This question came up recently on a Christian forum. Since I’ve written quite a bit about justification and sanctification lately, it would be a good idea for me to clarify what I mean by these terms.
In the Bible, justification has to do with righteousness. It is about being declared innocent – not guilty – before God. The Law, summarized by the Ten Commandments, reveals God’s righteousness, and therefore it is closely tied to justification. A person can only be justified if the entire Law is kept faultlessly. To break just one Law imputes guilt on a person.
Jesus Christ is the only Person to keep the whole Law without sin, but He did so in our place so we can have His righteousness imputed to us. When we repent and believe in Him, He takes our guilt and He gives us His righteousness. This is the process of justification by which we are declared righteous before God. When God looks at a saved believer, He doesn’t see sin. He sees the righteousness of Christ.
Sanctification, on the other hand, has to do with holiness, not judicial righteousness. It is about being set apart to God, and therefore it implies being owned by Him. As is also the case with the word “justified”, most uses of this word in the Bible are in the past tense, i.e. “sanctified”. When God justified us, He also sanctified us in that we became God’s own – holy to Him. Like justification, this was also a direct result of Jesus dying on the cross (Hebrews 10:29). 1
In the Old Testament, when God chose His people Israel, they became His own, dedicated to serve and worship Him (Deuteronomy 7:6). But that did not make them righteous, because sanctification is not about righteousness. When we are saved, however, we are both declared righteous (justified) and set apart (sanctified) to God. Both of these are the result of Jesus’ death for us, …but still, neither of these stops us from sinning.
The Bible also speaks of the on-going process of sanctification. This is the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 4:3) in making us holy like Christ in heart, mind and actions. It can only happen if we have first been justified and sanctified (set apart) for this purpose.
The Galatian believers were trying to achieve sanctification by works of the Law. But the Law is about justification, not sanctification. They were so focused on the Law, that instead of progressing toward holiness, they were losing their understanding of the more elementary principles of justification. The letter to the Galatians implies there is a close and dependent relationship between justification and sanctification. If we get one wrong, we’ll likely get the other wrong also.
Generally, I use ‘justification’ to describe what God does through Christ to save us from the legal consequences of our sins, and ‘sanctification’ to describe what God does through the Holy Spirit to make us more like Christ. They are two different but related things, and they are both the work of God through faith.
- In my writings, I’ll use the phrase ‘practical righteousness,’ as distinct from judicial righteousness, to mean holy living. This sanctification-type righteousness is spoken of in Titus 2:12, 1 John 2:29, 3:7. ↩