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1958 Article

Sanctification (German, Heiligung). This theological term, seldom used in older Mennonite writing, refers historically to the process by which the Christian who has come to faith in Christ and been justified and regenerated or born again is made holy. The meaning of the term will therefore depend upon the meaning put into the word "holy." In common Christian usage "holy" means morally pure and righteous as God is pure and righteous. Sanctification is therefore generally used to mean the deliverance of the personal life of the Christian from the impurity and power of sin. Actually the original meaning of the New Testament (also Old Testament) word for "make holy" is to dedicate or consecrate to God and His use, and it is used thus of Christ sanctifying Himself (John 10:36 and John 17:19), but it is also so used of disciples and even of things. The derivative meaning of make clean or purify is, however, also clearly used (1 Corinthians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:25; Romans 15:16; Ephesians 5:36, etc.). The two meanings should not be separated, and they are often apparently both intended in the one expression.

The fact of the two meanings has contributed to theological confusion, in addition to confusion caused by varying understandings of the nature of redemption and the agent of sanctification, whether the Holy Spirit, God, Christ, or the Christian himself. As a consequence some view sanctification as an immediate act of God or the Spirit following justification, thus in effect confusing it with the latter. Most hold it to be a process in which the grace of God, working through the Holy Spirit, in cooperation with the endeavors of the individual to lay hold upon truth and grace, to resist temptation, to exercise piety and devotion, and to perform conscious obedience (though with the real possibility of sudden or large progress as well as reversals and decline), combine for growth in grace, in holy living, and in conformity to the image of Christ. The direct appeals of Paul (Romans 12; Romans 6; Galatians 5) as well as Christ Himself (Sermon on the Mount) clearly justify this assumption.

Some consider sanctification to be an instantaneous act of the Holy Spirit subsequent to conversion and distinct from justification and the individual's own efforts at holy living. This view, commonly called "second work of grace," or "second blessing," derives from Wesleyan teaching, and has been accepted by a few Mennonites (e.g., United Missionary Church) under Wesleyan influence. Experientially it has a certain measure of support in the experience many Christians have of a conscious renewal or reconsecration, either after an inadequate experience due to too early conversion or to lack of proper teaching and understanding of the realities and possibilities of God's gracious working through the Holy Spirit and the necessity for full surrender, consecration, and living up to the privileges of the believer in Christ. To elevate this to a dogma of a necessary second experience for all in the form of an act of God in the plan of salvation is quite another matter.

Further differences arise out of the understanding of the degree of sanctification. The Wesleyan doctrine of perfectionism or near perfectionism was meant by Wesley primarily as an assertion of perfectibility, i.e., the possibility of real victory over sin and the attainment of a growing and ultimate high degree of holiness. To turn this into the doctrine of instantaneous entire sanctification or total eradication of sin, as some do, is something quite different and is contrary to the description by Paul, for instance, of the continuing conflict in the Christian's experience between the spirit and the flesh (Galatians 5) and the need for "mortifying" the flesh (Romans 6) and "putting off the old man," and "putting on the new man" (Colossians 3), or even the reference to "carnal" Christians (1 Corinthians). This doctrine has found very little, if any, entry into Mennonite circles.

The general Wesleyan ideas on sanctification, and the modifications or even perversions of these by later followers and groups, have produced, especially in the United States, what is often called the Holiness Movement with a number of new sects and subdivisions arising particularly in the second half of the 19th century. The schisms in the Methodist Church itself in the 19th century did not usually produce extremist sanctification emphases, but a rather wholesome type, while of course including the "second blessing" and perfectionist or eradication doctrines. These were the Methodist Protestant (1830), Wesleyan Methodist (1843), and Free Methodist (1860) churches, of which the latter two are still continuing as small denominations. There are many other "holiness" churches, some of which include the adjective "Methodist" in their titles. The Mennonite Brethren in Christ are a group with a moderate holiness emphasis. The Brethren in Christ on the whole can be classed here, although the specific holiness doctrines are not uniformly held among them today. Many of the moderate "holiness" denominations are members of the National Holiness Association.

