Serviceable to Him
The concept of holiness seems to have a dwindling significance for the modern professing Christian. At one time unbelievers and believers were poles apart, as witnessed by Peter’s comment to his brethren: “they think it strange that ye run not with [them] to the same sink of corruption” (1 Pet. 4: 4). Now the two are often well–nigh indistinguishable, and all around us we see boundaries being removed and standards lowered.
To be of service to Christ however, we must be holy. Thus those described by Paul as “serviceable to the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Tim. 2: 21) are also said to be “sanctified” (or ‘holy’––both terms are from the same Greek word). Sanctification and serviceability go together––the one sanctified is also serviceable, the one serviceable is also sanctified. Thus while it may be that my zeal, my sincerity and my enthusiasm in matters religious cannot be impugned, unless I am “sanctified” it is not possible to describe me as “serviceable to the Master”. A holy God uses holy vessels. Again, even though my praise might be “through all the assemblies” (2 Cor. 8: 18), I am not a vessel suited to His use unless sanctified. These may be uncomfortable facts to some, but they are facts: “as he who has called you is holy, be ye also holy in all [your] conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1: 15, 16).
Yet what do we really mean by being holy? What actually is sanctification? A common misconception is that it is the improving of the old nature (as if the old nature could be improved). A couple of verses from John’s Gospel will quickly refute this idea: “him whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world” (10: 36). Here the term is applied to the Lord Jesus, and such an application entirely precludes the thought of reforming what is bad. Speaking of Himself, the Lord says “I sanctify myself for them” (17: 19)––impossible that the thought of mending a fallen nature could be introduced there. Thus sanctification is not, and can never be a reforming of the old nature.
So what is it? It is simply a setting apart to God. Thus “God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed (or sanctified) it” (Gen. 2: 3)––set it apart from Himself. There was nothing intrinsically holy about the seventh day when compared to the others. It was sanctified simply by the fact that God set it apart for Himself. Again, we have: “which is greater, the gold, or the temple which sanctifies the gold? ... which is greater, the gift, or the altar which sanctifies the gift?” (Matt. 23: 17, 19). The gold in the temple was no different from the gold outside the temple. The gift on the altar was in itself simply a gift––putting it on the altar did not change its nature. So what does their sanctification mean? Only that they were set apart for holy purposes.
Take that remarkable passage in 1 Cor. 7: “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified in the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified in the brother; since [otherwise] indeed your children are unclean, but now they are holy” (v14). Was the unbelieving spouse sanctified in heart? No. Were the children converted? We are not told––yet, by virtue of the believing parent, they too are holy. What does all this mean? Simply that the household is viewed as outwardly sanctified––outwardly set apart to God. In the OT the association in marriage with one who did not belong to God’s people was regarded as defiling (see Ezra 10; Hag. 2: 12), and the children of such a union viewed as unclean. It would be unjust to carry this principle over into the situation at Corinth, where only one spouse in an existing marriage relationship had been converted. Was she to be penalised for a relationship she could not help? Was she, and her children to be regarded as unclean? Not at all. Rather, in the grace of God, all the family were to be viewed as sanctified.
Look at the words of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ mouthed by thousands each week: “Our Father who art in the heavens, let thy name be sanctified” (Matt. 6: 9). Sanctified here means, as elsewhere, a setting apart––in this case God’s name is not to be lumped with the common mass of names in the world, but used with reverence and care. Yet how many who say ‘Hallowed be thy name’ on Sunday are only too liable to use ‘God’ as an expletive on Monday?
Of course sanctification does not relates just to what is outward, but to what is inward as well. Here it has two aspects. One is that it is a complete thing, done once and forever––in this respect it is absolute. The other is that it is a continuous, practical thing which goes on from day to day. Here it is progressive or practical. The two are linked but must be distinguished. If we see the sanctification of the soul as only practical, we shall be continually cast down by our failures, and unsure of whether we shall ever reach heaven. By contrast, if we only ever see it in its absolute terms there is a great danger of letting go all moral restraint.
