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Justification and Sanctification

On many occasions I have taught on the topics of justification and sanctification. There are few doctrinal topics that exert a more important influence on our lives as Christians than these. With this in mind, I thought I would summarize some of the points that I made for your continued reflection.

Perhaps the best short definition of justification is given in Question #33 of the Shorter Catechism: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” To be justified is to have your sins forgiven and to be accepted as just in the holy presence of God. Romans 5:1 states: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” All other blessings of salvation depend on our first being justified with God. In describing justification as an “act of God’s free grace,” we are saying that it is a once-for-all act of God as a free gift. Paul writes: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).

To be justified is not only to be forgiven, but also to be accounted as righteous in God’s sight. As Jesus said in his parable of the wedding feast, we must have a garment of righteousness to be permitted into God’s presence (Mt. 22:11-12). So how do sinners receive a righteousness with which to stand before God? In answering this question, we make a distinction between infused and imputed righteousness. Some (primarily Roman Catholics) teach that God’s grace infuses righteousness into us (mainly through the mass) so that sinners must actually become fully righteous before being accepted by God. (This, by the way, is the whole point of the doctrine of purgatory, which teaches that believers have to go somewhere after death to complete the purging of sin). But the Bible does not teach that believers are justified by becoming righteous but rather by being declared righteous. We see this in Romans 4:5, where Paul states that God “justifies the ungodly.” How are we declared righteous while we remain sinners? The answer is by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

Imputation means crediting or accounting. According to the New Testament, believers in Christ have His righteousness credited to us through faith in Him. As Paul explained in Romans 5:12-21, just as the human race fell into sin by one man’s sin (Adam’s), so are believers justified by the obedience of one man, Jesus Christ (see also Rom. 4:4-5; 2 Cor. 5:21; Zech. 3:3-4). This righteousness is received through faith alone. Since justification does not involve earning righteousness (which sinners could never do), but receiving righteousness, it comes through faith in Christ alone, as Paul stated: “a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16). Believers will one day become perfectly holy (see 1 Jn. 3:1-2). But this is the result of our salvation, not its cause. It is in heaven that we will become what now we have been declared, by God’s grace and through faith in Christ alone.

Sanctification is defined as “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” (Shorter Catechism, Q. 35). In contrast to justification, which is a once-for-all declarative act of God, sanctification is an on-going work of God. The result is the renewal of the entire person into Christ’s image and the increasing rejection of sin in favor of obedience to God. Like justification, sanctification results from God’s grace working in us by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, especially by means of God’s Word, prayer, and the sacraments.

Here are the questions I especially want to consider:

  1. Is it possible to be justified without being sanctified? No. Those that are justified must always be sanctified as well (Rom. 6:1-2). Both justification and sanctification result from union with Christ through faith (1 Cor. 1:30), so that a believer always and necessarily receives both at the moment of saving faith. We must remember, however, that while justification is a once-for-all declarative act of God’s justice, sanctification is a life-long spiritual process. For this reason, a new believer may have his or her sanctification only beginning at the moment of justification. But that sanctification will have begun, and it will progress through life until it is completed in the believer’s glorification in heaven (see Phil. 1:6; 3:12).
  2. Does sanctification automatically result from justification, so that a believer does not have to do anything in order to be sanctified? No. Justification does not cause sanctification. Both are caused by union with Christ in faith. Whereas justification is received by a passive faith, with empty hands receiving God’s gifts of pardon and imputed righteousness, sanctification results from an active faith in which the believer strives after righteousness by God’s power (consider, among many examples, Eph. 4:21-24; Col. 3:5; Rom. 13:14). This means that believers must faithfully apply themselves to fighting sin and growing in practical godliness, drawing on the power made available through God’s Word, prayer, and the worship of God’s people (see John 17:17; Phil. 4:6-7; and Acts 2:42).
  3. What is legalism? It is not legalism to say that God commands believers to obey the Bible (see Jn 14:15; 15:14). It is not legalism to strive after practical godliness and vigorously to oppose sin in your life. (To deny Christian obedience is called antinomianism, which means to be against God’s law.). Legalism is the attempt to justify ourselves before God on the basis of our performance. This is a grave problem that many Christians struggle with. The good news of justification says that our relationship with God (both eternally and today) is based not on our performance but on the finished work of Christ. Legalism is also an approach to sanctification that focuses on outward behaviors to the exclusion of inward graces. True holiness is not only of the hands but also of the heart.

It is amazing what a difference it makes to our daily lives if we have a true understanding of the vital doctrines of justification and sanctification. But it makes an even more vital difference to our eternal life. For these reasons, our efforts in understanding the biblical teaching on justification and sanctification will be well rewarded, provided that we personally trust in Jesus alone for both.

First published in The West End Herald, March 18, 2019

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