At Issue Index  Salvation Index  Justified Contents  Previous  Next


by Arnold Valentin Wallenkampf

13. Justification and Sanctification -
Distinct, but Never Separate

The term sanctification is not a felicitous expression when used in contradistinction to justification by faith. In post-Reformation theological thinking, it denotes a process of character development, or the result of this experience culminating in the ultimate attainment in Christian maturity.

In the Bible, on the other hand, the Greek words usually translated "sanctify" might more accurately be rendered "to dedicate" or "to consecrate" to God. A sanctified person has made a commitment to God and remains in that commitment. This is exemplified in Hebrews 10:10, which reads: "And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary remarks on this text: "The Greek emphasizes the thought that we were sanctified and now stand in a state of sanctification. Sanctification is here viewed, not from the aspect of a continual process, . . . but in terms of the original change from sin to holiness, and as a continuation in that state."1 In other words, in the Bible a sanctified person is dedicated or consecrated to the service of God and remains in that state of commitment. He is a believer. Many modem Bible translations reflect this meaning of the text (e.g., Moffatt and NEB), while others say that the believers have been made or are holy (e.g., Phillips and Jerusalem).

Biblical sanctification, therefore, usually denotes the sinner’s affirmative response to God’s pleading through the Holy Spirit, and his acceptance of Jesus as his Saviour. This is in contradistinction to God’s acceptance of the sinner, which is denoted by justification.

This biblical concept of sanctification is also illustrated in 1 Corinthians 1:2, where Paul writes: "To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus" (literally: "to those who have been sanctified"). Most modern language versions, instead of using the term sanctified read "consecrated" (NAB, Moffatt, Goodspeed, Twentieth Century New Testament) or "dedicated" (NEB). Others use phrases such as "called to be God’s holy people" (TEV), "those whom Christ Jesus has made holy" (Phillips), "the holy people of Jesus Christ" (Jerusalem), etc.

In 1 Corinthians 6:11, Paul reminds the Corinthian believers that they "were sanctified." In this verse Paul again presents sanctification as preceding justification by faith. He says: "but you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God." The sanctified ones had responded to the pleadings of the Holy Spirit and dedicated or consecrated themselves to God in the Spirit. Sanctification here refers to a sinner's turn to God with joyous acceptance of His plans and will for his life, away from his prior, selfish disregard of God’s loving will. In this way the former rebel is justified by faith and becomes an obedient child of God.

The saints, according to the Bible, are the "holy ones"—hagioi in the original Greek. These have accepted Christ by faith and have dedicated themselves to God and His service. Today we would call them believers or Christians, rather than saints or holy ones. We would also speak of them as in the process of sanctification, rather than as having been sanctified.

The Levitical law helps us understand the character or nature of "holy ones" or "saints" in the biblical sense. Leviticus 27:28 reads: "But no devoted thing that a man devotes to the Lord, of anything that he has, whether of man or beast, or of his inherited field, shall be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing is most holy to the Lord."

According to the Old Testament ritual, when something was devoted or dedicated to God it became holy. This was true of both things and persons (see Ex. 29:3 7; cf. Matt. 23:19). The holiness, either of a thing or of a person, did not derive from the object’s own holiness or the person’s ethical development, but rather from having been devoted, dedicated, or consecrated to God. It was the holiness of the Divine Recipient that made it holy. Not the giver, but the Divine Receiver invested the object or the person with holiness at the time of "devotion." "For it is not by nature but by divine calling that Christians are [holy ones]; they owe their membership of the holy cultic community to the call of divine grace in Christ (Phil. 1:1: [to the holy ones in Christ])."2 A person becomes or is reckoned holy when he is joined to a holy God, just as a woman becomes rich when she marries a rich man.

After a person has accepted salvation through Christ’s grace, he chooses to live a life devoted to God and His service. He is dedicated or consecrated to God. Thus he is "holy." Any person who has committed himself to God is holy in the biblical sense. He is a saint. So when Paul wrote to the churches that he had raised, he called their members saints (see Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2).* But these members were not saints in the popular theological sense of today, which denotes moral flawlessness.

Justification by faith and sanctification are connected. Through sanctification, in the biblical sense, the believer commits himself to God. As he commits or "sanctifies" himself to God and lays hold of Jesus by faith, he is justified. After the initial commitment or dedication to God, the believer will daily "sanctify" himself to God and His service. We often find this meaning of sanctify and sanctification in the Old Testament. The Israelites were to sanctify themselves (see Lev. 11:44; 20:7; 2 Chron. 35:6, KJV); the Sabbath (see Neh. 13:22, KJV); and even "the Lord of hosts himself’ (Isa. 8:13, KJV). Job sanctified his children (see Job 1:5, KJV). In modern versions of the Bible, terms or phrases other than sanctify are ordinarily used in these passages.

