The Sanctification of the Holy Spirit
How does the Holy Spirit sanctify the child of God? That is a question about which there are a great number of ideas. Those who view the Spirit’s work as most active in the world would see a direct function of the Spirit upon the heart of man to cause him to walk in the ways of God. On the extreme of that end of the spectrum would reside a wholly Calvinistic view of the irresistible operation of the Holy Spirit. Those who argue for only a mediated influence of the Spirit would argue that the Spirit sanctifies the child of God only through indirect operations on his heart. A strictly “word-only” position of the work of the Spirit would reside at the other end of this spectrum. Between those two ends, there is an almost unlimited diversity of the expression of the Holy Spirit’s work in sanctification.
Our consideration of the work the Holy Spirit, and of the godhead as a whole, in our sanctification is a needed effort. I believe our discussion of the topic is hindered by a failure to consider the textual impact of the prophetic outpouring of the Spirit’s gifts to the early saints. While I am confident that somewhere on the spectrum described above, we have properly described the Spirit’s current and ongoing work of sanctification, I also believe that from an expositional standpoint, we have misused texts to come to those conclusions. The goal of this article is not to provide a definitive answer to the question of the work of the Spirit in our sanctification. So long as brethren can avoid what I believe to be the fatal issues of a Calvinistic understanding of humanity and the Spirit’s work with him, I can live quite comfortably with most views brethren hold on the matter. The goal of this article is to encourage us that as we rush to make a modern application of texts that we redouble our efforts to leave them within a first-century construct. The first-century saints had just as much right (and perhaps even more as the epistles were written directly to them) to claim an application of the text as we do. If our application of a text to ourselves lessen its connection to the circumstances of first-century saints, we have made a wrong application of it. On this topic of sanctification, we must understand the extent of the early saints’ reliance on the outpouring of the Spirit’s prophetic gifts.
Without intending to make definitive statements about the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification today, I hope to show that in the New Testament, the work of the Spirit in sanctification is often an expression of the effect of the coming of the prophetic gifts of the Holy Spirit upon the church – and especially upon the Gentiles. In order to accomplish that goal, this article will focus on Paul’s statement of the Spirit’s sanctification to the Thessalonians:
But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
(2 Thessalonians 2:13-14).
A Calvinistic Interpretation
To the Calvinist, Paul’s words seem quite natural and evidentiary of the rightness of his view. Stated as succulently as possible, the order of the words in this passage is highly important to the Calvinist. In this view the fact that Paul lists “sanctification by the Spirit” before “belief in the truth,” indicates that one is sanctified by the Spirit prior to his belief in the truth. That idea conforms nicely with that doctrine’s teaching that the unregenerate, depraved man is incapable of obeying the truth before the Spirit comes upon and quickens (enlightens) the heart. One then is chosen to salvation by God in His predestined act of election. That election first manifests itself in the Holy Spirit’s coming upon a person and results in that man’s believing of the truth and being saved. The Calvinist sees nothing in this text inconsistent with his position.
A Word-Only Interpretation
The word-only view of the work of the Holy Spirit believes his view is also maintained in this text. He also believes that its support in these verses eliminates the Calvinistic understanding entirely. The word-only view sees a synonymous relationship between the sanctification by the Spirit and the belief of the truth. One is sanctified by the Spirit when he believes in the truth. John 17:17 states that sanctification comes through the word: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” So then, when one believes the truth of God’s word, he is sanctified by God. As the Spirit is the source of the word of God, that work of sanctification can rightly be attributed to the Holy Spirit. Further, verse 14 clearly states that the Thessalonians were called into this state of sanctified belief “through our gospel.”
The word-only construction is then this:
- Paul brought the gospel to the Thessalonians and called them to obey it (Acts 17:3-4).
- Some in Thessalonica understood the message to be from God and heeded the call of the gospel (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
- Their reception of the gospel allowed the Spirit to sanctify them through the truth and further the work of “the word of God,” which Paul states “is at work in you believers” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
To the word-only advocate, the emphasis on the Thessalonians’ personal response to the call of the gospel refutes the Calvinistic understanding and also is sufficiently powerful to remove the need of any complementary influence of the Spirit beyond the word.
A Personal Indwelling View
Summarizing the personal indwelling view is somewhat problematic because of the greater diversity of thought within this portion of the spectrum we have created to facilitate this discussion. There are some personal indwelling advocates who sound like word-only proponents; others have such an active Spirit, they are difficult to distinguish from Calvinists. Most, however, reside between these two points.
