Justification, Sanctification, and Grace

If you’re browsing along, and see the topic of this post, chances are good you’ve already clicked the next link on your blogroll, especially if you’re not a Christian. You probably don’t realize this isn’t really a theological discourse — well, in a way it is, I suppose, as all discussions of the spiritual life are in some way theological — but my intent is not to bore you to tears. But I will certainly understand if you can’t get past the “God-words.” No problem, happy browsing, drop back again for another topic of more interest to you.

Even if you are a Christian, you’re probably getting a little nervous already, as your eyes glaze over when this sort of stuff gets talked about at church or your bible study. Hang with me a few minutes, then surf on if I get too deep — fair enough?

Good, glad you stayed.

In a prior post on purpose in life, prompted by some musings by Rick over at Brutally Honest, we got some discussion going — at both blogs — on these very topics. Yes, we all need a life, I suppose — unless this stuff really is about getting a life, at least one that matters. At the core of this discussion is some reflection on how well we’re doing in life — specifically whether our lives make a difference to someone other than ourselves, whether as Christians (or just people trying to do the right thing) we’re behaving in ways which are pleasing to God, or meet with His approval, or following the Golden Rule — whatever that might be.

I recall a conversation I had some years ago with a young man in Britain, in the old Compuserve forum days. He, an atheist/agnostic, said something to the effect of, “All religions are the same — there’s basically a set of rules to follow, and if you obey them, you get rewarded by going to heaven.”

And I agreed with him (to his surprise) — with one caveat: that Christianity is the one exception to his otherwise astute observation. In Christianity, it’s not about doing something different, it’s about being something different.

So how does that work? And aren’t Christians all about being good, following the Bible, going to church — and condemning and judging those who don’t?

Yeah, all too often we are. Sad but true. But that’s not really how it’s supposed to work, you know. Which is how we somehow started discussing these “God-words,” or what I call the “-cation” words: justification, sanctification, and vacation. (Well maybe not the last one, but God do I love vacations!). So what do they mean?

Well, “justification” is really a legal term — same root meaning as justice. The term was used in ancient Greek civic culture for writing off a substantial, unpayable debt. It basically says we’re seriously busted, in deep doo-doo, goin’ to court before the judge with a public defender who was out drinking all night and comes to court with a bimbo on each arm. We’re guilty as sin, our tattooed arms and body piercings are on full display, and sitting on the throne is Judge Judy — and she’s got her bitch on, bad. We’re goin’ up the river for a life of TVs in our cells and tin cups, weight rooms and a big guy named Willie who thinks we’re really, really cute.

Then this dude whispers in Judy’s ear. She grumbles a bit, huffs, then blows us away with some unexpected news: you’re free to go. Your guilty as charged, but some stranger has stepped in and offered to do your time for you, to pay your debt in full. Wha?? Dude!! “As far as this court is concerned, you are as good as innocent”, says the Judge. “Now get outta here!”

That’s justification.

Declared “not guilty” through no merit of my own. Too good to be true. Why would anyone do such a thing?

Well, to push the metaphor, already strained, a bit farther: it seems this guy who’s paid the price to set you free has been watching you for a long, long time. He’s sees in you something of himself, and envisions for you a potential far greater than anything you could ever imagine. He’s got great plans for you; you fit just perfectly into a grand scheme he’s been thinking about since long before your sorry ass landed on this planet. It’s worth it to him to pay such a price, because the outcome of this grand plan means everything to him. And so he’s given you this gift to make it happen. For free.

Well, there is just one small detail I forgot to mention: a small “postage and handling” fee for this get-out-of-jail transaction. This little liberation will cost you, ummh, pretty much everything you now value. Your self-will. Your selfish, self-centered pig-headedness. Your arrogant and clueless idea of what’s best for you and what will make you happy. Your crazy idea that if you do what you want and get what you want, you’ll finally be content and at peace (how’s that workin’ for ya?). In other words, all that garbage which got your sorry butt busted in the first place.

Bend the knee, suckah — instead of serving time, you gonna be serving eternity.

Suddenly the deal’s not lookin’ so good. You’ve heard Willie’s not such a bad guy after all — and you have been meaning to get pumped up and work on that 6-pack you’ve always wanted…

But in the end you decide to trust this crazy guy whose already footed the bill for your get-out-of-jail-free card. Of course, he already knows what a pathetic sonofabitch you are, and having spent the big bucks to get you off the hook, is fully prepared to do the heavy lifting necessary to transform you into the useful and happy partner — dare I say friend? — which he’s always envisioned you to be. But first you need a major cleanup, starting from the inside out, since a whitewash is never gonna cut it. Extreme makeover needed — on the inside. The outside will take care of itself, in time.

This, my friends, is what we call sanctification.

An extreme makeover, from the inside out. Sounds painful.

It is. Especially if we try to do it ourselves.

Having won the lotto and walked out of court with no prison rap, you are, understandably, pretty darn grateful to this mysterious benefactor whose been so incredibly generous and kind to you. So, of course, not quite getting the program, you try to follow the rules he seems to have in place, figuring this will make him happy. So you go to church; start reading the Bible; say a few prayers; try to be good. You hang around with others who been similarly pardoned — although you find them pretty darn boring, compared to the run-and-gun crowd you’ve always hung out with.

