Sanctification and the final judgment

How is one to reconcile a judgment based on works with the New Testament emphasis on salvation by grace, apart from works?

Raoul Dederen is professor of theology at Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, and an associate editor of MINISTRY.


In a previous article, we noted what may seem a surprising fact to some—that both Roman Catholics and Protestants hold that man is justified by God's grace. 1 Fundamental divergences exist, however, between the two positions.

While it is true that the Catholic Church has elevated to official status the notions of grace and justification, it has used these categories in a sense often vastly different from their Biblical connotations. Thus, justification has come to describe God's work within us instead of a declaration of acquittal. Likewise, sanctifying grace has taken a meaning substantially at variance with what many Protestants regard as its Biblical sense.

In this article we will briefly sort out the main doctrinal elements of the Catholic doctrine of sanctifying grace and then offer a succinct view of an Adventist understanding of the Biblical teaching on the issue.

The Tridentine doctrine

The gospel message of salvation declares repeatedly that believers are saved in Jesus Christ, redeemed by His life, death, and resurrection, and that justification is Christ's redemptive work applied to the individual soul. Some four hundred years ago Luther and Calvin affirmed loud and clear that the root idea in justification is the declaration of God, the righteous Judge, that the one who believes in Christ, sinful though he may be, is righteous.

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) defined the Catholic doctrine in distinction from the Reformers' theology. Three major points stand out in that definition: (1) justification implies not merely the nonimputation of man's sins for punishment (Denz 1561)2 but a real remission of sins, as well (Denz 1528); (2) it involves an interior renewal of man by the infusion of divine grace and gifts (Denz 1528) and, therefore, a new ontological reality; (3) it demands man's voluntary acceptance of grace and gifts (Denz 1528), as well as his co operation in the preparation of justification (cf. Denz 1526).

The contrast is obvious. Over against the Reformers' forensic-extrinsic understanding of justification (that God, as judge, declares a man to be righteous by virtue of God's grace and man's faith in Christ's redemptive work),3 the Tridentine decrees emphasized the inner trans formation of man. It is " 'not only the remission of sins but also a sanctification and renovation of the interior man,'" the council ruled.4 It consists, remarks Karl Rahner, "in the constitution of a new creature." 5 In other words, Catholic theology understands justification as a process, losing sight of an accurate understanding of justification as a legal act, in contrast to the moral process of sanctification, the work of a lifetime. 6

An ontological transformation

In the Catholic view, willful separation from God is undone in justification. A transformation, an actual "ontological happening," 7 takes place by the infusion of sanctifying grace. 8 God's life and love, His sanctifying grace, is the way God lives within us, explains a modern Catholic catechism.9 Catholic theology affirms that sanctifying grace is received for the first time at baptism. 10 One is to preserve it permanently, until the end, 11 and restore it when lost, for indeed it can be lost through deliberate mortal sin. Therefore, one must seek to grow in sanctifying grace "with an eagerness that sees the sky as the limit." 12

It should be added that while justification is regarded as an ontological transformation, this does not mean that man's innate inclination to evil—or concupiscence, as Catholics call it—has faded away. Not at all. 13 But Christ's redemptive work, applied to individual believers by forgiveness of sin and infusion of sanctifying grace, is continued through the sacraments dispensed by the church. Indeed, if entered into with the appropriate inner disposition, each sacrament14 will provide the believer with the sacramental grace he needs to meet the particular demands and temptations of life. Nourishing and strengthening the believer's faith, sacramental grace will deepen the life of sanctifying grace, 15 and help the faithful "to achieve the eternal life and the in creased glory that . . . [they] have merited." 16

One should keep in mind, as the New Catholic Encyclopedia further explains, that "man's justification remains imperfect. ... It is always perfectible and capable of growth in grace." 17 It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that in its description of the nature and function of sanctifying grace Roman Catholic doctrine has come to confuse justification and sanctification, at least from what appears to be the viewpoint of the Biblical teaching on the subject.

The Biblical doctrine

The Scriptures clearly point out both a definite relationship and a definite distinction between justification and sanctification. Justified through faith in Jesus Christ and apart from works of the law (Gal. 2:16; 3:11), the believer is urged to "put off the old nature with its practices" and to put on the new man, "which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator" (Col. 3:9, 10).* And it is to born-again believers who had already "tasted the heavenly gift" that Paul writes, "Be transformed by the renewal of your mind" (Rom. 12:2). The Scriptures repeatedly imply that sanctification is an experience distinct from, or subsequent to, con version.

"To sanctify" in the Bible means generally to make holy, by separation from the world and consecration to God. Among other things, it may apply to people (Ex. 13:2), to places (chap. 29:44), to objects (verses 36, 37), or to the Sabbath (Neh. 13:19-22; Eze. 20:20). Notice the contrast here is between the sacred and the common, not be tween moral perfection and sin.

