Justified and Ancient…or is that Anxious?

(aka What’s the Difference between Justification and Sanctification?)

Surely in the annals of the history of music so bad it’s good, there is a place for that weird collaboration of British Band KLF and country music singer Tammy Wynette, “Justified and Ancient.” In fact, every time I hear the term “justified” in relation to faith, I can’t help but singing that song a little in my brain.

The song makes no sense at all and has no deep meaning, but the main lyric is “They’re justified and they’re ancient.” Now, this song came out before there was Google. I have told my daughter many times how lucky she is never to have to wonder about a song lyric. She will never know the pain of having to patiently wait until a song comes on the radio so that you can listen one more time and try to catch some phrase that has so far eluded you. So, when this weird song first hit the airwaves, I was sure that they were singing, “They’re justified and they’re anxious.”

I’ve decided that, theologically, my way makes much more sense.

Because we are justified. Galatians 2:16 tells us: yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.

Please indulge me for a minute while I go full-on original Greek Grammar Geek here. Much has been written and many words have been exchanged regarding the objective and subjective genitive of Galatians 2, verse 16. The original Pistis Christou is often translated as the objective genitive, “faith in Jesus.” However, it could also be translated as a subjective genitive, which would be “faith of Jesus.” So, either we receive justification by believing in Jesus or Jesus bestows justification by his own faith.

Richard Hays argued in his book, The Faith of Jesus Christ, for the latter. Many have agreed with his position; that is, they put their money on Jesus. Certainly the early translations (Coptic, Syriac, and Latin) support this view. And it makes sense. If justification rests upon human belief, then faith becomes a work and no longer faith. And, it gives Jesus no active role in the process. He’d just be sitting around waiting for folks to believe in him.

Justification is the work of God and it is through the faith and actions of Jesus Christ that we are justified.  This righteousness is not earned or retained by any effort on our part. Justification is based completely and solely upon Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. No works are necessary. It is a gift. God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. We are justified.

But we’re still a little anxious about it, aren’t we? It all just seems a little unbelievable to be given something we haven’t earned. To be handed a gift that won’t be taken back if we don’t take good care of it. We confuse justification with sanctification.

Where justification is a legal declaration that is instantaneous, sanctification is a process. Sanctification is the process of being set apart for God’s work and being conformed to the image of Christ. In other words, we contribute to sanctification through our efforts. Significantly, sanctification has no bearing on justification. That is, even if we don’t live a perfect life, we are still justified. So there really is no need to be anxious…at least not about that.

Sanctify means to be set apart for holy use. Do you feel like your life is set apart for holy use? Between getting the kids up and out the door to school, whittling down that to do list at work, hoping you don’t run out of clothes before you have a chance to do laundry and/or trying to figure out how to get in yet another doctors appointment, do you feel like there’s a whole lot of holy going on in your life?

We like to think of holiness as being built by times of intense meditation and prayer, but the truth is that real life is the stuff that sanctification is made of. While times of silence and prayer and retreat are critical to all of our spiritual lives, true sanctification happens in the midst of loud, painful, joyful, busy, chaotic lives. We know we are really making strides in this whole business of sanctification when we can discover divinity in the drudgery that inevitably comes with everyday life.

I kind of believe we get to the first level of sanctification when we study the scriptures, adopt a prayer practice, find ways to serve others regularly.

But we move to an entirely different level when can scrub 10 pounds of potatoes and spend the whole time marveling that an ugly brown lump that grows underground can provide such delicious nourishment

When we can love that co-worker who is intent on making our life harder because we remember that God loves that person, too.

When waiting becomes an opportunity rather than an inconvenience

When something we don’t want to do (like hold the hand of someone in the hospital, or reach out to a homeless person) becomes something we are deeply committed to because our desire to be compassionate overrides our need for comfort.

Our holiness or sanctification grows when we seek and see the Holy in all that we encounter.

Sanctification is not a contest, and there’s no finish line. The journey toward sanctification is one we will never finish in this lifetime, and the only one who wins anything is the one making the journey. And no matter how far you make it in that journey—even if you never really get started—the justification never goes away. We are justified and saved by what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. Something we did nothing to earn. Something we can never repay.

So let’s not be justified and anxious. Let’s journey together toward holiness in the light of God’s unconditional love. We are justified for now and all time, and we’re being sanctified all along the way.

–Rev. Anne Russ

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