The Order of Salvation: Sanctification (Definitive)

Nothing but the sight of death impresses on us so viscerally a sense of finality. As Christians, we are comforted by faith in the resurrection and the life to come, but death nevertheless strikes our limited and sin-affected minds with definitiveness. Do we think of our being made holy in Christ as just as definitive? When we continue to struggle with sin and unbelief, how can we think that our new life in Christ is real, definitive, decisive, and final? And yet it is the image of death that the Apostle Paul invokes in Romans 6 to describe our being made holy, separated from the power of sin. “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:2).

The Scriptural words for “holy” mean separate, set apart. God is holy because he is removed from all creaturely vulnerability. He is holy too because he is separate from all imperfection and sin. We are made holy when we are called and set apart for God’s purposes, and when we are decisively changed through union with Christ. Sanctity is another word for holiness. Sanctification is the process of being made holy. And while it is a process, and so we speak often about “progressive sanctification,” Scripture also teaches what John Murray called in his seminal article by the same name, “definitive sanctification”. There is, as professor Murray states it, a “decisive breach” with sin through our dying with Christ and rising again in him.[1]

Another way this is described in Scripture is as a cleansing, or purification. Because sin is defilement, sanctification is washing. And while we go on confessing our sins and being cleansed (1 Jn. 1:9), there is also a sense in which we have already been washed and have already been sanctified. After cataloging numerous sinfully disordered states, the Apostle Paul writes, “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.” (1 Cor. 6:11). While we are declared righteous for Christ’s sake, we are also changed for his glory. By our faith union with Christ in our baptisms, we are brought from a state of sin and death to a state of life and holiness.

What this does not imply is sinless perfection. As Murray observes, such an inference would require that all saved people were perfect. The Apostle John assumes a need for ongoing confession and forgiveness of sin, yet he also writes, “Whoever is born of God doth not commit sin.” (1 Jn. 3:9) His meaning is that Christians do not continue willingly in sin, or, as the ESV helpfully translates, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning.” And while it does not entail the achievement of sinless perfection in this life, Christians should not downplay or despise the significance and reality of our forever-altered relationship to sin. Formerly, we were slaves to sin. Now, we are set free to practice righteousness.

What does this mean for us? First, is should be a cause of our thanksgiving. This is the Apostle Paul’s conclusion at the end of Romans 7: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v. 25) If sin, while still remaining in us, is actually an old life that we have cast off, then we do not need to live under its cloud. Instead, we rejoice in our new relationship to Christ–hence, the marital imagery at the beginning of Romans 7. Christians are saved from sin and death, but they are saved to something, that is, to holiness, created for good works. (Eph. 2:10)

Second, definitive sanctification encourages progressive sanctification. As the Apostle goes on to write, “So then brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.” (Rom. 8:12) Through our union with Christ, we are empowered to live by the Spirit. Definitive sanctification does not take away our responsibility to pursue holiness, but it grounds it in a settled reality.

Finally, as the remainder of Romans 8 drives home, definitive sanctification breeds hope. “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Rom. 8:37) The Spirit who has made us holy, will bring his work to perfection. By the decisive change he has wrought in us and by the ongoing cleansing that he works, we overcome sin, persevere in faith, and enter into glory.

The Rev. Steven M. McCarthy is a church planter at St. Barnabas Anglican Fellowship, an extension work in the Reformed Episcopal Church’s Diocese of Mid-America (ACNA). He and his wife Emily are raising four young children in their hometown of Lansing, MI.

[1] Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume 2: Systematic Theology (Banner of Truth, 1977), 277-284.


Steven McCarthy