What is Definitive Sanctification and is It Reformed?

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.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. John Owen’s contribution:

    “One thing we must premise to clear our ensuing discourse from
    ambiguity ; and this is, that there is mention in the Scripture of a
    twofold sanctification, and consequently of a twofold holiness. The first is common unto persons and things, consisting in the peculiar
    dedication, consecration, or separation of them unto the service of
    God by his own appointment, whereby they become holy. Thus the
    priests and Levites of old, the ark, the altar, the tabernacle, and the
    temple, were sanctified and made holy; and indeed in all holiness
    whatever, there is a peculiar dedication and separation unto God.
    But in the sense mentioned, this was solitary and alone. No more
    belonged unto it but this sacred separation, nor was there any other
    effect of this sanctification. But, secondly, there is another kind
    of sanctification and holiness, wherein this separation to God is not
    the first thing done or intended, but a consequent and effect thereof.
    This is real and internal, by the communicating of a principle of
    holiness unto our natures, attended with its exercise in acts and
    duties of holy obedience unto God.”

  2. Scott, thanks for this. Am I right in saying then that traditionally, the Reformed viewed progressive sanctification as grounded in our justification, while Murray viewed it as grounded in definitive sanctification?

  3. A couple comments come to mind. One, if Murray did not refer to standard works of Reformed theology in this article (which is available online), it is because, according to the reports from his students, that his class lectures were totally based on Scripture. Two, Murray does pick up on a thread in the Scripture. As Paul says in I Cor. 1:30, “Christ Jesus…became to us…sanctification.” Certainly, sanctification is also progressive. Three, it does not follow that Murray was conscious of taking a position unsupported by traditional Reformed thinking.

  4. “Sanctification is not the first step in the application of redemption; it presupposes other steps such as effectual calling, regeneration, justification, and adoption.” (Redemption Accomplished … p. 141).

    Ever yours,

    John Murray

    • Mr Murray,

      Nice of you to make an appearance on the HB. It raises certain theological problems, not the least of which is the question “what sort of computers do they use in heaven, PCs or Macs?” but we’ll let that go for the moment.

      I know you wrote the book and I don’t have my copy of your book in front of me, but weren’t you discussing progressive sanctification there?

  5. This discussion has been very helpful and enlightening. It appears that this discussion of definitive sanctification really empties justification of some of its meaning.

    Do you think Gaffin’s understanding of Union is implicit within this understanding of def. sanct? Just curious…

    Also, does this not blur the distinction between the sign and the thing signified to the one who holds this view, replacing the use and need of faith (i.e. a neo-sacramentalis)?

  6. But what about Calvin? Did he speak of definitive sanctification, or something like that?

  7. Well, some have said that this can be seen in Calvin’s use of the word “regeneration”. So I was just wondering about your take on that.

  8. For example, Gaffin says:


    “…what John Murray, more recently, has referred to as “definitive sanctification.”[4] This is the crucial soteriological truth that in the inception of the application of redemption, at the moment sinners are united to Christ by faith, they are delivered from sin’s enslaving power, from bondage to sin as master. At issue here, as much as anything, is the sense of the rhetorical question in Romans 6:2, as it expresses the controlling theme of the passage (Rom. 6:1-7:6) on its negative side, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” Despite the exegesis of some Reformed commentators, this death to sin is almost certainly not to the guilt that sin incurs and justification. In view, rather, is a definitive deliverance from sin’s over-mastering power to being enslaved instead to God and righteousness. That Spirit-worked (7:6) deliverance, not justification, grounds and provides the dynamic for the believer’s beginning to “walk in newness of life” (6:4), their being enslaved in their conduct to God and righteousness (vs. 16-22). At any rate, with little question the latter view is Calvin’s in his Romans commentary.”

  9. By the way, that was the paragraph marked number 7 in that article in Ordained Servant.

  10. Scott, your post here raises interesting questions. On the one hand, your point that Murray’s essays on Def. Sanc. don’t take into account previous Reformed confessional thought is well taken. On the other hand, do you mean for us, therefore, to conclude that Murray is out of accord with that thought? If so, how is he out of accord? Or should we conclude that the history of Reformed confessional thought has simply not addressed all biblical aspects of sanctification? On still one more hand, if Murray is not right to derive definitive sanctification from the texts he was considering, what do you propose that those texts contribute to the biblical doctrine of sanctification?

    • Hi Fowler,

      Thanks for stopping by.

      My intent was to raise interesting questions, especially for those for whom Mr Murray is the primary (and in some cases) only access point to Reformed theology. Mr Murray may be right in his account of definitive sanctification but it needs to be much more thoroughly tested than it has been to date.

      I have serious reservations about these articles.

      1. His refusal (?) to account for the tradition is a serious defect. His method here has attracted just criticism from VanDrunen and Horton in the Strimple Festschrift. Reformed systematics has a moral obligation to relate teaching to the tradition especially if one is positing a significant revision or even a novelty.

      2. His view may be correct in some places, but I doubt that his explanation of some of the passages is the best explanation or better than the traditional explanation.

      3. In some places his explanation seems incoherent and needlessly convoluted. This is, I think, because he came to doubt/reject the visible/invisible (or internal/external distinction).

      4. His explanation of some passages and the doctrine of definitive sanctification played a role in the Shepherd controversy and now is perhaps the major premise of Dr Gaffin’s revision of the doctrine of union with Christ. This fact alone makes it worthy of scrutiny.

      5. If it is not obviously taught or implied in the standards, we have a right to be skeptical of it.

      None of these things alone proves that the doctrine of DS is wrong but together they provide sufficient warrant reconsidering it.

