I have long had an ambivalent relationship with the Protestant Reformation. As a Protestant, I find the emphasis on faith to be a crucial distinctive that provides what I feel is, to be straightforward, a better reading of the Apostle Paul (not necessarily the rest of the Bible, though) than Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. However, at the same time, the emphasis on justification by faith alone as a central understanding of the Gospel when it is only an idea that appears in 2-4 of Paul’s letters, depending on how strict one is with requiring the language of justification, and not so much in the rest of the New Testament, sans maybe obliquely in the Gospel of John, merits some real questions about the role justification has taken in understanding the Gospel.
In the end, if you were to survey the whole New Testament, there is much more said about those who do the will of God being Jesus’ family and coming into the kingdom of heaven, that the final, eschatological judgment is based upon works, and warnings given about those who practice unrighteousness. It seems quite odd and peculiar that an idea that is only present in a few places, justification, would take a central, pivotal role in understanding the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as if it is the central foundation for salvation. Yet people do it, leading to readings of the New Testament that seems to contradict themselves, necessitating a lot of gymnastics to explain why what something says isn’t really what it says. Matthew 25.31-46, John 5.28-29, and Romans 2.6-10 all together say that the final judgment is based upon one’s works, and yet it is a regular evangelistic commonplace to say that we can’t be good enough or earn our way into heaven, with the implication being that the final judgment is NOT based upon one’s works.
In my analysis, the underlying problem is people’s picture of God. Many people have a picture of God being a strict, disciplinarian who will discipline and punish anything short of the highest standard. Essentially, anything less than perfection means one is accountable to punishment and disqualifies oneself for heaven based upon one’s works. If that is your picture of God and it is impossible for people to reach the behavioral standards required by God, then the logic goes that Jesus’ death is what makes up what we lack, that Jesus’ righteousness becomes imputed to our account so that we can enter into eternal life. Here, the fundamental problem is human’s inability to PERFECTLY obey the “law,” so Jesus provides a second route towards eternal life that the first one never provided.
What if, however, the problem isn’t human inability to perfectly obey the law, but the inability for humans to even seek after God’s righteousness in the first place. What if, apart from God’s own presence and instruction, humanity is locked away in darkness, incapable of finding the way to God, both because we do not know what God it is that seeks and even when we do, we would be incapable of obeying it in the first place because it is so against who we naturally are? The problem then isn’t that God is expecting perfection we fall short of it, but that He simply desires for people to seek after what is truly good, life-giving, and peace-bringing and it is these people who will live eternally but we are not on our capable on our own of doing that. This problem suggests a different solution: the solution is for God to bring revelation of His righteousness and empower us to live that moral knowledge out in our lives.
With this in mind, I will suggest what is more central to Paul’s soteriology is sanctification, not justification, and that justification is the CONSEQUENCE of sanctification. However, a brief definitional clarify is in order. Sanctification, that is being made holy, is not about our behaviors as much as it is a person being set apart and distinguished from the world in such a way that they are prepared and open in their heart to seek after and do the will of God. This requires both instruction and knowledge about God’s will and a moral liberation so as to be able to live out God’s will. However, this knowledge and liberation does not automatically equate to perfect results. This change in people’s behaviors emerges over time, as they are freed to live their lives according to God’s will rather than the ways that they had learned. Yet, because one is being set on a new trajectory in their life through revelation and liberation, the course of one’s life is to seek what is good, giving a confident assurance to such people that they will stand at the judgment. Thus, because people are set apart for God’s will being instructed and liberated, God sees them as righteous because of their faith because their relationship to the God who reveals and liberates is determining the course of their life toward what is righteous and good. Thus, sanctification makes God see those who believe in Him to be those who will be vindicated at the judgment.
