Understanding Justification and Sanctification
It is imperative that we understand the concepts and difference of justification and sanctification. For both are required for our salvation. But does justification or sanctification come first? Or do we receive them both together? Does it matter? And, if justification saves us, do we need to be sanctified?
Many say that justification is immediately received by faith, and sanctification is a life-long process culminating at or prior to our last breath. But is this true to scripture, reason and life? Does God have two requirements: justification by faith, and sanctification by a life-long process? Discover the impact this belief has had on the church and possibly on your life.
What is justification?
Some use the term: “just as if I never sinned” to describe how God treats those who have been justified.
This means that we have been reconciled to a position of legal and guiltless sinlessness – i.e. regarded as being without sin, or without ever having committed offenses against God. This is necessary because it is our sin that separated us from Him (Isa 59:2), and without our iniquities (sins) being atoned for, we would still be guilty and separated from God. The guilt of our former sins has been expunged based on the merit of the eternal and sinless propitiation1 of Christ. Therefore, present justification is synonymous with having the promise of eternal life with God.
How do we receive justification?
People commonly understand that justification is received through faith alone. But what is this faith? Is it belief?
(See “Confess and believe”- does it = salvation? )
Belief cannot be the cause of being justified by God, otherwise the demons would also be justified. For they believe and shudder (Jas 2:19). They have even witnessed the physical incarnation of Christ and His crucifixion, yet they have no part in God. So belief alone cannot be the way to justification.
What justifies us?
The Bible says that there are many factors that influence our justification. We are justified by faith indeed; but we are also justified by:
Our words (Mat 12:37)
Jesus said that the mouth speaks that which fills the heart (Mat 12:34). It is the heart that is converted to Christ. Therefore, our words either justify us or condemn us depending on the state of the heart.
A free gift (Rom 3:24)
Justification is a free gift of God. There is nothing that we can do apart from the obedience of faith (Rom 1:5) that can obtain our justification, for our sins have already disqualified us from eternal life in God, and sentenced us to eternal separation from Him. Social justice demands eternal condemnation, or eternal propitiation. (This is why only God through the sinless, eternal life of Christ could stand in as the required atonement for our sins). It is God’s free gift given to those who will fulfill the condition of walking in Him.
His blood (Rom 5:9)
The blood of Christ has no magic or mystery in regard to justifying us. If it were so, then the whole world would be instantly justified the moment Christ’s blood was shed. The blood does however, belong to the eternal Son of God and is part of the whole redemptive plan. The atonement of Christ includes not only His blood but His endurance of pain on the cross, bearing the shame of humiliation, sorrow and heaviness of heart, obedience unto death, the offering of His body, etc. etc.. “By His blood” signifies His death as a sacrifice for us, and it is His whole offering of Himself that justifies us.
His grace (Tit 3:7)
The grace of God is only one of the character traits of His divine nature. Without His love, mercy, patience, long-suffering, foreknowledge etc. there would be no grace either. Therefore it is also by His entire good nature that we are justified. (For more on the foreknowledge of God see: how God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.)
Works (Jas 2:20-22)
Scripture says that we are not justified by faith alone but also by works (Jas 2:24). Our works “perfect” (Jas 2:22) or manifest our faith. Faith without works (manifestation) is useless (Jas 2:20-22). Good works are the natural expressions of the life that has truly received justification. So, we do not receive justification by faith alone, but by all of the above.
So, why did Paul say that justification is by faith alone?
Paul was expressing that works to obtain righteousness (justification) was impossible. (For who would we think we are that we could possibly “buy back” an eternal debt with anything that we could do or offer?). In particular, certain leaders were teaching a pseudo Judo-Christianity. They said that certain Jewish ceremonial laws were still pertinent, and particularly circumcision. Paul, on the other hand, explained that we cannot obtain justification by “acts” of the law, but he did state that the act of obedience to the moral law was a natural consequence of exercising saving faith in Christ. He says:
to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. (1Co 9:21)
But how does faith for justification work?
