The apostle Paul told the saints at Thessalonica, “God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13).
The process whereby our sins are removed is called “sanctification.” The word “sanctify” simply means “to be made holy, to be purified or cleansed of our sins.” Although sanctification is an important part of the doctrine of salvation as taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, unfortunately it is not a subject that very many members talk about. Part of the reason for this is that the scriptures give us a confusing picture. In them we read that we are sanctified by the blood of Christ (Heb. 10:1-10; Moses 6:60). The Doctrine and Covenants tells us that we are sanctified through the grace of God (D&C 20:31), while the New Testament says we are sanctified through the truth (John 17:19; 2 Thess. 2:13) Both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon say we are sanctified by faith (Acts 26:18; Ether 4:7) or by the Holy Ghost (Rom. 15:16; Alma 5:54; Alma 13:12; 3 Ne. 27:20). Other scriptures state we are sanctified by keeping certain commandments (1 Thes. 4:3,4; 2 Tim. 2:21; Moro. 10:33; D&C 101:5; 133:62).
So how do we become sanctified? Do all these scriptures contradict one another on this subject or are they all correct? And if they are all correct, how do they all fit together when they all seem to be saying something different?
Before we can answer that question we first need to understand why we need to be sanctified in the first place. Nephi taught, “But behold, I say unto you, the kingdom of God is not filthy, and there cannot any unclean thing enter into the kingdom of God” (1 Nephi 15:34) “Wherefore, if ye have sought to do wickedly in the days of your probation, then ye are found unclean before the judgment-seat of God; and no unclean thing can dwell with God; wherefore, ye must be cast off forever.” (1 Nephi 10:21)
The scriptures repeatedly equate “wickedness” with “uncleanness.” Since there is no wickedness in God in order for anything or anyone to live with Him in His kingdom, they too must likewise be absolutely clean of all unrighteousness. When we lived with God before coming to earth we were free of wickedness, but once here in mortality, each of us has done something unrighteous at some point in our life. As a result, each of us has sinned and fallen short of the glory that God has. And because of that, we are no longer worthy to live where God does.
Throughout the four gospels of the New Testament, the devils are referred to as “unclean spirits,” and these are they who were cast out of heaven because of their rebelliousness. Nephi tells us that “they who are filthy shall be filthy still; wherefore, they who are filthy are the devil and his angels” (2 Nephi 9:16). As a result of our own wickedness “our spirits must have become like unto him (Satan), and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself” (2 Nephi 9:9).
But we did not leave our celestial home so we could become subject to Satan for all eternity and permanently be shut out of the presence of our Father in heaven. Therefore, before we left our celestial home our Father had already provided the means whereby any sins we might commit could be removed as though they had never happened. And the way He did that was by providing a Savior who would take upon Him our sins and then wash those sins away with His blood.
However, there is no sense in coming to earth, sinning, and then have those sins removed just so we could return back to heaven and be like we were before. What our Father has offered us is the opportunity to inherit all that He has by becoming an exalted Being just like He is. But to do that we must learn to become the same kind of Being He is. Simply removing a person’s sins doesn’t create God-like attributes in people because it doesn’t prevent them from sinning again. And if they sin again, then they again become unclean and unfit to enter heaven. That is why God has said, “cease to be unclean” (D&C 88:124). “For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness” (1 Thes. 4:7)
Therefore, to become an exalted being like our Father in heaven requires more than just having our sins removed. We must also develop the same qualities and attributes that make God who He is. If God is a Being of love, then we too must become a person filled with the same kind of love He has. If God is full of justice yet is also merciful, then we too must develop that same attitude. If God is patient and longsuffering, then we too must cultivate that same quality.
Yet, even if a person does develop those godly traits, that doesn’t remove the sins they’ve already committed. Thus, in order for us to return to heaven as exalted beings, we must have both our sins removed and learn how to live righteously. Both of these things are needed in order for us to become completely sanctified. One without the other will not do that. And that is what the process of sanctification is all about.
The key to this process is the atonement of Christ because if that event had not taken place then doing everything else would be meaningless. If it wasn’t for the blood that Christ spilled as a ransom for our sins then there could be no sanctification for anyone. Thus, we are sanctified by the blood of Christ - but not completely.
Christ took upon Himself the sins of the entire world, including those who do not believe on Him. But, in order for His atoning sacrifice to be applied to our sins we have to accept Him as our Savior, which means we have to place our faith and trust in Him. Thus, we are sanctified by our faith in Christ - but not completely.
