We enter into a new life by the Spirit, a new spiritual life, in which sin no longer reigns over us. Because our sins have been dealt with and our old man has been crucified with Christ, the barrier that existed between us and God has been removed and we now receive the gift of the Spirit. And by the power of the Spirit we are enabled to walk in newness of life.
In one sense, we rightly think of sanctification as a progressive work. As the 1689 LBCF states, this is the Spirit’s work of destroying “the whole body of sin” and strengthening “all saving graces, to the practice of all true holiness” (13.1). When we encounter hagios/hagiazo (ἁγίος / ἁγιάζω) in NT usage, however, we also find a definitive aspect in the way the words are used.
We can also push a bit further by exploring how the New Testament describes what happens in conversion. There are several passages we could look at, but let us draw our attention to the one that is probably most familiar, Romans 6:1-14:
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.
Dead to Sin, Alive to God
Probably no passage is more instructive when it comes to definitive sanctification than this text. The constraints of this post will not allow me to give a full and detailed exposition of it, but here are the main lines of thought. Paul has just demonstrated in Romans 3:21-5:21 that the believer’s righteous standing and acceptance with God is not based on his own works but on the work of another on his behalf, even the redemptive work of Christ. He has been setting forth the glorious doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But now in Romans 6:1, he anticipates an objection to this doctrine and a potential abuse of it by wicked men: “But Paul, if, as you say, sinners as sinners are justified by grace alone through faith alone, why not just keep on living in sin that grace may abound? It doesn’t matter how we live.” This is the error and the objection Paul is anticipating as he begins this chapter.
He writes in verse 1, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” Having anticipated the objection, he then answers the objection: “Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” We have an aorist in the indicative mood, which normally points to a past time event. There was a specific point in the past when this death occurred.
Paul next goes on to give an extended explanation in vv. 3-10. He explains that the believer died to sin in the death of the Lord Jesus. We who are in Christ are united to Him in His death to sin, and we are also raised with Him in His resurrection to live a new life. This is symbolized by our baptism.
When did this happen? In one sense, we died with Christ when He died. Jesus was dying as our substitute and representative, even before we existed. In fact, we were chosen in Him before the foundation of the world, (Eph. 1:4). But we do not actually die with Him in our legal position and standing before God until our conversion. Our old man was crucified with Him as a completed past action in that very moment that we were joined to Him by faith.