The Justification-Sanctification debate


Some prominent bloggers have been debating the relationship between justification and sanctification. I have suggested that part of the confusion comes when we separate what God has joined.

Salvation is experienced sequentially in three dimensions but must always be understood (with deep gratitude) as one completed act of God for undeserving, helpless, powerless, ungodly sinners who are God’s enemies (Romans 5).

The apostle Paul explained it as five completed divine actions for sinners (who could not have participated in any of them in any way).


  1. Foreknew: (us) (Προεγνω)
  2. Predestined: (us) (Προωρισεν)
  3. Called: (us) (Εκαλεσεν)
  4. Justified: (us) (Εδικαιωσεν)
  5. Glorified: (us) (εδοξασεν)

Some of the tension seems to come from the fact that this one-time-gift received from God by grace (Romans 8:29-30) permanently unites us to God in Christ but is (as said) experienced sequentially.

Everything is based on redemption accomplished in Christ — but we live now with an eager expectation of the final redemption of our bodies (Romans 8; Philippians 1:6; 3:20-21). The three dimensions of “Already, In between and Not yet” are real – so real that we groan while we wait. Yet we must be careful not to divide what God has united. As we understand the three dimensions together, waiting and groaning are offset with patience and hope (Romans 8).

The gospel reminds us that we are undeserving recipients of everything yet we’re called to be active participants during the “not yet.” And even as we “continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” this must be done (can only be done) based on the fact that, “it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13). God is restoring His image in us by His Spirit (II Corinthians 3:18).

The image of God is the starting point for how we think about humanity. Not just so we can rush to the fall of humanity and expound our doctrine of total depravity. This image is the shared reality of all people without exception or distinction. God singled out humans when He said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…” ”So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6; James 3:9).

At the beginning, God “saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). Humans (by God’s intention) had a very good and noble beginning (and we intuitively know it). But those intended for greatness have fallen. Sin is a tragic and culpable falling short of a glory we once knew– “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).

  • Something great has fallen from its greatness.
  • Something amazing has lost its amazement.
  • Something beautiful has lost its beauty.
  • Something whole is broken.
  • Something healthy is sick and in need of healing.
  • Something peaceful has been disturbed.

As a result of this fall from glory, those who were whole are broken, partial and fractured. Humans are a combination of dignity and depravity. We find in each person a mix of good and bad.

Our fallenness means that every seemingly good part is tainted with badness (Romans 7:21). Depravity extends to every atom of our being. It’s without borders in us (see: Jeremiah 17:9Romans 5:12).

As a result a sad set of terms are fitting to humanity: lost, wayward, drifting, restless, fallen, broken, fractured, alienated, separated, partial, incomplete, and dying. This is why the vocabulary of salvation suits us. We need intervention, rescue, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration

We cannot lose sight of the fact that humans need ontological transformation— change of “being” before “behavior”– by spiritual regeneration.

God said, “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19). We need a recreation or new creation by the renewing of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5) for the restoring of the image of God in us. We need the God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” “to make his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (II Corinthians 4:6). We need to be reconciled to God to become a “new creation” in Christ (II Corinthians 5:17). And “all this is from God” (II Corinthians 5:18).

This change is not subtraction but addition. The flesh is not eradicated but God gives the Holy Spirit – “whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:6-7). It’s the foundational priority for all change (see: II Corinthians 4:16-18).

Yet we must consider transformation in the overall picture of:

  • A glory we had at the beginning (Genesis 1:26-27).
  • A glory we fell from in disobedience (Romans 3:23; 5:12; James 3:9).
  • A glory being restored in us (through God’s gift of salvation and the indwelling Spirit (Rom. 6:23: II Cor. 3:18)
  • A glory fully restored (despite our present suffering, Romans 8:18; Revelation 21:1-5).

This offers a strong teleological focus (a hope and a future beyond the temporal world) (see: Titus 3:3-7; II Corinthians 4:16-18). The teleological dimension of transformation is God’s provision of hope and purpose — things that matter at some level to rational people and that must shape a Christian understanding of influences like culture and politics. Christian thinking and living cannot happen (as intended) apart from telos.


This discussion must be taken into another area – change via cultural/political agents — a focus that has widely captured evangelical vision.

From a Christian perspective, ontological change is prior to culture and political agents of change. I am not suggesting that we impose the gospel on culture and politics. Nor am I suggesting that other kinds of goods can’t be offered unless the spiritual is included (see: Romans 13).

