Two Pastoral Thoughts on Justification and Sanctification

Are You a Jefferson or a Hamilton?
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Judging by my Facebook Trending feed, most people aren’t that interested in sanctification. But if you’re a Christian, you have to be. And if you’re a pastor like I am, then doubly so. As pastors, our own sanctification would be enough to keep our hands full, not to mention keeping a close watch on ourselves and pommeling our bodies lest we be disqualified (1 Tim. 4:16; 1 Cor. 9:27). But then there’s also the sanctification of our flock, as we seek to present everyone mature in Christ (Col. 1:28). The practical challenges are constant.

But beneath most of the practical challenges is the perennial doctrinal challenge of how to relate sanctification to justification. How do they differ? Are they both necessary? If so, is one more central to the gospel than the other? Is there a danger in emphasizing one over the other? How do we achieve a proper balance?

Given the constant challenges, we need all the help we can get. Perhaps this is why my reading list has been so full of books on the subject these past few years. Kevin DeYoung’s The Hole in our Holiness. Bryan Chapell’s Unlimited Grace. Sinclair Ferguson’s Devoted to God and The Whole Christ. Mark Jones’s Antinomianism. Walter Marshall’s Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.

Now add to that list Michael Allen’s new book, Sanctification, the third volume in Zondervan’s New Studies in Dogmatics series. I won’t be writing a review of Sanctification; a book of this caliber deserves a more astute reviewer, as I was definitely reading over my head much of the time. Still, after slogging through it twice, I’ve found my thinking sharpened on the relationship between sanctification and justification.

As far as I can tell he doesn’t say anything new (indeed, to adapt a line from C. S. Lewis, “It’s all in J. C. Ryle! All in Ryle! Bless me, what do they teach them in these schools?”). But Allen does say a lot of things well, things that contribute to the ongoing conversation.

So without claiming to reflect or agree with Allen in every detail, let me share two pastoral thoughts on sanctification and justification inspired by his book.

1. Sanctification and the Gospel—Of Goals and Grounds

Which would you say is more important, justification or sanctification? Which is more central to the gospel? How you answer that question will affect both how you preach and how you evaluate others’ preaching.

Are You a Jefferson or a Hamilton?

I once read that the political differences between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton stemmed from what each of them feared more: Jefferson feared tyranny while Hamilton feared disorder. I’ve observed something similar among pastors, even those who subscribe to the same confessions of faith. Some Jefferson-like pastors fear the tyranny of the law (legalism), while other Hamilton-like pastors fear the disorder of lawlessness (antinomianism). You can see where this is going. Those who see legalism as the greater danger tend to stress justification, while those more alert to antinomianism tend to stress sanctification.

As you’ll likely be able to divine, I’m more of a Hamilton.

Where we fall on this spectrum can also influence our exegesis of particular texts. I recently had a conversation with a Jefferson-type pastor about Matthew 5:20. I maintained that when Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” he’s referring to the practical, imparted righteousness of sanctification (i.e., what Hebrews 12:14 calls “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord”). But my friend was uneasy about this—“How could any righteousness be required to enter the kingdom beyond the righteousness of Christ himself?”

Perhaps you sympathize with my pastor friend, perhaps not. But I’m sure you feel the tension. There is often a feeling among Jefferson-types that justification is more essential, and that as important as sanctification might be, it shouldn’t be our focus; just preach justification and sanctification will happen. Hamilton-types, meanwhile, think we need to talk more explicitly about the importance of sanctification.

How to Relate Justification and Sanctification

So even if we agree that justification and sanctification are both necessary, we can still differ over which is more central. And here’s where I think Allen provides helpful vocabulary. He parses it this way: Justification is more foundational, but sanctification is more ultimate. Justification is the ground of the gospel, but sanctifying fellowship is the goal of the gospel (34, 157, 182–83).

Justification is more foundational, but sanctification is more ultimate. Justification is the ground of the gospel, but sanctifying fellowship is the goal of the gospel.

Therefore, asking which is more important misses the point. More important for what? Without justification, sanctification is fruitless, but without sanctification, justification is pointless.

