To sanctify means to set apart as holy, which is what happens to sinners who are saved from sin by the grace of God through the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8–9). The three “phases” of salvation are positional sanctification, progressive sanctification, and final sanctification. At the moment of salvation, we are sanctified or set apart positionally; that is, we are saved from the ultimate penalty of sin. Then begins progressive sanctification, the process whereby we are saved from the practice and power of sin. And after this physical life is over, we will be sanctified finally; that is, we will be saved from the presence of sin.
Positional sanctification is a one-time act of the Holy Spirit on the hearts of unbelievers whom He has chosen for salvation from sin. At the moment of salvation, believers understand and acknowledge their sinful state, their inability to save themselves through any works of their own, their need of a savior, their acceptance of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as sin’s payment, and their faith in Jesus’ resurrection. At that moment, believers are brought out of darkness into the light. Our position before God has been changed forever. No longer dead in trespasses, we are made alive together with Christ (Ephesians 2:5). Our position changes in that we are made citizens of a whole new kingdom: “He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:13).
Positional sanctification also changes our position as sinners deserving of God’s wrath to the position of beloved children of the Father and perfect in His eyes. Our new position means we are part of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27); God’s special possession (1 Peter 2:9); new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17); dead to sin (Romans 6:2); and possessors of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). Because salvation is an act of the Spirit, the believer’s new position cannot change, be lost, or be given back. We cannot “un-save” ourselves, nor can we alter our position before God through any of our works or the lack thereof. We are kept in the position of beloved for the rest of our lives and throughout eternity. Positional sanctification is the work of God whereby He sets us apart and considers us holy in His eyes: “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6). Positional sanctification is not dependent on our feelings or whims; it is a fact of salvation, even though our actions on earth do not always align with our position in heaven.
Positional sanctification inevitably leads to progressive sanctification, with good works as the inevitable result. Those who are born again will naturally begin to act according to their new nature in Christ, and the result will be increasing holiness in personal living (1 Peter 1:15–16). The positionally sanctified will be progressively sanctified by the same Holy Spirit who regenerated us in the first place. The works that God has foreordained for us will be accomplished through His power (Ephesians 2:10).
Once we have been positionally sanctified, the process of progressive sanctification begins. Progressive sanctification is the lifelong process of becoming more Christlike as we cooperate with the Holy Spirit and yield to His control (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18). Once we are positionally sanctified, the Holy Spirit uses the Word of God to progressively sanctify us (John 17:17) so that in the end our practical holiness aligns with our positional holiness when we see Christ face to face in glory (1 John 3:2).