Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Justification and sanctification

I spoke tonight on James 2, a tricky passage on the relationship between faith and works. It is the passage that infamously caused the young Martin Luther to label James 'the epistle of straw' (a view that he later rescinded) because he thought it threatened the doctrine of justification by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone.

I came to the conclusion that when Paul is attacking ‘justification by works’ he is attacking the view that anything we do along with faith can be credited to us as righteousness; that it is only through faith in Jesus that anyone can obtain a ‘not guilty’ verdict when we become Christians. Works are not needed to receive justification. But when James affirms ‘justification by works’ he means that works are essential in the ongoing life of a Christian: they are how authentic faith shows itself. Works confirm and prove the reality of the faith which justifies. In that respect, faith without works cannot justify.

I found this vintage quote by CJ Mahaney perceptively clear and helpful in this context (particularly the bottom paragraph):

'Justification refers to a Christian’s position before God. The moment you were born again, God justified you. On the basis of Christ’s finished work, God thought of your sins as forgiven and declared that you were righteous.

Sanctification, on the other hand, refers to our practice before God. It is the ongoing process of battling sin and becoming more like Jesus. Though sanctification is the evidence and goal of our justification, we must never see it as the basis of our justification. Here’s where so many Christians get confused. They try to earn what has already been given to them as a free gift. As Martin Luther stated, “The only contribution we make to our justification is our sin which God so graciously forgives.”

There are other vital distinctions. Justification is about being declared righteous; sanctification is about becoming more righteous. Justification is immediate; sanctification is gradual. Justification is complete the moment God declares us righteous. It does not take place by degrees. Sanctification, however, is a process that lasts as long as we live. Finally, while every Christian enjoys the same degree of justification, we vary in terms of sanctification. You will never be more justified than you are at this moment, because justification is an act of God. But by God’s grace, you will become ever more sanctified as you cooperate with God’s Spirit in the process of change.

Though it’s important to distinguish between justification and sanctification, these two doctrines are inseparable. God does not justify someone without sanctifying him as well. Sanctification is not optional. If one has truly been justified, that will be evident by a progressive work of sanctification in his life.'

(From Why Small Groups?, pages 4-5)


Chris said...

"why small groups" sounds like one of yours...is it CJ's?

Had a conversation this week with a student who was well into David Pawson's "Normal Christian Birth". The only exposure I've had with that was back in 2005 via the apostle you know who.

I realised I need to get my own doctrine straight. I wanted to say "when I put my faith in Jesus I hear the verdict from the end issued in the present because I'm united to Christ" - that was my understanding of justification. But then if we say people can stop believing, how do we appropriate assurance from justification by faith alone? (eg Rom 5 - peace in which we now stand, how much more safe from wrath to come...) Unless Paul uses "faith" differently from Jesus & Hebrews?

Chris said...

(having only encountered Normal Christian birth second hand and via someone who positively undermined assurance, this conversation made me think it might be normal Arminian(?) teaching that we can stop believing in Jesus & thus walk out of the justified standing with God)

man, I need to get my doctrine clear. Any pointers?

dave bish said...

But if justification isn't just status but also union with Christ... bit harder to walk away from, and why the heck would we want to. I don't just get status, I have been given Jesus.

Chris said...

thanks Dave. But I think the question is about assurance - who is united with Christ? I think Paul would say faith in Christ shows we have been united with Christ (baptised into Christ by spirit through our faith...therefore we have died because he died, we have been justified because he rose for our justification, we have been glorified, because he has been glorified), but thence the questions about faith meaning different things in eg Paul v Hebrews...

dave bish said...

And so I gain assurance as I look outside of myself to Christ? And I lose assurance as I look for it in me...

Chris said...

sounds like what this student was saying - we're totally justified when we put our faith in jesus, but then if we withdraw our faith from jesus we lose our justification. But if justification is the verdict from the end on our lives in the present (i may be very wrong on that) can we ever say we've been justified?

peterdray said...

Guys sorry not to have commented yet. Uclan mission so I'm short on time. I think this is a really important subject. I'll write something tomorrow.

peterdray said...

'Why Small Groups?' is published by SGM. A helpful resource for church-based small groups.

I'm no expert on Arminianism, but my understanding of the classical position is that faith is defined primarily as a permanent and controlling state of mind (which I guess would be closer to the rendering of faith in Hebrews rather than that in Romans and Galatians - I think there is a slight difference in terms based on the pastoral points the writer is seeking to establish).

As I understand it, this is the grounding of an individual's justification. It seems to me that the traditional views diverge in that Calvinists view faith as the condition of justification, whereby Arminians view faith as the ground for justification. It also seems to me that Arminians stress that justification is a legal pardon (which can be lost when faith ceases), whereas Calvinists go further and stress the imputed righteousness of Christ.

As a Calvinist, it seems to me that as Bish hinted, it is the imputed righteousness of Christ which is the ground of a Christian's justification. Surely justification involves much more than a mere pardon and is more than merely corrective or remedial.

Does this help at all? I'm not sure I'm really answering the question!