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“Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.” (John 17:17)
In this portion of his prayer our Savior is specifically making intercession for his disciples, those who were present with him on the earth at that time. Then, in verse 20, he tells us that the blessing he sought for them he requested for us as well. So that which our Lord Jesus sought for those disciples, he sought for all who would in time be given faith in him by the Spirit of God. In other words, this is our Savior’s prayer for us, God’s elect, for every redeemed sinner, for all who are called of God and born again by his omnipotent grace. This is what he asks of God for every sinner chosen in eternal love and redeemed by his sin-atoning blood upon the cursed tree. — “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.” Sinners are sanctified by God through his truth; and his Word is his Truth. —— Let’s look at our Lord’s petition line by line.
Here are three great privileges all of God’s elect enjoy by his grace. These three things are true of every saved sinner. By nature, we are all unrighteous and, therefore, unfit to inherit and inhabit the kingdom of God. — “Ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). These three things are essential elements of God’s saving grace. Without them no one is or can be saved.
1. We must be “washed,” redeemed by the blood of Christ. This redemption, the atonement for our sins, was accomplished for all God’s elect when Christ died at Calvary. — “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Galatians 3:13).
2. We must be “sanctified” by God the Holy Spirit. There is no salvation apart from sanctification. We must be made holy, or we cannot see God (Hebrews 12:14). This sanctification is accomplished for us and in us experimentally in regeneration, the new birth, when we are made new creatures in Christ, and made to be partakers of the divine nature. — “According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Peter 1:3-4).
3. We must be “justified” before God by his grace. Our justification was accomplished by the Lord God freely and graciously. He has imputed the righteousness of Christ to us, declaring us to be righteous before him. As our sins were imputed to Christ, though he could never sin, so his righteousness has been imputed to every believer, though we could never do righteousness. — We are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). — “For he hath made him sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
All three of these great privileges are works of grace. We do not wash ourselves, sanctify ourselves, or justify ourselves. God almighty, by distinct acts of grace, has washed us, sanctified us, and justified us.
All three of these works of grace belong to all believers, without exception. The person who lacks any of these works of God’s saving grace has not yet entered into the kingdom of God. He is lost, undone, and perishing in his sins. If you or I die without being washed, sanctified, and justified by the grace of God, we will not be numbered with God’s saints in the last day. It is not possible for a person to be saved by the grace of God who is not washed, justified, and sanctified.
We have very little difficulty discussing the matter of being washed by the blood of Christ and justified by his righteousness. Particular, effectual redemption and free justification are matters in which we all rejoice. But when it comes to sanctification, our thinking may not be as clear. Many, I fear, are still confused and a little uncomfortable. Because we are so much influenced by false religion, many of God’s saints still imagine that sanctification is something beyond their reach. I want you to understand the doctrine of Holy Scripture. — If you are God’s, if you trust Christ, the Lord Jesus Christ, your Savior, your Advocate, your great High Priest, asks the Father to sanctify you. That means sanctification is yours. You are sanctified. — If you trust Christ, God the Holy Ghost declares in 1st Corinthians 6:11 “Ye are sanctified!” That means you are sanctified. Christ is made of God unto you Sanctification. Christ is your Sanctification. But what does that mean? What does it mean to be sanctified? What was our Savior asking for us when he prayed, “Sanctify them”?
What do you think of when you hear or read those words? The words “saints,” “sanctify,” “sanctified”, and “sanctification” are used repeatedly throughout the Scriptures. But very few people know what they mean, as they are used by the inspired writers.
We are fairly comfortable in discussing redemption and justification, but not sanctification. With regard to this subject, there is a great deal of confusion; and it needs to be cleared up. Errors regarding the doctrine of sanctification generally fall into one of three categories.
1. Pentecostalism teaches that sanctification is a second work of grace, whereby the believer is made totally free from sin and the old nature of sin is eradicated from his being. We know that such teaching is wrong for two reasons: -- First, it is directly contrary to the Word of God. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). -- Second, it is contrary to every believer’s experience. As honest men and women, we must confess our sinfulness. Though we are no longer under the dominion of sin, we have a continual struggle with sin. Sin is in us. It is mixed with everything we do. It mars everything we do. If a person says he is without sin, he is a liar. The truth is not in him.
