The Most Important Overlooked Doctrine?

Definitive Sanctification

What is the most important overlooked biblical doctrine? Without hesitation, I would suggest that it is the doctrine of definitive sanctification.1 It was the late Professor John Murray who first articulated and popularized this doctrine. 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 1:2; 6:11; Heb. 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 this is the most important overlooked doctrine, it will help us to consider what definitive sanctification is, why it has 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…

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6 Responses

  1. Steven

    I do think that the truths captured by Murray’s articulation of definitive sanctification are captured in older articulations of regeneration, “progressive sanctification,” and effectual calling, as you note. I’ve struggled, because of this, to see the real advantage of using the term “definitive sanctification”. Is there any advantage other than highlighting this truth and thereby helping us to pay more attention to it?

    The Belgic Confession seems to express the idea under it’s articulation of sanctification:
    “We believe that this true faith,
    produced in us by the hearing of God’s Word
    and by the work of the Holy Spirit,
    regenerates us and makes us new creatures,
    causing us to live a new life
    and freeing us from the slavery of sin.” (Article 24)

    And the Westminster Confession, under Effectual Calling:
    “All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed time, effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ, enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.” (10.1)

    “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word” (10.3)

  2. The problem with relegating the teaching of Romans 6 and 1 Cor. 6:11 to regeneration, progressive sanctification and effectual calling is that the context of Rom. 6:1-14 is sanctification–and the radical breach with sin is taught there. Additionally, the words “having been sanctified” do not–as Murray notes–refer to progressive sanctification, but seem to indicate, a once-for-all-definitive act. I plan on writing a follow up post in which I will argue that there is also an element of definitive sanctification that includes a positional sanctification in Christ, the sanctified one. I have no problem saying that doctrinal advancement occurred in this area, since what Murray taught does not contradict any of the doctrines in our Reformed Confessions. Furthermore, I actually think that the failure to grasp definitive sanctification led to the members of the Westminster Assembly employing improper wording concerning sanctification. In the Shorter Catechism they say that in sanctification we “die more and more to sin,” but the Scriptures say that we “have died to sin” and that now we are to put sin to death. I believe that DS gives more theological and biblical precision to the doctrine of progressive sanctification–and, in turn, has enormous pastoral implications.

  3. Then again, this subject is difficult precisely because the men who wrote the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Standards often say that regeneration is the beginning of progressive sanctification. It is not always easy to distinguish between the first act of transformation, the radical breach with sin and the ongoing acts of transformation. I actually agree that regeneration is the beginning of progressive sanctification.

  4. Rob Schouten

    I appreciated this article about definitive sanctification. One sentence caught my attention: “Additionally, you won’t find this doctrine explicitly taught in our historic creeds or our beloved Reformed confessions.”
    I wonder whether this is correct. Question 43 of the Heidelberg Catechism reads: “What further benefit od we receive from Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross?” The Answer says:

    “Through Christ’s death
    our old nature is crucified,
    put to death,
    and buried with him,
    so that the evil desires of the flesh
    may no longer reign in us us,
    but that we may offer ourselves to him
    as a sacrifice of thankfulness.”

    What do you think?

    1. Brett

      The language of WCF 13:1 seems relevant here:

      “They, who are once effectually called and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them, are **further sanctified** really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them…”

      Notice how it defines progressive sanctification as a “further” sanctification. This assumes an “initial” sanctification, which the confession seems to locate in effectual calling and regeneration. So, although the WCF doesn’t use the precise language of “definitive” sanctification, it at least implies the synonymous language of “initial” sanctification, and locates it precisely where Murray does, in effectual calling and regeneration.

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