Sanctification in its absolute character is the setting apart for God of a soul from its very first flicker of spiritual life. It is the hewing of the stone out of the quarry of the world for God. Man is by nature dead in “offences and sins” (Eph. 2: 1) with no life towards God. The Holy Spirit comes and breaks out from that quarry a stone––a soul––about which God has purposes of grace. He communicates to that soul a life which has its own tastes, desires and objects, and by this communication of divine life He sets it apart for Himself. This is absolute sanctification. It can be done once only and that forever. Neither Satan’s malice nor man’s wickedness can thwart the purposes of divine love (see Phil. 1: 6). The recognition of this is crucial. You will notice that all through Scripture the Spirit does not present the practical in order that we may attain to the absolute, but He presents the absolute in order to produce the practical. He does not say to the believer ‘you ought to do so and so in order to be so and so’, but He presents to the believer what he is (the absolute) in order to produce a manner of life (the practical) consistent with it. Thus if I am conscious that God has come in by His mighty power and set me apart from all here to Himself, the effect on me will be that I shall walk apart. My walk will be according to that which God has revealed as His will, and will be consistent with the life that He has given me, and the separation to Himself in which He has set me. Thus in 2 Tim. 2: 19–22 my practical sanctification involves withdrawing from iniquity, purifying myself from vessels to dishonour, fleeing youthful lusts, and pursuing righteousness, faith, love and peace. It is that kind of person that is serviceable to the Master. Both Elijah and Obadiah feared God, but the one was in the pay of heaven and the other in the pay of Ahab, and it was Elijah that had the power (see 1 Kings 18).
The stone then has been hewn out of the quarry by the Spirit of God––absolute sanctification. But it has a great many rough edges ––thus the Spirit begins to work on it with a view to making it smooth and polished. Most of us know how many things there were about us when first converted that were not consistent with the character of Him to whom we had been brought––and how little by little God graciously led us on, knocking off an edge here, getting rid of a roughness there, making us more like Himself. This is what is meant by practical sanctification. If you mix up the two aspects of sanctification you will never know where you are. You must hold them fast: the absolute, done forever, and the practical, never ended as long as we are here.
Absolute sanctification does not depend upon my practical state. That much is clear from 1 Cor. 6: 11: “And these things were some of you; but ye have been washed, but ye have been sanctified, but ye have been justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (my emphasis). This was said of the Corinthian saints who were notorious for their immorality and lack of practical piety, and are described, not as spiritual, but “carnal” (3: 3). And yet they were sanctified––separated to God. Paul is not talking about a process here––they were sanctified already. God had called them out to Himself (see 1 Cor. 1: 2)––they were His saints (literally, his holy or separated ones). If they were saints they were sanctified––whether practically true to their calling or not. (Incidentally, the AV of 1 Cor. 1: 2 is faulty. It is not “called to be saints” as if it was something they were to aim for, but “called saints”––saints by divine calling).
Absolute sanctification does not depend on me but on the sovereign grace of God. Hence: “God has chosen you from [the] beginning to salvation in sanctification of [the] Spirit and belief of [the] truth” (2 Thess. 2: 13). There is no salvation without sanctification. If I am saved it is because God has set me apart for blessing. Again, “by which will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10: 10). Where are my will and my works? They are excluded. It is His will and His work. We are “elect according to [the] foreknowledge of God [the] Father, by sanctification of [the] Spirit” (1 Pet. 1: 2). What was our sanctification by the Spirit with a view to? “Unto [the] obedience and sprinkling of [the] blood of Jesus Christ”.
The mode of address in Paul's epistle’s demonstrates the truth of sanctification in this absolute aspect. Apart from two exceptions, he always addresses those to whom he writes as saints––sanctified ones. Sainthood is not limited to an exalted few as in Catholicism but includes every believer––whatever their practical condition. Paul tells us what we are, then in his epistles describes the behaviour that is in keeping with that calling. The two exceptions to this rule are the epistles to the Galatians and Thessalonians. The reason why the Galatians were not addressed as saints may be the fact that the apostle was perplexed about their attitude to the Gospel (see Gal. 4: 20). Things were far happier at Thessalonica, where the Christians are addressed instead as “in God [the] Father” (1 Thess. 1: 1)––a position they could not be in without being set apart or sanctified.
