The Forgotten Side of Sanctification

The late Professor John Murray taught the significance of understanding the doctrine of definitive sanctification. As he studied the exegetical statements of the New Testament that spoke of believers having been sanctified through the death of Christ (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:26:11Heb. 10:10, etc.), Murray suggested that “it is a fact too frequently overlooked that in the New Testament the most characteristic terms used with reference to sanctification are used not of a process but of a once-for-all definitive act,” and that  “it would be, therefore, a deflection from biblical patterns of language and conception to think of sanctification exclusively in terms of a progressive work.” Still many tend to think of sanctification as something entirely progressive, and, therefore, miss out on understanding one of the richest and most spiritually impacting gospel truths. In order for us to understand why both definitive and positional sanctification are two aspects of the doctrine of sanctification most frequently overlooked, it will help us to consider what they are, why they have frequently been overlooked, and how it ought to impact our Christian lives.  

What is Definitive Sanctification?

As he unfolded the meaning of definitive sanctification, Murray explained that certain portions of Scriptures, such as Romans 6:1-23, teach that “there is a once-for-all definitive and irreversible breach with the realm in which sin reigns in and unto death,” and “that our death to sin and newness of life are effected in our identification with Christ in his death and resurrection.” In further explaining how union with Christ makes definitive sanctification a reality, Murray wrote:

“It is by virtue of our having died with Christ and our being raised with Him in His resurrection from the dead that the decisive breach with sin in its power, control, and defilement had been wrought…Christ in his death and resurrection broke the power of sin, triumphed over the god of this world, the prince of darkness, executed judgment upon the world and its ruler, and by that victory delivered all those who were united to him from the power of darkness and translated them into his own kingdom. So intimate is the union between Christ and his people that they were partakers with him in all these triumphal achievements and therefore died to sin, rose with Christ in the power of his resurrection…”

When the Apostle Paul said of Christ that “the death that He died, He died to sin once for all” (Rom. 6:10) he was referring to something that happened to Jesus in His death, and which subsequently has had an impact on us by virtue of our faith-union with Him. While Jesus knew no personal sin, as our representative He subjected Himself to the guilt and power of sin. When He died, He died to the power of sin’s dominion. This is how we are set free from the power of sin’s dominion in our lives when we are united to Him by faith. Distinct from the blessing of justification–which deals with the guilt of sin–definitive sanctification deals with the power of sin.

Why Has Definitive Sanctification Been Overlooked?

One of the most basic reasons why definitive sanctification isn’t more widely taught and delighted in is that it was formulated and popularized by a professor at a highly academic Reformed seminary (one of the finest in all of church history) in the 20th Century. Additionally, you won’t find this doctrine explicitly taught in our historic creeds or our beloved Reformed confessions. That being so, Professor Murray was not contradicting the Reformed Confessions with his formulation; he was, in a very real sense, building upon what our Reformed forefathers had already said about sanctification–by means of exegetically driven doctrinal refinement. The Reformed church has commonly tended to shy away from doctrinal pioneering (except in the realm of eschatology), for the obvious reason that such pioneering has usually ended in a jeopardizing of the biblical doctrines that we have come to so love and embrace. But this is not the case with definitive sanctification. You will sometimes find hints of the truth of this particular doctrine in the writings of the Puritans and other Reformed theologians of bygone ages–generally placed within the realm of regeneration or progressive sanctification. It may rightly be said to stand at the head of progressive sanctification, as it has a logical priority to our being made more and more into the image of Christ; but, it must be distinguished from progressive sanctification because–like the doctrine of justification–it is a once-for-all decisive act of God.

How Should the Doctrine of Definitive Sanctification Affect Our Lives?

In Romans 6, the Apostle Paul makes two astonishing statements. The first came in the form of a question: “How can we who have died to sin live any longer in it?” The apostle’s rhetorical question could be reworded to give it its proper sense: “How are we who have died to sin able to live any longer in it?” We should understand that it is an impossibility that those who have died with Christ, by virtue of their union with Him, should continue living on in sin. The reality of truth of this doctrine for the Christian is that he or she is no longer a slave of sin. In union with Christ, we too have died, been buried and have risen with Him (Colossians 2:20-3:4). When He died, we died. When He was buried, we were buried. When He rose, we rose with Him. We have died to the dominion of sin, because He died to sin’s dominion. This is something different than that which we get in justification. In justification, we get the guilt of our sin removed, our sins forgiven and Christ’s righteousness imputed to us. In definitive sanctification we undergo a radical breach with sin’s dominion and power. This means that we should not and do not have to go on sinning.

