Justification and Sanctification: What’s the Problem?

The relationship between justification and sanctification—between being pronounced righteous in a moment and being made righteous over a lifetime—is delicate, complex, and altogether crucial to grasp.

“Sanctification is always properly built on justification,” says Bryan Chapell in a new roundtable discussion with Kevin DeYoung and Rick Phillips. Still, he explains, we can make two mistakes concerning what motivates our obedience—denying either a plurality of motivations on the one hand or a priority of motivations on the other.

“We’re never in danger of talking about grace too much,” DeYoung insists. “But we can talk about grace in a truncated, reductionistic way.” We must take great care, then, to deal faithfully with the Bible’s multiplicity of motivations, resisting the tendency to flatten certain texts, while at the same time never becoming “suspicious of grace.”

Phillips cautions against rhetoric that suggests sanctification is a “tag on” to justification—little more than “being excited about justification.” Rather, he says, sanctification is a “twin grace with justification, each resulting from union with Christ.” Though not separable, each of these graces is a distinct aspect of Christianity’s gloriously good news.

Watch the full 10-minute video to hear these three pastors and TGC Council members discuss overcorrection, contextualizing warnings, and more.

Sanctification from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

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  • Bob

    Great conversation!

    Two questions based on last two remarks:
    1. “If we love him we will obey his commands” – Isn’t it possible that this statement is not a proof statement of justification, but rather a proof statement of sanctification? Every time I, as a believer, don’t love him, I’ll not follow his commands, even though I remain justified. But if I’m loving him (agape-commitment, action love), I’ll follow his commands, resulting in sanctification.

    2. “holiness without which no one will see the Lord” – Isn’t it possible that this means that if a justified person is living in holiness (sanctification), he will see, in the temporal sense of perceiving (which this word can be used) the Lord. As we (believers) know, unholiness and willful sin, on the other hand, result in that spiritual fog in which our vision of God becomes clouded (Matthew 5:8)?

    • Bob

      Just to clarify, it seems that tying these verses primarily to our sanctification, rather than to our justification, would not only make sense, but would serve to protect and preserve the wonderful truth of justification by faith alone.

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  • Greg

    Some good words on the subject, especially from Mr. Phillips.

    I do have to say that some definitions would be helpful here. What exactly is sanctification? Is it equal to obedience or is there something distinction between the two? It seems that these men (like most, to be fair) treat the two as if they were the exact same thing. Any treatment of definitive sanctification and the base meaning of the word (holiness, being set apart, etc) is omitted.

    Granted, it’s a 10-minute video. But there are some presuppositions here that need to be revisited. David Peterson’s “Possessed by God”, for example, is a great place to start.

    Still, a helpful discussion!

    • Mark

      Definitions would be extremely helpful. The word group for sanctification comes from the OT sacrificial system. It refers to being set apart to God. One is sanctified through the sacrifices (of course fulfilled by Christ). In the vocabulary of most theologians today, sanctification becomes equal to growth in obedience. I think discussing growth in “living out” our sanctification is obviously a good thing but confusing the term sanctification with the notion of growth can lead to problems when we run into the word sanctification in our Bibles.

      • Greg

        This last sentence is spot-on. 1 Corinthians 6:11 is a perfect example – Paul says “You WERE sanctified” – and therefore you are not what you once were, with moral effect and implications.

        When you confused the term “sanctification” as if it were just another term for “obedience” or “growth” you miss a huge motivation for godly living: you are already set apart from sin!

        For all of the talk out there about knowing your identity in Christ in order to pursue right living, somehow this one is badly omitted from most of the discussion. Here’s to its increased inclusion!

  • Kenton

    I think the problem is that there is a controversy at all. And the controversy exists because we wrongly view justification by faith as an end in itself. “It’s the main thing”, and everything after it is additional, secondary, supplementary. But look at Paul’s words:

    For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:29, 30 ESV)

    Paul is focused on sanctification, but he makes a chain from predestination to glorification. Now anyone who was just reading this would come to the conclusion that justification is not the end goal. What is the end goal? Glorification. Justification exists so that we might be glorified as sons of God. This was entirely missing from the interview, and I suspect also from their preaching. How do I know that the aim is that we be glorified?

    For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God… that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. (Romans 8:19, 21, 23, 24 ESV)

    “For in this hope we were saved”. Salvation here must be referring to regeneration and/or justification, so they were done with the aim that we would be glorified as God’s sons. The author of Hebrews makes a similar point:

    For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, (Hebrews 2:10-11 ESV)

    Notice what he is saying. Jesus died so that we would be made sons of God in glory, and so that he might sanctify us in the same way as he was “perfected”.

    I think the point is clear. We’d do better to see justification and sanctification as step 1 and step 2 of a divinely ordered purpose, whose end is our full and glorious adoption as God’s sons in His Son. In this way, we can avoid the reductionism and coherently express the truths that “God is treating you as sons” and without holiness, no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:7,14)

    • Kelly

      Excellent comments. Those of us who were raised in the West love to parse and systematize that which should be one beautiful boiling caldron of life lived for the glory of God. A good read on this balancing act is “Dynamics of the Spiritual Life” by Lovelace.

