For the casual reader of the Bible, there may appear to be little difference between the two terms “cleansing” and “sanctification” and the words appear to be much the same. This is not a correct interpretation.
The pointers we have to this viewpoint are to be found in verses where both words are used in the same verse. In the Bible, each and every word is important and redundant prepetition is simply not the way of God. Each word is there for a meaning – though at initial sight the individual significances of the words may not be clear to us. There is no redundancy in the Bible.
Ephesians 5:25-26 is the first example of this: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” Here Paul tells us that first there is “cleansing” and then there is “sanctification.” In Second Timothy 2:21 Paul again repeats this saying: “Therefore if anyone purges himself from these, he shall be a vessel to honour, sanctified and useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.” Again we see the purge – the cleansing, coming before the sanctification. The order is significant, and the words have different meanings.
What we have in the cleansing, is related to the old life which we had before accepting Jesus as our Lord and God. It is about the stains of old sins which are required to be washed away and removed from us, making us then presentable and potentially useful to God. Cleansing can be seen as a preparatory work, after which other things may commence. For example, one does not paint on a surface without first cleaning it; one does not put new food on a used plate; or cook new food in a used utensil without first cleansing it. So it is with God. What He wants a clean start for His work on us too.
Sanctification, is related only to the new life. This new life, like a blank sheet of paper, is available to receive anything written upon it. Similarly, after we accept Christ and are cleansed, God wants to impart new characteristics into us, as we commence our new life. Sanctification means “union with God” and is the complete blessing, the fullness of blessing which Jesus purchased for us on the cross with His blood. As Ephesians 4:24 says “you should put on the new man, who according to God was created in righteousness and true holiness.” Note that this is not a work of our own, but a gift from God which we need to put on.
If one were asked to wear a gift of brand new clothes to a function, certainly one would cleanse oneself first, before putting on the new clothes. The same is true here for God.
We can also look back at the Old Testament for confirmation of this ordering and prioritising and the principle being established. In the preparation rituals of the Priests and the Levites (the Levitical Priests), there is a clear distinction in their preparation rituals for service to the Lord in the temple. The Levites, who took a lower position than the Priests in Sanctuary services, are all cleansed, but there is no mention of them being sanctified for service. For example, in Numbers 8 there are four uses of the word “cleans” in the King James Version all relating to the cleansing of the Levites:
Numbers 8:6“Take the Levites from among the children of Israel, and cleanse them.”
Numbers 8:7“And thus shalt thou do unto them, to cleanse them: Sprinkle water of purifying upon them, and let them shave all their flesh, and let them wash their clothes, and so make themselves clean.”
Numbers 8:15“And after that shall the Levites go in to do the service of the tabernacle of the congregation: and thou shalt cleanse them, and offer them for an offering.”
Numbers 8:21“And the Levites were purified, and they washed their clothes; and Aaron offered them as an offering before the LORD; and Aaron made an atonement for them to cleanse them.”
Compare this to what we find for the word “sanctify” in Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8:
Exodus 29:1“And this is the thing that you shall do to them, to sanctify them to minister to Me in the priest’s office. Take one bull, the son of the herd, and two rams without blemish.”
Exodus 29:27“And you shall sanctify the breast of the wave offering, and the shoulder of the heave offering, which is waved, and which is lifted from the ram of the consecration, from what is Aaron’s, and from what is for his sons.”
Exodus 29:33“And they shall eat those things with which the atonement was made, to consecrate and to sanctify them. But a stranger shall not eat because they are holy.”
Exodus 29:36“And you shall offer every day a bull, a sin offering for atonement. And you shall cleanse the altar when you have made an atonement for it, and you shall anoint it to sanctify it.”
Exodus 29:37“You shall make an atonement for the altar seven days, and sanctify it. And it shall be a most holy altar. Whatever touches the altar shall be holy.”
Exodus 29:44“And I will sanctify the tabernacle of the congregation and the altar. I will also sanctify both Aaron and his sons to minister to Me in the priest’s office.”
Leviticus 8:11 “And he sprinkled thereof upon the altar seven times, and anointed the altar and all his vessels, both the laver and his foot, to sanctify them.”
Leviticus 8:12“And he poured of the anointing oil upon Aaron’s head, and anointed him, to sanctify him.”
Sanctification, can therefore be seen as a blessing which follows, which depends upon and which surpasses in every way, cleansing.
When we study the characteristics of the ritual preparations for the Priests and the Levites (a lower order of Priest) we are struck by another pointer to agreement with the New Testament interpretation above. In the preparation of the Priests, they were sprinkled by blood after ritual cleansing by water. In the preparation of the Levites they were not sprinkled by blood after ritual cleansing by water.
This can be seen as a foreshadowing of the sanctification through the blood of Jesus. Hebrews 13:12-13“Therefore Jesus also, so that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach.”
As Jesus went forth outside the gate and separated Himself from this world, so must we. We cannot be partakers of the blessings of Christ if we remain wallowing in worldly attractions. Christ was Holy and Undefiled by sinners and separated from worldly temptation. As His followers, we must aspire to these characteristics.
Amen and Amen.