The second astonishing statement is found in verse 11. When we are tempted to sin, we must say to ourselves, “I have died with my Savior and have been raised with Him. I am no longer a slave to sin. I do not have to enter into this temptation. How can I subject myself to sin’s dominion, since I have been set free from sin’s power?” Paul intimates that this is the precise “cash value” of the truth of definitive sanctification when he writes: “Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:11). Paul insists that there is an aspect of “preaching the Gospel to yourself” that includes preaching the truth of your definitive sanctification to yourself. As you do, you will make strides in your progressive sanctification. As our knowing that we have been justified in Christ (Rom. 5:1) affects us experientially, so too our knowing that we have been sanctified (1 Cor. 6:11) affects our growth in grace. May God give us grace to learn, understand, meditate on and experientially enjoy the truth that we have been definitive sanctified in union with the Savior.

What is Positional Sanctification?

Yet another aspect of the biblical teaching on sanctification has been equally overlooked or downplayed–namely, positional sanctification. The idea of positional sanctification has sometimes been considered to be an aspect of definitive sanctification–in addition to the radical breach with sin; however, I tend to think it is a distinct aspect of sanctification that happens simulaneous with definitive sanctification. In this way, both definitive and positional sanctification are foundational to our progressive sanctification. If definitive sanctification stands at the head of progressive sanctification, so too does positional sanctification. Positional sanctification assures us that we will continue in progressive sanctification since we are united to the Sanctified One–Jesus Christ–and are, therefore, already perfected in holiness in Him. It will help us to consider more fully what positional sanctification is and what difference does it makes to my life as a Christian?

As we search the Scriptures we stumble across several things that are said about our Lord Jesus Christ and His own sanctification that ought to give us pause. For instance, in John 17:19, Jesus prayed to His Father on behalf of His people saying, “for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth.” Elsewhere we are told that “He learned obedience by the things that He suffered” (Heb. 5:8). This raises a number of questions. Did Jesus need sanctification? Isn’t sanctification the act of being made holy? Wasn’t Jesus perfectly holy? How could one who is said to be “holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners,” said to have “learned obedience.” Does that mean that He was not perfect through His whole life? The answer to this difficult question is simultaneously ‘yes’ and ‘no.’

There is a sense in which it would be fatally wrong for us to say that Jesus was not perfect. The Scriptures make it abundantly clear that though he was made in the likeness of sinful flesh, yet without sin. “The apostle Paul boldly asserts that He “knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21). At the announcement of His birth, an angel called Him “that Holy One who is to be born.” Pilate’s wife told her husband: ‘Have nothing to do with that just man.’ Pilate himself said, ‘I find no fault in Him.’ The dying thief acknowledged the innocence of Jesus when he said, ‘this Man had done nothing wrong.’ The centurion, at the foot of the cross, said, ‘Certainly this was a righteous man’ (Luke 23:47). Even the demons recognized that Jesus was ‘the Holy One of God’ (4:34).”2

However, there is another sense in which we may properly speak of Jesus “being made perfect” and “growing in obedience.” In fact, the latter idea is explicitly taught in Luke 2 where we read of Jesus: “The Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him” (Luke 2:40), and that ” Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). How could a perfect being “increase in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man?” The answer to this question is bound up in mystery of the incarnation. Though in His divine nature, Jesus was absolutely and immutably perfect in holiness, in His human nature, Jesus grew in holiness as to the capacity of His humanity at each stage of life. He knew what it was to be an obedient 3 year old and He knew what it was to be an obedient 30 year old. There was an increase in his progressive experience of holiness. This does not mean that He had any sinful imperfections in Him, but that–as the covenant keeping true Israel of God and representative second Adam–Jesus had to learn obedience through every stage of life in order to redeem His people who have lived sinfully at every stage of life. In this way, from His birth to His adulthood to His death, Jesus underwent a process of sanctification for His people. He did so in order to become the source of that holiness that God requires in the lives of His people. Sinclair Ferguson explains the rationale for this so well when he writes:

