Salvation vs Sanctification

Question from a Site Viewer
What is the difference between salvation and sanctification? Must we be sanctified before we see God?

Tim’s Answer
Thanks much for your question. Salvation and sanctification are two different ideas, yet tied to a single goal of God. That goal is to restore us to the spiritual image of Jesus Christ, an image of grace and truth (John 1:12-13). Mankind was created originally in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). We fell when sin entered into the world through Adam and Eve (Genesis 3; Romans 5:12-14). While we retained the image of God after the fall (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9), we ceased to reflect His character, value, and purposes; we were separated from Him by our sin and we became His enemies (Romans 5:6-11; Ephesians 2:1-3, 11-12; 4:17-19). God’s goal for humanity is to restore us to both a right relationship with Him and to perfect in us a right image of Himself (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 3:9-17). To accomplish that purpose, He first needed to save us from our sins. Sinful humanity is not able to have a relationship with a holy God (Isaiah 59:1-2; Habbakuk 1:13). Salvation stems from the Greek word “sozo,” meaning to save from peril, injury, or suffering. It can be used to describe restoration to health. But most of the time in the Bible it is used to describe our salvation from the effects of the fall; that is, from our sin and from the consequences of our sin including spiritual death. Jesus died to save us from our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3) and from death (Hebrews 2:14-15). So, salvation should be seen as our deliverance from sin and death, both as an act already completed (Acts 2:47; Ephesians 2:8; 2 Timothy 1:9) in our deliverance from the penalty and power of sin through Christ’s death on the cross, and a future deliverance when we will be saved from this present evil world (Romans. 13:11; 1 Peter. 1:9). Sanctification, in contrast, does not carry within its meaning the idea of deliverance. Rather, it is the idea of separating or setting apart something or someone. It comes from a root Greek word that we often translate as “holy.” God is holy; that is, He is separate and distinct from this sinful world. Sanctification, or our being separated unto God or being set apart to God, is seen in Scripture in three aspects.

  1. It is work that was completed in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30 – Christ has become for us our sanctification; 6:11 – we have been sanctified; Hebrews 10:10 – we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ).
  2. It is our present work of life in setting ourselves apart to God (1 Thessalonians 4:3-7).
  3. It is a future work to be performed at Christ’s return (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

Many pastors and Christian authors, when they speak of sanctification, do so in the second sense set forth above; that is, in the sense of our present work in conforming ourselves to the image of Christ. You may have (often) heard of a need to sanctify yourself, or the need for personal sanctification, generally in the context of living life free from sin. This usage of the term accords with Scripture, but we must remember that sanctification is not only something we do, but it is something that Christ did for us, and something that He will yet do for us.

Now, to come back to your question, the concepts of salvation and sanctification are different, but related. Paul tells us in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 that God has chosen us “for salvation [x] sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” The “x” represents the Greek preposition “en.” There is some ambiguity as to how this word should best be translated here. It can be translated with the idea of location; that is, we are saved here, in this place, which we call “sanctification.” Or, it can be translated with the idea of the instrument by which salvation is brought to us; that is, we are saved by means of sanctification. The first possibility makes little sense to me, since I do not think it is true. I find no other Scriptural support to state that we are in the state of sanctification at the time when we are saved. Rather, to the contrary, we are in the state of rebellion and sin, and this is what necessitates our need for salvation. Paul does not state that we are saved to a position of sanctification, which is how some might apply the verse. His statement is that we are saved [x] sanctification. I do not think using the “en” with the idea of location is to be preferred in this text.

The instrumental meaning makes much more sense, and I think it is what Paul and God intended us to understand; that is, we are saved by means of sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. Thus, I translate the verse “for salvation by means of sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.”

With this understanding, the relationship the Apostle Paul saw between salvation and sanctification can be explained as follows: sanctification is the means by which we are saved (see also 1 Peter 1:2). This accords with the meaning found in 1 Corinthians 6:11 where we are stated to have been washed, sanctified and justified by the Spirit of our God. When we believe in the truth, the Holy Spirit sets us apart from our old life and separates us unto God, placing us in Christ. Paul sees our salvation as being accomplished when the Holy Spirit separates us from this worldly system and our old life and sets us apart as new creatures in Christ Jesus. Or, using the words of Jesus, salvation occurs when we are born again by the Spirit of God (John 3:3-8), that is, we are placed by the Spirit into a new life; we are separate to God.

