Paul revealed that you have been saved, you are being saved, and you will be saved (Eph. 2:5,8; 1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15; Rom. 5:9; 1 Cor. 3:15).
You have been saved refers to justification. This means you have received the gift of imputed righteousness, you are justified and declared righteous, and the indwelling Spirit has been grafted to your spirit, making your spirit alive, new, righteous, holy, Christlike, and complete (Rom. 8:10; Eph. 4:24). It also means you were placed into Christ and Christ was placed into you (John 14:20).
Since you are saved, your destination has been determined in heaven (Rom. 5:9), the penalty for sin has been paid, you are a child of the Father by new birth, and you are betrothed to Christ as His bride. This all takes place by grace alone through faith alone apart from works as you believe, surrender, and receive God’s unmerited gift of grace.
Justification means “just as if you had never sinned.”
Justification saves you from the penalty of sin, which is experiencing God’s eternal wrath in hell.
You are being saved refers to sanctification. This means the salvation you received in your spirit at new birth is now being worked out into your soul as the Spirit enables you to carefully obey God’s truth by His enabling grace (Phil. 2:12).
As you take up your cross daily and the Spirit applies the cross to self-life in your soul, greater measures of Christ’s indwelling life are released from your spirit into your heart, soul, and body, gradually conforming you into the image of Jesus Christ.
Sanctification is synonymous with the salvation of the soul (James 1:21). This is the process of your mind, will, and emotions becoming Christlike as your faith is brought to completion through Spirit-led works and obedience.
Being saved, therefore, determines your destiny—how you will spend eternity based upon the eternal rewards you receive at the judgment seat of Christ (1 Cor. 3:11-15).
As your heart, soul, and body experience deep sanctification by the Spirit, the power of sin is broken, you mature into a Christlike son for the Father, and you are making yourself ready as Christ’s bride. This all takes place as your faith is synergized with your works and you overcome, fight, run, strive, press on, make your body your slave, take up your cross, and deny yourself.
Sanctification is the lifelong process of being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ.
Sanctification saves you from the power of sin at work in your soul and body.
You will be saved refers to glorification. This relates to the redemption of your body and refers to the resurrection of the dead, when your body is resurrected and reunited with your redeemed soul (Rom. 8:23).
When this happens, your body will experience glorification. But the depth of your sanctification determines the intensity of your glorification, whether you will experience the glory of the sun, the moon, or a faint star (1 Cor. 15:41-42).
Will be saved equips you for your destiny based upon the eternal rewards you receive at the judgment seat of Christ.
Glorification saves you from the pollution of sin presently at work in your body.
This in mind, let me now talk about five characteristics of justification.
1. Justification is not based upon obedience to God’s commands.
Paul said, “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (Rom. 3:20).
What does “works of the Law” mean? “Works” are all that is involved in obedience. And when Paul mentioned the law, at the forefront of his mind was not the ceremonial, civil, or dietary laws, but the moral laws. How do we know? Because Paul said, “For through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Only the moral law defines sin.
Therefore, when Paul said that you are justified by grace alone through faith alone apart from works, he was not alluding to things such as giving your time and money to a charity, going to a foreign land to build a church, or giving food to a homeless person. Paul used the phrase “works” or “works of the Law” to simply mean all that is involved in obeying the law’s commands.
This means no one can be declared righteous and acquitted of their sin by doing what the law dictates. For example, you are not justified because you obey the law’s commands to keep the Sabbath, to refrain from stealing, killing, lying, or adultery, or to be circumcised. No sinner can get right with God by obeying the truth of God’s commandments, no matter how holy and righteous His commandments are. This applies to God’s commands in the Old Testament and New Testament.
Even if it was humanly possible to be justified by keeping the law (and it’s not!), if you were to break one commandment, you would break the whole law. James testified to this truth, stating, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For He who said, ‘DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY,’ also said, ‘DO NOT COMMIT MURDER.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (James 2:10-11).
For those self-righteous individuals who boast in their heart of never committing adultery, murder, idolatry, or working on the Sabbath, consider what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. The law of Moses consisted primarily of keeping commandments externally, but Jesus showed that the law must also be kept internally, in the heart (Matt. 5:17-48).
You may have never committed an act of physical adultery but have you ever looked at a woman with lust? (Matt. 5:28). You may have never committed an act of murder but have you ever had anger toward someone? (Matt. 5:22). The point is that humans with a desperately sick and deceived heart can never obey every command in the law at all times from their heart. It is humanly impossible. Therefore, we can never be put into a right standing with God through obedience.
