Hagiazo: Sanctifying the Already Holy

Word of the Week

September 16, 2023

Hagiazō:  Sanctifying the Already Holy


But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts . . .

1 Peter 3:15 NASB


“Sanctify” is a word you seldom hear outside of church.  The definition that springs to mind is “to purify or make holy.”  Denominations differ on the precise explanation of sanctification, but all of them link it to an obvious fact of life:  we start life with a built-in bent toward sin, and we continue to miss the mark even when we join God’s family.  We will be free from sin when we get to heaven, but the Lord is at work in our lives here on earth, making us more like Him.

When we say “Sanctify,” we usually mean, “making a person less sinful and more holy.”

When we read the New Testament, however, there are some places where that meaning makes little sense.  One such passage is 1 Peter 3:15, which reads, “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.”

Christ is already sinless.  There’s obviously no way that we can make Him less sinful.  So the pop definition of “sanctify” doesn’t fit here.  How do we untangle this knotty problem?

As usual, we can go to the Greek word that Peter originally used.

The word translated “sanctify” is hagiazō, which appears 28 times in the New Testament.  We know that words have multiple shades of meaning, and this word is no exception.

There are several passages where sin is not the issue.

  • Jesus denounced the Pharisees for splitting hairs in their teaching about oaths. They said that an oath was binding if you swore by the offerings sacrificed on the altar, but it could be ignored if you swore by the altar itself.  The Lord explained, “That’s ridiculous.  Which is more important, the offering or the altar that sanctifies the offering” (Matthew 23:19).
  • Paul encountered troublemakers who tainted the gospel by blocking believers from marriage or from forbidden food. On the contrary, he announced, these are good gifts from God.  We should enjoy them with gratitude.  “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5).
  • The opening request in the Lord’s prayer uses the word in the opening request: “Hallowed be Your name” (Matthew 6:9).

Altars don’t sin.  Marriages and food don’t sin.  God’s name is certainly not sinful.  So “sanctify” must mean something besides the removal of sin.

What is the underlying idea of hagiazō?

We can best understand it as “to set apart for a particular purpose or a particular person.”

For example, Jesus once described Himself as the one “whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world” (John 10:36).

Our word is closely related to the Greek word for “holy,” which we explained in an earlier “Word of the Week” article:

Hagios describes things and places that are set apart from normal use and dedicated exclusively to God.  The tabernacle was holy because the presence of God was focused there (Hebrews 9:2).  The temple had the same status as a place reserved for God’s worship (Acts 6:13).  Even the city of Jerusalem was called the “holy city” because it was the place chosen by God (Matthew 4:5).  Zechariah even predicts a future day when horse bells will be inscribed, “Holy to the LORD” and the pots, altar, and bowls of Jerusalem will be sacred to the LORD of hosts (Zechariah 14:20-21).

When you dine at the White House, you don’t use paper plates.  The table is set with fine china bearing the White House insignia.  The silverware is reserved specifically for use on formal occasions by the President and his guests.  You could say that those items are set aside for that purpose, exclusively reserved for the occasion, not for everyday snacks.

Similarly, hagiazō means to set someone apart for special use by God.  This is true for individual Christians (1 Corinthians 6:11) and for the church as a whole (1 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 5:26).

Where do we get the idea that sanctification means purifying someone from sin?

The White House staff washes the dishes before they set the table for a presidential supper.  No dirt or grime is acceptable for state occasions.  It is even more appropriate to bring clean vessels to the Ruler of the universe.  No one who was ceremonially defiled was permitted to participate in worship at the Old Testament tabernacle, and it is only the blood of Christ that cleanses us from sin and enables us to approach the Throne.

Back to our original question:  What does it mean to “sanctify Christ as Lord” as it says in 1 Peter 3:15?

We must recognize that He holds a position separate from anyone else in the universe.  He is set apart from all others.  Our loyalty is aimed at Him alone.  He is the Lord who rules in our hearts, with no rivals.

We turn to Him in every situation.  We obey Him in every situation.  We trust Him.  We go to Him first and ask His opinion before we consult anyone else.  As Colossians 1:18 says, Jesus has first place in everything.


Study Hint:

This is a very limited study of a very large topic, just a taste of Scripture’s teaching on the subject.  To go deeper, you should look at all the passages where the word is used in the New Testament.  In addition, three related words are well worth your scrutiny:

  • Hagiasmos – “holiness” (occurs 10 times)
  • Hagios – “holy” (occurs 233 times)
  • Hagiotēs – “holiness” (only in Hebrews 12:10)


Coming Up

I just received a question about Greek words to describe ancient occult practices, trying to determine how they compare with modern practices.  This will be the focus for next week’s article, which will be in a format a little different from our usual approach.

©Ezra Project 2023

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for sharing your studies. I regret not learning Greek though I can’t imagine where it would have fit in my life! Words, language are such an extraordinary gift from God! I always look forward to learning from your articles.

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