The biblical meaning of sanctify and sanctification in no way denies the important theological doctrine of sanctification as an ongoing process of spiritual and ethical growth throughout life. The Bible strongly endorses this doctrine, but it generally uses other terms to describe it. The Bible may speak of Christians as sons or children of God who are daily growing into fuller Christ-likeness. This growth in grace permits no stagnation. As John says: "Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure" (1 John 3:2, 3).

The sixth chapter of Romans might be entitled "Sanctification." But the terms sanctify and sanctification do not appear in this chapter. Its subject is the birth into the kingdom of God as symbolized by baptism. After birth into the kingdom of God, obedience to Christ follows, with victory over sin. Victory over sin is part of growth in grace, or theological sanctification.

In this chapter of Romans, Paul makes it clear that there is to be no willful disobedience—or sin in the theological sanctification process—but obedience. He expresses it in this way: "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness" (Rom. 6:12, 13). Ideally this will be our experience since we are "dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus" (verse 11). Thus in Romans 6 the apostle Paul portrays a living Christian experience, embracing both justification by faith and its logical sequence, theologically called sanctification. He does not separate them, he ties them together. He slides smoothly from justification by faith to theological sanctification.

Though we often prefer to separate them in our thinking, because it makes it easier for us to understand these two experiences in the salvation process, it would be well for us as Christians to follow the example of the apostle Paul and not separate justification by faith from theological sanctification.

In Catholic theology, justification by faith and sanctification are merged. According to the canons of the Council of Trent, "Justification . . . is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man."3 In Protestant theology, on the other hand, justification by faith and sanctification have traditionally been looked upon as distinct experiences, although not separated.

The Reformers, who rediscovered the gospel teaching of justification by faith, taught the "indissoluble connection between the justification and (theological) sanctification" while they maintained "that they are not only distinguishable in idea, but different in nature."4

Luther spoke of justification by faith and theological sanctification in this way: "Christ has earned for us not only God’s mercy, but also the gift of the Holy Spirit, that we should have not only forgiveness, but also an end of sins. Whoever remains in his earlier evil ways must have another kind of Christ. Consequence demands that a Christian should have the Holy Spirit and lead a new life, or know that he has not received Christ at all."5 Indeed, "The righteousness of Christ is not a cloak to cover unconfessed and unforsaken sin; it is a principle of life that transforms the character and controls the conduct." 6

Through justification by faith man is put into a life-giving connection or union with God and given the Holy Spirit for growth in grace and victory over sin. Justification restores fellowship between God and man, and this fellowship is to be maintained. There can be no union of God and man unless man is willing to be separated from rebellion and sin. Amos points this out when he says "Do two men travel together unless they have agreed?" (Amos 3:3, NEB). When two friends walk together it is not the walk that brings the greatest delight, but the fellowship. Genuine Christian life is likewise fellowship with Christ.

Calvin, like Luther, tied justification by faith to theological sanctification by insisting that the fruit of good works will appear in a Christian. He says: "Christ therefore justifies no one whom He does not at the same time sanctify. These benefits are joined together by an everlasting and indissoluble bond, so that those whom He illumines by His wisdom, He redeems; those whom He redeems He justifies; those whom He justifies, He sanctifies.

"But, since the question concerns only righteousness and sanctification, let us dwell upon these. Although we may distinguish them, Christ contains both of them inseparably in Himself. Do you wish then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess Him without being made partaker in His [theological] sanctification, because He cannot be divided into pieces."7

The Westminster Confession expresses the connections and differences between justification by faith and sanctification this way: "Although [theological] sanctification be inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ in that God, in justification, imputeth the righteousness of Christ; in [theological] sanctification, His Spirit infuseth grace, and enableth to the exercise there-of; 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."8

It has always been the traditional Protestant position that the two experiences, justification by faith and theological sanctification, are distinct but not separate.