When we exercise faith in God through Christ for salvation, our faith is a trust in the whole of Him and His salvation plan and purpose for us. That is, that we exercise faith in
- God’s infinitely good nature and all the attributes thereof, such as grace, mercy, lovingkindness, etc.. If we cannot trust God’s good nature to save us and maintain our salvation in this life, we have no basis to believe He will grant us eternal life.
- the historical testimonies of Christ – His purpose for His incarnation, His eternal essence, His sacrificial life and atonement for our sins etc..
- Christ’s resurrection. For if Christ never rose again from the grave we would have no confirmed hope of Him raising us from the dead. Therefore we would still be dead in sin and set apart from God (1Co 15:17).
- the indwelling Holy Spirit, who gives the internal witness that we are born again, children of God (Rom 8:16).
- our eternal Saviour who perpetually intercedes for us before the Father (Rom 8:34).
What is saving faith?
The above describes what some great theologians call saving faith. It is the accumulative faith in the all of Christ that results in salvation.
Saving faith for justification is an active, abiding, working faith in the whole plan of God’s salvation for us through Christ. It comes with a fear (reverence) of God’s sovereignty, and a love for Him, with appreciation for the grace He has afforded us – (those of us who are willing to repent and surrender their hearts to Him).
Therefore, justification is the process of the persuasion that the Holy Spirit performs on our hearts to surrender to Christ. This can be upon our instant recognition of the truth. However, it usually takes a length of time, depending on the hardness of the hearer’s heart. However, when he decides to relinquish his stand of enmity against God, receives the gift of Christ after he has repented of his sins, God reckons his saving faith as righteousness (Gal 3:6), and he is therefore justified.
What is sanctification?
Some teach that the meaning of sanctification is to be “set apart”. But sanctification cannot hang “set apart” in mid air. Sanctification is that state of being set apart from sin and set unto God. Those who are sanctified are exclusively His. The world no longer has ownership of their hearts. They now use the world only for God’s glory and the furtherance of His kingdom(1 Cor. 7:31). Consequently, God deems them as holy; i.e. set apart for God’s purposes only. This is biblical sanctification.
Who is responsible for our sanctification?
Many that I have talked with and counselled, believe that sanctification is purely God’s responsibility, and that being justified by faith (belief) only is what saves them. They therefore sense no obligation to lead a holy life. These rely absolutely on the premise that their righteousness (justification) was “imputed” to them (Rom 5:13). However, they fail to see that justification is the result of walking a holy life, and that God bestows upon us (imputes) the righteousness of Christ to cleanse us from all PAST (previously committed) sins (Rom 3:25) after repentance and faith. This is the faith that we exercise to entrust our souls to the safe keeping of Christ. (i.e. keeping us from sin by faith in the consciousness of His presence). See more on exercising saving faith here.
The initial work
It is the initial work of the Holy Spirit on the hearts of men that leads them to the obedience of faith, so that they can be sanctified. This is through the “washing of the Word” (Eph 5:26). (See more in the post How do I know if I am Saved?). It is not a random work on people God specifically chooses. For God is impartial and loves the whole world of men (John 3:16).
God’s Word enlightens man (gives understanding) to the truth of the Gospel (John 1:9) through the power of persuasion. To those who will hear and obey, God will give understanding, and they thereby will be able to receive the gift of Christ’s atonement. For those who allow reason to persuade them will repent of their sins and follow after Christ. The result will be their sanctification (Rom. 6:19 & 22). Therefore, sanctification is the work of the Spirit and of our faith (2Th 2:13). Both parties are are involved!
When does sanctification take place?
When we surrender to the lordship of Christ we sanctify Him in our hearts (1Pe 3:15). This means that we separate Christ as our supreme love over all other things. We cannot have indwelling sin and Christ in our hearts simultaneously. They cannot co-exist. We must select either one or the other (Matt 6:24). And, just like justification, we also receive sanctification by faith (Act 26:18).