On the one hand, justification through Christ’s imputed righteousness is indispensable—no one gets glorified without it (Rom. 8:29–30), because apart from Christ we’re children of wrath (Eph. 2:3). Having sinned we fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23); having transgressed we lie under God’s curse (Gal. 3:10–11). As long as we remain in this condition, the distance between us and God is impassable, and even our best works are filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). Justification is indispensable—and available.

But it’s not the end. Echoing Allen’s language, Richard Gaffin notes that in the ordo salutis (order of salvation) of Romans 8:29–30, sanctification (being “conformed to the image of his Son,” what Dane Ortlund describes as “inaugurated glorification”) is “strategically more ultimate” than justification—preceding it as the predestining goal and following it as the topmost stone (287). Or again, as Allen notes, the movement of Romans is from justification in chapters 1–5 to sanctification in chapters 6–8 (185–189). Having been justified, the “fruit [we] now get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Rom. 6:22).

Let me borrow Allen’s own illustration from his previous book, Justification and the Gospel (30–31). Think of salvation as a house—a house with a banquet hall. The goal of the house is to serve as a place for God to feast with his people forever. So the house represents sanctifying fellowship. That’s the chief end. Yet no house can stand without a firm foundation, and justification is that foundation. Without it, the banquet would come to a “crashing halt.”

So which is more important, the foundation or the feast? You get the point.

Promise of Transformation

Given its foundational nature, there’s a real sense in which we never “get beyond” justification. To tweak the analogy, justification isn’t simply the gate we pass through on the way to our sanctified destiny—it’s the very road we travel on, always there supporting us. Even in glory, when our journey is complete and we’ve prayed “Father, forgive me” for the final time, we’ll never outgrow our identity as those who have been forgiven through the blood of Christ, and we’ll join the angels in singing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain” (Rev. 6:12). Those who reign in life will be those—and only those—who have first received the free gift of righteousness through the obedience of the one man Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:17, 19).

Without justification, sanctification is fruitless, but without sanctification, justification is pointless.

At the same time, by narrowly emphasizing justification as though it alone were the gospel, we can obscure the fact that the goal of the gospel is transformation—the actual reshaping of our thoughts, loves, actions, habits, characters, and (eventually) our very bodies to be like Christ’s. If our gospel focuses on the forensic to the neglect of the transformative, then our gospel is too small and risks missing the point. But when we attend to the full breadth of the biblical gospel, we will “find a way to speak positively of virtue, morality, and human action as a part of the gospel promise and not merely a threat to or compromise of the gospel” (33).

To use Paul’s language, the goal of Christ’s death was “to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people . . . who are zealous for good works” as we wait for his “glorious appearing” (Titus 2:13–14). Or to use Allen’s language:

Justification is not meant to be a final or ultimate blessing, but it is an entryway blessing that brings one into a journey that terminates in a still greater benefit: the transforming presence of the glorious God of the gospel. (183)

Both are essential. Each has its proper place in the gospel. Justification is the ground, sanctification is the goal. But beneath them is something more basic.

2. Sanctification, Union with Christ, and the ‘Double Grace’

Giving sanctification such a vital place may seem hazardous if you’re used to thinking of the gospel in terms of justification only. And this is understandable. My Jeffersonian friend has a point—legalism is a live danger. So how do we give sanctification its proper place without confusing the gospel with moralism? How do we keep a proper focus?

Thankfully there is a ready biblical answer, and Allen points us to it. There is something (or rather someone) that lies beneath both justification and sanctification; something even more fundamental than either of them. Namely, Jesus Christ. His person. His work. Who he is. What he did. The gospel isn’t focused first and foremost on sanctification or justification—but on Christ himself. (That’s why a person can have fuzzy or even false ideas about justification but still be justified nonetheless—because we’re justified through faith in Christ, not through faith in justification.)

If our gospel focuses on the forensic to the neglect of the transformative, then our gospel is too small and risks missing the point.

The benefits of salvation are all found in Christ, and they become ours when we are in him. In Christ we have no condemnation (Rom. 8:1). In Christ we have redemption and forgiveness (Eph. 1:7). In Christ we’re raised up to new life and seated in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). In Christ we’re sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13). Christ is our wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, and union with him is “the matrix for all spiritual blessing” (150; 1 Cor. 1:30).

