In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.
Reformed theology distinguishes between justification and sanctification. We hold this distinction in common with Lutheranism. Both Lutheran and Reformed theologians in the 1500s recovered the essential biblical teaching on this point. Both Lutheran and Reformed churches had seen the grave damage caused by some of the medieval confusion of these doctrines.
To be clear, when we say that justification and sanctification are to be distinguished from one another, we don’t mean that they are opposed to one another. They are different, but certainly not opposites. Moreover, there is an intimate relationship between these two doctrines. While they must be distinguished, they can never be separated.
Defining the Terms
We need to be absolutely clear on what justification and sanctification mean. Whenever I use these words in a sermon, I always explain them. We cannot expect that everyone hears these terms and right away understands what they mean.
In its most basic form, justification is God as Judge declaring that we are right with him because of what Jesus Christ has done for us in his life and death. We find this doctrine described in the early chapters of Romans, especially chapters 3 and 4. It’s revealed that justification involves a judicial declaration – the picture is of a Judge issuing a verdict. We are the accused. In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 23), we are charged with breaking all of God’s commandments, never having kept any of them, and still being inclined to all evil. However, if we take hold of Jesus Christ by faith, we have a powerful defense lawyer or Mediator for our case. He steps in and pleads on our behalf. He offers up his perfect life and his sacrifice on the cross in our place – these are imputed to us, credited to our accounts. These are more than sufficient to bring the Judge to his verdict: righteous! Note: not merely innocent, but something far better, positively righteous. Because of Christ, the Divine Judge regards us as those who have not only never sinned, but also as those who have been and are actively holy, and even as those who never will sin ever again. All the demands of the law have been met in Christ. As a consequence, the Judge comes down from the bench, takes off his robes, puts his arm on your shoulder and says, “Welcome to my family!” We go from the courtroom to the family room. Justification leads to adoption. God is no longer our Judge, but our Father and we have the privilege of relating to him in that special way.
One of the most important points to understand about this doctrine is that justification is not a process, but an event. Justification is not something that has to take place every day, but it is something that happens when a person first takes hold of Christ by faith (whenever that is). If the Judge has once declared that you are right with him because of Christ, then that verdict stands into eternity. It is not a verdict which needs to be issued every day again. If you have gone from the courtroom to the family room, your place in the family is always secure. The Triune God will no more be your Judge, instead he will always be your Father and you should relate to him as your Father. It was one of the fundamental errors of the Roman Catholic Church to describe justification as a process. They made it into a lifelong development. But the Reformation recovered the biblical teaching of passages like Romans 8:1, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” If you have been justified by faith in Christ, you are justified once and for all. To suggest otherwise is to overturn the Judge’s verdict. The Judge doesn’t appreciate that, and neither should the justified.
When it comes to sanctification, the Bible speaks of it in two ways. There is definitive sanctification – this means that God has definitely set us apart as holy. He has done this in our election, effectual calling, adoption, and so on. This is sanctification as an event that takes place at a certain point. We can see that usage in passages like Acts 20:32 and 1 Corinthians 6:11. However, our focus here is on the more common usage of the word “sanctification” and that’s in reference to progressive sanctification. This is sanctification as the process of Christian growth. That’s how sanctification appears in passages like 1 Thess. 5:23. Sanctification is the process by which believers are being transformed into the image of Christ. This happens as the Holy Spirit works with believers through the Word of God, through the sacraments, and through prayer. This process is one which takes place each and every day that a believer spends on this earth. It only ends when the believer dies or when Christ returns.
One of the key things to understand about sanctification, as distinct from justification, is our role as believers. In sanctification, Christ is the primary subject or actor (see HC Lord’s Day 32). He works through his Spirit to renovate us. However, believers are also active in this process. Because we are regenerated our wills are alive and we are thus capable of cooperating with the Holy Spirit in our sanctification (see Canons of Dort 3/4, article 16). In justification, we merely believe. In justification, faith is receptive of Christ and his benefits. In sanctification, however, faith is active in bearing the fruit of an increasingly holy life. Scripture calls those who have been born again to strive for holiness (e.g. 1 Peter 1:14-16) and we do that, knowing that as we do so, we are dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Relationship Between Justification and Sanctification
These two doctrines are closely connected. Those who have been justified freely by God’s grace will never be untouched as regards their sanctification. If someone has the true faith in Jesus Christ which is instrumental in justification, then sanctification will invariably follow as a fruit of that faith. Justification is about the roots of our salvation, sanctification is about the fruits of that salvation. They are part of the same package, but we do need to keep them separate because they do represent separate components in the package.
Why It Matters
When these two doctrines are not kept clear and distinct in our minds, the very heart of the gospel is threatened. It was a Reformed theologian (J.H. Alsted) who first said that justification is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. He was echoing what others, including Luther, had essentially said, but he was the first to use those exact words. Alsted was precisely right. The reason why he was right has to do with the place of good works in justification. Our good works have no place in justification! They have a central and necessary place in sanctification, but not in justification. It’s the righteousness of Christ alone that has brought about the once-for-all verdict of the Judge. If we confuse sanctification and justification, we are attempting to bring our good works into the court room. That would result in a devaluing of the work of our Mediator, a loss of the gospel of what he has done for us and in our place. Losing the gospel means losing Christ, and if you have lost Christ, you have lost union with Christ, and then not only is there no hope for justification, there is also no hope for sanctification. We therefore must get this right!
Above I mentioned another manner of confusion: arguing that, like sanctification, justification is a process. Some say that it is something that must happen every day. That gets perilously close to confusing justification and sanctification. Calling justification a daily process is dangerous because it threatens a healthy biblical sense of who God is and how we relate to him as Christians. As justified believers, we are still sinners – Scripture is clear on this (Gal. 5:17, Rom. 7:24). But as sinners, we now go to God as our Father for forgiveness, not to God as our Judge. The forgiveness that Christians seek daily for their sins is the forgiveness of the Father they’ve displeased with their evil. We need to remember that through Christ and his merits, we have been permanently adopted into God’s family. We are his children, he is our Father, and there is absolutely nothing that can change that. A Christian can confidently say, “I am his child today and, only because of Jesus, I will be his child tomorrow morning too.” So as we pray and as we worship, we can always call on the Triune God as our Father. This is a great privilege afforded to us by the justification we have received once and for all as a gift from our Mediator.
Justification and sanctification are two of the most important biblical doctrines. If we are confused or mistaken on these doctrines, there are enormous doctrinal and practical consequences. However, if we rightly understand them, we are led to more praise for the God of our salvation, both with our words and our works.