Our Lord’s Prayer For His People’s Sanctification
By Charles H. Spurgeon (1834 – 1892)
“Sanctify them through Thy truth: Thy word is truth” (John 17:17).
This chapter (John 17), which ought to be universally known as the Lord’s Prayer, may be called the holy of holies of the Word of God. Here we are admitted to that secret place where the Son of God speaks with the Father in closest fellowship of love. Here we look into the heart of Jesus, as He sets out in order His desires and requests before His Father on our behalf. Here inspiration lifts her veil, and we behold truth face to face. Our text lies somewhere near the middle of the prayer, it is the heart of it.
Our Lord’s desire for the sanctification of His people pervades the whole prayer, but it is gathered up, declared, and intensified in the one sentence, “Sanctify them through Thy truth: Thy word is truth.” How invaluable must the blessing of sanctification be when our Lord, in the highest reach of His intercession, cries, “Sanctify them”! In sight of His passion, on the night before His death, our Savior lifts His eyes to the great Father, and cries in His most plaintive tones, “Father, sanctify them.” The place whereon we stand is holy ground, and the subject whereof we speak demands our solemn thought. Come, Holy Spirit, and teach us the full meaning of this prayer for holiness!
First, I call your attention to what it is the Savior asks – “sanctify them,” and then, for whom He asks it – it is for those whom His Father had given Him. Thirdly, we shall note of whom He asks it, He asks this sanctification of God the Father Himself, for He alone it is who can sanctify His people. Lastly, we will inquire how is this blessing to be wrought – “Sanctify them through Thy truth,” and our Lord adds an explanatory sentence, which was a confession of His own faith towards the Word of the Lord, and an instruction to our faith in the same matter. “Thy word is truth.”
What Is Sanctification?
At the beginning, then, consider what He asked. What is this inestimable blessing which our Savior so earnestly requests at the Father’s hand? He first prays, “Holy Father, keep them,” and again, “Keep them from the evil” (v. 15), but this negative blessing of preservation from evil is not enough, He seeks for them positive holiness, and therefore He cries, “Sanctify them....” The word is one of considerable range of meaning, I am not able to follow it through all its shades, but one or two must suffice.
Dedication/Consecration. It means, first, dedicate them to Your service, for such must be the meaning of the word further down, we read, “For their sakes I sanctify Myself” (v. 19). In the Lord’s case it cannot mean purification from sin, because our Savior was undefiled, His nature was unblemished by sin, and His actions were unspotted. No eye of man, nor glance of fiend, could discover fault in Him, and the search of God only resulted in the declaration that in Him God was well pleased. Our Lord’s sanctification was His consecration to the fulfillment of the Divine purpose, His absorption in the will of the Father. “Lo, I come to do Thy will, O God…” (Heb. 10:9). In this sense our interceding Lord asks that all His people may by the Father be ordained and consecrated unto holy service. The prayer means, “Father, consecrate them to Your own Self, let them be temples for Your indwelling, instruments for Your use.”
We are not the world’s, else might we be ambitious, we are not Satan’s, else might we be covetous, we are not our own, else might we be selfish. We are bought with a price, and hence we are His by whom the price is paid. We belong to Jesus, and He presents us to His Father, and begs Him to accept us and sanctify us to His own purposes. Do we not most heartily concur in this dedication? Do we not cry, “Father, sanctify us to Your service?” I am sure we do if we have realized our redeemed condition.
We were as sheep going astray, but we have now returned unto the great Shepherd and Bishop of souls, and henceforth we are His people and the sheep of His pasture. If any should ask, “To whom do you belong?” we answer, “I belong to Christ.” If any inquire, “What is your occupation?” we reply with Jonah, “I fear God.”
We are not now at our own disposal; neither can we hire ourselves out to inferior objects, mercenary aims, or selfish ambitions, for we are engaged by solemn contract to the service of our God. We have lifted up our hand unto the Lord and we cannot draw back. Neither do we wish to withdraw from the delightful compact and covenant, we desire to keep it even to the end. We seek no liberty to sin, nor license for self, rather do we cry, “Bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar. Sanctify us, O Lord. Let us know, and let all the world know, that we are Yours, because we belong to Christ.”