Karl Barth says about justification by faith and theological sanctification: "We must not confuse or confound them. Justification is not sanctification and does not merge into it. Sanctification is not justification and does not merge into it. Thus, although the two belong indissolubly together, the one cannot be explained by the other. It is one thing that God turns in free grace to sinful man, and quite another that in the same free grace He converts man to Himself." That by faith "the sinful man may grasp the righteousness promised him in Jesus Christ is one thing, and quite another his obedience, or love, as his correspondence to the holiness imparted to him in Jesus Christ. . . . But it is a connection, not identity. The one cannot take the place of the other."9

Barth continues by saying that justification and theological sanctification are but "two different aspects of the one event of salvation. The distinction between them has its basis in the fact that we have in this event two genuinely different moments. That Jesus Christ is true God and true man in one person does not mean that His true deity and His true humanity are one and the same, or that the one is interchangeable with the other."10

Justification by faith may be compared to conception—the new life initiated through it must continue and develop into a fetus and finally into a baby. Or we might compare justification to birth. How unfortunate when, after birth, a baby’s life is snatched away and it does not continue to grow and develop. So justification by faith is related to theological sanctification. Following justification, we welcome Jesus to come and live within us during the process of theological sanctification. Thus Paul says: "As therefore you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so live in him" (Col. 2:6).

Justification by faith is immediate and complete, albeit with continuous effects. But our sanctification is to be continuous, both in its biblical meaning (dedication or consecration to God) as well as in its theological meaning (growing toward spiritual maturity or perfection). In the biblical sense sanctification is gradual, progressive, and never complete. In either sense, sanctification is never to terminate.

Decisions for God are good. But such decisions are empty unless there is action. Therefore, God does not want us to stop with mere decisions; He wants us to become disciples and follow Him. It is newness of life in Jesus Christ with willing, obedient discipleship that counts. No one can be a disciple of Jesus unless he demonstrates his trust by walking in the path of obedience to Christ and His Father. Such commitment will result in a life of growth in grace—theological sanctification.

When using the word sanctification in its theological meaning, justification by faith must of necessity precede sanctification. Growth in grace follows justification by faith just as the superstructure of a building must be constructed upon the foundation. Architecturally, the foundation of any building is physically below the superstructure, but it is not therefore less important. The whole building—even the Empire State Building—rests on its foundation. In the same way, theological sanctification rests on justification by faith. Apart from justification by faith no flesh would ever be saved, because only through it comes newness of life. And there can be no growth—no sanctification in its theological sense—without a birth to new spiritual life within, through the Holy Spirit.

Sanctification, in both its biblical and theological meanings, is effected through the Word and the Holy Spirit. In its biblical meaning it is the prevenient or common grace of the Spirit that prompts a person to come to Jesus and dedicate or consecrate himself to God and His service. After a person has committed Himself to God, the Spirit works continuously within him, effecting an ever fuller conformity to God’s will. "The soul is to be sanctified through the truth. And this also is accomplished through faith. For it is by the grace of Christ, which we receive through faith, that the character can be transformed."11 In this way the Spirit fulfills His mission, which is to glorify our Saviour (see John 16:14), by fitting men and women for fellowship with God and the angels throughout eternity.

Justification by faith and theological sanctification belong together as do the two rails of a railroad. The two rails are distinct, but they always run together. They are really only two parts of one and the same railroad track. Using another metaphor, they are like the two sides of a coin—distinct but never separated. So justification by faith and theological sanctification are both integral parts of the salvation process. At times it is difficult clearly to differentiate between them. Inspiration testifies to this. "Many commit the error of trying to define minutely the fine points of distinction between justification and sanctification. . . . Why try to be more minute than is Inspiration on the vital question of righteousness by faith?"12


* In many of these texts the words to be are inserted in the King James Version. But these words are usually printed in italics, which indicates that they are not found in the original but are inserted in the translation.) [back]

1 The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 460. [back]

2 Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. I, p. 107. [back]

3 Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1966), Vol. II, p. 94. [back]

4Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification, p. 265. [back]

5 Quoted in Klaus Bockmuhl, "Christianity Has a Moral Backbone," Christianity Today, Oct. 6, 1978, p. 55. [back]

6 White, The Desire of Ages, pp. 555, 556. [back]

7 Calvin, Institutes, Book III, chap. xvi, sec. 1. [back]

8 A Harmony of the Westminster Presbyterian Standards (Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1958), p. 90. [back]

9 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: I. & T. Clark, 1958), vol.4, part 2, p. 503. [back]

10 Ibid. [back]

11 White, in Signs of the Times, Nov. 3,1890. [back]

12 The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, vol. 6, p. 1072. [back]

At Issue Index  Salvation Index  Justified Contents  Previous  Next