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QUESTION: What Do Righteousness, Justified, and Sanctification Mean?

One of the readers of this blog asked the following question in a comment elsewhere. I have moved his question to this post and offer my reply below it.


I have another request to ask of you. I’ve come to an understanding that I have absolutely NO comprehension of the terms righteousness, justified, and sanctified.

These are obviously common “church” words that we hear often (and read in the scripture), and after a cursory study today, I’m all-the-more convinced that I completely lack understanding.

Honestly, the words make my head spin!

I began studying the words earlier as I was reading Romans 1:16-17, where Paul speaks of God’s righteousness. My bible had a footnote that Martin Luther claimed that scripture to be one of the most meaningful in his walk with Christ…but it took him most of his life to grasp the full meaning of the verse.

So I come to you asking for a basic analysis of these three terms. Thanks Jerry, and again, I really appreciate your blog.


Thank you for this question and for your kind words.

These three words are related, especially righteousness and justified. Righteousness is the noun (righteous is a related adjective) and justify is the verb. When one is justified, he has righteousness and is righteous.

The word group refers to the process by which one becomes “right” with God. There are two ways you can be right with God. One is never to sin. This is righteousness by works of law (not just the Law of Moses, but of any law). The other is by faith in Jesus as Savior. One trusts God; the other trusts one’s own effort. One is righteousness given by God; the other is righteousness earned by one’s own effort. One is God’s righteousness (cf. Rom 1:16-17); the other is self-righteousness (cf. the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector praying in the temple, Luke 18:9-14).

So, these words are at the heart of the good news. The gospel message is that we do not need to save ourselves by being “good enough.” We could never be “good enough” to save ourselves. God saves us through the goodness and sacrifice of Jesus. We then offer our “works” to God in loving gratitude for what He has done for us in Christ.

The other word, “Sanctification,” is closely related to the word “holy.” The literal meaning of “holy” is “one who is set apart or is different,” but it is a special kind of difference. God is the only one who is inately holy. Other people, things, or places are “holy” only because of a relationship to God. Mt. Sinai was “the holy mountain” because God came down to His people there. The Tabernacle had a “holy place” where God was worshipped – and a “most Holy Place” where God Himself made His presence known to Israel at the Mercy Seat between the cherubim above the Ark of the Covenant. Israel was a holy nation because they were a nation set apart for a special relationship to God. “Sanctification” is the process of becoming holy.

Now, when we are “justified,” God treats us as if we are righteous and really have righteousness (even though we don’t). He treats us that way because we are clothed with Christ, are “in Christ,” and are forgiven sinners. When we are baptized into Christ, God forgives us and makes us righteous, giving us the gift of Christ’s righteousness (see for example, 1 Cor 1:31) based on our faith or trust in Christ as Savior. He also gives us the Holy Spirit to live within us. This is the presence of Deity in our lives for the express purpose of helping us to become like God’s Son. That is, the Spirit works in us to make us really righteous instead of only being treated as righteous.

This is a process that will not be complete until we see Jesus (see 1 John 3:1-3). Now, God calls us his sons – and John says we are His sons. But we will not be like Him until we see Him as He is. That is the goal of sanctification – that we be like Jesus.

I hope that this explanation will help and not confuse you more. One passage that, though it does not use any of the three words you ask about, helps me to realize the goal toward which all of these work is Philippians 2:12-13. There we are told to work our our own salvation with fear and trembling – “for it is God who works in you both to desire and to do His good pleasure.” As we are working out our salvation, God is working in us two things: the desire to do His will and the power to do it. This is the work of the Holy Spirit within us.


4 Responses

  1. Brother Jerry,

    Thanks again, man! This nailed it for me–I’ve read a couple times, and wow…righteousness is a very deep concept. I really appreciate your generosity with your time in always answering my queries. Have a great day,

    I appreciate your seeking heart – and your kind comments. – JS

  2. Jerry, May I have permission to repost this on my blog at http://www.godempowered.com, with credit?

    • Karen,
      I have no problem with you reposting the blog-post, provided you do not try to make money from it and give attribution. In fact, I’m flattered that you want to do this. In the “About Jerry Starling” section, I have already given this permission – but thank you for asking.

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