The foundational importance of definitive sanctification

Although it is unclear from his definition, Hoekema (Saved by Grace , 202-9) rightly notes the definitive aspect to sanctification in the New Testament. Several texts point to the fact that God sanctifies his people once and for all, through the work of Christ on the cross.  Other texts link sanctification with conversion or baptism into Christ, highlighting the work of the Holy Spirit through the gospel, consecrating believers to God as his holy people under the New Covenant.  Yet even writers whole acknowledge this do not give the teaching the weight that it deserves.  There is an assumption that sanctification is mainly viewed in progressive terms in the New Testament.  Little is made of definitive sanctification as a basis and motivation for holy living.

Klaus Bockmuehl more helpfully begins his exposition of the subject by defining sanctification in the Old Testament as ‘the act or process by which people or things are cleansed and dedicated to God, ritually and morally’ (‘Sanctification’, in S. B. Ferguson & D. F. Wright [ed.], New Dictionary of Theology, [Leicester/ Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1988), 613]). This is where a truly Biblical Theology of sanctification and holiness should begin.

Turning to the New Testament, Bockmuehl observes that cleansing and dedication continue to be dominant notes when the terminology of sanctification and holiness is used.  Sanctification is a state in which believers find themselves because of the work of Christ and the operation of his Spirit in their lives.  They are called to remain in that state ‘by living in correspondence to their given holiness’ (p. 614). So Bockmuehl views sanctification in the New Testament as ‘a one-time event and as a process, the believers being and becoming holy and acting correspondingly’.

S. E. Porter, (‘Holiness, Sanctification’, in G. F. Hawthorne, R. P. Martin & D. G. Reid [ed.], Dictionary of Paul and his Letters,[Downers Grove/Leicester: IVP], 399), similarly concludes that, ‘if one must reduce sanctification to a single notion, it may be summarized in the idea that the believer both lives in holiness and grows into holiness’.

Possessed by God is concerned to explore whether this is the best way to express the teaching of the New Testament. It argues that definitive sanctification is a more important theme in the New Testament than has generally been acknowledged.  Rightly understood, this doctrine is a key to holy living and a way through the impasse created by much previous debate.  God calls us and enables us in Christ to live as those possessed by God and empowered by his Holy Spirit.  This is the theme of my first three chapters.

My fourth chapter then examines New Testament exhortations to pursue holiness and considers the sense in which sanctification is a process of ‘becoming’ and ‘acting’.  Much debate about sanctification has focussed on the interpretation of Romans 6-8. Consequently, my fifth chapter provides an overview of that section, in the light of Paul’s teaching about sanctification elsewhere.

Biblical promises of transformation and growth are then considered in the sixth chapter, as I attempt to integrate other strands of teaching about the Christian life with what I have discovered about sanctification.


13 thoughts on “The foundational importance of definitive sanctification

  1. Kory Capps

    Dr. Peterson,

    I greatly appreciated your book on sanctification. It has transformed my understanding. I have been using it with some other guys I am working with. Great work! One question I am grappling with and your book has pushed me towards is this: how do you understand the relationship of spiritual disciplines to that of both positional and progressive sanctification? Can you help me out with this?


    1. Kory,
      Thanks for your encouragement. I think I begin to deal with this issue in chapters 4-6 of ‘Possessed by God’. Meditation on Scripture, prayer, Christian fellowship and the Lord’s Supper are ways of learning to appreciate and enjoy what it means to be sanctified in Christ and to be motivated to live out that status in everyday discipleship. God himself works on us through suffering and other disciplinary experiences to move us forward in Christ likeness.


