The doctrines of justification and sanctification are both necessary components of the Christian faith. There is no such thing as a justified but unsanctified sinner and no such thing as a sanctified but unjustified sinner. Both are essential. There is, however, a tendency in the church to confuse the doctrines, to combine the doctrines, and to fail to recognize the distinction between the two. Justification is concerned with Christ’s work for the sinner as the ground of acceptance with our holy God. Sanctification is the work of the Spirit in the justified sinner whereby he is conformed more and more into the image of the Lord Jesus.
The dogma of Rome is an excellent illustration of a failure to recognize the distinction between the two doctrines. Rome has reduced the distinction between these two truths and therefore teaches that justification before God includes our works of obedience. Protestants run the risk of such confusion also. There is an emphasis today on “living the gospel.” While I think I understand the sentiment behind such a statement, there is a tendency to move toward Rome in such thinking. The gospel, strictly defined (see for instance 1 Corinthians 15:1-4), is the historic, revealed message concerning Jesus Christ. It is that record of events which focus upon Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for sinners. Technically, one cannot live the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for sinners – it is a message, it is a declaration, it is good news. One can live in light of it, one can let his conduct be worthy of it, one can pursue holiness; but to live out the events of Christ’s redemptive work on behalf of sinners, is simply not our calling.
When we preach the gospel, we are preaching a historic, revealed and Christ-centered message concerning His doing, dying, and rising again for sinners. We are preaching the finished work of Christ as the only foundation for acceptance with God. We are preaching pardon of sins and imputation of righteousness grounded solely in the active and passive obedience of Christ. We are preaching the glory of God in the reconciling of sinners to Himself by Jesus Christ. Period. Full stop. No additions, no subtractions, no supplements. When we preach the effects of the gospel, or the transforming power of the gospel, we instruct the people of God regarding the ethical implications of having believed the truth. If we do not keep these categories distinct, we run the risk of Romanism, Galatianism, or any other “ism” that includes man’s performance in his acceptance with God.
The Bible recognizes the inclination of sinful man to try to take credit for his acceptance with God. This is precisely why the Apostle Paul labors earnestly in Romans and Galatians (and elsewhere) to highlight the great truths recovered by the reformation believers: we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. If we confuse justification and sanctification, we run the risk of departing from these wonderful truths.
For further study:
- The London Baptist Confession of 1689, chapters 11 (Justification) and 13 (Sanctification)
- Westminster Larger Catechism #77
- “The Doctrine of Justification” by James Buchanan, published by Banner of Truth.
- “Holiness” by J.C. Ryle, chapter on Sanctification.