Evangelicals speak often of the forgiveness of sins (justification) as the fundamental element in God’s gift of salvation. And so they should.
Justification is a legal term and it represents our acquittal as abject penitents before a holy God. Our forgiveness is assured by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He paid our sin debt on his cross, so that by faith we can be pardoned of all our sins. Justification stands for what God has done for us. Christ’s atoning sacrifice is the focus.
But evangelicals do not speak often enough of the companion doctrine – the doctrine of sanctification. If justification borrows its language from the law court, sanctification borrows from the terminology of the temple and its holy rituals. Justification stands for what God does for us, while sanctification stands for what he does in us in his setting-us-apart ministry.
Justification means that we are pardoned–and thereby saved from the judgment because the shed blood of Christ makes possible acquittal for all our sins. Our sin record is erased.
Sanctification means that God begins to transform our characters. To sanctify means to make holy — to set apart and form the life of God in us. In the original languages the two words – sanctification and holiness — come from the same root.
The two elements – justification and sanctification — can be considered separately to help us in our understanding, but they cannot exist or function separately, for in the moment we are justified, our sanctification begins. That is, the moment we are forgiven in a genuine conversion experience, in that moment in an evangelical sense the Holy Spirit imparts Christ’s life in us.
I find the call to sanctification clear in Paul’s letter to the Ephesian Christians (Ephesians 4:25—32). First, he exhorts these “born again” members of this young church to participate in a full transformation. Using the analogy of changing one’s clothing, he exhorts them to “put off” the badly soiled old life in its entirety and to “put on” the new life. That is, dress in the fresh clean garb of Christ’s holiness.
This can only be possible by energy made available by the mighty Spirit of God, but Ephesian believers are required to cooperate, though not as a means of adding virtue to the process. All is of grace. Yet the Apostle Paul’s appeal is for their response.
Then he mentions some characteristics of the old life they should guard against: They should put off falsehood, anger, stealing, and unholy speech. The suggestion is not that these are still rampant in the church but that such remnants of the old life are sure to be hanging on in some cases because awareness has not yet been awakened that such conduct does not fit the new life.
Paul’s list might leave his readers thinking that only sins committed that others can see are at issue, so he adds, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with all malice.” The work of sanctification confronts sins of the disposition, too.
Because it is only by the energy of the indwelling Holy Spirit that such transformation of character is possible, nestled in amongst these exhortations Paul makes another appeal: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”
The Holy Spirit does not seal us as God’s possession by stamping some detached insignia on us; he himself and his indwelling presence are our seal. We are to avoid grieving him by our disobedience because he is real, personal, and the one who now graciously owns us.
It is clear to Paul that good can be expected from all this and it will manifest itself in the church. For one thing, holy relationships are sure to form between believers, as the Holy Spirit enables and supervises the church. In the words again of Paul, we will — “Be kind and compassionate to one another.” What a gracious result to expect!
But with this concern for God’s sanctifying work, Paul, does not forget that our grounding is in our justification. He writes: “Forgive each other just as in Christ God forgave you.”
Photo credit: McKay Savage