In the broadest of terms, the personal indwelling view sees in Paul’s words two works. The sanctification by the Spirit is not an action which precedes belief in the truth (i. e. Calvinism), nor is it a work confined to within the words of the Bible (i. e. word-only). The Spirit’s role in sanctification is a work that is done concurrently and in conjunction with the influence of the word.
Like the word-only contingent, they would agree that Paul is not making a chronological argument (First, sanctification and then belief.) as the Calvinist demands. However, they would argue that Paul is not simply repeating himself by separating sanctification and belief (As the word-only view’s synonymous arrangement of those phrases suggests). Most personal indwelling proponents would argue that Paul is describing two related works (and most personal indwelling advocate would likely contend two co-dependent works).
A Prophetic Indwelling View
This author rejects as fatally flawed all Calvinistic’s views of the Spirit’s work. For the sake of transparency, it should be noted that in practical terms, my understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work today falls inline more nearly with the word-only view than the personal indwelling view (Although on an expositional level, I do not consider myself to be a word-only advocate). However, I do not believe that most expressions of the personal indwelling view within churches of Christ do any real harm to the people of God.
However, this article is intended as an expositional challenge and strictly speaking, not a doctrinal one. It is my contention that all three views listed above have missed Paul’s specific argument about the work of the Holy Spirit in Thessalonica. For Paul, the sanctification of the Spirit was not the method by which the Spirit moved man to be saved (i. e. Calvinism), nor was it the process by which He strengthened the saint of God (i.e. word-only and personal indwelling views). Paul’s appeal to the sanctification of the Spirit was a statement that the presence of the Spirit’s powers in the Thessalonians was an indication from the Holy Spirit that God had approved of the salvation of the Gentiles in that city. In short, the Spirit bore witness to God’s saving of the Gentiles in Thessalonica by providing the manifestation of the Spirit’s power.
Paul’s Ministry – The Mystery of Christ
It is easy for us to miss the impact of God’s stated intention for the ministry of Paul. From the beginning of his apostleship, God had a special mission for His servant: “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles . . .” (Acts 9:15). The other apostles recognized Paul’s God-given emphasis to be “entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised” (Galatians 2:7). In his own words, Paul’s states the purpose of his apostleship was to “bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery.” (Ephesians 3:9).
It is Paul who makes the clearest statement in the New Testament about the specific aim contained within the mystery of God:
This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. (Ephesians 3:6-7)
Paul’s ministry, then, was to bring to light among all peoples that the Gentiles, who before that time had been given up as a people from God, were now welcomed into God’s kingdom as full-citizens and fellow heirs of the inheritance of God’s blessings.
Paul’s defense of the Gentile’s right to be in the kingdom is why the controversy of circumcision and the Judaistic opposition to the Gentiles was focused on his apostleship from Acts 15 forward. One cannot read Romans, Galatians, 1-2 Corinthians, Ephesians – in truth most of Paul’s letters – and not see the evidence of the Judaizers’ hatred of Paul and of Paul’s unwavering defense that Christ’s being in the Gentiles was the “hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).
If one fails to appreciate Paul’s special connection to the proclamation of the mystery and his support of the Gentiles who had been saved through the Spirit’s revelation of that mystery, he will never understand Paul’s epistles as well as he could.
The Holy Spirit and the Revelation of the Mystery
In that light, one must then appreciate the work of the Spirit in establishing the Gentiles’ right to the gospel. Look again in 2 Thessalonians 2:13. Paul states that the Thessalonians had been chosen to salvation by God though “sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” The Calvinist argues that the order is important in Paul’s words – that sanctification must precede belief. In rejecting their arguments, we have stated, in one form or another, that the word order is not important here. Regardless of our views on the Spirit’s work, most all of us in churches of Christ believe that one cannot be sanctified by the Spirit before he receives the truth.
We have approached the topic from this standpoint because we have agreed with the Calvinist that one’s being sanctified by the Holy Spirit is an indication of salvation. As such, we must not allow word order in this passage to determine chronology.
But what if Paul’s expression of “sanctification by the Spirit” was not a statement of one’s possession of salvation? What if instead of reading those words and seeing the statement that God through His Spirit sanctifies those who are saved, we read that God sanctified through His Spirit those He was going to save?
