By Ken Overby
Salvation’s ongoing work of sanctification is the subject of chapter six through chapter eight verse sixteen of Romans. As believers in Jesus, we understand that salvation is “not of works.”1 Salvation is not only to be appreciated in the past or to be anticipated in the future but to be acted out in the present. Sanctification is both a position granted at salvation and a lifelong process through which we are purified for holy service. It is both a position and a process. Dr. John Walvoord explains the concept of sanctification with an analogy of a first-century Jew making an offering to the Temple of gold coins.
“The moment they were given to God they became sanctified. They were set apart for holy use. The sanctification did not change the character of the gold coins, but it did change their use and the purpose for which they were directed.”2
Paul made it clear that we are called to the purpose of being “conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29).
Many true believers attempt to live by the same code of religion as those who are trying to establish their own righteousness. Once a Jewish man asked me, “Since Jesus was Jewish and kept the law, then why don’t Christians keep the law?” I pointed out that before the law was given, Abraham believed God and “he counted it to him for righteousness,” Genesis 15:6. Then I asked him, “What is the purpose for keeping commandments?” He replied, “When we do good things on the outside, it makes us better on the inside.” This is precisely the false teaching that Paul described when he wrote, “being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God,” Romans 10:3.
First century believers who had abandoned good works for salvation were being pressured to earn God’s favor by law keeping. Paul asked these Galatian believers, “Are ye so foolish, having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?,” Galatians 3:3.
Is sanctification accomplished by our works or is it the result of His work? It is actually a combination of both. Then, what is His part and what is our part? Initially, sanctification isn’t what we do externally, as much as it is who we became internally. It is an “inside job” that gradually produces increasing, observable evidence, Romans10:3. Ignorance of our position is one of the main reasons that we fail in our practice, Romans 7:15. Paul addresses this ignorance three times by the phrase, “Know ye not,” Romans 6:3, 16; 7:1. We must know our holy position and His holy presence if we are to have a holy practice. Ignorance must be removed by understanding our sin nature and our positional relationship with our Savior. Then, consistent interaction with His Spirit will accomplish our practical sanctification.
In chapter seven, Paul wants us to know both the righteousness of God’s law and the unruliness of our sin nature, Romans 7:14. He uses an unequally yoked marriage to illustrate our past dysfunctional relationship between God’s law as the perfect husband and the complete barrenness of our sinful flesh to produce spiritual fruit, Romans 7:1-3. Even Paul despaired in this struggle and signaled heaven with the S.O.S, “who shall deliver me from the body of this death?,” Romans 7:24. With the Spirit’s assurance, he exclaimed the victory through Jesus, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” Romans 7:25a.
Three keys to the process of sanctification are; “know,” “reckon,” and “yield,” Romans 6:6,9, 11, 13. First, we must know the “flesh.” The flesh, our sinful nature, the “old man,” Romans 6:6, possesses “no good thing,” Romans 7:18. We must know that the Spirit baptized us into Christ’s body when we were born again, as clearly seen in 1 Corinthians 12:13 “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles.”
It is crucial to grasp that we became part of His death on the cross at faith, not in the baptistery! “Baptized into his death,” Romans 6:3, happens at salvation. It is illustrated in water baptism. It is a relief to know that our fleshly nature is still present, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on us. “Our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin,” Romans 6:6, 7. We must know our new position in Christ. We became one with Him in death that “like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life,” Romans 6:4. Even with this position of new life, we have the freedom to either yield as servants “of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness,” Romans 6:16.
Now that we “know” our position of deadness to the sin nature and our new union with the life of Christ, we must “reckon” it as a reality, Romans 6:11. We are to affirm that in relationship with Him; we are dead to sin and alive to God. We struggle with the tension between the indicative tense of our position, “He that is dead is freed,” Romans 6:7, and the imperative commands in our practice, “Let not sin reign,” Romans 6:12. We can “walk in newness of life,” Romans 6:4. Paul is saying that our new life has become both a positional reality and a practical possibility. Only by the empowering presence of God’s Spirit can the imperative become a probability, in our life.3 The Spirit encourages us to “yield,” or surrender, to His will and volunteer our “members” as “instruments” and as “servants” of righteousness to God, Romans 6:13. Then our members can become servants, practicing God’s righteousness unto holiness, Romans 6:19. We must learn to perpetually yield to His Spirit that “dwelleth in you,” Romans 8:9,11.
