Nick wrote under another post to ask about this doctrine. I first learned about the doctrine of definitive sanctification from Bob Strimple’s lectures on it in the early-mid 1980s in seminary and then from two short essays by the late John Murray. This material first appeared in the Calvin Theological Journal 2 (1967). I do not have the original publication before me so I cannot tell if it originally appeared as two essays but it appears that way in Collected Writings of John Murray 2:277–93. It is on this version that the following comments are based.
In these two essays Mr. Murray (as he is known around Westminster Seminary) distinguished between progressive sanctification and definitive sanctification. He acknowledged that the former, the “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…” is what we usually mean when we speak of sanctification.
According to Mr. Murray, the “most characteristic terms” used in the New Testament referring to sanctification do not have in view a process but “a once-for-all definitive act.” He appealed to the Apostle’s greetings to the church in Corinth and to Paul’s language in 2 Tim. 2:1, Eph. 5:25f, 1 Thess. 4:7, 2 Thess. 2:13, 14, Titus 2:14, and chiefly to Rom. 6:1–7:6. This passage teaches a “decisive cleavage,” or a “once-for all definitive breach” between the old life and the new.
He argues from 1 John 3:6–9 that the apostle is either teaching sinless perfection or definitive sanctification. This passage, however, “proves too much” for the former. 1 Jn 2:1 allows for sin among believers. This is why there is provision for sin in the believer (1 Jn 1:7). Rather, he argued, that the best interpretation of this language (and that of 1 John 4:2–3) is to understand it to teach definitive sanctification. The victory that marks every regenerate person is definitive.
The agency of this definitive breach with sin is the “saving action of each person of the Godhead at the inception of the process of salvation….” It is specifically the Father’s efficacious call of the elect into the “fellowship of his Son.” For Murray, (as for Gaffin a few years later) “the bearing of the resurrection…upon sanctification has not been sufficiently appreciated.” “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 resurrection.” He continues, “The truth is that our death to sin and newness of life are effected in our identification with Christ in his death and resurrection.”
What is the efficacy of Christ’s death and resurrection for sanctification? When did believers die and rise with Christ? To answer the first question, Murray went to Rom. 6:7. The verb “to justify” here refers to “deliverance from the enslaving power of sin.” This is all about union with Christ. “So intimate is the union between Christ and his people, that they were partakers with him in all these triumphal achievements, and therefore died to sin, rose with Christ in the power of the resurrection….”
When did this happen? He concluded that “the death to sin and newness of life refer to events which occur in the life history of the believer.” He was anxious that “the experiential” not be allowed to “obscure the once-for-all historical” act of Christ’s death and resurrection. We come into possession of our identification with Christ “in the sphere of the practical and existential….”
Analysis and Criticism
The first thing I notice is that Mr. Murray’s argument was taken entirely from Scripture. Certainly a sound dogmatic theology would be derived principally from Scripture, but it is striking that, in these essays, Murray offered no interaction with contemporary Reformed theology (e.g. Berkhof) nor did he interact with the Reformed tradition. He seemed conscious that he was offering a formulation without a great deal of support in the Reformed tradition, but he did not address it directly or explicitly.
Second, it appears that Mr. Murray assumed his doubts about the visible/invisible distinction in the doctrine of the church. This is a significant assumption in light of the traditional Reformed view that attributed Paul’s greetings to the “saints” to the judgment of charity, i.e. the notion that in speaking to the visible church we regard people according to their profession of faith and speak to them as such. On this approach and distinction, see R. Scott Clark, “Baptism and the Benefits of Christ: The Double Mode of Communion in the Covenant of Grace,” Confessional Presbyterian Journal 2 (2006): 3-19 and Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace.
Third, whatever benefits Mr. Murray’s approach might offer for the interpretation of 1 John, it’s far from clear that his account of Romans 6 is superior to the traditional account. It is not clear that Mr. Murray’s approach does not create as many difficulties as it ostensibly resolves.
Finally, as a historical matter, since (in these essays anyway) Mr. Murray did not present any historical research, we are left to our own devices in relating his arguments to the tradition. To contemporary biblicists this is no challenge since the assumption is that the tradition is irrelevant. To those of us, however, for whom the tradition is a significant voice, we are more anxious to know how these questions were handled in the earlier periods of Reformed theology.