The more extreme groups (now often moderated) are usually associated with the National Holiness Movement, which arose about 1867, out of which certain denominations emerged. One such is the Church of the Nazarene, which was formed out of a series of mergers with name changes, assuming its final form in 1919; it forms the "right wing" of the Holiness Movement. The Pilgrim Holiness Church (1897) is very similar to the Nazarene Church. The Christian and Missionary Alliance (1887), founded by A. B. Simpson, a Presbyterian perfectionist, as an alliance of congregations, is in effect a denomination. It developed a strong doctrine of faith healing, rejecting ordinary medical practice. The Church of God (Anderson) is also a moderate holiness denomination. But there are several "Churches of God" who are among the more extreme groups, which fall into the Pentecostal or radical wing of the Holiness Movement. The Pentecostal movement has in the 20th century had an extraordinary growth in the United States, and abroad by missionary activity. It has added to the usual "holiness" emphasis the charismatic teaching about the revival of certain pentecostal gifts, usually only two, the gift of tongues and the gift of healing. One of the most rapidly growing of these groups is the Assemblies of God.

Mennonites on the whole had by the 1950s been relatively untouched by either the radical holiness or pentecostal influences, although individuals have occasionally fallen victim, e.g., in France and in the United States and Canada. Prompt disciplinary action has usually excised the threat, or the individuals have withdrawn. About 1913 the entrance of moderate "holiness" teaching caused a schism in the Pennsylvania Mennonite (MC) congregation near Hesston, Kan., resulting in the formation of an independent group, locally called the David Zook Church.

Because of the above connotations, most Mennonites have been disinclined to use the term. Actually the insistence on real sanctification of life and true holy living is a major basic Anabaptist concept. The concept of discipleship includes holiness as its ethical aspect. But the twin idea of dedication to Christ and His cause is also an integral part of discipleship. The Anabaptist insistence on "newness of life," on bringing faith into "evidence," on the full lordship of Christ and obedience to His commands, on the development of Christian character and separation from the world of sin, all this is "holiness" in its best sense. The fruit of this emphasis was a rather uniformly high quality of moral life and holy behavior among the Anabaptists, which was testified to even by their enemies again and again. The Anabaptists were even accused of "hypocrisy," of putting on a pious life to attract members. (It is true that their sincere holy living was a powerful attraction.) The eagerness to be strict in holy living did lead at times to a certain amount of moralism and legalism, of which their enemies, the Reformers, were all too ready to accuse them. In response to the Reformers' charge of a "Scheinheiligkeit," the Anabaptists brought the charge against the Reformers of a "Scheinglauben," quite in the spirit of the Book of James.

The Mennonite demand for true holiness and discipleship has persisted throughout the history of the brotherhood, but has often been threatened or perverted by the twin dangers of moralism and legalism. The group has been charged with perfectionism and claiming to be a perfect church, especially during Anabaptist times, because of its insistence upon striving to attain the ideal of a church "without spot or wrinkle" (Ephesians 5:27). But this charge is easily refuted by the simple observation that insistence upon discipline, including the ban, presupposes the possibility of failure in life and apostasy in faith. The endeavor to attain the spotless state has at times led to another very serious consequence, namely, censoriousness and divisiveness, and has produced not a few schisms, not only in the 16th century but also later. It has been noted that practically all Mennonite schisms have arisen out of differences as to the degree of "holiness" or discipline to be required of members. These perversions, however, in no way invalidate the major principle that Christ requires of His disciples absolute holiness and perfection ("Be ye perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect") properly understood, that the Father's will is to be done on earth as in heaven. Paul calls repeatedly for perfect, i.e., mature members (teleioi). To surrender this ideal with the concept that in a sinful world it is impossible to attain such an ideal, and that therefore the Christian is at liberty to compromise and that the church should not discipline for sin, but that all Christians should live in trustful hope for the attainment of the ideal outside of history, placing the major emphasis "in the here and now" on forgiveness, is in the Anabaptist-Mennonite understanding not only unscriptural but indeed a betrayal of the lordship of Christ. - HSB

1989 Update

The "Sanctification (1958)" article covers the meanings of the term, some of the various ways in which it has been stressed, and some controversies that emerged on the subject. The present revision touches on some applications of the concept, developments in the holiness movement, and developments in the holiness-pentecostal-charismatic movements related to sanctification.

