JUSTIFICATION: BEING DECLARED RIGHTEOUS
Think of justification as a legal term, which is--in a sense--what it is.
God, the judge of all humankind, has every right to demand satisfaction for our having broken his laws. We are culpable, each one of us, and as the Scripture says,
"Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.
"The soul that sinneth, it shall die . The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him"
(Ezekiel 18:4; and 18:20 KJV).
Each of us, therefore, has what might fairly be called a sin debt. We deserve to be cast into debtor's prison until someone pays our debt. The good news is that Jesus, through his cross-death, burial, and resurrection, paid our sin debt in full. The bill of particulars against us was nailed, as it were, to the cross where God's Lamb bore away the sin of the world. When we believe in our heart that Jesus died for our sins, God declares us righteous.
In other words, the judge of all humankind says to us,
"Not guilty! Your debt has been paid in full!"
By being declared righteous in God's sight (which is what justification is), our sins are imputed to Christ, and his righteousness is imputed to us. This "double imputation" is perhaps what the apostle Paul was thinking of in 2 Corinthians 5:21,
"[God] made [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (NASB, Updated).
Justification, then, is a work of God, from beginning to end. All we need do on our part is believe it is so. When we do, we are then saved by faith. I guess you could say that justification is for each of us the starting point of salvation.
SALVATION: STEPPING FROM DARKNESS INTO THE LIGHT OF LIFE
Whether or not we can pinpoint the exact date and time of our conversion, saving faith is the first step through the narrow gate and onto the narrow path leading to life (see Matthew 7:13-14). The narrow gate is a metaphor for saving faith, in part because one of the requirements of entering by that narrow gate is repentance. Repentance is hard but worth it. I think Jesus likens saving faith to a narrow gate because repentance requires us to become small in our estimation--which is the essence of humility--so that God's grace and mercy can loom large.
Once we humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, we can be assured that God will exalt us, if not in time, then in eternity. Positionally, in fact, once we are saved, God has
"made us alive together with Christ--by grace you have been saved--and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 2:5b-7 ESV).
We are seated together with Christ because the work of salvation was accomplished when Jesus cried out with a loud voice from the cross:
"It is finished!" (John 19:30, where the phrase is one word in Greek; namely tetelestai--finished, accomplished).
In other words, there is nothing else Jesus needs to do, nor is there anything else we need to do to be saved, for Jesus has done it all. He and we are therefore seated, which is to say we are at rest. No more struggling is needed on our part to earn God's salvation, since we already possess it freely by faith. Our standing in Christ is assured.
SANCTIFICATION: THE NARROW ROAD LEADING TO LIFE
The "narrow path" Jesus referred to in Matthew chapter 7 is the working out of our faith through the process of sanctification. As Paul put it,
". . . work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12-13).
Centuries ago, the Reformers were known to say:
"Justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone."
While Christians cannot ADD a whit to the salvation God proffered to us, he does expect us to
"be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds" (Romans 12:2).
The goal of this transformation is conformity to Christ.
"For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren" (Romans 8:29 NASB Updated).
This renewal is a life-long process through which we become more Christ-like. God does not expect us to become clones of his Beloved Son; rather, he wants us to
". . . put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and [not to] give thought to the flesh to do its desires" (Romans 13:14 BBE, my emphasis).
I suggest that when we "put on Christ" we in effect put to death our fleshly desires. As we allow the life of Christ to inform and shape our lives through our yieldedness to the Holy Spirit, we begin to reflect Christ's character, attitudes, and perspectives, and we find ourselves engaging in some of the "greater works" of which Jesus spoke (see John 14:12).
James, Jesus' half-brother, in the letter bearing his name, struck the correct balance when he said under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,
"faith without works is dead" (2:26).
Christians are saved by faith. As we grow from spiritual babies into fully grown adults in the faith, however, God expects us to prove that we have saving faith. Think of the good works in which we engage as fruit of the Spirit of Christ who indwells us (see John 15:1-5). Simply put: works do not save us; they simply prove we are saved. Moreover, even our good works are of no avail if they are done in the power of the flesh. Jesus reminds us,
". . . for apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5b).
In order to qualify for rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, and 2 Corinthians 5:10), our works' motives must first be tested by the purifying fire of God's judgment. The wood, hay, and weeds will be burned up. Those are the works done in the power of the flesh or for the glorification of us and not God (see Matthew 6:2, 5, and 16). The works which survive the flames of judgment are the gold, silver, and precious stones. Those are the works done in the power of the Spirit and for the glory of God.
In conclusion, salvation is a gift of God's grace. It is received by faith, and it is "worked out" by faith. The working out of our faith contributes not one scintilla to God's salvation. If it did, we would have grounds for boasting (Ephesians 2:8-9). Our sanctification, on the other hand, is a lifelong process of transformation, and when submit consistently and faithfully to the sanctifying work of the Spirit of Christ within us, we are assured that our
"entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to [us]" (2 Peter 1:10-11 NAS).
That will be our reward for sanctification: an abundant entrance into the eternal kingdom; or as other versions put it, a "rich entrance" into God's kingdom. In that sense, then, God's salvation has a future aspect or component to it. That is, salvation is not only a once and for all transaction between us and God (i.e., our sin for his righteousness, our old things for his new creation, and our death for his life), but it is also
"a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (1 Peter 1:5).
At that time, according to the apostle's Peter's long view of salvation, we will be
"obtaining as the outcome of [our] faith the salvation of [our] souls" (1 Peter 1:9)
Until then, through all the highs and lows of life, which include the occasional and even "besetting" sin (Hebrews 12:1), the continually maturing Christian believer, who is a mere clay pot, is nevertheless being transformed into a vessel which is both fit for the master's use and also a thing of beauty. As Paul put it,
"All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror. We are being transformed into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:18 CEB).
"Now in a great house there are not only articles of gold and silver, but also others of wood and of earthenware; and some are for specially honourable, and others for common use. If therefore a man keeps himself clear of these latter, he himself will be for specially honourable use, consecrated, fit for the Master's service, and fully equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 2:20-21 WNT).