Category Archives: Justification

Justification as the Fuel for Sanctification

Most Christians misunderstand their justification, and it severely robs them of joy and causes them to unnecessarily stumble through doubt, fear, and sin. Yet, an appropriate understanding of justification actually fuels our growth in godliness as we see the truths of the gospel applied to our lives.

Richard Lovelace accurately describes the way that most Christians misunderstand the doctrine of justification:

“Only a fraction of the present body of professing Christians are solidly appropriating the justifying work of Christ in their lives. Many have so light an apprehension of God’s holiness and of the extent and guilt of their sin that consciously they see little need for justification, although below the surface of their lives they are deeply guilt-ridden and insecure. Many others have a theoretical commitment to this doctrine, but in their day-to-day existence they rely on their sanctification for justification, in the Augustinian manner, drawing their assurance of acceptance with God from their sincerity, their past experience of conversion, their recent religious performance or the relative infrequency of their conscious, willful disobedience. Few know enough to start each day with a thoroughgoing stand upon Luther’s platform: you are accepted, looking outward in faith and claiming the wholly alien righteousness of Christ as the only ground for acceptance, relaxing in that quality of trust which will produce increasing sanctification as faith is active in love and gratitude.”[1]

The bottom-line reality of justification is that we are “accepted before God because of who Christ is and what He has done.” Our faith in Christ secures our right-standing before God and empowers us to be transformed into His likeness.

Justification provides the fuel on which the vehicle of sanctification runs: God declaring us righteous by status, is the grounds on which the Spirit transforms us to be righteous in behavior. Michael Reeves provides a more helpful, illustrative example of this truth in terms of Christ uniting himself in marriage to an undeserving prostitute (the Church): You can read it here!! It is the love of Christ that changes us to eventually display a lifestyle that is worthy of such love. It is not our love for Him that changes us–our default is to be lovers of self and lovers of sin. He loved us first, when we refused to love Him, and such sacrificial love begins to change us until we begin to love Him in return. In other words, Christ’s union with us is motivated by His deep love for us (not because of our worthiness of being loved by Him), and in the security of His faithful love (despite our occasional affair with sin) we begin to respond to Him with a similar, though imperfect love. And one day, when we see Him face to face, we shall be like Him (1 John 3:2).

The reason we can be confident in Christ’s faithful love for us is displayed in the Cross. He went to the Cross in order to stand in our place. His life provided the obedience that we could never adequately obtain, and His death experienced the condemnation that we so rightfully deserved. In other words, He became our substitute in every way–He became our righteousness before God and He became our curse before God; He experienced God’s wrath for our sin. As Luther so aptly said it, “He is my righteousness, and I am His sin.” We have nothing to bring to God except for our sin–and yet, Jesus provides every ounce of righteousness that we need in order to be justified before God (2 Cor. 5:21). By putting our faith in Christ as our Substitute, we receive all the blessings of justification. (Here you can read a brief elaboration regarding Christ’s substitution as “the heart of the gospel”.)

Sanctification, on the other hand, is the outworking of our justification. It might be rightly summarized as “justification applied.” As God applies the truths of the gospel (Christ’s work on our behalf), we experience the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. As we worship Christ, the Holy Spirit transforms us into His image from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 8:21-39). He enables us to display the fruit of Christlikeness (Gal. 5:16-26) and empowers us to say no to ungodliness (Titus 2:11-14). However, this process of transformation is progressive–meaning, that it doesn’t happen all at once. It happens in degrees and throughout seasons of life, until we reach maturity. There will be set-backs, as well as giant leaps forward; however, most of the time we experience such slow growth that we can sometimes feel discouraged or doubt our own salvation and/or maturity. In fact, John Piper has often remarked of being most in doubt of his own salvation when he sees how painfully slow his sanctification actually is. The reality is that our sanctification is a spiritual battle that is won inch-by-inch as we entrust ourselves to the One who fights our battles for us. While we should “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” we realize that it is “God who works in us to will and to work for His own good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). We should pursue Christlikeness in humility and faith and God-centered worship, but realize that it is God who gives us the motivation and ability to actually change. And, He who began a good work in us will bring it to completion when He comes again to consummate His union with us (Phil. 1:6). In other words, we are pieces of fruit that are ever-growing in maturity until Christ returns and finally makes us completely ripe and sweet.