Read again Paul’s words. He states not that God had chosen the Thessalonians in their salvation. He states God had chosen them “as the firstfruits to be saved.” His selection of them to be saved was accomplished through the sanctification by the Spirit and belief.
Since then we understand that the path to salvation begins with the hearing of faith, if it is true that the order of the phrases in this verse is significant we would arrive at an interesting conclusion. We would come to a position stating that prior to the Thessalonian Gentiles’ believing the gospel, God acted through His Spirit to sanctify (or set apart) them. That act of being set apart by God would be an indication that God had chosen them as the “firstfruits to be saved.” Since this work of the Spirit in sanctification was performed on people who had not yet believed the gospel; by definition, it would have been done upon people who were not yet saved. Therefore, the Spirit’s work in this action of sanctification is not to aid the lost, but it is an action qualifying, approving or preparing a people “to be saved.”
Having rejected the Calvinistic idea that God has predestined particular individuals to salvation, we would be compelled to understand this preparatory work of sanctification by the Spirit upon the Gentiles as an act indicating God’s approval of a race of people (as opposed to particular individuals) whom He had chosen to be saved. The necessary question that flows from that thinking is this:
What possible work of the Spirit could provide testimony of God’s selection of the Gentiles in Thessalonica to be saved which would have preceded their hearing of the gospel?
The answer to that question is found in how the Gentiles received the Spirit of God in the first place. The answer is the Spirit’s revelation of the fulfillment of the mystery Paul proclaimed among the Gentiles.
The Gentiles Received the Spirit Before They were Saved
Space will not allow for a full discussion of the Spirit’s work in the house of Cornelius. But Peter does make it clear that the Spirit came upon the Gentiles “as I began to speak” (Acts 11:15); and so prior to their hearing the message by which they would be saved (Acts 11:14); and so before their being baptized in water to be saved (Acts 10:47).
Peter’s words in Acts 10:47 explicitly state that the Gentiles had received the Spirit prior to baptism and so prior to salvation. How did the “pre-baptism” work of the Spirit upon the Gentiles manifest itself: “For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God” (Acts 10:46).
So at the beginning of Peter’s sermon, the first sermon ever preached to a Gentile, the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles and they began to speak in tongues. Why? What was God seeking to accomplish by pouring the gift of the Holy Spirit upon those who were not Christians?
The answer to that is found in Peter’s rehearsal of these events in his address to the Jerusalem council of Acts 15. In that speech, he said,
And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us . . .” (Acts 15:7-8)
He states that God bore witness to the Gentiles by giving the Holy Spirit to them. When did God do that? Was it before or after the Gentiles were saved?
Peter’s statement in the house of Cornelius leaves no doubt about the answer: “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit . . .” (Acts 10:47).
The giving of the Holy Spirit prior to their conversation was an act in which “God bore witness to them.” In empowering the Gentiles to speak in tongues through His giving them the Holy Spirit as a gift (Acts 10:45-47), God gave a visible endorsement that there was no difference between the Jew and Gentile under the preaching of the gospel. Both would have their hearts cleansed by faith.
The Holy Spirit’s prophetic manifestation in the lives of the Gentiles confirmed Peter’s vision that God had called the Gentiles clean (Acts 10:28). It was the Spirit’s presence which was the evidence that the people who are not a people had now been claimed as the people of God (Romans 9:24-26).
The Spirit Confirmed the Salvation of the Gentiles
Paul uses this same imagery in Romans 15:16. He states that the offering of the Gentiles through his ministry would be acceptable to God having been sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Many miss the point of his argument in this text. His appeal to the Spirit is tied to the expression of the power of the Holy Spirit in him and in the Gentiles.
Notice how the sanctification of the Holy Spirit manifested itself in the Gentiles:
- They abounded in hope by the power of the Spirit (15:13).
- They were full of goodness (15:14).
- They were full of knowledge (15:14).
- They were able to instruct one another (15:14).
The result of these blessings of the Spirit upon the Gentiles through Paul was that he was satisfied with them, the fruit of his ministry and his offering to Christ (15:13, 16).
How was it that Paul was able to find a source of satisfaction in his labors (Romans 15:17)? It was what he was able to accomplish in word and deed by the Spirit:
For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience–by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God–so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ. . . (Romans 15:18-19)
What deeds done through an apostle’s hand by the power of signs and wonders and through the power of the Holy Spirit would result in the power of the Spirit residing in Christians who themselves would have then been filled with knowledge and able to instruct others (without the benefit of having the written word of God in their possession)?