2. The self-righteous legalist makes sanctification nothing more than an outward, legal morality. To him sanctification is accomplished by his separation from the world, his obedience to religious customs and traditions, and his abstinence from the use of things he considers evil. “Touch not, taste not, handle not” is his creed.
3. Most of those who are regarded as orthodox, evangelical Christians teach that sanctification is the progressive increase of the believer in “personal holiness.” We are told that the child of God attains higher degrees of holiness by his own works in sanctification, until at last he is ripe for heaven, and that sanctification ultimately buds forth into glorification. Among these are both fundamentalists and some who regard themselves as reformed in doctrine.
One writer defined sanctification in these words — “Sanctification is progressive righteousness, which, of course, means that it is incomplete righteousness.” Another wrote, “Sanctification is the personal holiness of the believer.” Usually this progressive, increasing righteousness is made to be the basis of the believer’s assurance here and his heavenly reward hereafter. The words “progressive righteousness” imply the possibility of perfect righteousness. To suggest that we “progress in righteousness until we are ripe for heaven” is to suggest the possibility of sinless perfection!
Let’s see what God says about sanctification in the Book he has written. I am sure you will see that sanctification as it is taught in the Bible is considerably different from the way it is commonly taught in theology books, and from most pulpits. Let us appreciate the writings of men who have been used of God, from whom we may learn much. But when they vary from the Word of God, we must vary from them. I have no creed to defend, no confession to uphold, no denomination to answer to, and no catechism to teach, but this -— “Thus saith the Lord.”
I want to show you one thing in this study and clearly demonstrate it from the Word of God. — Being an essential element of salvation, sanctification is and must be, in its entirety, the work of God’s free and sovereign grace in Christ. If salvation is by grace (And it is!), then all that is essential to salvation is by grace alone. Whatever sanctification is, it is the work of God alone. It is this fact, the fact that he is the One who sanctifies us that the Lord uses to encourage obedience in his people (Exodus 31:13).
What is the meaning of the word “sanctify” as our Lord uses it in John 17:17? When the Savior prayed, “Sanctify them,” what did he mean? “Sanctify” is a Bible term. So let’s turn to the Bible to find out what it means. The word “sanctify” is used in three distinct ways in the Scriptures.
1. The first meaning of the word “sanctify” is “to set apart,” particularly, “to set apart for God, or for divine service”. Sanctification is taking something that is common and ordinary and setting it apart, separating it unto God’s service alone. This is the first and primary meaning of the word as it is used in the Bible.
The seventh day was set apart for God (Genesis 2:3). This is the first time the word “sanctify” is used in the Bible. — “And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.” The day was not altered at all. It was simply set apart, separated from the other days of the week for God’s service alone.
The firstborn of all the families of Israel were set apart for God. — “Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of men and of beast: it is mine” (Exodus 13:2).
The Tabernacle, the altar, and the priesthood were sanctified unto the Lord, set apart for his use alone. — “And I will sanctify the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar: I will sanctify also both Aaron and his sons, to minister to me in the priest’s office” (Exodus 29:44).
It is in this sense that our Lord Jesus Christ says he was sanctified by the Father and sanctified himself (John 10:36; 17:19). He was set apart from all other men to do the will of God by God the Father. And in this sense our Savior sanctified himself to do the work he was sent to do, to accomplish his Father’s will in the redemption and salvation of his people.
2. Secondly, as the word “sanctify” is used in the Word of God, it means “to regard as holy,” “to treat as holy,” and “to declare that a person or thing is holy.” For example: God himself is frequently said to be sanctified by his people. We do not make God more holy. And we do not separate God unto himself. But we do regard him as holy, treat him as one who is holy, and declare that he is holy. That is what it is to sanctify the Lord God in your heart. The Lord God commands us to regard him as holy. — “Sanctify the LORD of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Isaiah 8:13).
Nadab and Abihu were consumed by the Lord when they offered strange fire, because they did not reverence God’s holiness (Leviticus 10:3). Moses’ sin in smiting the Rock the second time, for which he was not allowed to enter the land of promise, was just this. — “Ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel” (Numbers 20:12). We have an even more familiar illustration of this in what is called “The Lord’s Prayer”. Our Savior taught us to pray, “Our Father, which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name” (Matthew 6:9). The word “hallowed” is simply another word for “sanctified.” The meaning is let thy name be reverenced and adored through the whole earth. Let men regard thy name as a holy and sacred thing.
