Understanding Justification and Sanctification

You’ll find the words justification and sanctification used hand-in-hand in sermons and Christian books, describing what Jesus has done for us. We use these words often, but do we really understand them? The two terms have a nice ring next to each other, but it’s important to differentiate the terms. Keep reading for an overview of what justification and sanctification mean and how both words describe our lives as Christians. 

What Is Justification?

The doctrine of justification is central to faith because it answers the questions “How can I be right with God? Is there something I must do?” The Bible’s answer is “No, absolutely nothing.” Because of our sin, all humanity deserves death and never-ending punishment in hell. But Jesus took on our sin and the death we deserve, making us righteous instead. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are forgiven, receive salvation and eternal life, and are therefore justified. Jesus taking on our sin and making us right with God is justification. Justification is God’s undeserved mercy for Jesus’ sake.

The Bible speaks of justification in two senses. When Jesus died on the cross, He was carrying and paying for every sin of every person, thereby winning justification for humanity. We call that objective justification. The second sense is when the forgiveness won by Jesus is applied to us individually and our sins are forgiven. That is called subjective justification.

Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation poses a question prompted by knowing that God is just and holy: “How is it possible for a just and holy God to declare sinners righteous (justification)?” We can answer that question with an understanding of justification, as explained in Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, which says that “our sins have been imputed or charged to Christ, the Savior, and Christ’s righteousness has been imputed or credited to us” (Apostles’ Creed, Third Article).  Because God is a God of justice, He does not turn a blind eye to our sin. Instead, He sent His Son to be the propitiation for us. Because Jesus died for us, God no longer sees our sin when He looks at us. He sees the Savior, Jesus. 

What Is Sanctification?

The Bible uses the term sanctification in two senses. The wide sense describes our subjective justification when the Spirit creates faith in us through the Word and Sacraments and the life of good works, which follows by the power of the Holy Spirit. It uses sanctification in the narrow sense to describe only our life of good works. It especially does this when it wants to keep us from wrongly concluding that our works are part of making us right with God.

In Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, we read that the Holy Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith” (Apostles’ Creed, Third Article). In sanctification, God sets us apart and cleanses us so that we can live in the new life that is given to us as Christians. Because of this sanctifying through the Holy Spirit, we are set free to serve our neighbors in good works. Although we are still sinners living in a sinful world, being sanctified means that we live in God’s grace with the Holy Spirit dwelling within us and guiding us in our daily lives.

Ephesians 1:13 can help us understand the connection between justification and sanctification: “In Him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in Him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” Since the Holy Spirit worked faith in us and we have been saved, we now live a life sanctified in which we are continually renewed by the Word and the Sacraments. There’s nothing we can do to earn our justification because it comes only through the free gift of faith by the grace of God for Jesus’ sake. No aspect of our sanctification or good works can ever contribute to our salvation. Sanctification cannot come before justification, but it is embossed upon us in our new life every day after we have been justified. 

Why Use These Words?

Understanding our salvation as a free gift and the sanctified life that follows reflects the truth and foundation of our faith. Believing that we are completely redeemed because Christ took on our sin is true faith, and a sanctified life led by the Holy Spirit naturally flows from that true faith. It also gives us the certainty that we are right in God’s eyes for Jesus’ sake. If our good works are necessary as part of our justification, we could never be sure we did enough. By understanding the words justification and sanctification, we are equipped with simple words that describe two foundational aspects of our beliefs. We can use these words to encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ and to share the joy of the Gospel with others.

Scripture: ESV®.

Small Catechism quotations are from Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, copyright © 1986, 2017 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Confessing JesusLearn more about justification and sanctification and what it means to be a Lutheran in Confessing Jesus.

Read Confessing Jesus


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Written by

Melody Martin

Melody is a social media and email specialist at Concordia University Irvine and a former copywriting intern at Concordia Publishing House. As an alum of Concordia University Chicago, she holds an English major as well as minors in communications, creative writing, and theology. Her published poetry can be found in various journals, including her alma mater's Motif. She and her husband are torn between mountains and beaches as new Californians, but they always have a good book in tow either way.

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