The answer is not difficult to know. Paul defended the legitimacy of his having fulfilled his ministry of the gospel – which was to bring to light for all men the right of the Gentiles to salvation in the gospel – upon the foundation of the manifestation of the Spirit’s power among the Gentiles. It is the same argument made by Peter in Acts 15.
But most importantly, notice what Paul calls the offering of these prophetically empowered Gentiles among who he had ministered. He states that the presence of the power of the Spirit among them was their being “sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” Again, it is the same connection as in Acts 15. The Spirit’s prophetic presence among the Gentiles was the testimony of God that the Gentiles were an acceptable offering to Him.
The Firstfruits Sanctified by the Holy Spirit
There is one other important phrase found in 2 Thessalonians 2. Paul states that God had chosen those in Thessalonica as the “firstfruits to be saved.” When people apply the words to this text universally, down through all the days of Christianity, this phrase loses its emphasis. In so doing, it removes the application of these words to the first-century saints to whom the words were written. It is a strained application of this text to say that any saint 2,000 years removed from the cross is a part of the firstfruits of salvation.
No, this phrase is specific to the era in which Paul is writing and to the people to whom he was writing. In what sense were the Thessalonians the firstfruits of the saved? Paul’s words in his first epistle to them provide an insight:
For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved–so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them at last! (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16)
The Gentile saints in Thessalonica had suffered under the hand of oppressors as had Paul and his people. Part of that persecution was that some were forbidding them from “speaking to the Gentiles.” In this time, the Gentile population of the church was not yet fully established (Romans 11:25 – Note this verse’s connection to the “mystery”). Indeed, Thessalonica was among the first stops of Paul after his departure from the Jerusalem council of Acts 15. The saints of that city were very much included in the first reaping of God’s harvest among His newly reclaimed people.
In the end, Paul’s appeal to the sanctification of the Spirit was to remind the Thessalonians of the significance of the prophetic outpouring of the Spirit they witnessed in Paul’s preaching (1 Thessalonians 1:5) and that was now at work within their own prophetic ministries (1 Thessalonians 5:18-22).
Paul ties his encouragement for these saints to stand against the man of lawlessness (2 Thessalonians) and to the wicked men surrounding them (2 Thessalonians 3:1-3) to a reminder of how the manifestation of the Spirit among them which provided the evidence of their sanctified right to the gospel and call of that same gospel preached among them.
In passing, it should be noted that the Spirit’s sanctification of the firstfruits of the Gentiles to be saved should be connected to Paul’s appeal to the firstfruits of the Spirit in Romans 8 and the earnest of the Spirit in Ephesians 1. All three passages have the same imagery of a preliminary function of the Holy Spirit provided to early saints.
Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians were among the earliest of the New Testament epistles written. The events described within them come immediately on the heels of the Jerusalem council of Acts 15. In that time, Paul was beginning to deal with the full-force of Judaistic influence on the church. As Acts 10, 11, and 15 all look to the Spirit’s prophetic manifestations among the Gentiles to defend the truth of the mystery it would be a hermeneutical mistake not to connect Paul’s early writings back to them.
Further, as Paul was the declared spokesman of God about the true fellowship expressed in the revelation of His mystery, one must consider that Paul would defend the participation of the Gentiles in the mystery by the evidence which ruled the Jerusalem council. If the Spirit’s prophetic demonstration of God’s witness to the sanctified right of the Gentiles is sufficient in Jerusalem, it should be sufficient in Thessalonica and elsewhere.
Yet many read Paul’s words about the work of the Spirit among the early Gentiles and never make an expositional connection back to the Jerusalem council. That failure ignores the significance of the opposition of the Judaizers to Paul’s work and overlooks a line of evidence about the Spirit’s work among the Gentiles that God thought weighty enough to discuss in at least three chapters of Acts.
There is no reason to move into speculative works of the Spirit to understand 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14. Within the first-century there was a definitive, evidentiary work of the Spirit which was intended to “set apart” the early Gentiles to the call of salvation. Paul’s view was that the Gentiles were sanctified to God by the presence of the prophetic powers of the Holy Spirit among them. The Spirit’s witness to their rights in the mystery allowed for the call of the gospel to come to them and for the Gentiles to find salvation in their belief of the truth.