Some months ago, a newly married husband said to me: “I’m so thankful for my wife. I can’t believe how much marriage has grown me as a believer. In fact, I don’t know how single people do it—if I wasn’t married, I would be far less sanctified.”

I’ve heard people say that singles are ‘less mature’ or ‘less responsible’ … Are singles less sanctified?

Now I couldn’t be happier for this young man and there’s no doubt that marriage can be a remarkably sanctifying relationship. But really? Is it the case that if I’m not married, I’m somehow less sanctified—less “Christian” even? I’ve heard people say that singles are “less mature” or “less responsible”, but this young man was saying something different: he was associating marriage with spiritual maturity. But is he correct? Are singles less sanctified?

Who is our Model of Sanctification?

Sanctification is both the status that believers enjoy as being holy and also the process by which we grow in our holiness—it’s both who we are and what we are becoming. In the latter sense, it describes our transformation into the image of Christ, the Holy One of God. Jesus is the model of our sanctification, and it is into his image that we are being renewed “with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor 3:18; Col 3:10). Indeed, God predestined us for the very purpose of being “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29). Our sanctification (and ultimately, our glorification) is really our “Christification”—our becoming more like Christ.

So is it the case that to be married is to be more like Christ, and to be single is to be a lesser image of the Son? We might think that Jesus being “the bridegroom” to his people esteems marriage as the more sanctified state, and yet in his earthly life, Jesus was quite clearly an unmarried man. In 7 Myths About Singleness, Sam Allberry writes about Jesus’ humanity:

He is the most complete and fully human person who ever lived. So his not being married is not incidental. It shows us that none of these things—marriage, romantic fulfilment, sexual experience—is intrinsic to being a full human being.[1]

Jesus shows us that marriage is not intrinsic to being a sanctified child of God

The very same can also be said of Jesus’ holiness. As the holy Son of God who himself never married, he shows us that marriage is not intrinsic to being a sanctified child of God. Indeed, to adapt Allberry’s words: if we claim that singles are less sanctified, we are implying that Jesus himself is less than holy. But Jesus is holiness personified. He is the model of our sanctification and in him, there is no married or unmarried, “but Christ is all, and in all” (Col 3:11).

Where is our Community of Sanctification?

That’s not to say, though, that there isn’t any connection between marriage and sanctification. In Ephesians 5:25-27, Paul calls husbands: “love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her”. Jesus’ sanctifying love is the template for how husbands ought to love their wives. However, notice what Paul is not saying. He is not saying that husbands are the ones who sanctify their wives—that work belongs to Jesus. Husbands should imitate Christ, but they cannot replace him. They should love their wives with a commitment to their holiness, but only Jesus can make his church holy. Sanctification is a work accomplished by Christ in and for the church (5:32).

What matters then is not whether we belong to a marriage, for no spouse can make us holy. What matters is whether we belong to the church which is being sanctified by Christ. That’s the primary community of our sanctification, whether we’re married or single. After all, the commands in the New Testament to “forgive one another,” “submit to one another,” and “bear with one another” (Eph 4:32; 5:21; Col 3:13) are given not to a married couple but to the church collective. And despite being preached at far too many weddings, 1 Corinthians 13 describes the love not between spouses but between saints. We should not, then, confine Christ’s sanctifying love to marriage—it belongs to all of us.

We must not fall for the cultural narrative that real intimacy is necessarily romantic, sexual or marital.

I’ve heard it said that the unique intimacy within marriage allows for a deeper sanctifying work. But we must not fall for the cultural narrative that real intimacy is necessarily romantic, sexual or marital. In fact, Paul describes the church as “the household of God” and in this family, we relate to one another as fathers, brothers, mothers and sisters (1 Tim 3:15-16; 5:1-2). The most profound intimacy we can enjoy is actually spiritual because it is by the Spirit that we are united with Christ and one another. The Spirit is thicker than blood or marriage, and so the church should have a depth of intimacy that allows for the sanctification of all people in equal measure. We mustn’t believe that married couples don’t need the church or that their marriage is somehow sufficient for their growth in godliness. And we mustn’t see the church as the second-best option for singles who can’t experience intimacy or sanctification in a marriage. The church is the primary sanctifying community for all of us both single and married people alike.

What is the Future of our Sanctification?

The end goal of our sanctification is that we will finally and forever be like Christ: “just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor 15:49). On that day, we will be both holy in Christ and holy like Christ—our sanctification will finally have been made complete. But what a surprise to discover that in our resurrection future, none of us will be married—all of us will be single. Jesus himself said to the Sadducees that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels in heaven” (Mt 22:30). This means that not only can singles be just as sanctified as anyone else today but in fact, godly and faithful singleness can be a present picture of our sanctified future.

That’s why Paul implores those who are married: “The time is limited, so from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none” (1 Cor 7:29). He isn’t asking husbands to ignore their wives or to neglect their marriages. He is simply relativising marriage in light of eternity—this world and even our marriages will one day pass away. In the language of Revelation: there will be no more marriage because the marriage of the Lamb will have come. So far from being less sanctified, the faithfully unmarried Christian in this life can experience in advance the sanctified blessings of eternity. We can enjoy today something of what all believers—both married and unmarried—will one day enjoy fully: our greater marriage to the Lord Jesus Christ.

What Really Matters

In saying all of this, the last thing I’d want to suggest is that singles are somehow more sanctified than married people. That would be to make the same mistake but in the other direction (see 1 Tim 4:3-5). In the end, what matters to our sanctification is not our situation – whether married or unmarried—it’s our obedience to the Lord. In the same way that “circumcision does not matter and uncircumcision does not matter”, neither does marriage or singleness; what really matters in the end is that we “keep God’s commands” (1 Cor 7:19).

[1] Sam Allberry, 7 Myths About Singleness (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 25.