For now, of course, we are not yet as holy as we long to be. But holiness is our destiny: whole-souled contentment, expansive love, brilliant joy, perfect peace.
If you are in Christ, the desire for holiness is woven into your spiritual DNA. You have learned to say with the old prayer, “Sin is my greatest evil, but thou art my greatest good.” Your soul has a new hunger: to be holy as Christ is holy (1 Peter 1:16). Patient as he is patient, bold as he is bold, zealous as he is zealous, pure as he is pure. So you “strive for . . . holiness” (Hebrews 12:14), and you know you are not yet as holy as you long to be.
In the midst of this godly pursuit, however, we can easily miss one startling and wonderful fact: in Christ, we are already holy. We wake up holy, brush our teeth holy, check our email holy, drive through traffic holy. Before we ever began to pursue holiness, holiness pursued us, found us, claimed us, filled us. Whether we feel like it right now or not, holy is who we are.
And unless we embrace the holiness that is already ours, our pursuit of holiness may leave us more harried and anxious than actually holy.
Holier Than Thou Thinketh
Pause for a moment over the first verses of 1 Corinthians, perhaps the most surprising start of the apostle Paul’s letters. How might you address a church divided by cliques, blemished by sexual immorality, puffed up with spiritual pride? Likely not how Paul begins:
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints . . . (1 Corinthians 1:2)
Paul will call the Corinthians some other names before he’s through — “infants in Christ” and “foolish” (1 Corinthians 3:1; 15:36) — but not here at the beginning. To Paul, the Corinthians were not first and foremost immature disciples, but “sanctified . . . saints” — holy holy ones.
If we hear words like sanctified or holy and think of those Christians who are especially Christlike, Paul’s words will make no sense. Whatever the Corinthians were, they were not that, at least not yet. What then is Paul doing? Seeing the bright side? Boosting the Corinthians’ self-esteem? Indulging in a bit of apostolic flattery? No, he is putting his finger on the truest truth about the Corinthians: in Christ, they are holy. For, as John Murray writes, “It is a fact too frequently overlooked that in the New Testament the most characteristic terms that refer to sanctification are used, not of a process, but of a once-for-all definitive act.”
Before sanctification is a process, it is an event — a once-for-all event that happens at our conversion. As Paul will tell the Corinthians later on, “You were sanctified” (1 Corinthians 6:11). And they “were sanctified” the moment they were united to Christ by faith alone, “who became to us” not only righteousness and redemption, but “sanctification” (1 Corinthians 1:30). In other words, holiness is not first and foremost a matter of becoming Christlike, but of being in Christ. If we are in him, then we are holier than we think we are.
Sanctification, then, is both definitive and progressive; Christ becomes our holiness, and then we gradually grow to reflect his holiness. If that distinction feels like splitting theological hairs, consider three implications of definitive sanctification, beginning here: our holiness in Christ gives us a new identity. And that identity is wrapped up in one of the all-time most misunderstood words in the Bible: saint.