Confession: I am a recovering legalist.
In my Christian life, I’ve often slipped into thinking that my relationship with God is based on my performance. When I’m performing well, I feel close to God. When I fall short, I can’t help but feel like I’ve let God, and myself, down. Maybe you’ve been there as well.
In Living the Cross-Centered Life, C.J. Mahaney argues the underlying problem with people who struggle with legalism is a misunderstanding of the difference between justification and sanctification. If you’re not familiar with the theological terms, here’s a quick definition:
- Justification is our status before God. When a Christian trusts in Jesus to forgive their sins, they are justified instantaneously. We are forgiven and can have a relationship with God because of Christ’s finished work on the cross.
- Sanctification is the process of becoming more like Jesus. Because God loves us, he doesn’t let us stay where we are; he’s in the process of helping us become more like Jesus, which includes revealing the sinful areas of our hearts and helping us change.
The problem is when we confuse the two. We tend to think we need to get ourselves to a certain “level” of obedience or Christian maturity in order to pay back God. We also tend to look down on others we think aren’t as spiritually mature as we are. If you’ve ever felt this way, chances are you struggle with legalism, too.
In the book, Manahey shares these four bullet points that highlight the differences in justification and sanctification, helping us overcome our tendency to confuse them:
1. “Justification is being declared righteous. Sanctification is being made righteous – being conformed to the image of Christ.” Just as someone is legally declared innocent or guilty by a judge, because of Jesus’ obedience in our place, we are declared righteous, even though we don’t always live up to that identity.
2. “Justification is our position before God, a position that becomes permanently ours at the time of our conversion. Sanctification is our practice that continues throughout our life on earth.” Our obedience to God should be motivated by the gospel. We are not attempting to “earn” God’s love or prove that we are worthy of being saved. Rather it’s because we are loved that we strive to obey and follow God.
3. “Justification is immediate and complete upon conversion. You’ll never be more justified than you are at the moment you trust in the Person and finished work of Christ. Sanctification is a progressive process. You’ll be more sanctified as you continue in grace-motivated obedience.” The good news of the gospel is that we are never “more loved” when we obey and never “less loved” when we fall short. In the words of J.D. Greear, because you are in Christ, there’s nothing you have done that could make God love you less, and nothing you could do that would make him love you more.
4. “Justification is objective – Christ’s work for us. Sanctification is subjective – Christ’s work within us.” You can’t be more saved or less saved. But you can be more or less like Christ in a given moment. By God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, we grow to be more Christlike as we walk with God.
If you’re tired of riding the roller coaster of legalism, rest in the fact that the same grace that saved you will continue to sustain you. Or, as Paul put it, “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Phil 1:6).