Justification and Sanctification
A church historian has observed that the whole history of the Protestant movement has been a continual effort to get justification and sanctification in proper tension. Or as another has said:
"If you preach too much believe,
People live as they please;
If you preach too much law,
They go out the door."
Actually the problem can never be solved by abstract theology. There is need for good theology, but that is not enough. The period of Protestant orthodoxy that followed the Reformers, was a period that produced some very great theology and much definition and redefinition in the area of justification and sanctification. But that period produced a very dead church.
The apostle Paul was the greatest theologian, but he did not turn the world upside down by itinerating about giving theological lectures. He knew that theological discourses do not hit a man in the center of his being. He preached the moving, personal message of the cross—Christ and Him crucified. Only in the light of the cross will we ever see justification and sanctification in correct tension.
God has a government. He rules the universe with the universal law of love. Love is a combination of two principles: justice and mercy. These are the foundation pillars of God's throne. "Justice and judgment are the habitation of Thy throne: mercy and truth shall go before Thy face." Ps. 89:14. Justice means equity, impartiality and the unerring application of inexorable law. Mercy means compassion, pity and forgiveness.
When man sinned, it appeared that God was in an impossible situation. How could He deal with man in justice and mercy? Justice means to treat man as he deserves. Mercy means to treat him better than he deserves. If God forgave (which His yearning compassion demanded), would He not compromise His justice? If He executed the sinner (which the justice of His law demanded), would He not fail to satisfy mercy?
The only way God could reconcile the prerogatives of justice and mercy was by His own infinite humiliation. What a wonder to realize that the throne of God is undergirded by His eternal and infinite self-sacrifice!
In the person of His Son, the Almighty came to this world, because His love called Him that way. The Possessor of all things emptied Himself. Though rich, for our sakes He became poor that through His poverty we might be made rich. Innocent, He stooped to bear the guilt of the sinner. This Lord of all became Servant of all; this Judge of all, the judged of all.
As our substitute, He must endure the justice of the law. He must be treated as we deserve. Thus He was reckoned not worthy to be born, but in a donkey's food box. He never owned a home. He had not where to lay His head because He, our substitute, was judged unworthy of all those things we think we deserve. "He was despised, and we esteemed Him not," because we do not deserve respect.
Yet in this lowest place of a humble servant, this Prince of glory hid His divinity with our humanity and, in that humanity, maintained the purity of His divine nature. He was filled with "all the fulness of the Godhead bodily." Col. 2:9. The infinite righteousness of divine perfection was put on display in Jesus to the amazement of the heavenly universe. As our substitute, He rendered to the law and to His Father a life that equalled the broadest demands of an infinite law. This life was infinitely superior to Adam's sinless life, infinitely superior to any angel's life. On our behalf He gave to God everything that justice required in filial love, humble obedience and reverential awe. As our substitute, He received from God everything that we should receive, but are not able—all the fulness of the divine Spirit in infinite plentitude.
But even the unspeakable wonder of this active obedience was not enough. Justice demanded that the sinner die. The burden and horror of the world's sin rolled on the divine soul of the Redeemer like a great mountain to shut out from His view the light of God's sustaining presence. He sweat great drops of blood in agony beyond human computation. He was captured like a wild beast by night, hurried off and arraigned before corrupt courts (Do we even merit a decent trial?), twice before the priests, twice before Pilate, once before Herod. He was mocked, defamed, beaten and spat upon. Barabbas was declared a very saint in contrast to Him. He was called Beelzebub—King of the flies.
He was suspended between heaven and earth, for heaven forsook Him and earth disowned Him! He was crucified between two thieves because He was reckoned the greatest sinner of all—and so He was in the awful reckoning of God. As Moses lifted up the likeness of a snake in the wilderness, the Son of man was lifted up, reckoned as a venemous, poisonous snake. Thus did He become sin for us, who knew no sin (2 Cor. 5:21). Men considered no cruelty too great for Him to bear, no insult too much to heap upon Him, no shame too deep for Him to endure. The pain would not have been so great if He did not love these unfeeling men who gathered around to mock His sorrow. He loved them, and the more they hated Him, the stronger became His love for them. The mystery of human sin is that they hated Him "without a cause." John 15:25. The greater mystery is that He loved them without a cause. He suffered much because He loved much. He suffered in proportion to His love.
But beyond and above all the suffering caused by men's rejection of His love, was the awful horror of divine rejection. God hid His face. No favor could be shown Jesus; no comfort of God's presence. He must die utterly rejected. So the darkness of eternal night gathered around His suffering soul until the unspeakable bitterness and shame of human sin forced from His parched lips the awful cry, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" His were the sufferings of a God—infinite sufferings. His was the humiliation of a God. He went lower and lower until there was no lower place for Him to go. But He willingly gave His life of infinite worth to satisfy the demands of God's righteous law.
When Christ expired, justice was satisfied. Our sins were punished in Christ. He exhausted the penalty. But not only was justice satisfied; mercy was satisfied. Christ provided a pardon for the race. At the cross, divine justice provided forgiveness for the entire race. "If one died for all," says the apostle, "then were all dead." 2 Cor. 5:14. As if to say, Since the substitute has died, it is the same as if in Christ all had died, in Christ all had paid the penalty and in Christ all were forgiven and set free. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead proves that the atonement has been made, that in Christ the human race has been restored to the favor of God. Thus it was that He was raised again on account of our justification (Rom. 4:25, N.E.B., margin).
