Use a PC-based Bible and search the words “sanctification process.” Scratch that, search the word “process.” It’s not in the Bible. Yet, the whole Protestant soteriological paradigm hinges upon its existence.

My wife and I are coming out of Protestantism and are converting to Orthodoxy. We were discussing the Orthodox doctrine of salvation at a local diner, reading Kallisto Ware’s book How are we Saved? I read to my wife, “Instead, then, of answering ‘I am saved,’ I prefer to make use of the continuous present: ‘I trust that by God’s mercy and grace I am being saved'” (p. 4).

My wife objected: “That’s the sanctification process!”

I answered: “The Scripture speaks of justification and sanctification interchangeably.”

The Scandal of Conflating Justification and Sanctification. To help us to get started, it may help us to define our terms.

  • Justification in the Greek may refer to a legal declaration, the reality of being made righteous itself, and even being factually correct (see Luke 7:29). While English does not have a word like “righteousfication,” the term in the Greek may accurately be translated to mean exactly this (see p. 167).
  • Sanctification simply refers to the state of being holy, or being made holy.
  • Salvation is the end result of both justification and sanctification.

Ultimately, before even going into the Scriptures or their various interpreters, we must seriously ask ourselves on the basis of language itself–is there really a significant difference in being truly righteous/just and truly holy?

Even so, the idea of conflating justification with sanctification is scandalous to Protestant ears. Yet:

  • The Scriptures themselves use the terms interchangeably: “[Y]ou were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11).  Not surprisingly, we see the terms justified, sanctified, and saved used in the past tense (Rom 4:2, Acts 26:18, Eph 2:8)  and the continuous present (Tit 3:7, Heb 10:14, 1 Cor 1:18) all seemingly communicating the same idea.
  • Apostolic churches, such as the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, view justification and sanctification synonymously.
  • The church fathers often use the term sanctified in contexts where all would recognize that justification is being spoken of.
    • The second century Epistle of Barnabas, after warning that the Jews heard of Christ and rejected Him, states: “For to this end the Lord endured to deliver up His flesh to corruption, that we might be sanctified through the remission of sins, which is effected by His blood of sprinkling” (Chap 5).
    • Tertullian speaks of baptism: “Thus the nature of the waters, sanctified by the Holy One, itself conceived withal the power of sanctifying…they [the waters] imbibe at the same time the power of sanctifying” (On Baptism, Chap 4). He later conflates baptism with faith, which he makes clear remits sin: “Your sins shall be remitted you, on your believing, of course, albeit you be not yet baptized” (Chapter 12).
    • Cyprian comments on the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican where Publican went home “justified” that “this man who thus asked [for mercy]…deserved to be sanctified, since he placed the hope of salvation not in the confidence of his innocence, because there is none who is innocent” (Treatise 4, Par. 6). Cyprian uses the term “sanctified” in place of justified also in Par. 10,
    • Ambrose comments, “So, then, the Father sanctifies, the Son also sanctifies, and the Holy Spirit sanctifies; but the sanctification is one, for baptism is one, and the grace of the sacrament is one” (Chap 4, On the Holy Spirit, Book III).
      • Ambrose’s pupil Augustine made clear that he believed baptism justified the believer (Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love; Chap 52). It is in this context we must understand Ambrose’s comments.
    • The Liturgy of Saint Mark states that Christ sacrificed His body and shed His blood “for the sanctification and salvation of our souls and bodies” (4).

Yet, according to Matt Slick of Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, “Understanding the difference between justification and sanctification can be as important as understanding the difference between salvation and damnation.” He continues:

Justification is the work of God where the righteousness of Jesus is reckoned to the sinner…Sanctification is the process of being set apart for God’s work and being conformed to the image of Christ.  This conforming to Christ involves the work of the person.

Is the “Sanctification Process” in the Scripture? I would really appreciate it if someone can find evidence to the contrary, but the idea that we grow in holiness and that this holiness has nothing to do with our justification is nowhere said explicitly or implicitly in the Scriptures. However, Protestants simply make the assumption that there must be in extrapolating their peculiar doctrine of sanctification.

Now, while all of Christendom can agree we can be all not that sanctified and still go to heaven (all affirm differing rewards), what begs the question is why justification for Protestants is an all or nothing proposition, but not sanctification. Ligonier Ministries writes, “our justification is a complete and finished act.” Obviously, justification would have to be substantively different than sanctification for the preceding to be true.

