June 27, 2024

How Do Justification and Sanctification Differ?

Nathan W. Bingham & Derek Thomas
How Do Justification and Sanctification Differ?

How are justification and sanctification distinct from each other? Today, Derek Thomas helps us understand the theological context of these terms, noting how they are unique yet inseparable.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: This week on the Ask Ligonier podcast we’re joined by Dr. Derek Thomas. He’s a teaching fellow at Ligonier Ministries and also the Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic and Pastoral Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. Dr. Thomas, what’s the difference between justification and sanctification?

DR. DEREK THOMAS: They are separate entities, but you cannot pull them apart. So, justification is a declarative statement on God’s part, a judicial act on God’s part, declaring us to be right—in a right relationship—with God through faith in Jesus Christ. In justification, we are passive. We play no part in our own justification. Justification is entirely, I’ll use the word monergistic, and the mono- means there’s only one player in justification, and that is God. We are guilty sinners deserving of God’s wrath and condemnation, but through faith in His Son, who obeyed the law and laid down His life on our behalf, satisfying the demands of divine justice, when we believe in Him—and that faith is not of ourselves, it is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8)—so we are completely passive in the act of justification. So, justification is a judicial term, it’s a declarative term, and it’s a once-and-for-all event. You’re only justified once, at the point of believing.

But sanctification is a cooperative event. There are several things that we need to get straight here. You cannot be justified and not experience sanctification. It’s what James talks about in James 2, that true faith is accompanied by works. And that passage in James 2 is often thought to be at odds with the Apostle Paul. But Paul is saying we’re justified by faith alone apart from the works of the law (Rom. 3:28). But that faith that justifies is never alone; it is always accompanied by works. And that’s what James 2 is emphasizing. So, whereas in justification we think of it as a monergistic act, in sanctification it is a synergistic act. God acts, but we act too. So, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God that works in you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12).

So, this is an obligation. It’s a demand. It’s something that we are obligated to perform. We are to mortify our sins. We are to put on the fruits of the Spirit. We are to meditate on the future life. We are to grow in grace. So, sanctification is never complete; there’s an aspect of sanctification that is complete.

So, when we think of sanctification, we think of it in terms of a positional sanctification in the sense that we are saints, we are set apart, we are—the New Testament often refers to believers as “holy ones.” And so, there’s a positional aspect to sanctification, but there’s also a progressive aspect to sanctification so that we are to grow, we are to fight the good fight, we are to put on the fruits of the Spirit, we are to become more and more and more like Jesus Christ. But that progressive part of sanctification doesn’t reach its perfection until we die and we’re taken to heaven and then we will be fully sanctified.

So, it’s very important to distinguish justification and sanctification, but you cannot tear them apart. You can’t have justification and no sanctification. And you can’t have sanctification unless you first of all have justification.