To accept Christ means we are willing to do whatever He asks of us. And when we make that commitment to Him, He then agrees to wash away our sins completely. The ceremony by which He does that is called baptism. Thus, we are sanctified by being baptized - but not completely.
When we become baptized we enter into a covenant or commitment to obey Christ as our Lord and Master. That is to say, we agree to become His servants and do all that He asks of us. Because of that commitment, Christ agrees to remove all of our past sins, effectively making us “clean” as though we had never committed them. That then allows us to be given the gift of the Holy Ghost whose job it is to complete the process of sanctification. Thus, we are sanctified by the Holy Ghost, in part. In fact, we are sanctified in large part because of Him as we will soon see.
God has done all of this for us simply because He loves us. The scriptures refer to this love as “the grace of God.” It was because of His grace (i.e., love and compassion) for us that He gave His only begotten Son to die so that whosoever would believe in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. It is because of God’s grace that He has freely given us the gift of the Holy Ghost. It is because of His grace that has freely provided the knowledge of the plan of salvation so we could know the truth of how to return to Him and inherit all that He has. Thus, we are sanctified totally and completely because of God’s grace.
The Holy Ghost is a gift from God and He performs many functions on our behalf. He is a teacher, a comforter, a revelator, and a sanctifier. But, before we examine how He does all of those things it is important for us to first understand the definition of a gift.
A gift may or may not be something that is earned but it is always something that is given. Other words the scriptures use in place of “gift” is “bestow” and “endow.” As such, a gift is not something we produce by our own efforts. It is something that is given or bestowed upon us by someone other than ourselves. For example, to make money many people work forty hours a week for a company, yet at the end of that week they have not actually produced any money for themselves despite all of their hard efforts. In order to get money they have to depend on their company giving them a paycheck. While it is true the company owes them that money, it is still something that must be given to them by someone other than themselves.
Perhaps we can explain this principle better by way of an illustration. Let’s say that someone owns a retail store and every time a customer buys something from that store, the owner collects the money and puts it in the cash register. As the end of the day, whatever money is in the register belongs to the owner of the store. However, let’s say that the owner hires an employee. Even though the employee collects the money from a customer and puts the money in the register, at the end of the day none of the money in the register belongs to the employee. Should the employee try to keep some of the money in the register for themselves they could be charged with theft. In order for the employee to get paid for their labor they have to depend on their employer to give them a paycheck. Therefore, despite all their work they have not directly produced any money for themselves.
Another illustration would be someone who takes a few pieces of lumber and builds a bookcase versus someone who goes out and buys one. The end result is that they both have a bookcase, but one has produced it by their own efforts while the other person depended on someone else to give it to them. While it’s true that money can purchase a bookcase, the fact that someone has money doesn’t mean they automatically have a bookcase. On the other hand, everyone who labors to build a bookcase nearly always produces one. When it comes to the subject of sanctification it is important to understand this crucial distinction because there are things we can produce by our own efforts and there are other things that we must depend on the Holy Ghost to give us, even though we receive them only after doing certain things.
One of the things we cannot produce by our own efforts is to remove our own sins. We just don’t have the ability to do that no matter how righteous we may be. For example, if a person spills something on a white carpet and makes a stain, just because they never spill anything again doesn’t get rid of the stain. All they will succeed in doing is keep from making more stains. In the same way, if we commit even just one sin, the fact that we may never commit another sin ever again doesn’t erase the sin we’ve already committed. Only the Holy Ghost has the ability to remove that stain.
Image if we lived in a house with a beautiful carpet but, because of our lifestyle, the carpet became very stained and dirty. Without the proper chemicals to clean it, the carpet would remain that way forever. But, suppose we saw an advertisement for a cleaning service that guaranteed to restore our carpet to its original beauty. The first thing we would need to do is have the desire to want our carpet cleaned. Then, we would call the cleaning company and ask what it would take to have them come and clean our carpet. After listening to their offer and weighing the cost, suppose we decide to hire them. On the appointed day, the company van would come to our home and, after surveying the situation, the cleaning technician would then proceed to use his equipment, along with his chemicals, to clean our entire carpet. But, as he does, there is nothing we can do to assist him except stay out of his way and watch this expert do his job.
