Justification vs sanctification—here we go … Ok it’s not that bad, but I suppose like all things that come from God, these two terms can be as complicated or as simple as you make them out to be. But seriously, in all my years of evangelizing these two terms are the number one thing people from other religions, and even baby Christians, are muy confused about.
Just the other week my hubby and I were hangin’ out and strolling through downtown when we came across some JWs (Jehovah’s Witnesses). Naturally we just couldn’t help ourselves and had to go over to chat to them—especially since nowadays our evangelism has been more sporadic then scheduled with baby on board. The JWs were a couple, and the wife was sprightly and interested while the husband was defensive and not. Though he did mention how everyone needs to be studying “scripture” (New World Translation of course) and then later on when we were getting into semantics, he said something to the effect of, “Who cares about the complicated stuff?”. Ok whateva …
It was a bit of a tough but pleasant conversation, and it probably took about 45 minutes until the wife, at least, really started listening. You can tell someone is listening if they start engaging intelligently with what you say and ask good questions about it. Also the tone of their voice goes from flippant to serious. Oh and just a random antidote, if you ever experience a Mormon (technically they’re just going by Latter Day Saints now, but Mormon is so much easier to type) or JW taking some gospel literature from you that is a huge thing, because this is a big no-no in their rules of engagement. Though I gather Mormons are a bit more open-minded than JWs in this, in my experience at least. We’ve had a few Mormons take London Baptist catechisms that we had, and I had one young JW lady take a tract. I think her partner was distracted talking to my friend so she didn’t see. Sneaky sneaky. Ok I am in a la-la sort of mood right now being 11pm on a Sunday night, but hey gotta take advantage of the free time when I have it. All you moms out there know what I’m talkin’ bout.
Where am I? Oh yeah, wife started listening. So the convo came down to explaining justification vs sanctification, and in the middle of me explaining these things, the wife stopped me and goes, “What does justification mean? You keep using it and I’ve never heard that term before.” I was instantly taken aback a bit, because in our Christian circles we’re so used to just throwing around these terms, but knowing and explaining their biblical definitions is so important! We should never assume anyone we meet, religious or otherwise, knows of these things. Since I was a little rusty in my evangelism convos of this level, I had just forgotten about this. I was also really appreciative of her honesty, and in my mind I was like, “Whaaaat!? I can’t believe you have never heard of this (though not surprised). How sad.” It’s amazing I can get through any conversation with how my mind jumps around but I can focus it when I want to, which is not right now. Obviously.
Her question was a wide open door to the simple gospel. So I was like, “Well then, I’d be happy to explain, because it is the best thing ever!” It really is. That’s what I want this post to be about, now that I took a page to get into it. Like the majority of my blogs, this is a far cry from an academic 20-plus page analysis of the terms—though that would be a fun paper to write. I have published at least one that I wrote here on where different apologetical methods fall on the authority of God’s Word. I love baby, but I also relish those days when I could spend all day sitting at Earth Fare with a big pile of books, banging out a paper and eating their food. I’m scared to take a class with a big paper in it now. I don’t know if I could do it since my “free times” are so sporadic at the moment. We shall see. This is just a general encouragement to whet your appetite and leave you hungry for more, so you are motivated to go and research more deeply on your own. That’s really the psychology behind most of my posts in case you were wondering.
However, I will use some scholarly references throughout this thing. Ok, justification, batter up! What the heck do you mean? According to question/answer 36 of The Baptist Catechism, “What is justification? Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins (Rom. 3:24, 25; and 4:6, 7, 8), and accepteth us as righteous in his sight (2 Cor. 5:19, 21), only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us (Rom. 5:17-19), and received by faith alone (Gal. 2:16; Phil. 3:9).” First, I apologize for the King James English, as I’ve never been too fond of it. Second, the main thing to understand is that man has nothing to do with his own salvation. Nada. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Not one little morsel of the work gets credited to man. God gives the grace. God pardons ALL of a believer’s sins (past/present/future). God makes him righteous. Ok, God does all the work, but surely it’s because he sees some spark of goodness he can work with within the individual. Nope. Ok, but surely, God initiates it and then man has to keep up his end of the bargain via works. Nope. But then man just lives however he wants on the presumption of, “God will forgive me for that,”. Nope. Btw, these are the main ways every other religion apart from Christianity distorts free grace and justification.
So I really have to limit myself here, because I have a billion things running through my mind that I want to write about this. But this is a blog, not a 20-page paper (I think). This concept sounds so simple on paper right? All of the triune God, none of man. Yet free, unmerited grace/justification is one of the hardest things for man to conceive of and accept. Hence, as already mentioned, why you have every other religion (including Catholicism) sticking man’s efforts into the justification process one way or another. It’s understandable though. Where else in this world do you truly get something for nothing? After all, if you don’t work you don’t eat right? Well, that’s another taboo topic in our culture. The fact is, the biblical concept of justification is a great offense to our sinful flesh. I have a boatload of examples to draw from in my mind of convos with peeps from a plethora of religions arguing against this. Even out here in lil’ old Greenville, I explained it to a monk guy once (I don’t know if he was truly a monk, but he had monkish tendencies and had claimed to spend some time living as one somewhere out East), and once he grasped the notion of free grace, he said he didn’t want it. He was perfectly happy working his way to his own justification, with his god on the sidelines cheering him on and giving him help where needed.
