Justification and Sanctification

There is perhaps nothing that has caused more confusion and controversy regarding the doctrine of salvation as the failure to understand the differences and similarities between justification and sanctification. Over forty years ago, I first read Holiness by J. C. Ryle. The distinctions he makes in that book have helped me immeasurably. Though I have not reproduced his comments verbatim, I am indebted to him for what follows.

How are justification and sanctification alike?

There are several ways in which justification and sanctification are alike:

A. Both are the work of God’s free grace. That God should grant either justification or sanctification to anyone is a work of his free grace. There is a gentleman [consider this my effort to be kind to others] whose mission in life seems to be to trash every Christian on the globe who does fit into his narrow, and one might say greatly distorted theological mold. Unfortunately, he is not alone. He recently wrote about those who have come to be known as “New Calvinists” and their belief that we are sanctified by the same grace that justified us, “I love those New Calvinist guys that just come right [out] and say sanctification is by the same grace that saved us, which is monergistic, . . . .” In stating his proposition in this way, he betrays his belief that sanctification is not part of salvation. Sure, he believes that when we do our part by obeying and working etc., God gives us help, but that is not the biblical teaching on sanctification. To those who think theologically and biblically, “The grace that saved us” encompasses all God’s salvific activity from eternity to eternity, including sanctification. The entire work, from first to last, is by the same sovereign grace of God.

In reality, the position he is talking about is not a NEW Calvinism position at all, or at least not exclusively so.

J. C. Ryle, wrote,

Let us hear what the Bible says: “For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified.”–-“Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it.”—“Christ gave Himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.”—“Christ bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness.”—“Christ hath reconciled (you) in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in His sight..” (John xvii. 19; Ephes. V. 25; Titus ii. 14; 1 Peter ii. 24; Coloss. I. 22.) Let the meaning of these five texts be carefully considered. If words mean anything, they teach that Christ undertakes the sanctification, no less than the justification of His believing people. Both are alike provided for in that “everlasting covenant that is ordered in all things and sure,” of which the Mediator is Christ.

B. Both flow from the redeeming work of Christ. Neither justification nor sanctification could have occurred apart from Jesus death on the cross.

John Murray expressed this truth well when he wrote,

We may not think of the Spirit as operative in us apart from the risen and glorified Christ. The sanctifying process is not only dependent upon the death and resurrection of Christ in its initiation; it is also dependent upon the death and resurrection of Christ in its continuance. It is by the efficacy and virtue which proceed from the exalted Lord that sanctification is carried on, and such virtue belongs to the exalted Lord by reason of his death and resurrection. It is by the Spirit that this virtue is communicated.

C. Both require faith in God’s revelation relative to Christ’s accomplished redemptive work. Reckoning ourselves to be truly dead to sin and alive to God is an act of faith in God’s revealed truth.

D. Both begin at the same time. Sinners are justified at the point of initial faith in God’s gospel promises. At that point, God begins the life-long process of sanctification.

E. Both occur in the lives of the same people. A person does not exist who has been justified who is not also being sanctified.

F. Both are necessary for salvation. Believers must be both legally qualified and righteously suited for salvation. “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12: 14).

2. How do justification and sanctification differ?

A. Justification is a judicial act in which God has declared believers righteousness when in reality we have no righteousness of our own. Sanctification is a remedial work by which God works in us a righteousness that is our own.

B. Justification is perfect and complete immediately. We will never be more righteous in God’s sight than we are the moment we believe the gospel. Sanctification will never be complete in this life. It is an ongoing process that may even retrogress at times.

C. Justification is received by faith alone. Sanctification, although accomplished only through faith, nevertheless employs the believer’s activity. We are exhorted to work out our own salvation through fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12-13). In sanctification, it is not Christ who obeys, but the believer.

D. Justification concerns our legal standing [righteousness] before God; sanctification concerns our state [holiness] in the world.

E. Only God can know the reality of our justification. It cannot be seen by others. No one else can know whether our faith is real or not. Our progress in sanctification can be witnessed by others.

F. There is nothing believers can do to be more pleasing to God, the judge. There are many kinds of behavior that may either please or displease God our Father


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