Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers understand what sin is, how serious sin is, and how great the grace of God, who offers redemption to sinners from sin and new life in Christ.
- David Dunham opened our series on sin with a look at sin and biochecmical brokenness.
- Zach wrote on overcoming a sinful theology of Lent and Fasting.
- Nick Batzig wrote on two dangers and three duties in confessing sin to one another.
- Today Dave writes on indwelling sin, positional sanctification, and progressive sanctification.
If you were to talk to the average Christian about sanctification they would mention how they have been saved from sin but speak very little about what they have been saved to or for. I know this because over the years of working in ministry both inside and outside the local church, I know that many Christians are confused about this topic. In fact, I would say that positional (or definite) sanctification and progressive sanctification can be two of the most confusing topics to talk about with the average lay person.
Every believer is sanctified (set apart) unto God by justification and is therefore declared to be holy and is identified as a saint. This sanctification is positional and instantaneous and should not be confused with progressive sanctification. Positional sanctification has to do with the believer’s standing, not his present walk with God or spiritual condition (Acts 20:32; 1 Cor. 1:2). By the work of the Holy Spirit, progressive sanctification takes place in the life of the believer as they are brought closer to the likeness of Christ through obedience to the Word of God, enabling them to live a life of increasing holiness in conformity to the will of God (John 17:17, 19; Rom. 6:1-22). Every saved person is involved in a daily conflict, the battle of the new creation in Christ against the flesh, but adequate provision is made for victory through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The struggle nevertheless stays with the believer all through this earthly life and is not over until he/she reaches Heaven. All claims to the eradication of sin in this life are unscriptural. Complete eradication of sin is not possible on earth, but the Holy Spirit does provide for victory over sin (Gal. 5:16-25; Eph. 4:22-24).
One of the reasons I’m tackling indwelling sin, positional and progressive sanctification in one article is because Paul deals with them in three successive chapters in Romans 6-8. In Romans 6 we learn that we have been saved from sin and to the Lord Jesus in order to be slaves of the Risen Christ. As a result of this, we are no longer to live for ourselves or in a manner we want but rather we are to live as unto the Lord (Romans 6:1-11). The believer, as I’ve pointed out at the beginning of this article, has a new identity, which is a positional standing with Christ. This means that his/her sins are removed as far as the east is to the west. They are in Christ which is why Paul can declare that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Theologians call this being united with Christ, which is a fancy way of explaining how the gospel has been applied to God’s people through the work of the Holy Spirit. The application of this work produces the new birth whereby a sinner is transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. This work of Christ also means that believers have a new standing or position as they are no longer as slaves but friends and servants of the Risen Christ.
While it’s important to note all of this, it’s also equally important to emphasize the truth of Romans 7 that the believer isn’t yet completely glorified. Some teach that the Christian is entirely glorified—namely that their sin nature has been fully removed. This teaching mocks the words of Romans 7 as well as other Scriptures that reference how believers are to put off sin and put on the Lord Jesus Christ. While any effort in the Christian life is to be motivated or energized by the Holy Spirit, the Christian is still called to work out his/her salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). The Apostle James says faith that doesn’t demonstrate itself in tangible ways, however small, is a faith that is dead (James 2:12-26). This means faith that is alive unto God is one that will express itself in good works because of the grace that one has received. This demonstrates that the believer is in a constant and daily battle against sin. This is what theologians call indwelling sin, which is the truth taught in Romans 7 for the purpose of progressive sanctification (becoming daily like Jesus through ongoing repentance). Put another way (and perhaps more succinctly), positional sanctification leads to progressive sanctification which culminates in glorification when the Christian is united with Jesus in Heaven.
One of the reasons that speaking about indwelling sin, positional sanctification, and progressive sanctification can be so confusing is because Christians talk about what we have been saved from, but hardly ever talk about what we have been saved to—namely the need to reflect the holiness of God in the world. While we often talk about how we are to engage culture, there is precious little talk about speaking clearly on who we are in Christ, followed by how we are to grow in Christ, and then moving to the discussion of how we are to engage a lost and dying world with the gospel. It is because of this lack of emphasis on these aforementioned issues that the Church within the United States lacks God-ordained power and is often a Church that emphasizes programs over growth in holiness.
The Apostle Paul in Romans 6-8 sets the record straight; he clears away any confusion about the progression we just analyzed. Paul states that the believer has a new identity in Christ which he/she received because of the finished work of Christ noted in Romans 6. In Romans 7, Paul makes clear that the Christian will continue to wrestle with indwelling sin, something Paul notes he also struggles with. This struggle includes the believer seeing himself as he is in Christ, but also as he is due to sin, namely a wretch in need of a Savior. This reality check will compel the believer to daily desire to turn away from sin to Jesus. The truth of indwelling sin leads to progressive sanctification, daily becoming more like Jesus. When indwelling sin and progressive sanctification are divorced from each other, the result is the Christian will be overly introspective which will result in him/her feeling nothing but guilt and shame rather than hope, healing, and freedom in Christ.
Finally, as I’ve talked to Christians of varying stages of their growth in Christ, what I’ve found is that once we define the words being used, clarity typically ensues. In this article, I realize I’ve talked about some very deep truths from God’s Word. I encourage you to open your Bible and study these issues to gain further clarification. I also encourage you, dear brother or sister, to get plugged into a solid Bible-teaching church, where you can sit under the preaching and teaching of God’s Word. There is a lot more that could be said about this topic, but in conclusion, I will say that not speaking precisely clearly, and simply are some of the reasons this issue is often so confusing in the first place. Let us open the Bible, and not just let it sit there but rather read it, then study it, meditate upon it, and obey it all to the glorious grace of our great God and King, Jesus Christ.