The Art of Making Distinctions – Justification/Sanctification

Lent 1 Midweek
Romans 3:21-31
March 8, 2017
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO


In the name of + Jesus.

Last week we made a distinction concerning God’s Word in the Law and the Gospel. This week we will make a distinction concerning His work of justification and sanctification. These two terms do not encompass the entire work of God, such as creation, but they are God’s particular work for sinners. Yet, they are not unrealated. Justification means “making righteous”; sanctification means “making holy.” And both of them are God’s Work.

God’s Work Is To Make You Right, and Being Right, You Are Also Made Holy


To justify is to make righteous, that is, to make right. Like when you choose “left-justified” on your word processor, all the text is lined up straight on the left side, at right angles with the text. To be justified is to be made right. But right with what? God makes you right with Himself, and by extension, also the universe and everything. And this justification is accomplished by the cross of Jesus Christ.

The fact that God makes us right implies that we are not right to begin with. We are crooked. We are wrong. But in what way? It’s not geometric—we still stand upright unlike any other creature. It’s a spiritual crookedness that afflicts us. Our relationship with God as creature to Creator is fractured and broken and skewed on account of sin. Everyone born in the natural way is born with sin. We lack fear of God, love for God, trust in God. We are pointed every which way except toward God. Our orientation is bent inward until it snaps like a dry twig.

So no man seeks God, writes St. Paul. Not that no one is religious or believes in a god; we are by nature religious beings. Sin doesn’t get rid of our inherent religiosity. But because of sin, we seek gods that are not true, whether they’re hand-carved idols, or impersonal gods like money or fame. But we cannot seek the true God because we are unjustified—we are never pointed in His direction. And despite our best efforts at religion, God remains hidden to the unjust, because every religious course we may chart will pass Him by.

Justification can never be our work. Even a slight imperfection of aim is multiplied when it comes to the immensity of God. Like a trip to the moon, a slight miscalculation will result in missing the target by thousands of miles. Justification must be the work of God. Instead of launching ourselves to Him, with every possibility of missing; God draws us to Himself, like a tractor beam.

And He draws us by the cross. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to Myself, says Jesus (Jn 12:32). He said this to show the way He was going to die. To pieces of wood set at right angles held the means by which we are made right with God. Because Jesus is made man, His sacrifice on the cross is the justification of the world. It is completely outside ourselves. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? I wasn’t. But I was included in the justification acomplished there.

Now the righteousness of God has been revealed apart from the Law—although it is witnessed by the Law and the prophets—the righteousness of God through faith of Jesus Christ, for all who believe, for there is not a distinction. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified as a gift, that is by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation through faith, in His blood, for a declaration of His righteousness, by the passing over of former sins, in the forbearance of God, for the declaration of His righteousness in the present fullness of time, for Him to be just and the justifies of the one who trusts Jesus (Rom 3:21-26).

Justification is forensic. That is to say, it is announced as a public judgment. It is a declaration of righteousness. And this is accomplished in the public Absolution. Your sins are forgiven means that you are righteous. This is where faith comes in. The objective, quite-apart-from-ourselves justification that happened on the cross is made your own by faith.

But just because justification is forensic doesn’t mean that it doesn’t effect any change. A prisoner who is set free has a new life. Justification is a reorientation of the entire self toward God. Now we come to know God by way of the cross. This changes everything. We can no longer make any attempts to justify ourselves; it is Christ who draws us. Yes, we do often stray from that straight path, but like a fish hooked on a fisherman’s line, we continue to be drawn back to the course when the Absolution is announced again and again.


Sanctification is related to justification. It immediately follows. The distinction that is made is not of persons—there is no distinction between rich and poor, male or female, pastor or laity. There is no distinction of ethnicity. All are sinners alike. And all are justified as a gift alike. There is no class of people who are justified by works—ether in full or in part. Sanctification deals with holiness—holiness of person and holiness of life. Thus, sanctification must be kept distinct from justification, because righteousness does not follow works. Rather, works follow righteousness. Sanctification is the gift of God that follows His justification.

The distinction of justification and sanctification isn’t a distinction of time, but of cause and effect. That is to say, these are not two divided, mutually exclusive, hermetically sealed works of God. It’s not as if some Christians are on the justification step, and others are on the sanctification step, and still others are higher up on the sanctification ladder. No, God’s work is whole and united because God is united. Often, justification is ascribed to the Son of God (because He was the One who died on the cross) and sanctification is ascribed to the Holy Spirit (because He is the One whose job it is to make holy). But the Spirit also brings the Word of justification, and the Son’s blood washes us clean. And both actions are in relation to the Father.

The distinction is maintained because sanctification—the holiness of a person and his life—is never the cause of justification. You don’t have to prepare yourself to receive God’s grace. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). But this new, right relationship with God, the universe, and everything impacts our person and our lives.

Justification is a function of both Law and Gospel—the condemnation of sins and the announcement of the Absolution. Likewise, sanctification is both Law and Gospel. The Law in its condemnation, restrains the Old Adam, the sinful nature in us, and the Gospel renews us inwardly with a new aim and purpose in life.

But just as a dead tree cannot be cured by tending to its fruits, so a person must first be made well at the root—that’s justification—and then naturally, this new vitality will produce fruit. Because it’s a new nature.

Justification is declarative, and so is sanctification. God calls us holy—in spite of our obvious sinfulness. This is the paradox of being a sinner and a saint simultaneously. Yet it’s not just a reality of God’s Word. Just as justification effects a new, right relationship with God, so God’s declaration of holiness effects a change in life. This is also a gift and work of God. Our holiness is not a product of our working, our striving, our wills. It is primarily the work of God; we’re just along for the ride.

Both justification and sanctification are the work of God. Both of them are gifts of His Word. But we must always remember that our righteousness, our restored relationship with God, comes first. It is independent from any holiness of life. But following the restoration of righteousness in justification, we are sanctified and made holy.

In the name of + Jesus.

Jacob W Ehrhard