Which Contextualizes Which?

Eric Ortlund | Dec 9, 2009

Justification is that judicial verdict by which God pronounces me righteous and clean and right in his sight as moral arbiter of the universe, because I (always imperfectly) trust him, and not because I earn it. Sanctification is that process by which I grow out of sin and self, closer to Christ and more like him. But what's the relationship between the two? Which grounds which? Which do you turn to first? Which makes sense out of the other?

The question is not merely academic. For many years, without expressing it, I functionally lived as if sanctification contextualizes my justification--as if my growth in Christ is what makes my justification real and trustworthy and genuine--it was my sanctification that was my basis for me saying, "I really am a Christian, and I know I am." And even more, it was my own sensible perception of my sanctification--I didn't factor in that I might be growing in ways I wasn't aware of. I wanted/needed growth that was perceptible to me, so that I could constantly refer to it and reassure myself.

It didn't work--and not necessarily because I wasn't growing, because God was growing me. It was that the growth was so slow, and the larger margin of ungrowth was always so huge. In fact, the two seemed to stand in proportional relation to each other: the more I grew, the more I saw how much growing I still had left to do. My approach was ironically self-defeating: every inch of growth brought about deeper awareness of how much more I needed to grow. With growth as the main goal, the more I grew, the more that goal became ever distant.

And what saint, no matter how deeply they've walked with God, no matter how much progress God has granted them in spiritual growth--what saint, when they come to die, does not have an infinite amount of growth left? What saint, no matter how much progress they have made, can avoid saying at the end of their lives, "I have only made a beginning of a beginning?"

In my experience, when I made sanctification the central goal of my faith and justification peripheral to it, it was extremely difficult not to be constantly self-focused--and the more I focused on myself, the more frustrated and distraught and unhappy I was. I think I put the cart before the horse: justification is not something I ingest and then move past. It isn't my ticket into the kingdom which, after having been used, I rip up and throw away, because, hey, I'm already in. (Thanks so much, Dane, for that awesome analogy in your excellent Themelios article.) Rather, justification--the thing you believe when you've been a Christian for 30 seconds--is the engine driving your whole Christian life, and the engine driving your sanctification. Constantly coming back to my objective rightness in the eyes of God, so that it permeates my own internal atmosphere of wrongness and worry and agitation--that's what it's all about.

I say all this because of a recent interview I came across on the superb Mockingbird blog of Mark Galli, a CT columnist who recently wrote a piece, "The Scandal of the Public Evangelical." The most piercing claim (for me) in it was that sanctification means at least (and he hints that he thinks it's more) just coming to see how sinful you really are. Not awesome victory-after-victory in which you prove how different you are from the world, so that they are attracted to your superior moral lifestyle and come to Christ--but ever believing amazement that Jesus actually likes people like me. That's what we have to offer the world.

Even more striking in my mind is the multitude of negative responses this article provoked, responses I totally understand and sympathize with, but which I think mostly missed the point. (A separate article was written as well which, in my opinion, ironically illustrates the self-focus, and the fading God-focus, which comes about when Christian transformation becomes the main goal). You can read the interview, with links to both articles, here: