Don’t get confused by the title. I’m not another millennial ditching personal growth or holiness in the name of authenticity or liberties. In this post, I won’t be arguing to stop pursuing sanctification (maturity or growth), but I will argue for understanding how the most important part of it has already happened.
There’s a definitive and positional aspect of sanctification that takes place at a person’s conversion. In our concern to keep Christians focused on growing, evangelical theology has so focused on progressive sanctification that we’ve nearly lost the doctrine of definitive sanctification. Progressive sanctification (our ongoing growth in Christ through this lifetime) is essential and needs taught. But progressive sanctification detached from its definitive aspect takes the power of God’s action and accomplishment for us out of the equation.
One reason we feel like the fight against sin is too big a battle is we don’t realize what happens to us and for us at salvation or conversion. We’re not only justified when we believe in Jesus (and we are justified at that moment) but we’re also set apart as holy. Definitive sanctification doesn’t mean we are entirely sanctified—meaning there’s no need for progress sanctification. It refers to the initial act of sanctification occurring at the moment of salvation when we’re united to Christ and freed from sin’s power, set apart from sin and set apart to God, made His people, and made holy in Christ. At its heart, this work of God at conversion speaks to sin’s dominion over us being broken and our belonging to God.
The New Testament emphasizes the work of Christ for us and how he accomplishes what we need for holiness. It exhorts us not to sin rule over us because it’s already been conquered for us. We can obey the command to be holy because we have been made holy. We can put to death the deeds of the body because we participated with Christ in his death. We can progress in sanctification or Christ-like maturity because of the definitive sanctification that took place.
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul reminds the church they’re no longer characterized by past sins because of what happened when they were joined to Christ. “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (I Cor. 6:11; see also Hebrews 10:10). Paul says we were sanctified, pointing to the fact that at the moment of salvation God sets us apart as His own possession and purifies us from our uncleanness.
The main subject of Romans 6 is our death to sin in Christ and why this means we don’t have to continue to walk in sin. We’re no longer slaves to sin because sin’s hold on us was broken when we died and rose with Christ. Whereas in Adam we were plunged into corruption and sin, in Jesus (the second and final Adam) we spring forth with new hearts and an imputed righteousness.
Paul foresees the question arising of whether our status of righteousness means we can go on sinning. Romans 6 answers this question by asking, “How can we continue in sin if we have died to it?” The power of sin has been broken and we are made new (2 Corinthians 5:17). When a slave is set free from a horrible master, he wouldn’t continue to live under that tyrant’s rule. For us to continue to walk in sin is to choose to serve an awful, murderous master who we’ve been freed from.
That’s why Paul asks how freed people could keep living in bondage. The reminder they have been set free from sin and now belong to Christ is meant to motivate obedience. Without the awareness of our separation from sin’s power and dominion—not to mention the guilt and penalty—we would continue to walk in it.
Romans 6 highlights our union with Christ, which entails us participating in his death and resurrection. We are participants, not in the sense we helped complete the task, but that we receive the full benefits and share in his victory and status before the Father.
John Murray summarizes the meaning and effect of this wonderful truth.
“This means, therefore, that not only did Christ die, not only was he buried, not only did he rise from the dead, but also all who sustain the relation to him that baptism signifies [union with Christ] likewise died, were buried, and rose again to a new life patterned after his resurrection life. No fact is of more basic importance in connection with the death to sin and commitment to holiness than that of identification with Christ in his death and resurrection.”
In this short sampling of the New Testament’s use of “sanctification,” we’ve seen how it teaches us not only what we should do (follow and obey) but who we now belong to and who we have been freed from. In Christ, we are freed from sin’s power, cleansed from its defilements, set apart as God’s treasured possession, and made holy.
There is no sin too great to be overcome since Christ has won the victory for us over sin. The hope resides in our real identity in Christ which we simply strive to live out by the power of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification is not about becoming something new or doing something new but living in light of what Christ has done for you. When sin seems like too great a foe or you’re struggling to walk in holiness, remember your true identity in Christ. He has already equipped you by setting you free from the pollution and power of sin. You belong to God and are His treasured possession.
As God’s people (definitive sanctification), we now live out (progressive sanctification) what is true of in Christ. We don’t let sin rule over us and we don’t take it lightly. We fight sin with all the power the Spirit gives us, but we do so from a position of acceptance in Jesus and victory through Jesus.
For an excellent overview of this, see Possessed by God by David Peterson
For more on progressive sanctification, see “8 Characteristics of Gospel-Centered Sanctification.”
John Murray, “The Agency in Definitive Sanctification,” in Collected Writings, volume 2 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth), 286.