Bringing this concept into the New Testament, you are not declared righteous because you fast once a week, pray every day, read the Bible, attend church every Sunday, pay tithes, or show compassion to your neighbor. Obedience to the truth of God’s commandments cannot make sinners right with God. Or as Paul put it, “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight.”
In Romans 4, Paul revealed that Abraham received the gift of imputed righteousness through faith alone, not because he obeyed the law or received circumcision (Rom. 4:9-13). Abraham’s circumcision came later, after he was declared righteous, as a sign and seal of his faith—not to prove his righteousness to God through obedience (Rom. 4:11).
Commandment-keeping can never acquit you of guilt and give you a right standing with God. Paul said, “A man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus . . . since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (Gal. 2:16).
2. Justification is by grace alone through faith alone.
You do not achieve justification by what you do; you receive justification by what Christ has done. The law condemns the best of us while grace saves the worst of us. Justification is therefore by grace alone through faith alone.
Paul made this clear when he said, “Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. . . . For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom. 3:24-28).
Take note that justification is a gift of grace that you receive through faith apart from obedience to God’s commandments. That is, you are justified by faith in Jesus and in His finished work before you obey one commandment, either in the Old Testament or the New Testament.
Paul said, “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due” (Rom. 4:4). In other words, if you try to get right with God based upon church attendance, Bible reading, prayer, fasting, tithing, or acts of compassion to the poor, then your works come with an obligation.
Grace, on the other hand, is a free and unmerited gift that makes you right with God. Paul said, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).
When you don’t try to achieve but instead receive what Christ has already accomplished, then your faith in Jesus and in the finished work of the cross results in righteousness credited to your account. This imputed righteousness is a gift of God’s free and unmerited grace and you receive it through faith. Paul said, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).
Grace is the free and undeserved gift of God that justifies you and the unmerited and unearned power of God that sanctifies you as the Spirit prepares to glorify you. And faith is the only condition of the heart that accords with this grace.
Faith is the conduit that allows the endless supply of supernatural grace to flow into your life. The grace that justifies you overrides your demerit, triumphs over your sin, and supersedes your self-determined efforts to obey God so that you are declared righteous through faith in Jesus Christ.
Faith is the restful posture that receives grace by looking toward Jesus and the finished work of the cross.
Grace not only gives you better than you deserve (Rom. 4:4-5); grace gives you what you cannot produce. Grace does the humanly impossible of bringing forth life from the dead, calling forth that which does not exist, recreating the human spirit in the likeness of God, conforming you into the image of Christ, and giving you an inheritance as a coheir with Jesus for all eternity.
3. Justification breaks the power of sin.
The deepest root of slavery to sin is the feeling that you can never be forgiven or made righteous.
Stronger than the allurement of future sin is the bondage from past sins.
When you feel unforgiveable, unrighteous, and unworthy because of what you did in the past, you are held captive by sin’s greatest weapons of guilt, shame, and condemnation. In this condition, despair, hopelessness, and despondency rule your life. Guilt drives you. Condemnation weighs on you. Shame defines who you are.
Paul said that “the power of sin is the law” (1 Cor. 15:56). The law, even though holy, righteous, and spiritual (Rom. 7:12,14), defines sin (Rom. 7:7), points out sin (Rom. 3:20), increases sin (Rom. 5:20), and in the end kills you with guilt, shame, and condemnation (Rom. 7:9; 2 Cor. 3:6-9).
People who are in bondage to some type of sin, whether pornography, fornication, homosexuality, drugs, or alcohol, usually realize that the short-term pleasure which sin promises is outweighed by the long-term pain which sin creates.
Even so, they cannot break free from slavery to sin because they don’t believe that they can be forgiven or made righteous. They feel hopeless because of their condition. This person is enslaved by something greater than the allure of sin; they are held captive by the guilt of sin.
Pastor James Emery White tweeted, “I once read that a survey of psychologists revealed that they felt that 70% of their patients would be healed if they could just get rid of their guilt.”
Because guilt, shame, and condemnation dominate their thoughts and emotions, they have no strength to fight the seduction of sin.
Paul spoke directly into this situation when he said, “For he who has died is freed from sin” (Rom. 6:7). The better translation of this verse is: “For he who has died has been justified from his sin.”
