Positional vs. Progressive Sanctification

by Thomas Overmiller

When a person believes in Christ as God and Savior, immediately he or she receives a new spiritual nature and enters a close and permanent relationship with God. Such a person is no longer obligated to think and behave wrongly but has been freed to do what is good and right instead. This person shifts from being far away from God and deserving of His judgment to becoming a child in God’s family with the guarantee of His immeasurable, never-ending blessing.

Such a radical and complete change in a person’s spiritual status and condition, however, is neither the climax nor the culmination of his or her personal transformation; it is only the beginning. Since this person has become God’s child, he must now become more like God’s child. Since she has been freed from the compulsory power of sin in her life, she should now exhibit thoughts, feelings, words, and behavior that resemble the character and conduct of Christ through her life, for she now knows Christ not only as her Savior, but also as her teacher, example, and Lord.

Theologians call our entrance into God’s salvation “regeneration.” There is a sense in which this regeneration is instantaneous. We believe in Christ, and in that moment we are placed into a new position with God as His child. This regeneration is irreversible. Once our new birth occurs, our new relationship with God can never be annulled and will never end. Yet once we become God’s child, something else not only occurs but begins. A new process begins, a process that theologians call “sanctification” and that we may more commonly refer to as Christian growth or spiritual growth.

Unlike regeneration, which is a radical and complete change that occurs instantaneously, sanctification is a gradual change that occurs afterward and progressively over time. Scripture describes this process of personal, spiritual change as “growing.” Plants, for instance, grow over time from small seeds to flourishing vines or trees, and infants grow up to become mature, successful adults who resemble their parents.

In a similar but far more significant way, people who believe in Christ as God and Savior not only become God’s children in a positional sense, but they also become like Christ as their mindset and manner of life gradually and progressively jibe with their new relationship to Christ. Such change does not cause or bring about salvation but is the ensuing and ongoing result of salvation. As encouraging and exciting as the prospect of this personal transformation seems, how does such change into Christlikeness occur?

Thomas Overmiller (MDiv, Baptist Bible Seminary) is lead pastor of Brookdale Baptist Church, Moorhead, Minn. He blogs at Shepherd Thoughts.