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Two "Ations" To Know -- and Know How They Differ

The sermon text at Faith Church this past weekend was 1 Thessalonians 4, which speaks in verse 3 about God’s will being our “sanctification” (ESV). “Sanctification” is one of those big, fancy words that is rarely used outside of talking about the Christian faith and thus is one that many people might not understand. Another big word that is related, and often discussed in the context of sanctification, is justification.

In explaining these words, I sometimes talk about them as referring to being “declared holy” in the case of justification and being “made holy” in the case of sanctification; the sanctification process is becoming what God says we are at justification. While that is true and right, I think the way that the Westminster Shorter Catechism, written in the middle of the 1600’s in England (and which I had to basically memorize as part of my ordination process!) describes justification and sanctification is even better, as it helps us understand both ideas and see some important differences between them as well as what they have in common. So, here they are:

Q 33. What is justification? Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone

Q. 35. What is sanctification? Sanctification is the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

While these answers use words and ideas whose meanings might not be immediately apparent to us, they are much more succinct than the explanation you would find in a systematic theology textbook but yet contain the key concepts found in each truth. They are simple but profound.

There is a subtle difference that I want you to see in these explanations of justification and sanctification. This key difference is that justification is an “act of God’s free grace” while sanctification is a “work of God’s free grace." This might seem minor but shows us something important, which is that justification is a one-time event, something that happens, while sanctification is an ongoing process, something that happens over time. The fact that justification happens once is important, to know that at one point (when we believe), we are declared to be right with God, in that God no longer holds our sins against us (pardons us) and now sees us as right, innocent and pleasing (righteous) in his eyes - not because of our works but because of the good works and obedience of Jesus Christ that God places in our account (that is what imputation means). The fact it is an act means that we don’t need to wonder about whether we are right with God; it does not take a lifetime, but a moment in which we believe.

In contrast, sanctification is a “work,” something that happens over time. The Christian life on this earth is a lifelong process of putting to death sin and living into the new life found in Christ, the way that we were meant to live. We are renewed by God to put sin to death and live in a way that is pleasing to him.

While one is an event and one is a process, notice that they are both from “God’s free grace” -- they happen by God and by his grace. It is not that I am saved by grace through faith and now must try really hard to make myself holy. No, it is that I must continue to turn to God in faith and, by his grace and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, am made new. The Apostle Paul says this in 1 Corinthians 15:10: "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” God’s grace transforms us; it makes us right and then teaches us to say no to ungodliness (see Titus 2:11-14).

There are many nations that you may not know exist or where they are at, but these are two “‘ations” that are important to know and not confuse. Our justification happens all at once when we believe, our sanctification happens over time as we follow Christ.

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