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Sanctification: “Justification in Action”?

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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.

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  • Guest - Scott Leonard

    The question is, what limits do you want to put on these passages?

    From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:16, 17 ESV)

    If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4 ESV)

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  • Guest - Chris


    What strong rhetoric!

    "I follow Paul...I follow Cephas..I follow Apollos...and over and above all, I follow Christ!"

    "I am not quoting other people, but primarily pointing to a lot of scripture that NEITHER YOU NOR OTHERS have addressed specifically" (emphasis mine).

    "Let ME shed a little light for YOU."

    Well, teacher...how can you presume to dismantle my position if you do not know what it is...as evident from your above apology?

    Don't you know that all good rhetoric, within a debate, negates the other arguement and takes the top of the hill by means of claiming Scriptural integrity? That is not an arguement at all. If you cannot see any Scripture--or even any derivative thereof in my entire arguement--what makes you think that I believe you actually do know the Scriptures? And if you do not know the Scriptures, why should I listen to you???

    Restate what I am saying--so that I know that you know me--and THEN tell me where I have erred. But don't simply lump me in with "a bunch of dead guys" (another point of rhetoric) and disqualify everything that I say with that one statement; coming in afterwords with what you say the Scriptures actually say.

    I submit only to my Master, and I know His way. Until you speak as He speaks in the spirit of the gospel, I will not listen.

    Christopher Jager,
    Tillamook, OR

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  • Guest - Richard UK

    Chris, Scott

    Can either of you guys actually say what you are arguing about?

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  • Guest - Chris

    Richard UK,

    Actually, I am quite incapable. That's why I've yet to say anything on the matter.

    Are you interested?

    Christopher Jager,
    Tillamook, OR

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  • Guest - Scott Leonard

    Chris, first please forgive me for allowing my rhetoric to be too strong. I am passionate about the truths revealed in the specifics scriptures I have shared above because I believe much of the church is missing out on the simple truths Paul proclaimed 2000 years ago. That doesn't excuse me sounding as if you are the enemy! You have been gracious and helpful. Thank you for that.

    Yes, I can tell you what I believe you are saying, and how it is in contrast to what I am saying: I believe that in all the verses I have cited above, and more, Paul proclaims that we are, in fact, saints and that we are in fact new creatures in Christ, and that our essential nature is righteous. Paul never addresses us as sinners. Never. Anyone who has been regenerated by God himself and who is now in union with Jesus Christ, cannot have sin in their nature. . Lest someone mistake what I am saying for perfectionism, you can see above that I have clearly stated that sin still happens while we are on this earth. But what I am saying is that we do scripture an injustice if we ignore the fact that Paul says "it is no longer I who sins." (twice in 4 verses) I would like you to address that scripture in honest fashion. I believe we sin because although we are righteous creatures, we live in bodies that, in Paul's very words, are dead. Our bodies have not been saved and the power of sin is still resident there, as Paul clearly states in Romans seven and eight.

    You believe that in our essential nature we are still sinners, we have two natures--a new nature and a sinful old nature. But what I am saying is that Paul does not state that. He states that the problem is that the power of sin is resident in the mortal body that we're still required to walk around in while we are on planet Earth. Some might say, "What does it matter what you call it--flesh or my old nature?" I and many others believe it matters for two reasons. First, because that's what Paul calls it - - flesh (and interchangeably, "body of death, mortal body, members of my body," and secondly, because it gives the Christian the kind of identity God wants him to have now (and Satan does not want him to have) , which is as a saint, a righteous new creature, not just in his standing, but in his essential nature.

    Hope that helps summarize and clarify.

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  • Guest - Chris


    This is indeed an old debate, and/or controversy. The old church would have called those who hold to the teaching that you describe as being heretics and would have battled to the death, in order to protect the people, for the right of Scriptural integrity and uprightness. On such basis, I think it's safe to say that this argument is bigger than the scriptures that are exclusive to Paul. As you well assert, there is a lot at stake here.

    Also, I am diametrically opposed to calling Christians, "saints, who sometimes sin." Although saints we are, in light of the hope and inheritance that we have—sinners we remain.

    How are we to do battle with the flesh in the first place, if not to take ownership for our own actions? As Paul rightly states, "wretched man that I am. Who will save me from this body of death! Thanks be to Jesus Christ our Lord." (No need to comment on the phrase “this body.” I am well aware.)

    Surely, "if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness," (Romans 8:10). The Spirit of God that is alive in you because of righteousness—He is your life.

    "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose,” (Galatians 2:20).

    Christ is our righteousness—the one who lives in us for right living; bringing our good deeds and transformation. We have, “the mind of Christ,” (1 Corinthians 2:16) by whom we may be transformed with our own mind’s renewal, (Romans 12:2).

    Our life is, "of the flesh," (Romans 7:14b), and we must live this life, "in the flesh...by faith in the Son of God..." (Galatians 2:20), because we are still sinners! We must know of the love of God as found in the price that was paid, or else all is lost and we may only despair, beyond hope, in our sin that is always before us, without any escape at all into another identity.