Misunderstanding our justification can be detrimental to our growth in godliness–it can lead to minimizing our sin or the holiness of God, and thereby rendering the cross of Christ as seemingly unnecessary. Or we think that our standing before God is dependent on how well we live our lives–the quality of our devotions, the sincerity and consistency of our love for God, the frequency of our victory over sin, etc. And while all of these things are important features of our spiritual maturity (sanctification), they are not the grounds for our ability to stand “guilt-free” before God (justification). Christ bore our shame and provided to us His guilt-free life, and through our worship of Him, the Holy Spirit makes our lives increasingly reflect His character. Therefore, we should wake up everyday with the realization that we are righteous before God (due to faith in Christ who secured our justification) and that our greatest need is to continually worship God in humility, gratitude, and faith for the work that He has already done, continues to do, and has promised to complete for us, in us, and through us. He has defeated our sin and will one day put an end to it. In the meantime, we strive–by His power–to live by faith, to hope in His promises, to battle our sin, to love others, and to display the fruit of His Spirit as we perform the good, God-honoring deeds that He has prepared in advance for us to do (Eph. 2:1-10).

We must not confuse justification and sanctification. In the worst case, a confusion of these matters may result in false assurance for those who think they are saved, yet are actually headed toward hell: those who trust in their works to make them right before God. In the better case, a confusion of these matters would make the true believer live a life full of unnecessary guilt and doubt regarding his own salvation due to his/her struggles to be Christlike: these believers can only be free of the burden when they realize that Christ has already stood in their place and they simply need to worship Him by faith as He completes everything that He has started on their behalf. In order to see sanctification rightly, we must have a functional understanding of justification. In other words, the truths of our justification should be connected to our everyday lives (i.e., living guilt free, responding to Christ by faith, trusting in God’s promises, asking God to finish the work that He started, confessing sin yet believing that we are forgiven and clean before Him, trusting in the Holy Spirit to strengthen us and change us, etc). Here, John Piper offers a brief summary of the difference between justification and sanctification!

It is only when we rest in the righteousness of Christ that we begin to reflect Him. As we recognize that God accepts us as we are—because of Christ—and that He intends to change us to reflect His Son—because of the Holy Spirit, we then begin to live the life of faith that is free of guilt and is fertile for gospel transformation to take place. May we live in such a way…


[1] Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Renewal (Downers Grove: IVP, 1979), 101.

[2] See Ray Ortlund, Jr. on the differences between justification and self-justification: here.

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Justification: An Ever-running Fountain

Ray Ortlund, pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, regularly writes blog-posts for the Gospel Coalition. At the recent 2011 national conference, he gave a powerful message on the difference between justification and self-justification. It also addresses how gospel doctrine should produce gospel culture in the life of the church and the life of the believer. Our confessional belief (justification by faith) should be functional in our lives despite our propensity toward lifestyles of self-justification.

Here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite:

“The Puritan William Fenner taught us to see justification by faith alone as a constant resource: ‘As we sin daily, so [Christ] justifies daily, and we must daily go to him for it. Justification is an ever-running fountain, and therefore we cannot look to have all the water at once.’” 

You can read the rest of Ortlund’s message here.

(Related posts: “Harlots at Heart”  and “Justification vs. Sanctification” and “A Lifestyle of Repentance” and “The Heart of the Gospel”)

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The Heart of the Gospel

The Heart of the Gospel is the Cross of Christ and the Great Exchange that His Death and Resurrection Secured… His Righteousness for My Sin!

In speaking to Corinthian believers, the Apostle Paul spoke of their status of being accepted by God. As a first step in their experience of being “re-created” in Christ, God exchanged their sin for Christ’s righteousness. This exchange, often called imputation, is the heart of the gospel:

…For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The same truth is conveyed to those in Galatia (Gal. 2:20; 3:13-14). Our sin is accounted to Him and His right standing with the Father is accounted to us: the death we deserved exchanged for the life He possessed.

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According to the gospel, this truth remains an unchanging reality: Whether on my best day or my worst day, I am accepted by God only because of Christ’s righteousness.

  • On my worst day when I am at the pit of selfishness and the filth of my sin, God loves, forgives, and receives me because of what His Son accomplished—Christ became sin so that I might become righteous. God sees us as sons and daughters, rather than rebels, because Christ’s blood has paid our debt and His righteousness has covered our lives. His righteousness produces life in us, by virtue of the Holy Spirit renewing us to resemble Christ.
  • On my “best days” when I feel that I’m on the top of the world and self-sufficient, or even when I’m living in obedience and remain mindful of God, my acceptance with God has nothing to do with anything I am or anything I’ve done. It has everything to do with who Christ is and what He has done. My best deeds are like filthy rags. Yet, in Christ, I have become a new creation and have been empowered to accomplish good works that glorify Him… but even these good works are the outworking–the evidence–rather than the basis for my justification before God.

The only thing that really matters is whether or not Christ has been my Substitute and exchanged His righteousness for my sin. That happens by faith. If not, then my debt remains unpaid and I stand condemned in my sin (Rom. 8:1). When I trust in Christ for salvation, I forsake my sin and all other substitutes of self-justification. I stop trying to earn God’s favor and I stop seeking my own glory. I bow my heart and life to His lordship by faith and repentance, as I turn to Him and forsake my sin. Such faith and repentance is ongoing. While “the great exchange” (His righteousness for my sin) was accomplished once-for-all at the Cross, my faith and repentance are perpetual. His substitutionary death secured my life so that I might be able to embrace a lifestyle of faith and repentance.

