Address 58 Our Lord's High-Priestly Prayer: Part 4

John 17:17-21

Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth. Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.

There are two distinct lines of truth brought before us in these verses: first, our practical sanctification, and second, our unity of life and nature with all the people of God in the Father and the Son, a unity that forms the basis of Christian testimony to a lost world.

Note our Lord’s petition, “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth” (v. 17). What does He mean by this? There are three distinct aspects of sanctification in the New Testament: sanctification by the Holy Spirit, sanctification by the blood of Christ, and sanctification by the Word of truth. The first refers to the work of the Holy Spirit within us, cleansing us from all impurity and setting us apart to God practically. The second has to do with our judicial cleansing, fitting us for entrance to the heavenly sanctuary, and the last has to do with our daily walk.

We must never confuse justification with sanctification. To justify is to clear from every charge of guilt. To sanctify is to set apart for a holy purpose. Because we were guilty sinners we needed to be justified. Because we were unclean and defiled by sin, we needed to be sanctified. Positionally, we are set apart to God in Christ, in all the value of His precious blood, the moment we trust the Savior. But practically, we are being sanctified day by day by the Spirit and the Word. In 1 Corinthians 6:11 we read, “And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.” In the previous verses, the apostle was speaking of a number of ungodly people, who, he said, “shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (v. 9). But Christians were once just as bad as they, but they have been washed, sanctified, and justified. The washing is the application of the water of the Word to our hearts and consciences, and that must be in the power of the Holy Spirit. This simply suggests two different aspects of one truth. The emphasis here is upon sanctification rather than justification. The Spirit had to do His work in me, awakening me, convicting of sin before I ever put my trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

I remember years ago going into a mission in San Francisco and listening to some striking testimonies. People told how marvelously God had saved them from lives of sin and debauchery. I was to give the final message. As I listened to them, this verse came to me, and I took it for my text: “Such were some of you.” When the meeting was over, one of the workers came to me and asked, “May I have a word with you?” I said, “Certainly.”

Then he told me, “You had your theology terribly mixed tonight.”

I replied, “Did I? Won’t you please straighten me out?”

“Yes,” he answered, “that is what I want to do. You put sanctification before justification. Now justification is the first blessing and sanctification is the second, but you reversed this.”

“You are mistaken,” I replied. “I did not put sanctification before justification.”

“You most certainly did,” was his emphatic answer.

“No,” I told him, “you are wrong. I did nothing of the kind. It was the apostle Paul that put sanctification before justification, and I simply quoted what he had written.”

He insisted that I had misquoted it. But when we looked into the Bible, he had to admit I was right. However, he was sure the translation was wrong. We consulted the Revised Version. The same order was there. Then he exclaimed in confusion, “Well, all I have to say is that Paul was not yet clear on holiness when he wrote that!”

But this is not the only Scripture where we have sanctification of the Spirit coming before justification. In 2 Thessalonians 2:13 we read: “But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.” It is the Spirit’s sanctification, you see, that leads to belief of the truth. And then again in 1 Peter 1-2 we have the same order. Through sanctification of the Spirit, we come in the obedience of faith to the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ. It is by His blood we are justified from all our guilt, and by that same precious blood, we are sanctified, set apart to God in Christ, “who… is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).1

Here in our Lord’s prayer, He asks the Father to “sanctify them through thy truth.” That is, the Word of God is to be applied to the lives of His people, and as they obey that Word they will be practically sanctified and cleansed from defilement. In Ephesians 5:25-26 we read: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it by the washing of water by the word.” You see, the Word of God is likened unto water because of its cleansing efficacy. When I trusted Christ, I was cleansed by His precious blood once for all. This is a cleansing that never needs to be repeated, for the blood abides upon the mercy seat, and it ever cleanses us from every sin.

