It is a typical Sunday—the parking lot, the stroll up to the church doors, the usual people who arrive at the same time you usually do. As you walk in, you see two ushers just inside the door with a basket of glasses, handing out a pair to each person. It reminds you of attending a 3-D movie and the requisite glasses involved. Each pair of glasses has looped over one of the arms a small piece of paper, apparently the directions for proper use. While other people fill the sanctuary around you, you sit down, take the small piece of paper with directions, and begin to read:
These are holiness glasses. When you put them on, they will change the way you see others. Everyone you look at through these glasses will glow dimmer or brighter based on their relative level of personal holiness. Disclaimer: These glasses will not make you more holy; they may do the opposite. They will not reveal the holiness of the operator. These glasses are for diagnostic purposes only.
Justification and Sanctification
The Protestant Reformation recovered the important distinction between justification and sanctification. You see the emphasis on clearly describing each of these doctrines, their similarities, and differences, scattered throughout the confessional literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Reformers had seen firsthand the spiritual harm done to individuals and entire churches who had harbored confusion on these crucial biblical truths.
Justification, they taught, is the declarative act of God in which He pardons, accepts, and accounts as righteous the sinners He chooses, not for any work they have done but solely on the basis of the obedience and satisfaction of Jesus Christ on their behalf. This righteousness God imputes to them—He puts it on their record—and it is received by faith alone (Westminster Larger Catechism 70). Summarizing the Bible’s teaching on how God saves sinners, the Reformers revived the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Sanctification, they taught, is the ongoing work of God in those who have been saved by faith. In sanctification, the Holy Spirit applies the death and resurrection of Jesus to them, progressively renewing them after the image of God (WLC 75). They summarized this process by two simultaneous processes: mortification (progressive death to sin) and vivification (progressive life to God through the Holy Spirit). Summing up the Bible’s teaching on the renovating work of the Holy Spirit, the Reformation revived the doctrine of sanctification—the Christian’s personal growth in holiness.
I can’t overemphasize the importance of charting the distinctions between these two rich doctrines. You will be hard-pressed to find a better description of the differences than the one given in question and answer 77 of the Westminster Larger Catechism. That question and answer pull together two fundamental realities for any group of Christians. First, all Christians are equally justified before God, with zero gradation in righteousness between them, since all Christians are righteous before God based on the same imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. Second, sanctification differs in all Christians, based on God’s purposes and plan for the sanctification of each Christian. When it comes to sanctification, no two Christians are alike.
Sanctification in a Congregation
With this biblical distinction between justification and sanctification in mind, you reach into your lap, pick up the holiness glasses, and put them on. As you look at the people filling the sanctuary, you find that the glasses cause each to glow, almost as if the light came from within each person, but each to a greater or lesser degree. Some are barely visible, ghostly silver. Others are radiantly bright, not with a brightness that makes you look away but with one that draws your gaze. And as you read in the disclaimer, the glasses don’t show you your own level of holiness, just that of others.
Holiness glasses are a fictional and imperfect illustration at best. But consider for a moment the idea behind them. Based on the biblical differences between justification and sanctification, there is, on any given Sunday and in any given congregation, a holiest Christian and a least-holy Christian. This isn’t a statement about salvation or justification before God. There is not a least-saved or most-saved person. All the saints of God are equally righteous in Christ. But sanctification admits degrees.