Friday, May 25, 2007

John Murray on the task of Systematic Theology 6

Murray on Sanctification

John Murray did not write a complete systematic theology. But we can access his contribution to the discipline in his four volume Collected Writings, published by the Banner of Truth Trust (here). According to John Frame, who studied under Murray at the Westminster Theological Seminary, "His lectures were not, for the most part, reviews of Reformed traditions, but almost entirely exegetical". (Salvation Belongs to the Lord, P&R, 2006, p. 352).

An example of Murray's exegetical approach to theology can be seen in his treatment of the doctrine of sanctification in Collected Writings of John Murray Volume 2: Systematic Theology. In standard works of Reformed dogmatics, sanctification is defined as the progressive transformation of the believer (Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof, Banner of Truth Trust, 1984, p. 532 and A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith by Robert Reymond, Thomas Nelson, 1998, p. 767). But Murray noted that,
"it is a fact too frequently overlooked that in the New Testament the most characteristic terms that refer to sanctification are used not of a process, but of a once-for-all definitive act." ( p. 277).
Murray then proceeds to exegete the key New Testament texts on sanctification. In Paul's epistles, sanctification is no less definitive than justification (1 Corinthians 6:11), Believers have been definitively sanctified by virtue of their union with Christ in his death and resurrection. The theologian devotes particular attention to Romans 6:1-7:6. Murray shows that this emphasis can also be found in the teaching of Peter and John.
In a second article on The Agency in Definitive Sanctification, (p. 285ff), Murray again devotes careful attention to Biblical exegesis before drawing his insightful dogmatic conclusions,
"We see, therefore, that the decisive and definitive breach with sin that occurs at the inception of the Christian life is one necessitated by the fact that the death of Christ was decisive and definitive. It is just because we cannot allow for any reversal of repetition of Christ's death on the tree that we cannot allow for any compromise on the doctrine that every believer has died to sin and no longer lives under its dominion. Sin no longer lords it over him. To equivocate here is to assail the definitiveness of Christ's death. Likewise the decisive and definitive entrance upon newness of life in the case of every believer is required by the fact that the resurrection of Christ was decisive and definitive. As we cannot allow for any reversal or repetition of the resurrection, so we cannot allow for any compromise on the doctrine, that the body of sin has been destroyed, and that as a new man in Christ Jesus, he serves God in the newness which is none other than that of the Holy Spirit of whom he has become the habitation and his body the temple." (p. 293)
Murray's account of sanctification has been refreshed and reinvigorated by his exegetical approach. He was not content simply to restate the traditional Reformed emphasis that focuses almost exclusively on progressive sanctification. He captured the New Testament's teaching that sanctification is rooted in the believer's union with the crucified and risen Christ. Murray also discussed Progressive Sanctification, The Pattern of Sanctification and The Goal of Sanctification (p. 294-317). The theologian made an important and and fresh contribution to the Reformed understanding of sanctification. Future dogmatics should take his insights into account and build upon them to develop a more Scriptural, Christ-centred doctrine of sanctification. This post is obviously a very brief summary of Murray's teaching, but I hope I have done enough to whet reader's appetites. David Peterson was influenced by John Murray's articles in his Possessed by God: A New Testament theology of sanctification and holiness, Apollos, 1995, 191pp.
Page references to Collected Writings of John Murray Volume 2: Systematic Theology, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977.


John said...

The idea of definitive sanctification is in Thomas Boston, especially in his sermons on washing the disciples' feet only he doesn't use the term 'definitive sanctification' to describe it. Murray was always the master of the exactly-right terminology.

Guy Davies said...


No doubt others saw the definitive aspect of sanctification before Murray. But the point I was trying to make is that he didn't just follow the traditional treatment of the doctrine in Reformed systematics. His teaching on sanctification arose from Scriptural exegesis.

Anonymous said...

In our Lutheran Divine Service, we have a question which follows the confession of sins, "Do you intend, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to lead a holy life, even as Christ has made you holy?"

Off the top of my head I can't give you the history of this, but it would be a worthwhile subject to research in light of its doctrinal import.

Murray's view of sanctification seems to tally with what I have read of Calvin. Yes? Did it then get lost in Reformed scholasticism?

These are just rhetorical questions, mind you, thinking out loud.

Thanks for an interesting blog.