Thus did justice and mercy meet and kiss at Calvary (Ps. 85:10). Justice did not cancel out mercy, nor mercy cancel out justice. Each held its place, and the government of God was made eternally secure.
Now God could be "just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus." Rom. 3:26. Now He could be merciful, and the destroyer of him who believes not but continues in sin.
Let us now see how both justification and sanctification appear in the light of the cross.
Jesus hanging on the cross is our justification. All this it took to secure our acceptance with God. And nothing less than this inestimable price does it require to maintain our right standing in God's sight. When we see something of what it took to fully satisfy the law for us, we will shrink from our foolish ideas about Him fully satisfying the demands of the law in us. Atonement was such an awesome and infinite thing that it could only be made outside of us, in Christ. It cannot be reduced to the dimensions of a finite, intra-human experience.
In this light of the cross, we must reject all the distortions of sanctification.
1. In sanctification, our state will never reach the standing we have in justification.
2. Justification is the ultimate gift. There is nothing greater. In it God gives all. Sanctification must never be viewed as receiving something more or, worse still, something superior. The grace of justification is like the ocean. Sanctification is like the little shell holding some of the water which overwhelmingly surrounds it.
3. Justification is not just an initiating step that is superseded by "the higher life" of sanctification. The justified sinner at the foot of the cross has reached the highest point to which a man can attain.
4. Justification is always primary. As Adolf Koberle says in his In Quest for Holiness:
"In the first place justification always remains the moral basis that makes sanctification possible. . . . And in the second place, the grace that is above us always remains greater than the grace that is within us. The pardon which faith receives is something entire, perfect, rounded out, complete, which neither requires nor is capable of enlargement. On the other hand, the new creation which faith experiences through its communion with Christ always remains a fragmentary and progressive work. . . . the correct and inner succession and inner superiority of the one gift over the other must be clearly preserved."—Page ix.
" . . . justification, as the moral condition which is essential in God's sight for the
new life, must always be given the first place." —Page 96.
"This is what is so deceptive and unevangelical in every sort of teaching concerning sanctification that would attempt in some way to reach a point in which the communion with God no longer depends completely on the gift of justification. . . . " —Page 97.
5. Our standing and fellowship with God must be grounded, as Calvin says, on forgiveness of sins and not on our renewal or sanctification.
6. Imputed and imparted righteousness do not have equal merit in justification. (I am using merit in the theological sense.) Merit remains with, and inseparable from, the person of Christ. Therefore merit is wholly imputed, which is to say, the holy doing and dying of Jesus is our only merit, which is applied to us through His mediatorial activity.
7. Through sanctification we are not called upon to satisfy the demands of God's law except on a human, horizontal level. It took nothing less than Calvary to fulfill all righteousness for us. "We cannot equal the pattern. . . ."—Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 549. As the believer walks in the light of the cross, he will always consider that what Jesus has done and suffered is his only righteousness. Thus will the main focus of attention be upon Christ's experience rather than upon Christian experience. These words of Mrs. White are worth learning: "What is righteousness? —It is the satisfaction that Christ gave the law in our behalf." —Review and Herald, Aug. 21, 1894.
Will the teaching of full acceptance through what Jesus has already done lead people to say, "Christ has done it all; there is no need for me to do anything"? Not if the cross is truly presented. Consider:
1. Grace is free. It costs us nothing, but it has cost God everything. We do not believe the sinner can reach out with one hand to accept the pardon in the wounds of Jesus Christ, and at the same time smite Him with the fist of sin with the other hand. And can the repentant sinner who sings,
"O depth of mercy, how can it be,
The gate was left ajar for me"
go out and carouse upon God's merciful reckoning? Mary loved Jesus much because she was forgiven much. Perhaps Martha thought she needed some pep talks on sanctification, but the soul who looks to Christ's doing and dying cannot be sluggish in doing the Lord's will. Someone has well said, "Luther's theology rests primarily on thankful certainty, and out of it flows the duty of keeping the commandments."
2. Yet we cannot say that sanctification merely rests on what one writer has called "the slender thread of thankfulness." Since the flesh is still with us, we need also to be motivated by obligation, a trembling at God's Word and a fear of His displeasure. As the view of God's mercy in the light of the cross shall warm our hearts for service, so the view of the terrible justice of God shall warn our hearts to service. The cross tells us of God's abhorrence of evil. He will not connive at sin. He who spared not His own Son will not spare him who looks upon the call to holy living with indifference. And because Christ died and rose for all, there shall be a judgment for all (Acts 17:31). Not just the wicked will be judged, but as Jesus and the apostles plainly teach, the Lord will call His servants to account (Luke 19:11-26; Matt. 16:24-27; Matt. 25:32; 12:36; 22:11; 1 Cor. 4:4; 3:13; 6:9; etc.). As a follower of Luther's message has said:
"All must appear before the judgment seat of Christ to receive the final judgment on this earthly life. Whoever in the earthly congregation continues to serve evil shall not inherit the Kingdom. . . . when the idea of judgment on the entire earthly attitude of the one who is justified has been maintained, there will be no room for the ancient antinomian misunderstanding which has always accompanied Paulinism and Lutheranism like a dark shadow. . . . If even the justified sinner must face the judgment it is no longer a matter of indifference as to the degree in which he has allowed himself to be purified by the Spirit from the defilement and evil of the flesh." —Adolf Koberle, Quest for Holiness, p. 166.
Thus does the mercy of God cause us to say, "Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all." And the justice of God prevents us from saying, "Let us continue in sin, that grace may abound."