The Difference Between Justification and Sanctification

by Mike Ratliff

28 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. 29 For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; 30 and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. Romans 8:28-30 (NASB) 

12 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Philippians 2:12-13 (NASB)


Function: verb

Inflected Form(s): jus·ti·fied; jus·ti·fy·ing

Etymology: Middle English justifien, from Anglo-French or Late Latin; Anglo-French justifier, from Late Latin justificare, from Latin justus

Date: 14th century

transitive verb

1 a: to prove or show to be just, right, or reasonable b (1): to show to have had a sufficient legal reason (2): to qualify (oneself) as a surety by taking oath to the ownership of sufficient property


Function: transitive verb

Inflected Form(s): sanc·ti·fied; sanc·ti·fy·ing

Etymology: Middle English seintefien, sanctifien, from Anglo-French seintefier, sanctifier, from Late Latin sanctificare, from Latin sanctus sacred — more at saint

Date:14th century

1: to set apart to a sacred purpose or to religious use : consecrate

2: to free from sin : purify

3 a: to impart or impute sacredness, inviolability, or respect to b: to give moral or social sanction to

4: to make productive of holiness or piety <observe the day of the sabbath, to sanctify it — Deuteronomy 5:12(Douay Version)>

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2008. Merriam-Webster Online. 29 May 2008

The theological climate in the Church today  has taken on the characteristics of a free-for-all. Most professing believers’ Bible knowledge is extremely shallow. On top of that we are also in a period of intellectual barbarianism which is marked by relativism. This causes the truth to be perceived as unknowable. Those holding this form of thinking refuse to believe that there is such a thing as absolute truth. In this intellectual climate it is little wonder that false prophets and false teachers can lead so many astray simply by saying what people want to hear. 

The free-for-all aspect of theology we find ourselves in has produced many arm-chair theologians who have convinced themselves that they are the sole processors of “the truth” and all other “theologians” have it wrong. The man-loving, man-pleasing ones are truly amazing. They fall in love with the parts of scripture they like and try to find ways to safely ignore the parts that disagree with their feel-good thesis. There are some commonalities between these fellows. It is as if they all subscribe to everything Stephen Furtick, Joel Osteen, and Brian McLaren has ever said or written.

These fellows are the ones who drop comments here saying things like, “We don’t need things like Creeds or Confessions. We don’t need doctrine. Those things divide. We don’t need to try to live holy lives, that is just works righteousness. The Protestant Reformation isn’t relevant anymore. Why do you talk so much about God rescuing the Gospel and the Bible from the apostate Roman Catholic Church. Luther did those things, not God. Antinominianism is just a label that pharisees use to make people feel guilty.” That is just a small sample, but you get the idea.

When theological terms like ‘Sanctification’ or ‘Justification’ are used, these fellows demand that we quit separating them. In other words, they see them as synonymous.  Why would they do that since the are terms speaking to two very different parts of our salvation? I believe they do this in order to say that all who profess Christ are completely Sanctified at salvation so there is no need to try to live a holy, separate life. God is filling all believers so we don’t really have to ‘work out our salvation with fear and trembling’ like Paul commands us in his epistle to the Philippians. (Philippians 2:12-13) In other words this is simply an attempt to excuse fleshly behavior. All are saved by grace so we can just live like we want. Isn’t that what Christian Liberty is all about?

What is Justification? What is Sanctification? The following is adapted from the “Overview of Theology” from the John MacArthur Study Bible.

Justification is an act of God (Romans 8:30,33) by which He declares righteous those who, through faith in Christ, repent of their sins (Luke 13:3; Acts 2:38; Acts 3:19; Acts 11:18; Romans 2:4; 2 Corinthians 7:10; Isaiah 55:6,7) and confess Him as Sovereign Lord (Romans 10:9,10; 1 Corinthians 12:3; 2 Corinthians 4:5; Philippians 2:11).  This righteousness is apart from any virtue or work of man (Romans 3:20; Romans 4:6) and involves the placing of our sins on Christ (Colossians 2:14; 1 Peter 2:24) and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us (1 Corinthians 1:2,30; 1 Corinthians 6:11; 2 Corinthians 5:21). By this means God is enabled to “be just, and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).

Sanctification is the theological term which describes the Biblical truth that every believer is sanctified (set apart) unto God by justification and is therefore declared to be holy and is therefore identified as a saint. This sanctification is positional and instantaneous and should not be confused with progressive sanctification. This sanctification has to do with the believer’s standing, not his present walk or condition (Acts 20:32; 1 Corinthians 1:2,30; 2 Corinthians 6:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; Hebrews 2:11; Hebrews 3:1; Hebrews 10:10.14; Hebrews 13:12; 1 Peter 1:2).

Progressive Sanctification brings the state of the believer closer to the likeness of Christ through obedience to the Word of God and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. The believer is able to live a life of increasing holiness in conformity to the will of God, becoming more and more like our Lord Jesus Christ (John 17:17,19; Romans 6:1-22; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 1 Thessalonians 4:3.4; 1 Thessalonians 5:23).

Every saved person is involved in a daily conflict–the new creation in Christ doing battle against the flesh–but adequate provision is made for victory through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The struggle nevertheless stays with the believer all through this earthly life and is never completely ended. All claims to the eradication of sin in this life are unscriptural. Eradication of sin is not possible, but the Holy Spirit does provide for victory over sin (Galatians 5:16-25; Ephesians 4:22-24; Philippians 3:1; Colossians 3:9,10; 1 Peter 1:14-16; 1 John 3:5-9).

We must not look at these conflicts as altogether a bad thing. No, it is through dealing with these things from God’s Word that not only cement His truth into our hearts even more, the exposition from His Word helps others who have questions or misunderstandings to see the light of His truth. I think that we often make the mistake of assuming that everyone already knows these things so we never talk about them.

Now, why is it important that we see God’s declaration of our Righteousness as being separate from Him making us Holy over time? If we assume instantaneous Sanctification and dismiss Progressive Sanctification then we take God’s grace for granted. We claim Christian Liberty and live as we please. I believe if you examine those passages above you will see clearly that, yes, we are declared righteous in God’s eyes and we are positionally righteous and holy in God’s eyes. However, the reality of this life now is that we are neither righteous or holy. Why did God do it this way? He is causing us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling so He can conform us unto the image of Christ. That means being humble, being wise as a serpent, but as harmless as a dove. It means being all about God’s glory instead of ours. It means being poor in spirit, meek and mourning over not only our own sin, but the sin all around us. It means being willing to undergo persecution for our Lord’s sake. We can do none of these things unless God takes us through the fire and we learn to exercise our faith in it.

Examine yourself my brethren. If you are taking God’s grace for granted by tolerating sin in your hearts and lives then God is calling you to repent. Don’t listen to those who call this works righteousness because who can go through this fire outside of God’s grace.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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