In our Community Groups we recently discussed chapter 3 of C.J. Mahaney’s book, The Cross Centered Life, which focused on the topic of legalism. Mahaney defines legalism as “seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God” (p.25)
In order to break away from legalism and its performance trap, we need to have a good understanding of what Jesus did on the cross and how that affects our day-to-day living as Christians. The theological terms for this are justification and sanctification. Justification is the finished work that Jesus did on the cross on our behalf as He removed our sin and replaced it with His righteousness. Sanctification is the ongoing work that God is doing in our lives, whereby we are becoming more and more like Jesus throughout our lives.
Many people get confused about salvation and fall into legalism because they do not understand the difference of justification and sanctification. They mix them up, confusing their work as a Christian with Jesus’ work on the cross as the basis of their salvation.
C.J. Mahaney provides helpful distinctions (pages 32-33):
- Being declared righteous.
- Our position before God.
- Objective—Christ’s work for us.
- Immediate and complete upon conversion. You will never be more justified than you are the first moment you trust in the Person and finished work of Christ.
- Being made righteous—being conformed to the image of Christ.
- Our practice.
- Subjective—Christ’s work within us.
- Life-long process. You will be more sanctified as you continue in grace-motivated obedience.
Knowing the difference between justification and sanctification makes all the difference in your Christian life. It moves you from legalism to love, from guilt-motivated obedience to grace-motivated obedience. When you understand the work that Jesus did for you through His life, death, and resurrection (justification), then you’ll have a proper understanding of how you are live as a Christian (sanctification).
For another helpful comparison, see Dr. Daniel Akin’s chart, justification vs. sanctification, below: