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Justification, Sanctification & Social Justice 


A Byzantine mosaic from Ravenna, Italy, showing a beardless Christ separating the sheep from the goats. 

By David Smith

IN A PREVIOUS issue of TAP, I wrote an article about justification and sanctification and how the distinction between them was crucial for the Reformation idea of the Christian life. The teaching was summed up by Anglican theologian Richard Hooker (c.1554-1600), who said that justification, being made acceptable before God, was something we couldn’t contribute to ourselves, but was entirely the work of Christ, whereas sanctification, becoming more holy, was a process that required our effort.

The importance of distinguishing between these was that if we saw sanctification as making us more and more acceptable to God, then we were back in what the Reformers saw as the error of Rome – trying to bear the weight of responsibility for being justified before God. However, if we kept our efforts towards sanctification separate from justification, then we were free to do what we could do, trusting in Christ’s merits to make up for the rest. Our efforts to be more holy now take the form of a grateful response to God’s mercy in justifying us, rather than an attempt to earn our salvation.

If we fail to distinguish between these, then it is bad for justification, because it gets lost against our own efforts, and bad for sanctification, because trying to do what we cannot do distorts the human dimension of our lives;  for example, with perfectionism, guilt, or excessive asceticism. In the background of this teaching, for Richard Hooker, was the traditional teaching about the two natures of Christ:  that the divine nature did not do away with Christ’s humanity and that the human nature did not take away from his divinity. This doctrine served as a paradigm for the relation between justification, corresponding to the divine nature of Christ, and sanctification, corresponding to his humanity.

This classical Reformation teaching can provide us with a helpful guide in thinking about the place of social justice in the Christian mission. The suggestion is that evangelism, the ministry of the gospel thought of in a spiritual sense as the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins, our adoption as children of God and the sending of the Holy Spirit, occupies a place in the Christian mission corresponding to justification, the “divine” part of the mission, whereas acts of social justice, mercy, relieving and advocating for the poor, correspond to sanctification – things done by us as human beings for fellow human beings. We are not speaking in terms of superiority and inferiority here, any more than we are with the divine and human natures of Christ, but about the place of God’s work and our work.

The importance of distinguishing between what God does and what we do is a theme in the New Testament. For instance, in the Gospel of Matthew, there is a clear priority for the spiritual dimension of salvation: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Our first concern must be with souls. But that does not mean that the body and the whole “this-worldly” part of life is unimportant. On the contrary, it is crucial.

 In Matthew 25, the parable of the talents and the Judgement of the Sheep and Goats make this very clear. In the parable of the talents, the stewards are left alone by the master to use their own human judgement and sense of responsibility with what he has given them. The bad servant is the one who recognizes what it is that God alone can do – “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed” – but he takes this in a negative sense, making the using of his own human initiative pointless. He is like the Christian who cannot move ahead with the work of the kingdom without the particular will of God being revealed in every situation.

Nicky Gumbel in the Alpha course gives the example of the lady who wouldn’t put on her socks without feeling the guidance of the Holy Spirit! According to the parable, such attitudes amount to “burying your talent” because you take God’s transcendent purposes as making your own human initiative without value in God’s service. So the parable teaches that the divine part of the Christian mission, that only God can bring about, should not take away from the human part, in which we use our own initiative and “talents.” 

The Judgement of the Sheep and Goats also makes this same distinction between what we do as human beings and what comes directly from God. The “sheep” in the story do not know that they have been serving Christ in feeding the hungry and helping the unfortunate. They do it as human beings meeting human needs. Neither do the goats know that they have not been serving Christ; they thought the needs around them were unconnected with Christ’s service. Just as the parable of the talents shows that we will be judged by God for what we have done for God when we have not had any explicit orders, so the Judgement of the Sheep and Goats shows that we will be judged by Christ for what we have done for our fellow human beings when we thought that Christ was not involved with our actions.

So serving the poor and unfortunate is depicted as a human response to human situations, and distinguished from the spiritual dimension of the church’s mission. It is absolutely essential, but it is distinguished in its character, just as sanctification is essential to salvation, but must be distinguished from justification. Thus in the Great Commission in Matthew 28, the mandate of Christ’s mission is described as teaching (including teaching the service of the poor) and baptizing, but not as service to the poor in itself. The Judgement of the Sheep and Goats tells us that saving faith will be accompanied by acts of mercy if it is genuine saving faith. It does not tell us that we are saved through acts of mercy.

If we think for a moment about the Five Marks of Mission that are being widely promoted for Anglicans, we might suggest that they are all marks of mission, but not in the same way. Proclaiming the Good News and teaching, baptizing and nurturing new believers, the first two marks, are to be done as redeemed children of God for the sake of souls. Responding to human needs, transforming unjust structures, pursuing peace and reconciliation, and safeguarding creation, the further three marks, are to be done as human beings meeting human needs. They are essential, but they are not part of the mission in the same way. All the marks are marks of the Christian mission but some we do directly in response to the Great Commission, and some we do in our human dimension as redeemed followers of Christ. 

We said that failing to distinguish between justification and sanctification is not good for either justification or sanctification. Could we say that failing to distinguish between the human way in which social justice issues belong to the mission of the church and the way that the spiritual mission of evangelism belongs to it, is not good for either evangelism or social justice? 

Well, it seems clear that if we fail to make this distinction, we can easily neglect the human needs around us for the sake of a “spiritual” gospel – the mistake of the goats in the Judgement of the Sheep and Goats. It also seems clear that the pressing human needs of the world can keep us from appreciating the less visible needs of the soul, and neglecting evangelism for the sake of social justice.

But there is more to it than that. If we hold to the distinction that we have been drawing, it will help us to see the importance of another distinction that was important for the Reformation:  the distinction between what Christians do as the Church, and what they do as citizens and community members.

The Scriptures have important things to say about social and environmental injustice, but that doesn’t mean that these are best addressed by the direct action of the Church. The nature of such issues is that their solutions depend on social and scientific analysis and Christian people are going to disagree about the results. If we address these issues as citizens rather than as members of the redeemed community, then divided opinions about them are less likely to cause divisions in the Church’s unity around the primary teachings of the gospel. Exactly what actions belong to Christians as the church and what actions to Christians in our secular capacity is a complex question, which this article is not trying to answer. Rather, we are trying to understand the background of the Scriptural and Reformation teaching about what belongs to God and what belongs to humanity – against which such questions can be addressed.

As well, if we take seriously that the basic material needs of the poor and the need for human justice is best addressed by us, whether as the church or as fellow human beings, in the light of our common natural humanity, without regarding them in the same way as the needs of the soul, it will help us to avoid attaching ourselves unduly to ideological solutions of the left or of the right. These ideologies, which make up so much of our public discourse, tend to usurp the universality that should belong only to the gospel in the minds of Christians. If we look at what the Scriptures really say about justice, we see that the concerns of liberals for the poor and social and economic injustice, and the concern of conservatives for right belief and family values are all a part of a greater whole of justice under God. But we are blinded to this wholeness when we attribute a false universality to particular ideologies, whether of the left or right. The payoff in church unity of making the proper distinctions would be obvious.

Evangelism versus social justice is a false dichotomy. Both are part of the Christian message, but that doesn’t define the relationship between them. The suggestion here is that the relationship is like the relationship between justification and sanctification – they must be properly distinguished if they are to be properly understood and acted upon.   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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