Comparing Justification and Sanctification

One hears the terms justification and sanctification a lot in the Christian world. But often, these are used interchangeably. I used to wonder what these meant. To help the reader, we will compare justification and sanctification. First, we will consider the meaning of each word. Second, we will investigate who performs each act, and how. Lastly, we will make actual comparisons between the two terms, using what we have learned.

Merriam-Webster’s WWWebster Dictionary defines ‘sanctification’ as “an act of sanctifying;” “the state of being sanctified;” and “the state of growing in divine grace as a result of Christian commitment after baptism or conversion.” Sanctify is defined thusly: “to set apart to a sacred purpose or to religious use: consecrate;”  “to free from sin: purify;” “to impart or impute sacredness, inviolability, or respect to; to give moral or social sanction to;” and “to make productive of holiness or piety.”  In one sense, sanctification is an individual act that occurs only once – in this case, the definition used for sanctify is ‘set aside.’ This idea is also one which theologians consider ‘positional.’ That is to say, once someone is in the state of being sanctified, his position is one of sanctification.  All believers in Christ are sanctified at the moment of regeneration, regardless of their spiritual attainments, as can be seen in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Corinthians 1:2 where believers are called saints – holy ones (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary, 1985, p. 546). The fact that sanctification is associated with consecration alludes to the idea of being consecrated TO something – which in this case is God (Thiessen, 1979, p. 287). As Herbert Lockyer writes on page 217 in his All the Doctrines of the Bible, “Biblical sanctification, then, is the work of God whereby we are separated from the reign of sin unto God for His service.” This is seen in verse after verse in the Holy Bible, but is perhaps best seen in 1 Cor 6:11.  In 1 Thes 4:3-10, we see the idea of being called to live lives of moral goodness or spiritual worth – which is to say that once people are formally set apart for God, they are called to live lives of purity (Erickson, 1985, p. 968). Romans 12:2 shows this growth in moral goodness is not imputed, but is learned and grows through reading and following the Word of God (Vine, 1985, p. 545). Indeed, in 1 Timothy 6:11, we see that it is something to be pursued. This growth is a continual process where one’s degree of sanctification is continually increasing in that one continues to grow more Christ-like and will only be complete when Jesus Christ returns (2 Peter 1:5-8, Philippians 1:6). Easton’s Bible Dictionary explains that sanctification “is the work of the Holy Spirit bringing the whole nature more and more under the influences of the new gracious principles implanted in the soul in regeneration. In other words, sanctification is the carrying on to perfection the work begun in regeneration, and it extends to the whole.” It is God who puts a new heart and spirit in us (Ezekiel 36:26-27). It is God who works within us to desire to do GOd’s will and to actually do it (Philippians 2:13). Yet, we have a responsibilty to allow God to work in us to live more and more holy lives (Ephesians 4:20-5:7; Hebrews 12:14; 2 Peter 1:5-11; 2 Peter 3:10-15). Sanctification grows as our knowledge and faith grows (Eph 4:15, Col 1:10, 2 Pet 1:5-8, 2 Pet 3:18).  While sanctification increases, our positional sanctification can not be changed (1 Corinthians 6:11, 1 John 2:27, 1 John 3:9). Having reviewed sanctification, we will now focus on justification.

Easton’s Bible Dictionary defines justification as “the judicial act of God, by which he pardons all the sins of those who believe in Christ, and accounts, accepts, and treats them as righteous in the eye of the law, i.e., as conformed to all its demands.  In addition to the pardon of sin, justification declares that all the claims of the law are satisfied in respect of the justified. It is the act of a judge and not of a sovereign. It proceeds on the imputing or crediting to the believer by God himself of the perfect righteousness, active and passive, of his Representative and Surety, Jesus Christ. Justification is not the forgiveness of a man without righteousness, but a declaration that he possesses a righteousness which perfectly and for ever satisfies the law, namely, Christ’s righteousness.”  Simply put, justification does not make one righteous, but announces the righteousness of someone who is already righteous (Ryrie, 1997, p. 300; Thiessen, 1979 p. 275).  We see in Acts 13:38-39, that “…through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the Law of Moses.” Paul wrote in Galatians 2:16, “[K]now that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.” So we see that justification is received through faith in Christ.

