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What exactly is progressive justification?

Unsplash/Jukan Tateisi
Unsplash/Jukan Tateisi

A Bible verse that is regularly misinterpreted is Philippians 2:12: “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Some religious leaders point to this passage to promote the false doctrine of “progressive justification,” even though the Apostle Paul clearly addressed this directive “to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi” (1:1). In other words, it was sent to those who had already been justified by grace through faith in Christ.

So, what exactly is progressive justification? It is the erroneous idea that a Christian's justification is an ongoing process and not complete at the moment of conversion. The fact of the matter is that a believer is justified, forgiven, born again, redeemed, and saved on the front end of his or her relationship with God. 

Spiritual conversion is comparable to physical birth (see John 3:3-8). You only have one birthday rather than several birthdays. Likewise, once you are justified and born again, you don't get converted over and over again. 

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Justification is like a concrete foundation for a house. “No one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11). Sanctification is like a house built upon a solid foundation. Justification occurs at conversion and is instantaneous, whereas sanctification involves the lifelong spiritual growth of a believer.

Paul wrote, “Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand” (Romans 5:1-2). “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). Notice that “justified” and “saved” are in the past tense. Paul then immediately addresses sanctification: “For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

Good works have never saved a single soul. The thing that saves the believer is the work Jesus completed by His death on the cross. When you place your faith in Christ's finished work, you are instantly justified and forgiven. “In Christ we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace” (Ephesians 1:7). The Bible states that “we have redemption.” Salvation is not something we work to achieve or earn. Such a feat is impossible. After all, “If righteousness could be gained through the Law, Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:21).

Think of “working out your salvation” this way. Those who are alive are able to work out at the gym. Dead people obviously do not work out. Likewise, you can only “work out” your salvation if you are spiritually alive. God's Word instructs believers to “do everything in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14). We work out our salvation by obeying God's commands and turning away from sin. “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11-12). 

We work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) as we serve the Lord with deep respect and profound reverence. Pastor A.W. Tozer (1897-1963) wrote, “When men no longer fear God, they transgress His laws without hesitation. The fear of consequences is no deterrent when the fear of God is gone.” 

The Apostle Peter wrote, “Since you call on a Father who judges each man's work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear” (1 Peter 1:17). Oswald Chambers (1874-1917) was a Scottish evangelist and teacher. He wrote, “The remarkable thing about God is that when you fear God, you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God, you fear everything else.” 

The bottom line is that followers of Christ sincerely want to live for the Lord. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:24-25). Keeping in step with the Holy Spirit is how we work out our salvation. 

Justification occurs the moment you are born again, whereas your Christian life of sanctification is progressive. Believers are a work in progress. If you mingle justification and sanctification, you undermine the Gospel. This serious problem developed among the churches in Galatia 2,000 years ago. Paul reminded them that “all who rely on observing the Law are under a curse” (Galatians 3:10). “You who are trying to be justified by Law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4).

There is no such thing as growth or progress in justification, as I addressed in my CP op-ed, “Assessing 'Growth in Justification' with Bishop Robert Barron.” “A man is not justified by observing the Law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the Law, because by observing the Law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16).

First, you are justified and saved, and then you begin to work out your salvation as a forgiven child of God.

If you are a believer, then you are a saint, just like those Christians Paul wrote to at Philippi. And a holy fear of the Lord is definitely compatible with the assurance of your salvation. “Our citizenship is in Heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). “In His great mercy God has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade — kept in Heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3-4).

Followers of Christ have been justified (past tense) through faith in Jesus and are now in the process of being sanctified and “made new in the attitude of your minds” (Ephesians 4:23). Thankfully, holy attitudes lead to holy living as Christians work out their salvation by the grace of God.

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

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