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Living for Christ: The Relationship between Sanctification and Separation

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(By Mark Fontecchio)

Susie could not believe it.  She had always been the first person to make fun of Christians and loved to refer to them as “Bible thumpers.” Now, she was headed out the door to her first Bible study.  She had found a tract at a local laundry mat that clearly explained the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  She responded in faith but, “What church should she attend?  What should she do now that she was saved by faith?”  She had seen some ladies in town, from the local Independent Baptist Church, always dressed in skirts.  Trying to fit in, Susie put on her best miniskirt.  She grabbed her Living Bible paraphrase and went off to Bible study.  She knew in her heart that she wanted to serve the Lord Jesus Christ; going to church seemed to be the best way to do this.  Susie enjoyed being with the other Christians at the Bible study that night, but her heart broke when the Pastor pulled her aside.  Pastor Stern’s words were tough, “If you are going to keep coming here to church, you need to put on a skirt that is down to your ankles and use the Authorized King James Bible.”[1] She held back her tears and heard him mention something about being separate from the world.  For two years, Susie never stepped into a church again.

Tom faced a similar but different problem.  Tom had come to know the Lord during his college years.  He had been involved with Bible studies on campus but was never a part of a church (even though he knew he should have been).  Now that he had graduated, gotten his first job, and moved to a new town it was time to find a church.  After attending an evangelical church for about five months, Tom started to feel uneasy.  He couldn’t put his finger on it, but it didn’t seem right that this church was always working so closely with the Roman Catholic Church.  It was great that they could help the poor by giving them food.  When people from his church were working at the food pantry the poor would always hear the Gospel of Christ.  Yet, Tom kept thinking, “What about on the other days when the people from the Catholic church were working at the pantry?  What message of salvation would be given out on those days?”  He tried to remember, he thought there was something in the Bible about being separate from the false religions of the world.  “What did those passages mean anyway?”  Tom was also troubled because two leaders in his church had been caught in some serious public sins and nothing appeared to have been done about it.  One Wednesday night an Elder taught, at a church Bible study, that Christians can lose their salvation.  “Wasn’t this a false teaching?  Why wasn’t anything being done about these things?”

Sanctification and Separation

Tom and Susie illustrate a much larger problem in the Church today.  There is extreme confusion over the doctrines of sanctification and separation.  Some abuse the doctrine of separation and try to become complete isolationists.  Being set apart from every aspect of the world becomes more important than teaching Christians to walk with Jesus Christ.  Others completely neglect the doctrine of separation.  This is done either out of ignorance or out of a desire to express an incorrect understanding of love.  Sanctification and separation are related doctrines in Scripture and it is for the well-being of the Body of Christ that we seek to set these doctrines in their proper scriptural meaning and order.  A biblical understanding of sanctification should lead to a proper understanding and application of separation for the individual believer and for the Church itself.  Our focus on these doctrines will be specific to the Church Age.  First, we will examine the doctrine of sanctification.  From this, we will see that it should lead each believer to apply the principals of separation personally and in the Church today.  Furthermore, there are reasons why some people today do not hold to the doctrine of separation, which we will investigate.  Finally, we will see how these essential doctrines impact our walk with Jesus Christ.


Before we can address the confusion regarding the doctrine of separation we need to make sure our foundation is firm.  In this case, our foundation is the doctrine of sanctification.  “The word sanctify basically means to set apart. It has the same root as the words saint and holy.”[2] The three aspects of sanctification include, positional which is the same as justification, progressive which refers to Christian growth or the spiritual maturity process, and perfect which is the same as glorification.  God has already set apart His Church positionally in Christ.  Our concern for this discussion is in regard to progressive sanctification.

The commands and exhortations in the Word of God to be holy, or to live holy, all deal with our progressive sanctification.  To live holy should be the desire of every believer.  Here is where we need to be careful.  Does this mean God wants us to follow a list of rules?  Or, does the Lord have something else in mind?  These questions underscore the importance of understanding what God expects from us now that we are saved.

One key component of our progressive sanctification is that our growth in Christ must be based on truth, not on man’s version of truth but the truth of God’s Word.  In His prayer to God the Father Jesus stated, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth” (John 17:17).[3] Left on our own, there is no way for us to be able to know how God expects us to live.  This is where the written revelation of God comes in.  Out of His love, God wrote it all down for us.  The Apostle Paul instructs us, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2).  Instead of allowing ourselves to be molded by the world we are to be transformed by the truth of God’s Word.  Remember, progressive sanctification, “involves separation unto God from the world, the evil one who controls it, and the lies that He promotes that the world believes.”[4] The only way to know God’s truth is by renewing our minds with His Word.

