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.

All the saints of God are equally righteous in Christ. But sanctification admits degrees.
How to Tell

If the first difficulty is that justification and sanctification are often confused, the second is that Christians often judge sanctification by unbiblical standards. Inaccurate marks of sanctification include the following:

  • Worldly accomplishments: Starting your own business, earning a medical degree, or running a legal firm are not accurate measures of personal holiness. Surviving extreme suffering does not create holiness. Holiness can’t be charted by GPA or resume.
  • Age and gender: A 16-year-old girl may be vastly more spiritually mature than a 75-year-old man.
  • Talk about religion: How much someone speaks about religious topics or theology is not an accurate marker of personal holiness.
  • Raw Bible knowledge: Even an encyclopedic knowledge of Bible facts is not a reliable metric for sanctification.

This list is brief and incomplete. But considering it and how it might be used to judge sanctification in a local congregation shows how wildly inaccurate Christians can be in assessing the holiness of others or themselves. Even worse, consider what might happen to a church that thinks of the list above as an accurate metric for judging the kind of spiritual maturity needed to be an elder or deacon.

The Bible offers a different way of determining growth in sanctification. Some of the things to look for in those who are growing in godliness are the following:

  • Fruits of the Spirit: The Holy Spirit produces specific, supernatural fruit in Christians in the process of sanctification (Gal. 5:22–23).
  • Use of the means of grace: Those who are growing in godliness will make use of and enjoy Bible study, prayer, the sacraments, and participation in a local church.
  • Repentance: Those who are growing in grace will also grow in humility and repentance as God humbles them for sin and encourages them with the gospel (2 Cor. 7:9–10).
  • Demographic holiness: The Bible says that holiness will run in different channels for Christians based on their age, gender, and responsibilities (Titus 2; 1 Peter 2:12–3:7).
  • Hatred of sin: Growth in holiness always involves a growing hatred for sin (Rom. 8:12–13).
  • Love for and obedience to Christ: It isn’t love for morality or yourself as a holy person that marks the Christian who is growing in godliness. Instead, it is a growing love for Jesus and a desire to obey Him in all things, in every area of life (1 John 5:1–5).

Like the first list, this second list is brief and incomplete. The Bible’s picture of sanctification in a believer is complex and beautiful but also distinct and unmistakable. Charting holiness in yourself (Phil. 2:12) and in others (Heb. 3:12–14) is biblical and essential and implies a set of principles and priorities for a local church. The next post in this series will take up these principles and priorities.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on October 20, 2017.

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