Don’t get confused by the title. I’m not one more 20something Christian ditching the importance of personal growth in the name of authenticity or liberties. I’m referring to the fact that there’s a definitive aspect of sanctification that takes place at a person’s conversion. And unfortunately, in our concern to keep Christians focused on growing, evangelical theology (or to the degree there is such a thing) has so focused on progressive sanctification that we’ve nearly lost the doctrine of definitive sanctification. Don’t get me wrong, progressive sanctification—which means our ongoing growth in Christ through this lifetime—is essential and needs to be taught. But, my contention is that progressive sanctification detached from its definitive aspect takes the firm foundation of God’s action on our behalf out of the equation.
In my opinion, one of the reasons why in our fight against sin we feel like it’s a battle too big to be won is because we don’t realize what actually happens to us and for us at salvation. 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 refers to the initial act of sanctification that occurs at the moment of salvation when we’re united to Christ and thereby made holy and freed from sin’s power.
The New Testament emphasizes the work of Christ for us and how he accomplishes what we need for holiness. It teaches that sin has already been conquered for us so there’s no reason to let it rule 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 because of the definitive sanctification that took place.
In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul reminds the church that they’re no longer characterized by past sins because of what happened at conversion. Well what is it that happened? “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 Heb. 10:10). Paul states that 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 and Romans 6 answers this question by saying how can we continue in sin if we have died to it. What he means is that the power of sin has been broken and we live as new creatures. When a slave is set free from a horrible master he would not continue to live under his rule. For us to continue to walk in sin is to choose to serve an awful, murderous master who we have been freed from. For this reason Paul asks, “How can we who died to sin still live 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 that we helped complete the task but that we receive the full benefits because in a very real sense when Christ died we are reckoned as having died in him and when he rose we also rose with him.
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.”
We’ve only looked at a few instances but they point to the reality that sanctification conveys 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 and 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.