Understanding How Justification and Sanctification Work Together
Our Westminster Divines had a problem. It wasn’t a new problem, and it is a problem that is still with us today. Many people, including whole branches of Christendom, confuse justification and sanctification. Either they get the cart before the horse or they introduce elements of both into each other, like peanut butter and chocolate in a Reece’s. It may be delicious in that context, but it is damnable heresy in our context. There is not only a functional difference between justification and sanctification, but getting each of them right is the warp and woof of the gospel of grace offered in Jesus Christ. So today for our catechism lesson we are going to listen as the writers of the WLC help us to understand not only why this matters, but how we can use this distinction to grow in faith both in this life and in the life to come. Here are the Q/A’s:
Q. 77: Wherein do justification and sanctification differ?
A. Although sanctification be inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, in that God in justification imputes the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification his Spirit infuses grace, and enables to the exercise thereof; in the former, sin is pardoned; in the other, it is subdued: the one doeth 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.
Q. 78. Whence arises the imperfection of sanctification in believers?
A. The imperfection of sanctification in believers arises from the remnants of sin abiding in every part of them, and the perpetual lustings of the flesh against the spirit; whereby they are often foiled with temptations, and fall into many sins, are hindered in all their spiritual services, and their best works are imperfect and defiled in the sight of God.
Q. 79: May not true believers, by reason of their imperfections, and the many temptations and sins they are overtaken with, fall away from the state of grace?
A. True believers, by reason of the unchangeable love of God, and his decree and covenant to give them perseverance, their inseparable union with Christ, his continual intercession for them, and the Spirit and seed of God abiding in them, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.
The opening words of the first question make it clear that justification and sanctification are inseparably joined. What they mean by that is that you can’t have the one without the other. No one is able to be cleansed who has not been first judged and declared righteous by virtue of the imputation of Christ’s merit to their account. It would be like saying you can’t put gasoline in a car in order to have it run unless it has an engine in it to receive and burn the fuel. There are those who hold to what has been termed a “carnal Christian” doctrine, that it is possible to have Christ as Savior, but not as Lord. That is an impossibility. If you are adopted into the family of God by the word of God then you will take on the attributes of a member of the family.
Our being saved from the wrath to come has in its benefits the fact that God’s gracious gift is not a one-time event. Our Lord is not a divine Publisher’s Clearinghouse who knocks on the door of our heart, gives us the prize, and disappears. Rather He takes us into His house with the key of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection opening the gate and allows us in His mercy to eat and feast at His table forever. Part of that feeding comes with the assuring work that as we take in the food of faith we grow stronger and stronger in it. That’s difference between the imputation of justification and the infusing of sanctification.
If you recall in the Shorter Catechism the contrast you’ll spot in the Q/A’s on justification and sanctification mark out one as an act of God’s grace and the other as a work of God’s grace. That distinction helps us to understand their difference. We are not daily in need of justifying love. It is because of that divine declaration that we possess our new identity. As the last Q. 79 certifies it is through the application of the decree of God that we have the assurance no justified believer will ever lose the love of the Lord or fall away from the promise. The foundation of this is grounded in the fact that no one in whom Jehovah has began a work will fail to see it come to a complete and full end. (Phil. 1:6). If you are being sanctified, and it should be something you can see, then you can rest in peace that not only were you justified, but you will be glorified.
Another question the catechism seeks to answer for us is why if we are justified and being sanctified do we continue in some measure to sin? According to Q. 78 the reason for that is quite simple. Paul shows us the nature of the battle in Romans 7. As long as we remain in the flesh (which we need to be reminded is not the flesh’s fault, it’s not intrinsically evil) there will be vestiges of the former, or old man within us. The call of sanctification is to trust in the means of God’s grace to root out that remaining defilement and seek to be cleansed in Christ. We can’t complain of our lack of improvement if we are not using the tools God gave us to do it. It is part of the reason why humility and meekness are always brought forward by the prophets and the apostles when it comes to obedience. We are very good at either claiming we have a better way to accomplish what God wants us to accomplish (see the myriads of man-made worship aids in the church, Romanist, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, etc…) or on the other hand declaring our impotence and just giving up the fight without firing a shot. I want to encourage you as we come to a close this week to not allow the weak temptations of the devil to keep you from engaging in the instruments of prayer, godly conference, and worship. Being present in the house of God, with the people of God, is a necessary part of the battle against indwelling sin.
Here’s a word more:
Blessings in Christ,
Rev. Benjamin Glaser
Pastor, Bethany ARP Church