Personal Sanctification Is by Faith

Steven M. Baugh
Tuesday, March 1st 2022
Mar/Apr 2022

In my previous article (January/February 2022), I made the case that in Hebrews 12:14, the “holiness” required to see God does not refer to our personal sanctification or holiness, but to the consecration obtained by faith in Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice. The point of that discussion, as well as this one, is to illustrate how one exegetes the Bible. The goal of exegesis is very simple: to understand a passage in its various contexts. It is basically a matter of judgment as to how much weight to put on the various contextual factors when examining a particular passage. As exegetes, the center of our focus is always what a biblical author is precisely saying in the target passage.

In light of this, one could read my last article and imagine that I deny the Christian’s need for personal holiness. In fact, this is a fairly typical charge against those who teach and preach the biblical doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone. It is said that this Reformation teaching undermines the need for Christians to pursue personal holiness. Nothing could be further from the truth! The requirement for personal holiness is clearly and repeatedly taught in other places in the Bible. If we want to discuss personal sanctification, we ought to turn to passages besides Hebrews 12:14—and we wouldn’t have far to go!

In verses 7–11 of the same chapter, the author to the Hebrews addresses their need to persevere in pursuit of personal sanctification. For this concept, the author never uses the term properly rendered “sanctification” or “holiness”; instead he uses a term like “righteousness”—expressed, for example, in his happy phrase “the peaceable fruit of righteousness” (Heb. 12:11). Yet in looking at Hebrews 12:7–11, we find that our personal growth in righteousness is the outcome of God’s own working to discipline us as his own beloved children, not as those who are illegitimate or objects of his displeasure. One is reminded here of the great benediction at the end of the letter: that the God of peace might be “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight” (Heb. 13:20; see also John 15:1 or Eph. 2:10).


God’s Working in Us

God’s direct supervision of our sanctification lies behind one of the classic statements of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which asks “What is sanctification?” and answers “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (WSC Q&A #35). The operative phrase here is “the work of God’s free grace,” which can be compared to the confession’s statement on justification two questions earlier where justification is said to be an “act of God’s free grace” (WSC Q&A #33). Justification is a single act of God, but our sanctification is his work that signifies a lifetime process only to be concluded when we are raised to new life in the image of the risen last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45–49).

But again, while we strive to grow in holiness, the key element is ultimately our Father’s own working in us “to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). This leads us to a complex but brilliant Pauline passage: Romans 6:1–13. The main point I hope to establish from here is that our sanctification is by faith.


The Context of Romans 5­–6

As we approach Romans 6, two things have proven particularly helpful to understanding Paul’s oftentimes difficult writings (2 Pet. 3:16).

First, one needs to evaluate the broad contours of his discourse, especially when he inserts a long tangent into the middle of his argument. This is the case for our passage (Rom. 6:1–13). Let’s pause to see how this works.

When we arrive at Romans 6, Paul had just been developing an argument for justification by faith alone in Christ alone, the second Adam and our covenant head (Rom. 5:1–21). But after chapter 5, he suspends further development until chapter 8, when he picks up the thread again. (He actually signals this in Romans 8:1 with two Greek particles, which for him have the meaning: “Now, back to the point of what I was saying before . . .”). To test this, read directly from Romans 5:1–21 and then skip to 8:1 and pick up reading. You will see how nicely this fits together. (You can do the same, for instance, with Eph. 3:1 and 3:14 where vv. 2–13 are an aside.) This makes Romans 6–7 a rather long parenthetical section. It is actually not considered unusual by ancient standards and was quite common for authors of the era. For example, the historian Polybius has many long digressions of this sort that seem rather endless when reading him.

Second, Paul often writes precise, closely reasoned lines of thought, which can easily lead readers astray when they misunderstand the exact question he is addressing in a passage or try to apply the text to their own questions. There are, of course, applications to be found from Paul’s writing, but this is only possible after understanding the narrow issue that he is focused on. To interpret a passage in Paul, find the implied question he is answering. In our passage, he helps us perceive the question by asking it himself: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1 ESV).

The question stated in Romans 6:1 is very interesting. When you read it in context, Paul himself anticipates the objection to justification by faith alone. He has just been expounding on the righteousness of Christ imputed to his people as a free gift by grace through faith. Then he asks the virtual question: Does this le­ad to antinomianism (i.e., lawlessness)? If we teach salvation by faith alone, doesn’t this lead believers to simply live in sin afterward? There are many objections to this conclusion, which Paul explicitly denies. “By no means!” (ESV) is a strong denial: “Never!” or more loosely, “Are you kidding? No way!” (Rom. 6:2). Then, in Romans 6:2–13, he develops an answer for why we cannot continue in sin after putting our faith in Christ. Paul concludes that our sanctification is as much by faith as is our justification.


Sanctification by Faith in Christ

Paul begins by explaining how abandonment to sin is impossible for those who trust in Christ with the truth that Christ’s death to sin (v. 10) is our death to sin (v. 2b). When he died, we died (vv. 3, 5, 8); when he was crucified and buried, we were crucified and buried (vv. 4, 6; cf. Gal. 2:20; Eph. 2:1–6). Therefore, we are “dead to sin” (v. 2) because he is dead to sin (v. 10). Christ Jesus committed no sin, but our sin became his by imputation: “For our sake he [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). We are therefore no longer enslaved to sin or need to obey its orders (Rom. 6:6–7; developed in vv. 15–23).

The connection between Christ and his people is real, as our substitutionary mediator (also called “our covenant surety” in Heb. 7:20–22). Our death in Christ is represented in our baptism into his death (Rom. 6:3–4; cf. Col. 2:12). Express this connection positively and you have justification: Christ’s righteousness is our righteousness leading to eternal life as a free gift by faith (e.g., Rom. 5:15–17; 6:23). Accordingly, Christ’s resurrection is our resurrection (Rom. 6:4, 7). His resurrection may be in the past and ours in the future, but ours is as if it had already happened because the basis of our resurrection took place in Christ two thousand years ago. We now have eternal life in resurrection glory in him (v. 5).

These truths are the key to sanctification by faith. It is faith in Christ—trust that he died and rose for us so that we have died in him and will be raised in him (v. 8)–which leads us to grow in holiness. Notice how Paul cements this in our faith and our certain knowledge: “we believe . . . we know” (vv. 8–9). These are not vague surplus ideas to Christianity, but its very heart. This is our faith: “We have died with Christ,” and so “We believe that we will also live with him” (v. 8). The next step inevitably follows: We died with Christ “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (v. 4). This is our sanctification by faith through God’s working, which Paul expresses in another place: “We are his creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should start walking in them” (Eph. 2:10; my trans.).



Paul draws his answer to the question posed in Romans 6:1 to a conclusion in verse 11: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (ESV). This word consider is also translated “reckon” in other versions. Our faith in Christ leads us to reflect upon ourselves in a new way. Just as we know that God “reckons” us to be righteous in Christ in our justification, so we reckon ourselves to be alive and able to walk in the good works God has prepared for us. This reckoning is an act of faith.

To grow in holiness, we start by “reckoning” the truth about ourselves in Christ flowing out of our foundational faith in him. We are not merely imagining these things to be true of us; they are true of us because of our link by faith to Christ and the truth found in him. Just as he no longer lives to (imputed) sin (v. 10), accordingly we too have been freed: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Rom. 6:22 ESV). Only after we have absorbed these truths and truly believe them can we heed the Lord’s exhortation to us to grow in sanctification: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies. . . . Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life” (Rom. 6:12–13 ESV).

S. M. Baugh (PhD, University of California, Irvine) is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.

Tuesday, March 1st 2022

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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