Definitive Sanctification


I remember watching a program a few years ago in which a huge maze of dominos was assembled. Lines of stacked dominos ran every direction in a large warehouse. The dominos went up little ramps and crossed each other. It took over a month to construct the intricate rows of dominos. At a signal, carefully positioned cameras began to film and the first domino was pushed over into the second one in the row. A massive chain reaction took place as the rows of dominos began to fall. Some rows split into three and four rows that fell simultaneously. The room was filled with the loud clatter of falling domino tiles. In just a few minutes, every domino had fallen. The stunt was dramatic and illustrated how closely related objects affect each other.

The domino stunt reminds me that the Bible contains a unified system of truth. Scripture interprets Scripture and the Bible does not present truth in terms of contradiction. Consequently, when error is made in one area of our theological understanding of the Word of God, that error does not remain in isolation for long. The error cascades throughout our theology and, if not halted at some point, produces greater and greater falsehood. Theological error is not just an intellectual issue; it quickly spills over into the way we live our Christian lives. B. B. Warfield said that a mutilated gospel produces mutilated lives. Bad theology is a cruel taskmaster.

In our series on the doctrines of salvation, we have observed that the relationship between these doctrines is of vital importance to the proper understanding of the gospel and its application in our lives. The order in which salvation is applied to us is crucial to an understanding of the gospel. For example, we have examined the concept that regeneration precedes faith and repentance; faith and repentance are logically dependent on prior regeneration. This relates closely to the biblical teaching concerning the nature of sin and its effect on man. The Bible teaches emphatically that sin corrupts the totality of man’s heart; a person’s will and desires are under the slavery of sin (Titus 3:3-5), he is dead in sin without spiritual life or any inclination toward Christ (Eph. 2:1-3), he does not have the moral ability to choose Christ apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (John 6:44,45, 63-65), and the things of God are foolishness to him (1 Cor. 2:14). For saving faith and repentance to be present, a prior work of regeneration must take place. Scripture is clear and consistent on the point that, because of man’s radical falleness, God is the divine initiator of salvation (John 1:12,13; 3:1-10; Eph. 2:1-5; Col. 2:13). This relationship between regeneration and faith and repentance is crucial for a proper understanding of the grace of God. If it is taught that man has the moral ability to come to Christ on his own and he takes the first step, then, not only is the Scriptural teaching concerning man’s sin denied, but the grace of God in salvation is diminished and a false view of salvation is held. This ultimately leads to a concept of salvation in which man’s merit becomes the necessary condition for salvation to be present. A person believes in Christ because he is somehow intrinsically more righteous than someone else. Consequently, what may seem to be a small theological point concerning the relationship of regeneration and faith and repentance has large ramifications concerning the grace of God and the nature of the gospel itself.

The same thing is true concerning the doctrines of justification and sanctification. We normally think of sanctification in terms of our Christian growth in righteousness. This growth flows out of justification. However, in Roman Catholic theology the order is reversed: sanctification leads to justification. This is the heart of the Reformation debate concerning justification by faith alone. Therefore, the relationship between the various doctrines of salvation is significant to a proper understanding of the gospel. It is important, therefore, in studying these doctrines to grasp not only the biblical teaching concerning each doctrine, but also its relationship with the other doctrines of salvation.

In our previous articles, we have seen the following order of our salvation: Effectual calling and regeneration produces faith and repentance which in turn produces justification and adoption. This order is not so much an order of time or duration as it is of logical or causal dependence. The instant a person believes and repents, he is justified, but a person is not justified unless he has faith and repentance. Justification is dependent on faith and repentance being present. A person, however, does not have faith and repentance unless he is effectually called and regenerated by the work of the Holy Spirit. Each doctrine is logically dependent on what precedes it. The relationship of the doctrines we have studied so far could be illustrated like this:

Effectual calling —>  Faith —>  Justification (regeneration) —>   Repentance —>  Adoption

Regeneration is in parenthesis under effectual calling because it is regeneration that makes the call effectual. Faith and repentance are listed together because they are closely linked together (Acts 20:21). Justification and Adoption are in the same column because they are both legal, declarative works of God. The next doctrine in our study, definitive sanctification, is also a legal work of God.


The term sanctification usually refers to the progressive process in which the believer is increasingly conformed to the image of Christ and the will of God, and is transformed in heart, mind, will, and conduct to the will of God. Every aspect of Christian growth is usually perceived under the category of sanctification. While the Bible uses the term sanctification to describe this progressive and gradual process, the term is also used to describe a one time definitive act. We think of effectual calling, regeneration, justification, and adoption as once-for-all definitive acts of God and, which are, consequently, never repeated. The New Testament also contains passages that speak of sanctification in this same definitive, once-for-all manner. 1 Corinthians 1:2 states: “. . . to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.” Paul speaks of sanctification as a past definitive act. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 6:11, Paul is describing the spiritual condition of redeemed people: “And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God.” The terms in past tense in this verse, “washed, sanctified, and justified,” are in all in the Greek Aorist tense, a puncticular past tense. It is also important to note that they are all presented as concomitant actions. In this text, sanctification is presented as an action of God that parallels justification and regeneration. Therefore, sanctification is co-ordinated with regeneration (washed) and justification (For similar uses of the term sanctification see: Acts 26:18; Eph. 5:25; 2 Thess. 2:13,14; 2 Tim. 2:21; the terms for purification are used with the same definitive idea in Acts 15:9; Eph. 5:26; Titus 2:14). In commenting on these passages, John Murray writes: “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, and 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” (Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 2, p. 278).

