Defining Sanctification in Light of Romans 8:29-30

Romans 8:29-30 is famously dubbed “The Golden Chain of Redemption.” Five complete, Divine actions drive the passage: foreknew, predestined, called, justified, glorified. This overview of God’s work in salvation is referred to as monergistic (meaning “with one energy”) because God alone accomplishes it all.

One striking detail is that Paul seems to skip sanctification. Shouldn’t it be, “justified, sanctified, glorified”? One explanation might be that sanctification is not a monergistic work and so would not be appropriate for Paul’s point in Romans 8:29-30 (i.e. to explain how God works good in believers’ lives [v.28] and that if God is for us no one can be against us [v.31]). Yet this explanation does not seem appropriate. For Paul’s argument to work, the entire work of salvation must be monergistic. Leaving out one facet that doesn’t support his theology would at best be dishonest, at worst an upheaval of Paul’s apostolic integrity.

I suggest that Paul excludes sanctification because it does not ontologically progress the saint in salvation. In the remainder of this article I will defend and detail this proposition. First, we need to understand “predestined” in 8:29. Second, we need to understand the three terms introduced in verse 30: called, justified, glorified. Third, after this analysis is complete, a definition of sanctification can be arrived upon.

Chosen to Be Conformed

Foreknew” does not communicate that God based His election on foreseen faith. This foreknowledge is relational and is actually the doctrine of Unconditional Election itself (I’m not going to defend this here, but feel free to ask me questions in the comment section below).

Predestined” needs further explanation – unto what did God destine His elect to? “…predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.” Conformity to Christ’s image is the end unto which God has determined His elect. “Predestined” is not the act of God conforming us but the decision of God to conform us.

What is “the image of His Son”? Some suggest that it refers strictly to bodily resurrection (ex. see Paul Sloan, around minute 20). I consider this focus to be too narrow because of Paul’s emphasis on a present yet future salvation (Romans 8:12-25) – the “already and not-yet.” “Firstborn” refers to something being preeminent or exalted. Paul is literally saying, “so that Jesus would be the exalted elder brother of many” – or perhaps, “so that Jesus would be glorified among many.”

That being said, conformity to Christ’s image seems to only be possible through resurrection. “He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col 1:18). “Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly” (1 Cor 15:49). This seems to be what Paul speaks of in Romans 8:23, “And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” This redemption of the body is our resurrection, which Paul refers to as our adoption.

Yet this is intriguing, because Paul earlier wrote, “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (v.15-16). So which is it? Are we presently adopted as sons, or do we await a future adoption? The text appears forcing us to answer, “both” – but not in a mysterious sense. I suggest that Paul is actually referring to two resurrections: one of the spirit, one of the body. This would make sense of the “already and not-yet” theology found in Romans 8.

There is first a spiritual resurrection: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins…But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgression, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:1, 4-6). There is second a physical resurrection: “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, be the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to himself” (Phil 3:21).

Because each resurrection is of the same man and unto the same end (conformity to Christ), we should see this as one resurrection with two facets. 1 Peter 1:3-4 may support this: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you.” Christ’s physical resurrection in some sense secured for us a birth which we presently experience yet will one day receive in full.

Our resurrection is often called “birth” and thus appropriates the Biblical term of “adoption” and “child of God.” In the complete work of resurrection, we are reborn into Christ’s image. Regeneration would be the spiritual birth, where our hearts are conformed. Resurrection would be the physical birth, where our bodies are conformed. Considering these things, continue with me through Romans 8:29-30.

