Grace is the magic bullet, the one solution for every problem. As Martin Luther wrote in his famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”, one little word shall fell him. That little word is mercy, and the one that little word defeats is Satan. Satan accuses, mercy forgives.
Let’s suppose you are of the mind that there is a sharp division between justification and sanctification. You may be saved, but you need to show some fruit, you better be exhibiting some evidence of a changed life. I of course would disagree with this position, but forget about that. Let’s run with it. If you really believe you were initially justified, that at that time you were forgiven of everything you had ever done up to that point, that means you believe that Jesus’ blood has the power to deal with your guilt. The fact that you believe that you need further sanctification, that you are still kind of a sinner at that point, means that the seed of your further struggles was in you at that point. This means that you believed even then that He had forgiven you for your failures you bore the seed of at the point of your initial justification. Thus, even in your flawed “one time in the past” notion of justification, if it was a true deep real forgiveness, a forgiveness that transcended your regret or your reform, it means that justification carries through to cover your whole sanctification which began at that point, and covered the character flaws you had at that time which would result in flawed sanctification.
The reason you wouldn’t think so, the reason you would think that bad sanctification would trump justification, is that you didn’t really ‘get’ or quite believe in the efficacy of Jesus’ atonement. It was something you were supposed to check off on your proper doctrine list in a legalistic way, not something that you rejoiced over and ran with. It was not, for you, the treasure hid in a field, which from joy over you ran and sold everything to procure. So, your justification never quite touched your sanctification, not even for just a moment. If it had, you would never have divided these things that way. Justification is the engine of our sanctification, and never the other way around. Mercy and grace and the kindness of God are the gas in the tank of our virtue engine. Operating under an obligation to look sanctified is like pouring jello mix in that tank.
This is something you have to get completely straight. I like C.S. Lewis’ analogy about the two students in Mere Christianity. A bad student has no interest in the material, and has to cram before the test so he can barely pass. A good student takes an interest all along, and barely studies at the end yet makes a great grade. We have to get justification straight right up front. It is not the sort of thing you want to gloss over!
If you are looking at turning to Christ, at the justifying work of His blood, as an agent to moral change and a means to a ‘transformed life’, you are tainting your idea of justification. If you that that ‘repentance’, a promise of moral perfection from here on, is a necessity for justification, you are still under the law, still under your sins. Do you see it? You have to DIE to this. You have to admit that you have no idea how to repent. You have to end all obligation. You have to come to the point where you see that your efforts mean nothing. This ultimate confession of total defeat is true repentance. It is, as Robert Farrar Capon said, the effortlessness of death which is the touchstone of faith.
Ah, you may say, I do not mean that repentance is a promise of moral perfection! You’re putting words in my mouth! Well, I counter, what does it mean then? You repent of ‘willful’ sin? What is that? How do you categorize that? Isn’t all sin, in the end, the evil that we choose? Justification covers everything or else it is no good. Repentance, as I have written about extensively, has to operate under grace or it means nothing.
Justification, grace, and the pure love of God, come to us on God’s initiative. God persists in loving us despite our incomplete sanctification. If you do not believe that Christ’s work secures you ETERNALLY, that means you expect there are limits and conditions to His love. That means you are still under the law. God is still the cosmic policeman in the sky waiting and watching for you to do something wrong so He can nail you, because you think it isn’t eternal. God is an agent of the law to you, and not vice versa. The blood of Christ is something you are obligated to hold as correct doctrine. You don’t understand it and you secretly hate it but you publicly affirm it because you are a good little pharisee. Nothing is more nauseating to me than people who try to appear to hold to the doctrine of Christ’s atonement without really believing it. It is most damaging all around.
You know what I have to say? Give up! Die! Admit you are powerless! You are terrible at sanctification. Confess it all! Believe that you are truly, genuinely, totally, absolutely 100% forgiven forever. REALLY believe that Jesus died for you. Try it! Believe that when you sin, His throne is a throne of grace. He only wants to rescue you from the negative consequences of your crap because He actually loves you. He only looks out for you to bless you and lead you in blessing and shower you with grace and love all the time. When you go through hardship, He deeply and terribly cares for you, and grieves over your suffering. Never does He stop loving you. In Christ He never ever operates on a basis of punishment. He is not under the law and He doesn’t want to deal with you that way either.
If you don’t believe this way, that you are truly 100% absolutely forever eternally forgiven of everything no matter what, and that justification is simply GIVEN to you regardless of the extent of your ‘sanctification’, then you will never quite come to the place where the fruit of the Spirit starts to happen for you. Sanctification in the sense of the work of the Spirit absolutely depends on this, that there is therefore now NO condemnation. Even when we sin. Even when our flesh gets the upper hand sometimes. When we start to see that God always has kindness towards us, then we can start to think differently, and as Michael Eaton has said, a certain power comes into our love for God. We love because He first loved us.