A Research Paper presented to Liberty Theological Seminary.
On my favorite topic – of course.
Justification and sanctification are distinct yet inseparable in Christ’s salvific work. Justification necessarily precedes and enables the sanctification of believers.
Society today offers no shortage of ideas and activities that divide the attention and occupy the energies of men. Regardless of that truth, the gracious forgiveness and eternal salvation of lost sinners is the most glorious and mysterious reality known to man. The fact that those whom have been rightly found guilty and stand condemned before a perfect, holy and just God for violating His unfathomable righteousness, and are then declared righteous before that same God based purely on His gracious nature and the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, is shocking to man’s innate sense of justice. Salvation given as a free gift from God to the one who betrayed Him; sinful man, at the expense of God’s own sinless Son, is both inexplicable and uniquely Christian. It is this God-centered nature of Christian salvation that so greatly deviates from the theological constructs of other world religions; including Judaism. In any system apart from biblical Christianity man is made acceptable to God through a mixture of adherence to a moral standard and good works. At this point Christ-followers stand alone. As Hebrews 12:2 so aptly states, God in Christ is the “the founder and perfecter of our faith.” It is God who saves sinners, they “do not save themselves in any sense at all, but … salvation, first and last, whole and entire, past, present and future, is of the Lord.” The following pages will endeavor to demonstrate exactly that; how God saves sinners. The first doctrine under examination is justification; how and why God declares the sinner righteous. The next section will investigate sanctification; how believers that are declared righteous actually become practically righteous. Additionally in section two, we will address the relationship between justification and sanctification.
Justification is the Biblical doctrine whereby a condemned sinner is declared righteous before an infinitely holy God, including being granted all the rights and privileges of one who has kept the Law perfectly. It is this doctrine that resolves the problem created by man’s sin that began when he rebelled against a holy God in the garden in Genesis 3 and sin entered the human race. There may be no passage that more clearly states the human predicament that sin creates and is remedied in Jesus Christ, than the one that the Reformer Martin Luther called the center of the Bible. That passage is Romans 3:21 – 26. In the verses leading into this passage, the Apostle Paul detailed the state of man’s soul apart from divine intervention. He began by declaring that all men are rightly charged as guilty under the law, regardless of their religious or national background. He solidified his point in verses 10 – 12, by showing that there is not a single righteous person in existence as he quoted Psalm 14 and 51. Then he continued with that line of reasoning when he explained man’s sin had consequences. The consequences were that his sinful rebellion meant that God was and is just to condemn him for his sin. It’s from this point, that all men are guilty and stand condemned before God, that Paul clearly and boldly proclaims God’s plan; a plan to make sinners righteous and acceptable in His sight – a plan to save them.
It is true that God is holy and just, and is thereby justified in condemning sinners for their willing rebellion to His Law. Sin is after all, more than just breaking God’s laws with actions inconsistent with His standards. “It is also an attitude that ignores the law of God. But it is more than just a rebellious attitude. Sin is a state of corruption, of vileness, yes, even filthiness in God’s sight.” In this state, contrary to most religious beliefs and practices, man is in incapable of helping his own cause. Man cannot, in any way, save himself. It is from this guilty, helpless and pitiful state that God justifies sinners. Man is unable to perform the legal requirements of the Law; therefore justification must come by some other means.
It is those other means that Paul addressed in the Romans 3:21 – 26 passage. Those means, however, are not completely divorced from the His Law, because in verse 21, Paul holds up the Law and the Prophets as witnesses to the new covenant of grace. What Paul is declaring in this verse is not that God’s righteousness is different than the Law, but that it transcends the Law. The Law is a temporary representation of God’s righteousness that will one day be unnecessary, when God’s people are together with Him in sinless perfection. Therefore, when God justifies a sinner, He is making a legal declaration in the present of what will be actually true in the future.
