Justification and Sanctification

I have been doing a Bible Study on Sunday mornings using a page out of the Good News magazine (can’t recall which issue). It is on “The Distinction Between Justification and Sanctification.” So far it has been a really helpful study, not only for my parishioners, but for myself as well. Although in Scripture the words are sometimes interchangeable, for the purposes of this study it has helped me explain to my members how so many errors are made in Christian theology just by confusing these.

Justification, for example, is complete, instantaneous, not a process. Sanctification, by contrast, is a gradual process, it is growth, it is not complete, but involves daily renewal. Justification is the “for us” of the Creed; Sanctification is God’s work in us. These may seem like elementary principles for theologians, but it is amazing to me how misunderstanding this distinction or confusing them can lead to so many errors.

One thing it has also allowed me to empahsize is the fact that our justification (God’s judicial act outside of us in Christ) is not based on our Sanctification. Thus, we can never look to what God is doing in us for certainty of his acceptance of us, or we will either turn into crass Pharisees, or despair. We always, always look to the “for us” of Justification for forgiveness, for certainty of salvation, for proof of God’s love toward us. We must constantly return to the article of Justification when we want to be sure of God’s forgiveness and mercy. But in doing so, we do not deny the work that God is doing in us by the Spirit of His Son.

For a really helpful explanation of this distinction, check out Adolf Koeberle’s book The Quest for Holiness. This book, perhaps better than any other, helped me to understand the concept of the completeness of Justification, while at the same time appreciating the process that is involved in Sanctification. I would commend this Good News study to you pastors for use in your church. It has been very helpful. In one sense, it has helped me to remember that by faith in the sufferings and death of Christ, I am perfectly and completely justified in God’s sight. And yet, in the area of sanctification, I need some work! A lot of work.


About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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5 Responses to Justification and Sanctification

  1. Bob McCluskey says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful words. You might be interested in my blog, Renewing the Mind at http://renewing.squarespace.com. It is a new blog about sanctification.

  2. Kathy Schulz says:

    Thanks for the endorsement. It’s nice to know when the journal is helpful.

  3. Kristofer Carlson says:

    As I ponder on the fact that scripture sometimes mingles justification and sanctification together, and that the church fathers seemed to do so as well, I wonder if the dogmatic distinction between justification and sanctification is adequate, let alone correct. I sometimes think we are guilty of the confirmation bias, in that we look as scripture through the lens of our dogmatics.

    Perhaps scripture blurs the boundaries between justification and sanctification for a reason. Perhaps we do our Lord a disservice by trying to make dogmatic distinctions operative in our daily lives. What does it mean to die daily to sin? What did James mean that faith without works is dead? Why do the earliest Christian writings focus more on what we now call sanctification than on justification? As it says in James: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”

    Isn’t it interesting that pure doctrine—which is used within American Lutheranism to divide the church—is in scripture and in the early church secondary to the pure life? For example, the first five chapters of the Didache concern what we call sanctification, and include much of what we Lutherans would dismiss as Law.

    It is possible that we Lutherans, by focusing almost exclusively on justification, have neglected “the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith.”

  4. Pastor Beisel says:


    I understand your concerns with these dogmatic distinctions, and agree that they always need to be normed by the Holy Scriptures. I do think this one is helpful from the standpoint of the Christian’s standing before God. As a Christian, is my justification before God a process? Am I constantly becoming more and more justified before God? No. Our Confessions state that we are justified before God when we believe that Christ suffered for our sins. This is no process, and we can thus always return to this article of Christian doctrine for comfort and certainty. But it is equally true that our becoming like God is not totally complete in this life. Our Sanctification, our growing into the people that Christ intends for us, this is not complete until the Resurrection. By setting these two apart like we do, we can properly assign all Scripture to its proper place and under its proper heads. For example, it would be inaccurate to say that a verse speaking about our Christian life, and how we ought to mortify the sinful flesh under the heading of justification. It more properly fits under the heading of Sanctification, since it deals with God making us holy now that he has accepted us into his favor through faith in the merits of His Son.

    The truth is, we do read the Scriptures through the lens of our doctrine, which itself is drawn from Scripture. The same is true of the Creed. The articles of the Creeds are drawn from Scripture, and give us the proper lens through which to view the Scriptures and understand them properly.

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