Carefully notice the word “for.” This word connects verse 7 with verse 6, which states, “That we would no longer be slaves to sin.” In essence, here is the main thought: “We will no longer be slaves to sin when we realize that we are justified.” Stated another way, justification breaks the power of sin. Or as Charles Wesley’s song declares, “He breaks the power of canceled sin.”
God cancels sin by justifying the ungodly, thus destroying sin’s powerful arsenal of guilt, shame, and condemnation. Then God breaks the power of this canceled sin.
You are forgiven and declared righteous before one act of obedience and this legal foundation of justification becomes the beachhead where you wage war against sin’s allurement. This means justification is the indestructible bedrock of hope that gives you the ability to destroy the deceptive power of sin.
4. Justification precedes sanctification.
Because justification breaks the power of sin, justification also precedes sanctification. Before you have any hope of deliverance from sin and the transformation of your mind, will, and emotions, you must first escape God’s condemnation, receive the gift of righteousness, and experience justification.
Justification (Rom. 3-5) precedes sanctification (Rom. 6-8). The guilt is removed before the lure is broken.
To put it another way, you need a revelation that you have already received the gift of imputed righteousness and the judicial declaration that you are righteous before you can overcome the power of sin in your life.
Enabling grace for sanctification follows saving grace for justification.
I sometimes read or hear statements such as, “True Christians are disciples, and if you are not a disciple of Jesus Christ, then you are not a true Christian.” Or “True Christians obey God’s commandments, and if you are not obeying God’s commandment, then you are not a true Christian.”
Since justification precedes sanctification, this means you can’t be a fully committed disciple of Jesus Christ who obeys His commandments until you are first justified apart from obedience. This means, then, that justification precedes discipleship, obedience, being made ready as bride for Jesus Christ, and maturing as a Christlike son for the Father.
The key to overcoming lust, anger, pride, envy, addictions, or any other besetting sin is to know deep in your heart that you have received the gift of imputed righteousness and that the Judge of the universe has declared you legally righteous before the Supreme Court of heaven.
Justification must precede sanctification, for imputed righteousness is the foundation for moral righteousness in your thoughts, affections, emotions, desires, choices, motives, and actions.
Justification does not make sanctification optional; it makes it possible. Sanctification, the lifelong process of being transformed into the likeness of Christ in your soul, means you are being saved from the power of sin. Paul said that salvation from the power of sin is “through sanctification” and that the outcome of sanctification is a deeper experience of “eternal life” (2 Thess. 2:13; Rom. 6:22).
Justification and glorification are instantaneous. Sanctification, on the other hand, is gradual, arduous, and often very painful. Sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit as He purifies you and forms Christ within your mind, will, and emotions. Sanctification is the present-tense work of salvation in your soul as you become increasingly more like Jesus through obedience to the Word and voice of God.
Justification provides judicial forgiveness for all your sins—past, present, and future. Justification removes the punishment you rightfully deserve in hell for your sins, gives you a new righteous status before God, cancels sin, and breaks the power of slavery to sin, so that now, from this firm foundation, you can kill sin before sin kills you.
When you fail in your journey toward holiness, the revelation that you are justified keeps you from feeling condemned, defeated, and hopeless, for deep in your heart you know your righteous standing before God. Without a revelation that you are justified before you obey one commandment, your striving for holiness will either produce despair or self-righteousness.
The only sins that you can overcome in your pursuit of sanctification are the forgiven sins resulting from your justification.
To progress from unrighteous to partially righteous to totally righteous as you are being sanctified, you must first have a revelation that you are reckoned completely righteous and then declared righteous because of the finished work of the cross.
I’m convinced that the deeper your experience of justification the deeper your experience will be of sanctification.
5. Justification is the only way to escape God’s eternal wrath in hell.
Paul said, “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him” (Rom. 5:9).
Justification—when God declares you righteous because the impeccable righteousness of Christ has been imputed to you—is the only you can escape hell.
No amount of sanctification will ever produce the perfect righteousness required to enter God’s holy presence in heaven.
You are justified and saved from God’s wrath by the blood of Jesus Christ alone.
If you are initially justified—and thus saved from eternal damnation in hell—by grace alone through faith alone apart from works, you don’t have to maintain your justification by obedience. That’s totally contrary to Paul’s gospel. This, of course, doesn’t mean obedience is not important. Obedience is a vital and indispensable part of sanctification.
Even though discipleship, radical obedience, sanctification, and works don’t determine your eternal destination (where you will spend eternity), these absolutely do determine your eternal destiny (how you will spend eternity).
Nevertheless, only justification determines where you will spend eternity—in heaven or in hell.