In summary, salvation is our deliverance. Sanctification is the means by which our deliverance is realized. At the moment we believe in the truth, the Spirit separates us from our sin and past life and sets us apart for the service and worship of God. This is the means by which God saves us.

Now, with respect to your second question as to whether we must be sanctified before we can see God, the answer is an easy “yes,” with one caveat. Hebrews 12:14 tells us that without holiness (the same Greek word elsewhere translated “sanctification”) no one will see the Lord. Sanctification is necessary to see God.

The caveat, however, is this. Remember that there are three senses in which the term “sanctification” is used in Scripture. There is the work done by Christ. There is our present work. And there is the work Christ will yet do when He returns. I take it from your question that your concern may be with the second usage of the word. That is, do I need to be living right before God if I want to see Him?

Now, in all situations, I want to encourage all of us to live rightly with respect to God. However, I do not want to teach error. Ultimately, our hope of eternal life and seeing God does not depend on our works of sanctification, but trust in the One who sanctifies us. The Apostle Paul makes this very clear. He tells us in Philippians 3:8-11 that His pursuit of life is that He may be found not having his own righteousness (doing the right things before God), but having the righteousness of God. He tells us in Romans 8:1 that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Ultimately, I am not the one who saves myself. And ultimately, I am not the one who sanctifies myself. That is what Jesus does for me. He is my sanctification. If I have Him, I have His righteousness, I am sanctified, and I will see God. If I do not have Him, I have no hope of seeing God. It is that simple.

So, my encouragement is this. Cling to Jesus. Abide in Him like the vine abides in the branch (John 15:1-8). Abstain from fleshly lusts that lead us into sin. Draw near to God. And, the Great Shepherd of the sheep will make you complete in every good work to do His will (Hebrews 13:20-21) and will keep you from falling and will present you faultless (Jude 24).

And, in case you are discouraged in your walk with God, remember the Corinthians. They were far from perfect, and in fact Paul states that they were fleshly (1 Corinthians 3:1, 3). But these are the very same people Paul said were sanctified (1 Corinthians 6:11), not by their efforts, but by the Spirit of our God. Paul calls them “saints,” a term meaning “holy ones” (1 Corinthians 1:2). These are also the very same people Paul included in stating that:

We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.
1 Corinthians 15:51

Based on this truth, Paul exhorts them to be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Accordingly, while we affirm that we must be sanctified to see God, we also affirm that for all who believe in the truth, there is One who satisfies every need of sanctification for us. We can rest secure in Jesus. We have a Savior who has become our sanctification, freeing us from the tyranny of a works-based religion, and loosing us to a life of devotion, gratitude, and service to Him.

I encourage you to read the book of Colossians. Although the word “sanctification” is never used in the book, the book is a gem in explaining to us both what we are called to do and why we are called to do it. We live our life, not so that we might see God, but precisely because we are already in Him (see the flow of thought from Colossians 3:3-5, and then follow through to the end of 3:17). It is a tremendous passage on why we should want to live a holy life before God.

May the Lord Jesus and His Spirit guide you into all truth as you seek to love and serve Him.

a fellow servant,


5 thoughts on “Salvation vs Sanctification”

  1. Thank you for the clear explanation, although I know there could be so much more to be said about it. After reading and article by a good Catholic speaker about ‘Purgatory’ and the need to be ‘sanctified’ in there before entering heaven, I was wondering what was the difference between salvation and sanctification Because for me once we are ‘saved’ are forever saved and sanctified by the Blood of the Lamb etc… and I believe that , like you said , also sanctification occurs at the moment we accept Christ and we are born again and therefore we are ‘saved” and we do not need a ‘purgatory’ to cleanse us from sin before entering heaven… however I know that we need to constantly get renewed and washed and re-generated daily growing in Christ….

  2. Do you believe that the unbelieving husband or wife in 1 Cor be saved .because of the other’s belief?

  3. I think this is a wonderful, scholarly explanation. However, I would like to add a bit of clarification: Tim is exactly correct that sanctification is also through grace – as stated in Hebrews 10:10 “we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ.”
    Sanctification is not a result of what we DO, but rather what we BECOME as we allow the Holy Spirit to work in us to separate us from our sinful desires and align our will (our character and our nature) to the will of the…

    1. I haven’t read anywhere about what happens to a person that walks the aisle one Sunday morning and gives his heart to the Lord then walks out of church and gets killed by a car. He didn’t have time to get sanctified, is he not heaven bound?

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