Entire sanctification, also known as Christian perfectionism or sometimes sinless perfection, is the teaching that a Christian can reach such a state of holiness that he or she ceases to sin in this life.
The words sanctification, sanctify, saint, holy, and consecrate all come from the same root and all have to do with being “set apart.” God is holy in that He is set apart from every other thing and especially set apart from any sin. When applied to creatures, sanctification has two senses. The first refers to the formal declaration that something has been set apart for God. For instance, the various pieces of equipment used in the tabernacle and temple were consecrated—set apart for specific use by God. Likewise, the priests were consecrated for service to God. When people come to faith in Christ, they are sanctified—they are formally designated as belonging to God. They are a holy people (1 Peter 2:9). Even the Corinthian church, which had members participating in all sorts of ungodly behavior, could be referred to as a group of “saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2) because they were children of God through faith in Christ. This is often called “positional sanctification.”
There is a second sense in which sanctification applies to believers. When they initially come to faith and are set apart for God, their actions may not be much different from their actions before. They have been formally (positionally) sanctified, but now they need to be practically sanctified—that is, they need to start living in a way that is set apart to God; they need to practice holiness. As believers grow in their relationship with the Lord, their behavior should change to be more conformed to what God desires—they will become more and more sanctified. This is often called “progressive sanctification.”
Using these two senses of the word sanctified, it is fitting to say that all believers are sanctified, but they also need to increasingly be more sanctified. They are holy, but they need to increase in holiness. They are saints, but they need to live like saints. The question regarding entire sanctification is, can any believer become fully sanctified in the practical sense? Can a believer reach a point in this life where he is so in fellowship with God and so in tune with the Holy Spirit that he no longer commits sin?
Those who hold to the doctrine of entire sanctification believe that it is indeed possible for Christians to be so sanctified in their behavior that they no longer sin. According to the concept of entire sanctification, it is possible not to sin, and some believers actually fulfill this possibility in their daily lives. Entire sanctification is then presented as an ideal that is attainable for any believer. The command to “be holy” in Matthew 5:48 is just one verse that is used as proof of this possibility. Why would God command us to do something that is impossible for us to do? Perhaps 1 John 3:6 is the most powerful proof-text: “No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.”
Those who deny the possibility of entire sanctification agree that holiness is the goal and should be the desire of every believer, but that it simply cannot be attained here on earth—sin is simply too pervasive. Interpreting 1 John 3:6, they would point out that the verb sins is in the present tense and indicates an ongoing, habitual pattern of unrepentant sin. They would also point out that the epistle of 1 John also speaks of Jesus being the Advocate for sinning believers and that, if we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves (1 John 2:1; 1:8).
In the final analysis, there is nothing in Scripture that teaches that believers will become perfect in this life. Entire sanctification will take place when we reach heaven, but not until. The expectation is that believers on earth will continue to sin and need to be cleansed (1 John 1:9). It is realistic to expect that Christians will not live in conscious sinful rebellion against God, but sin is too pervasive to ever escape its contaminations in this life. The goal is that, even though sin is present, it should not dominate us. “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace” (Romans 6:11–14). At any given moment, a believer may be cooperating with the Holy Spirit’s leading rather than actively rebelling against it, but, even in our best moments, we have not reached sinless perfection.
The commands of God and the demands of Scripture upon our lives are encompassing; it strains credulity for any believer to claim that he is living in perfect obedience to all that God has said. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37) and that the second is similar: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:38). It is one thing for a believer to say that there is no known area of rebellion against God in his or her life, but it is quite another to say that he or she loves God wholly and perfectly. It is one thing to say that a believer does not harbor any hatred for his neighbor, but quite another to assert that the believer loves his neighbors the way he loves himself. First Thessalonians 1:17 commands believers to “pray without ceasing.” A believer may have a robust prayer life, but can any believer in all honesty claim to fully obey this command? Most believers find that, when they are convicted of one area of sin and repent of it, they will then become aware of another area that they may not have been aware of before. If a Christian has come to the place where he simply cannot identify any areas of sinfulness in his own life, he should not assume he has attained entire sanctification. Rather, he would be well advised to ask his spouse or other close friends or relatives for their perspective. He might be surprised at how blinded he has become to areas of sinfulness in his own life that are readily evident to others.