Now that we have a general understanding of each term, let us look further at each, comparing one to the other. Romans 3:24 shows that justification is a gift from the grace of God. Galatians 1:15 shows that sanctification, in terms of positional sanctification, is also by the grace of God. However, the process of sanctification whereby we grow to become more Christ-like is through knowledge and perseverance of faith, as seen in 1 Timothy 4:7-16, Ephesians 4:13, Hebrews 10:36-39. We know from Romans 3:22-28 that we are justified by faith in Christ. The same can be said for our sanctification, as seen in Acts 26:18. In fact, we also see from 1 Corinthians 6:11, that we are both justified and sanctified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit.  While justification is instantaneous, sanctification is both complete at the time of belief and a continuous process. Just as one is either justified or not, so too is one either sanctified or not, but sanctification also entails degree.  One can become more sanctified, but one can not become more justified, meaning one is either found guilty of sin or not.  Justification is an objective work, in that it occurs outside of us, but sanctification is subjective, in that it is worked within us.  That is to say, justification is a declarative matter, while sanctification is a transformation of one’s character and condition. We see from 1 Thessalonians 5:23 that sanctification is done by God, and as such, is supernatural. Romans 3:30 shows us that justification is also accomplished by God, and supernatural by definition. Both sanctification and justification come through faith in Christ by the Holy Spirit, as we see from 1 Corinthians 6:11.  The effect of justification is that God declares the believer free from the penalty of sin, while the effect of sanctification is that the believer is set aside for God and made to grow more Christ-like, as seen from Gal 3:13, 1 Cor 1:2, and 1 Thes 4:7 . (Erickson, 1985, p. 969; Lockyer, 1964, p. 219)

In short, justification and sanctification have many similarities, including the source, subject, and agent. The main differences are the effect, the time it takes until each one is complete, and the means. But regardless of the similarities, perhaps the most important aspect of both is that they are gifts from God – for without God sending His Son to be our Redeemer, granting us faith, and working through His Holy Spirit, there would be neither justification, nor sanctification.

Comparing Justification and Sanctification

Justification Sanctification
Source God (Rom 3:30) God (1 Thes 5:23)
Subject Believer in Christ (Rom 4:11) Believer in Christ (2 Thes 2:13)
Agent the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:11) the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:11)
Means Faith in Christ (1 Cor 6:11)
  1. Faith in Christ (1 Cor 6:11)
  2. Increasing Knowledge and Perseverance (1 Tim 4:7-16, Eph 4:13, Heb 10:36-39)
Effect Declaration of believer’s righteousness and freedom from penalty of sin. (Gal 3:13)
  1. Separation of believer from sin and to God. (1 Cor 1:2)
  2. Degree of believer’s likeness to Christ. (1 Thes 4:7)
Duration of Effect Everlasting (Rom 6:10) Everlasting (Heb 10:10)
Time to Completion Instantaneous (Acts 13:39)
  1. Instantaneous (1 Cor 6:11)
  2. Lifetime (Eph 4:13, 2 Pet 1:5-8 )

Works Cited

Easton, M.G. (1897). Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition. [available on-line 6/21/08] Available:

Erickson, M.J. (1985). Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.

Lockyer, H. (1964). All the Doctrines of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Ryrie, C. C. (1997). Basic Theology. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Victor Publishing.

Thiessen, H. C. (1979). Lectures in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Vine, W.E., Unger, M.F., White, W. (1985). Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers.


3 Responses

  1. […] Our positional sanctification comes from God and our desire to be holy comes from God (see Yet we have our responsibility in being […]

  2. […] This both justifies us and sanctifies us – declares us righteous (with the righteousness of Christ) and separates us from the world for God ( […]

  3. […] Comparing Justification and Sanctification for additional inforation concerning justification. Possibly related posts: (automatically […]

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