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Crucial for Christian Living: Grasping the Distinction between Justification & Sanctification

Martin Luther, Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker all strongly influenced the doctrine of the Anglican Church, although Cranmer and Hooker added some unique Anglican points regarding justification and sanctification. (Public Domain)

By David Smith

THIS YEAR, churches that are heirs to the Reformation are celebrating the 500th anniversary of that great movement within the Church. As we remember the Reformation, it is good for Anglicans to remind ourselves of what it was that the reformers taught and why we ought to be thankful for their teaching.

A key point in the Reformation was Martin Luther’s understanding of God, and particularly God’s justice or righteousness. Luther had despaired of satisfying the demands of God’s justice until he looked to the writings of St. Paul and understood them in a new way:

“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God,” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.

“Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ’the just will live by his faith.’ Then I grasped the truth that the justice of God is that justice whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, he justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before ‘the justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven.”

This was Luther’s great discovery of justification by faith. And In the Church of England, this Reformation teaching was affirmed by Thomas Cranmer, the main architect behind the Book of Common Prayer, in his Homily of Salvation:

“Because all men be sinners and offenders against God, and breakers of his law and commandments, therefore can no man by his own acts, works and deeds (be they never so good) be justified and made righteous before God;  but every man of necessity be constrained to seek for another righteousness, or justification, to be received at God’s own hands, that is to say, the remission, pardon, and forgiveness of his sins and trespasses in such things as he hath offended. And this justification or righteousness, which we receive by God’s mercy and Christ’s merits, embraced by faith, is taken, accepted, and allowed of God for our perfect and full justification.”

For Cranmer, as for Luther, we are not made acceptable to God through our own good works, but through Christ’s merits, received simply by believing in Christ. So faith is the key to our salvation. But what about the other aspects of the Christian life?  They are all important, but they do not make us acceptable to God:

“And yet that faith doth not exclude repentance, hope, love, dread, and the fear of God, to be joined with faith in every man that is justified; but it excludeth them from the office of justifying…Nor that faith also doth not exclude the justice of our good works, necessarily to be done afterward of duty toward God…but it excludeth them, so that we may not do them to this intent, to be made good by the doing of them.” 

This was the reformed teaching of the English Church. Its significance was seen clearly some years later by Richard Hooker, the great theologian during the Elizabethan era. Hooker distinguished two parts in our salvation: justification and sanctification. He said that the reformed and the Roman churches agreed in many ways on the way of salvation. Both agreed that salvation must come from Christ and his merits, which we receive in baptism. But then, he said, the two churches diverge in their understanding. The Roman understanding was that the Christian must go on to work towards becoming completely just or righteous. If he or she committed a mortal sin, then the justification given in baptism would be lost. It could be repaired through confession, absolution and penance. The key point for Hooker was that in the Roman view, the Christian’s growth in righteousness, or lack of it, increased or decreased our just standing before God. As we became more righteous, we would be more justified or acceptable towards God.

In contrast, Hooker said that in the reformed view there were two kinds of righteousness or justice for the Christian, and they must not be confused with each other. The righteousness that makes us acceptable to God, as with Luther and Cranmer, comes from Christ and we do not earn it or possess it as any kind of virtue in ourselves. That is justifying righteousness. Sanctifying righteousness is about our worship and prayer, our study of Scripture, our good deeds and our growth in holiness. Any Christian will pursue these things. Real progress will be made in the Christian life and spiritual growth will occur in our own souls. But in this life it will never be enough to increase our good standing before God and we do not look to it to do so. Our just standing before God has been achieved by Christ and he is the only one to which we ever look to be acceptable to God. As Cranmer did, Hooker underlines the importance of this distinction:

“Now concerning the righteousness of sanctification, we deny it not to be inherent [in us]; we grant that unless we work, we have it not;  only we distinguish it as a thing in nature different from the righteousness of justification…” 

So if our efforts to become more righteous cannot and need not contribute to our standing before God, why do we do them?  The reformed answer is that we seek to grow in the Christian life out of gratitude for what Christ has done for us and to do our part in becoming in ourselves more like we have already been made in Christ. The Prayer of General Thanksgiving in the Book of Common Prayer expresses the attitude perfectly:

“And we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives; by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days…”  

We pray, we work, we love God and our neighbour, not with any thought of gaining a better standing with God, but out of thankfulness for what God has done for us in Christ.

For Cranmer, for Hooker and all the Anglican heirs of the Reformation, this crucial distinction between our justification and our sanctification, between the justifying righteousness of Christ and the sanctifying righteousness of our Christian walk with God, brings a great relief and a great blessing. It means that in our prayers, our good works, our love for God and for our neighbour, we are not trying to do what only God can do:  we are not trying to make ourselves more acceptable to God. We cannot do that and we do not need to do it, because God himself has done everything in Christ. What is left for us to do is what we can do, “giving up ourselves to God’s service,” with our shortcomings redeemed by Christ. Our Christian walk does not need to be superhuman. Because of what Christ has done for us, and in the Holy Spirit, it is enough that it be human. That is the good news of the gospel as the reformers saw it, and surely it is worth celebrating in this 500th anniversary of the Reformation!   TAP

Dr. David E.G. Smith is the priest associate at All Saints, South Grenville in the Diocese of Ontario and is Chair of the Anglican Communion Alliance.


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