Romans 6:1 – 7:6 provides insight into the nature of definitive sanctification. At the end of Romans 5, Paul made the statement: “And the Law came in that the transgression might increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. . .” (5:20). This statement could raise the question that if sin causes grace to abound, why not sin in order to extol God’s grace? Romans 6 answers this potential misunderstanding. In Romans 6:1, Paul voices the question: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?” Paul answers the question emphatically: “May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it” (Rom. 6:2)? Paul’s key idea is that we have died to sin. The person who lives to sin, lives in the realm and activity of sin and the person who has died to sin no longer lives in that sphere of activity. In Romans 6, Paul sets forth several contrasts between the results of living in sin and having died to sin in Christ. In Romans 6:6,16,17,20, Paul states that living in the realm of sin means being a slave to sin. This idea of slavery in sin is contrasted with dying to sin through spiritual union with Christ. Death to sin means that “our old self was crucified with Him [Christ] that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (vs. 6); we are freed from sin (vs. 7); sin longer reigns in our mortal bodies (vs. 12); sin is not our master (vs. 14); we present ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness and we are slaves of righteousness (vs. 13,19); we are obedient from the heart to the gospel and Christian teaching (vs. 17); we are freed from sin and enslaved to God (vs. 22). The contrasts are strong. The believer moves from being a slave to sin and its attendant corruption to being a slave to righteousness. John Murray writes of this: “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 breath with the realm in which sin reigns in and unto death” (ibid. p.279).

Peter presents the same concept in 1 Peter 2:24: “and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.” 1 Peter 4:1,2 is similar: “Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.”

This doctrine of definitive sanctification does not mean that the believer is sinlessly perfect. It states that a radical break with the power and dominion of sin occurs because of the believers spiritual union with Christ in his death and resurrection. Dr. Robert Reymond writes of this doctrine: “The doctrine of definitive sanctification does not mean that the Christian actually achieves, personally and existentially, sinless perfection the moment he trusts Christ; this would leave no room for progressive sanctification. Besides, entire sanctification awaits the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 5:23). And the Christian who says he has no sin is deceiving himself and the truth is not in him (1 John 1:8). But what it does mean is that every Christian, the moment he becomes a Christian, by virtue of his union with Christ, is instantly constituted a ‘saint’ and enters into a new relationship with respect to the former reign of sin in his life and with God himself, in which new relationship he ceases to be a slave to sin and becomes a servant of Christ and of God. And the Christian is to take this breach with sin, constituted by his union with Christ, as seriously as God does and stop ‘presenting the members of his body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness’ and start ‘presenting himself to God as one alive from the dead, and his members as instruments [or servants] of righteousness to God’ (Rom. 6:13,19). He has Paul’s own assurance that ‘sin will not lord it over him’ (Rom. 6:14)” (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith by Dr. Robert Reymond, p. 758-759).


The basis of the Christian’s justification is the imputed obedience of Christ. In the same way, the basis of definitive sanctification is his real spiritual union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:1-14; 2 Cor. 5:14,15).

The moment a person comes into spiritual union with Christ through faith, he is set free from the slavery to sin. The basis of this is his real spiritual union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:1-14; 2 Cor. 5:14,15). This makes progressive sanctification possible. Dr. Robert Reymond states: “. . . not only is the Christian accounted by God as righteous vis-a-vis the law, he is also constituted holy by God vis-a-vis the power and mastery of sin. It is not simply positional holiness that is envisioned by definitive sanctification: it is a real existential breach with the reign and mastery of sin, which breach is created by the Christian’s actual spiritual union with Christ in his death and resurrection, and which is as decisive and definite as are Christ’s death and resurrection” (ibid., p. 757-758).

Definitive sanctification, therefore, is the idea that when a person believes and repents, by virtue of his union with Christ he is separated from the dominion and slavery of sin. As a result of this cleavage, progressive sanctification is possible and guaranteed. As Paul states in Romans 6:12,13: “Therefore [because of your spiritual union with Christ], do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.”

The next article in this series: Progressive Sanctification

About the author

Dr. Van Lees

Dr. Van Lees is the pastor/teacher of Covenant of Grace Church. He has been the pastor of the church since 1985 when it started. Dr. Lees has a M. Div. from Covenant Theological Seminary, a D. Min. from Reformed Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Whitefield Theological Seminary.