    Righteousness is through faith in Jesus Christ, not through the denial of our sinfulness so as to remove the self from its current and ongoing wrongdoing and waywardness, in order to claim blamelessness in our personal essence—unable to personally sin—because of the new creation! No, we must struggle with keeping faith despite our own and personal sin; living the life in the flesh, "through faith in Jesus Christ." Though we may be deceived by sin in our weakness, it is we who sin nonetheless--though contrary to our wishes, which our wrong actions serve to spite. In our mind, we ourselves may serve the law of God (whom we identify with as a new and able creation), but in our actions we serve the law of sin, (Romans 7:25).

    Anyway, I am working on an essay that exegetes the passage of Romans 7, among other passages, including the clause, “it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me." If you would like to read it, I can e-mail it to you. Shoot me an e-mail at chrisnkeiplus@live.com and I will send it to you when I'm finished. (It might take awhile.) The essay will be much more precise, well written, and better thought out than what you see in my comments on this thread, since I can take more time and extend the liberty of revision and peer analysis. What you see will indubitably have my LCMS Pastor's input. I hope to be as thorough as I can, since I would like to get to the bottom of this matter for my own benefit as well.

    I will agree right now though, that we do have a new identity in Christ, since we bear, as children born of God, the very identity of the name of God, which was bestowed upon us in Christ. In that name there is NO sin—and it is this very name with whom we are identified. Not to say anything of essence or ontology. (I may have the last name of a good father in this life, but that doesn’t make me ontologically equal.)

    And I will also say, right now, that Romans 7 is all about why it's necessary for us to die to the law, with Paul’s epitome expressed in verse seven as follows, "Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin," (emphasis mine). Thus our relationship to being either alive or dead to sin—or in the inverse respect—sin being alive or dead in us, is therefore the extent to which we know it, whatever the case may be, (before Moses; after Moses; before Christ; after Christ; before conversion; after conversion). However, this must be taken in context and connected with the entire entity that is the whole passage—really and truly expanding all the way until Chapter 12, Verse 2. Which, if you compare the over-arching theme of sanctification in Romans 5:21 through Romans 12:2 to the words at Romans 12:2, the meaning of this whole matter becomes clear. Nevertheless…

    All in all, Paul covers quite a bit of ground to substantiate his point. Likewise, I will also extensively cover the issues that he brings up; seeking to exegete his prose and come to the intended conclusions and/or applications.

    Please e-mail me and we can talk extensively, if you want.

    Christopher Jager,
    Tillamook, OR

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  • Guest - Scott Leonard

    Chris, thanks for that. I will email you right away. I am in the process of writing a book on the reality of our union with Christ. Constantine Campbell recently published close to 600 pages just on what Paul says about our union with Christ (featured at Desiringod.org) . (I can't boast of having read all of it!) I have studied the controversy surrounding this for close to 40 years.There are definitely several misunderstandings on the part of those who oppose what I have supported above, including the notion that we do not take responsibility for sin. I've never been more aware of my sin, and yet never so free of the guilt of it. Another error is the emphasis so exclusively on imputed righteousness. I could celebrate my justification for a trillion years (I will), but my union with Christ, which happened when I was regenerated-born the second time-is far more actual than I believe you are willing to embrace. It is not a judicial thing, though it arises from that. It is actual, organic union with our Head. Notice, if you will, how closely Jesus ties us being in him with him being in the Father and He in us in John 14:20-
    "In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you." Jesus is in the Father, in me, and I in him, all in one breath. This is why Paul says we now recognize no one according to the flesh. We are, in fact, (careful here) new creation. Yes, in our essential nature, we WERE dead, now we are alive, and, dare to let Paul say what he says, old things HAVE passed away; new things have come, and then he says "ALL this is from God."
    Traditions of some men refuse to let Paul say what is so clearly said here.

    And by the way, Chris, all that I have said should explain to you why Paul says in 12:1,that it is your BODY you should present as a living sacrifice! That's the part that is dead and unredeemed. Go figure.

    So I look forward to further dialogue!

    God bless.

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  • Bill,

    There is so much of Lutheranism I could espouse, but there is the major inconsistency of justification by faith and baptismal regeneration! Plus, the Reformed doctrine of infant baptism (related to the covenant of grace) makes more sense than to carry over from Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy baptismal regeneration.

    By the way, Reformed doctrine does not teach the we "willingly believe" but it is that faith is the gift of God, and that His grace is irresistable and enables us to believe in Him. It is nothing that we "do."

    God bless ya'll!

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  • Guest - Richard UK

    Gary hi

    I find (as with different topics with the Reformed!) that Lutherans do indeed vacillate on whether baptism does in fact coincide with regeneration, or is a restatement of (covenant) promises. I find most say no to regeneration, until they get carried away!

    I also find their notion of forgiven souls in hell to be bizarre (though I can see why they need it)

    But I too am drawn to much in Luther's own teaching, not least (i) his clear view of the will and his rejection that the will is suddenly freed on regeneration, and

    (ii) a consequential take on sanctification/3rd use that is much less ambiguous that the Reformed view.

    ps - I can't find Bill's quote but Luther and Calvin both agree that faith is a free gift, and as a result, we 'willingly believe' (with the new heart/will that God has given us)

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  • But why does Paul put sanctification before Justification and faith?

    1 Cor. 6:11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.

    2 Thessalonians 2:13 But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth,

    1 Peter 1:2 elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied.

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