The first meaning of the word “sanctify” is to set apart for God. The second meaning is to regard, treat, and declare a person or thing as being holy. — When a person is sanctified by God, he is regarded by God as one who is holy, declared by God to be holy, and treated by God as one who is holy. All who are sanctified are under God’s special care and protection. They are the apple of his eye. They are his anointed. And God says to all creation, “Touch not mine anointed!”
3. The third meaning of the word “sanctify” is “to actually purify something and make it holy”. This is more than a declaration. This is an actual change in the nature of things. The thing sanctified is not only set apart for God and declared to be holy, it is actually made holy.
When the Lord God was about to come down and give the law at Mt. Sinai, the children of Israel were required to make themselves ceremonially holy (Exodus 19:10-11) in a ceremonial picture of sanctification. And when Israel was about to cross the Jordan River God required them to first be ceremonially purified (Joshua 3:5).
Do you see the basic meanings of the word “sanctify” as it is used in the Scriptures? It is to set apart or separate for God, to regard, treat, and declare something or someone as holy, and to purify and make holy.
How are the people of God sanctified? As I have already stated, our sanctification, like our redemption and justification, is the work of God almighty in the trinity of his sacred Persons. We are sanctified by God the Father in election, by God the Son in redemption, and by God the Holy Spirit in regeneration. Sanctification is not something we do for ourselves. It is something God does for us and in us. The words “sanctify”, “sanctified,” “sanctifieth,” and “sanctification” are used more than thirty times in the New Testament. We are said to be sanctified by the purpose of God, by the blood of Christ, by the Spirit of God, by faith in Christ, and by the Word of God. But never, not even once, are we said to sanctify ourselves. Sanctification is the work of God alone!
All believers were sanctified by God the Father in eternal election, being set apart by God’s decree for him and separated unto him (Jude 1:1). This is the character of God’s distinguishing grace. It sets some people apart from others and sanctifies them unto the Lord. We were secretly set apart for God in his secret, eternal decree of election before the world began. We were legally set apart from Adam’s fallen race by the purchase of Christ at Calvary, when he ransomed us from the curse of the law. And we were manifestly set apart and separated unto God by the effectual call of God the Holy Spirit in regeneration.
The doctrine should be clear to all. — Every believer has been, in this sense, eternally sanctified, completely set apart by God for God. The practical importance of this glorious doctrine is this. — That which has been set apart for God ought never to be used for common purposes again. — “Ye are not your own. For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). My brother, my sister, we belong to the Lord our God. Let us therefore consecrate ourselves to him and serve him in all things (Romans 12:1-2). We belong to God. Be assured of this: — God almighty will protect all who belong to him in all their appointed ways, even as he protected the ark of the covenant in the Old Testament (Psalm 91:3-13).
All of God’s elect were perfectly sanctified by the blood of Christ when he died as our Substitute (Hebrews 10:10-14). Christ is our Sanctification (1 Corinthians 1:30). We have been and are forever “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:2). Believers are addressed throughout the Epistles as “saints”, that is as “sanctified ones” in Christ. In the Lord Jesus Christ we who believe are regarded by God as perfectly holy, treated as if we were perfectly holy, and declared to be perfectly holy, because in Christ we are perfectly holy!
“With His spotless garments on
I am as holy as God’s Son!”
And all believers are actually made holy by God the Holy Ghost in regeneration. Through the instrumentally of gospel preaching, the Spirit of God effectually applies the blood of Christ to the hearts of God’s elect, purifying our hearts and implanting a new, holy nature within us. This is regeneration, the new birth. This is our sanctification by the Spirit (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; 2 Peter 1:4; 1 John 3:9; 1 John 5:18).
We are a people with two natures, one that is holy and seeks after righteousness, and one that is corrupt and seeks after sin. These two natures are not equal in power. The divine nature rules and reigns, but the evil nature will not bow nor serve. While we live in this world we must continue to live with this old, sinful nature. But we do have a new nature created in us in the image of Christ, a nature that cannot sin. It is the old man that sins, not the new. — It is written, “If I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me” (Romans 7:20).
