If you’ve been a Christian for any amount of time, you know how it feels to struggle to live up to your calling in Jesus. You have, no doubt, read His words and those in the rest of Scripture that describe what holiness really looks like. It is overwhelming to consider all the ways we fall short, and when this is our main focus we feel burdened with guilt and a sense of defeat. Instead of living in the freedom, grace, and blessing of our righteous standing in Christ, we try to do the impossible—be righteous in our own strength and maintain our salvation by human willpower and effort.
Our heavenly Father never intended for you or me to bear this heavy weight, or to doubt the security of our relationship with Him. We can be freed from many concerns and apprehensions by gaining a fuller understanding of all that was accomplished on our behalf at the cross. The New Testament uses three terms to describe God’s saving work in our lives.
The first aspect of our salvation is justification. “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in the hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1-2).
There is no way we can enjoy a victorious Christian life unless we understand the biblical meaning of justification, because it’s the foundation of everything else we believe about salvation. To be justified is to be declared righteous by the Lord. Justification was initiated by God’s grace, accomplished by Christ’s death and resurrection, and is received by us through faith.
Jesus lived a sinless life and obeyed the law of God perfectly. Then He offered Himself on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice for our sin. When we trust in Christ through faith, God declares us not guilty because Jesus took on our sin and suffered the punishment that we deserved: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
Praise God, justification is all of His work and none of ours, due solely to His grace and not our works (Gal. 2:16). The Lord doesn’t look down and see some goodness or worthiness in us that warrants salvation (Rom. 3:23-24). On the contrary, there is nothing we can do to make ourselves righteous or acceptable to holy God. The only way to be made righteous is by His amazing grace, through faith in His Son.
The second part of salvation is sanctification. This too is a work of God on our behalf. “By His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). Justification is a legal pronouncement that happened when we came to faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior. Although sanctification began at the same time, it’s a process that continues throughout our lives as Christ’s righteousness is accomplished in and through us by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.
Our position of righteousness can never be changed because Christ’s work on the cross cannot be undone. We are reconciled with the Father, redeemed by the blood of Christ, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit—forever. These are the foundational truths to which we must cling whenever sin threatens to entangle us, guilt overwhelms us, and discouragement overshadows our joy in Christ. Even in the midst of defeat, we can be confident that the good work God began in us will be completed by Him as well (Phil. 1:6).
Although God is the one transforming us into His Son’s image, we do play a role in the process. The Lord uses a variety of means to mature us, and in order to grow spiritually we must be teachable, yielding to His Spirit and filling our minds with truths from His Word. And in the process, there’s comfort in knowing that one day our growth will be complete (Phil. 3:12).
The third and final aspect of salvation is glorification. A day is coming when our righteous standing before God will become a living reality. “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself” (Phil. 3:20-21). Our battle with sin will be over, and we’ll never be burdened with guilt again. We will live eternally in the complete freedom of being personally righteous as well as righteous through Jesus.
Until then we walk by faith knowing that we belong to Christ, our sins are forgiven, we’ve been declared righteous, and nothing can separate us from His love. However, tempting as it may seem to rely on justification, ignore sanctification, and live as we please until we’re glorified, that is not our goal. On the contrary, we must pursue “the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
Out of gratitude and love, your desire should be to reflect in practice what you are in position. In that way your life will become a display of Christ’s character, for your good and His glory.
Charles F. Stanley
P.S. There is great comfort in knowing that God has provided everything we need in salvation to both rest in Christ’s righteousness and grow in it. Take time to thank and praise Him for His great mercy and grace toward you through Christ Jesus.