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Definitive and Progressive Sanctification

Category Articles
Date April 15, 2011

Extracts from ‘Definitive Sanctification,’ (pp. 277-280, 284) and ‘Progressive Sanctification,’ (pp. 294-296, 299), in The Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume 2.1

When we speak of sanctification, we generally think of it as that process by which the believer is gradually transformed in heart, mind, will, and conduct, and conformed more and more to the will of God and to the image of Christ, until at death the disembodied spirit is made perfect in holiness, and at the resurrection his body likewise will be conformed to the likeness of the body of Christ’s glory. It is biblical to apply the term sanctification to this process of transformation and conformation. But it is a fact too frequently overlooked that in the New Testament the most characteristic terms that refer to sanctification are used, not of a process, but of a once-for-all definitive act.

We properly think of calling, regeneration, justification, and adoption as acts of God effected once for all and not requiring or admitting of repetition. It is of their nature to be definitive. But a considerable part of New Testament teaching places sanctification in this category. When Paul, for example, addresses the believers at Corinth as the church of God, ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints’ (1 Cor. 1:2), and later in the same Epistle reminds them that they were washed, sanctified, and justified (1 Cor. 6:11), it is apparent that he coordinated their sanctification with effectual calling, with their identity as saints, with regeneration, and with justification. Again, when in 2 Timothy 2:21 we read, ‘If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work,’ there need be no question but the term sanctified is used in the same sense. And when Paul says, ‘Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word’ (Eph. 5:25/), it is most likely that the sanctification referred to is explicated in terms of ‘the washing of water by the word.’ Although in Acts 20:32 and 26:18, ‘the sanctified’ could have reference to the complete sanctification of the age to come, the usage in Paul’s epistles would favour the signification whereby believers are viewed as the sanctified.

The [noun] sanctification has a similar connotation. ‘For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness [sanctification]’ (1 Thess. 4:7). ‘God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: Whereunto he called you by our gospel’ (2 Thess. 2:13-14). The terms for purification are used with the same import (Acts 15:9; Eph. 5:26; Titus 2:14).

We are thus compelled to take account of the fact that the language of sanctification is used with reference to some decisive action that occurs at the inception of the Christian life, one that characterizes the people of God in their identity as called effectually by God’s grace. It would be, therefore, a deflection from biblical patterns of language and conception to think of sanctification exclusively in terms of a progressive work.

What is this sanctification? No passage in the New Testament is more instructive than Romans 6:1-7:6. The teaching here is oriented against the question with which Paul begins: ‘Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?’ – a question provoked by the [introduction] accorded to grace in the preceding context. ‘But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rom. 5:20-21). If the grace of God, and therefore his glory, are magnified the more according as grace overcomes sin, the inference would seem to be, ‘Let us continue to sin in order that God’s grace may be the more extolled.’ It is this inference the Apostle rejects with the most emphatic negative at his disposal, properly rendered in the corresponding Hebrew idiom, ‘God forbid!’ The perversity of the inference he lays bare by asking another question: ‘How shall we, that are dead [have died] to sin, live any longer therein?’ (Rom. 6:2). The pivot of the refutation is ‘we died to sin.’ What does Paul mean?

He is using the language of that phenomenon with which all are familiar: the event of death. When a person dies, he is no longer active in the sphere, realm, or relation in reference to which he has died. His connection with that realm has been dissolved: he has no further communications with those who still live in that realm, nor do they have with him. He is no longer en rapport with life here; it is no longer the sphere of life and activity for him. The Scripture brings this fact of experience to our attention . . . ‘As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more’ (Psa. 103:15-16).

In accord with this analogy, the person who lives in sin or to sin lives and acts in the realm of sin – it is the sphere of his life and activity. And the person who died to sin no longer lives in that sphere. His tie with it has been broken, and he has been translated into another real . . . This is the decisive cleavage that the Apostle has in view. It is the foundation upon which rests his whole conception of a believer’s life; and it is a cleavage, a breach, a translation as really and decisively true in the sphere of moral and religious relationship as in the ordinary experience of death. There is a once-for-all definitive and irreversible breach with the realm in which sin reigns in and unto death.

The antitheses that the Apostle institutes in this passage serve to point up the decisive breach that this change involves. Death in sin means the service of sin as bondservants (Rom. 6:6, 16-17, 20); sin reigns in our mortal bodies (6:12); obedience is rendered to the lusts of sin (6:12); we present our members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin and as the bondservants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity (6:13, 19); we are free (footloose) in respect of righteousness (6:20); sin has dominion over us, and we are under law (6:14). Death to sin means that the old man has been crucified and the body of sin destroyed – we no longer serve sin (6:6); we are justified from sin (6:7); we are alive to God and live to him (6:10-11); sin no longer reigns in our mortal body and does not lord it over us (6:12, 14); we present ourselves to God and our members as instruments of righteousness to God, so that we are servants of righteousness unto holiness (6:13, 19); we are under the reign of grace (6:14); we render obedience from the heart to the pattern of Christian teaching (6:17); the fruit is unto holiness, and the end everlasting life (6:22). This sustained contrast witnesses to the decisive change. There is no possibility of toning down the antithesis; it appears all along the line of the varying aspects from which life and action are to be viewed. In respect of every criterion by which moral and spiritual life is to be assessed, there is absolute differentiation. This means that there is a decisive and definitive breach with the power and service of sin in the case of everyone who has come under the control of the provisions of grace . . . The person begotten of God does righteousness, loves and knows God, loves those who are begotten of God, and keeps the commandments of God (1 John 2:3-6, 29; 4:7, 20-21; 5:2-3) . . .

