We will now examine one of the alternative interpretations offered by the proponents of unconditional security concerning the apostate of Hebrews 10:29 being “sanctified by the blood of the covenant”. Calvinists are well aware that if the text is stating that the apostate had truly been sanctified by Christ’s blood, then their doctrine cannot stand. It is for this reason that these alternative interpretations are offered despite the clear language of the warning.The first attempt is to assert that the one sanctified by the blood of the covenant is not the apostate at all, but Christ Himself. Grudem does not hold to this view but believes it is worthy of careful consideration (Still Sovereign, pg. 178, footnote #91), while Calvinists Peterson and Williams find it unacceptable (Why I Am Not An Arminian, pg. 86, footnote #24).
The argument is well presented in James White’s book, The Potter’s Freedom, and for this reason we will interact with his defense of this particular interpretation. He writes:
The error that is often made in regards to this passage is to understand “by which he was sanctified” to refer to the person who goes on sinning willfully against the blood of Christ… But remembering yet again the argument of the writer we see that the writer is referring to Christ as the one who is sanctified, set apart, shown to be holy, by his own sacrifice, and that this is why it is such a terrible thing to know of the power and purpose of Christ’s blood and yet treat it as “common,” like any of the sacrifices of goats and bulls offered under the old system. (pp. 244, 245)
James White then quotes John Owen as support for his unusual interpretation, and then concludes,
The dire warning of this passage, then, comes from understanding that there is no more sacrifice for sins. Christ has offered Himself once, and has, thereby, perfected those for whom he dies. To treat that perfect sacrifice, then, as “common” by going back to the repetitive sacrifices of the old system is to spit in the very face of the Son of God. What kind of punishment, indeed, is fitting in such a situation! (ibid. 245)
In examining White’s claim that the one “sanctified” by the “blood of the covenant” is “Christ, the Son of God”, and not the apostate, it is very important that we have a clear understanding of what “sanctified” means in this passage. While the word generally means “set apart”, the context must determine how the word is being used. Does sanctified simply mean “set apart” in this passage, or does it have reference to something more? It is clear that Mr. White wants us to look no further than “set apart” as it will allow him to better apply this word to Christ, and not necessarily to the apostate being addressed in the passage.
Again, White writes, “But remembering again the argument of the writer [Christ's superiority as a high Priest] we see that the writer is referring to Christ as the one who is sanctified, set apart, shown to be holy, by his own sacrifice.” He quotes Owen favorably, who offers John 17:19; Heb 2:10; 5:7, 9; 9:11, 12 as Scriptures supporting this novel interpretation. We will therefore examine each text to see if they are applicable to the verse in question. But first, we will look at some other passages in Hebrews, as well as related passages elsewhere in Scripture, in order to determine if something more than being “set apart” is meant by the word “sanctified” in Heb. 10:29.
Chapters 9 and 10 are, as James White has pointed out, addressing Christ’s superiority to the Levitical priests of the old covenant. The writer is especially concerned with the soul cleansing power of Christ’s blood in contrast to the blood of animals used in the old economy. While the blood of “goats and calves” could “sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh”, the holy blood of Christ is able to “cleanse” our “conscience” (9:13, 14). We are reminded that it is “impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:4), but that “the blood of Christ has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (10:14), and that having been so cleansed by Christ’s blood we “have confidence to enter the holy place” (10:19), “having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (10:22). The blood of Christ is the means by which we are forgiven and justified.
We can conclude from these passages that the blood of Christ sanctifies sinners by a real and powerful cleansing. While the blood of animals merely represented cleansing, and could therefore “never take away sins” (10:11), the blood of Christ truly cleanses the sinner from the guilt and stain of sin, and thereby makes him holy. This same concept is expressed in 1 John 1:7, “but if we walk in the light…we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (Emphasis mine), and in 1 Peter 1:1, 2 with regards to those “who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with his blood…”(Emphasis mine). Here we also see that the Spirit of God is the Agent who applies the cleansing power of Christ’s blood to the sinner (see also 2 Thess. 2:13).
We should especially mention Hebrews 13:12, “Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through his own blood, suffered outside the gate” (Emphasis mine). The language here is important as it closely parallels the language of Heb. 10:29, “…who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified” (Emphasis mine). We see that in Heb. 13:12, it is the “people” who are sanctified by Christ’s blood, and not Jesus Christ Himself! It is also the most natural reading of Heb. 10:29 that it is the person who has regarded the blood as unclean who had, himself, been previously sanctified by that same blood. It is hard to imagine that any honest reader would conclude that the apostate and the one sanctified are different persons, unless driven by a prior commitment to “Reformed” theology. Nowhere in the book of Hebrews, or anywhere else in Scripture, do we read that Christ Himself was sanctified by His own blood, nor could there be any reason for the holy and blameless Son of God to need such a cleansing. The blood of Christ was shed for the sanctification of sinners and not for Himself!
So what of John Owen’s Scripture references cited by Mr. White? Do they teach that Jesus Christ was sanctified by his own blood? We will first examine the passages cited from Hebrews, and then deal with the reference made to John 17:19.
Heb. 2:10 reads, “For it was fitting for Him [God the Father], for whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect forever the author of their salvation through sufferings.” It is hard to see why Owen would refer us to this passage in support of his position. While the passage tells us that Christ was perfected through “sufferings”, this is far from teaching that He was sanctified by His own blood. If we read a little further we will see what these “sufferings” have reference to, “For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted” (verse18).
While this passage does not lend any real support to James White’s interpretation, it does further verify that only sinners are sanctified by Christ’s blood. The very next verse reads, “For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren.” Clearly, Christ is the one “who sanctifies”, and the people are the ones who are “sanctified”, and are therefore made worthy to be called His “brethren”. This passage says nothing of Christ sanctifying Himself by His own blood, but rather teaches the exact opposite of what White is contending for.
