We get a lot of great questions sent to us.  Here’s one that I’d like to address because I hear it a lot these days.  The writer asks:

Here is the issue as stated: ‘Sanctification is NOT  “justification in action.”  Justification is a finished work. Sanctification is powered by regeneration, not justification.  The New Birth enables the believer to work with the Holy Spirit. Justification is a finished work apart from sanctification.  I’m sure you’ve written on this, just not sure where.

Yes, I’ve written at length on this subject in various places, including (more recently) my books The Christian Faith and Pilgrim Theology.  In a nutshell, though…

What I’m hearing, on one hand, are comments about sanctification being simply the outworking of our justification, and, on the other hand (often in reaction), that sanctification has nothing to do with justification but is simply the fruit of our union with Christ.

I think that Scripture clearly refuses this false choice.  Although I can’t make the full case here that I do elsewhere, let me summarize my conclusion.  It’s standard Reformed theology.  And, though perhaps nuanced a bit differently here and there, I think it’s substantially the same as the Lutheran view as well.

Faith is produced by the Spirit through the gospel.  This faith that rests in Christ for justification also receives Christ for sanctification.  In other words, union with Christ is not piecemeal.  We don’t have the forgiveness of sins through one act of faith and sanctification from another.  Faith embraces Christ for all he is and gives: freedom from both sin’s guilt and tyranny.  One day, as faith is turned to sight, we will also be liberated from sin’s presence.  So saving faith bears the fruit of love, and love expresses itself in good works as we serve our neighbors.  Here’s the order, then: Gospel – Effectual Calling/Regeneration – Faith – Love – Works.  God sanctifies those whom he justifies.

Looking at this from the “big picture,” then, sanctification is guaranteed by our union with Christ (through faith, given to us by the Spirit through the gospel in effectual calling).  It’s not only justification, but all spiritual blessings in Christ that ensure our sanctification.  Examining it in terms of the traditional “order of salvation” (ordo salutis), our gradual renewal and conformity to Christ (sanctification) is based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification.  Without that legal basis, there is no adoption, no sanctification.

So on one hand it’s reductionistic to say that sanctification is the consequence simply of justification (without including election, redemption, and the new birth).  And it’s dangerous, in my opinion, to say that sanctification is “justification in action.”  Justification is complete: a once-and-for-all judicial verdict based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.  Justification is therefore not “in action.”  It is finished.  Rather, it’s faith that is “in action,” always looking to justification as the security that allows us to move forward in confidence rather than fear.  Although in the act of justification faith is only a “resting and receiving,” because it receives Christ with all of his benefits it cannot be dead, but is immediately active in love and good works.  We are not only declared righteous, but grafted into the Righteous Vine, producing the fruit of the Spirit.

Ironically, those who see justification as absorbing the whole horizon of our blessings in Christ end up turning it into something more than the declaration that it is.  Yet those who fail to see a logical dependence of sanctification on justification within our union with Christ leave sanctification suspended in midair.  They fail to see the decisive role of justification in giving assurance of peace with God throughout the Christian life.