“To sanctify” means “to make holy.” This is not the same as “to justify,” which means “to declare one acquitted.” Sanctification is a process; justification is instantaneous. Sanctification occurs within us; justification took place outside us. Sanctification happens over time. Justification occurred once for all in eternity. To use the same word “holy” in comparison, sanctification is a process within our hearts and lives of becoming more holy. Justification is God’s declaration that for Jesus’ sake, on account of Jesus’ holiness, He declares us holy, because Christ’s holiness covers our unholiness. Justification saves us, while sanctification is our response of thanks by trying gratefully to do what God asks and commands.
In Christ’s perfect justification, which He earned by fighting temptation and winning this battle, God found reason to charge His Son’s perfection to us. What a great, great comfort Jesus gives us!
The good works we do and the avoidance of sin, indeed the very desire to struggle against sin, are the result of faith in God’s remission of our sins. St. John wrote, “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Consider these other Bible passages:
- “If God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (1 John 4:11).
- “Forgiving one another, as God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
- “Giving thanks unto the Father, who…has translated us into the kingdom of His dear Son, in whom we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:12–14).
- “In all these things, [tribulations, sorrows, etc.], we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us” (Romans 5:3–11; 8:37).
- We fight against the flesh with its “affections and lusts” (Galatians 5:24).
The Gospel produces sanctification in us, not the Law. For the Law cannot give us the power to bring about its fulfillment. St. Paul puts it this way: the Law is “weak through the flesh” (Romans 8:3).
The Gospel, in contrast with the Law, brings about its own acceptance. It is the power of God unto salvation, as Paul says, “Faith comes by hearing and what is heard is the message of Christ” (Romans 10:17). But the Gospel does even more. It brings about the desire to keep God’s Law, for the Gospel alone tells us of God’s goodness and mercy and love and pardon in Christ. And it is the Gospel’s power that gives us the strength to keep the Law at least to a degree, though we will never reach perfection in this life.
We must always remember that our works, even those done in faith, don’t take on value that causes God to forgive and save us, since God demands perfection and these are never perfect works.
“The life I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
James P. Olsen is an ELS pastor emeritus living in Ontario, Wisconsin.