It might appear from the emphasis that is placed in the New Testament upon the definitive breach with sin and the newness of life in the Spirit that union with Christ entails, that no place remains for a process of mortification and sanctification by which sin is put to death more and more and conformity to holiness progressively attained. Romans 6 is the passage in which more than any other the accent falls upon the decisive deliverance from the power and defilement of sin. But in that same Epistle the Apostle delineates for us the conflict that ensues for the believer because of indwelling sin. And it is significant that he should have to bring against himself such indictments as ‘I am carnal, sold under sin’ (7:14); ‘But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am!’ (7:23-24); ‘I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin’ (7:25). Even in Romans 6, we find repeated exhortations that imply, to say the least, the need for constant vigilance against the encroachments of sin.

No New Testament writer is more insistent upon the definitive character of the believer’s sanctification than is the Apostle John. So sweeping are John’s terms that we have the greatest difficulty in reconciling them with the teaching of the New Testament elsewhere and with the obvious facts of Christian experience. ‘Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God’ (1 John 3:9). ‘Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him’ (1 John 3:6). Yet John in that same epistle says, ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8). He does not regard the believer as sinlessly perfect, for he sets forth the consolation for the believer when he sins – ‘We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous’ (1 John 2:1). And for John there is the self-purifying aspect of the believer’s life: ‘And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure’ (1 John 3:3).

When we take account of the sin that still inheres in the believer, and of the fact that he has not yet attained to the goal appointed for him, the condition of the believer in this life . . . is one of progression, a progression both negative and positive in character. It embraces both mortification and sanctification.

In reference to mortification, two passages in the New Testament are particularly striking because of the contexts in which they appear. ‘But if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live’ (Rom. 8:13). ‘Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry’ (Col. 3:5). These two passages are the more instructive because they occur in contexts in which the once-for-all death to sin and the translation thereby to the realm of new life in Christ are in the forefront. In Romans 6, the accent falls upon this definitive transition; and the pivotal consideration is ‘ye died to sin’. But in Romans 8:13, the Apostle addresses believers and clearly intimates that their own agency is to be enlisted in putting to death the deeds of the body, a duty made all the more remarkable since he had already said that the body of sin had been destroyed (Rom. 6:6). This activity is one that can be exercised only in the strength and grace of the Holy Spirit; and of that, Paul takes account when he says, ‘By the Spirit.’ But it is an activity in which they as believers are to be engaged, and it consists in nothing less violent than that of putting to death. The context of Colossians 3:5 contains the same reflection upon the once-for-all death to sin by the death of Christ. ‘If ye died with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why as living in the world do you subject yourselves to ordinances?’ (Col. 2:20). ‘For ye died, and your life is hid with Christ in God’ (Col. 3:3). The exhortation, ‘Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth,’ is one that arises from the categorical propositions that precede. It is clear, as in Romans 8:13, that the activity of the believer is enlisted in this process. The implication is, therefore, to the effect that, notwithstanding the definitive death to sin alluded to in Colossians 2:20 and 3:3, the believer is not so delivered from sin in its lust and defilement but that he needs to be actively engaged in the business of the slaughterhouse with reference to his own sins . . . This process is exemplified particularly in knowledge and love. The prominence given to knowledge and to the enlightenment of the understanding (cf. Eph. 1:17, 18; 4:13-15; 2 Pet. 3:18), as the knowledge and understanding of the truth, enforces the lesson that it is in proportion to this increase that there can be the increase of the fruit of the Spirit in love, joy, and peace . . . As John reminds us, ‘God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him’ (1 John 4:16). But love is not a static emotion: it must increase and abound more and more (cf. Phil. 1:9; 1 Thess. 3:12; 4:10). And love is fed by the increasing apprehension of the glory of him Who is love, and of him in whom the love of God is manifested.


    • The Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume 2

      Collected Writings of John Murray

      Volume 2: Systematic Theology

      by John Murray

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      Extracts from ‘Definitive Sanctification,’ (pp. 277-280, 284) and ‘Progressive Sanctification,’ (pp. 294-296, 299), in The Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume 2.1 When we speak of sanctification, we generally think of it as that process by which the believer is gradually transformed in heart, mind, will, and conduct, and conformed more and more to the […]

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