Justification means our declared righteousness before God, made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection for us. Sanctification means our gradual, growing righteousness, made possible by the Spirit’s work in us.
“To God’s elect… who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with His blood.” (I Peter 1:1,2)
The good news of the Gospel is that God makes sinners righteous. However, this is not just a one-off event; it is also a process that continues throughout our lives. In Roman Catholic teaching, ‘justification’ is a term encompassing the whole process, from start to finish. But Protestants find it more useful to split it into two stages: ‘justification’ (what happens when we first become Christians) and ‘sanctification’ (the gradual change in our character and behaviour as we become more and more like Christ).
Sprinkled with Jesus’ blood
Justification concerns our legal standing before God. We are helpless to make ourselves acceptable to Him; but He declares us righteous, once and for all – not on the basis of anything that we do but on the basis of Christ’s death (Romans 3:22-24).
The sanctifying work of the Spirit
Having declared us righteous, God then goes on to make us righteous – which is the process of sanctification (Hebrews 10:14). Here we are anything but helpless: we can choose to co-operate with the Spirit (by being obedient to the commands of Christ), or we can resist Him.
Justification is once-and-for-all; sanctification is ongoing (and is never complete in this life). Justification is the work of Christ; sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit. Justification is done for us, and we can contribute nothing; sanctification requires our co-operation.
Both are essential! True justification is always followed by sanctification – or, as James puts it, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds. Can such faith save them?” (James 2:14)
you have given your only Son to die for our sins
and to rise again for our justification:
grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness
that we may always serve you
in pureness of living and truth;
through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. (Collect for 2nd Sunday of Easter)