Christ and the Double Grace

Allen stresses repeatedly that justification and sanctification are “discrete, yoked, logically ordered gifts in union with Christ” (184). And in this he trades heavily on John Calvin’s famous description of these gifts as the “double grace” (34–42, 171–83). Calvin explains:

By partaking of [Christ], we . . . receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s Spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life. (37)

Notice two things here: one about Christ and the Spirit, the other about Christ and sanctification.

First, we normally associate sanctification with the Holy Spirit, and rightly so. But even here Calvin keeps the focus on Christ by referring to him as “Christ’s Spirit.” This not only echoes Paul’s language (Rom. 8:9; Gal. 4:6), it also reflects the Bible’s emphasis on Christ as the giver of the Spirit (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 16:7; Acts 1:5; 2:33). This is why Robert Peterson can speak of “Christ’s Pentecost” as part of his work of redemption, right alongside “Christ’s Death” and “Christ’s Resurrection” (206–26).

Surely this emphasis should affect how we teach and preach sanctification. It should keep us from construing “the work of Christ” too narrowly, as though it ended with the ascension. Even in the arena of sanctification where the Spirit does his primary work, we should keep the focus on Christ. And if John 16:13–14 is any indication, I’m pretty sure the Spirit won’t mind.

Second, notice Calvin’s description of sanctification and Christ: “that [being] sanctified by Christ’s Spirit, we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.” At the risk of reading my own views onto Calvin, he seems to be saying that our cultivation of holiness flows not so much out of justification (the first grace) as out of Christ’s gift of the sanctifying Spirit (the second grace). (If I’m wrong about Calvin, then judge the following comments on their own merits.)

I don’t wish to split hairs. But I risk splitting this one because it plays into the ongoing conversation about what fuels sanctification and what motives we should appeal to as preachers. Is our sanctification fueled mainly by gratitude for justification, or are other motivations just as legitimate? Personally, I agree with Jason Hood that “union with Christ, resurrection power, the indwelling Spirit, new-creation status, and regeneration have more practical impact on sanctification than justification, forgiveness, and imputation.” Note that he places union with Christ first.

Or again, in early 2017 the Gospel Reformation Network made the following statement as part of their “Affirmations and Denials on the Gospel and Sanctification”:

We affirm that both justification and sanctification are distinct, necessary, inseparable, and simultaneous graces of union with Christ though faith.

We deny that sanctification flows directly from justification, or that the transformative elements of salvation are mere consequences of the forensic elements.

While I might tweak some of their language, I agree with their basic claim. The concern is this: If we view sanctification as flowing directly from justification (rather than from union with Christ by his Spirit), we will tend to view transformation as an automatic effect of justification (a “mere consequence”). This in turn will lead us to emphasize gratitude for justification as the primary (if not sole) driver of sanctification, to the exclusion of other biblical motivations, such as the desire to please God (Heb. 13:16), avoid chastisement (Ps. 119:67), or receive rewards (1 Tim. 6:18–19). Such a mistake will impoverish our preaching, constrict our counseling, and deprive our people and ourselves of the ammunition we need to fight sin.

Making Christ the Center

I’m fairly certain that Allen would disagree with some of what I’ve just said, but I’m confident he would agree with this: We need to preach sanctification as part of the gospel promise, and the best way to do that is by making Christ our focus and attending to the full breadth of his work.

Making Christ the focus of the gospel, and union with Christ the heart of salvation, is ultimately what will guard us pastorally from both legalism and antinomianism. (Hamilton and Jefferson can be reconciled in Christ.) On the one hand, because it flows from Jesus Christ and follows justification, sanctification is never mere moral improvement or bootstrap-pulling. Flowing from Christ as it does, the imparted righteousness of sanctification gives us no more ground for boasting than the imputed righteousness of justification. For though they affect us in different ways, both ultimately come from Another (1 Cor. 1:30). So even if we can honestly boast that we’ve worked harder than others—the truly sanctified person will quickly add, “Yet it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10; 230).

And yet because of union with Christ, sanctification is also never optional, because the same Christ who forgives our sin also gives us his Holy Spirit. Justification and sanctification always go together because Jesus never gives one without the other. Christ—in other words, the whole Christ—is the unifying factor in both. He’s the only safeguard we have, and the only one we need.

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