The Scriptures do not bear out the Protestant view that justification is by necessity a complete event accomplished in the past. The term justification (Δικαιωθέντες, δικαιούμενοι) is explicitly referred to in the continuous present four times (Rom 3:24, Rom 5:1, Rom 5:9, Tit 3:7 KJV, Jerome in the Vulgate concurs) just as salvation itself is (1 Cor 1:18, 1 Cor 15:2, 2 Cor 2:15).

It is also worth noting that Clement writes that Christians are “being saved” (i.e. “Who [God] art good among them that are being saved and faithful among them whose trust is in You,” 1 Clem 60.) This shows that salvation was explicitly understood as an ongoing, and not merely a past, event in the earliest decades of the Church.

While Protestants are certainly correct that justification may be a completed past event (i.e. the thief on the cross), they do not have the Scriptural evidence to show that this is applicable to everyone, or that justification is not a continuing reality for men like the thief presuming he continued living.

If justification is something that can be both a completed, past event and a continuing reality (which the continuous present rendering of the term would explicitly tell us), then the Protestant view would not be entirely incorrect, but rather incomplete.

While the Scriptures do explicitly say that we are justified and being justified, do we have evidence that sanctification also refers to a completed, past event and continuing reality?

Let’s just look at the term sanctify (ἁγιάζω). Its assorted cognates occur 28 times in the New Testament. Sanctify is used in a few different ways. It is used to mean “to set apart” more than a few times (Luke 11:2, John 17:17, Rom 15:16, etcetera.) However, is “sanctification” used synonymously with the word “justification” as Protestants understand it, a finished act of man being right with God? Consider the following verses:

And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are justified (Acts 20:32).

that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been justified by faith in Me (Acts 26:18).

To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been justified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling (1 Cor 1:2).

 For both He who justifies and those who are justified are all from one Father (Heb 2:11).

For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are justified (Heb 10:14).

Therefore Jesus also, that He might justify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate (Heb 13:12).

Wait a second, weren’t we talking about sanctification?

Yes we were! Some of you might have figured it out that I simply swapped out the word “sanctify” and replaced it with the equivalent tense of the word for “justify.”

Now take a moment and reread all the above verses with “sanctified” in place of “justified,” just as it actually is in the Bible.

The result? The insertion of sanctified, in place of justified, does nothing to change the above verses meanings. This is only possible if justification and sanctification do not have significantly different meanings in the Scriptures.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. Verses such as Acts 26:18 demand that we understand sanctification in a fashion roughly equivalent with the Protestant view of justification. The terms can be interchanged with no perceptible difference in meaning or application.

Another thing sticks out–we never see the term sanctify being used in the sense that Protestants claim is its specific meaning–not even once. We do not see a single verse that says that sanctification is something completely different than justification. And, this is what it so unforgiveable–we have evidence that the term is actually used in the sense that Catholics and Orthodox claim, while we have no evidence that it is used in the sense that Protestants claim is necessary to avoid damnation.

Think about that for a minute.

Now, let’s broaden our word study from the term “sanctify” (ἁγιάζω) to the term “sanctification” (ἁγιασμός)–the noun of the same word. I won’t pull any fast ones, the noun in question is embolden:

…present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification…But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life (Rom 6:19. 22).

But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor 1:30).

But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth (2 Thes 2:13).

Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14).

To those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work [lit. “sanctification,” ἁγιασμός] of the Spirit (1 Pet 1:1-2).

As we can see in the above, the state of sanctification is a necessary condition for salvation. The term is also used in a more generalized sense in 1 Thes 4:3-7 and 1 Tim 2:15. However, we never seen it used in a sense where it usage demands that we understand that it is explicitly divorced from justification. Just look, I link to the Greek. The Protestant inference is simply not explicit in the text. It must be assumed and imposed upon the text.

Now, think about that for a minute.

Why the differentiation? If the whole Protestant differentiation between justification and sanctification is not explicit in the Scripture and it must be imposed on the text, where on Earth do we get the idea that sanctification is divorced from justification? My guess would be Romans 6.

Why? Because Romans 6 explicitly says that doing something (presenting our members as slaves of righteousness) results in sanctification. It also explicitly says that the outcome of sanctification is eternal life.

A simple syllogism can be surmised: Doing something results in sanctification. Sanctification results in eternal life. If we presume that we cannot do anything that results in eternal life, and justification is not accomplished by works, sanctification cannot be the same as justification.

