Justification and Sanctification; the Joy in these Long Words.

Justification, sanctification, pneumatology, ecclesiology, exegesis, eisegesis, hermeneutics… there are loads of long Christian words which often describe simple things. Today I’d like to look at Justification and sanctification, to unpack them and make them seem a little more down to earth. We’ll be looking at some key texts (mainly Romans and James) and exploring what the terms mean in an easy to understand way.

Justification and Righteousness

‘Wait a minute buddio, why are you throwing righteousness into the mix!?’ Justification and righteousness are very similar words in Greek (the language the New testament is written in). This is because they share the same root. In the same way that, in English, autograph and autobiography both share the root ‘auto’ which means ‘self’, justification and righteousness share the word ‘δίκαιος‘ (pronounced dik-ai-os [though my Greek may be lacking]) which means ‘just’ or ‘righteous’. It can be translated to both in this form. So if they both come from the same word, why are they different?

If someone is justified in doing an action, it means they are just in doing it: that they are right to have done it. If someone only does things which are just, then they are ‘righteous’, because of all the right things they are doing. If a person themselves is justified, it means they have been declared a righteous person. Being justified is something that happens, but being righteous is a constant state of being. So if someone is Justified, they are made righteous, and a righteous person is justified in all they do. An unrighteous person, does un-right (wrong, bad, sinful) things. The question is how can an unrighteous person who does unrighteous things, become a righteous person who does righteous things?

First thing to note is that everyone starts out unrighteous, and because of this nobody can do good (Romans 3:10, Psalm 53:3 and Psalm 14:3), the ‘good’ we think we do is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Everyone has done something wrong, objectively, this is a fact. People are without excuse because we did things we knew were wrong, even sometimes telling ourselves ‘this lie is okay’ or ‘this thing will benefit me, or someone else’. Now the punishment for being unrighteous is death (Romans 6:26), which means that if someone were to accept the punishment for their crimes (which would be the right thing to do) they would die. You can’t be righteous if you’re dead. So how can we be justified without dying?

Romans 3:28 (NRSV): ‘For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law’. This verse is one of many which tells us that faith is what justifies a person. ‘The law’ spoken about here is in reference to the Jewish law; a law established by God through Moses. Even following the law outwardly is not enough to make up for the un-right things we have done. The only way a person can be justified is through faith. But what is faith? and faith in what?

Faith is not, as some may understand, a blind following. Hebrews 11:1 tells us ‘faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not yet seen’. If you hope to get a payslip at the end of the month, and are sure you will receive one, you have faith. You have a reason to think you will get a payslip, it isn’t something you just decided one day, but it is something you have been promised, it is something you have heard others have received, and thus you have a confident expectation. The payslip tells you that you have money in your account, and thus you confidently hope and believe it is there. You do not wake up and go ‘today for no reason I will believe I am a millionaire’. Faith is being assured that the things you have been told are true. So what is the thing we have to believe in, the thing we have been told, that if we do believe in it, we will be justified and made righteous?

It seems almost too easy, you don’t even have to work, all you need to do it believe something. Such grace that we would get made righteous for something so minimal (Romans 4:16). But here’s the catch: if you believe something you live accordingly. If you believe you are going to get paid every month, you may live in a flat or house, knowing you will be able to pay rent; you live in the hope that you will be paid. Faith changes everything. The thing you are asked to have faith in is that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9). Now if you believe Jesus is Lord of you, then you will live like it.

James 2:24 reads: ‘You see that a person is justified by works and not faith alone’. ‘wait a minute! I thought you said all we have to do it believe? what are these ‘works’ we read about?’. Well, if you believe something you will live accordingly, if you don’t then it is clear you don’t really believe it. If I said that I believed democracy is the best form of government, then established a dictatorship, it would be clear I was lying. If I said I believed going outside would kill me, then I went for a walk to the shops, clearly I didn’t believe it (or I was suicidal). If you believe Jesus is Lord, you will live like it.


Some say sanctification is ‘being made holy’. But in 1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul is writing to those who have been sanctified. Those who are, not who are being made holy, but those who are already holy. But don’t be deceived, the Corinthians were not perfect, rather Paul goes on to write about the terrible things they have done, nevertheless Paul considers them sanctified in Christ Jesus. In the same way, how can we be justified and righteous if we still sin? well let’s take a look.

At the point of confessing Jesus is Lord we are leaning on God’s grace (because we do not deserve justification) and believing (having faith) that Jesus is Lord, and He justifies us. (Ephesians 2:8). At this point we are made new, ‘a new creation: everything old has passed away’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). All our trespasses/sins/wrong doings are not counted against us that we are brought into right sitting (or righteousness) with God (2 Cor 5:19). The old,unrighteous and sinful self, is dead; Romans 6:5-11 tells us that our sins died with Jesus, as 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us that Jesus became sin that we might become the righteousness of God.

This however, is all happening on a spiritual level. One does not have to clinically be dead to be a Christian. The word ‘dead’ is actually more like saying ‘is separated from, or apart from’. If someone is dead to you, you are ignoring them. If you are dead to sin, you are not to live like you and sin are best buds.  The thing is, we are called to repent (many times), which means to ‘turn away from’ our sins and turn towards God. Now spiritually, we are set on God, however this our body has a hard time keeping up with the new spiritual self. The habits it has grown into, such as lying, lusting, pride and shame, are all it knows. We have to Choose to live from our spirit and not from our flesh (Romans 8:5).

Sanctification, as I understand, is the process of our body and outward behaviour, catching up with what has spiritually been achieved already. We need to stop thinking with our body, and start thinking with our spirit. 1 Corinthians 14:14 -15 tells us we need to pray with our spirits and minds. When we do this we identify with who we really are in Christ. Here’s an example; if someone offers you some drugs and you say ‘no, I don’t do drugs’, you have chosen to identify as someone who doesn’t do drugs. In the same way when sin is dangling before us we should say ‘no I don’t do sin’ because we have chosen to identify as someone who is justified and righteous in Christ Jesus. We must in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and live in accordance to our faith that he is Lord (1 Corinthians 1:2).

God bless you and keep you.

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