What do justification and sanctification mean?
Justification means our declared righteousness before God, made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection for us. Sanctification means our gradual, growing righteousness, made possible by the Spirit’s work in us.
Proof Text: 1 Peter 1:1–2
To those who are elect exiles . . . according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.
Our Savior and Lord, you have completed the work of our justification. You have begun the work of our sanctification, and we trust that you will carry us through to its completion. Transform us day by day into your likeness, conforming us to your ways. Amen.
Justification is the act of God by which he declares us to be just or righteous or perfect because by faith alone we have been united to Jesus Christ, who is perfect, who is just, who is righteous. So, justification is a legal standing before God, owing to a spiritual union with Jesus, which is owing to faith alone. You don’t work yourself into or perform your way into this standing with God. He declares you to be perfect because of your union with Christ, and that happens by faith alone.
Sanctification is the act of God by which he, through his Spirit and his Word, is conforming you little by little—or in big steps—into the image of his Son. So we are really becoming in our behavior righteous, really overcoming imperfections in our sanctification.
Now here’s the key question: How do these two relate to each other? The key verse is Hebrews 10:14: “By a single offering, [Christ] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Think of what that says. Who has been perfected for all time? Has been. It’s done. Has been perfected for all time. Those who are being perfected. Being sanctified. Being made holy. He has made you perfectly holy. Who? The ones who are becoming holy. Which means that the evidence that you stand holy or perfect or just before God is that you are by faith becoming holy. Sounds kind of paradoxical, I know. But it’s the key to the Christian life.
Another way to say it is like this: The power by which you daily strive to overcome the imperfections in your life is the confidence that you’re already perfect. If you get these switched around, if you think, “Okay, God demands perfection; I’ve got to become in my behavior perfect, and then God will look at me and say, ‘He’s doing pretty good; we’ll let him be perfect or count him to be perfect.’” It’s just the opposite. Because of Christ, we believe in him and what he did on the cross and his perfect life. We believe in him, and by that faith, God unites us to Christ. His perfection is counted as ours. And the evidence that we stand perfected in Christ is that we hate our sin, and we daily, by faith in his promises, strive to overcome the imperfections that exist.
So my exhortation would simply be, please don’t get these backward. The whole world gets it all backward. Other religions get it all backward, where our works and our efforts to overcome imperfections might make us pleasing to God. You never can get there that way. God reckons us as acceptable, makes us his children, counts us as righteous; and because of that righteousness we then spend a lifetime becoming what we already are.
Historical Commentary by
Who is Abraham Booth?
Though justification and sanctification are both blessings of grace, and though they are inseparable, yet they are distinct acts of God; and there is, in various respects, a wide difference between them. The distinction may be thus expressed—justification respects the person in a legal sense, is a single act of grace, and terminates in a relative change; that is, a freedom from punishment, and a right to life; sanctification regards him in a physical sense, is a continual work of grace, and terminates in a real change, as to the quality both of habits and actions. The former is by a righteousness without us; the latter is by holiness wrought in us. That precedes as a cause; this follows as an effect. Justification is by Christ as a priest, and has regard to the guilt of sin; sanctification is by him as a king, and refers to its dominion. The former deprives of its damning power, the latter of its reigning power. Justification is instantaneous and complete in all its subjects; sanctification is progressive and perfecting by degrees.