Putting Sin To Death

From “The Reformed Perspective”
by Anthony A. Hoekema, 1913-1988,
in “Five Views on Sanctification”

Biblical teaching on definitive sanctification suggests that believers should look upon themselves and each other as those who have died to sin and are now new persons in Christ. To be sure, the newness that believers have in Christ is not equivalent to sinless perfection; as long as they are in this present life, they must struggle against sin, and they will sometimes fall into sin. Believers, therefore, should see themselves and each other as persons who are genuinely new, though not yet totally new. But the doctrine of definitive sanctification helps us to see that those who are in Christ have made a decisive and irreversible break with sin.

John Murray (1898-1975) expresses this truth eloquently:

“As we cannot allow for any reversal or repetition of the resurrection (of Christ), so we cannot allow for any compromise on the doctrine that every believer is a new man, that the old man has been crucified, that the body of sin has been destroyed and that, as a new man in Christ Jesus, he serves God in the newness which is none other than that of the Holy Spirit of whom he has become the habitation and his body the temple.”

It should be added that definitive sanctification as described above does not refer to an experience separate from or subsequent to justification, as a kind of “second blessing.” In its experiential sense, definitive sanctification is simultaneous with justification, as an aspect of union with Christ.

As I have mentioned, however, the Bible teaches that there is also a sense in which sanctification is a lifelong process and is therefore progressive. Rather than nullifying what Paul says about definitive sanctification, this teaching supplements it.

The progressive sense of sanctification is evident, first of all, from biblical statements that assert that sin is still present in the believer. Probably the clearest “New Testament” statement of the point under discussion is found in “The First Letter of John,” chapter one, verse eight.

Addressing those who claim to have fellowship with God, John writes, “If we claim to be without sin (literally, if we say that we have no sin), we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”

The conclusion is inevitable: because sin continues to be present in those who are in Christ, the sanctification of believers must be a continuing process.

Scripture discusses directly both a negative and a positive aspect of progressive sanctification, involving both the putting to death of sinful practices and the growth of the new self. In “The Letter to the Romans, chapter six, Paul vividly sets forth the definitive aspect of sanctification. In “The Letter to the Romans,” chapter eight, verse thirteen, however, he points out that sanctification must also be progressive:

“For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death (literally, keep on putting to death) the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”

Believers, whom he has previously described as having died to sin, he now enjoins to keep on killing the sinful actions to which they might still be inclined. Paul’s readers have definitively broken with sin as the realm in which they live, move, and have their being; yet they must still continue to fight against sin as long as they live. Since they can do so only through the strength of the Spirit, this struggle against sin must be understood as an aspect of their sanctification.

Paul tells the Colossians that they have both died with Christ (Col. 3:3) and been raised with Christ (v.1); that is, they have definitively and irreversibly entered into a new life in fellowship with Christ.

Yet in verse five of this chapter, he enjoins them: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry."

Though they have died to sin, they must still put sin to death; as he often does, Paul here combines the indicative and the imperative. The putting to death of these sinful practices, which can only be done through the strength of the Spirit, involves the strenuous and lifelong activity of the believer.

From “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” chapter seven, verse one, we learned that believers must still contend with and seek to purify themselves from defilements of body and spirit. A similar injunction is found in “The First Letter of John,” chapter three, verse three.

After having affirmed that when Christ appears we shall be like him, John goes on to say, “Everyone who has this hope in him purifies (literally, continues to purify) himself, just as he is pure.”

Christians are not simply to sit back and wait for the time when they will be totally like Christ; they must be constantly and energetically active in the struggle to overcome evil with good. Continuing purification implies continuing sanctification.

The progressive nature of sanctification is also shown in passages dealing with its positive aspect: the growth of the new self. In “Colossians,” chapter three, verses nine and ten, Paul, as we saw, reminds his readers that they have taken off the old self and have put on the new self; the new self that they have put on, however, is described as one “which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (v.10). Since the new self is here said to need renewal, it obviously does not yet exist in a state of sinless perfection. The participle “anakainoumenon,” translated “being renewed,” is in the present tense, indicating that this renewal of the new self is a lifelong process. Interestingly, this passage presents both facets of sanctification: once and for all, believers have taken off the old self and put on the new self (definitive sanctification), but the new self that they have put on must be continually renewed (progressive sanctification).

The most striking description of the progressive nature of sanctification is in “The Second Letter to the Corinthians,” chapter three, verse eighteen, “We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

As believers reflect the glory of the Lord, they are being continually and progressively transformed into the likeness of Christ by the Lord himself, who is also the Spirit (v. 17). The word “metamorphoumetha,” here rendered “we are being transformed,” describes a change not just of outward form but of inner essence. Both the present tense of this verb and the words “from one degree of glory to another" (NSV) indicate that this transformation is not instantaneous but progressive.

Whereas some of the passages just cited stress the divine authorship of our sanctification, other texts underscore the participation of believers in this process. In “The Letter to the Romans,” chapter twelve, verse two, believers are urged to stop being conformed to this present age and, instead, to be transformed continually by the renewing of their minds; in the last part of “The Second Letter to the Corinthians,” chapter seven, verse one, we are directed to continue perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.

In “The Letter to the Ephesians,” chapter four, verse fifteen, sanctification is described as progressive growth into Christ: “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (RSV).

Peter also uses the metaphor of growth to describe the Christian life: “But grow (or keep on growing) in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 3:18).

Sanctification, therefore, must be understood as being both definitive and progressive. In its definitive sense, it means that work of the Spirit whereby he causes us to die to sin, to be raised with Christ, and to be made new creatures. In its progressive sense, it must be understood as that work of the Spirit whereby he continually renews and transforms us into the likeness of Christ, enabling us to keep on growing in grace and to keep on perfecting our holiness. One could think of definitive sanctification as the beginning of the process and of progressive sanctification as the continual maturing of the new person who was created by definitive sanctification. While sanctification in its totality is the work of God from beginning to end, particularly in its progressive phase the active participation of the believer is required.

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