Judicial and Ontological Conformity

Paul introduces the final three Divine actions in verse 30. The calling pursues and accomplishes God’s purpose without fail (cf. 8:28; 31-39; 9:6-13), so it is effectual rather than invitational. This would be regeneration – the effectual work of God whereby a sinner is spiritually resurrected, given a heart that loves and clings to Christ (Ezek 36:26-27; 1 Jn 5:1). Justification, as Paul so laboriously detailed prior to this, is the Divine declaration that an individual is not guilty. The final action “glorified” must be referring to our physical resurrection and acquisition of heavenly bodies (cf. Rom 8:21). These three actions are distinct from the previous two (foreknew and predestined) because they involve God’s interaction with us in time. While election and predestination occurred prior to our birth, calling, justification and glorification are accomplished after we begin to exist.

I consider it appropriate to view the first two actions as God’s purposing and the final three actions as God’s accomplishing. If this is correct, then calling, justification and glorification comprise God’s work of conforming us into Christ’s image (i.e. what He predestined the foreknown unto). Calling and glorification refer to ontological conformity; justification refers to judicial conformity.

The judicial conformity provides the basis upon which God ontologically conforms us. God never changes and so always deals with men by a consistent standard. This standard has not and will not be broken, even for the purpose of conforming someone into Christ’s image. It is upon the basis of Christ’s obedience and death that God is then able to be just and the Justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom 3:26). It is common to say, “I am justified, therefore righteous,” but this statement is false. Justification does not make us righteous, it declares us righteous. We are given Christ’s unblemished record – thus, judicially conformed to His image.

The ontological conformity is the transformation of our being. This is the act in which God literally makes us righteous. Our calling is first, glorification is second. In terms synonymous with the purpose of this article: our spiritual resurrection is first, physical resurrection is second. We are first made inwardly like Christ, second made outwardly like Christ.

So What is Sanctification?

In light of these things, how might we define sanctification? It is not a creative work of God whereby an individual is made into Christ’s likeness. This creative work occurs in regeneration and resurrection. However, sanctification clearly depends on God’s work within us (Jn 15:1-9; Phil 2:12-13). As God works within us, these two passages clearly state that we must work-out this Divine grace. Sanctification is synergistic because both our energy and God’s energy are necessary. “But doesn’t that mean salvation is by works?” No, because sanctification is not a creative conformity to Christ’s image.

Regeneration and resurrection completely conform us to Christ’s image. Absolutely no work is needed on our part in order to bring these two things about. Sanctification must by nature be a different kind of work than foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification. In sanctification, what is already conformed to Christ’s image? Our heart. What has yet to be conformed? Our body.

Sanctification, I propose, is the progressive discipline of the flesh to conform to the affections of one’s regenerate heart. The energy to accomplish such discipline is only found in God, but the action of discipline is done by the individual. Further, the monergistic work of salvation (Rom 8:29-30) in no way hinges upon the amount of sanctification one experiences. Conformity to Christ’s image is accomplished in the resurrection of the spirit and body. Consider these texts that seem to support my proposition:

But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. – Hebrews 5:14

But I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. – 1 Corinthians 9:27

Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. – Galatians 5:24-25

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called. – Ephesians 4:1

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and wo work for His good pleasure. – Philippians 2:12-13

Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you. – 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8

This understanding of sanctification is congruent with the semantic use of the word. “Sanctify” means “to make holy,” or “to set apart.” Israel was commanded to sanctify itself from the world and to God. The sanctification clearly occurs only as far as an individual is obedient: “You shall consecrate yourselves therefore and be holy, for I am the Lord your God. You shall keep My statutes and practice them; I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (Lev 20:7-8). So here we see the synergistic work of sanctification. The Israelites were responsible to be holy – but God had already done a work to make them holy. God monergistically separated them from the world and to Him, then He told them to live in that separation. New Testament believers have the same responsibility. Our sanctification is essentially our work of setting ourselves aside for God – and this work is only possible by the power of God (again: Jn 15:1-9; Phil 2:12-13).

So why is sanctification excluded from Romans 8:29-30? Because it is not a creative, salvific act of God whereby we are made into Christ’s image. Sanctification is rather the synergistic, progressive discipline of our body, whereby it is conformed to righteousness while we await a physical resurrection.

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