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  • Writer's picturePresbyterian Reformed Church

Larger Catechism 77: “Wherein Do Justification and Sanctification Differ?” I Cor. 1: 30-

The following sermon was preached by Dr. William Young at East Greenwich, RI on December 6, 1992.

As we have been endeavoring to set forth the truth that God has revealed in his word, and that is summarized in our standards, and in particular, the Larger Catechism, in Questions 70 to 73 in that Catechism, we have the treatment of the truth of justification, and in connection with that, of faith. And then, in the Larger Catechism Questions 75 and 76, we have sanctification, and in connection with that, repentance. Now we turn to Question 77, which lists the differences, at least some of the differences, between justification and sanctification. And this answer reads, “Although sanctification be inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, in that God in justification imputeth the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification his Spirit infuseth grace, and enableth to the exercise thereof; in the former, sin is pardoned; in the other, it is subdued: the one doth equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation; the other is neither equal in all, nor in this life perfect in any, but growing up to perfection.”

Now the text that I have announced in I Corinthians 1:30, speaks of Christ as our righteousness, as well as our sanctification, our wisdom, and redemption. I am quite content to take this enumeration as we have it in our Bibles: wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. One may think of wisdom, righteousness, and sanctification as forming a kind of trinity, so to speak, corresponding to Christ’s three offices of prophet, of a priest, and of a king, and then redemption as being comprehensive, as being all-inclusive, and as indicating also the final fulfillment of the work of Christ in the perfection of his people in these characters of wisdom, righteousness, and sanctification. Now righteousness that is mentioned here surely refers to that act of God which the Scripture speaks of as justification, so that we have in this text the combination and the distinction between justification and sanctification.

We may, then, following our Larger Catechism, after mentioning the connection of justification and sanctification, we may then turn to consider the differences between justification and sanctification. And we might summarize this under three heads. First, we have Christ for us in justification and Christ in us in sanctification. Secondly, we have sin pardoned in justification, and sin subdued in sanctification. And thirdly, justification is instantaneous and complete, while sanctification is gradual and is imperfect in this life.

Now first, a word about the union of justification and sanctification. The Larger Catechism is concerned here to emphasize the differences between justification and sanctification, but in emphasizing the important differences between the two, the Larger Catechism does not intend to deny that there is an inseparable connection between them. And that connection is intimated in the opening clause, “Although sanctification be inseparably joined with justification…” We may use as a figure that comes from Greek mythology of the two rocks, Scylla and Charybdis, and the narrow strait in between the two. The helmsman had to be extremely cautious in making the passage, lest on the one hand he hit against the one rock, or on the other hand, by seeking to escape the one, he shatter the vessel upon the other. And so it is, you may say, with justification and sanctification, that the Christian may want to avoid error on the one side and fall into error on the other side, while the way which leads to a happy end is one in which both these rocks are avoided. Now you may say the two rocks here stand for legalism on the one hand and antinomianism on the other hand. There is the fatal error of supposing that one can be saved by one’s own works, or in a more modified form that one hears from all too many pulpits, that one might be saved by one’s good character. This is the error of legalism. And on the other hand, the error of antinomianism, is one which many who profess to be evangelical have really shattered their whole course upon, supposing that the Christian no longer has anything to do with the law, and that the moral law as such is no longer a rule of life for the believer, being justified by faith alone and not saved by his works. Well, we know that there are these two errors, both of which are to be avoided. And so the Scripture ever combines, on the one hand, the free pardon of sin by the grace of God in Christ, and on the other, the necessity of the renewed and justified believer to lead a holy life.

Just think of a few passages of Scripture. You think of the 32nd Psalm and the blessedness there of the man whose sins are forgiven, the man to whom God does not impute sin, but then the words are added, “In whose heart there is no guile.” To suppose that one can enjoy that blessedness of free justification when there is guile, when there is hypocrisy or deceitfulness reigning in the soul, is simply delusion. And so also, we have been singing in the 85th Psalm of the free pardon and forgiveness of sins on the part of the Lord and the way in which the Most High is pleased to speak peace unto his saints. But the word of warning is given there in verse 8b, “…but let them not turn again to folly.” And likewise, we have the example given by our Savior when he had declared his gracious word of pardon to the sinful woman, to give her the warning to sin no more. And we may think also of the man who was healed at the pool of Bethesda in John, the fifth chapter, where the Lord, after extending his hand of healing gave the word of warning to the man to sin no more lest a worst thing should befall him. And likewise at the opening of Romans 8 we have the gracious and triumphant word that there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. But we have the further qualification made that they are those that walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. And let no one try to escape this by making an appeal to the omission of those words in Romans 8:1 in certain of the Greek manuscripts, because even if those manuscripts were correct, which I doubt very much, even if that were the case, in the subsequent verses of the 8th of Romans, it’s again reiterated that those who are justified by faith are also those who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. To suppose that one’s sins are pardoned while one goes on living an unholy life is to turn grace into lasciviousness. While on the other hand, to imagine that one’s obedience and one’s good works give a title to heaven, is to be ignorant of God’s righteousness and to go about to establish one’s own righteousness.

