I thought it might be helpful to state a series of propositions about justification, sanctification, faith and perseverance in an effort to clarify what we believe in relation to these doctrines and how they relate to one another. Although I have not provided texts of Scripture to support each of these statements, I believe each of them is supported by God’s revelation understood in its proper context. Please consider each of them in the light of the Scriptures. I am happy to entertain comments, questions, or objections to any of them.
1. Justification before God is a judicial declaration that occurs once for all through faith in God’s promise that whoever calls on the Lord’s name will be saved.
2. Justification imputes a God designed and therefore God approved righteousness [for this reason it is referred to as “the righteousness of God” or better “a God righteousness”] to sinners who deserve his wrath.
3. Justification has nothing to do with any personal righteousness that is produced by the Spirit in the believer’s life.
4. Jesus has fully satisfied all the demands of God’s law (obedience for a declaration of righteousness and death as the penalty for disobedience) and has therefore been declared righteous based on the strictest terms of the law. Paul told his readers “the doers of the Law will be justified.” The only doer of the law who ever lived was Jesus. By his perfect, continual and inward obedience to that Law, God declared him to be righteous in his sight. Because those in whose place he stood, as their head and representative, had broken the Law and were liable to its curses, he became a curse for us and thus exhausted the penal sanctions of the divine Law.
5. God accepts believers as righteous in his sight because we are united to him who is righteous in his sight. This standing in righteousness cannot progress any more than the spotless righteousness of Christ itself can increase. He bases his declaration on a righteousness that is totally outside us.
6. Sanctification, although completely distinct from justification, cannot be separated from it since both result from the believer’s union with Christ. The believer is justified because Jesus died for him; the believer is sanctified definitively because he died with Christ. Justification does not, in itself, produce sanctification, nor does sanctification produce justification. In that sense, these two works of God’s grace are completely distinct. They cannot be separated in that sense that there will never be a person whom God has justified whom he has not set free from sin’s dominion and in whom he is not carrying on his sanctifying work.
7. Both the declaration of righteousness and the ongoing work of sanctification are works of God’s grace. In justification, he is concerned to bestow on us a righteous standing; in sanctification he is concerned to work in us a practical holiness. Jesus’ redemptive accomplishments secured not only the believer’s justification but also his sanctification.
8. Though believers become partakers of both justification and sanctification through faith, sanctification is not a work that is accomplished through faith alone in the sense that the believer’s works of obedience are not involved. In response to the Spirit’s continuing work within believers, we are responsible to perfect holiness or sanctification in the fear of God.
9. Justification never increases or progresses. It is as complete as it will ever be the first moment a person believes the gospel. Sanctification progresses and will never be complete as long as we remain in the body. No matter how holy a person may become, his sanctification can never make him any more righteous in God’s presence than he was the first moment he believed.
10. Genuine faith results from God’s work of grace in the sinner’s heart. Not every experience of “faith” is genuine. Genuine and spurious “faiths” may appear so similar that the difference between them will be indiscernible. The only way to distinguish the genuine from the spurious is that genuine faith continues and produces the fruit of obedience.
11. The believer’s perseverance in faith adds nothing to his perfect standing. Persevering in faith is simply what true believer’s do. Those who turn back lose nothing they ever possessed. A faith that fails to persevere was not true faith at all. A person who began with a profession of faith in Christ but then turns back and begins to trust something or someone other than Christ, never genuinely trusted Christ to begin with and was never justified.
12. The apostles Paul and James did not contradict one another in their teaching. They were simply concerned with different questions. The question Paul was answering concerned what justifies before God, personal works of obedience to the Law or faith in Christ alone. His answer was that sinners are justified through faith alone, apart from the works of the Law. The question James was answering concerned the nature of that faith through which sinners are justified. Is justifying faith a dead faith or a faith that works and obeys? On this question, both apostles were in perfect agreement. Paul spoke of justifying faith as “faith that works by love.” Paul was concerned with what justifies; James was concerned with who are the justified. Are the justified those who “say they believe” or those whose faith gives evidence of itself by persevering obedience to Christ? The classic statement on this issue was that justification is through faith alone, but it is never through a faith that is alone.