Positional or definitive sanctification is a key biblical teaching to which some in recent years have called attention. God has set apart true believers as His sanctified people. If you are a true believer, then in this sense you are sanctified. Period. The classic NT example that demonstrates this aspect of sanctification is 1 Corinthians 1:2. (Keep in mind the kinds of problems Paul was having to address with the Corinthian believers at the time!)
“Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.”
But does this mean that we can’t use the English word “sanctification” for anything other than definitive sanctification? I don’t think so. We need a word we can use to talk about the believer’s growth in grace and holiness, and sanctification is a well-established word that is worth using—as long as we know what we are talking about. Andreas Köstenberger provides a helpful explanation of the relationship between the two aspects of sanctification:
In the Old Testament, the definitive aspect of sanctification involved God’s election of a people, deliverance of that people from bondage in Egypt, and giving of the law to that group of people at Sinai. The progressive aspect of sanctification involved the same people living in holiness in response to God’s saving and sanctifying initiative. In the New Testament, the definitive aspect of sanctification involves God’s election of a people and deliverance of that set of individuals from sin through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus. The progressive aspect of sanctification involves these set-apart people living and growing in holiness in response to God’s saving and sanctifying activity. . . . Believers, as God’s set-apart people, find themselves in a somewhat paradoxical situation where they are at the same time holy and yet still must strive for holiness. We must become what, on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice and union with him, we already are. Holiness is both an event—an act of God—and a process.
Progressive sanctification is what happens when a justified believer is progressively conformed to the image of his Savior Jesus Christ as he grows in grace and godliness during his earthly life. As the believer battles sin, he relies on the work of the Spirit to grant victory and to grow in him an ever-increasing love for God’s Word and ways. This work of the Spirit never brings about complete perfection in the life of the believer on earth but instead is a process that extends all the way to the end of life. At death (or, for one generation of Christians, when raptured) the believer is finally glorified and will sin no more.
I’m thankful that God set me apart as consecrated to Him from my first day as a 7-year old believer. And I am thankful that He’s committed to growing me in Christ-likeness through many personal bumps in the road since then! By God’s grace as a believer I am both sanctified, and growing in sanctification. Both are only possible because of Jesus Christ.