Going through Galatians at church and starting to read through 1 John with a friend, have been good catalysts for thinking about justification and sanctification. It is always easy to confuse who and what we are already as Christians with what we’re becoming, how fast we’re becoming it and how far off the mark of perfection we still are. So I wanted to take a quick look at some truths about justification (“having a ‘right’ standing in our relationship with God”), sanctification (“being made progressively more holy/conformed to the image of Christ”) and glorification (“being perfected in Christ through our resurrection from the dead and enjoying Him for eternity”).
There is much that can be said about so grand a topic as justification. But in brief we can say this by way of introduction: Justification refers to our status in relation to God. God regards believers in Christ as “righteous” in His sight and allows them to enjoy a right relationship with Him.
The basis for our justification is Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement. The perfect, sinless Jesus suffered and died in place of sinners and took God’s wrath upon Himself as the consequence of our sins. Thus, He dealt with the sin that had made us “guilty” in God’s sight and had left our relationship with God as one of brokenness and enmity.
However, Christ’s death did not only address our sin-guilt and gain us some sort of “clean slate” before God. His sacrifice was a “propitiation” for our sins – designed to not only deal with God’s holy wrath against us, but to bring His favour upon us in its place.
Since Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, people around the world have been invited to trust in Jesus as their Saviour and be united with Him, by faith, in His death and resurrection. When someone trusts in Jesus in this way, not only does He serve as the substitute that took away their sins – but God counts (or “imputes”) Jesus’ righteousness to the believer, as if it were there own. When this happens for someone, they are justified (made right before God) completely by grace (i.e. because of God’s goodness and kindness and not based on any goodness or good works of their own) through faith (i.e. they become right in God’s sight and receive this new status, solely by trusting in Jesus as their Saviour).
Never More Justified
Justification happens at the beginning of someone’s Christian life – when they repent and believe in the gospel. It is important to understand and appreciate the importance of the truth that once God confers this status upon someone it does not vary by degree, fluctuate or come and go. Once justified, the Christian is never more (or less) so than the hour they first believed. To explore what this means for us, I will make the following 3 statements.
#1 We are never more (or less) “right” with God, than when we first received the gift of justification.
Our understanding and appreciation of our justification may increase, but not our righteous status itself. This is a natural consequence of our righteousness or right standing with God being a free gift of grace and the imputation of Jesus’ own righteousness. If we were expected to increase or complete our righteousness in the sight of God, it would mean that our own good works contribute to that righteous status. But our good works cannot justify us before God, neither do they increase or complete our righteousness as though something about our status was lacking. Because God already regards us as though we have loved, honoured and obeyed (excuse the matrimonial phrase!) Him the way His perfect Son Jesus did, we can never be “more right” with God than we already are as justified Christians. Why? Because we can’t be in a “righter” relationship with God or enjoy a “righter” status with Him that exceeds the relationship and status Jesus has with the Father, and that very standing has been counted to us.
#2 We are never more worthy of justification than we were
In Saving Private Ryan a band of U.S. Soldiers embark on a deadly mission to rescue the only surviving son of a mother whose lost three out of four boys to the carnage of World War II. As they make their way to try and save Private Ryan, the officer in charge of the mission, Capt. Miller makes the remark: “He better be worth it. He better go home and cure a disease or invent a longer lasting light bulb.” By the time the credits roll, six out of the eight who set out on the mission to save Private James Ryan have died. A high cost, even if their mission was based on a noble principle. As Capt. Miller lies dying from fatal gunfire he utters his final words to Ryan, “James, earn this…earn it.” The film ends with an elderly James Ryan pondering that very question at a U.S. War cemetery. Had he lived a good enough life? Had he done things worthy of the great cost paid for him?
Justified Christians certainly owe our lives to Jesus, who undertook the greatest rescue mission of all and made an unmatchable sacrifice to save us. I could be tempted to picture Jesus on the Cross, looking down at me with His bloodied visage and saying, “Yarran, earn this…earn it.” Thankfully, we find nothing of that kind of message on Jesus’ lips in the Gospels. Yes we should live wholeheartedly and single-mindedly for the one who died for us. But if I got to the end of my life and had a Private James Ryan moment – if I’d understood the greatness of Jesus as a Person, the enormity of His sacrifice and the seriousness of my sin – I’d have to conclude that I hadn’t lived a life that earned the sacrifice made for me.
Jesus doesn’t ask us to be “worth” the sacrifice He made, nor does He imply we need to “earn” what He did for us.
We ought to be immensely thankful for the Cross and shape our entire lives around who Jesus is and what He has done. But the best-quality, blue-ribbon Christian is never going to be “more worthy” of what Jesus did for them – no matter how good their post-conversion lives are. Salvation is by grace – grace is never earned.
#3 God is never more “pleased” with us as His children (at least at the fundamental level)
I saved the controversial one for last. God’s pleasure in us as His children is inseparably linked to our union with Christ by faith and God’s counting as true of us what is true of Jesus. God the Father’s pronouncement at Jesus’ baptism: “”This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17) applies by derivation to us as God’s adopted children in Christ. Justified Christians are God’s beloved sons and daughters and God is well-pleased with us because of who we are in Christ.
Crucially, this doesn’t mean that our actions can’t be displeasing to God when they dishonour Him or fail to love others. Nor does it suggest that sin has no effect on our familial relationship with God. What it does mean is that God’s fundamental pleasure in us comes not from what we can offer to Him by way of obedience, but from His seeing Jesus when He looks upon us as His children. [Note: Just this morning when I’d already planned to write on this topic, I stumbled across a good article dealing with potential misunderstanding and abuse of this truth. Worth a read].
This means that while our way of life certainly can be more or less pleasing to God (more on that in the sanctification installment), we need to be careful how we think about whether we’re pleasing to God ourselves. If God’s pleasure in us as His children depended on the quality of our obedience, He would never be pleased with us, because our best duties and offerings are always stained with sin. But if our faith is firmly in Christ, we can rejoice that God is pleased with us because we are united with His perfectly obedient Son.
We should only doubt God’s pleasure in us as His children if we ourselves are pleased with our sin. If we are unrepentant, we make light of Christ’s sacrifice and fail to come to Him for forgiveness and salvation. When such a state of life persists, we ought to question whether we truly are united with Christ and God’s beloved children.
But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness: our relationship with God is secure in Christ and He is well-pleased with us because of the Son.