Justin Timberlake’s Song of Sanctification

Julia York

The room feels warm, alive. Soft light emanates from behind the pipes of a small but pronounced organ, the glow casting shadows on the wood-paneled walls. Accompanied by a band of guitars and drums, a gospel choir sways at the head of the room, the illuminated organ at their backs. Before the choir stands a solitary man with a microphone who casts his voice around the room as he describes his need for confession, mercy, and the forgiveness of his sins. Only this man is not a pastor, and he’s not standing in a church: it’s Justin Timberlake performing his latest song, “Sanctified,” on Saturday Night Live.

The set’s resemblance to a church sanctuary is no accident, as the strategically crafted elements directly reflect the religious overtones of the song’s lyrics. Timberlake commands the center of the room, addressing the audience as a man who yearns to be set free by just one thing: love. Yet, the passionate love Timberlake evokes is not the love of God, but rather that of a romantic partner. As the choir lifts their hands in an act of petition to some higher power, Timberlake sings:

Somethin' about
How we break all of the rules
Make a sinner feel so blessed
You take all of my wrongs
Move right along, take mе and fix my mess
Get me up whеn I'm low, hand on my soul
Like you see right inside
I come out a new man
No blood on my hands.

On “Sanctified,” the first release from Timberlake's forthcoming album, Everything I Thought I Was, there is a language which could nearly pass for an alternative version of a biblical psalm: rapturous wonder at a being with the power to lift one from the depths of sin and heartache, the declaration that the heart is not hidden but seen by a loving, forgiving presence, and the receiving of a new, purified life.

Only Timberlake’s savior, the one who holds the key to his freedom, is the “sanctifying” nature of a sexual partner, one with the power to erase his mistakes of the past:

Rid me of my sins
Take and forgive them
Make me a new man
And I'm sanctified

What we see in Timberlake’s song is an age-old adage not only from pop stars, but nearly every fictional iteration of fantastical romance: the transformational power of true love.

What we see in Timberlake’s song is an age-old adage from pop stars.

We can assume by the way Timberlake speaks of his past—as a sinner in need of redemption—that his romantic history may be full of missteps. As he exalts this new lover, Timberlake describes the relationship as one with the power to usher him into the kind of transformational love he desires. But who is the figure who can enact such a profound change? In the idealized version of romantic love so often found in the music of pop stars, we can assume this person is “the one”—someone who will provide a relationship so different from any previous lover that they hold the power to eliminate romantic disappointment and usher one into all-encompassing fulfillment. The belief in this lover is also the belief that the “right” love—or the right sexual partner—is a purifying force, able to enact a sort of baptism upon its participants which renders both people capable and worthy of such a profound love.

It would be easy to write off Timberlake’s song as a misguided fantasy about what love (or lust) can accomplish. It’s not hard to see that what he proclaims about the purifying nature of romantic love clashes with reality. As imperfect, sinful people join together to create an imperfect relationship, romantic love rarely offers a perpetual sense of fulfillment. And yet, Timberlake manages to touch upon an experience often shared by both Christians and non-Christians alike: the longing for a romantic relationship to “heal” us, or to make new that within ourselves which feels broken or unworthy.

Timberlake is certainly not the first pop star to equate spirituality with sexuality. One of the most prominent examples is Madonna’s iconic “Like a Virgin,” in which Madonna describes being “lost, beat, incomplete” until she found a lover who made her feel “shiny and new”—purified to the point of once more being rendered virginal (an obvious association with the holy iconography of the Virgin Mary). A more recent example is Lil Nas X’s music video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” which depicts the artist first in a version of the Garden of Eden before (willfully) descending into Hell, where he finds the fullness of his sexuality in a relationship with the devil (perhaps attempting to correlate sex with something unholy and therefore more satisfying in its forbidden nature).

Despite its idolization of romantic and sexual love, Christians can certainly resonate with a song like “Sanctified” because it captures one of the proverbial cruxes of the Christian life: the need to recognize our own proclivity to seek belonging, fulfillment, and healing outside of a relationship with Christ. And yet, the great miracle of the gospel is that this desire to be transformed by love is readily available; it is not a far-off hope or idealized fantasy. When the Apostle Paul urges believers to be rooted and established in love, he draws upon the knowledge and truth that God’s love is so great that it produces within all who receive it a fullness; a love that takes up so much room it transforms our very beings and equips us to take up the kind of persistent faith that ensures we lack nothing. It is not that the desire for romantic or sexual love is inherently sinful, as Scripture consistently celebrates this kind of unifying relationship. Rather, the call of the Christian life is to know that only God can offer the kind of unending belonging we seek. It is in this love we find ourselves made whole.

I get down on my knees every night and I pray for you
Don't you see you're my savior? I'm made for you.

The longing to be transformed and saved by love is one of the most painful and wondrous conditions of the human experience. For Christians, the ability to experience such a love free from constraint or flaw is a knowledge that surpasses understanding. Yet, its sanctifying nature equips us to approach our real-world relationships with humble expectation, knowing our true fulfillment comes from God’s everlasting love.

Topics: Music