Using this analogy, we could say that Jesus is in the soul cleaning business and the chemicals He uses were purchased with His blood. Then He advertises that He is able and willing to remove any sin from anyone’s soul and restore that person to their former condition of cleanliness. There are those who will pay no attention to the ad, while there are others who will be merely curious but not interested in actually accepting His offer. But, for those who do want to become totally clean and are willing to pay the price for this service, He sends His technician, known as the Holy Ghost, to perform the cleaning. When the Holy Ghost comes into our life, He assesses our condition and then begins applying His expertise and power to our sins. As they are removed, there is nothing we can do to assist Him in His efforts because we have neither the means nor the ability to do so.
But cleaning our carpet only does half the job because if we continue living the way we were, our carpet will get dirty and stained all over again. Therefore, the only way we can continually have a clean carpet is not only to have someone remove the filth from it but be taught how to keep the carpet clean afterwards. And that involves changing our lifestyle.
Imagine the cleaning technician coming into a person’s home and saying, “I am here to clean your carpet but before I begin, there are some rules I am going to insist you follow. First of all, you must take off your shoes whenever you come into the house. Part of why your carpet is so dirty is because you are tracking mud and dirt in from outside. Second, when you eat, sit at the kitchen table instead of watching TV with a paper plate full of food on your lap. No matter how careful you may be, you are increasing your risk of having an accidental spill. Third, make sure any drinks you carry around in the house are in a spill-proof container. If you follow these rules and others I will give you, then it will prevent your carpet from getting dirty again once I’ve cleaned it.”
When the Holy Ghost comes into our life to clean it up, it does Him nor us any good if we continue to soil it by continually sinning. Therefore, like the technician in the above example, He gives us commandments to follow that are meant to teach us how to keep ourselves unspotted from the sins of the world. And, in many cases, that requires us to change our lifestyle. We need to keep outside filth and dirt from being brought into our lives. We need to be at the right place at the right time, such as being fed at church instead of feeding our minds with the ways of the world. We also need to change our habits so we don’t put ourselves at an increase risk of sinning despite our best intentions. We need to be careful how we carry ourselves and contain our passions and desires so they don’t spill out causing undesirable effects.
However, no matter how careful we are, there are going to be times when we will violate the rules and when that happens, we will stain our soul. The Holy Ghost understands this and will remove even those newly made stains. That is His gift to us, but He will only do so under certain conditions. He will be forgiving of our mistakes only if He sees we are truly and sincerely trying to do follow His instructions. If sanctification is the process by which our sins are removed, then repentance is the process that allows the Holy Ghost to continue sanctifying us after we’ve been baptized. But, if He sees we have no intention to keep our soul clean then it is futile for Him to keep cleaning something we are intent on keeping dirty.
Just like we cannot do the job of the Holy Ghost, neither can the Holy Ghost do our job for us. Although He will be there to remind us, encourage us, sometimes scold us, and other times He may actually help us, yet He will not make us live as we should. That is our responsibility. Thus, to keep our soul clean so that we are worthy to enter into the kingdom of God and be endowed with eternal life takes both the Holy Ghost doing His job and us doing ours. The process of sanctification is a team effort. Neither the Holy Ghost nor us alone can get the entire job done.
But, unlike our inability to assist the Holy Ghost in doing His job of removing the stains of sin in our life, the Holy Ghost plays a critical role in helping us keep the commandments, and it is important for us to understand how the Holy Ghost helps us do that.
Jesus taught His disciples, “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (John 14:26). One of the jobs of the Holy Ghost is that of a teacher and what He has been sent to teach us is the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:11). Since we don’t know what those things are it is the responsibility of the Holy Ghost to reveal that knowledge to us (1 Corinthians 2:10). As such, He is the teacher and we are His students.
We can liken this situation to someone going to college to become a lawyer. On the first day the teacher passes out the manual that the students will be learning from. At first when the student reads the manual it doesn’t make much sense because there are new terms and concepts that the student is not familiar with. But, as the teacher explains them in class, lesson by lesson, the student gradually begins to understand the manual better until, at the end of four years, they are ready to take their state exam so they can be awarded a license to practice law.
The scriptures are our text book on how to become like God. At first, when we read the material in it, most people have a hard time understanding even some of the most basic concepts of godliness but, under the careful tutelage of the Holy Ghost as He teaches us precept upon precept, revealing one truth after another, in time our knowledge grows until we have a firm grasp on what it takes to be like God.
However, the course we are enrolled in requires more than book knowledge. It is a hands-on curriculum or an on-the-job form of training. In this course of instruction we learn as much or more from doing as we do from reading. Therefore, just like any teacher, the Holy Ghost gives us lesson assignments. As we find ourselves in different situations the Holy Ghost teaches us how to handle them properly. In this way He teaches us how to acquire the character and attributes of God.
