Grace and Holiness: on Justification and Sanctification

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We talk a lot about the good news of the gospel at New City Church. Our weekly gatherings are ordered, and words and songs are carefully chosen to proclaim that good news. During the week we gather in homes all across Middle Georgia to talk about what it means to live in light of that same good news.

Jesus came to save sinners. He did that because we can't save ourselves. No matter how hard we try, we cannot overcome the sin and the guilt of sin that are ours. The good news is that Jesus lived the life that we could not. He died the death that we deserve. And in His resurrection, Jesus defeated death and sin and Satan. When we come to Him by faith, trusting in His work (his life, death, and resurrection) and not our own, then through faith we are forgiven of our sins and made forevermore to be children of God.  It is by His grace that we are saved through faith - it is His work and not our own (Ephesians 2:1-10). This good news we proclaim every week at New City. 

Most weeks at New City I urge those gathered on a Sunday to trust in Jesus and believe this good news. I plead with our congregation to stop trying to be righteous and earn good standing with God, Jesus offers it freely. I remind them and myself that even if I have failed this week or this morning, by faith I am a forgiven child of the King's, loved dearly. I say to all of us, "in Christ you have nothing to prove and no one to impress. You are a beloved son or daughter of the King and your Father is already impressed with you." It is true and it is indeed good news! You don't have to be perfect, holy and righteous in order to be loved - in fact you can't - that's why Jesus came... to save sinners.

This sometimes leads to the question, "Does this mean we can live any way want to?" Some say that this sort of salvation is a cheapening of grace.
Is it? What does this mean then about how we live as Christ followers?

To rightly answer, we need to understand two words, justification and sanctification.  

Justification is a legal term meaning the act of declaring someone just or righteous in God's eyes, fully meeting the divine requirements (Millard Erickson p918). The problem with bringing about our own justification is that we have all messed up and failed somewhere along the way - we aren't righteous and just. And an unrighteous and unjust person can't simply declare themselves righteous and just. No amount of good deeds takes away whatever bad deed(s) there may be. This is why Christ came - to take away our sins, to grant us His righteousness. The only way we are justified is through His life, death, and resurrection. This is freely offered to us and all that is required is faith.  We are justified by His work, not our own, through faith. 

Sanctification is a biblical term that refers to the setting aside of something or someone as holy. For those who trust in Christ and follow Him (Christians), this is progressive, meaning that while in Christ, God accepts us as righteous and just, we do not immediately become perfect in our thoughts, actions, and behaviors. We still mess up. We still sin. It is progressive because we spend our life growing in Christ and more and more being shaped into His image (Romans 8:28-30). We grow in holiness. While justification simply requires faith, sanctification is a process that requires our effort and discipline. We are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12) and to be holy as He is holy (I Peter 1:15). The beauty of this work is that it too is truly an act of grace!  Though we work and participate in our sanctification we do so because our hearts desire now to please Him. We work, not to earn His love or good standing with him, but because we are loved and now we love Him. It is also a work of grace because it is His Spirit that convicts us, empowers us and enables us toward sanctification.  

We do not work for our justification, but we work with the help of the Holy Spirit in our growing sanctification. We are saved from sin and its consequences wholly by grace. And we are saved TO a life of growing holiness, also by His grace.  James said that faith that is not accompanied with the fruit of works is not saving faith. So, while our works never justify us, those who are justified in Christ do have lives of growing holiness.  Tim Keller said it this way, "You are saved (from sin and the consequences of sin) by faith alone, but not by faith which remains alone... you're really saved by faith, not by how sanctified you are. But if you're not getting sanctified, then you don't have saving faith... Sanctification is the sign of salvation but not the cause"  (Tim Keller & John Piper). 

At New City, we proclaim both - Grace and Holiness. They are not mutually exclusive. Our justification is a free gift of grace AND a call to holiness. A call that we strive for and will one day reach because of His grace.