We get the word sanctify by glueing two little Latin words together: sanctus (which means holy) and fiacre (which means to make). Therefore, to be sanctified is to be made holy and sanctification is the gradual ‘holy-fying’ that takes place in a believer’s life from the very first moments of regeneration. The Westminster Shorter Catechism calls it ‘the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness’. You and I might call it ‘holistic upcycling’, as dark habits are broken, sinful patterns are corrected, and lives are remade to the image of Christ by the power of God’s Spirit.
However, sanctification is much bigger than simply becoming more like Jesus. As glorious as that is, sanctification is God’s planned cosmic restoration happening before our very eyes. Ever since Adam rebelled, the world and its people were plunged into ruin. Throughout the Bible story, our God promises a renewed earth, decisively rid of grief and death. This hope is made certain through Christ’s death and resurrection and will be seen when Christ returns to reign. In the meantime, however, we glimpse his new creation in the church. Have you known a brother live more peaceably or behave more gently or kindly? Behold what God is doing! He’s making all things new (Rev. 21:5).
Belonging, not just behaving
But if sanctification is about becoming holier, what does ‘holy’ mean?
We might be surprised by the answer. Our instinct says that holiness has to do with purity and morality; holiness is about right behaviour. But that’s only half the story. Holiness is about behaviour, but it’s firstly about belonging.
In his first letter, Peter uses the word ‘holy’ a lot. It’s a dominant theme throughout the book, as he seeks to comfort a suffering church and call them to live distinctly amid an unbelieving world. In chapter 1 verse 15 he bids them, ‘Be holy, as he who called [them] is holy,’ then, to drive his request home he quotes from Leviticus, another book in which the theme of holiness runs throughout.
The term ‘holy’ is used in a surprising way in Leviticus. Almost everything is holy in Leviticus: people, tables, tents, breads… Bread!? That should set off alarm bells if we think holiness is simply a matter of right behaviour. How can a piece of bread behave properly?
In the Hebrew language, ‘holy’ literally means ‘set apart’; that is, to exist for God’s use alone. Our instinct is wrong. Holiness is more than behaving: it’s belonging to God. To be holy is to realise that we are a people for God’s own possession (1 Pet. 2:9). We no longer belong to ourselves. We are his.
Belonging to another isn’t something that can be compartmentalised for certain times or certain people. Holiness is a radical, all-in call to submit our lives daily to God. It’s the call to live for our Possessor’s glory, not our own. To be holy means to surrender our lives to God and grant him free access into every corner: our lifestyles and life-choices, our attitudes and actions, our sexualities, our calendars, our relationships and our bodies. Nothing is off limits. It all belongs to him. Sanctification happens as the reality of God’s ownership begins to drip from head to heart. One sermon at a time, moment by moment, through trial and triumph, we change as we gradually realise the reach of God’s possession over us and by the power of his Spirit choose his will over ours.
This possession language is both counterintuitive and countercultural. Peter knows this. Internally we battle the flesh and all our fallen self-focused instincts. Once we knew no better than to live for ourselves but Peter tells us, ‘Do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance’ (1 Pet. 1:14). Externally the fight is no less vicious as we inhabit a world that daily invites us to crown ourselves the King. ‘Have nothing to do with these futile ways inherited from your forefathers,’ Peter writes with a pastor’s eye on the culture (1 Pet. 1:18). We’re conflicted on the inside and outnumbered on the outside (Rom. 7:14-25). Without doubt, sanctification is a war on many fronts.
The problem with all this possession-belonging language is its seeming heartlessness. ‘God owns me’, may well be true, but it does nothing for my motives. In fact, it makes me want to run. Possession language can make God sound like some heavenly slave-master and confirms our worst fears – God doesn’t care about me. He just wants to own me! I belong to him like my forks belong in my cutlery drawer. That is why the detail in 1 Peter 1 is vital. Take another look; notice a careful theme woven throughout the paragraph. As obedient children (v.14)… if you call on him as Father (v. 17)… like newborn infants(2:2)… We belong to the God of Heaven and earth not as a commodity — we belong as His children.
We are not ‘things’ to our Father. We’re children. If you lose a thing, you think nothing of it. Lose a child, if only for a moment, and there’s nothing you wouldn’t do to make them safe.
Our heavenly Father knows this instinct. We were far from safe, born with a taste for autonomy. Our hearts were turned in on themselves, destined to die alone without end. Behavioural reconstruction cannot help us.
And yet, ‘He ransomed us… with the precious blood of Christ’ (1Pet. 1:18-19). The Father gave up his Son. He saw his eternal Delight crucified to bring you and me to Himself. This Father’s love is unbounded and unending and ours forever. We belong to this Father. We belong in His embrace.
Drill deep into this gospel, and watch your life change. ‘Conduct yourselves with fear,’ Peter says (1 Pet. 1:17). Return to the cross and allow the dying Lamb to awe you into action. Sanctification can’t happen with one eye on ourselves. True change takes place when we fix our gaze on Christ our Life, and we’re propelled to live as He desires.