Another key component in our progressive sanctification is our relationship with the Spirit of God.  We know that every believer in Christ, living in the Church Age, is indwelt by the Spirit of God.  For this reason, Paul could say, “the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5).  Furthermore, we read, “Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Rom. 8:9).  This undoubtedly teaches us that the Spirit of God indwells every believer at the moment we are converted; otherwise this statement from Paul could not be true.

Considerable confusion surrounds the doctrine of the filling of the Spirit.  A typical (and wrong) understanding is that we can have less or more of the Holy Spirit in us (almost like having more or less water in a glass).  A central passage on the filling of the Spirit is found in Ephesians where Paul explains, “And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18).  The wording does not mean getting more of the Spirit, but rather it is a command to let the Spirit of God have control in your life.  Paul was teaching that instead of being controlled by alcohol we should submit or yield ourselves to the Spirit of God.  “It amounts to letting the Holy Spirit who indwells us control us completely.”[5] This is a repeated action in the life of the believer as you obey and yield to the Holy Spirit in your daily life.  This is why the Apostle Paul wrote, “I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).


Now that we have a clear understanding of sanctification, we need to take one more step before we can move any further in our discussion of how sanctification relates to separation.  We need to take a closer look at our motivations for serving the Lord.  Most Christians recognize the words of Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”  Some think that this means our relationship with God is only based on fear.  Tom Constable sets us in the right direction, “‘Fear’ includes not only a correct way of thinking about God but a correct relationship with Yahweh. It is an affectionate reverence that results in humbly bowing to the Father’s will. It is a desire not to sin against Him because His wrath is so awful and His love is so awesome.”[6] Believers in Christ must remember that we have been adopted into the family of God.  With a profound proclamation of truth John records, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12).  The Apostle Paul told the churches of Galatia, “And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” (Gal. 4:6).  The Spirit of God makes it possible for us to have an intimate relationship with the Father.

There are many other reasons provided in Scripture that are motivations for us to follow Jesus Christ.  In 1 John 4 we read two interesting statements, “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him” (1 John 4:9).  God demonstrated the supreme example of love when He sent His Son to die in our place.  There is a strong focus in this chapter on the love of God in the life of the believer.  In verse 17 John raised the issue of the Judgment Seat of Christ.  In regard to the Judgment Seat of Christ John said in verse 18, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).  This means:

If a believer looks forward with trepidation to the judgment seat of Christ, it is because God’s love has not yet reached completeness in Him. The words here rendered perfect are no different in force from the idea of “completeness” expressed in 2:5 and 4:12. The matured experience of God’s love (reached in the act of loving one another) is incompatible with fear and expels fear from the heart.[7]

Another way of saying it would be that a mature understanding of the love of God (demonstrated in loving one another) removes fear of God’s judgment.[8] Love is a proper motivation for serving God.  In fact, John goes on to tell us, “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

In the same letter, John mentioned another motivation for serving our Lord.  In the second chapter we read, “And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming” (1 John 2:28).  Abiding in Christ means that we will not have to be ashamed when our Lord returns for us.

Furthermore, let it be noted that we, “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).  As believers our trust (faith) in God should lead us to obedience.  Many have this backwards and make the outward obedience the focus for the believer in Christ.  The goal for every believer should be walking in faith and this trust in the Lord produces obedience to God.  This is why Paul wrote, “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving” (Col. 2:6-7).  This is exactly what Paul was getting at in Romans, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’” (Rom. 1:17).  Paul himself was a great example of living out the Christian life by faith.  To the churches of Galatia he proclaimed, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith [emphasis added] in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).  The faith that God is looking for in our progressive sanctification is trust in Him and His Word.  Proverbs teaches us, “Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him” (Prov. 30:5).

The point is to recognize that in Scripture there are many reasons given for why we should serve the Lord.  We should serve God because we have a healthy reverence for who He is.  No believer should want to be ashamed when the Lord returns.  His love for us should manifest a passionate love for Him and His people.  Our adoption into God’s family should make us want to live like a member of the family.  Our trust (faith) in God should lead to obedience.  All of these reasons should be some of the scriptural motivations for us to obey the Word of God, including the commands in Scripture regarding the doctrine of separation.  It is not about a legalistic attitude of enforcing the rules of men but rather about a loving relationship with our Creator and our desire to obey Him.  Counterfeit motives for serving the Lord focus on trust in oneself, but Christ is calling us to live by faith with trust in Him.  This is why Jesus could proclaim to the first century Jews, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).  In this same line of thinking the Apostle John testified, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).


Let us take a more in-depth look at the doctrine of separation.  As believers walk by faith they should see in Scripture the clear commands to be separate from the world.  For Church Age saints we are to be separate from the lost, separate from those with doctrines contrary to Christ, and separate from fellow believers that are walking disorderly.

In a stunning passage of Scripture the Apostle Paul proclaimed to the church at Corinth:

Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And  what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Therefore “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.” “I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor. 6:14-18).