  • Chris Nyland

    Any chance of getting a text of this discussion?

  • MsGee

    First of all this is a great article about justification and santification.

    I would like to add my thoughts regarding the passage that was used from 1 John 3 – “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (paraphrase). First of all, I’m no theologian and not that smart, but I would like for those who use this passage as justification or sanctification, thusly I have 2 questions to posed from the theme/context of John’s letter: 1. What is the subject of the letter? 2. What is John saying about the subject? I believe that the commandments John is referring to is the commandments to love God and love your neighbor. That seems to be the main point from chapter 2 context. Therefore, the commandments (I believe) is not the full commandments of God, but rather the commandments that embody loving God and loving others. Again, my interpretation of the passage might be wrong.

  • Tom

    This seems to be a little different nuance than that standard “we need balance” approach. I would love to see a response from Tullian Tchividjian.

  • http://mikesnow.org Michael Snow

    “We’re never in danger of talking about grace too much,…”

    Yes, we are if we leave room for nothing else. Surgeon understood that danger. http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/2013/01/08/holy-living-spurgeon-precepts-war-chritistians/

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    • lisa

      “…the recent head-butting on this issue is seldom about actual differences in doctrine but more often about differences in approach to ministry. Some ministers are quick to see that people constantly need to be reminded that God’s grace to them is not based on their performance. Other ministers are quick to see that people need to be told that salvation includes a life of repentance and obedience. Neither denies that both are true. But their diagnosis of what people most need to hear these days determines how they approach this topic and what they spend their time talking about.”
      Perfectly put! I believe this is spot on. Thanks for articulating it so well.

  • Jason

    “..the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

    that is, unless one is justified, correct? if i’m justified, then i will have the holiness to see the Lord. But honestly, that seems presumptuous to say. Maybe the question boils down to me searching my soul to see if, in fact, I’m truly justified.

    How could i know? Faith. But faith without works is dead. True, Paul writes that “works don’t count for anything but only faith working through love”? Yes, he writes that. But since Paul writes that circumcision – a work of the law – “doesn’t count for anything,” then he must not have in mind law-based works but grace-based works, works rooted in agape. am i right on this point?

    now, from what i’ve read of Catholic teaching on this, there doesn’t seem to be disagreement, strictly speaking. the Church (Catholic) teaches that at baptism, grace is supernaturally infused into a person’s soul. they are thereby justified, and this not of their own doing; ‘it is a gift of God.’

    so a (Catholic) Christian must live a life in accordance with the grace given to him at baptism; he certainly doesn’t earn forgiveness. he must live a life that demonstrates the faith that works through love, the love poured into his soul at baptism.

    so it really seems that – at least on the surface – both Catholics and Protestants agree that works somehow count for something! Under the Reformed scheme, if i don’t have the works that should rightly correspond to my faith, then the worst case scenario is that i was never justified to begin with. if my profession is sincere, then faithfulness (including good works) should follow. the ground of those good works is the grace of God-which i must cooperate with. me giving up my will to God. and yet i still have a free will. so there must be cooperation with the grace offered in Christ.

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  • Mark

    In our desire to avoid what we think is works righteousness, we often imagine that obedience is unnecessary for salvation. Obedience is not the “basis” of our salvation but it is necessary. While we like to relegate judgment by works to the old covenant, a simple reading of the new testament will confirm otherwise (ie. 2 Cor 5:10). The hope of the new covenant is that God will circumcise our hearts, not so that works no longer matter but precisely so that we can live the life that God demands (Deut 30:6-8; Ezek 36:27). This is not perfection but a true life oriented to God is not optional. If we claim these text as fulfilled in Christ (and rightly so) we must also claim the purpose of the new covenant: to create obedient people for God. There is no righteousness that isn’t practiced. “Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.” (1Jo 3:7)Yes, Abraham’s faith alone was credited “as righteousness” (the basis of Paul’s justification by faith) yet this faith NECESSARILY resulted in a life of righteousness through obedience (Jam 2:14-26). The gospel doesn’t excuse anyone from warnings of judgment (1 Cor 6:9). Yes, the gospel covers sin, but the gospel also delivers from sin. The unrighteous (defined by Paul as those who practice it) will not inherit the kingdom of God.

  • Carmen

    Was this roundtable discussion produced before or after the 2014 Westminster Seminary, California 2014 Conference “Transforming Grace: Our Need For Holiness”. The “concerns” these three gentlemen continue to issue were addressed with clarity.

  • Carmen


    Tullian Tchividjian has responded with a post on his TGC blog, and a link to an interview he did on Pirate Christian Radio. He mentions the concerns the YRR in TGC have with him, and that he wants and encourages this discussion to take place. It needs to take place.

  • Secure in Christ

    Carmen, that’s not right, Tullian T. did not respond to this conversation. His post about his interview was posted the day before the conversation above was posted.

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  • http://www.lifeschooled.com/ Daniel

    Lord, help me to speak meekly and listen lovingly even when I discuss a subject with someone who has a different view, as these men have done.

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