But, as with any course, we must do our homework. Those who enroll in the course but don’t practice their lessons will not learn what they need to know in order to pass their final exam and thereby gain their license to practice godhood. Image someone wanting to learn how to play the piano with visions of someday becoming a great pianist but who doesn’t want to practice. With an attitude like that their dreams will never become a reality. And the same is true of godliness. Unless we continually practice the lessons that the Holy Ghost gives us we will never learn the skills necessary to be worthy of inheriting the kingdom of God. Only those who have sufficiently developed the attributes of godliness will be given exaltation. And it is the job of the Holy Ghost to help us develop those attributes.
To some, this sounds like we are working our way into heaven by our own efforts. Some interpret this as though we’re saying to God, “Look how good I am. I made it to heaven all by my own effort.” But that isn’t the case for two reasons.
First of all, exaltation is not something we produce by our own efforts. It is something that is given to us. A good example of this is receiving a high school diploma. Just because a person has gone through twelve years of schooling and is assured of getting a diploma, it is nonetheless “given” to them. It is not something they have actually produced themselves. It is something that someone else has to physically give them rather than something they have physically created as a direct result of their own labor.
In the same way exaltation is something that is given or bestowed upon us rather than something we have actually achieved through our own efforts. As with a diploma, even though we are assured of it being conferred upon us if we do certain things, the very act of keeping all the commandments doesn’t “make” us an exalted being. It merely prepares us to receive or be given or be endowed with the title of exaltation.
But there is a more fundamental reason why this argument is false. In order for us to truly make it to heaven on our own we would have to teach ourselves everything we need to know and keep all the commandments without any assistance from anyone. To say we are working our way to heaven would be like a student saying to their teacher, “Now that I have the text book you’ll be teaching from I don’t need you to help me become as knowledgeable as you.” However, no religion teaches such a doctrine! Therefore, it is incorrect to say we are working our way to heaven. If it weren’t for the Holy Ghost teaching us, prodding us, encouraging us, and correcting us, we would never learn how to become like God no matter how much effort we put forth.
We have all seen times when students struggle to understand a concept even after the teacher has repeatedly gone over it. In nearly all cases, it required the constant effort of the teacher for each of us to advance through and graduate from twelve years of schooling. When it comes to becoming like God we are enrolled in a life-long course of study. Without the help of the Holy Ghost it would be impossible for anyone to make themselves worthy enough to inherit the kingdom of God by their own efforts.
There are people who have become extremely successful in life and yet nearly every one of them has given credit for their success to those who have been instrumental in getting them to that point. It may have been a mother who loved and believed in them, or a father who taught them good work habits or friends who assisted them along the way or a mentor who showed then the skills needed to succeed, or a spouse who gave them the moral strength and encouragement needed to keep going during the tough times. But regardless of who it was, every great person has acknowledged that they didn’t make it to the top of their career all by themselves.
And if that is true of all earthly endeavors it is many times more so for any heavenly success we might seek to attain. Without the guiding aid of the Holy Ghost no one would ever become fit to live with God. And that is the very reason why God has given us this divine teacher.
But there is still another way that the Holy Ghost teaches us. One of the principles of success is to surround yourself with other successful people. The reason for this is because we become like those whom we associate with. If we associate with people who are angry, in time we will find ourselves becoming an angry person. If we associate with people who are successful, in time we will find ourselves unconsciously imitating their behavior. After awhile we find ourselves thinking, speaking and acting like they do. We see this most clearly in children. As they grow up at home, they unconsciously pick up the habits, speaking patterns, way of thinking, and even the manner of walk that their parent have.
And the same is true of the Holy Ghost. The more we associate ourselves with Him through prayer, scripture study, attending church, fulfilling our church assignments, and keeping the commandments the more we find ourselves unconsciously starting to think, speak, and act like He does. Over time, we find ourselves imitating His habits and doing things the way He does them without even realizing it. In short, we start becoming godlike simply because we are regularly “hanging out” or “paling around” with a member of the Godhead.
We can liken this to being around a camp fire. On a cold night the closer we stay to the fire the warmer we feel because of the heat and light that the fire radiates out to all who are near it. But, the further away we get from the fire the less we feel its effect and the more we experience the cold and darkness.
