Justification & Sanctification:
Definition of Terms:
The early church emphasized the concepts of justification and sanctification as gifts of grace that transformed believers and enabled them to perform good works. The Church Fathers understood the Christian journey towards salvation as an ongoing process involving growth in holiness and the necessity of living a life in accordance with God’s will and persevering in cooperation with God’s grace to live a life of virtue. Church Fathers such as Augustine of Hippo underscored the fact that initial salvation is by grace alone, but also highlighted the need for ongoing cooperation with grace to maintain a life of holiness and virtue in order to persevere and ultimately attain final salvation.
- Initial Salvation, sometimes referred to as Justification, (Titus 3:7, Romans 3:24, and Ephesians 2:8-10).
- Ongoing Salvation, also known as Sanctification, (Philippians 2:12-13, 1 Thessalonians 4:3, and Romans 12:2).
- Final Salvation, sometimes referred to as Glorification, (Matthew 24:13, 1 Peter 1:9, and 2 Timothy 4:7-8).
The early church believed that our initial justification was a free gift of grace, which is a central theme in the New Testament, particularly in the writings of Paul. They understood Jesus to be the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5), but that He has chosen to make us partners in the plan of salvation (1 Cor. 3:9). Our initial justification – that moment of our conversion – requires no works on our part but rather God’s grace alone along with our response in faith (Titus 3:7, Romans 3:24, Eph. 2:8-10). This grace, known as prevenient grace, precedes both faith and works.
The Church Fathers taught that this initial gift of prevenient grace prepared an individual’s soul for the gift of sanctifying grace received in baptism (Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16, Romans 6:3-4, Galatians 3:27, 1 Peter 3:21). The grace given in baptism, sometimes referred to as “sacramental grace,” is the grace that is conferred through the sacrament of baptism. It is a transformative and sanctifying grace that initiates the believer into the life of faith and marks the initiation into the Church and symbolizes the washing away of sins and new birth in Christ.
Baptism, however, is only the beginning of the journey for a Christian. Scripture not only speaks of salvation in the past tense, but also in a present (1 Peter 1:8-9, Phil. 2:12), and future tense (cf. Rom. 13:11, 1 Cor. 3:15, 5:5). The early church believed that although salvation was initiated by grace, believers needed to respond actively to this grace, cooperating with the Holy Spirit in leading a life of holiness and completing good works in charity (1 Cor. 13:1-13, Philippians 2:12-13, James 2:14, 17). The process of ongoing transformation through the work of the Holy Spirit was known as Sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3, Romans 12:2).
This sanctifying process is just as necessary as our initial justification in our journey towards final salvation. The Letter of James illustrates how works are indeed essential to salvation; “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?” (Jas. 2:21).“You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works” (Jas. 2:22). And then in verse 24 James concludes again, “A man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (see also 10 Problems with Faith Alone).
The early church saw this cooperative relationship with grace as essential for believers to maintain a state of grace and ultimately receive final salvation at the end of their lives. Jesus said it is not enough to have faith in him; we also must obey his commandments. “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ but do not do the things I command?” (Luke 6:46, Matt. 7:21–23, 19:16–21). John explained that fidelity to Christ’s teachings is essential; “the way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments. Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:3–4, 3:19–24, 5:3–4).
God gives us grace to obey his commandments in love, and he rewards us with salvation when we offer these acts of love back to him (Rom. 2:6–11, Gal. 6:6–10, Matt. 25:34–40). Good works are not possible apart from His grace, but they are essential in our cooperation with His grace. Acts of love please God, and he promises to reward them with eternal life (Rom. 2:6–7, Gal. 6:6–10). Thus good works are meritorious even though God enables them.
Since no gift can be forced on the recipient, it is possible for one to reject the gift of salvation even after justification. Salvation can be forfeited through grave (mortal) sin (1 John 5:16, Rom. 11:22–23, 1 Cor. 15:1–2; CCC 1854–1863). Paul tells us, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23) and gives examples; 1 Cor. 6:9–10, Gal. 5:19–21. Paul reminded the Christians in Rome that God “will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life for those who seek glory, honor, and immortality through perseverance in good works, but wrath and fury to those who selfishly disobey the truth and obey wickedness” (Rom. 2:6–8).
“But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
1 Corinthians 13:2-3 and 13;
“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. . . And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
James 2:14, 18
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? . . . So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
“Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
1 Thessalonians 4:3;
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication.”
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
2 Corinthians 7:1;
“Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and of spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God.”
“Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, 7
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; that each one of you knows how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; . . . for God did not call us to impurity but in holiness.”
“For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.”
“Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher. Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.”
2 Timothy 4:7
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
Church Father Quotes:
Pope Clement I of Rome
“Let us therefore join with those to whom grace is given by God. Let us clothe ourselves in concord, being humble and self- controlled, keeping ourselves far from all backbiting and slander, being justified by works and not by words….Why was our Father Abraham blessed? Was it not because of his deeds of justice and truth, wrought in faith?” –Letter to the Corinthians 30:3, 31:2, 32:3-4 (Written 96 A.D.)
Theophilus of Antioch
“He who gave the mouth for speech and formed the ears for hearing and made eyes for seeing will examine everything and will judge justly, granting recompense to each according to merit. To those who seek immortality by the patient exercise of good works, he will give everlasting life, joy, peace, rest, and all good things, which neither has eye seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man.” –To Autolycus 1:14 (Written 181 A.D.)
Clement of Alexandria:
“When we hear, ‘Your faith has saved you,’ we do not understand the Lord to say simply that they will be saved who have believed in whatever manner, even if works have not followed. To begin with, it was to the Jews alone that he spoke this phrase, who had lived in accord with the law and blamelessly and who had lacked only faith in the Lord” –Stromateis or Miscellanies 6:14:108:4 (Written 202 A.D.)
“The only way to grow in faith and holiness is by continually turning our mind to divine things.” (Exhortation to the Heathen, 10)
Irenaeus of Lyons
“[Paul], an able wrestler, urges us on in the struggle for immortality, so that we may receive a crown and so that we may regard as a precious crown that which we acquire by our own struggle and which does not grow upon us spontaneously. . . . Those things which come to us spontaneously are not loved as much as those which are obtained by anxious care” (Against Heresies 4:37:7 [A.D. 189]).
Cyprian of Carthage
“The Lord denounces [Christian evildoers], and says, ‘Many shall say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name, and in your name have cast out devils, and in your name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, you who work iniquity’ [Matt. 7:21–23]. There is need of righteousness, that one may deserve well of God the Judge; we must obey his precepts and warnings, that our merits may receive their reward” (The Unity of the Catholic Church 15, 1st ed. [A.D. 251]).
“You, then, who are rich and wealthy, buy for yourself from Christ gold purified in fire, for with your filth, as if burned away in the fire, you can be like pure gold, if you are cleansed by almsgiving and by works of justice. Buy yourself a white garment so that, . . . you may at last come to see God, when you have merited before God both by your works and by your manner of living” –Works and Almsgiving 14 (Written 252 A.D.)
Origen of Alexandria:
“Whoever dies in his sins, even if he profess to believe in Christ, does not truly believe in him; and even if that which exists without works be called faith, such faith is dead in itself, as we read in the epistle bearing the name of James”. –Commentaries on John 19:6 (Written 225 A.D.)
Cyril of Jerusalem:
“Being baptized, we are enlightened; enlightened, we become sons; being made sons, we are made perfect; being made perfect, we are made immortal.” (Catechetical Lectures, 19.22)
Aphrahat the Persian Sage:
“Great is the gift which he that is good has given to us. While not forcing us, and in spite of our sins he wants us to be justified. While he is in no way aided by our good works, he heals us that we may be pleasing in his sight.” –Treatises 23:48 (Written 336 A.D.)
Athanasius of Alexandria:
“For as, when heated iron turns itself into fire, it does not cease to be iron, but is changed entirely into fire, and by a kind of stretching out of itself as iron is made one with the fire, and the fire and iron so appear together that the iron is not seen for the fire, but is wholly transformed into fire; so also the God-Word, the Son of God, coming into the body, was said to be made flesh and to dwell in us.” (On the Incarnation of the Word, 54.3)
Gregory of Nazianzus:
“The divine and heavenly grace is given to us, but it requires the cooperation of our will; not that it does not accomplish its own work, but because we are not willing.” (Oration 31, 28)
Gregory of Nyssa:
“Let us hasten then through the sensible to the intelligible. The way to ascend to God is to be uncreated, the path to the creator is through continual growth in the virtues.” (On the Soul and the Resurrection)
“Let us then continually pray that we may lead a life suitable to Him who has called us to His own kingdom.” (Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, 33.1)
“For it is not to possess only, but also to keep, that is required. For many of those that possess perish in the keeping, by not knowing how to keep what they possess.” (Homilies on the First Epistle to Timothy, 6.3)
” ‘He that believes in the Son has everlasting life.’ ‘Is it enough, then, to believe in the Son,’ someone will say, ‘in order to have everlasting life?’ By no means! Listen to Christ declare this himself when he says, ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord! Lord!” shall enter into the kingdom of heaven’; and the b.asphemy against the Spirit is alone sufficient to cast him into hell. But why should I speak of a part of our teaching? For if a man believe rightly in the Father and in the Son and in the Holy Spirit, but does not live rightly, his faith will avail him nothing toward salvation” –Homilies on the Gospel of John 31:1 (Written 391 A.D.)