This declaration naturally raises a question in one’s mind. “If a perfectly holy God requires total fulfillment of the Law, and man is incapable of keeping the Law yet God justifies him apart from the Law, then on what basis are sinful men justified?” This is the point of the remaining verses in the Romans 3 passage, and the central truth of Christian salvation. Since man is unable to keep the law and generate the necessary righteousness in himself capable of meeting God’s standard, his only hope is for God to grant him a righteousness that is not his own. That is exactly what God did; and He makes it available to all who would believe. However, this faith that saves is not a sentimental belief in a lenient master who is sympathetic toward weak and sinful men. God did not lower His righteous standards to justify by His grace. Christ met all of the requirements of the Law in place of those whom would be declared righteous as a result of His obedience. Saving faith then is faith in a gracious God who is also a just judge. It is trust in a holy God who judged sin at the cross of Christ. Romans 3:24 speaks of believers being redeemed, that is being purchased back to God from slavery to sin as a gift of His grace. Additionally verse 25 refers to Christ’s sacrifice on behalf of sinners as propitiation; “a satisfaction to God’s divine justice.” These terms describe the substitutionary atonement that is the divine instrument by which justification is made possible; God’s wrath was satisfied in propitiation and man’s sinful state was redeemed and thereby salvation is offered by grace and appropriated by faith in Christ’s complete sacrifice. Justification then is granted by God on the basis of grace alone, appropriated by faith alone, in the finished work of Christ alone. The final and scandalous result of God’s plan is a justified sinner declared to be as righteous Christ Himself, because the righteousness he wears is not his own but Christ’s.
Thankfully, holiness and justice do not represent the entirety of God’s character. If they did, there would be no remedy for man’s condemned state, because not only has man failed to fulfill his obligation to God’s Law, he is incapable of doing so. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved.” Sinners are pardoned of their sin and its eternal consequences; that is a marvelous gift of grace. Add to that forgiveness the declaration of a righteous standing before God based not on personal merit but on Christ’s righteousness imputed to believers based on faith alone, and one begins to understand why when God’s people sing of His grace, they call it amazing.
While justification deals with the declaration of a believer as righteous before God on the basis of what they believe, New Testament sanctification is the process whereby believers are set apart from the world and become practically righteous. Sanctification however, is not an exclusively New Testament concept. Conversely, there are more references to “sactif/y/ied/ication” in the Old Testament than the New; with the greatest concentration in the New Testament being the book of Hebrews, some of which were written to a Jewish audience referring to Old Testament events. However, we will restrict our study here to the soteriological (relating to salvation) implications of sanctification for the New Testament believer. The term itself carries the meaning of being chosen and set apart by God for a purpose. This setting apart is both initial and progressive. When the believer comes to faith in Christ, there is an initial setting apart that is instantaneous and simultaneous with justification. It’s “a radical transfer of allegiances” that occurs at the moment of conversion. It’s also progressive in the sense that it is growth in practical righteousness. The instantaneous application seems to be the way that Jesus used the term both in His prayer in John 17:19 and in His calling of the Apostle Paul which the apostle recounts in Acts 26:18. Also, there are theological and practical reasons to connect justification to sanctification. Pastor and theologian Sinclair Ferguson makes the point this way, “While justification and sanctification (holiness in life) ought not to be confused with each other, they can never exist apart from each other, because both are certain and invariable fruits of faith-union with Christ. Justification does not depend on sanctification, yet in union with Christ, these are two sides of the same coin, so that to imagine one without the other would be to mutilate Christ.” The failure to connect sanctification, the ongoing growth in practical righteousness, with our justification is where believers often error. As great and glorious as the truth of justification is, and the magnitude of the eternal consequences that it carries, it is often relegated to sentimentality after conversion because it is a settled issue. Sanctification is what occupies the thoughts and efforts because it is where believers spend the bulk of their Christian existence. The result of this line of thinking has an unintended consequence; a psychological, if not theological divide is formed between justification and sanctification.
Some followers of Christ, who whole-heartedly embrace the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone and would ferociously defend it, soon abandon grace and attempt to be sanctified by their own effort. They “embark on an endless pursuit of trying to satisfy God with their good works to keep Him loving them.” Undoubtedly the motivation for such a pursuit is the noble desire to please God. However, sanctification that focuses on behavior modification rather grace-motivated obedience to the one who met the demands of the Law in the sinners place, only leads to religious self-righteousness or despair; self-righteousness when they erroneously believe they are living up to God’s holy standards, and despair when they realized they aren’t. Sanctification was never meant to be an exercise in human self-discipline, disconnected from the truth of justification. Otherwise sanctification becomes a Christianized self-improvement tactic; a commitment to live by new moral standard. Sanctification certainly results in living a new morality. However, the power to live that new life is not found in the standard itself, but in the believer’s union with Christ. The power to obey is a result of what Christ has already done on behalf of the believer, not what the believer must do for Christ. For the redeemed sinner, it is the daily understanding and living in the reality of their justification that fuels godly obedience. Unfortunately there is a large contingent within the body of Christ that are pursuing a sanctification powered by their own effort and disconnected from their justification. It is an equally unfortunate fact is that they occupy both sides of the pulpit. Pastor and seminary president, Bryan Chapell speaks candidly about the effects of preaching the Bible moralistically for sanctification and the remedy for this error. Chappel points to need to find the redemptive context in the Scripture rather than simply picking out the moral obligation.