The phrase also denotes an ethical or moral condition appropriate to this state of consecration, as when the term is applied to the New Testament "saints" (cf. Rom. 1:7; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2). In this case sanctification is the state in which the justified believer finds himself, as well as the active process by which his life is made holy. In both usages the pivot is one's concept of God and what it means to belong to Him. To belong to God, to be His servant, His son or daughter, is no longer a mere external matter, but a personal relationship. The sanctified life is thus a life of personal fellowship with the Father lived out in the Spirit of Christ, in loving trust and obedient service.

We may sum up as follows: sanctification is that act of God by which He delivers the justified sinner from the dominion of sin, renews him ac cording to the image of Christ, and enables him to walk in all good works that God has prepared for him. 18 In all of this, however, one fact stands out, namely, that sanctification is a process that follows justification. Sanctification is a new spirit in us, a spirit that we have in personal relationship with God. It is a fellowship just as certainly as is justification.

Walking in newness of life

While it is God's gift, sanctification is also man's task. Thus, Paul, who unhesitatingly affirms that "this is the will of God, your sanctification" (1 Thess. 4:3), also emphasizes that "since we have these promises ... let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God" (2 Cor. 7:1). Significant also is his use of the word walk. We are to "walk in newness of life," "by the Spirit," "in love," "worthy of the Lord" (Rom. 6:4; Gal. 5:16; Eph. 5:2; Col. 1:10). 19 The gift in each case becomes the task and, in deed, becomes real and effective only in this activity. God freely works sanctification out in us through the Holy Spirit on the basis of Christ's righteousness imputed to us in justification. This is why sanctification is the matter of a lifetime and not a moment. Man may in a moment stand in a saving fellowship with God, but sanctification is the continuous in-forming of a new spirit.

Apparently, then, sanctification and good works are intimately related. Such good works are the expression of the new life in Jesus Christ—the fruits of sanctification. They cannot be regarded as necessary to merit salvation, since "by grace you have been saved through faith" as a gift of God, "not because of works, lest any man should boast" (Eph. 2:5, 9). 20 Yet at the same time good works necessarily follow the believer's union with Christ. Wrote Paul, "We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (verse 10). 21

"According to his works"

What, then, is the relationship be tween good works and judgment? There is indeed a Biblical doctrine of judgment according to works, which seems in line with the Biblical insistence on good works. At the same time, how is one to reconcile a judgment based on works with the New Testament emphasis on salvation by grace, apart from works?

Let us first recognize that in more than one place the future judgment of God is clearly connected with what each of us will have done. God, we are told, will render to every man according to his works. This is clearly the view of Paul (Rom. 2:6), who does not hesitate to add that not the hearer but the doer of the law will be justified (verse 13). (Notice the future tense.) Quite similarly Peter exhorts his fellow believers to invoke as Father "him who judges each one impartially according to his deeds" (1 Peter 1:17).

When we weigh the implications of such statements we see how difficult it is to claim that the death and resurrection of the Lord has abrogated for believers the judgment to come,22 or that in this judgment the criterion will lie only in the presence of faith and not also of works. Again and again believers are exhorted to the life that is from the Spirit and to the exhibition of the fruit of the Spirit. 23 Obviously, for the Biblical writers, the twin realities of justification by faith and of God's judgment of every man on the basis of his works are in no respect contradictory.

Partaking of two ages

Shall we assume, as some have suggested, that justification acquits the believer of the sins he committed prior to justification, while some other means—such as sanctification—cares for sins committed afterward? No. The answer to this disconcerting emphasis on both justification by faith and the believer's coming judgment based on works lies elsewhere. It is to be found in the eschatological character of justification.

The righteousness a sinner receives from God is actually some thing that belongs to the end of history and the final judgment. On that day the issue will be either a declaration of righteousness meaning acquittal from all guilt or a declaration of unrighteousness resulting in condemnation. Truly, "by one man's obedience many will be made righteous" (Rom. 5:19). 24 Ours is the "hope of righteousness," the forensic pronouncement of acquittal for which we wait (Gal. 5:5). Notice again Paul's use of the future tense.

At the same time, however, the future eschatological justification has already taken place. This is precisely the good news of the gospel. "Since we are [or already have been] justified by faith, we have peace with God" (Rom. 5:1) claims Paul, who could add that "we are now [that is, have now been] justified by his blood" (v. 9). Justification that primarily means acquittal at the final judgment has already taken place in the present on the ground of Christ's shed blood. Through faith in Christ, the believer has already been justified—that is, acquitted of the guilt of sin, and delivered from condemnation. Justification, which belongs to the age to come has become a present reality, inasmuch as Christ, by His victory over death, has brought its blessings to man. Thus, our righteousness-justification (like our entering into the kingdom of God) is at once something that we now have and also something for which we still wait. 25

The ground of man's salvation

Where shall one find the ground of man's salvation in the final judgment? Surely not in human works as merit. All we shall be able to show on that day is filthy garments, defective characters, sins of ingratitude, and unlikeness to Christ. Christ alone will be our hope, our defense, our justification and redemption then, even as He is our hope today. His robe of righteousness will cover us, and we shall be prepared to give Him all the glory of our salvation.

