The Most Important Overlooked Doctrine?
What is the most important overlooked biblical doctrine? Without hesitation, I would suggest that it is the doctrine of definitive sanctification.1 It was the late Professor John Murray who first articulated and popularized this doctrine. As he studied the exegetical statements of the New Testament that spoke of believers having been sanctified through the death of Christ (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:2; 6:11; Heb. 10:10, etc.), Murray suggested that "it is a fact too frequently overlooked that in the New Testament the most characteristic terms used with reference to sanctification are used not of a process but of a once-for-all definitive act," and that "it would be, therefore, a deflection from biblical patterns of language and conception to think of sanctification exclusively in terms of a progressive work." Still many tend to think of sanctification as something entirely progressive, and, therefore, miss out on understanding one of the richest and most spiritually impacting Gospel truths. In order for us to understand why this is the most important overlooked doctrine, it will help us to consider what definitive sanctification is, why it has frequently been overlooked and how it ought to impact our Christian lives.
What is Definitive Sanctification?
As he unfolded the meaning of definitive sanctification, Murray explained that certain portions of Scriptures, such as Romans 6:1-23, teach that "there is a once-for-all definitive and irreversible breach with the realm in which sin reigns in and unto death," and "that our death to sin and newness of life are effected in our identification with Christ in his death and resurrection." In further explaining how union with Christ makes definitive sanctification a reality, Murray wrote:
It is by virtue of our having died with Christ and our being raised with Him in His resurrection from the dead that the decisive breach with sin in its power, control, and defilement had been wrought...Christ in his death and resurrection broke the power of sin, triumphed over the god of this world, the prince of darkness, executed judgment upon the world and its ruler, and by that victory delivered all those who were united to him from the power of darkness and translated them into his own kingdom. 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 his resurrection...
When the Apostle Paul said of Christ that "the death that He died, He died to sin once for all" (Rom. 6:10) he was referring to something that happened to Jesus in His death, and which subsequently has had an impact on us by virtue of our faith-union with Him. While Jesus knew no personal sin, as our representative He subjected Himself to the guilt and power of sin. When He died, He died to the power of sin's dominion. This is how we are set free from the power of sin's dominion in our lives when we are united to Him by faith. Distinct from the blessing of justification--which deals with the guilt of sin--definitive sanctification deals with the power of sin.
Why Has Definitive Sanctification Been Overlooked?
One of the most basic reasons why definitive sanctification isn't more widely taught and delighted in is that it was formulated and popularized by a professor at a highly academic Reformed seminary (one of the finest in all of church history) in the 20th Century. Additionally, you won't find this doctrine explicitly taught in our historic creeds or our beloved Reformed confessions. That being so, Professor Murray was not contradicting the Reformed Confessions with his formulation; he was, in a very real sense, building upon what our Reformed forefathers had already said about sanctification--by means of exegetically driven doctrinal refinement. The Reformed church has commonly tended to shy away from doctrinal pioneering (except in the realm of eschatology), for the obvious reason that such pioneering has usually ended in a jeopardizing of the biblical doctrines that we have come to so love and embrace. But this is not the case with definitive sanctification. You will sometimes find hints of the truth of this particular doctrine in the writings of the Puritans and other Reformed theologians of bygone ages--generally placed within the realm of regeneration or progressive sanctification. It may rightly be said to stand at the head of progressive sanctification, as it has a logical priority to our being made more and more into the image of Christ; but, it must be distinguished from progressive sanctification because--like the doctrine of justification--it is a once-for-all decisive act of God.
How Should the Doctrine of Definitive Sanctification Affect Our Lives?
In Romans 6, the Apostle Paul makes two astonishing statements. The first came in the form of a question: "How can we who have died to sin live any longer in it?" The apostle's rhetorical question could be reworded to give it its proper sense: "How are we who have died to sin able to live any longer in it?" We should understand that it is an impossibility that those who have died with Christ, by virtue of their union with Him, should continue living on in sin. The reality of truth of this doctrine for the Christian is that he or she is no longer a slave of sin. In union with Christ, we too have died, been buried and have risen with Him (Colossians 2:20-3:4). When He died, we died. When He was buried, we were buried. When He rose, we rose with Him. We have died to the dominion of sin, because He died to sin's dominion. This is something different than that which we get in justification. In justification, we get the guilt of our sin removed, our sins forgiven and Christ's righteousness imputed to us. In definitive sanctification we undergo a radical breach with sin's dominion and power. This means that we should not and do not have to go on sinning.
The second astonishing statement is found in verse 11. When we are tempted to sin, we must say to ourselves, "I have died with my Savior and have been raised with Him. I am no longer a slave to sin. I do not have to enter into this temptation. How can I subject myself to sin's dominion, since I have been set free from sin's power?" Paul intimates that this is the precise "cash value" of the truth of definitive sanctification when he writes: "Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6:11). Paul insists that there is an aspect of "preaching the Gospel to yourself" that includes preaching the truth of your definitive sanctification to yourself. As you do, you will make strides in your progressive sanctification. As our knowing that we have been justified in Christ (Rom. 5:1) affects us experientially, so too our knowing that we have been sanctified (1 Cor. 6:11) affects our growth in grace. May God give us grace to learn, understand, meditate on and experientially enjoy the truth that we have been definitive sanctified in union with the Savior.
1. All of the Murray citations in this post are taken out of his article, "Definitive Sanctification," in Calvin Theological Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1, April 1967.
John Murray "Definitive Sanctification" - an audio lecture
John Murray Collected Writings of John Murray vol. 2 (Banner of Truth)
John Murray Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Eerdmans Publishing)
Joseph Pipa "Definitive Sanctification" - a lecture given at the 2001 GPTS Theology Conference
Sinclair Ferguson "Grace Abounding, Sin Continuing?" - (audio sermon)
Sinclair Ferguson "Do You Consider Yourself Dead To Sin?" - (audio sermon)
Sinclair Ferguson "Sin: A Dominion Ended; A Reign Rejected" - (audio sermon)
Sinclair Ferguson "Union with Christ: Mind-Renewing Foundations" - a lecture given at the 2014 Desiring God Pastor's Conference
Nick Batzig "The Secret of Sanctification" - an article in the September 2011 edition of Tabletalk Magazine