Protestant vs. Catholic Views of Justification and Sanctification

Protestant vs. Catholic Views of Justification and Sanctification

Both justification and sanctification are effects, or consequences, of conversion. Justification is an event that occurs, much like regeneration, at the instant of conversion. There is no process involved in the life of the believer to become more justified than what he is upon conversion. Literally, the term refers to the judicial act of God declaring the individual “just” or “righteous” in his sight. This is possible because of the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross, where Christ’s righteousness is “imputed” to believers, and our transgressions were “imputed” to him.

Sanctification, however, is different in that it occurs in several aspects of time. Sanctification occurs at the instant of conversion, but it also continues to occur and will occur most ultimately in the future. Sanctification means literally to be “set apart.” God’s children are described from the moment of conversion as his “holy people,” and a “priesthood.” This dynamic of sanctification is due in large part because of the way God sees the believer as justified. However, the continuing aspect of sanctification is that the Holy Spirit is at work in the believers life to conform him more and more each day into the likeness of Jesus Christ. Lastly, believers will be most ultimately sanctified as they are removed, or “set apart,” entirely from the presence of sin (tied to glorification).

Protestant vs. Catholic Views of Justification

Perhaps one of the most cherished protestant views is that justification occurs purely by faith alone and not of any works. It is an event that happens instantaneously upon conversion and is not in any way earned. This view may spur on controversy because of the seemingly endless supply of stories where someone is observed to have “accepted Jesus into their heart,” only later to apostatize. This may lead one to believe that justification is not an event that occurs, but a process.

This segue’s into the Roman Catholic view of justification. Catholics hold that justification is the process by which someone becomes just. They see it as a continued process, much like the way protestants view sanctification. This justification is earned as an individual performs various merits that are considered worthy while in a state of grace. If a believer dies before their process of justification is complete, it is completed in purgatory. This view, however, is vehemently contested by protestants and minimizes, if not removes, the gift aspect of the gospel.

Protestant vs. Catholic Views of Sanctification

The reformed or evangelical perspective of sanctification is that it occurs both initially and continually. In other words, the believer is set apart at the moment of conversion in God’s site, but he also experience a gradual conformity to the likeness of Jesus Christ as the Holy Spirit works. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, holds that sanctification is a process by which an individual proceeds to receive grace. It is by completing various sacraments that one is sanctified and receives an increasing measure of grace. Pentecostals also believe in more than one dispensation of grace, where an individual receives grace a second time either as he demonstrates perfect faith in his endeavor to holiness (Holiness Pentecostal), or when he demonstrates the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues (Assemblies of God). The appeal to the latter two views is that it provides a sense of existential gratification to some individuals. In other words, it satisfies the need often felt to contribute in some way to receiving favor from God.

Practical Implications in the Church

Local churches may touch on the topics of justification and sanctification as they arise, but many churches will not explore these topics fully. Most lay persons, whether Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, or Baptist do not have a sufficient working understanding of justification and sanctification to discuss these topics casually. These topics should be emphasized and taught in several different venues. A pastor could easily spend an hour preaching on each of these topics. Also, incorporating them into Sunday School teaching and church bible studies will allow individuals the opportunities to ask questions and to become better equipped to have conversations about these topics with different Christian denominations. The concepts of justification and sanctification are critically important because they directly reflect one’s understanding of the gospel, and since the gospel is the power of salvation to those who believe (), there can be no fruitful conversation until they are understood.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (ESV)

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Darrin serves as a pastoral intern at CrossWay Church in Orange City, FL (just north of Orlando). He is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He is happily married to his wife of four years, Valerie.

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