Sanctification: Justification & Sanctification, What's the Difference?

There are several places in the writing of the Apostle Paul where he warns that “the unrighteous shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” He goes on to furnish examples that, though not exhaustive, are comprehensive enough to catch any of our besetting sins, from sexual immorality and idolatry to envy. If the kingdom of God is to replace the kingdoms of the world, this is bad news for all of us who would be left out of the kingdom of heaven. But 1 Corinthians 6:11 turns from such a gloomy list to this encouraging word: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Whatever Paul had in mind with the terms “justified” and “sanctified” – and the introductory article in this series details the past completed, ongoing present, and future aspects of sanctification – distinguishing the once for all act of justification from the ongoing process of sanctification is a hallmark of the Protestant doctrine of salvation. But why do we need to keep them distinct?

A feast is not made up of one ingredient, or even one dish. At the same time, culinary taste requires an appreciation for the different ingredients and techniques that go into an interesting meal. Each time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, our salvation in Christ is pictured as a feast. The spiritual food is always Christ. Our entire salvation is found in union and communion with him. But this is not a mono-tone meal. While all the ingredients must be held together, or it would not be a meal, there is value to appreciating each flavor distinctly.

Unfortunately, there is a trend, at least as far back as Augustine, of conflating justification and sanctification. Justification described an entire process of being made just or righteous in our dispositions and actions rather than as a distinct, once for all legal act on God’s part. Yet, as notable a church father as John Chrysostom could say this of Paul’s notion:

What then is Paul saying? Not that God has forbidden works but that he has forbidden us to be justified by works. No one, Paul says, is justified by works, precisely in order that the grace and benevolence of God may become apparent![1]

Commenting on Galatians 3:8, Chrysostom proclaims, “Again, they said that he who adhered to faith alone was cursed, but he shows that he who adhered to faith alone, is blessed.”[2] For Martin Luther, it was once again the exposition of Galatians, his “beloved epistle”, that made the distinction crystal clear. Justification is God’s once for all act outside of us; sanctification is God’s ongoing work inside us.

The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion define justification as follows, in Article 11:

We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.[3]

Justification is God’s judicial verdict that we are righteous on the basis of Christ’s work alone, received only by the instrument of faith in him. Reformed churches have never set aside the importance of good works, though. Article 12 goes on to say that good works “spring out necessarily of a true and lively faith” as fruit from its root.[4] To be sure, everyone in union with Christ desires to put off sin and practice righteousness. And so, sanctification is the Spirit-empowered, effort-full process by which Christians grow more and more just. However, our assurance before God does not await the eventual attainment of that goal. Instead, we are spurred on to holiness by the knowledge that we already stand fully righteous before God in Christ. And so, justification is, indeed, “a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort.”

Steven McCarthy is the rector of Christ Church Anglican (South Bend, IN). He earned an M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Pittsburgh, PA), and is a Th.M. student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (Grand Rapids, MI). He and his wife are native Michiganders. They have three young children.

[1] John Chrysostom, Homily on Ephesians, 4.2.9., cited in Edwards, M. J., Ed., Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 134.

[2] John Chrysostom, in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, edited by Philip Schaff and G. Alexander (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 13:26.

[3] Gerald Bray, The Faith We Confess: An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: The Latimer Trust, 2009), 72.

[4] Ibid., 76.


Steven McCarthy