Justification and sanctification are two important terms concerning salvation. The two should not be confused, as they are not identical, but neither should they be divorced, according to the Bible’s teaching. They are distinct, but inseparable.
Justification is a declaration of righteousness, or conformity to the law of God. Proverbs 17:15 says, “He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the LORD.” A contrast is given here; justification and condemnation have opposite meanings, but share the fact that they both are pronouncements. These pronouncements do not make the person wicked or just, but simply state (whether truly or not) something about the person. It is possible for a wicked person to be declared righteous and possibly for a just person to be condemned (declared wicked). Saying that an innocent person is guilty by no means makes a person guilty. Nor does merely saying that a guilty person is innocent legitimately remove that person’s guilt.
So, justification is the declaration of God that someone is righteous. But the Scriptures give more information concerning exactly who God justifies. He justifies people through faith apart from their works, or through faith alone: “a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28). Romans 4:5 says, “To him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness”.
When one compares these Scriptures, particularly Romans 4:5 (which tells us that God “justifieth the ungodly”) to Proverbs 17:15, it sounds like God is one who “justifieth the wicked” and would therefore be an abomination to Himself. Has God violated His own standard in justifying guilty sinners?
This same question may legitimately be raised by a reading of Exodus 34:6-7:
And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God,
merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping
mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no
means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon
the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.
The Scripture says that God forgives sin, and that He will by no means clear the guilty. How can both things be true?
This apparent “riddle” of how God can legitimately justify sinners is solved by the substitionary and penal nature of Christ’s death on the cross for sinners and the double imputation  secured by that death. Romans 3:24-25 speaks of “being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.” In other words, until Christ died on the cross, it may have looked like God was merely winking at past sins. But on the cross, He publicly poured out His judgment on sin on Jesus Christ and publicly showed His mercy for sinners in the same act. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” On the cross, Christ was punished for the sins of others. These sins were imputed to Him, or put to His account. Therefore, forgiveness of sin may be rightly secured. Furthermore, the positive imputation of Christ’s righteous life is credited to the account of those who believe in Him, so that, although they are wicked and not righteous in themselves, God can legitimately declare them righteous because of what the perfect Son of God has done on their behalf. So, in the cross, and nowhere else, God justifies the wicked and condemns the just – but only rightly because Christ became a substitute for sinners. This is how God can be “faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, emphasis mine).
This justification is a once-for-all declaration that secures peace with God and a life with Him forever. Notice the completed past action spoken of in Romans 5:1 (ESV): “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 8:30 says that those “whom he justified, them he also glorified,” giving hope to believing sinners that their eternal destiny to be with God in heaven was secured.
There is a justification of works spoken of in Scripture, but it should not be understood as a contradiction of the clear teaching of the Bible that we are justified through faith alone in Christ alone by God’s grace alone, concerning our standing before Him. But the Scripture also makes clear that faith is accompanied by works.
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works?
can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one
of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give
them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith,
if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I
have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my
works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and
tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not
Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?
Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And
the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto
him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by
works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot
justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out
another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:14-26)
Good works corroborate true faith by making it public to others, and so declare us righteous in the sight of others, who cannot see that naked faith through which alone a person is justified in the sight of the God who saves sinners for the purpose of doing good works (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Whereas justification is the one-time declaration of a sinner as righteous, sanctification is the process of making that person righteous, holy, and godly. 2 Corinthians 3:18 describes sanctification this way: “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” “From glory to glory” is translated this way in the ESV: “from one degree of glory to another.” In other words, sanctification does not happen all at once, but takes time. One makes progress to the proportion he beholds God’s glory in His Word. The goal of God saving sinners is to make them like Christ, to conform them “to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29).
Whereas justification is by faith apart from works, sanctification includes faith and works. To the unbelieving sinner, God gives the commandment to repent and trust Christ. To the believer, God commands the pursuit of holiness. “But refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7). Hebrews 12:14 says, “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.” How then can obedience and growth in the Christian life be considered optional by some?
Justification and sanctification are two distinct things, but they are both necessary components of the package in salvation.
 Imputation is an integral part of the Scripture’s teaching on justification. We are declared righteous before God because our sin was imputed to (credited, reckoned, put to the account of) Him and His righteousness is imputed to us. This great exchange has been illustrated in Zechariah 3:4, where these words are spoken concerning Joshua the high priest: “Take away the filthy garments from him. And unto him he said, Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment.” So, filthy rags (our sin) is exchanged for a pure robe (the righteousness of God). A similar illustration would be if someone went millions of dollars into debt and was unable to repay it, but someone then not only paid their debt, but put to their account billions in the positive. This idea of imputation is at odds with the Roman Catholic teaching that justification is based on the infused righteousness of Christ, the idea that God declares people righteous because God has actually made them righteous in themselves. If this were true, then it would be true that God actually judged Christ for sin that was in Himself, but this is not the case; He only treated Christ as if He were a sinner since He was dying as our substitute. The Roman Catholic understanding confuses justification and sanctification.
NEXT TIME: Discipleship and Conclusion