In chapter seven, Paul gives us the contrast of our former husband with our new husband. When we were married to our old husband, the Law, we were in a relationship that only yielded sinful deeds. We are now dead to our first husband, Romans 7:4. We are in a new position with the new husband, our Lord Jesus. Like Sarah, our former moral barrenness to produce the promised offspring is now pregnant with fruitful potential, Romans 8:2-4. We have the example of Abraham, who for twenty-five years after he first believed was “strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform,” Romans 4:20-21. He lived as though God’s promise was already fulfilled.
There are two opposing principles at work in the life of the believer. The law of sin and death, and the law of the spirit of life in Christ, Romans 7:23; 8:2. Are we caught on the horns of a perpetual dilemma, between a spiritual mind and the sinful flesh? We are not destined to live in “spiritual schizophrenia.” Although Jesus saved us from sin’s penalty in the past, we need to rely fully on Him to continue to save us from sin’s power in the present. How does He do that now? Is our part just to deny the demands of the flesh with sheer will power? It is encouraging to discover that Paul did not ask what, but rather “who shall deliver me,” Romans 7:24. Chapter 8 reveals that the “who” is the Holy Spirit. He is mentioned in chapter 8 more than in any other chapter in the Bible. The Spirit will deliver us from the domination of sin, just as the Savior has saved us from the destiny of sin!
Before we received His spirit we hopelessly failed “to perform that which is good,” Romans 7:18. Since the Spirit is our internal agent of sanctification, it is essential that we depend on Him to bring the flesh under control. Romans chapter 8 gives us the key to victory in our new possession of the Spirit of Christ, Romans 8:2. First, the mind must be filled with “the things of the Spirit,” Romans 8:1,5. Then, we must yield in a surrendered walk that follows His Spirit, Romans 8:5. The Spirit of Christ alone can fulfill the righteousness of the law through us, Romans 8:4. It is through the Spirit’s power that we can mortify the desires and deeds of the flesh, Romans 8:13. When we know, reckon, and yield our bodies as servants to Christ and fill our minds with scripture, our fleshly slavishness to the law can be replaced by the willingness of an obedient son to our “Abba Father,” Romans 8:15. We are not just in a new kind of bondage. We have the leading of the Spirit, Romans 8:14. He gives a deep assurance that we are freed sons of God and joint heirs with Christ, Romans 8:16, 17.
“It is one thing to be born into God’s family through the miracle of regeneration. It is something else to become an adult son.”4
Abba, which is Aramaic, is neither a synonym nor a translation of the word Father, “pater” of Greek or Latin usage. The two different words communicate two particular concepts. Abba is the cry of a young child. Father is the expression of a mature son.
“The two expressions together indicate the love and intelligent trust of the child.”5
Voluntary righteousness of a yielded, mature son perfectly resembles our Lord Jesus in Gethsemane; “not my will, but thine be done,” Luke 22:42. This is the opposite of our nature from Adam who in effect said, “not thy will, but mine be done.” We mirror our Father through sanctification when we yield like His Son. Just as there was agony in that garden for salvation to be accomplished, there is agony in our struggle for sanctification to be achieved. But, like Jesus, who cried “Father” and was ministered to by an angel, we cry “Abba” and receive the comforting ministry of the Spirit. This work of sanctification is the process by which God conforms us from childhood into the mature likeness of His Son, Romans 8:29.
Dr. John Phillips said, “Granted a new law which liberates us from sin; granted also a new Lord…it is obvious that a new life must follow.”6
1. Ephesians 2:8,9
2. The Thessalonian Epistles, Zondervan Publishing House, 1967, Dr. John F. Walvoord, p. 52
3. Hard Sayings of Paul, Intervarsity Press, Manfred T. Brauch, 1989, p. 42
4. Exploring Romans, Moody Press, Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, 1969, John Phillips p. 127
5. Exploring Romans, Moody Press, Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, 1969, John Phillips p. 128
Footnote 2 W.E. Vine, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1948), p. 120
6. Exploring Romans, Moody Press, Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, 1969, John Phillips p. 127