Yet if God has sanctified us (an accomplished fact) He would also have us set apart practically for Himself. The first is seen in the Scripture in Hebrews 10 already quoted “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (v10). The second is presented in chapter 12: “Pursue peace with all, and holiness (or sanctification), without which no one shall see the Lord” (v14). The evidence that I have been sanctified (in its absolute sense) is that I am pursuing sanctification practically––seeking to bring my life in accord with my standing before God. My thoughts, my words and my actions are all to be governed by the fact that I belong to God and not to the world. If they do not testify this, then I have no right to claim to be a Christian. Sadly, we live in days of glib and easy profession, where no incongruity is seen in being a ‘born–again’ Christian and living in open immorality. Paul would not spare our blushes––he cannot bring himself to say for certain that such are really converted: “if any one called brother ...” (1 Cor. 5: 11).
Yet how much there is practically about any one of us that is not sanctified! God would have the whole man––spirit, soul and body––set apart for Himself: “Now the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly: and your whole spirit, and soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5: 23). It is not enough to think ‘But my heart is in the right place’. Each must know “how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honour” (1 Thess. 4: 4). We are to present our bodies “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God” (Rom. 12: 1), and to yield our members “in bondage to righteousness unto holiness” (Rom. 6: 19). Furthermore, the apostle exhorts us to “purify ourselves from every pollution of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in God's fear” (2 Cor. 7: 1). How great the separation is to be! Too many of us are like Lot––bedded down in Sodom, unserviceable to the Master, and only saved at the end “so as through [the] fire” (1 Cor. 3: 15). In an evil world, the Christian must walk as a Nazarite––apart from what is unclean.
Of course the great danger with separation is that it can degenerate into a mere system of do’s and don’ts with scarcely a breath of real life––the notorious Pharisees were themselves known as ‘the separate ones’. They were orthodox, upright and pure––but spiritually dead. Nor is this far from any of us. Many a present day hard–line sect had more Christ–like origins––and, sadly, many an arch–legalist was more Christ–like in his youth. There needs to be something more if we are to be sustained in reality, and that something more is Christ.
Let us see how this truth is brought out. In John seventeen, the Lord Jesus addresses the Father concerning His own: “When I was with them I kept them in thy name; those thou hast given me I have guarded, and not one of them has perished, but the son of perdition” (v12). Yet now He was going away, and as His own were also the Father's own (see vs 6, 9) so He commits them into the care of His Father: “Holy Father, keep them in thy name which thou hast given me” (v 11). ‘Holy Father’! The very epithet used by the Lord of the One to whom He commits us ought to remind us what the practical character of our walk should be. If we are kept by a Holy Father, we ought to be Holy (that is, separated to God) in our walk. From verse 14 on, the Lord puts his disciples in the place of testimony before an evil world––the place where He was then––and requests the Father to “Sanctify them by the truth” (v17). What does He mean by “the truth”? The answer is supplied: “thy word is truth”. It is the Father’s Word––the Scriptures. They present to us another man in another world, and draw us to Him. The Lord touches on this Himself: “I sanctify myself for them, that they also may be sanctified by truth” (v19). He has set Himself apart on high so that we might have an object to draw our hearts outside this scene (comp. 2 Cor. 3: 18). It is the Person that sanctifies.
How is the truth of the setting apart of Christ in glory to be known? The Spirit has come down to tell us of it: “the Spirit of truth who goes forth from with the Father, he shall bear witness concerning me” (John 15: 26). He has come here to tell us of Christ in glory, and to draw out the affections of our hearts after the One who is outside this scene. How does he do it? By applying the Father’s word––that word which reveals Christ––to our hearts. As the Lord said, “where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Luke 12: 34). What wonderful grace that the Holy Spirit is here below engaging our hearts with the Lord while He is away––and by thus carrying our hearts outside this scene, setting us apart practically from all around. Sanctification must have an object, and for the Christian that object must be Christ. Having set our hearts on Him we shall walk here as “strangers and sojourners” (1 Pet. 2: 11). It could not be otherwise if true to the Lord: “For this is [the] will of God, [even] your sanctification” (1 Thess. 4: 3). May each one of us be found truly “sanctified” and thus “serviceable to the Master”!