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A Primer on Justification and Sanctification

by Bill DeJong

Copyright © 2003

Introduction. It was God’s intention to have a people on the earth who would serve him in love by transforming the world into a beautiful garden. Adam and Eve were created, among other reasons, to parent such a people. But Adam and Eve disobeyed God and, in so doing, plunged all of humanity into sin.

Double Trouble. There are two consequences to this tragedy for human beings, the first of which is legal guilt and the second of which is moral pollution. Since all human beings in some way participated in Adam’s sin (Rom.5:12), all stand guilty before the tribunal of God from the moment of conception (Psa.51:5; Rom.5:18-19). And because all are descendants of Adam, and since like begets like, all are born with the moral pollution of Adam’s sin (Rom.5:21; Rom.6:6)—namely, the inclination or impulse to sin (Eph.4:17-20).

Thus the Scriptures, in speaking of the tragedy of sin, refer both to the guilt of sinners, upon which the judgment of God is pronounced (John 3:36; Rom.2:5; Rom.3:19) and the bondage of sinners from which the sinner cannot free himself (Rom.7:7-11). This is the human problem.

The Promises to Abraham. While there were certainly prior hints that something was going to change, it is especially to Abraham that God made explicit promises of a great reversal of fortune (Gen.12:3)—namely, the salvation of the world. Israel would be the special beneficiary of God’s special grace for a time, but eventually all the nations of the world would be blessed through Abraham and His seed. Paul says to the Galatians, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham, before hand, saying, `In you all the nations of the shall be blessed.'”

This Abrahamic promise thus anticipates the new covenant in which the Messiah would deal very decisively with evil and pardon the sins of God’s people (Isa.40:1-2; Jer.31:31-34) thereby removing their guilt and reversing their sinful inclinations.

The Climax of the Covenant. The new covenant is inaugurated by Christ’s ministry on earth. He appears on the scene as the second Adam (Rom.5:12ff; 1 Cor.15:45), the representative King of Israel (Matt.2:15; Luke 1:32), who will bear Israel’s curse (Deut.21:23) and thus pave the way for God’s grace to extend to the Gentiles as well. Paul says to the Galatians, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”

Christ’s Vindication and Victory. The covenant reaches its climax especially on the cross where Jesus is exiled by God for the sins of his people (Mark 15:34; Luke 9:31), where he endures the wrath of God thereby propitiating His Father (Rom.3:25; Rom.5:9) and sustaining sin’s punishment (Rom.8:3) and where he defeats the power of sin decisively (Gal.4:3,9; Col.2:15). In his resurrection, or his return from exile, (see Ezek. 37; 1 Cor.15;25-26) God vindicated him as righteous (Rom.4:25; 1 Tim.3:16).

Our Justification and Sanctification. By means of our union with the Lord Jesus Christ, initiated at baptism (Rom.6:3,4; Gal.3:27; Col.2:12) and sustained by means of faith (John 15:4; Col.1:21-23), we enjoy, on the basis of His death and resurrection, the privileges of the new Israel built around Christ, the chief cornerstone (Eph.2:20)—namely, justification (legal vindication, pardon, forgiveness: Rom.8:1; Col.2:13-14) and sanctification (moral power, ability, inclination: Rom.6; Col.2:20ff.).

How Christ’s Achievements Become Ours. When we talk about justification and sanctification we must first talk about Christ. He secures these benefits (1 Cor.1:30) and only in Him do we enjoy these benefits. But how do we receive these benefits? Reformed theologians have often answered that question by speaking of imputation. By `imputation’ we mean the transfer of Christ’s blessings to us. The language of `transfer,’ however is somewhat misleading because these benefits are not deposited in our account in an impersonal way, the way an absentee father might make child support payments; rather they are enjoyed by means of a living and intimate fellowship with Christ (1 Cor.1:30; 2 Cor.5:21).

The Instrumentality of Faith. Paul makes it clear that we are justified by faith and not by the works of the law (Rom.3:28). This means that the life of the new, redeemed Israel will be enjoyed, not by adhering to the peculiar precepts of the Mosaic law, but by entrusting oneself to the person of Christ and by submitting to His lordship, Christ being the end of the law (Rom.10:4). For the old Israel, the law formed a sort of wall or boundary marker between Jew and Gentile (think especially of circumcision). Christ shattered that wall to establish a new Israel which Gentiles could join. Paul writes, “For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in his flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace” (Eph.2:14-15).

Faith Alone. We say that we are justified by faith alone because salvation is essentially promissory (comes in the form of a promise, i.e., “believe and you shall be saved,” Heb.4:1; Heb.11:39) and works can’t grab promises. This doesn’t mean that works can ever be absent from our faith (James 2). According to Calvin, the two cannot be separated anymore than the heat and the light of the sun. Faith is a busy, active thing which works through love (Gal.5:6). But works do not merit anything (Luke 17:10).Faith, said Luther, does not look at its working, but at Christ.

Copyright © 2003

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