My concern for the role of grace in sanctification had an intensely personal beginning. The inadequacies of my preaching were torturing me and I wondered whether I should leave the ministry. I could not discern what was wrong. Church members complimented my messages, but their own lives were consistently plagued by depression, addictions, and anger with each other. I had to question, “If I am such a good preacher, then why are the people I serve doing so badly.”
…Week after week I told the imperfect people in my church to “do better.” When God’s people only hear the imperatives of the Word, they are forced to conclude that their holiness is a product of their efforts. What I needed to learn was that the cure was not preaching less of Scripture, but more. In particular I needed to learn to preach each text in its redemptive context. No Scripture is so limited in purpose as only to give us moral instruction or lifestyle correction. Paul says, even the law itself functions as our “schoolmaster to lead us to Christ” (Gal. 3:24). Jesus also says that all the Scriptures the Jews searched “testify of me” (John 5:39)
Thankfully there has been a resurgence of the doctrines of grace within evangelicalism worldwide in recent days. Though this grace awakening may be en vogue, it is certainly not a new idea. We know that the Apostle Paul tirelessly preached justification by grace through faith. But upon further examination, we find that he was also a champion for sanctification by grace. One place it is clearly presented is in the letter to his young church-planting protégé Titus. In chapter 2 verses 1 – 10, Paul gives Titus and the Cretans a long list of behaviors that are characteristic of followers of Christ. But then in verses 11 – 12, rather than exhorting them to determination and hard work, he gives them a different approach to living up to their new found identity in Christ. Paul proclaims that grace has come with a two-fold purpose: to bring salvation and to train believers to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” Paul is telling a pastor leading new believers in a very violent and godless culture that effort and self-discipline are not the keys to godly living, but it is grace that will be their trainer in practical righteousness. In their survey of the New Testament, Carson and Moo make that point in their comments on the Titus 2 passage, “The letter makes it plain that the Christian way is an urging of people not to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but rather to rely on the grace of God. This grace ‘teaches;’… it educates people like the Cretans – and any other group.” It is not that believers need to think less about grace to ensure that they behave well; it is that they need to think more about it. What is needed is to fix their minds upon the gracious works of their loving Savior, especially their justification, to motivate their converted hearts to holy obedience.
Theology proper (the doctrine of God) is the foundation for all of the other doctrines, and if one errors there, he will definitely error elsewhere. However, apart from that, there is no more important or practical doctrine than the doctrine of salvation. What could be more important than a man’s standing before God, and what could be more practical than how that man might live a life that is honoring to the God who saved him. As men come to realize the depth of their own sin and the gulf that exists between themselves and a holy God, the desperate need for a righteousness that is greater than any they could muster in themselves becomes apparent. It is into this chasm of human unrighteousness and inadequacy that the doctrine of justification by grace through faith flows like a river. It is unfathomable that the righteous would pay the debt of the unrighteous, that the offended would rescue the offender, but that is what God did for sinners in justification. While justification has eternal implications, those eternal implications have temporal manifestations; namely our sanctification. While it is certainly the desire of every regenerate believer in Jesus Christ to “walk in a manner worthy” of our calling as Christ-followers, that calling is not one of self-effort apart from the grace of God. The same grace that “brought me safe thus far…will lead me home.” For the New Testament believer, sanctification flows from the truth of their justification. Though sanctification is not void of human effort, justified souls will make every effort to express their love for their Savior. Grace does not lessen the word of Jesus in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” it simply removes perfect obedience as a requirement for God’s love and acceptance. Christ’s perfect obedience in our place enabled not only our justification, but our sanctification. The believer is now free to offer imperfect obedience as an act of worship and an offering of love, knowing that our position in Christ, our justification in the past and our sanctification in the present, was settled once and for all at the cross. It is a gift of God’s grace.
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