I’m convinced that most American Christians have only a very rudimentary understanding of the relationship between salvation and the cross of Christ. The result of this lack of understanding is a weak and anemic faith and in some cases perhaps even a false assurance of salvation. But it doesn’t have to be so. If only we will look into the Word of God, there is a wealth of truth that reveals what Jesus has accomplished for us through his death and resurrection.
With this in mind, let’s look at Romans 8:1-4 (ESV).
1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
This passage helps us to understand the relationship between justification and sanctification. Justification is the term the Bible uses to describe God’s work in saving us from the penalty of sin, while sanctification refers to our salvation from the power of sin. In other words, justification speaks to our legal standing of complete righteousness in the sight of God, whereas sanctification has reference to God’s giving us a life that looks more and more like that legal standing.
Verse 1 is a beautiful statement of the justification we have received in Christ. There is “no condemnation”. To be condemned is to be declared guilty. But for those who are in Christ, there is no guilty verdict, only the glorious “not guilty” that God pronounces over us. This is freedom from sin’s penalty. Have you felt the relief of having the penalty of eternal death removed from you?
Moving into verse 2 we begin to see the sanctification that we have received in Christ. What is it that we are “set free” from? It is the “law of sin and death.” Paul is not talking here about the Law of Moses, but rather about the power of sin that keeps us so bound that it can be described as a “law”. Just like laws must be obeyed, sin is a master that we are not free to disobey. Paul refers to the same thing in Romans 7:23 when he says, “I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me a captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”
The law of sin and death (all sin eventually leads to death) is that which holds us captive. But, “the law of the Spirit of life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” The Holy Spirit who applies in our hearts the life of Christ Jesus is an authority and power greater than that of sin. He is able to set us free.
Now here is where we start to see the relationship between justification and sanctification. Notice that verse 1 (justification) is linked to verse 2 (sanctification) by the word, “for” or “because” (NIV). Paul is not trying to say that verse 2 is the ground or basis upon which we are justified. Rather, he is saying that we are indeed free from condemnation and the evidence of that is the freedom from sin’s power that we have received in Christ. It’s as if he is saying, “There is no condemnation…and here’s the evidence that there isn’t”
Now, why would Paul offer the fact that the Spirit empowers us to live free and holy lives as an evidence of our justification? The answer is in verses 3-4.
Romans 8:3–4 (ESV)
3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Here again we have another “for” but this time, it is used not to introduce evidence that verse 2 is true but rather to explain how the justification in verse 1 and the sanctifying power in verse 2 have come about. God, through sending his Son to die as a sin offering, has condemned sin. Jesus’ death on the cross as our substitute is the ground or basis upon which we are justified (v.1), but it is equally true that Jesus death on the cross is also the basis upon which we are sanctified (v.2)
You can see this so clearly as you continue reading into verse 4. Why did God send his Son to condemn sin in the flesh? “In order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.” In other words, Jesus’ death on the cross is not just to free us from sin’s penalty, but also to free us from sin’s power–to enable us to live the righteous life that the Law of God requires of us. Both justification and sanctification are rooted in what Jesus accomplished on the cross.
So what then is the relationship between the two? Namely this, there is no justification without sanctification. You cannot get justification from Christ without also getting sanctification. If someone claims that their sins are forgiven because they have trusted in Christ for salvation but then lives in sin, evidencing no power over sin, then that person has a false assurance of salvation.
So when Paul says, “…us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit,” he is not contrasting Christians who walk according to the spirit with Christians who walk according to the flesh. It is not that Christians are able to live in some kind of neutral ground with respect to sin and choose whether or not to walk according to the Spirit. There are not certain higher-level Christians who walk according to the Spirit while others haven’t quite figured that out yet. To walk according to the Spirit is the definition of being a Christian.
Lest you think that I am setting the bar too high here, listen to what the respected Presbyterian pastor James M. Boice says.
“…if we are not living a new life in the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, it is not simply that we are unfulfilled or defeated Christians. We are not Christians at all! … it is only “those who are led by the Spirit of God” who are the “sons of God” (v. 14). Many who are not living by the Spirit need to awaken to the fact that they are not truly Christians (Boice, J. M. (1991-). Romans (784). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.)
While seeing this relationship between justification and sanctification should be a wake-up call to the lukewarm Christian, it should also be an encouragement to the struggling Christian. The point here is not to heap guilt on a person that is trying very hard to live a sanctified life. Rather, the point is to help that person see that just as they look to Christ in faith for deliverance from sin’s penalty, they can also have every confidence that Jesus will also grant freedom from sin’s power. Indeed he already has granted that freedom! “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” It is past tense. Completed!
This is the gospel for Christians. Look to the cross of Christ. That is your victory over the sin you are struggling with. Put your faith in Jesus today and tomorrow and every day until he comes, just as you did on the day you first trusted him.