And it really doesn’t work out all that well. The harder you try, the more you come up short. The siren song of your life of self-service is always singing in your ears, beckoning you back to that “happy” life and the “good times” you remember. You fall on your face — a lot. And those Christian “friends” you have? They’re starting to really get on your nerves. Telling you to just try harder, pray more, read your Bible (like that works!). Frowning a lot when you share with them your weaknesses and failures. Talking about you behind your back because you’re a “backslider.”

The demons inside start running the show more and more, those addictions and obsessions which you were supposed to get rid of when you signed on to this deal. They start sounding ever more reasonable, comforting you with how important it is to get your needs met. Before you know it, you are making a bee-line toward the place where you began — or worse. Those seductive voices even begin to sound a lot like God, so surely you must be on track, and with some more effort you’ll surely get there. You wonder where this “peace” and “happiness” is they sing about and talk about in church — and to be honest, those hypocritical holier-than-thou Christians don’t look all that happy and joyful themselves — bastards. Pretty soon it all seems like a bad dream, and you’ve ended up worse off than you began.

This, my friends, is not sanctification. It is slavery.

You’re trying to build the perfect house with defective tools and flawed materials. You’re using your very best efforts to improve your lot when your very best efforts are your very worst enemy. You’re trying to perform that extreme makeover, working from the outside in. The outside may look a little better — but the inside is still the same: selfish, self-centered, fearful, ugly, black. You are trying do the work of God with the hands of man — and you are doomed to fail. You end up exhausted and spent, and never become that integral and integrated person who makes God’s purposes move forward and makes your own life meaningful, contented, and filled with the satisfaction of living with purpose.

I know. I’ve tried this approach. Didn’t work out very well.

So how is it supposed to work, this Christianity thing? Are we set free only to spend the rest of our lives as miserable failures scrambling to meet a host of impossible goals? The answer is, as you might expect, no; the key is a truly strange and rather wonderful solution indeed. It is far more strange — bizarre even — than anything you might have imagined.

It is a thing called grace.

And like any good daytime soap or episode of Lost, I will leave you wondering just what that funny word is all about … until my next post, anyway.

Thanks for sticking with me. Back soon with more.

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14 thoughts on “Justification, Sanctification, and Grace

  1. Great post! I remember when I first became a Christian three years ago I couldn’t figure out what the difference was between these terms. I wish I had had this to read back then!

  2. uh yes…my eyes did glaze over at first…had to come back after some caffeine….and so glad I did.
    Thanks for taking on these words and illuminating their meaning so colorfully.
    I have just started to understand God’s grace in my life in the past year after 40 years as a Christian…so I look forward to your next post.
    Many Thanks. God Bless.

  3. What an amazing post; very well put. I have found in myself that all too often I end up going right back to the sins that I have just recently attempted to conquer. At some level, we love our sins and are only too happy to return to them. The answer is grace, which I look forward to reading about in your next installment.

  4. Time and eternity. Understanding of time is rooted in our humanity so eternity is too. They are conflated. Man’s endeavors to find “salvation” are similarly fraught with error because all measurement, knowledge, is rooted in our finite being. Be careful claiming true and absolute knowledge of Reality. It may be possible but in that eventuality it will end up being so nuanced as to have gone somewhat beyond the realm of religion. Art too stakes a claim on truth. Beauty anyone? So does history and of course science. Art was followed by religion as “methods” of accommodating/understanding all that is. History and science came afterwards. Is there one method that subsumes all the others? Yes, I think so. And yes, God is. But that, in a sense, conveys no information. I would know, no, not know! understand, no, not understand! be one with, God but then is it possible not to?

  5. Sure thing. I suppose this is a bit of obscurantism, but if the universe itself is opaque, depending on how you look at it I suppose, what do you expect? I am just skeptical that faith or reason either can ever take you where you think you are or where you want to go. They, at best, are stages on life’s way, to borrow from S. Kierkegaard.

    I think existence is either full of meaning and purpose or not. It depends entirely on the observer’s will.

  6. Good post…and thanks to Maggie’s Farm for the hat/tip back to you.

    I think that I have spent more time in Judge Judy’s courtroom than I have anywhere else. And Lord only knows that grace is indeed, amazing. But now I see the young who really need that grace even more so than us reprobates from decades past. Life gets uglier and more degenerate by the minute–and there’s no need to go off to Sudan or Burma to see it when it’s smack in Upper Manhattan Georgetown, Cambridge, Evanston, and San Francisco, et al.

    I will pass along your post to one young guy–my son–in hopes that he will share it with his “bro’s”. I hope to see your next post soon.

  7. Sarahmax, My reading of that great Christian mind Thomas Merton helped me understand the Zen aphorism “Discovery is the action of the unknown”. The beauty of this very nuanced observation is an assist for the finite mind to, as you say, get a grip on the divine, “put God in a box”, while at the same time leaving the box so tenuous that God remains free of anthropogenic constraints. Likewise the thinker herself. The mystery is not defined, merely touched.

  8. The thing that really sets Christianity apart from all other religions–and the part that hangs up so many people who want to see religion as a set of rules, a code to live by, etc.–is that they guy who paid the price and whispered in Judge Judy’s ear didn’t just cough up some money; He paid the ultimate price, with His life.

    A number of years ago on MLK Day, a local news program had soundbites from some grade-school girls. Asked why Martin Luther King Day was so important, one little girl said, “Because he died to set us free!” I croaked. A) If the same had been said about Jesus Christ, the soundbite would never have been aired; not here. B) MLK did not knowingly, willingly die to set anyone free; he was gunned down by an assailant. Jesus, on the other hand, knew what was coming and went through it, anyway.

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