      • Scott, your comment about moral obligation is one I appreciate, even for those not in Systematics. The bearing of these essays or at least Murray’s thought on DS in the Shepherd controversy is new to me and I’m happy to learn that others are studying the topic. As for skepticism, to be sure, if Murray’s views are novel, he bears the heavier burden of proof.

  11. Still wondering about Gaffin’s claims about Calvin in the recent Ordained Servant, representing the views of many.

  12. Hi Scott,

    Thank you for your well researched post.

    However, I think it could have been strengthened by some survey of the history of Reformed exegesis on passages like 1 Cor 1:30.

    The history of Reformed dogmatic theology and the confessions is never meant to restrict new theological insights which faithfully flow from exegesis and biblical theology. You are correct that Murray’s article could have been strengthened had it dealt with historical theology on this issue. And I firmly believe that historical reflection is an essential guide in doing theology today to keep us from error. But at the end of the day, Murray’s insights have to matched up to Scripture. Are his insights Scriptural or not?

    • Jim,

      At the moment I’m skeptical. Mr Murray’s failure to address the tradition and to show how his view fits within it or relates to it or corrects it is a serious defect. Is it fatal, not necessarily, but I can’t dispense with the tradition. I’m not a biblicist. I want to ask, “How come the church has not confessed this doctrine unequivocally? Why haven’t our writers seen this before?” For me the answer to the question, “Is it biblical?” might not be as easy as it seems to be for you. The legacy of this doctrine has not been sterling. It seems to have facilitated some significant problems in Reformed theology. Would we have had the Shepherd controversy without it? I don’t know. Would there be confusion among Reformed people as to what Reformed folk believe about “union with Christ” without it? Has it helped us express our confession more clearly or has it facilitated or even led to confusion about the “axis of religion” (cardo religionis) , the doctrine of justification? Thus, as a matter of systematics, I have my doubts.

      Is it the best explanation of all the passages or classes of passages to which Mr Murray appealed? I have my doubts.

      The suggestion to survey Reformed exposition of 1 Cor 1:30 is very interesting. Good idea. The same is probably true of the history of expositon of Rom 6, which is probably the central text in Mr Murray’s argument.

      • Dear RSC,

        The fact is, Murray isn’t the only one to write on this topic. Why would we want to confine our analysis to just reformed theologians (as the reformed of the 17th century never did; they worked on the entire tradition deploying insights from Roman Catholics and the like). Murray’s insights have been addressed by many recent NT scholars (see for example, David Peterson, Possessed by God) and it is now rather commonplace for NT scholars to believe that “positional sanctification” is the majority use of the word in the NT.

        Moreover, the 16th and 17th century theologians weren’t working explicitly with the now / not yet (or two-age) eschatology that arose in late 19th and 20th century biblical studies (not least under Vos). This will have quite an impact on the topic of “sanctification”.

        I’m glad Martin Luther went with the bible only on imputed righteousness even though it wasn’t to be found in the tradition for a very very long time (if he found it at all).




  13. Scott,

    Thanks for this. I am always interested in discussions pertaining to definitive sanctification, since it clearly is a matter of confusion and at least potential contention among us.

    It has seemed to me that our treatment of this issue is shaped by at least two factors: 1) the use of the term “sanctification” in a non-progressive introduces confusion to at least many people. Definitive sanctification has caused us to have one term — sanctification — for two different things. This is not helpful at all; and 2) the unavoidable biblical support for at least the core of Murray’s idea. It is hard to deny, I believe, that at least some of the sanctification language in the New Testament is not progressive but is, well, definitive.

    With these thoughts in mind, it seems to me that we could be greatly helped by adopting a terminological convention with respect to these ideas. As you know, this approach helped the post-Nicean fathers immensely, when the Cappadocian Fathers persuaded everyone to use ousia for the being of God and hypostasis for the person of God. In a similar way, what if we decided used the term “consecration” in the place of definitive sanctification? It seems to me that if we could remove the latent threat to progressive sanctification that is currently the case when it comes to Murray’s category, then we could all consider the force of his arguments with less consternation. We would be able to and would need to relate “consecration” to “sanctification” (progressive), just as Calvin related “regeneration” to “vivification” to “sanctification”.

    What do you think? Would not this kind of terminological convention — “consecration” — at least help our consideration and appreciation for Murray’s teaching on this issue?

  14. Hi Rick,

    Thanks for this.

    I agree that, perhaps a terminological change might be helpful, but I suspect the problem is more fundamental.

    I’m not as confident that Mr Murray was on to something. He was clearly dissatisfied with the traditional approach (as he understood it) and I am more satisfied with it. I’m attracted to Olevianus’ language where he distinguishes between holiness by renewal and holiness by imputation.

    This is only formally different from Mr Murray’s approach and wouldn’t itself make much difference. The substantial difference I see between Mr Murray’s approach and the older approaches is where Olevianus located “imputed holiness.” He connected it to justification sola fide and union with Christ connected to faith rather than making imputed or definitive sanctification logically prior (via union) to justification.

    Another substantial difference is that the older approach doesn’t diminish the biblical doctrine of progressive sanctification in favor of what Olevianus called imputed holiness or what you’re proposing to call consecration. The older approach held the two aspects of sanctification as complementary and the imputed/definitive/consecration aspect of sanctification is really just a reflection of justification as in Heidegger’s formulation (ahove).

  15. Scott,

    I don’t really disagree with you. I am mainly arguing for terminological clarity so that we can advance the discussion. I have no desire for any idea of consecration to dimish progressive sanctification — in fact, I mainly desire to safeguard the latter category by clearly distinguishing other and related phenomena.

    Thanks again,


  16. Dr. Clark,

    Don’t you think that Murray’s DF is confusing Forensic and Transformative aspect of union?

Comments are closed.