What about one's works, which the Scriptures point to as the criterion of justification on that day? These works may be summed up as the "work of faith." They are faith's indispensable fruit, found side by side with the "labor of love" and the "steadfastness of hope" in the Christian life (1 Thess. 1:3). There is, therefore, no room for a theology that sees justification by faith as the initial judicial act of God taking place in the present, followed in the final judgment by a justification based on works. Justification both now and in the future judgment comes by faith imputed for righteousness. Works, to be sure, are indispensable as a demonstration of true faith, and in that sense one can speak of the reckoning of works for righteousness, as well as of sanctification freely worked out within us through the Spirit on the basis of the righteousness of Christ.

We must not, then, consider a judgment of believers according to their works to be an inconsistency in the overall context of sanctification. It is not, on the part of the Biblical writers, an unconscious clinging to a doctrine of salvation by works. On the contrary, it is a testimony to the unity of grace, faith, and works as plainly delineated in Paul's remark to the Ephesians, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:8-10). Grace, faith, and works constitute an integral unity in the Biblical unfolding of salvation as redemption in Christ. Christ's dying for the sins of His people and their dying to these sins are inseparable. Losing sight of one deprives both of their real character. 26


* Bible texts in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.

1 See my  "Justification by Grace: a Brief Investigation in the Catholic and Protestant Positions," Ministry, March, 1978, pp. 4-7.

2 References are to Henricus Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum (Rome: Herder, 1961), translated in English as Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, trans. Roy J. Ferrari (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1957). References are to paragraph numbers.

3 The New Testament forensic-extrinsic metaphor justification, as Paul develops it, is one drawn from the law court, i.e., a legal process culminating in a verdict of acquittal.

4 Denz 1528. Cf. P. de Letter, "Justification: the Church's Teaching," New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967) VIII, pp. 84, 85.

5 Karl Rahner, "Grace," Sacramentum Mundi: an Encyclopedia of Theology (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968), Karl Rahner et al., eds., II, p. 418.

6 The confusion between justification and sanctification come out clearly in statements such as "The reparation of sinful man in justification is never complete in this life" (New Catholic Encyclopedia, VIII, p. 82; cf. p. 81).

7 Ibid., p. 91.

8 Sanctifying grace is also called "habitual grace," because it is intended to be a habitual, permanent condition of man.

9 Anthony J. Wilhelm, Christ Among Us: a Modern Presentation of the Catholic Faith, rev. ed. (Paramus, New Jersey: The Paulist Press, 1973), p. 32. Cf. The Teaching of Christ: a Catholic Catechism for Adults, Ronald Lawler et al., eds. (Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 1976), p. 373.

10 See, for instance, Leo J. Trese, The Faith Explained, rev. ed. (Notre Dame, Indiana: Fides Publishers, 1971), pp. 55, 101, 107, 293.

11 Thus living and dying in a "state of grace."

12 L. J. Trese, The Faith Explained, p. 102.

13 This is left, defines Trent, "to provide trial, but has no power to harm those who do not consent and who, by the power of Christ, manfully resist" (Denz 1515).

14 There are seven such sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist or Lord's Supper, Penance, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders, and Marriage.

15 For Vatican Council II's understanding of the purpose of the sacraments see "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy," art. 59.

16 J. L. Trese, The Faith Explained, p. 114.

17 New Catholic Encyclopedia, VIII, p. 82.

18 Eph. 2:10.

19 Other New Testament statements exhort us to walk "becomingly as in the day" (Rom. 13:13); "by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor. 5:7); "in the light" as God is (1 John 1:7).

20 On the insufficiency of works for salvation, see Rom. 3:20-31; 11:6; Gal. 2:16, 19, 21; 2 Tim. 1:9.

21 Cf. Col. 1:10; Titus 2:14; Heb. 10:24.

22 Time and again Paul points fellow believers to the judgment seat of Christ before which we must all appear (see 2 Cor. 5:10; cf. Rom. 14:10, 11; Eph. 6:8; Col. 3:22-4:1).

23 Cf. Gal. 6:8-10; 2 Cor. 5:17; Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:22-24.

24 Notice the use of the future tense in other statements as well Matt. 12:36, 37; Rom. 8:33, 34; 2:13.

25 Gal. 5:5; Phil. 1:6, 11; 3:12-16. George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), pp. 441-443.

26 On this subject see G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Justification (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), pp. 103-112.

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Raoul Dederen is professor of theology at Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, and an associate editor of MINISTRY.

May 1978

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