Caesar of Arles
“I beg you, beloved brethren, let us consider more attentively why we are Christians and bear the cross of Christ on our forehead. For we ought to know that it is not enough for us that we have received the name Christian, if we do not do Christian works. If you say a thousand times that you are a Christian and continually sign yourself with the cross of Christ, but do not give alms according to your means, and you do not want to have love and justice and chastity, the name of Christian will profit you nothing.” –Sermons 13:1-2 (Written 540 A.D.)
“Let every one train himself to righteousness, mold himself to self-restraint, prepare himself for the contest, equip himself for virtue . . . [and] in his uprightness acknowledge the true and only God, may cast away pleasures, by the attractions of which the lofty soul is depressed to the earth, may hold fast innocence, may be of service to as many as possible, may gain for himself incorruptible treasures by good works, that he may be able, with God for his judge, to gain for the merits of his virtue either the crown of faith, or the reward of immortality” (Epitome of the Divine Institutes 73 [A.D. 317]).
Jerome of Stridon:
“Now, when the apostle says, ‘I die daily,’ he does not mean the death by which we leave this world but that by which we overcome vices and sin.” (Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians, 3.1.10)
“He who labors for the Lord ought not to receive pay, for he ought to pray without ceasing and never to desist from the work of the fast.” (Letter 22, To Eustochium)
“It is our task, according to our different virtues, to prepare for ourselves different rewards. . . . If we were all going to be equal in heaven it would be useless for us to humble ourselves here in order to have a greater place there. . . . Why should virgins persevere? Why should widows toil? Why should married women be content? Let us all sin, and after we repent we shall be the same as the apostles are!” (Against Jovinian 2:32 [A.D. 393]).
Augustine of Hippo
“We are commanded to live righteously, and the reward is set before us of our meriting to live happily in eternity. But who is able to live righteously and do good works unless he has been justified by faith?” (Various Questions to Simplician 1:2:21 [A.D. 396]).
“What merit, then, does a man have before grace, by which he might receive grace, when our every good merit is produced in us only by grace and when God, crowning our merits, crowns nothing else but his own gifts to us?” (Letters, 194:5:19).
“The whole life of a good Christian is a holy desire. What you desire, if you do not yet see, you will one day see and possess. For even the desire itself is your beginning, while the possession will be your perfection.” (Sermon 171, 11)
“Let us, therefore, not be ashamed of the testimonies of our Lord, nor of His cross. By them, the good fight has been fought down through all the ages, and still, it has not yet been conquered. Rather, it remains a constant ordeal for the martyrs and an occasion of victory for the faithful.” (Exposition on Psalm 33, 2)
Prosper of Aquitaine
“Indeed, a man who has been justified, that is, who from impious has been made pious, since he had no antecedent good merit, receives a gift, by which gift he may also acquire merit. Thus, what was begun in him by Christ’s grace can also be augmented by the industry of his free choice, but never in the absence of God’s help, without which no one is able either to progress or to continue in doing good” (Responses on Behalf of Augustine 6 [A.D. 431]).
Cyril of Alexandria:
“Let us not grow weary in the exercise of virtue, for the contest lies before us, and it is a great one, that for incorruptibility and unending blessings.” (Commentary on the Minor Prophets, Book 3)
Council of Orange II
“[G]race is preceded by no merits. A reward is due to good works, if they are performed, but grace, which is not due, precedes [good works], that they may be done” (Canons on grace 19 [A.D. 529]).
John of Damascus:
“And after baptism, the struggle against sin remains. But it becomes more difficult and the devils more vehement when we have been reborn through baptism.” (An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, Chapter 9)
“So that by working the divine and transfiguring love in ourselves through our works, we might make ourselves a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, and might have God indwelling and operating in us.” (An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, Chapter 13)
Alistair McGrath, Protestant Scholar
“The first centuries of the western theological tradition appear to be characterized by a ‘works-righteousness’ approach to justification . . . The Protestant understanding of the nature of justification thus represents a theological novum.” –Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 34,215