Answering the Protestant syllogism. In pains me to say this but the above is classic eisegesis. If we went by what just the Bible said we know the following:

1. The usage of “sanctify” is apparently no different than “justify” in the Scriptures (Acts 26:18, 1 Cor 6:11)

2. “Sanctification” is nowhere spoken of as a process that is by necessity divorced of justification.

3. Both sanctification (1 Cor 1:2) and justification (1 Cor 6:11) are something that has occurred in the past.

4. Both sanctification (Heb 10:14) and justification (Rom 5:9) are occurring in the present.

So, how can justification and sanctification be essentially the same if justification is not dependent upon works?

Simple. Justification does not depend on our works, and neither does sanctification. Both are the work of God by His grace. However, both justification and sanctification contain good works given time, as they are continuing realities in the lives of Christians. In Calvin’s own words, “We are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.” In the same away, we are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.

The issue of speaking past each other. Ultimately, all of this fighting over words is tiring. Protestants already admit that salvation is a past, present, and future process. The Liognier blog comments:

Why, then, does the New Testament speak of salvation in three tenses? The answer lies in considering what happens in salvation. Initially, at the point of regeneration, our sins are forgiven— entirely and completely. We have been delivered from sin’s penalty. Through faith, we are reckoned to be righteous—as righteous as Christ is. Then, there is sanctification—a process whereby we are being delivered from sin’s power. Ultimately, in heaven, we will be delivered from sin’s presence.

Catholics and Orthodox do not deny that sins are “entirely and completely” forgiven upon conversion/”the point of regeneration.” They also affirm that we are being literally delivered from sin’s power (sanctification) and in heaven this process will be complete.

If we all readily admit that salvation is ongoing under the title of sanctification, it seems all of this opposition over conflating justification and sanctification is simply to remove the implications of justification having the attributes of sanctification. Protestants want to remove any hint that justification, like sanctification, entails man’s cooperation.

However, the Scripture is clear. We have been completely delivered from the power of sin upon regeneration (“How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?,” Rom 6:2) and we continue to be dead to sin by walking with “fear and trembling” before God–accomplished by His working in us (Phil 2:12-13). Sanctification happens upon conversion and continues, all without man’s participation being his own work–because it is the work of God. In the same way, if we go by the tenses in the Scripture, justification also happens upon conversion and continues. None of this is accomplished by man’s doing.

Man believes according to his free will purely by  the grace of God–it is God’s doing. Man works out his salvation in fear and trembling according to his free will purely by the grace of God–it is God’s doing. Man fully cooperates with his conversion and walk with God, by the grace of God preparing and sustaining his will. So, I personally see no conflict between justification and sanctification which, if we conflate the two, makes justification dependent upon man’s works.

Therefore, there is no reason for Protestants to create an artificial distinction between justification and sanctification.

Conclusion. If the Fathers of the Church, nor anyone up until the Reformation, never made the hard and fast differentiation between justification and sanctification then:

1. How can such an understanding be necessary for salvation? Wouldn’t all Christians in recorded history be damned if Matt Slick is correct in his point?

2. How can such an understanding be correct? The Scripture nowhere makes it explicit and it boggles the mind the whole Church would get it wrong for so long.

Therefore, we must conclude that Protestantism is reinterpreting a dozen different uses of the word “sanctify” and “sanctification.”

While the Reformation made a grave error in complicating the doctrines of justification and sanctification, it was not completely without reason. The Roman church of their day commoditized salvation. Further, the unbiblical idea of mortal sins made people, who otherwise were living faithful lives, unsure if they put their salvation into jeopardy. So, the Protestants devised a doctrine of justification meant to correct these theological distortions and give the Christian grounds for peace with God.

However, our peace with God should not be based on a fiction.

Thankfully, we can have peace with God on firm Biblical truths, even without the unreal Protestant rendering of the “sanctification process.”

Remember: “Christ died for us. Much more therefore, being now justified by his blood, shall we be saved from wrath through him” (Rom 5:9). If Christ died for us and we know this to be a certifiable historical truth, how much truer is it that we shall be saved from wrath?

Don’t fear that the words of John: “if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7) just because left to ourselves we will fail to walk in that light. Remember the words of Paul, ” I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6).

Our confidence is not in our works nor our abilities. It is in the finished work of Christ on the cross through which we will be saved and God will finish what He started. No one, and nothing, can frustrate the work of God.  

For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39).

We are justified, sanctified, and saved. We are being justified, sanctified, and saved. We will be justified, sanctified, and saved.  To Him be the glory. Amen.