What Is the Difference between Justification and Sanctification?


What is the difference between justification and sanctification? I am thankful that this is a frequent question that I get as a pastor; thankful because people are thinking but also because this is so important. After all, we are talking about our standing before God.

In short, justification means we are declared righteous, while sanctification means growing in righteousness.

Let me explain and contrast a bit further.

Justification refers to God’s declaration that someone is determined to be righteous in his sight. This justification is a one-time act whereby God declares a sinner like you and me to be not only not guilty but perfectly righteous before his high bar of justice. How does God does this and maintain his justice? The basis for the divine declaration is the doing and dying of Christ. God credits (or imputes) us with the righteousness (merit) of Jesus. We are justified by grace (a gift) through faith (trusting in Jesus). Some great verses are Rom. 3.24; 4.1-5; 5.1; 2 Cor. 5.21, Tit. 3.7.

Sanctification, on the other hand, is the continual process of being made more holy. It is the progressive conformity of the one who has been justified into the image of their Savior through the work of the Holy Spirit. Like justification, sanctification is a work of grace through faith. And, sanctification is possible because of the finished work of Christ on our behalf. Some great verses are Rom. 6; 8; Tit. 3.5; 1 Thess. 4.3, 5.23; Heb. 12.14; 2 Pet. 3.18; Jud. 1.20.

What’s the difference? A few helpful things to remember about the two:

  • Justification happens outside of you, you are declared righteous.
  • Sanctification happens inside of you, you are made righteous.
  • Justification is a one-time event, and sanctification is a continual process. When we are justified, we are declared righteous positionally (that is, before God we are righteous). However, while we are positionally righteous, we are practically not perfectly righteous. While doubtless growing in grace, we are still, when compared to Christ, unrighteous. Sanctification then is the gradual conformity to the likeness of Christ. In other words, sanctification is the gradual process of becoming practically what we are positionally (righteous).
  • Justification is not being made righteous.
  • Justification is not based upon what we do.

There are three quick reasons why you should understand this doctrinal distinction and not see it as simply splitting hairs.

In order to praise Christ

Whenever we think about the matters of the gospel and Christian living, we must remember that it all falls under the rubric of what Jesus died for. Therefore, it is vital that we do not deflate the glorious truth of the gospel. The Savior gave his life for your justification so that you might exalt in having your balance cleared and live in peace with God (Rom. 5:1). He also did this for you to secure your holiness (1 This. 5.23).

In order to guard the gospel

As Christians we are to defend and promote the gospel (Phil. 1:27ff). In order to defend it we need to know it (Jude 3). We must know what Christ did and the implications. It is a reflex for us as Christians to slouch into a works-righteousness that would obliterate the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The Roman Catholic concept of justification as a process is appealing to our pride. A lack of doctrinal precision on this matter makes one (and their churches by implication) vulnerable to compromise on the gospel. We know this is vitally important (Gal. 1:6ff)!

In order to encourage other Christians in holiness

To know who we are practically and are to become positionally drives us to dig into this glorious grace—not only in our lives but also in the lives of church members. To know what Christ has won for you will fuel you and encourage you to press into one another’s lives with the word of victorious grace in the gospel (cf. Rom. 6-8). Because of what Jesus has done God will never love you more than he does that first hour of faith. And, because of what Jesus has done, you who truly trust in Jesus are as secure in that imputed righteousness as Christ is. It is as if his righteousness is stitched to your own soul! And, you can mark it down, just as Christ has been resurrected, so too will you walk in newness of this resurrected life (Rom. 6).

So back to the question. What is the difference between justification and sanctification? Justification means being declared righteous, while sanctification means growing in righteousness.