A detailed exposition of this passage is beyond the scope of this article.  However, we can make certain observations.  Constable comments, “Paul commanded that Christians form no binding interpersonal relationships with non-Christians.”[9] When looking at this passage we must consider the situation in Corinth:

As this relates to Corinth, history reveals that the Corinthians were notorious for their associationalism. They had guilds, societies, or associations for practically everything. Every society had its own idol or protective deity. To fail to do obeisance to this idol would be to anger the god and bring its wrath down on the guild. Thus, the Corinthians tried to go along with this idol even though they did not believe in it.[10]

As believers we must remember that we belong to Christ.  This relationship and union we have with Christ is central to our faith.  The Holy Spirit indwells every believer in Christ.  Recognizing that God is dwelling in us means we must be careful that we do not become unequally yoked with the false religions of the world.  It is not a call to isolationism, but rather it is an exhortation to not compromise our faith.  C. K. Barrett captures it well, “You must not get into double harness with unbelievers.”[11] The idea is of not putting yourself into a harness with an uneven team.

Paul has in mind an alliance with spiritual opposites, and the image of harnessing oneself to someone who is spiritually incompatible evokes images of spiritual disaster. Those who bear Christ’s yoke (Matt. 11:30) cannot share it with others who deny Christ. Those who harness themselves together with unbelievers will soon find themselves plowing Satan’s fields. One can only be a true yokefellow (Phil 4:3) with a fellow Christian.[12]

We see this same teaching in several other places in the New Testament.  To the church at Ephesus Paul warned, “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them” (Eph. 5:8-11). In the next verse, Paul proclaimed that it is even shameful to speak of the things done by the lost.  As believers we are supposed to reflect the light of Jesus Christ.  It would be helpful to remember the warning from James, “Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

We must also recognize that the Scripture warns us to separate from those who are propagating doctrine that is contrary to Christ.  Remarkably, this can even take place in the Church.  Jude found it necessary to warn:

Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ (Jude 3-4).

The context of Jude is clear that these men were ungodly; they were unbelievers that had infiltrated the Church.

Paul also warned of this problem in several places.  When Paul met the elders of the church of Ephesus at Miletus he cautioned them, “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:29-30).  Again, to the church at Rome, Paul proclaimed, “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them [emphasis added]. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple” (Rom. 16:17-18).

We also see a strong warning on this subject in 1 Timothy 6:3-5:

If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain.From such withdraw yourself (1 Tim. 6:3–5, emphasis added).

Paul and Jude were not alone with their warnings about keeping fellowship with those that proclaimed doctrines contrary to Christ.  The Apostle John wrote of the problem, “Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds” (2 John 9-11, emphasis added).  The particular doctrine that John was referring to is found in 2 John 7.  Men were apparently denying that Jesus had come in the flesh.  His teaching was that Christians should refuse to support false teachers when they come into a community.  We should be careful to not endorse the false teachers in any way.  Those who denied that Christ had come in the flesh were to be considered as unbelievers.

We also find in Scripture warnings about fellowshipping with other believers who are not walking with the Lord.  Most notably, we turn our attention to 2 Thessalonians chapter 3.  We read in verse 6, “But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly[emphasis added] and not according to the tradition which he received from us” (2 Thess. 3:6).  This was a command to the entire church at Thessalonica.  Constable instructs:

This was a command given with the full authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. The faithful majority in the church were to separate, probably individually and socially, from the unruly to alert the offenders to the fact that their behavior was not acceptable. The desired result was that they would repent. Paul had earlier warned those who were idle (1 Thess. 5:14), but evidently they had not responded. Now firmer measures were necessary (cf. Matt. 18:15–17). The offenders constituted a minority who lived undisciplined lives contrary to the teaching and example of the missionaries.[13]

We see a similar situation in 1 Corinthians 5.  There we read of gross immorality that was being tolerated in the church at Corinth.  This time Paul firmly warned, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:4-5).  Hopefully this would cause the offending person to repent and return to fellowship with both the Lord and His Church.  It is vital to remember, “All church discipline has restoration as its ultimate goal.”[14]


A great number within the professing church today would disagree with these clear teachings on the doctrines of sanctification and separation.  One significant example can be seen in the Independent Baptist tradition where local churches participate in covenants with one another before God.  While these covenants can vary, they frequently include the commitment to support the local church financially, deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, abstain from alcohol, avoid theaters and other worldly venues, abstain from dancing, abstain from card playing, etc.[15] The problem with this view should be obvious.  It makes the goal of sanctification obedience in our outward behavior instead of teaching believers to walk by faith.  Following this path, living the Christian faith becomes living out a list of rules rather than a living relationship of love and trust with our Savior Jesus Christ.