Separation Unto God. In addition to this, those who belonged to God, and were dedicated to His service, were set apart and separated from others. There was a special service for the setting apart of priests, certain rites were performed at the sanctifying of dedicated places and vessels. You remember with what solemn service the Tabernacle was set up, and with what pomp of devotion the Temple itself was set apart for the divine service. The Sabbath Day, which the Lord has sanctified, is set apart from the rest of time. The Lord would have those who are dedicated to Him to be separated from the rest of mankind.
“…Come out from among them, and be ye separate…touch not the unclean thing…and I…will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be My sons and daughters…” (2 Cor. 6:17-18). The church of Christ is to be a chaste virgin, wholly set apart for the Lord Christ, His own words concerning His people are these, “…They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John 17:14).
Those who are sanctified in this sense have ceased to be unequally yoked together with unbelievers, they have ceased to run with the multitude to do evil, they are not conformed to this present evil world, they are strangers and pilgrims upon the earth. The more assuredly this is true of them the better. There are some, in these apostate days, who think that the church cannot do better than to come down to the world to learn her ways, follow her maxims, and acquire her “culture.” In fact, the notion is that the world is to be conquered by our conforming to it. This is as contrary to Scripture as the light is to darkness. The more distinct the line is between him that fears God and him that fears Him not, the better all around. It will be a black day when the sun itself is turned into darkness. When the salt has lost its savor, and no longer opposes putrefaction, the world will rot with a vengeance.
That text is still true, “...We are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness” (1 John 5:19). “…Ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you” (John 15:19). If the church seeks to cultivate the friendship of the world, she has this message from the Holy Ghost by the pen of the Apostle James, “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (Jas. 4:4). He charges all who would please the world with the black and filthy crime of spiritual adultery. Separation from the world is Christ’s prayer for us.
Put these two things together, dedication to God and separation unto Him, and you are nearing the meaning of the prayer.
The Making of God’s People Holy. At the same time, this word “sanctification” means what is commonly understood by it, namely, the making of the people of God holy. “Sanctify them,” that is, work in them a pure and holy character. “Lord, make your people holy,” should be our daily prayer. I want you to notice that this word here used in the Greek is not that which is rendered “purify,” but it has another shade of meaning. Had it meant “purify,” it would hardly have been used in reference to our Lord as it is in the next verse.
It has a higher meaning than that. O brethren, if you are called Christians, there must be no room for doubt as to the fact that you are purged from the common sins and ordinary transgressions of mankind, else you are manifestly liars unto God, and deceivers of your own souls. They that are not moral, they that are not honest, they that are not kind, they that are not truthful, are far from the kingdom. How can these be the children of God who are not even decent children of men? Thus we judge, and rightly judge, that the life of God cannot be in that man’s soul who abides willfully in any known sin, and takes pleasure therein. No, purification is not all.
We will take it for granted that you who profess to be Christians have escaped from the foul pollution of lust and falsehood, if you have not done so, humble yourselves before God, and be ashamed, for you need the very beginnings of grace. “…They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh…” (Gal. 5:24). But sanctification is something more than mere morality and respectability, it is not only deliverance from the common sins of men, but also from the hardness, deadness, and carnality of nature, it is deliverance from that which is of the flesh at its very best, and admittance into that which is spiritual and divine.
That which is carnal comes not into communion with the spiritual kingdom of Christ, we need that the spiritual nature should rise above that which is merely natural. This is our prayer: Lord, spiritualize us, elevate us, make us to dwell in communion with God, make us to know Him whom flesh and blood cannot reveal or discern. May the Spirit of the living God have full sovereignty over us and perfect in us the will of the Lord, for this is to be sanctified.
Sanctification is a higher word than purification, for it includes that word and vastly more. It is not sufficient to be negatively clean, we need to be adorned with all the virtues. If you be merely moral, how does your righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? If you pay your lawful debts, give alms to the poor, and observe the rites of your religion, what do you do more than others whom you yourselves reckon to be in error?
Children of God should exhibit the love of God, they should be filled with zeal for His glory, they should live generous, unselfish lives, they should walk with God, and commune with the Most High. Ours should be a purpose and an aim far higher than the best of the unregenerate can understand. We ought to reach unto a life and a kingdom of which the mass of mankind know nothing, and care less. Now, I am afraid that this spiritual sense of the prayer is one that is often forgotten. Oh that God’s Holy Spirit might make us to know it by experientially feeling it in ourselves! May “Holiness to the Lord” be written across the brow of our consecrated humanity!