The concept "sanctification" derives from New Testament Greek terms translated variously as "be holy," "hallow," "sanctify," "holiness," "sanctification," "holy," and "purify." The terms generally imply a purified, separated life given wholly to God for his service. It may safely be said that all Christian groups believe in sanctification; Scripture declares that "without holiness no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14). Differences among people and groups come at points of understanding regarding time, extent, and expression. Although most believe that Christians improve toward sanctification throughout life; many within the holiness movement maintain that entire sanctification is possible at once.

Differing views on sanctification of persons include the following: Roman Catholics maintain that most persons attain lasting holiness only after death and in most cases, after an experience of purgation. In life on earth sanctification is experienced through the sacraments of baptism, confirmation (in which the gifts of the Holy Spirit are received), penance and the Eucharist (Communion). Most Protestants teach that sanctification is complete at the moment of death when the Holy Spirit fully cleanses and prepares the believer to stand before God in purity and true holiness. People grow in sanctification and vary in the extent of realization to that point. People within the Holiness Movement take a position that humans may be entirely sanctified in this life, cleansed from the sinful nature (original sin) and set apart for God. Entire sanctification occurs at a point subsequent to regeneration; the exact meaning and extent of this work varies among people endorsing this general position. Some maintain that the sin nature is eradicated and the Christian no longer commits deliberate acts of sin. Others hold that the motive area of the Christian is cleansed, so that the Christian wills only to do God's will.

The modern holiness movement is generally associated with the teaching of John Wesley. Current scholarship holds that the tenor of Wesley's teaching was that sanctification is dynamic in nature, that it is proportional to the degree of commitment to God and surrender to the Holy Spirit. Some "Wesleyans," on the other hand, hold a more static position, maintaining that entire sanctification is momentary, fixed, and final.

What is known as the "holiness revival" arose in America following the Civil War and swept across the nation through the camp meeting movement (holiness camps). The revival moved with varying degrees of intensity. In one aspect it finally found expression in the beginnings of the pentecostal movement, usually associated with Charles Parham at Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kansas, 1 January 1901. This was a holiness-pentecostal movement at first, emphasizing sanctification as well as the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including tongue speaking. As the Pentecostal movement spread it was taken up by persons of other theological views; for instance, the Assemblies of God represented a synthesis of Baptism with the Spirit and a traditional view of sanctification as progressive. The neo-pentecostal movement, or charismatic movement from about 1960 and forward places primary emphasis upon the Holy Spirit and the gifts (charismata) and does not generally emphasize sanctification in relation to charismatic renewal. The same can be said of the Roman Catholic charismatic renewal beginning in 1966.

Mennonites began early to be affected by charismatic renewal of the 1960s. Interest in these matters was widespread by the 1980s. Research by denominational officials in 1986 indicated that the numbers of Mennonites describing themselves as charismatic doubled every five years from 1974; in 1984 approximately 14,000 Mennonites were involved in charismatic renewal. One fourth to one third of pastors responsible for the primary leader ship of congregations may have been charismatic, while approximately 43 percent of church-planting pastors had charismatic commitments. Organized groups such as Mennonite Renewal Services promoted this position. Publications such as Empowered sought to encourage charismatic interest without being divisive. Technically, the primary interest of charismatic expression among Mennonites was not on sanctification as such, but on the person, power, and gifts of the Holy Spirit. -- OHA


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Additional Information

Christian Holiness Partnership (successor to National Holiness Association)

Church of the Nazarene statement on their history

Author(s) Harold S. Bender
Owen H. Alderfer
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S. and Owen H. Alderfer. "Sanctification." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 1 Aug 2021.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. and Owen H. Alderfer. (1989). Sanctification. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 1 August 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 414-416; vol. 5, pp. 787-788. All rights reserved.

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