And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Romans 4:5-8)
Justification involves God forgiving sin. Some would argue that it does not, but without the forgiveness of sin, we cannot be made right with God.
In Paul’s magnificent treatment of this doctrine in Romans 4, he points to David as proof that justification is by faith alone, when he wrote in Psalm 32, “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.” Forgiveness happens when one person says to another, “I won’t count this against you. I choose to forgive, rather than condemn.”
Justification and forgiveness change the way one person is viewed by another. When God justifies a person, he makes a legal declaration about them. He makes them right in relationship to himself. But this does not change people in a practical way. There is no change in our thinking, behavior, or attitude. Justification is not sanctification, for when God sanctifies a person, he actively does something in them.
You might think, James, why are you writing this? What’s the big deal? Why do I need to know the difference? After all, as long as you read the Bible and love Jesus, you don’t need to know these theological definitions, right?
If you think justification and sanctification are the same thing, then the very foundation of your standing with God will shake beneath you. You will despair of God’s love after that lonely late night affair with pornography. You will doubt that God is for you when you yet again blown up at your children for running around the house. You will wonder if God will ignore your prayers after you have neglected sharing the gospel with your neighbor. You will wonder if God will abandon his commitment to you after you have spoken harshly to your spouse.
If, to you, justification and sanctification are the same, you will always wrestle with whether you are enough for God. The truth is, you and I will never be enough. But Jesus is. So praise be to God that because of Christ “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4).