Beloved, this prayer of our Lord is most necessary, for without sanctification how can we be saved, since it is written, “...and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14)? How can we be saved from sin if sin still has dominion over us? If we are not living holy, godly, spiritual lives, how can we say that we are redeemed from the power of evil?
Without sanctification we shall be unfit for service. Our Lord Jesus contemplated the sending of each one of us into the world even as the Father sent Him into the world, but how can He give a mission to unsanctified men? Must not the vessels of the Lord be clean?
Without sanctification we cannot enjoy the innermost sweets of our holy faith. The unsanctified are full of doubts and fears, and what wonder? The unsanctified often say of the outward exercise of religion, “What a weariness it is! And no wonder, for they know not the internal joys of it, having never learned to delight themselves in God. If they walk not in the light of the Lord’s countenance, how can they know the heaven below which comes of true godliness? Oh, it is a prayer that needs to be prayed for me, for you, and for the whole church of God! “Father, sanctify them through Your truth.”
A Prayer for His People
Now I want you to notice, in the second place, for whom this prayer was offered.
It was not offered for the world outside. It would not be a suitable prayer for those who are dead in sin. Our Lord referred to the company of men and women who were already saved, of whom He said that they had kept God’s Word, “Thine they were, and Thou gavest them Me” (John 17:6). O you sanctified ones, it is for you that Jesus prays that the Father may still sanctify you.
I want you to notice more particularly that these believers for whom our Lord prayed were to be the preachers and teachers of their own and succeeding generations. These were the handful of seed-corn out of which would grow the church of the future, whose harvest would gladden all lands. To prepare them to be sent out as Christ’s missionaries they must be sanctified. How shall a holy God send out unholy messengers? An unsanctified minister is an unsent minister. An unholy missionary is a pest to the tribe he visits, an unholy teacher in a school is an injury rather than a blessing to the class he conducts. Only in proportion as you are sanctified unto God can you hope for the power of the Holy Spirit to rest on you, and to work with you, so as to bring others to the Savior’s feet.
Holiness is an essential qualification to a man’s fitness for being used of the Lord God for the extension of His kingdom, hence our Lord’s prayer for His apostles and other workers, “Holy Father, sanctify them.”
Furthermore, our Lord Jesus Christ was about to pray “that they all may be one” (John 17:21), and for this desirable result holiness is needed. Why are we not one? Sin is the great dividing element. The perfectly holy would be perfectly united. The more saintly men are, the more they love their Lord and one another, and thus they come into closer union with each other. Our errors and our sins are roots of bitterness which spring up and trouble us, and many are defiled. Our infirmities of judgment are aggravated by our imperfections of character, and our walking at a distance from our God, and these breed coldness and lukewarmness, out of which grow disunion and division, sects and heresies. If we were all abiding in Christ to the full, we would abide in union with each other and with God, and our Lord’s great prayer for the unity of His church would be fulfilled.
Moreover, our Lord finished His most comprehensive prayer by a petition that we might all be with Him – with Him where He is, that we may behold His glory. Full sanctification is essential to this. Shall the unsanctified dwell with Christ in heaven? Shall unholy eyes behold His glory? It cannot be. How can we participate in the splendor and triumphs of the exalted Head if we are not members of His body? And how can a holy Head have impure and dishonest members? No, brethren, we must be holy, for Christ is holy. Uprightness of walk and cleanness of heart are absolutely requisite for the purposes of Christian life, whether here or hereafter. Those who live in sin are the servants of sin, only those who are renewed by the Holy Ghost unto truth, and holiness, and love, can hope to be partakers of holy joys and heavenly bliss.
The Work of Our Holy Father
I must dwell for a little upon the third subject of consideration, which is this – to whom this prayer is directed.
“Sanctify them through Thy truth.” No one can sanctify a soul but Almighty God, the great Father of spirits. He who made us must also make us holy, or we shall never attain the character. Our dear Savior calls the great God “Holy Father” in this prayer, and it is the part of the holy God to create holiness, while a holy Father can only be the Father of holy children, for like begets like.
