present God’s Word.
With regard to holiness, the Scriptures make it plain that this is something much more than a negative attitude of abstaining from sin and uncleanness. For example, in Hebrews 12:10 we are told that God, as a heavenly Father, chastens us, His children, for our profit that we may be partakers of His holiness. Again, in 1 Peter 1:15-16 we read:
But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.”
We see that holiness is a part of God’s eternal, unchanging nature. God was holy before sin ever entered into the universe, and God will still be holy when sin has once again been banished forever. We, as God’s people, are to be partakers of this part of His eternal nature. Separation from sin, just like cleansing from sin, is a stage in this process, but it is not the whole process. The final, positive result which God desires in us goes beyond both cleansing and separation.
God’s Word plays its part both in the negative and in the positive aspects of sanctification. Paul describes the negative aspect of Romans 12:1-2:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
There are four successive stages in the process which Paul here describes.
- Presenting our bodies as living sacrifices upon God’s altar. We have already seen that the altar sanctifies that which is presented upon it.
- Not being conformed to the world – that is, being separated from its vanity and sin.
- Being transformed by the renewing of our minds – that is, learning to think in entirely new terms and values.
- Getting to know God’s will personally for our lives. This revelation of God’s will is granted only to the renewed mind. The old, carnal, unrenewed mind can never know or understand God’s perfect will.
It is here, in the renewing of the mind, that the influence of God’s Word is felt. As we read, study, and meditate in God’s Word, it changes our whole way of thinking. It both cleanses us with its inward washing and separates us from all that is unclean and ungodly. We learn to think about things – to estimate them, to evaluate them – as God Himself thinks about things.
In learning to think differently, we also act differently. Our outward lives are changed in harmony with our new inward processes of thought. We are no longer conformed to the world because we no longer think like the world. We are transformed by the renewing of our minds.
However, not to be conformed to the world is merely negative. It is not a positive end in itself. If we are not to be conformed to the world, to what then are we to be conformed? The answer is plainly stated by Paul.
For whom He [God] foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren (Rom. 8:29).
Here is the positive end of sanctification: to be conformed to the image of Jesus. It is not enough that we are not conformed to the world – that we do not think and say and do the things that the world does. This is merely negative. Instead of all this, we must be conformed to Jesus – we must think and say and do the things that Jesus would do.
Paul dismisses the negative type of holiness as quite inadequate in Col. 2:20-22:
Therefore, if you died with Jesus from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations – “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using?
True sanctification goes far beyond this barren, legalistic, negative attitude. It is a positive conforming to the image of Jesus Himself; a positive partaking of God’s holiness.
This positive aspect of sanctification and the part played in it by God’s Word, is beautifully discovered in 2 Peter 1:3-4,
His [God’s] divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
There are three main points to notice here.
- God’s power has already provided us with all that we need for life and godliness. The provision has already been made. We do not need to ask God to give us more than He has already given. We merely need to benefit ourselves to the full of that which God has already provided.
- This complete provision of God is given to us through the exceedingly great and precious promises of His own Word. The promises of God already contain within them all that we shall ever need for life and godliness. All that remains for us now to do is to take and apply these promises by active, personal faith.
- The result of applying God’s promises is twofold, both negative and positive.
Negatively, we escape the corruption that is in the world through lust; positively, we are made partakers of the divine nature. Here is the complete process of sanctification that we have described: both the negative escape from the world’s corruption and the positive partaking of God’s nature, of God’s holiness.
All this – both the negative and the positive – is made available to us through the promises of God’s Word. It is in measure as we take and apply the promises of God’s Word that we experience true scriptural sanctification.
Jacob once dreamed of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven. For the Christian’s, the counterpart to that ladder is found in God’s Word. Its foot is set on earth, but its head reaches heaven – the plane of God’s being. Each step of the ladder is a promise. As we lay hold by the hands and feet of faith upon the promises of God’s Word, we lift ourselves by them out of the earthly realm and closer to the heavenly realm. Each promise of God’s Word, as we claim it, lifts us higher above earth’s corruption and imparts to us a further measure of God’s nature.
It was for this reason that Jesus prayed to the Father: Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth (John 17:17).