As a result of this “great exchange,” we can rest securely in the fact that Christ alone is the basis for our acceptance with God. No more striving. Simply resting by grace through faith. Worshiping God while enjoying His pleasure rather than working endlessly to earn His favor. On our worst day, we find refuge in the cross—for that is where we experience God’s love and forgiveness through Christ. On our best day, we find that we are still inadequate and in need of God’s grace—once again, we find this in the person of Christ as His Spirit lives in us and intercedes for us. May we revel in the fact that God accepts us as we are, because of who He is… and He has graciously purposed all things to make us more like Himself (Rom. 8:28-30; 2 Cor. 3:18).

[Previous Posts: “Harlots at Heart” and “Justification vs. Sanctification”]

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Justification vs. Sanctification

John Piper provides these brief, yet clarifying definitions that I found helpful:

Justification is the biblical teaching that, by grace alone through faith alone, God counts believers in Jesus Christ to be perfectly righteous and totally acceptable in his presence forever. That is, God imputes the perfection of Christ to those who are united to Christ by faith (Rom. 3:28; 4:4-6; 5:1, 18-19; 8:1; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:8.”

Sanctification is the biblical teaching that we are progressively conformed to the image of Christ in our attitudes and words and actions by the power of the Holy Spirit moving through faith to make us become in daily practice what we have already become in Christ (Rom. 6:22; 1 Cor. 5:7; Phil. 2:12-13; 3:12; Eph. 4:24).”

*John Piper, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 69.

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Harlots at Heart

Michael Reeves’ summation of Martin Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian:


Loved from Harlotry to Royalty: “At the heart of [The Freedom of a Christian] is a story of a king who marries a prostitute, Luther’s allegory for the marriage of King Jesus and the wicked sinner. When they marry, the prostitute becomes, by status, a queen. It is not that she made her behavior queenly and so won the right to the king’s hand. She was and is a wicked harlot through and through. However, when the king made his marriage vow, her status changed.  Thus she is, simultaneously, a prostitute at heart and a queen by status. In just the same way, Luther saw that the sinner, on accepting Christ’s promise in the gospel, is simultaneously a sinner at heart and righteous by status. What has happened is the ‘joyful exchange’ in which all that she has (her sin) she gives to him, and all that he has (his righteousness, blessedness, life and glory) he gives to her. Thus she can confidently display ‘her sins in the face of death and hell and say, “If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his”.’ This was Luther’s understanding of ‘justification by faith alone’, and it is in that security, he argued, that the harlot actually then starts to become queenly at heart.”[1]


[1] Michael Reeves, The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 50.

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FREEEEDOM!”  That was the passionate cry and last dying word of a tortured William Wallace, at least as Hollywood depicted him.  In the 13th Century, William Wallace became a leader of the Scottish resistance aimed at independence from the tyranny of England’s Edward I.  He led the Scots to defeat the British on a number of occasions and became recognized as “the Guardian of Scotland.”  Martyred for the cause of Scottish freedom, Wallace is now considered a patriot and national hero.  The brutal nature of his death and the fervency of his commitment to freedom gained him a place among The 100 Greatest Britons and in our hearts as the hero of Braveheart.


A similar commitment was made in our nation’s own journey toward independence.  Bodies were struck down and blood was poured out as men were willing to die for the freedom of others.  Many lives were lost on this soil in order to purchase the rights that most of us so easily take for granted each and every day.  As I pause to praise God for our national independence, I am reminded of an even greater cause for which to praise Him, our spiritual independence.  I was formerly dead in my trespasses and sins, yet God so graciously breathed new life into me.  He did that so that I might be freed from my sin and spared from the terrors of His great wrath.  I deserved an eternity of judgment, and yet Christ was committed to my freedom.  He was willing to die in order that I might live.  I am so grateful, yet so undeserving.

Freedom is costly.  It must be purchased.  Our freedom cost God His greatest treasure, Jesus Christ.  What sinful men could never do on their own, Jesus has already done for them.  He endured the Cross of Calvary like a lamb led to the slaughter.  In the kind intention of God, He provided the very means by which men would be delivered from the tyranny of sin and saved from the horrible consequences that it so justly deserved.  His blood was shed and His body was broken in order that the man of faith might experience ultimate freedom.    To those who were formerly slaves to their flesh, He made them into free sons and daughters who might freely love, serve, and enjoy God as they were created to do.  Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” John 8:36 says, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” By faith in Christ and repentance from our sin, we can yell with William Wallace… “FREEEEDOM!!!”

Blessings in Christ, Gabe

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