In glorification the old man shall be totally eradicated from us, but not until then. That eradication of the old man is not a gradual, progressive thing. It is the radical, climatic change experienced by God’s saints in death, and ultimately in resurrection glory.
The Word of God does not teach the doctrine of progressive sanctification as it is commonly taught and understood by men. Be sure you understand what I mean by that statement. The Bible does not teach that in sanctification our old nature becomes less sinful and more holy. — “Flesh is flesh.” It cannot be sanctified. The old man is not sent to the hospital for a cure. He is sent to the cross to be crucified. The Bible does not teach that by sanctification we who believe attain progressively increasing degrees of personal holiness, and thereby improve our acceptance with God. Yet, the Scriptures do clearly represent the work of sanctification in the believer as a present, continual work of grace (1 Thessalonians. 1:3-7; 5:23-24). The child Christ Jesus was perfectly holy. Yet, he grew in that state of holiness. Even so, we are perfectly holy in Christ. We have a perfectly holy nature implanted in us. Yet, the believer grows in grace. Our holiness does not improve. But we grow in that state of holiness (Luke 2:52; 2 Peter 3:18).
Sanctification cannot be properly spoken of as a progressive work. A person is either holy or he is unholy. There is nothing in between. You cannot be more or less holy. But sanctification is a present, continual, on-going work of grace. Being sanctified by God, born again by the Holy Spirit, every believer grows in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Every living thing grows. We see more, feel more, do more, know more, repent more, believe more, and love more, as we grow in grace. In sanctification there is an ever-increasing faith, hope, and love in the hearts of God’s elect.
Of this I am certain, wherever sanctification is found consecration of the heart increases, conformity to Christ in heart and life increases, commitment to Christ and his cause increases, love, devotion, confidence in, and submission to Christ increases, and confidence in Christ increases.
This growth in grace is the continual operation of God the Holy Spirit in sanctification. — “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). To be sanctified is to be separated to God, treated as holy, and made holy.
“Through thy Truth”
The Lord Jesus prays, “Sanctify them through thy truth.” Christ is the Truth (John 14:6). He is the Embodiment of Truth and the Revealer of Truth; but he is more. — Christ is the Truth. He is the Truth foreshadowed and typified in all the law and the true fulfilment of all the prophecies of the Old Testament Scriptures. Our Lord’s prayer here is this. — Father sanctify my people, these you have given me through their union with me, through the merit of my blood and righteousness, through the grace they receive from me, and through their faith in me.
“Thy Word is Truth”
“Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.” — Christ is the Truth and Christ is the Word. He is the Word revealed by the Word. Our Savior is saying, Father sanctify my people by your Word. This sanctification is a work of grace accomplished by the Spirit of God through the instrumentality of God’s Word (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; Psalm 119:9-16).
But there’s got to be something more in our text. Remember, our Lord is here praying specifically for people who are already born of God, already believers, already his disciples. He is asking God the Father to sanctify people who are already sanctified. — “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.” When we read verse 19, we learn exactly what he is asking. — “And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.”
How did the Lord Jesus sanctify himself? Our blessed Savior relentlessly dedicated himself, he relentlessly consecrated himself to the will of God and the glory of God, to the redemption and salvation of the people of God, utterly sacrificing himself to God, utterly consecrating himself to God, that we might be utterly consecrated to God, as “a royal priesthood,” serving God day and night. This is beautifully portrayed in Leviticus 8 and 14, where God’s priests were ceremonially sanctified by the blood of the sacrifice and the holy anointing oil put upon the tip of their right ears, the thumbs of their right hands, and the great toes of their right feet.
Let us be utterly separated unto God, utterly separated to Christ, utterly separated to the gospel, but never separated from one another. The object of our Savior’s prayer is found in verse 21.
“Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth. Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” (John 17:17-21)
There is never an excuse for believers separating themselves from other believers. The Corinthians had terrible problems; but God never instructed one saint to separate himself from those other saints. The Galatians had horrid evils; but never once were they taught to separate saint from saint. Rather, we are to help the weak, lift the fallen, and forgive the offender (Galatians 6:1-2).
O Spirit of God, give me this grace. Sanctify me, for Christ’s sake. Cause me to be utterly consecrated to my Redeemer!
“Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)
What I ask God to do for me I ask him to do for you.
“And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” (Romans 12:1-2)