We can make a distinction between the body and the head of a man and he suffers no loss, but if there is a separation, the man will be dead. The head and the body must stay together for life to continue. Similarly, though we can make a distinction between justification and sanctification, we must never separate the two.
Justification is a legal court room term defined as the act of God when He declares a person just or righteous in His sight. This takes place the moment a sinner places their trust in the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. For the sinner who has faith in Jesus, God pronounces the sentence “I find you not guilty! I reckon (I count, I declare) you righteous in My sight, and you and I are forever at peace with each other. All of your sins were transferred to your sin bearing Substitute, the Lord Jesus Christ, who took the full brunt of My holy wrath for you, and what has been transferred to your account is the righteousness of My Son, who lived not only a sinless life, but a life fully pleasing to Me. This very real righteousness is yours now and forever.”
Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Christian is a justified person. God has declared him right in His sight because of Christ.
What is amazing to us (and what is at the heart of the gospel message) is that God does not wait until we are inherently righteous before He declares us righteous. He justifies “the ungodly.” Romans 4:5 says, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
How can God do this without compromising His holiness and justice? He does this because the very real righteousness of Christ has been given as a gift to the one who believes in Him. Christ’s righteousness is a real righteousness and “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Christ is our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30).
What about sanctification then? Justification happens in an instant – the moment a sinner places faith in the Savior. Sanctification is the process of becoming more and more holy and separated to God in daily life.
In the Old Testament, vessels used for the house of God (the Tabernacle or the Temple) were “sanctified” and set apart for that purpose, never to be used for more mundane purposes. In one sense, the Christian is already sanctified in that he is set apart to God (1 Cor. 6:11). Yet there is another dimension of sanctification for although set apart to God, there is still much work to do because in all actuality, no Christian on earth is entirely sanctified. The battle between the flesh and spirit is a life long battle. The flesh still wants its independence, and in contrast, the spirit wishes to live in absolute dependence upon God. Sanctification is an ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian.
Having made the distinction between justification and sanctification, let me affirm straight away that these two cannot be separated. That is because the truly justified person will be involved in this process of sanctification. If someone claims to be justified, but there is no desire to be sanctified, the claim to justification is proven to be fraudulent. The justified man possesses the Holy Spirit and He sets about the task of sanctification the moment He comes in to the human heart. He desires holiness, and He stirs up that desire in the heart of the true Christian. The Christian still sins, but there is now a struggle against sin, whereas before there was no struggle at all. The fact that you wish to be free from sin is an indication that the Holy Spirit is at work in the heart. When a person is happy to stay in a lifestyle that knowingly displeases the Master, it raises huge red warning flags to indicate that we need to analyze any claim to true justification.
Martin Luther gave the following analogy: When we are justified, it is as though a doctor has just administered a sure and certain remedy for a fatal disease. Though the patient may still endure a temporary struggle with the residual effects of his illness, the outcome is no longer in doubt. The physician pronounces the patient cured even though a rehabilitation process must still be carried out.
So it is with our justification. In Christ, God pronounces us just by the imputation of the merits of His Son. Along with that declaration, God administers something to us; He gives us the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit begins immediately to work within us to bring us to holy living.
It is both a reality and comfort to know this truth – once He begins the work, He will complete it. Scripture says, “those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). So certain is Paul that this is the case, he writes of glorification in the past tense. Though glorification has not yet happen for the Christian in this world, its future certainty is assured. It’s as good as done. No one fall through the cracks.
Imagine being a sports fan and your team is in a big final. Due to a pressing commitment, you are not able to watch the game live and so you record it for later viewing.
You are finally ready to sit down to watch the recorded game and a friend calls and, before you can stop him, he congratulates you on your team’s big win. You really didn’t want to know the final score… you wanted to watch the game not knowing the final outcome. You wanted to watch with all of the emotions of a live experience. But you cannot do that anymore. The fact is that because you now know the final result – because you know that your team wins the game – you watch the entire encounter knowing that no matter how bleak things may look, even if your teams falls behind in the score, you know… in fact you know with utter certainty… your team will win! You watch the game with this comfort: victory is inevitable.
In a similar way, in the battle for sanctification there are often struggles along the way. There are even moments when we might even feel a measure of despair at our seeming lack of spiritual progress. Yet the big picture reality is this: God the Holy Spirit having started the work will complete the massive sanctification project bringing every true Christian all the way to future glorification. All the justified are glorified. He who began the good work in you will complete it, until the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6).