Summary: Consider three moves of grace. Our record is cleared of sin. Our lives are conformed to Christ. And our destiny is sealed by God.
There are three great moves that God makes on your behalf – three initiatives of grace that have to do with securing and insuring your salvation. They are, first, justification, second, sanctification, and, third, glorification. In his mercy, God justifies you – that is, he pronounces you just. He gives you a right standing in his presence. Then, by his power, he sanctifies you. He makes you holy. He works to bring about in you what he has declared you to be. Then, finally, according to his gracious design, he will glorify you – which is to say that he will perfect in you the fullness of all that he intends for you. You will be completely conformed to the likeness of Christ.
Three great moves on God’s part, and each of them affect you in a benevolent way. What’s interesting is that in this third chapter of Philippians, Paul charts this whole process.
Last week, we focused on the first part of Philippians, chapter 3, and we read Paul’s words in verses 8 and 9, where he says, I want to “gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from [keeping] the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.” This is justification. It is the first of the three moves that we have identified in God’s work of salvation in your life.
The term justification comes right of the courtroom, where the defendant faces the judge and awaits the verdict based on the evidence presented. It is not difficult to imagine God as the judge – I mean, is it? And it is not hard for me to see myself standing before the bench, a guilty sinner, condemned by my own actions. But I am not alone there. I have a defense attorney, an advocate. In fact, when John wrote his little epistle of 1 John, he said at the beginning of chapter 2, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin” – and we do, don’t we? We sin! – “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate” – you see, there’s that word, advocate, our defense attorney who stands there beside us – “we have an advocate with the Father, [who is] Jesus Christ the righteous….”
Justification takes place at a moment in time. It’s not a process; it’s a verdict. And the verdict is “not guilty,” based on the fact that Jesus has died in your place. And when you put your faith in him, when you trust him to be your sin-bearer, God declares you to be righteous.
A good definition of justification is that it is “the act of God whereby he declares the believing sinner righteous…on the basis of the finished work of Christ on the cross” (Wiersbe). And this declaration is never repealed. That’s why Paul says that he wants to be found in Christ, not having a righteousness of his own, but the righteousness that comes from God and is received by faith.
That’s the first gracious move that God makes toward us. The second move is what the Bible calls sanctification. Sanctification is the process by which God make us holy – that is, he conforms us to the likeness of his Son. Unlike justification, sanctification is a process. There is no justification by degrees; it is a “done deal.” But sanctification is another matter. While justification never changes, sanctification may change from day to day.
Paul doesn’t use this word sanctification in Philippians 3, but it’s there. What he describes is what sanctification is. And, just as justification took us to the courtroom, so sanctification takes us to the field of play, where runners are racing toward the finish line, contending for the winner’s trophy.
So, Paul says, beginning in the middle of verse 13, “This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” This is runner’s talk. You can see Paul in his lane, running with all the strength and resolve he can command, and he is determined to make it to the goal.
Now, don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that sanctification is all up to you. This is God’s move on your behalf, remember. He is sanctifying you; he is making you holy. But you have a role to play. You have to keep your head in the game. What is it Paul says in Philippians 2? In that chapter, beginning in verse 12, he says to us: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” When Paul says to “work out your own salvation,” he is not talking about justification; he is talking about sanctification. He is not saying, “Work hard, and maybe God will save you.” He is saying, “Work hard because God has saved you.”