But the washing of water by the Word is something I need daily. It is illustrated by our Lord’s action in washing the feet of His disciples in John 13. Our feet become defiled with the things of this world, but the Word of God is applied and we are made clean. You will realize that in this sense we could never speak of ourselves as completely sanctified. Positionally we know it is true that “by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Heb. 10:14). Christ is my sanctification, and that is complete and eternal. But so far as my practice is concerned, I need the Word of God applied every day, and thus I am being sanctified.

Now observe our blessed Lord says to the Father, “As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth” (John 17:18-19). To sanctify is to set apart. He was the holy, spotless Son of God, but He set Himself apart to go to the cross, there to die for our sins, and then to take His place at God’s right hand in heaven. As we are occupied with Him, we become like Him. Our sanctification progresses as we are taken up with Christ through the Word.

Fix your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

Now notice in verse 20, His thoughts go down through the ages, reaching even to you and to me, and to all in every place who shall ever put their trust in Him. He says, “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word” (v. 20). It is in this way that we come to believe, is it not? And so we are included in those for whom He prays. And what is it for which He makes request? Notice His words, “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou has sent me” (v. 21). Here we have a second prayer for unity. It is the unity of fellowship on which, of course, our testimony to the world is based.

People say sometimes that this prayer of our Lord has not been answered, and they point to the many different sects and denominations among professed Christians. Of these we very well are ashamed. And yet, despite them all, wherever real Christians get together they enjoy fellowship in the precious things of Christ. It is when we allow ourselves to be occupied with minor questions which do not profit that our differences come in. We are all one in Christ. The fact that Satan, our great adversary, has set members of the same family to quarrelling with each other is sad indeed, and should cause us to bow our heads in humiliation and self-judgment before God. As our unity is manifested in a practical way our testimony has power with men. On the other hand nothing is so calculated to cause the unsaved to stumble as finding that Christians are unkind and quarrelsome in their dealings with each other.

How quickly we realize that we are one when the hour of trouble and persecution comes. A fine old Armenian Christian, who was greatly grieved by the divisions among Christians in America, said to me one time as the tears started in his eyes, “They need the Turks. If they were exposed to the awful persecutions we had to know in Armenia, they would learn to value one another more.”

A missionary wrote to me lately and spoke of meeting another missionary of an altogether different group of believers in a foreign land where he was laboring. He said, “Any kind of a Christian looks mighty good to me down here.”

May we realize more and more our unity and act in accordance with it, that thus the world may believe that God sent Jesus to be the Savior of men. Every time a worldling hears you making an unkind remark about another Christian, you are stultifying your own testimony. Of old, when believers were characterized by love of the brethren, Tertullian tells us that even the heathen exclaimed with admiration, “Behold how these Christians love one another.”

The following lines are most suggestive and form a fitting commentary on our Savior’s prayer, “That they all may be one.”

They’re Dear to God

Oh that when Christians meet and part,
These words were graved on every heart—
They’re dear to God!
However wilful and unwise,
We’ll look on them with loving eyes—
They’re dear to God!
Oh, wonder!—to the Eternal One,
Dear as His own beloved Son;
Dearer to Jesus than His blood,
Dear as the Spirit’s fixed abode—
They’re dear to God!

When tempted to give pain for pain,
How would this thought our words restrain,
They’re dear to God!
When truth compels us to contend,
What love with all our strife should blend!
They’re dear to God.
When they would shun the pilgrim’s lot
For this vain world, forget them not;
But win them back with love and prayer,
They never can be happy there,
If dear to God.

Shall we be there so near, so dear,
And be estranged and cold whilst here—
All dear to God?
By the same cares and toils opprest,
We lean upon one faithful Breast,
We hasten to the same repose;
How bear or do enough for those
So dear to God!

1 I have tried to go into all this very fully in my book, Holiness, the False and the True, and if you are troubled about the question of sanctification, I would urge you to get a copy and read it carefully. I cannot go into it now with the fullness that I would like, as it would lead us too far away from our subject.