In the same way, our personality radiates from us and others can feel it. If we are in a happy mood, others sense it and are affected by it. If we are in a grumpy mood that also radiates out to others and affects the way they feel. If we stay around a depressed person for too long, no matter how happy we might have been at first we will soon find our own happiness being drained from us. Thus, our personality influences the way others feel when they are in our presence.
And the same is true with the Holy Ghost. When we associate with Him we feel His personality – i.e., His love, tenderness, kindness, holiness, etc. - and it affects the way we feel. Therefore, the more we are around Him the more we are affected by Him. In time we find our own personality changing to reflect His. We too start behaving a little more loving, kinder, patient, and forgiving. In short, we find ourselves becoming a little more holier.
But there is another effect that happens when we are close to the Holy Ghost and that is we feel more enlightened. Just like a camp fire lights up the area around it so we can see things more clearly, in much the same way the Holy Ghost enlightens our understanding. When He is with us we tend to see things more clearly because we are literally in His “light.” But when He is not near us things seem to be clouded and dark to our mind and we often find ourselves in a state of confusion, unsure of what the right thing is to do.
We see this most especially when studying the scriptures. As long as we are close to the fire there is enough light to see the words clearly on the page, but as we get away from the fire the darkness makes it increasingly difficult for us to see what is written. This is one of the reasons why there are so many different religions in the world. When people don’t have the Holy Ghost close to them they can’t clearly see the message of the scriptures and what often happens then is that people make up their own ideas of what they think they see in the Bible. But the closer we get to the Holy Ghost the better we are able to see the things of God which, in turn, helps us to understand His word.
As we said earlier, the Holy Ghost has two functions. The first is to take away our sins and the second is to teach us. While there is nothing we can do to assist Him with His primary task, we can assist Him with His secondary job of teaching. As He reveals knowledge to us we can likewise help reveal that knowledge to others. As He comforts us, we can reach out and comfort others. Just as His Spirit radiates goodness and holiness to those around Him, as we develop the same qualities our spirit can also radiate a similar, although inferior, feeling to those who come in contact with us. And the more we develop the same personality as the Holy Ghost the more we find ourselves doing what He does for God’s children.
But there is yet one other way the Holy Ghost seeks to sanctify us and that is by giving us special talents. We often refer to these as “gifts of the Spirit.” These are talents we either don’t naturally possess or, if we do have them, the Spirit adds to it and increases them. An example of this is the gift of discernment. When a person is called to be a bishop their responsibility is to provide counsel, guidance, and judgment to the members of their ward. Although some people already possess great wisdom in dealing with difficult problems, most bishops don’t. Therefore, the Holy Ghost gives them this talent as a gift. The job of a bishop is mostly that of an administrator, which is not a talent everyone has. Again, the Holy Ghost assists bishops by enlarging their own abilities, and He provides this service as a gift. And the same is true of the other gifts of the Spirit.
However, most of the qualities of godliness do not come as a gift but are something we are required to develop. The apostle Paul told the Galatians, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance.” (Galatians 5:22,23). Notice that Paul does not call these attributes “gifts.” Instead, he refers to them as “the fruit of the Spirit.” A fruit is something that is the result of someone’s labor. While the Holy Ghost can certainly increase our love, joy, peace, longsuffering, faith, and temperance by means of a gift, Paul states that these godly traits come to us as a result of walking with and living in the Spirit (see Galatians 5:25). Generally speaking, they are not something the Holy Ghost “gives” us but rather are something we have to develop through our association with God’s Spirit.
And it has to be this way because in order for us to become exalted like God it isn’t enough just to have our sins removed. We also have to become godlike in our thoughts and actions as well. If the Holy Ghost merely gave us these attributes with no effort on our part we would never learn how to be like God.
The prophet Mormon explained that those who are found guiltless on the last day will “dwell in the presence of God in his kingdom, to sing ceaseless praises with the choirs above, unto the Father, and unto the Son, and unto the Holy Ghost, which are one God, in a state of happiness which hath no end” (Mormon 7:7). And the reason why we will sing ceaseless praises unto the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is because the process by which we become worthy to dwell in the presence of God and can enter into a state of happiness that has no end involves God doing His part, Jesus doing His part, and the Holy Ghost doing His. But, even though we too must do our part, the Holy Ghost spends most of His efforts assisting us and making it easier for us to do what is required of us. As such, the gift of the Holy Ghost, which our Father in heaven gives us as a gift, is vitally important in helping us become worthy to inherit all that the Father has. That is what the scriptures mean when they say we are sanctified by the Spirit.