Now while this distinction of justification and sanctification holds good, and along with that distinction there is above all this union of justification and sanctification, the fact that the two are inseparable from one another, we speak of course in the case of adults, not in the mysterious case of infants, who surely also must be justified, and we must be regenerated, there is at least that much of sanctification in the case of the infant. But the process of sanctification as we know it by the word and spirit of God in the adult cannot be of course ascribed to the infant. But speaking of the adult, we cannot have a separation of justification and sanctification. But while this is stressed, at the same time we must be careful to avoid the error that confuses law and grace. This error that confuses justification and sanctification is a widespread error. It’s not only an official error sanctioned by the Council of Trent in the Roman Catholic Church, and an error which unhappily seems to have been more or less involved in even some of the best men in the period between the time of the apostles and the time of the Reformation. While the error of the Middle Ages and of the church of Rome in confusing justification and sanctification is certainly to be avoided, let us not forget that under the name of Protestantism all too often the same error has in fact recurred. And while there may be more or less singular cases among the Reformed divines like the case of Baxter, in which one sees it, we know that there have been large bodies, like the Church of England, in which such a confusion has to a very large extent been prevalent. Not among the godly evangelical men like John Newton in the Church of England, but among the bishops and among many of the subordinate clergy in the Church of England there has been this similar confusion of justification and sanctification. And for this reason, among others, the Westminster Divines have found it necessary to lay the stress that they do in this answer to the Larger Catechism in the differences between justification and sanctification.

First of all, we have the distinction that might be summed up by saying on the one hand that “Christ for us in justification,” and on the other hand, “Christ in us in sanctification.” In justification, we rest on Christ’s perfect obedience and his satisfaction of the Father’s justice. And what he has done for us, is not only for our benefit, but it is in our place. Often, when we speak of Christ dying for us, there is a confusion, and liberals, especially, are fond of saying that all this means is that in some way or other we are benefited by the life, and especially the death of Christ, and that just in this sense, Christ is for us. It’s undoubtedly true and it’s a precious truth that it’s for the benefit of those for whom the Savior died, that he has performed his saving work. That’s no doubt a great truth. But the fundamental meaning of saying Christ is for us is that Christ has stood in our room and in our stead. And it is in the room and in the stead of those who have disobeyed the holy law of God that Christ has performed the work of perfect obedience. And this is fundamental to his bringing in of righteousness. And above all is that Christ has stood in the room and in the stead of the guilty sinner, in paying the penalty that the sinner deserves to pay in suffering, not only physical death, but spiritual and eternal death.

Now when we speak of Christ for us, we are speaking of that work which he has performed. It’s not something that we perform, and it’s not something that even the Lord performs within us. The righteousness of Christ in his obedience and in his sufferings is something that is entirely outside of us. And it is that righteousness which is entirely outside of us that is imputed in the righteous judgment of God to believers. And this is what is meant by saying that the Christian is justified by faith and by faith alone.

Now while we lay such emphasis upon Christ for us, upon justification by faith, in setting forth the truth of the gospel, at the same time we also maintain the Spirit’s work of sanctification. And here we have what may be summarized as saying, this is Christ in us. The Spirit’s work of sanctification is a change that is performed within us. It is a change that begins in the new birth. In justification, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer who is ungodly in himself. In sanctification, it is the righteousness that is prescribed in the law of God that is infused by the Holy Spirit. The word “infused” has in it a kind of picture, a picture of pouring. And the Spirit’s being infused within the soul, this infusing grace within the soul, is treated as being analogous to the pouring of a liquid from a vessel. And it is that same Spirit that enables the believer to exercise in good works the grace that is infused. We’re not to suppose that the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the soul in the new birth, but then after that the regenerated person, the Christian who has been born again, to think that he can in his own strength perform the works that are commanded in the law. This is a great delusion. The work of the Holy Spirit is something that has to go on continually, and the grace that the Holy Spirit has first infused in the new birth is a grace that will have to be exercised as that Spirit enables the believer to walk in the ways that the Lord has ordained within his word.