  2. Kory Capps

    Also, could you say a word on sanctification (both positional and progressive) and its relationship to the physical body? It seems that this is also a much neglected topic in the discussion of sanctification. Thanks again and keep up the good work. Kory


    1. Kory,
      This issue is partly dealt with by looking at 1 Thessalonians 5:23. Complete sanctification will take place when our bodies are renewed through resurrection ‘at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Meanwhile, flesh and Spirit are opposed to each other and we must seek to walk by the Spirit and not gratify the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16-26). Paul does not speak of progress here but of faithfulness and vigilance in the ongoing battle with sin. Again, in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 Paul uses the image that our bodies belong to God through redemption and the indwelling of the Spirit. These truths are the motivation for constantly submitting the body to God for his rule and direction, because he has possessed us in Christ. We engage in this struggle with gratitude for our sanctification in Christ and with the hope of full and final transformation at the resurrection.


  3. Hi David

    I was wondering whether you could share your thoughts on 1 Corinthians 7.14 and v.16. There, it seems, there is a ‘holy’ status conferred to both spouse and child of a believer, and yet this is not salvation. How do you think we are best to understand this? while these verses are in a challenging passage of scripture, it seems to me that Paul has something very positive to say, and that to put this passage in the ‘too hard’ basket could be quite detrimental

    Hope this finds you well



    1. Hi Tim. Good to hear from you. In Possessed by God (p. 87) I say: ‘The terminology of sanctification is clearly used in a modified sense here. Instead of defiling the believer, the unbelieving partner is brought into a relationship of special privilege and opportunity with respect to God, but is not yet converted (v. 16).’ You might like to check the references I give there and the analogy with Rom. 11:16, where the ‘whole lump’ of Israel is described as ‘holy’ but not yet converted to Christ.


  4. David, this is a great book. I’m re-reading it now as I present a message related to grace and gospel-centeredness. Do you know any other books that touches on definitive sanctification which you could recommend?

    Also, how could you explain the difference between justification and definitive sanctification? Thanks.


    1. Jonathan, I am sorry it has taken me so long to respond to your comment. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend other books that have expounded the idea of definitive sanctification exactly as I have. However, you will notice in the end notes of ‘Possessed by God’ that there are various articles that have been written on this topic. I define the difference between justification and sanctification on pages 45-47. Justification implies acquittal and vindication, setting believers in a right and faithful relation to God. Sanctification involves setting believers apart from other attachments to belong to God. Of course, these are complementary terms, along with others used by Paul to describe the impact of Jesus’ saving work on us such as ‘washed’, ‘redeemed’ and ‘reconciled’. In view of OT usage of the terminology, sanctification particularly suggests a covenantal and corporate relationship with God. I hope this helps. David


      1. Jeremy Chen

        “. Justification implies acquittal and vindication, setting believers in a right and faithful relation to God. Sanctification involves setting believers apart from other attachments to belong to God. ” Wow, very helpful.

        This is a much needed conversation these days; how would Jews hear it when the words “holy” “sanctification” etc. were voiced? It seems the wouldn’t so much hear “progressive moral renewal” so much as they would have the temple, sacrifices, etc. come to mind. They would think of the otherness of God and God’s calling to them to be other – to be unlike the rest of the world, in order to reflect HIS otherness to the world.

        What do you think?


      2. Jeremy, I am sure that a Jew who was familiar with OT Scripture would view sanctification and holiness as primarily covenantal and cultic in meaning, but with significant moral and social implications for everyday life and witness to the world.


  5. John Moutou

    Hello David,
    I have not read your book, ‘Possessed by God’ yet but have read several reviews of it and intend to read it in full. I am living in a French-speaking country and involved with a French christian fellowship. And I myself am reading as many good Christian works in French as possible to improve my language skills. I was wondering whether there are any plans to have the book translated into French in the near future? It seems that the book brings out an overlooked aspect of an important topic and as such, it would be good to see it available to christians of other languages as well.
    many thanks


    1. John, It’s great to know that you are ministering in a French-speaking country. There are no plans to translate ‘Possessed by God’ at the moment, but if you could find a French publisher who might be interested, they could approach IVP for permission to do this. You might be interested to know that my book ‘Engaging with God’ was published as ‘En Esprit et en verite: Theologie biblique de l’adoration’ (sorry about the missing acutes) by Editions Excelsis in 2005. David


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s