Johannes Wollebius (Compendium Theologiae, cap. 31; 1626) addressed sanctification entirely as Mr. Murray described, as the progressive conformity to Christ. Wollebius distinguished justification from sanctification partly on the ground that one involved the imputation of Christ’s righteousness received through faith alone and the other (sanctification) entailed the infusion of new righteousness within the believer.
J. H. Heidegger was a significant Reformed theologian in the 17th century. In his Synopsis Theologiae (1627) he addressed “sanctity” in locus 35. These are just a series of propositions (my translation):*
1. Sanctity, which appears from vocation, is an analogue of faith. Hence it is either true or apparent.
2. True sanctity responds to saving faith, and is both imputed and inherent.
3. Sanctity is determined in justification.
4. Inherent sanctity is inchoate and consummated.
5. Sanctity is inchoate in sanctification.
6. Sanctity is consummated in glorification.
Heidegger recognized a forensic aspect to sanctification, but it is not clear that his conception was exactly what Mr. Murray had in mind.
In the same year William Ames, in his Marrow of Theology (1627; cap 29) dealt with sanctification entirely as progressive:
1. The real change of state is an alteration of qualities made in man himself. 2 Cor. 5. 17. Old things are past away, all things are become new.
2. But because it doth not consist in relation and respect, but in real effecting; therefore it admits diverse degrees, of beginning, progress, and perfection. 2. Cor. 4. 16. The inward man is renewed day by day.
3. This alteration of qualities doth either respect that good which is just, and honest, and it is called Sanctification: or that good which is profitable and honorable, and it is called glorification. Rom. 6. 22. Yee have your fruit in holinesse, and the end everlasting life.
4. Sanctification is a real change of a man from the filthiness of sin, to the purity of God’s Image. Eph. 4. 22. 23. 34.
This seems to have remained the pattern of Reformed teaching through the 17th century. Johannes Hoornbeek, in his Theologia Practica (1689; cap 5) discussed sanctification only in progressive terms. Petrus van Mastricht, Theoretico-Practica Theologia (1699) seems to have followed the same pattern. Based on my quick survey of his chapter on sanctification it seems that he recognized a close connection between justification and sanctification but distinguished them. Justification is forensic and definitive, sanctification is progressive. This very quick and superficial survey of some basic Reformed texts does not show a lot of obvious support, in the tradition, for Mr. Murray’s formulation.
The same seems to be true of the Reformed confessions, which were composed and adopted in the same period. When our confessions address sanctification they tend to do it in terms of progressive sanctification that is said to be the logical consequence of justification or saving faith, through which the Spirit creates (existential) union with Christ. This seems to be the clear teaching of Belgic Confession Art. 24 and the Heidelberg Catechism as I’ve argued before.
Theologically considered, his teaching that we are definitively sanctified by identification with Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6) seems somewhat problematic. There is no question, in Rom. 6, believers are said to be identified with Christ, but the question arises as to how and when that identification takes place. We should agree with Mr. Murray that “vital and spiritual union” is in view in Rom. 6. We can even say that the “decisive breach” occurs at the inception of the Christian life, but it is not clear that it is terribly helpful to speak of this as “definitive sanctification.” Further, one is struck by the relative absence of any clear explanation (especially in the second essay) of the relations between faith (or sola fide) union, and definitive sanctification.
The notion that the Spirit creates union with Christ and constitutes us definitively sanctified by this union/identification with Christ from which flows the rest of the ordo salutis (including justification and progressive sanctification) may be true, but it isn’t the obvious and overwhelming teaching of the Reformed theologians and confessions.
*1. Sanctitas, quae existit ex vocatione, analoga est fidei. Proinde est vera, vel apparens.
2. Sanctitas vera respondet fidei salvificae, Estque alia imputata, alia inhaerens.
3. Sanctitas imputata cernitur in iustificatione.
4. Sanctitas inharens, est inchoata, vel consummata.
5. Sanctitas inchoata est in sanctificatione.
6. Sanctitas consummata est in glorificatione.