All evangelicals can recite off something that sounds like justification by faith. We may mangle it somewhat and make it sound like Christ lowered God’s demands rather than satisfied His justice, and that faith is only a human decision, but for all that, we tend to be confident that we have got it reasonably right.
What, then, do we make of a professing Christian who falls into serious sin? Is he or she to be regarded as a true Christian who falls or a false believer? Some of the heroes of the book of Judges seem less than impressive. Samson acts like an undisciplined thug at times (Judges 13-16), yet he appears in the New Testament’s honour roll of God’s faithful servants (Heb.11:32). Jephthah and even Gideon are others who can appear dubious models to follow. David in the midst of his adultery with Bathsheba hardly looks like a man after God’s own heart – yet he was.
Armed with justification by faith, we may say that our salvation depends not on our obedience but that of Christ. That is true, and it is a wonderful comfort to us sinners, but the Bible nevertheless teaches that to a certain degree the reality of our justification is gauged by the reality of our sanctification. As John puts it: “by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:3-4).
Deception is never far away. A sinner engaging in an ungodly lifestyle may believe that he is in the kingdom of God when he is nowhere near it (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21). Without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb.12:14). Our sanctification may include some struggles.
Our progress may be fitful but real, and it is not at the same rate for all of us. In his letters, John Newton noted: “He has appointed that sanctification should be effected, and sin mortified, not at once completely, but little and little; and doubtless he has wise reasons for it”. Without understanding all of its mystery, we are to press on in holy grace.