Well, we have the connection and the distinction of justification and sanctification in such passages as in I Corinthians 6:11. The apostle speaks of those who have been in many cases been very deeply involved in gross sins, but he says that blessed word, “And such were some of you.” And then he goes on to state, “…but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.” You have both sanctification and justification mentioned together. The fact that sanctification is mentioned first isn’t reason here for jumping to the conclusion that sanctification takes place before justification. It’s certainly not the case that a person has to be holy before that person can look to the Lord Jesus Christ in saving faith. Holiness is the gift of God in Christ. And unless one is united to the Lord Jesus Christ, unless one is a believer in him, there is no possibility of deriving holiness from him. So that the work of sanctification, in the sense in which we are speaking of it, must follow upon justification. This is fundamental. I know there is a question as to whether perhaps a special meaning is given to “sanctified” here in I Corinthians 6:11, and a special reference more or less amounts to the new birth, but in the ordinary sense of the term, certainly we may say that sanctification must accompany and follow justification. And that this is the character of those, who have by the grace of God been washed.

Now we have the fundamental character of justification very clearly in the 4th chapter of Romans, in the 6th verse, “Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works”. And we have in the 32nd Psalm at verses 1-2 the words, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.” While at the same time, we have the promise of sanctification in that blessed promise in the covenant of grace set forth in the 36th of Ezekiel, the 27th verse, “And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.” Now that’s sanctification. And so, we see the fundamental difference between justification and sanctification.

In the second place, we may say that in justification, sin is pardoned, while in sanctification, sin is subdued. Now the sinner who is convinced of sin, and who in that conviction has been brought in his conscience to feel something of the wrath and of the judgment of God against sin, the convicted sinner will prize pardon above all things and it will be indeed a blessing above all others, as we have just seen it in the 32nd Psalm at the beginning. But now after the sinner is justified, he becomes concerned about the fact that sin still dwells within him, and the great interest of the justified sinner is with that sin that is still there as his great grief and burden, with that sin which should be subdued. Now this is natural, this is important, and yet there is a snare that appears in the way of the Christian’s pathway at this point. And the snare is this: the Christian is tempted to think, “Well, once upon a time, I have been converted. And when I was converted from the terrible ways of sin and of destruction, and turned to the way of righteousness by the Lord, when this took place I was freely justified. And this justification, the pardon of my sins, this is something that has taken place, back at that time in the past, and now I have no more concern really about my justification. I have only the concern that I should be enabled to walk in a righteous and in a holy way according to the law of God.”

Now you see the subtlety of this. One admits the free grace and mercy of God in justification. One recognizes that the pardon of sin is entirely of God’s grace. But then when it comes to sanctification, one indeed starts with the truth that in sanctification there is an increasing conformity to the holy law of God. One starts with that truth, but one separates it from the truth of justification, and really falls back into a covenant of works. The Christian adopts at least a practical attitude when he falls into this snare, that his sanctification is a work that he is to perform, really and basically in his own strength. He believes that he will now become holier and holier in a gradual way by the performance of the deeds of the law. This is, I fear, a very widespread evil that one finds among Christians who may profess doctrinal truths both with regard to justification and sanctification. The true Christian must be brought to realize that justification is not merely a fact of the past, but that the present interest he rightly has in his sanctification is an interest never to be separated from the fundamental truth of justification. What will no doubt take place when one falls into this kind of a mistake, is that the Lord may see fit to permit what is viewed as “subdued” sin to break out. This was the case with David, when he fell into the fearful sins of adultery and murder and of trying to cover up his adultery, and when Peter, who had the great confidence in his own strength that he would be faithful to the Lord, nonetheless denied the Lord three times before the cock crew. Well, the Lord is pleased to permit his people to fall into such sins in order that the backsliding Christian might again have recourse to Christ and to his righteousness as the only ground of his hope.

Now the Christian can walk by or resist sin only as the indwelling Spirit enables, through the exercise of the graces that have been conferred. That must ever be remembered. Sin must be confessed, and pardon must be renewed. In this way he is taught more deeply the truth of Romans 3:24-25, that sins are forgiven as a result of the propitiation that Christ has once offered in the shedding of his blood, as well as the truth of Romans 6:6 and 14, that sin will not have dominion over him because he is not under the law, but under grace. Let us ever remember, that while sin is subdued in sanctification, it is not eradicated in this life. Do not think that it is otherwise. Sparks which still lay underneath the ashes, when the fire has gone down, may suddenly burst forth into a new flame. And so, a sudden temptation may lead to the breaking forth of the old sin that has supposedly been destroyed. Oh, how important it is, to avoid occasions of sin, as well as to avoid sin itself! The instructed Christian will realize that there are even things which in themselves are quite innocent, which are not forbidden by the word of God and in which other believers might engage in a perfectly lawful fashion, but which are for the person in question occasions of stumbling, occasions of falling into sin. And these good things–as well as the evils of sin itself–these good things, which are for an individual occasions of sin, will be scrupulously avoided by him.