Surprisingly, some look to the Old Testament to strike down the doctrine of separation for the Church and Church Age believers.  Their idea is that even though Israel in the Old Testament had plunged into apostasy, the prophets did not separate from the nation of Israel.  Therefore, in this line of thinking, we should not separate from anyone or any group that claims to be a part of the Body of Christ.  “Most persons advancing this argument are of a Reformed persuasion with regard to the nature of the church; that is, they see the church as a continuation of Israel, the ‘spiritual Israel’ of New Testament times.”[16] This is Replacement Theology and cannot be sustained from Scripture.  It fails to recognize the clear teaching from the Apostle Paul, in Romans 9-11, that God is not done with Israel.  Replacement Theology also fails to identify the permanent nature of the Abrahamic Covenant.   It should be recognized that Paul teaches us in Ephesians 3 that the Church is a special creation of God that is unique to this age.  When the distinctions between the nation of Israel and the Church are blurred, confusion and unscriptural doctrines are the result.

Yet another group today seeks to neglect the doctrine of separation for an entirely different reason.  Many follow the teaching of men like Rick Warren.  “Warren's pastor-training programs welcome Catholics, Methodists, Mormons, Jews and ordained women.  ‘I'm not going to get into a debate over the non-essentials. I won't try to change other denominations. Why be divisive?’ he asks.”[17] What Rick Warren calls divisive, Jude 3 refers to as contending for the faith.  Either Rick Warren is completely ignorant of the Scriptural commands to be separate from those who teach wrong doctrines, or more likely, Warren has chosen friendship with the world over obedience to the Word of God.

As we have discovered, there are many motivations for us as believers in Christ to serve the Lord.  The goal of progressive sanctification is to live by faith.  As we live by faith our trust in God and His Word will lead us to obedience.  This obedience should include the scriptural teachings on the doctrine of separation.  The Scripture teaches that we should be separate from: the lost and the false religions of this ungodly world, those that are propagating doctrine contrary to Christ, and fellow believers who are walking in disobedience to the Lord.

Living by faith should be quite easy for the believer in Christ.  With the Spirit of God indwelling us and the Word of God to guide us, we have all we need to grow and walk with our Savior Jesus Christ.  The issue really boils down to our trust in God and His Word.  Will we yield to the Spirit of God or to the flesh?  The ramification of believers learning to live by faith includes strengthening the Church of Christ, which would have a dramatic impact on the spread of the Gospel of Christ.

The doctrine of separation is not the easiest doctrine to live out.  We certainly recognize that Christ has given us everything we need for life and godliness, but the flesh likes to fit in with the world.  Our sin nature craves to have us fit in with those living in the world.  Our focus must be on the new creation we are in Christ.  As the Psalmist declared, “I am a companion of all who fear You, and of those who keep Your precepts” (Ps. 119:63).  If we made this truth our practice it would have a tremendous impact on the Body of Christ.  It would be easier to spot false teachers and wrong doctrine, it would encourage believers in sin to repent, and it would show the lost that there is clearly something different and special about the Bride of Christ!

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[1] While it is not within the scope of this article to address either of these issues, neither the skirts only or the King James only movements can be supported by Scripture.  Both of these movements have done great harm to the Christian faith.  They have done exactly what Jesus warned about when He said that men were, “Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:9).  Men and women of God should dress modestly and as they grow in their faith they should learn that some Bible translations are better than others.

[2] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systemic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 442, emphasis original.

[3] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture citations are taken from The Holy Bible: The New King James Version.(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1982).

[4] Tom Constable, Tom Constable's Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), John 17:17.

[5] Ibid., Eph. 5:18.

[6] Ibid., Prov. 1:7.

[7] John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), 1 John 4:18–19, emphasis original.

[8] Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen and H. Wayne House, Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Commentary(Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1999), 1 John 4:18–19.

[9] Tom Constable, Tom Constable's Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), 2 Cor. 6:14.

[10] Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen and H. Wayne House, Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Commentary(Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1999), 2 Cor. 6:14.

[11] C. K. Barrett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians. (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 2 Cor. 6:14.

[12] David E. Garland, vol. 29, 2 Corinthians, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 331.

[13] Tom Constable, Tom Constable's Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), 2 Thess. 3:6.

[14] Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen and H. Wayne House, Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Commentary(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 1 Cor. 5:5.

[15] Edward Hiscox, Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches: A Guide to the Administration of Baptist Churches (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1980), 562-566.

[16] Ernest Pickering, Biblical Separation: The Struggle For A Pure Church (Schaumburg: Regular Baptist Press, 1979), 192.

[17] Cathy Lynn Grossman, “This evangelist has a ‘Purpose,’” USA Today, http://www.usatoday.com/life/2003-07-21-rick-warren_x.htm (accessed May 20, 2011).


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