Friday, 20 April 2012

Sanctification: indicatives and imperatives

At the Banner of Truth conference Maurice Roberts gave a helpful paper on 'God's Way of Holiness' - sanctification. He made no mention however of 'definitive sanctification' which is how Professor John Murray describes the change from death to life set out by Paul in Romans 6.

Murray is very clear that this is a radical and irreversible change of 'sphere', the believer crucified with Christ and raised to new life in Christ, dead now to sin so that sin shall no longer have dominion over him, and alive to God; the 'old man' (Adam) is dead in him and he is dead to the old Adam, though indwelling sin remains and will be in him till his dying day. This indwelling sin will cause the believer to have to struggle to obey, even though obedience to God's law comes naturally to the regenerate man; and he will have to struggle against the flesh and against sin, even though he is a new creature. The old man however can no longer tyrannize over the believer ; sin shall have no dominion. The Christian warfare is fought against the backdrop of the great and definitive victory that Christ has accomplished for him and participation in which has been effected by union with Christ. There may be many battles lost, but the war is won; there may be many falls along the way, but not so as to be lost; or many stumbles, but not so as to fall eternally.

Another way of summarising this is to say that in the Christian way of sanctification the imperatives ('you must...' or 'must not') are based on the indicatives of the Christian life ('you are...' or 'are not...').

When Maurice Roberts was asked what he thought of the doctrine of 'definitive sanctification' he quoted an answer Professor Murray had given to him once when he asked whether definitive sanctification differed from regeneration. Murray's answer was that it was a matter of 'multiformity of aspect'. One assumes that he meant by this that it was a different aspect of the same thing. But what thing? Surely union with Christ. Definitive sanctification is an aspect of union with Christ that comes at the beginning of the Christian life; it is not the same thing as regeneration though of course inseparable from it. They are different aspects of the same union with Christ.

Maurice Roberts' presentation of sanctification was entirely based on the doctrine of regeneration with no mention of definitive sanctification. One can teach the newness of the Christian life and 'death to sin' from the perspective of regeneration, but does it really do justice to the teaching of Romans 6 as well as Professor Murray's formulation? And does it do justice to the fact that in the New Testament (eg 1 Corinthians 6:11; Heb 2:11) sanctification is often regarded as a once for all event?

This does not deny the importance of progressive sanctification, but without a clear understanding of the indicative, the imperatives will sound too much like a grim struggle without any secure foundation from which to start.

I thoroughly appreciated Rev Roberts' paper, and I am not suggesting that he does not agree that 'the imperatives are based on the indicative' but I suggest that definitive sanctification is an important aspect of 'God's Way of Holiness', to do justice to Romans 6 and other parts of the New Testament, in order to clarify the 'indicative' basis of the Christian life and warfare.

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