There is an important discussion taking place within the church regarding the relationship of justification to sanctification. This topic is crucial to us getting the gospel right today while avoiding the deadly extremes of antinomianism (a lawless Christianity) and legalism (a works-oriented Christianity). 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.
Perhaps the best short definition of justification is given in Question #33 of the Westminster 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.
To give clarity to this topic, I offer the following seven assertions regarding justification and sanctification. I briefly discuss each assertion, making Scripture references which simply point to the main line of biblical support for each assertion.
- Justification and sanctification are twin benefits that flow from union with Christ through faith. Christ is Himself the center of the gospel, and through faith we are saved in union with Him (Acts 16:31; Eph. 1:3). Justification and sanctification are distinct benefits flowing through union with Christ by faith alone. Justification is a legal benefit of our union with Christ, granting us forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through faith alone (Rom. 3:23-26; Gal. 2:16). Sanctification is a Spiritual benefit of our union with Christ, involving the believer’s transformation into the holy likeness of Christ (Rom. 6:1-14; Eph. 4:20-24; Tit. 2:12).
- Justification and sanctification are distinct but simultaneous. Justification pertains to the legal problem of sin, providing Christ’s imputed righteousness once for all (Rom. 3:23-25). A believer will never be more righteous than at the moment when he first believed, since he receives through faith Christ’s perfect and complete righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). Sanctification pertains to the spiritual and moral corruption of sin. It is both definitive and progressive. Definitive sanctification refers to the believer being set apart for and to Christ at the moment of conversion (1 Cor. 6:15-17). Progressive sanctification refers to the on-going process of becoming holy according to the likeness of Christ (Eph. 4:21-24). At the moment of saving faith, the Christian is both justified and sanctified (1 Cor. 1:30), definitive sanctification immediately beginning the Spirit’s work of progressive sanctification (Rom. 6:1-14).
- Justification and sanctification are both necessary and intrinsic to salvation. While Justification and Sanctification are distinct, they are also inseparable in salvation. A believer cannot be justified without being sanctified (Rom. 6:1-2; Eph. 2:8-10). Through faith alone, sinners are justified in Christ (Gal. 2:16). But as faith brings us into union with Christ, the Holy Spirit also begins and continues sanctification (1 Cor. 6:15-17; Eph. 5:1-21; 1 Thess. 4:1-8). In other words, while we deny that faith + works = justification, we insist that faith = justification + works (i.e., sanctification) (Eph. 2:8-10).
- Justification is logically prior to sanctification. This is Calvin’s meaning in describing the doctrine of justification as the hinge on which the door of salvation turns. By “logically prior,” we mean, for instance, that we will usually address an unbeliever regarding his need for justification before we call him to sanctification. (Until the sinner is justified through faith, there is little point in discussing his or her sanctification.) The logical priority of justification is seen in the Book of Romans, where justification is treated first (Rom. 3-5), after which Paul turns to sanctification (Rom. 5-8). As another example, after the Fall God blocked the entryway to the Garden with the angel and his flaming sword. This represents the forensic/legal problem of sin for which justification through faith is the answer. Once passing through this barrier, the believer may eat of the tree of life and dwell in the presence of the Lord, which pertain to his sanctification.
- Justification does not cause sanctification. Sanctification, like justification, is caused by union with Christ through faith (Rom. 6:1-14). Just as Christ justifies, Christ also sanctifies his people. (1 Cor. 1:30; Col. 3:12-17). For this reason, the idea that we need only preach justification in order to gain sanctification is contrary to the biblical pattern. Paul, for instance, does not preach justification so that sanctification will occur, but rather he preaches sanctification itself (Rom. 6:12-14; 12:1-2, etc.). Peter also declares “Be holy” (1 Pet. 1:15). This being the case, gospel preaching does not consist merely of preaching Christ for justification, but also consists of preaching Christ for sanctification.
- In justification faith is passive and receptive (Gal. 2:16), whereas in sanctification faith is active (Eph. 5:3-21; Col. 3:5-11). In justification, sinners receive the grace of God for forgiveness and righteousness. In sanctification, believers work out the grace that God works into them (Phil. 2:12-13). Innumerable New Testament passages urge activity and obligation on the part of the believer in advancing his or her sanctification. Generally, sanctification is empowered by Christ through the faithful employment of the means of grace: God’s Word, prayer, and the sacraments (Isa. 55:10-11; Jn. 17:17; Phil. 4:6-7; 1 Cor. 10:16-17).
- The law of God functions differently with respect to justification and to sanctification. In the service of Justification, the primary purpose of God’s law is to convict us of sin (the law is Calvin’s mirror that shows us that we need the cleansing soap of the gospel; Rom. 2:12; 3:23). This is called “the first use of the law.” In Sanctification, the primary purpose of the law is instructive: it is the guide for how believers live and honor Christ (Mt. 65:17-48; Rom. 8:4; Eph. 5:3-5). This is “the third use of the law.” (The “second use of the law” is as a curb to restrain ungodliness.) All of these uses of the law are legitimate and necessary.
 I capitalize Spiritual to emphasize that it is the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.