I would suggest Paul’s understanding works according to the logic of sanctification narratively preceding justification. We see a strong indicator of this in 1 Corinthians 6.9-11:
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
Here, the order Paul mentions is baptism, sanctification, and justification. While some commentators have suggested this isn’t intended to be an order, I think this order is central to Paul’s understanding for believers in Christ. We see a similar pattern demonstrated in Romans 6.1-11:
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is justified apart from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Notice that believers are spoken of as going through a pattern: baptism, baptism into death, then union with Jesus’ resurrection. Then what does Paul say about being united with Jesus’ death: that the body of sin is destroyed so that one is liberated from sin. Given that Paul primarily understands sanctification being connected with how one uses one’s body (Rom. 6.19, 1 Th. 4.3-7), Paul’s language in vs. 6 suggests that union with Christ’s death brings about sanctification. This is then followed in vs. 7 with a statement that to die, that is to be sanctified, is also justified apart from sin. If you note that multiple times in Romans, Paul connects justification with resurrection and life, not death (Rom. 2.13 in the context of 2.6,10; 4.24-25, 5.18). That justification is connected to life helps to make sense of the way that through Rom. 6 Paul connects death and life together. So, we can see the themes of sanctification and justification being fit onto the union of the believer with Christ where baptism leads to sanctifying union with Christ’s death which then leads to one’s justifying union with Christ in the resurrection.
So, then we can proceed a little later in the chapter to Romans 6.20-23:
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Here, we see Paul call the advantage of being freed from sin is that the person is sanctified, that is set apart to do the will of the God one is ‘enslaved’ to. Notice what Paul says is the end or outcome of this: eternal life. Whereas death is the outcome of the sin they were previously enslaved to, eternal life is the outcome of the freedom from sin that brings about sanctification. If we recall back to Romans 2.7, Paul says that God gives eternal life to those who endure in doing good and later in v. 13 Paul describes those who do the Law/Torah as being justified. This connection of eternal life and justification once against demonstrates for Paul that sanctification precedes justification.
Of course, it needs to be stated at this point that the relationship between sanctification and justification emerges from the union of the believer with Christ’s death and resurrection. That is to state that justification is NARRATIVELY dependent upon sanctification. Paul’s concern is not to address the temporal order in which the fruits of sanctification and justification become apparent in the believer’s life. Paul is not giving an abstract, paradigmatic ordo salutis in Romans 6 or 1 Corinthians 6, but he is rather describing the narrative of redemption. He is connecting the hope of redemption in the revelation of Jesus Christ to the way Christ’s death and resurrection is realized in the believers’ life. One does not, however, become united with Christ’s death first and then sometime later become united with Christ’s life, because Christ has already died and been raised with the dead, so that to be united with Christ is to be temporally nited with His death and resurrection at the same time.
So, for those who wish to look at how this plays out in the Christian experience, we can say that sanctification and justification temporally occur at the same time, whereas people’s awareness and realization of these realities may occur in different orders. Some people might become aware of their new relationship with God prior to noticing the transformation of their heart to do good; for others, it might be the reverse. Also, Paul doesn’t mean to suggest that the sanctified believer’s action are entirely changed immediately: Paul’s exhortation to Romans 6.12 suggests that the freedom from sin is something that is to be realized in the way they no longer let sin control their use of their body. This all the more reinforces the idea that sanctification is about the liberation of the heart to do God’s will, but that this new spiritual freedom must then become realized in the way believer’s use their body.
However, the point is this: for Paul, not only is sanctification necessary for justification for Paul. Sanctification is the very reason people are justified, as it is one’s liberation and instruction in Christ so as to do the will of God that allows one to be able to confidently stand at the judgment as those who endured in doing good. Paul doesn’t say that God demands sinless perfection at the judgment, but only that God considers whether the person’s life was defined by doing good things that God’s will calls us towards. This is why Paul can say in Romans 8.10 that the Spirit brings life because of righteousness: it is the transformation of character and life that sanctification brings that leads to life, which alternative can said to mean that the sanctifying work of the Spirit bears the fruit of eternal life.
In short, perhaps what I have understood to be problem with the Protestant Reformation can be summarized in a simple way: because of its emphasis on justification by faith, the Protestant Reformation flipped Paul’s soteriology upside down, making justification logically, if not temporally, precede sanctification. What if Wesleyan theology’s great contribution is that it provided a greater emphasis upon sanctification in the Christian life. Perhaps Wesley’s belief that [entire sanctification] is the great depositum from God for the Methodists was God’s inspiration to lead the Church closer to correct for some of the excesses of the Protestant Reformation, even as Wesley still treated justification as logically prior to sanctification
In other words, it seems to be that sanctification is really the first half of the Gospel in our union with Christ’s death and justification the second half of the Gospel in our union with Christ’s resurrection.