To you that believe in Jesus He gives power to become the sons of God, and a part of that power lies in becoming holy according to the manner and character of our Father who is in heaven. As we are holy, so we do bear the image of that Lord from heaven who, as the second man, is the firstborn to whom the many brethren are conformed. The very nature of God should encourage us in our prayers for holiness, for He will not be slow to work in us to will and to do according to His perfect will.
Beloved, this sanctification is a work of God from its earliest stage. We go astray of ourselves, but we never return to the great Shepherd apart from His divine drawings. Regeneration, in which sanctification begins, is wholly the work of the Spirit of God. Every thought of holiness, and every desire after purity, must come from the Lord alone, for we are by nature wedded to iniquity.
So also the ultimate conquest of sin in us, and the making us perfectly like to our Lord, must be entirely the work of the Lord God, who makes all things new, since we have no power to carry on so great a work by ourselves. Sanctification is as much the work of God as the making of the heavens and the earth. Who is sufficient for these things? Real sanctification is entirely from first to last the work of the Spirit of the blessed God, whom the Father has sent forth that He might sanctify His chosen ones. See, then, what a great thing sanctification is, and how necessary it is that our Lord should pray unto His Father, “Sanctify them through Thy truth.”
The truth alone will not sanctify a man. We may maintain an orthodox creed, and it is highly important that we should do so, but if it does not touch our heart and influence our character, what is the value of our orthodoxy? It is not the doctrine which of itself sanctifies, but the Father sanctifies by means of the doctrine. Truth must be applied with spiritual power to the mind, the conscience, and the heart, or else a man may receive the truth, and yet hold it in unrighteousness.
Every work of the Spirit of God upon the new nature aims at the purification, the consecration, the perfecting of those whom God in love has taken to be His own. Yes, more, all the events of Providence around us work towards that one end, for this our joys and our sorrows, for this our pains of body and griefs of heart, for this our losses and our crosses – all these are sacred medicines by which we are cured of the disease of nature, and prepared for the enjoyment of perfect spiritual health. All that befalls us on our road to heaven is meant to fit us for our journey’s end. Our way through the wilderness is meant to try us, and to prove us, that our evils may be discovered, repented of, and overcome, and that thus we may be without fault before the throne at the last.
It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we are struggling up towards it, and we know that when Jesus shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. We are rising, by hard wrestling, and long watching, and patient waiting, we are rising into holiness. These tribulations thresh our wheat and get the chaff away; these afflictions consume our dross and tin to make the gold more pure. All things work together for good to them that love God, and the net result of them all will be the presenting of the chosen unto God, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing.
My brethren, God Himself must work within you, the Holy Ghost must inhabit you, and this can only come to you by faith in the Lord Jesus. Believe in Him for your sanctification, even as you have believed for your pardon and justification. He alone can bestow sanctification upon you, for this is the gift of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Through God’s Truth
Notice how sanctification is to be wrought in believers. “Sanctify them through Thy truth: Thy word is truth.” Beloved, observe how God has joined holiness and truth together. Christianity is a life which grows out of truth. Jesus Christ is the way and the truth as well as the life, and He is not properly received except He is accepted in that threefold character.
No holy life will be produced in us by the belief of falsehood. Sanctification in visible character comes out of edification in the inner faith of the heart, or otherwise it is a mere shell. Good works are the fruit of true faith, and true faith is a sincere belief of the truth. Every truth leads towards holiness, every error of doctrine, directly or indirectly, leads to sin. All the truth that sanctifies men is in God’s Word.
Truth is neither your opinion, nor mine; your message, nor mine. Jesus says, “Thy word is truth.” That which sanctifies men is not only truth, but it is the particular truth which is revealed in God’s Word – “Thy word is truth.”
Learn, then, my brothers, how earnestly you ought to search the Scriptures! See, my sisters, how studiously you should read this Book of God! If this is the truth, and the truth with which God sanctifies us, let us learn it, hold it, and stand fast in it. But then let us be equally firm in our conviction that we do not know the truth aright unless it makes us holy. We do not hold truth in a true way unless it leads us to a true life. The truth, when fully used, will daily destroy sin, nourish grace, suggest noble desires, and urge to holy acts.
I do pray that we may by our lives adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things. “Sanctify us through Your truth: Your word is truth.”
– Condensed from a sermon.