Therefore, it is the very moment we consent to the lordship of Christ over our hearts that His work of purification is applied to us. We are then forgiven of all previous sins (Rom. 3:25), and are sanctified. For the infinite power of God to sanctify does not need the process of time to do its work.
Sanctification is a dawning experience. We will know when we are sanctified, because God will give us the assurance that we are indeed children of God. But this He can only do when we are walking in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:14).
Sanctification in not the state of angelic perfection. It is the state of a heart totally committed towards God even during our growth towards Christian maturity.
The impact on the church
Because of many people’s selfishness, they prefer to believe that we are justified initially by faith ( “faith” as in belief in the testimonies of Christ) and receive as a consequence, our salvation. They say we are then “purified” (sanctified) by a life-long process while we gradually relinquish our sins. In reality, very few forsake their sins in this state, and continue in the false belief that faith (belief) alone saves them.
The impact this has had on the church is disastrous, because it leaves no sense of urgency to be sanctified – i.e. live holy lives before God and man. The witness we then show the world is weak as we demonstrate that Christ cannot save us from our sins like He promised (Mat 1:21), therefore nullifying the entire purpose of Christ’s incarnation and life, and in reality, leaving us in a state of the Romans 7 scenario i.e. bondage to sin and still separated from the life of God.
Scripture says that without the sanctification we will not see God in peace. (Heb 12:14)
Therefore, it is imperative that we understand our obligation to be sanctified in our walk with Him. For it is our sanctification as well as our justification that brings about our salvation (2Th 2:13). Notice then that the sanctification process is not a life-long experience, but we receive it the moment we exercise saving faith (as demonstrated above). Paul addresses the church in Corinth as those who have been sanctified (1Co 1:2). Hence, they had already received their sanctification! It is not a life-long process but an instantaneous reception through faith. And God’s Word obligates us to maintain our sanctification through continued faith in Christ who abides within us.
This does not mean that we can never sin again. The Spirit within us does not remove the possibility to sin, but it does remove the propensity.
If, not when – (as is often taught) we sin again, we turn to our Advocate, Christ (1Jn 2:1), and appeal to God again for a good conscience (1Pe 3:21). (See “Is it if or when we sin?”).
Sanctification doesn’t make us angelically perfect, but it does purify us so that we can have a perfect heart towards God. And as we grow in understanding and faith, the Spirit will continue His work within us to make us perfect (Php 3:15) in Him. (The “perfect” here is “teleios” Gr. meaning – complete, mature). The mature in Christ do not live a life of sin. They might stumble through the weakness of fallen man, such as ignorance, forgetfulness, omission of duty, miscalculation, etc., but they no longer live in willful, deliberate sin.
So does justification or sanctification come first?
What does Paul say?
“Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God”. (1Co 6:11)
Paul’s order of the sequence of our reconciliation with God is as follows:
Firstly; but you were washed (by the word of truth) (Eph 5:26),
Secondly; but you were sanctified,
Then lastly; but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
Justification and sanctification are the results of saving faith. It is the Holy Spirit’s unction on the soul that leads us into both of them. But both have the prerequisite of our faith. Justification is God’s recognition of a converted heart to Him; sanctification is the direct result of us turning our hearts to Him. We achieve both as a result of our faith. And you cannot have one without the other. In fact, in order for God to recognize us and declare us justified, we need to have already sanctified our hearts before Him.
Therefore, sanctification has to have taken place first – before justification, so that we can be justified by God. Even though sanctification is a prerequisite of justification, the timeless Father declares us justified the instant we are sanctified. Our sanctification therefore, begets our justification.
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- Propitiation is the atoning sacrifice of Christ to appease the offended holy God. It is the exchange – the death of the eternal Christ to pay for our offenses so that we can gain eternal life ↩