The word grace denotes God’s unmerited love and favor toward human beings. It can be broadly understood as kindness or blessings from God that we don’t deserve. The word sanctify as it pertains to the life of a Christian means “to set a person apart for holiness” or “to make holy.”
What, then, is sanctifying grace?
In Roman Catholic doctrine, sanctifying grace refers to a specific supernatural infusion of God’s grace that makes a person holy and pleasing to God. Deifying grace and perfecting grace are other terms for sanctifying grace, which is believed to be imparted through the Catholic sacrament of baptism. The Roman Church teaches that at baptism, the time when sanctifying grace is received, a person becomes part of the body of Christ and able to receive additional graces for living a holy life.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sanctifying grace is also called the “grace of justification” because it is the grace that makes a soul acceptable or justified before God. This grace transforms a sinner into a holy child of God. The Catholic Church says sanctifying grace is a permanent substance that adheres to the soul unless one rejects God by committing a mortal sin. However, because of God’s great mercy, sanctifying grace can be restored through repentance and the sacrament of penance.
Wesleyan and Methodist churches also teach a concept of sanctifying grace. John Wesley understood God’s grace to be threefold; he taught prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace as separate aspects of God’s grace. To summarize, prevenient grace is God’s grace that comes to sinners before they know God, helping them to recognize their need of Him. Justifying grace provides believers with forgiveness from sin. And sanctifying grace imparts the purifying process that enables Christians to become more Christlike. This process is called sanctification. Methodists sometimes associate sanctifying grace with God’s unconditional love that empowers the loved one to do what God desires. Justifying grace changes our relationship to God; sanctifying grace changes us on the inside.
In Protestant Christian theology, Christians enter sanctification, or a state of holiness, at the moment they are born of the Spirit of God: “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22–24).
The Bible says that, from the start of the Christian life, believers are set apart for God’s holy purpose. God performs this work of sanctification once for all time: “And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). This aspect of sanctification, called “positional” sanctification, is the same as justification. Positional sanctification is God’s work, His gift. We don’t do anything to earn or deserve it, nor can we do anything to lose it: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).
A second aspect of sanctification expressed in Scripture is sometimes called “progressive” or “experiential” sanctification. Although believers are made holy in Christ at salvation, they still sin. Progressive sanctification occurs as they grow in knowledge, discipline, and obedience to God’s Word. Hebrews 10:14 describes both positional and progressive sanctification: “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”
Finally, the third aspect of sanctification expressed in Scripture is “complete” sanctification when believers obtain ultimate and total separation from sin through glorification: “To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).
While the doctrine of sanctification in Protestant theology holds significantly different implications from Catholic teaching, there are points of agreement: God’s children do indeed receive His divine grace, His undeserved favor that results in salvation, and their lives are set apart for holiness.