Heb. 5:7, 9 reads, “In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety….And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation.” Again, we must ask ourselves where it is said in these verses that Christ was cleansed [sanctified] by His own blood? If we simply supply the verse between 7 and 9, which Owen strangely omits, we see again that Christ was perfected through His sufferings, “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience through the things which He suffered.” These “sufferings” may have reference to His being tempted as in 2:18, or it may have reference to His agonizing in the garden- offering “prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears” (vs. 7), or it may have reference to His suffering and dying on the cross, or all of these, but there isn’t the slightest reference here to Christ being sanctified by His own blood!
Heb. 9:11, 12 reads, “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the Holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” Certainly, Owen and Mr. White want us to focus on the words, “but through His own blood, He entered the holy place, once for all…”
Again, we must ask ourselves whether this means that Christ had to be sanctified by His own blood. The key to understanding this passage is context. Verse 7 says, “…but into the second [the Holy of Holies] only the high priest enters, once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance.” The point that the writer is trying to make is that the priests of the old covenant were, themselves, sinful and therefore had to offer blood both for the purpose of cleansing themselves as well as the people. They went into the Holy of Holies with the blood of goats and calves in order to offer them to God for cleansing. Christ, unlike the priests of the old covenant, has no need of personal cleansing. He does not enter the Holy of Holies with the blood of goats and calves to be offered to God, but rather enters through His own blood “once for all”, for He will never need to repeat His atoning sacrifice.
Verse 14, as we have already seen, again verifies that this precious blood was offered for the sole purpose of cleansing sinners. We also see in verse 14 that Christ offered Himself “without blemish”, and for this reason did not, like the priests of old, need personal cleansing. He was “without blemish” before He offered Himself, and could therefore not possibly have been sanctified by His own blood. Heb. 7:26, 27 unmistakably drives this truth home,
For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins, and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself (emphasis mine).
Christ offered up Himself as the sacrifice perfectly acceptable to God, and He shed His precious and holy blood for the purpose of cleansing sinners, and not Himself. Christ consecrated (sanctified) Himself through His life of perfect submission and obedience to the Father’s will, including His self sacrifice at Calvary’s cross.
John 17:19 reads, “And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.” Here it is clearly taught that Christ “sanctified” Himself. This is, without a doubt, Owen’s strongest argument. We cannot assume, however, that the same concept expressed in Heb. 10:29 is being conveyed in this passage. After all, this passage appears in an entirely different context and should be carefully considered in light of this context. We must heed Mr. White’s advice and be very mindful that we are not “pressing onto Scripture a meaning that is not a part of the original context” (ibid. 27, 28).
We have seen that the purpose of sanctification in the context of Heb. 10:29 is primarily for the cleansing of the soul from the guilt and stain of sin, and that the means of this sanctification is the blood of Christ. This is not the case in John 17:19. In this passage, the word hagiazo is primarily concerned with being “set apart” from the world, and consecrated for a certain mission, and has no reference to the cleansing and purifying power of Christ’s blood (see John 10:36).
Jesus is praying to the Father concerning His disciples. They have been “set apart” by their obedience to the “word” Jesus has given them (vss. 6, 14). They are “in the world”, but not “of the world”, just as Christ is “not of the world” (vs. 16). For this reason “the world has hated them” (vs. 14). In verse 17 Christ prays that the Father will “Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth.” Christ then says, “As you have sent me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves may be sanctified in truth.”
The means of sanctification for the disciples in this passage is “the word of truth” (see John 15:3), and not the blood of the covenant. They are “set apart” by their obedience to the word (vs. 6), and are consecrated for the purpose of bringing the word of truth to the world (vss. 21, 23). In the same way Christ sanctifies Himself through His continued obedience to the Father’s will, culminating in His death on the cross (see Phil. 2:8). The disciples are to follow His example of obedience in the face of suffering and death as they bring His message of truth to the world. Christ’s obedience in holiness is what qualified Him to be the only acceptable and perfect sacrifice for our sins (Heb. 5:8, 9; 7:26).
It is for this reason that the interpretation James White wishes to press onto Heb. 10:29 is impossible. Christ was a “faultless and pure lamb…. without blemish…holy, innocent, undefiled, and separated from sinners” (1 Pet. 1:19; Heb. 9:14; 7:26), and therefore had no need of being sanctified by His own blood. To claim that Christ needed to be made holy by His own blood is like the erroneous Jewish teaching that the gold of the temple was more sacred than the temple (Matt. 23:16). The temple made the gold sacred, and not the other way around. Likewise, Christ’s blood is “holy” and makes “holy” (sanctifies) because it is His blood. The holy and innocent Lamb makes His blood holy, and not the other way around.
We may find it disturbing to accept the possibility that one truly cleansed by Christ’s blood can yet apostatize and perish eternally, but we should be far more disturbed by any interpretation that seeks to make the holy and blameless Lamb of God in need of purification by His own blood. Christ Himself made it perfectly clear that his blood was given to provide forgiveness for sinners (Luke 22:20; Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24, cf. Eph. 1:17), and could therefore never be given for the purpose of sanctifying Himself.
We conclude in agreement with Williams and Peterson who “reject as contrived John Owen’s idea, accepted by Roger Nicole and others, that en ho hegiasthe refers to Christ.” (Why I Am Not An Arminian, pg. 86, footnote #24). In my next post we will examine the alternative interpretation offered by Robert Peterson and Michael Williams as well as the nearly identical interpretation suggested by Wayne Grudem.