“What a redeemed soul needs is human holiness. Angelic holiness will not serve fallen man. If we are to be holy, that holiness must be wrought out in our humanity. This is what Christ has accomplished. And now the Spirit, out of his union with the incarnate Son, brings those resources to bear upon the lives of believers. Because of his ministry in Christ he can now indwell us to reproduce the same holiness in our lives. And so, adds, [Abraham] Kuyper, ‘The Holy Spirit finds this holy disposition in its required form, not in the Father, nor in Himself, but in Immanuel, who as the Son of God and the Son of man possesses holiness in that peculiar form.”3

Of course, the ultimate way in which Jesus became “the Sanctified One” in the Historia Salutis (i.e. the history of salvation) was to offer Himself up as a representative sacrifice for His people at the cross. Since the sins of God’s people were imputed to Him (2 Cor. 5:21) and “He bore our own sins in His body on the tree,” Jesus underwent the wrath of God for the purification of the guilt, corruption and power of those sins. This is how He could speak of His death as “baptism” (Luke 12:50). When He hung on the cross, Jesus was being cleansed of the sins of His people. In this way, we can say that He became the perfectly sanctified One at the cross.

Someone might objection to these things by asking, “How does what you’re saying differ with justification? Aren’t you merely saying that Jesus merited righteousness for us so that we can have a legally righteous standing before God by virtue of His perfect life and atoning death?” While it is certainly true that Jesus merited a perfect righteousness that is imputed to us by faith, when we speak of our need for sanctification (personal holiness) it is important for us to distinguish these two parts of Christ’s work. the Apostle Paul seems to do so in 1 Corinthians 1:30: “Of Him [i.e. God the Father] you are in Christ Jesus who became for us wisdom from God and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” This is a clear exegetical proof of what we are saying.

Because of our union with Christ, His sanctification becomes our sanctification. In fact, His sanctification secures all of our sanctification until it’s perfection in glory. The doctrine of positional sanctification teaches that we are already perfect in the perfectly holy One. While our progressive sanctification is very imperfect in this life, we are assured that God will bring to completion what He began in us because the Son of God became the perfectly sanctified One for us. In Hebrews 7:28 we are told that the Son was “made perfect forever;” then in Heb. 10:14 we learn that “by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.” This last passage is the strongest proof of what we are saying. Those who are now being progressively sanctified are guaranteed the full realization of sanctification because they are already positionally perfect in Christ.

The truth of this teaching brings us great comfort and encouragement in our Christian lives. As we press on in seeking Christlikeness in our own lives, we are reminded that we are already positionally holy in Christ. We are already “seated with Him in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:32:6). The full realization of our consummate sanctification is assured to us, in the here and now, as we look in faith to the who who said “for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also may be sanctified…” (John 17:19). We realize that both our definitive and our progressive sanctification is rooted in the sanctification of Christ. Knowing this, as was true of the doctrine of definitive sanctification, is a necessary step in our growth in grace. When we fail, we do not live as though our sanctification were entirely up to us–or that the completion of it was dependent entirely on our efforts. Rather, we recognize that the person of the Lord Jesus, and His saving work in His death and resurrection, secures and is the source of our holiness.  

1. All of Murray’s citations in this post are taken out of his article, “Definitive Sanctification,” in Calvin Theological Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1, April 1967.

2. An excerpt from my April 2011 Tabletalk article “A Sinless Life.” 

3. Sinclair B Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (IVP,1996), p. 72. 

Related Resources

John Murray “Definitive Sanctification” – an audio lecture

John Murray Collected Writings of John Murray vol. 2 (Banner of Truth)

John Murray Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Eerdmans Publishing)

Joseph Pipa “Definitive Sanctification” – a lecture given at the 2001 GPTS Theology Conference

Sinclair Ferguson “Grace Abounding, Sin Continuing?” – (audio sermon)

Sinclair Ferguson “Do You Consider Yourself Dead To Sin?” – (audio sermon)

Sinclair Ferguson “Sin: A Dominion Ended; A Reign Rejected” – (audio sermon)

Sinclair Ferguson “Union with Christ: Mind-Renewing Foundations” – a lecture given at the 2014 Desiring God Pastor’s Conference

Nick Batzig “The Secret of Sanctification” – an article in the September 2011 edition of Tabletalk Magazine

David Peterson Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness (InterVarsity Press, 2001)

David Wells God in the Whirlwind  (Crossway, 2014)

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