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How Jordan Peterson conflates Justification and Sanctification

Jordan Peterson
Jordan Peterson | Screengrab: YouTube/Jordan B. Peterson

Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson recently espoused the lethal false doctrine that ignited the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. Works righteousness had been meticulously exposed by the Apostle Paul 1,500 years earlier after it bewitched the churches in Galatia. This seductive doctrine lures people into believing that the work Christ completed on the cross is not enough to provide complete salvation for an individual believer. 

In a recent panel discussion that included Bishop Robert Barron, Dr. Peterson stated, “One of the errors that religious people make, and I think this is more on the Protestant side of things, although Catholics aren’t immune to it, is to announce that if you merely believe that Christ defeated evil, that somehow culminates in your complete salvation, and that strikes me as highly improbable, given that we also have a fair bit of work to do and that the work itself is also relevant” (11:28).

While serving as a Roman Catholic priest five centuries ago, Martin Luther zealously labored to save his soul by his excessive religious rituals. He famously said, “I kept the rules of my (monastic) order so strictly that I can say: if ever a monk went to Heaven on account of his monkery, I should get there too.” Thankfully, Luther came to understand and believe the Gospel when the Holy Spirit impressed the truth of Romans 1:17 upon his soul: “The just (righteous) shall live by faith.” Luther said, “There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely, by faith … Here, I felt that I was altogether born again and the very gates of Paradise opened up before me.”

Luther was converted by the power of the Gospel through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (see Romans 1:16).

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To properly understand the New Testament, one must understand Christian conversion. This involves recognizing the key biblical distinction between justification and sanctification. Otherwise, you end up conflating the two and landing in the diseased pond of works righteousness. The Apostle Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia because they had fallen into this diseased pond. The book of Galatians is highly instructive in addressing the spiritual cancer of works righteousness. The third and fourth chapters of Romans also clearly present the doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Christ alone.

You can either rely upon the cross and the blood of Jesus for salvation, or upon your own efforts. You can rely on the Law or the Gospel. But be forewarned: “All who rely on observing the Law are under a curse” (Galatians 3:10).  If you have been “saved” by your good works, you remain spiritually dead. In fact, millions of sincere religious people around the world are not yet saved, redeemed, forgiven, born again and justified. 

Unless you understand what Scripture teaches about Christian conversion, you will not comprehend why Jordan Peterson’s comments on “complete salvation” are inaccurate. Paul reminded the believers in Ephesus: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). “In Him (Christ) we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Ephesians 1:7).

Like Martin Luther before his conversion, Jordan Peterson’s spiritual blind spot is massive. The famous psychologist is essentially placing sanctification before justification; Christian living before conversion; and a new life before the new birth. It is flipped upside down from what the Holy Spirit gave to the authors of the New Testament. And since this unbiblical perspective contradicts the message of the Gospel, it has never converted a single soul.

What Peterson is missing in his theology is the necessity of being born again through faith in Jesus Christ (see John 3:1-8). In fact, he actually comes out swinging against the New Testament teaching on justification, even though it is the central doctrine of the Christian faith.

Peterson conflates justification and sanctification by claiming that “complete salvation” occurs only after a Christian has done his part to finish the job. This of course contradicts Scripture. No one has ever been converted by his or her works. Souls are converted by the power of the Holy Spirit before any good works are present. Jesus said, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:7). Our “new birth” (1 Peter 1:3) and salvation are complete at the moment of conversion. God forgives our sins on the front end of our relationship with Him, which is when we are redeemed, justified, born again, and saved. 

The church in Luther’s day was conflating justification and sanctification. And this false doctrine led people to chase after works righteousness, rather than to rest in Christ’s work on the cross for the forgiveness of their sins. Luther and the other reformers began calling God’s people back to the Gospel that was proclaimed by Jesus and the apostles. Resting in Christ alone (faith) brings about conversion and justification. It is the foundation of the Christian life. After being born again, the Lord then produces good works in our lives that God accepts as holy in His sight. Rest first, then work. Justification always precedes sanctification.

Your body instantly becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit at the moment of your conversion (see 1 Corinthians 6:19). Justification is instantaneous, whereas sanctification is progressive, as I explained in my CP op-ed, “Assessing ‘Growth in Justification’ with Bishop Robert Barron.” The thief on the cross who trusted Jesus was instantly saved and justified and granted the free gift of everlasting life in Heaven (see Luke 23:39-43).

Before taking his final breath on the cross, Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Christ had completed the atoning work necessary for our salvation. If we attempt to add our works to Christ’s work to complete our salvation, we remain separated from God and lost in our sins. 

You see, Christians work for the Lord because we have been saved, rather than in order to be saved. Do you understand the difference?

Dan Delzell is the pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Papillion, Nebraska. 

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