Now, finally, justification is instantaneous and it is equally complete in all who are justified, while sanctification is gradual, and it is not equal in all, but it is imperfect in this life. No Christian is more or less justified than another. But all are justified from all things at the moment that they believe. So we have the word of Acts 13:39, “And by him (that is by Christ) all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.” And likewise we have the triumphant words of Romans 8:33-34, “Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth,” And “Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again…”, and so forth. Who shall lay anything–anything whatsoever, to the charge of God’s elect? Now here’s justification: that nothing, nothing, no sin whatever, however great, or however it is condemned in the law of God, no sin whatever can be laid to the charge of one who is justified. And this shows that justification is not something that takes place as a process in a gradual way, but it’s something that is indeed an act of God pronounced once and for all. Now sanctification is very different. Sanctification varies in different believers. All believers are being sanctified. But some are more so than others. You may say justification is an act performed once and for all, while sanctification is a work and it admits of such of degrees.

In the first Epistle of John 2:12-14, we have a distinction made between little children and fathers and young men, and distinct characteristics are ascribed to each of these three classes of Christians. So also, in the Epistle to the Hebrews 5:12-14, we read that some are babes and are in need of milk, but others are of full age and strong meat belongs unto them. So that we see that there are these differences in Christians. I don’t say that Christians are to be so easily divided up into one group or another group of Christians. We know that a good deal of self-righteousness can accompany divisions of that sort. But there are divisions of degree, certainly, in the sanctification of the children of God. Some of the Lord’s people have been brought through experiences that have not been the lot of others, and have been thus directed in the Lord’s ways and have obtained a certain maturity in the things of God. And when that is the case, let us never forget that any gifts of the Lord in these matters are always accompanied with the grace of humility. When you have a select circle of Christians that look upon themselves as being holier than their fellow-Christians, and are puffed up with pride, this is not a sign of a genuine work of grace on the part of the Lord with his own. The true Christian has the promise that he shall never fall into condemnation, that blessed promise that we have in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus…” And that’s not just that the Christian is not condemned at that moment and might later on fall away and fall under condemnation. No, it is rather that the sentence has been pronounced, and we know from Romans 11:29 that, “the gifts and calling of God are without repentance”. That’s a blessed promise. Always remember that that promise in Romans 8:1 follows the powerful picture of the conflict of sin and grace in the Christian that we have in the 7th chapter of the Epistle to the Romans.

Justification delivers from the punishment pronounced by a just judge, while sanctification includes the chastisement administered by a kind father. The Larger Catechism doesn’t emphasize that particular point, but it’s a point that’s worthy of mentioning. We sometimes speak loosely, sometimes even good men have spoken loosely, of God’s punishing his people because of their sins. And what may be the case with regard to God’s historical dealing with ancient Israel, of course, is one story. But when we speak of believers, of those who God has been pleased to justify, it is more accurate to say that God no longer “punishes” that Christian who has backslidden, who has sinned against him. The condemnation of the holy judge against sin has once and for all been eliminated in the justification of the sinner. But the sin that is still to be found in the justified believer, who is found walking in ways contrary to the holy law of God, he is “chastised”, even as a kind father will administer chastisement to a disobedient child. So also, the child of God who is disobedient, who is found not walking according to the true profession that he has made of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and of repentance unto life, for this one the chastisement of the Lord is a kind and a fatherly chastisement. And that fatherly chastisement is a part of the work of sanctification. It’s a part of the way in which the Lord is pleased to make those whom he has justified to be upright in character and in conduct.

Now there’s no ground in the sanctification of the child of God for the pardon of sin. The only ground for the forgiveness of sin is the finished work of Christ. It is the precious blood of Christ that cleanses from all unrighteousness as we have written to Christians in I John 1:9. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This isn’t a word to unbelievers. There’s a different promise that is made, that is proclaimed, to unbelievers with respect to the justification of those who believe in Christ. But this is a daily pardon now for sins that are still committed by a true child of God. But notice that the ground, the reason why God pardons isn’t because the Christian confesses the sins that he may have committed, and begs for pardon. It’s only the blood of Christ that provides the ground or the basis even for the pardon of the sin of a Christian which comes in some ways under this work of sanctification.

Well, let us sum up the whole matter. We must distinguish, but we must not separate justification and sanctification. The two belong together. Let our prayer be that verse of Augustus Toplady,

“Let the water and the blood

From thy wounded side that flowed,

Be of sin the double cure,

Cleanse me from its guilt and power.”

May the Lord be pleased to grant his blessing and enable us to call upon his name.

This edition of the text combines the transcription of a recorded audio together with Dr. Young’s hand written sermon notes. Some editing was done for ease of publishing. Use of underlining and italics are the editor’s.

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