The general mantra of other religions goes, prob more West than East, “Well God/some god does the justifying in the beginning, but then man has to hold up his end of the bargain through works. If he doesn’t have works he’s not justified. If he makes no effort, he’s just using grace as a ‘get out of jail free card’ and living however he wants, presuming on grace.” And/or we are all just robots living in God’s matrix. Nope again. Paul addresses all this in Romans 6–9, though you should really just read the whole book, because it sets a solid foundation for justification and the Christian life. The plain fact of the matter is, that if God has truly justified you and forgiven you for your sins, he has made you into a new creation (2 Cor. 5) and given you a new heart (Ezk. 36). Thus begins the battle between flesh and spirit, as Paul describes in Romans 7. And thus begins the process of sanctification.
God justified you and gave you a new heart that wants to serve/worship/obey him. But he doesn’t stop there. He enables you to carry out the good works he prepared for you (Eph. 2), and keeps you to the end (Jn. 6, Rom. 8).
“What is sanctification?,” question 38 of The Baptist Catechism asks. So glad it asked (for all you grammar buffs out there glaring at me right now). “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace (2 Thess. 2:13), whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God (Eph. 4:23, 24), and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness (Rom. 6:4,6; 8:1).” So here’s where your works come in Christian, but even this is not based on your own effort. God justified you and gave you a new heart that wants to serve/worship/obey him. But he doesn’t stop there. He enables you to carry out the good works he prepared for you (Eph. 2), and keeps you to the end (Jn. 6, Rom. 8). “Aha! Robots!” I must say, as soon as anyone utters that word in relation to this, it shows they don’t have a proper understanding of these concepts. Fair enough, because if you’ve never had them properly taught to you, that’s where the mind naturally defaults to. See my article on why I’m a Calvinist for a description of my robot stage. Show grace and be thankful for the opportunity to properly take the individual through these concepts.
Though if I had a penny for every time a Catholic has rebutted with, “James 1, faith without works is dead—gotcha!” Not quite. James is 100% right in writing that, but he’s simply alluding to the fact that if you say you have genuine faith, you’ll be walking the talk. Just like if someone says they’re married, and they don’t have evidences such as a wedding ring or spouse, they ain’t married. If someone says they’re a believer, and looks forward to getting smashed every weekend at the club or undermining God’s Word whenever they can, there’s a good chance they’re not a believer. Granted, you can be doing everything fine externally, but your heart and hope is placed on yourself (cue cultural Christianity in the South). It can be quite tricky. In regards to other people, all we humans can go on is the evidence of one’s testimony and actions. Even then we can be deceived, as only God truly knows who his invisible Church is. Though this doesn’t mean that Christians can never have assurance of their own justification. We are told to be confident in it (Heb. 4), because we are sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1), and God justifies those he saves (Rom. 8). To triple check, 1 John also gives us tests to examine ourselves with to see if we are truly in the faith.
So the big take away from sanctification is that it’s still God’s work in believers, making us more like Christ until glorification (our final sinless state in heaven), and enabling us to serve him on earth. This reminds me of what an imam (Muslim leader) said to me in New Zealand once. Once these concepts were explained he asked, “Then why don’t you just kill yourself after you get saved, or why doesn’t God just zap you up? What’s the point of life after this if you can’t earn your salvation?” Ultimately the point/purpose of life is God’s glory (see catechism question one), but sanctification is where justification gets lived out on earth; where faith is put into action. Seriously, when you evangelize, spend as much time in these areas as you can with unsaved and confused, saved individuals. These are simple on paper, but so hard to grasp practically.
As I was explaining all this to the JW woman, the look on her face made it seem like I was speaking a foreign language to her. It was a concept she had never heard of and not in a million years would she have ever thought of it or dared to. It almost seems offensive to God himself to think this way. Yet what’s offensive to him is every time man tries to stick himself into the saving and sanctifying process. If at any point, man can justify/sanctify/glorify himself, then God is reduced to his helper and puppet. Hopefully, as these concepts were settling in, it turned into a sense of relief and freedom for this woman. God’s sovereignty in this entire process is where true freedom is found. His yoke truly is easy, and his burden light (Mat. 11).
I was going to end this article above, but I wanted to add this lil’ tidbit. Hopefully this excerpt from a speech I gave at my sister’s wedding using the example of Christ’s relationship to his bride (the Church/believers) as the foundation for earthly marriage, is helpful on how God weaves justification/sanctification/glorification together. “Over 2000 years ago, Jesus Christ laid down his life willingly and purposefully on the cross and resurrected three days later to pay the penalty for the transgressions/crimes of his bride that she could never pay on her own. Even after that selfless act, he didn’t abandon her as he continues to sanctify her so that he might present the Church to himself in splendor without spot or wrinkle. He started the good work in his bride and will complete it until it is finished. In return, having nothing on her own to offer or add to his finished work, or to make Christ love her more than he already does, the Church shows and has a genuine affection for Christ her husband as a natural response. No guilt, no manipulation, just a loving response to serve and glorify her Creator for all that he has done for her. She knows she is loved despite not being perfect, and that her savior/husband will never abandon her, and can rest in that.” Amen? Amen! 🐘
*Photo by Pixabay from Pexels