Sanctification by Faith

“You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”  (1 Corinthians 6:11)

There are two related terms in the verse above that refer to the change in standing that is brought about by the Holy Spirit in faith. One is “justification” and the other is “sanctification.” Scripture describes both of these as the work that the Holy Spirit brings about within us through faith in Jesus Christ.

Strictly speaking, the word justified means to be “made right” before God. To say we are justified by faith means that we do not trust in our own righteousness or merit to save us, but rather, we trust in the righteousness of Christ to clothe us. As Scripture says, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28), “for by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).

For us as Christians (and as Lutherans in particular), the doctrine of justification by faith is at the center of what we believe; it is drilled into our hearts and minds. However, when the subject turns to sanctification, we often don’t seem to be quite as confident in God. While we are willing to give credit to God for justification, people often seem to think that sanctification is something we make happen. I have even heard it claimed in just that way by those who say, “While justification is the result of the work of God in us, sanctification is the result of the work we do for God.” But this simply doesn’t match with the Word of Scripture.

The word sanctified means to be “made holy” before God. In the Bible, this too, is described as the work of the Holy Spirit. It is not we who make ourselves holy; we are made holy only by God’s own Spirit at work in our lives through his Word. As Scripture says: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). When it comes to sanctification, God again is the actor.

In the Small Catechism, when Martin Luther speaks of the work of the Holy Spirit in his explanation to the third article of the Creed, he says this very thing:

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith. In the same way, he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and preserves it in unity with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”

As much as Luther was a proponent of Justification by Faith, it is interesting to note that he does not use the word “justification” here, but rather “sanctification.”  (In fact, this section of the catechism is titled “Regarding Sanctification.”)

Clearly, for Luther, justification and sanctification were not two different things, or the result of two different actors. Luther understood them to be two sides of the same divine act of the Holy Spirit, who creates faith by the power of his Word.

Why is this important? Too often when we speak of the Christian life and what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ, we make the assumption that discipleship is something we make happen. As if we have moved beyond faith to something more, we treat sanctification as our own endeavor, accomplished through our own individual will. It’s as if we think, “Now that we have that introductory faith-stuff taken care of, we can move on to the real work of making ourselves holy.” As they used to sing the old “gospel” song, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder … every rung goes higher, higher.”

Real discipleship, however, is not moving beyond Christ, but a continual return to Christ. According to Scripture, we are not called to make ourselves more righteous or more holy, but to abide and remain in Christ (John 8:31). As disciples, we are not working toward some higher religious status with more personal accomplishments under our belt. Rather, the only growth we seek in our life of faith is a better recognition of our need for Jesus and a deeper trust in him.

There will never come a time that we will no longer need to be clothed in the holiness of Christ. It is a deceit of the Evil One that says we can raise ourselves higher than God, and is an urge that by discipline and faith, we must resist. As the risen Jesus said: “I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:17-18).

Christ alone is our righteousness as well as our holiness. We are not merely justified by faith but sanctified by faith as well. As disciples of Jesus, we believe and live by his promise: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

– Pastor Steven King