Justification and Sanctification
Exaudi Sunday Sermon| Rev. Rolf Preus| May 4, 2008
Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.
Ezekiel 36, 25-27
How can you make bad people into good people? How can a sinner become a saint? I suppose you could tell the bad person to start doing good. Do you think that will make him good? It won’t. If he’s bad on the inside he must be changed on the inside. Whatever good a bad man does is only on the outside. Genuine obedience to God requires a heart that fears, loves, and trusts in God above all things. Telling bad people to do good things is not going to change them into good people. They need a change of heart.
Everyone needs a change of heart because everyone is by nature bad on the inside. The history of the world is proof of this. But let’s consider only the proof offered by the history of God’s covenant people. The history of the nation of Israel is a history of rebellion against God, divine punishment, repentance, restoration and then rebellion. God’s people repeatedly broke the covenant. God repeatedly called them to repentance. He would forgive them their sins and reclaim them as his own. They would repent and then quickly fall into the same sins. The cycle was repeated again and again.
The harshest judgment God brought upon his people was carried out by foreigners. Since God’s people insisted on worshipping the false gods of the nations, God’s justice decreed that they should be taken over by the nations. Not only were they taken over, they were taken away from their land to a place unfamiliar to them. During their captivity God sent prophets to console them with the promise of future deliverance. God did not leave them comfortless when they were held captive in a strange land far from home. He spoke by the prophets. He promised them a wonderful future. He would restore his nation. More than that, she would become a great kingdom made up of people from all over the world. We call this kingdom the Holy Christian Church. In our text God promised through the prophet Ezekiel that he would change his people. He would not leave it up to them to change themselves. He would change them from the inside out. He would change their desires.
In the movie, “Dirty Harry,” Clint Eastwood starred as Inspector Harry Callahan who was on the trail of a psychopathic killer. After the killer had just murdered a little girl and was let off on legal technicalities, there was a dramatic confrontation between Inspector Callahan and his superiors in the San Francisco Police Department. He said, “You know, he’s going to do it again.” His boss replied, “How do you know that?” To which he replied, “He likes it.”
“He likes it.” That’s why he does it. That’s not very complicated, is it? People do what they like to do. If you want to change what people do you must change what they like. You cannot simply give commands. It’s true that people will respond to threats and bribes. But that’s not true obedience. True obedience comes from the heart. The heart must be changed. The way to change what people do is to change what they want to do.
How does God change us from being bad into being good? He washes away our sins. He changes our heart. He fills us with the Holy Spirit.
There are two theological terms we should understand: justification and sanctification. God justifies us. Then God sanctifies us. God does not justify us by sanctifying us. He sanctifies us by justifying us. Let me explain what I’m saying.
To justify means to reckon someone to be righteous. It is to say that the person is righteous. Now when it comes to what God says we know that God saying it makes it so. Isn’t that right? God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Jesus said: “Young man I say to you, Arise!” and the dead man became alive again. Jesus says of the bread and the wine in the Lord’s Supper: “This is my body,” “This is the New Testament in my blood.” That’s what it is. Why? God speaks and it is so.
God said, “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.” And so it is. God sprinkles water over our heads. He baptizes us into his holy name. This is a washing away of sin. As God promised several hundred years before giving this sacrament to Christ’s Church on earth, Holy Baptism cleanses us from all our filthiness and from all our idols. It provides us with the forgiveness of sins.
Baptism, the gospel that we hear, the Lord’s Supper, and the absolution all speak God’s word of forgiveness to us. This forgiveness is complete in every way. Even as Jesus suffered for all the sins of all the sinners of all time, the forgiveness that God gives us in the gospel and sacraments of Christ is complete. It is perfect. It lacks nothing.
This is justification. God reckons to us the righteousness of Christ. He credits to us the obedience of Jesus who suffered and died for us on the cross. In short, he forgives us all our sins. This means that we are righteous. We are just. God justifies us.
Of ourselves we are sinners. But God’s word says we are saints. Within us there is every evil inclination and sin. Our hearts are cold and stony. But God comes to us and washes away our sin. He forgives us our sin. He renders us righteous by speaking the word that says we are righteous. That word is almighty. It brings us to faith. It enables us to trust in God to justify us for Jesus’ sake. The word that brings us to faith also makes us holy. It brings about a change in our lives. It breaks down the stony, unbelieving heart and replaces it with a heart of flesh. First God justifies us. He reckons us to be righteous. And so we are because God said so. Our righteousness is nothing less than the obedience and suffering of Jesus Christ. There is nothing lacking in it.
This declaration of almighty God changes us on the inside. This is sanctification. Justification is perfect. There’s nothing lacking in Jesus’ righteousness and God has reckoned it to us. There is no sin that remains unforgiven. We are indeed righteous. But sanctification is imperfect.
God changes us within. But there remains within the old sinful nature. So sanctification is a process. God continually softens our hard hearts and enables us to respond in love to his love. He fills us with the Holy Spirit. He enables us and guides us to walk in the ways he wants us to live. He gives us a love for his law. We like doing what he wants us to do.
Of course, the sinful human nature that clings to us – what the Bible calls our flesh – fights against the Holy Spirit. The flesh fights against the truth of God. He cannot be reformed. He can only be killed. He would love to claim us, but the washing of Holy Baptism drowns the flesh. Baptism tells the sinful flesh that he cannot rule over us because we live under grace.
It is only when we are forgiven of our sins and declared by God to be righteous in his sight that our heart is truly changed. The Holy Spirit gives us the desire to live for God, to serve him, to obey him, and to hold on to his instructions as true heavenly wisdom. He gives us holy desires by sprinkling clean water on us and cleansing us from our sin and idolatry. It is in being forgiven by God that our stony hearts are taken out and replaced with hearts of flesh. Put into theological jargon: justification causes sanctification. God reckons us to be righteous for Christ’s sake. He brings us to trust in this precious truth. Then and only then can we begin to live holy lives.
The most common and the most harmful falsehood ever taught is to reverse this order and to teach instead that sanctification is what brings about justification: that we become righteous before God as a result of living the new life that God gives us to live. But this is a vicious teaching. If true, we would never be righteous before God. We would never be justified. We could not know that we stand before God as saints. We would have to depend on the change within us instead of the gospel promise of God. But as long as we live in these bodies there will be a conflict between the sinful desires of the flesh and the new and holy desires that the Holy Spirit works in us.
The true source of holy living is the gospel that tells us our sins are fully and freely forgiven for Christ’s sake. This gospel is the power of God to change our lives. It is the source of courage to confess the faith when facing persecution. It is the motivation to stand up and fight against temptations to deny the faith or to live a life that contradicts it.
We need to get the order right. This is no mere academic issue. Our faith depends upon it. First God justifies us. Then he sanctifies us. Justification is perfect. It is complete. It is flawless. When God reckons to us the righteousness of Jesus there is nothing that can be done to improve upon it. First God washes us clean of all our sins and idolatry. Then God sanctifies us. Sanctification is imperfect. This is because of the sinful flesh that stubbornly clings to our souls. Justification is complete. Sanctification is a lifelong process. God sanctifies us by directing our faith to the perfection of our justification. In our baptism we stand righteous. The gospel declares the same thing. Christ’s body and blood are given to us to seal this to us. This is how God sanctifies us, renews us, changes our desires to conform to his will, fills us with the Holy Spirit, and enables us to live holy lives. So we treasure these precious means of grace and we live the new lives God has given us to live. Amen