Why the Differences Between Justification and Sanctification Matter

As we come to the end of this five hundred anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation, I’d like to delve into a crucial theological issue that is so practical for us. If you have your Bible you can turn to Paul’s letter to the Romans. One of the doctrinal issues that is clear in Romans is that what he declares us to be (justification) and what he makes us to be (sanctification) are inseparably joined yet separate benefits. These two doctrines are seamlessly described to us in Romans as Paul moves in and out of God’s declaration that we are righteous (justification) and his work of making of us righteous (sanctification) in chapters 4–8. If I can illustrate it, it’s like the work of a good seamstress, whose work is noticed only when you turn the garment inside out and begin to see the threads, patches, and places where things are brought together and distinguished. In Paul’s letter to the Romans we learn that there is one Savior Jesus Christ, who has earned for us and communicates to us two chief benefits, and that these two benefits have three differences.

Now, whenever we come to doctrine, we have to beware of falling asleep. And the issue I’m raining here may be one that does not seem to have any immediate benefit for your soul, but let me show you that it does. Not only does this doctrinal issue aid in ever-deepening our understanding of what it means to be saved, that in turn leads us to living in greater confidence before God. Why is it that I still sin? Why do I not feel any different at this point in time? When will God help me stop that sin? These are practical questions that are rooted in the three differences we’ll see here between justification and sanctification. Let me quote from the Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 77, on this:

Q. 77. Wherein do justification and sanctification differ?

A. Although sanctification be inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, [1] in that God in justification imputeth the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification of his Spirit infuseth grace, and enableth to the exercise thereof; [2] in the former, sin is pardoned; in the other, it is subdued: [3] the one doth equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation the other is neither equal in all, nor in this life perfect in any, but growing up to perfection.

A Difference in Procedure

The first crucial difference between how the grace of God operates in justification and sanctification is the difference in their procedure. This means the manner and method of grace is different in these two benefits. In justification God imputes to us the righteous works of Jesus Christ while in sanctification God infuses grace in us. In the one we have been declared righteous while in the other we are being made righteous. In the one we are passive, in the other we are active. In the one righteousness is credited to us while in the other righteousness is created within us.

Paul can say so confidently and triumphantly in Romans 5:1 (New King James Version), “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God,” because of all he’s said in chapters 3–4 about the imputation of righteousness. We are “justified by his grace” (3:24, New International Version) because like Abraham and David, God imputes to us righteousness apart from all works. Why else is it that one trespass led to condemnation and one act of righteousness led to justification, that by the one many were made sinners and by the other many were made righteous in 5:18–19? Imputation.

Paul can speak forcefully in chapter 6 about presenting ourselves as slaves to righteousness (6:19). How can he do this? Grace operates differently in justification and sanctification.

What does mean for us? It means that we need to rest yet be restless. We need to cease yet be laboring. Be confident about your standing with God because of imputation, but be active in sanctification because of infusing. Anthony Burgess wrote in his dedication to his magnum opus, “Vindiciae Legis: or, A Vindication of the Morall Law and the Covenants,” that we are “to magnify grace in the highest manner, out of the real sense of our necessity and unworthiness, yet to avoid Antinomianism; and on the other side, to be punctual and exact in the duties of mortification and holiness, yet to take heed of Pharisaical Popery.” He then said the right relationship between the two was this: “when we are diligent in working out our salvation with fear and trembling, as if there were no grace to justify; and yet, so resting and believing in the grace of Christ, as if no good thing had been done by us.”1

A Difference in Power

This leads to the second crucial difference between how the grace of God operates in justification and sanctification, which is the difference in their power. The power of God’s grace in justification is that our sin is once and for all pardoned while in sanctification our sin is more and more subdued. Listen to the powerful way Paul speaks of God’s grace to us in justification in chapter 5:

We have been justified (5:1)

We have peace with God (5:1)

We have access to God’s grace (5:2)

We do stand in his grace (5:2)

We do rejoice in the glory of God (5:2)

God’s love has been given to us (5:5)

Christ did die for us (5:8)

We have been justified by his blood (5:9)

We shall be saved from the wrath of God (5:9)

We were reconciled to God (5:10)

In sanctification the power of grace operates differently. It more and more over time subdues the power of sin. This is why Paul still speaks of us not letting sin reign in us to obey its passion (6:12) and that we must continually present ourselves to God, which leads to sanctification (6:19). “I know, pastor, and here is why I’m struggling. I’m mired in a morass of my own sins.” We need to constantly look forward and look The Outlook back. When we drive, we are always moving our eyes in front and in back through the rear view mirror. When we only look forward to the long road we lose sight of how far we’ve come, and from where we started. In the same way we have to always keep our reference point in justification clearly in view. Are you doubting? Don’t look inward to your thoughts, but look outward to these promises in chapter 5. Meditate upon these wonderful words.

A Difference in Perfection

This leads to the third crucial difference between how the grace of God operates in justification and sanctification, which is the difference in their perfection. In justification all believers are equally freed from the wrath of God perfectly in this life, while in sanctification believers are not equally transformed, nor are any perfectly sanctified in this life.

In justification we all have peace with God: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Rom. 5:1, New King James Version). Yet in sanctification we all need to draw upon the measure of faith we’ve been given in order to die to sin and live for righteousness. We have to mature. We have to go from drinking milk to eating meat. We need to complete holiness (2 Cor. 7:1).

All this is so crucial because without it you will be in doubt, you will be in fear, you will be tossed to and fro by the winds of temptation. I was. When I was converted at age seventeen I was immediately full of passion and zeal for the Lord. But over time the ordinariness of the Christian life set in, sin become more real, and temptations now were a real choice whether to join in or resist. All this led me to despair. It led me to doubt. It was only when a dear old saint introduced me to a doctrine I had read in my Bible: justification. I was relying too much on my sanctification.

What I came to see was that these two doctrines had various differences as the Westminster Larger Catechism explains. What I came to see was that these two were related yet separate benefits. And when I came to realize this, it led me to an assurance I had lost touch with. Why? Because these doctrines and their differences led me to the Savior, from whom they came to me. And that’s what this Reformation year is all about: recapturing our first love of Jesus Christ and this gospel of grace for sinners like you and me. Amen?

1. Anthony Burgess, “The Epistle Dedicatorie,” in Vindiciae Legis, Westminster Assembly Facsimile Series (1647; reprint, Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011). Spelling modernized.

Rev. Daniel Hyde is the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad, CA.