But transformation of human existence (both individually and in community), from a Christian perspective must prioritize the ontological dimension (i. e. “being,” not just behavior).

External mechanisms like laws, customs, cultures and politics will not address the depth of the human problem. On a full Christian view, these external pressures are necessary (even divinely ordained) but not adequate. So we insist that making external adjustments like putting the “right” party in political office or changing laws and policies will not address our deepest needs.


It takes a community:

On another level, humans are social beings. We are not meant to be alone (and we know it). Our lives depend on others and we were designed to flourish in community. But human relationships are the source of some of our deepest problems. Maintaining peace is a perplexing and painful project on almost every level. Although we still find that it’s not good to be alone, it’s complicated, difficult and sometimes even dangerous to be together.

God’s answer for our social and community needs is the Church. The work of Christ on earth cannot be thought of apart from the Church. He’s the one who said, “I will build my Church” (Matthew 16:18).

Those who are deeply concerned about transformation must apply their thoughts and concerns to the Church. The Church (as God’s new community) is not merely an organization but an organism. In some ontologically organic way, each believer (upon faith in Christ) is immersed into a living community or body of believers to form God’s new society.

Each local Church is made up of people who have experienced and are experiencing ontological transformation — though outwardly perishing, yet inwardly being renewed day by day — with a shared teleological vision — “we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (II Corinthians 4:16-18). Should these communities (local Churches) be exemplars of human flourishing at its best? Sound too idealistic?

We know that this side of God’s new world (Revelation 21:1-5), we will not experience utopia. Churches (i.e. Church members) have to “work hard to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). This is because, as believers, our ontological change is not subtraction of the flesh but addition of the Spirit. Therefore we are told to “walk by the Spirit” if we desire to “not gratify the desires of the flesh.” In some way, the Spirit breaks the power/mastery of sin over us. Yet the conflict remains— “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other” (Galatians 5.16-17).

In Galatians 5:15-16, there is an interesting connection between community life or relationships (at their worse) and walking by the Spirit as the solution. “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not…”

A direct connection is made in these verses between protecting relationships from destruction (bite, devour, destroy: metaphors from the animal kingdom) and the role of the Holy Spirit. To avoid destructive relationship, we must,

  • v.16 – walk by the Spirit;
  • v.18 – be led by the Spirit;
  • v.25a – live by the Spirit;
  • v. 25b – keep in step with the Spirit

Galatians 5:16 says, “so I say”, (or ςέ “but I say”). Here is my advice.” Or, “Here is the remedy for the situation described in v. 15.” (Phillips). To protect Christian community (relationships) from destruction, each member must “live or walk by the Spirit.”

What kind of community is possible (or should be expected) when ontologically changed believers are immersed by one Spirit into organic life together?

Individual and community life of this kind (from Christian marriages, to families, to local Churches) among those who are walking by the Spirit (being filled by the Spirit) will be distinguished by pervasive practice of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”

Against these qualities no law is needed. Imagine any relationship where these qualities are flourishing. And interestingly, back to some of this discussion, each of these qualities also appears as a command in the NT — reminding us that we are not passive recipients of the activity of God. Unworthy recipients? Yes. But not passive (see: Philippians 2:12-13).

Steve Cornell

About Wisdomforlife

Just another worker in God's field.
This entry was posted in Justification, Salvation, Sanctification, Spiritual growth, Spiritual transformation. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Justification-Sanctification debate

  1. an incredibly thorough study- I was looking at john 13 literally last week and saw something I had never seen. The verse that struck me was john 13:10 that said “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean”. You didn’t include this but I thought that it fits perfectly into this process.

    Why does Jesus tell peter—only your feet? I will need to wash you but I only need to wash your feet again and again and again…it seems to me a perfect correlation of justification and sanctification. They are a continual process we walk through and constantly needing Jesus to wash our feet.

    thanks steve for your intentionality and quality you produce on your blog. Keep doing it big.


  2. Brad says:

    I found out I wasn’t the only person who considered a full sanctification. I thought I was a lone heretic for the longest. Then I read 5 views of S. and realized I was nearly Wesleyan.

    I’ve been looking for a conversation with someone who won’t be a neo con non conversant, all lecture personality. 🙂

    I want to learn why I’m wrong. Since the most important parts of my understanding differ from what I’ve read of Finney,/ Wesley, etc…I think I could at least hold the person’s attention.

    Perhaps you’d like to pick at my views sometime. The more I’m picked at the more I learn, I can’t lose either way.

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