When the sixteenth-century Reformers uncovered the gospel from underneath the traditions of the Catholic Church, they did not find a different set of words; they found the same words with a different set of meanings. Justification, faith, grace, salvation, and righteousness had all made an appearance in the Church's gospel before the Reformation. The Church believed sinners were justified by faith and salvation came by the grace of God, which, to an onlooker, wasn’t much different than the Reformers' gospel. Underneath the words, however, there was.
When the Catholic Church taught justification by faith, they took their definition from Romans 5:5, where God's love is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. By faith, they taught, the Holy Spirit makes us more lovely, making us more justified. The inherent problem their teaching created was a justification of works masked by faith. So when the Church taught justification by faith, they meant the progress of becoming just by becoming lovely. This tinted their understanding of justification, causing scholars and priests to assume this definition of faith wherever justification was found in Scripture—that is, if they could read the Latin Bible.
Today, you and I can read the plain teaching the New Testament, and we observe the glaring contrast of faith in Christ with the works of the law.
For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. (Romans 3:28)
Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. (Galatians 2:16)
The Reformers believed this to be the foundation of the gospel upon which the church rests—and it is. If we get justification wrong, we end up with an entirely different religion. We end up with a religion based on feelings, works, knowledge, and every other thing rather than Christ. So, this is where we must start.
A problem arises when we compare these writings of Paul to the words of James, "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:24). It seems James and Paul are at difference with each other, and many have made them quarrel. However, the context in which James writes proves he speaks of justification differently than Paul. Where Paul speaks about the act of justification, James addresses the mode of justification in detail. James deals with those who claim they are justified, but live sinfully: “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14). James doesn’t do away with justification by faith, but rather reinforces it by justifying the faith which justifies the sinner. Justification, according to James, only comes about by genuine faith, not some empty claim.
The reason I have taken the time to explore justification is that without understanding justification as coming by grace through faith in Christ, we enter the fast track to misunderstanding sanctification. One of the greatest misunderstandings of sanctification is that it somehow determines or helps our justification. This is a fear many pastors have, and it is practical. They fear their people will not be motivated to maturity and obedience if obedience doesn’t count for anything in salvation.
This fear is short-sighted, however. It does not account for the whole picture of salvation nor the Christian life. Paul doesn’t give us one of the most scandalous gospel statements in Scripture—“Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more”—without addressing those who would use it as a licence to sin. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2). Justification doesn’t mean that God saves us to leave us alone, but “conforms us into the image of His son,” not simply justifying us, but sanctifying us also (Romans 8:29-30). In another place, Paul tells us that Christ became our entire salvation in becoming our “righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). In Christ, we find full salvation: justification by genuine faith, which is shown by our works. Good works (obedience to the moral law) are necessary, but only a regenerated heart, fueled by the gracious power of God can perform such in a manner pleasing to God.
Sanctification, apart from justification, is dead religiosity. Justification apart from sanctification is a fraud. In proper order, both are necessary for the Christian life; justification must precede and cause sanctification to verify itself and produce genuine Christianity. If we are to understand and apply sanctification properly, we must begin here with a correct and orderly understanding of our justification.