Sanctification: God’s plan for the believer

By Don Johnson

A lot of ink (and pixels) has been spilled over the years on the subject of sanctification. Having recently completed a lengthy series of messages on Romans 6-8, I am now taking my turn at bat.

Sanctification can be considered under three aspects. There is the setting apart unto God at conversion, often called positional sanctification. There is the complete perfection of the saint upon his final separation from this flesh and arrival in heaven, often called ultimate or final sanctification. And there is that process by which the believer grows in grace through the trials of this life such that his life displays more and more the grace of God and reflects the image of Christ. This is usually called progressive sanctification and is the subject of this and a few more essays to come.

Progressive sanctification need not be controversial, since God has spelled out a great deal about it in his Word. Nevertheless, Christians, still encased in flesh, have managed to make even this a matter of dispute and argumentation among them. I believe that some of this controversy is not the result of making errors of understanding sanctification truth, but rather of over-emphasizing one aspect of sanctification truth over other equally important aspects of God’s revelation.

The Sanctification Chapters

In my teaching I summarize these chapters this way:

  • The Strategy of Sanctification (Rm 6)
  • The Struggle for Sanctification (Rm 7)
  • The Certainty of Sanctification (Rm 8)[1]

These chapters form a bit of the ‘so what’ of salvation. Romans 1-5 expose the desperate need of sinners for salvation and their only hope of justification – through faith in Christ. This hope of justification (salvation) is by grace – grace that covers every sin. You can’t out-sin God’s grace, it is free, full, comprehensive. Any sinner can be saved through faith in Christ if he will but repent and believe.

The fullness of God’s grace leads to the question which launches Romans 6: “So… shall we continue to sin so that grace may abound?” (my paraphrase). This question is the foundation of the ‘so what’ of sanctification. Sanctification is that which follows by natural course out of justification through faith alone.

The Strategy of Sanctification

The strategy of sanctification is outlined for us in four big words in Romans 6:

  • Know
  • Reckon
  • Yield
  • Obey

Know your place in Christ

Paul reacts to the suggestion of continued sin because of abundant grace with a shocked, “God forbid” (KJV), or a more literal: “May it not ever ever possibly come to pass!” He then proceeds to a second question:

Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? (Rm 6.3)

Paul is challenging the thinking of the Christian. The concept he points to is elementary, a basic concept of the Christian life that he expects every believer to know. If you were baptized into Christ (and every believer is), then you were baptized into his death. The point of this identification with the death of Christ is that we are now raised with Christ to “walk in newness of life” (Rm 6.4). We are not saved to continue sinning, we are saved to live a new kind of life.

This concept is elaborated on for several verses in Romans 6. See especially Rm 6.6, where we are told that we should no longer server sin (literally, ‘be slaves to sin’). The sanctification that follows salvation depends on a knowledge of what our salvation means.

Reckon yourself dead indeed unto sin

Having, then, a clear knowledge of what salvation means, we are called to act in verse 11:

Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rm 6.11)

Reckon is the first imperative in chapter 6, the first ten verses are explanatory or doctrinal. Based on the doctrine of salvation, we are to reckon (to account, to consider, to deem to be so) ourselves to be dead unto sin and alive unto God. What does this mean?

Reckoning is an act of faith whereby we see that what happened in our salvation is really true and we apply that truth to ourselves. We deem it to be so. I am dead indeed unto sin (by faith) and alive unto God (by faith). On the strength of this inner faith decision, I can walk in the Spirit and so fulfill the law of Christ. But we are getting ahead of ourselves, there is one more inner action still needed before sanctification can be fully displayed in our daily life.

Yield your members as instruments of righteousness unto God

With the faith decision to reckon myself dead indeed unto sin, I need to start looking outward from my inner man and make another faith decision:

Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. (Rm 6.13)

The first faith decision is to see myself as I truly am because of the gospel (reckon) and the second is to offer myself, my whole self including my individual members, as instruments for the use of God, to fulfill his righteousness on the earth. My eyes, my feet, my hands, and, yes, even my mouth are to be yielded, surrendered over, to God. The consequence of this yielding is sanctification (“holiness”) as we see in Rm 6.19.

Obey from the heart that form of doctrine to which you have been committed

All that we have seen so far is an inner work in the spirit, responding to the Spirit of God as his will is revealed through Romans 6. By knowing, my mind is turned to the truth of the gospel, by reckoning and then yielding, my heart and will are turned to the way of God. The final step of sanctification is to display these truths as living in me by my outward actions:

But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. (Rm 6.17)

Obedience is the last part of the strategy. This is not simply rigidly conforming my will to rules, but from a spiritual heart that knows, reckons, and yields, it is a heart-felt obedience to the doctrine to which we have been delivered (literal understanding of the phrase). That doctrine is the doctrine of the apostles, the whole record of the New Testament. It is this record and its guidance that ought to be the Christian’s delight. We ought to delight in the law of God after the inner man. We ought to think carefully how it applies to our life and then live it. We ought to live it with delight.

And having come through all of this strategy of sanctification, we should be living a life of victory in the world, displaying godliness everywhere we go and in everything we do.

Now… we realize that this idyllic picture is not usually the reality for most believers. Even those whom we look at as meeting the ideal most closely would probably tell us that they themselves fail of the ideal. What is the problem with our sanctification? That will be answered in part 2, the Struggle of Sanctification.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria and serves on the FBFI board as chair of the Communications Committee which is responsible for this blog.

  1. As Stewart Custer, one of my professors, might say, “Alliteration with sibilants this time.” []