Can you be ‘saved’ and not grow? (Justification vs Sanctification)


We are in the midst of our “Simple.” Series at Journey and just finished talking about having a simple faith that not only is continually seeking God, but that we think highly enough of Him to trust him implicitly.

A friend brought up the very real difference between Justification (the moment that you are ‘saved’ or made just in the eyes of God in spite of your sin because of Jesus) and Sanctification (the process of growing or being transformed into the image of Christ). They are both spoken of in the Bible and they are both very real things.

What many Christians have struggled with is the question, “Can I be justified and not sanctified?” In other words, can I come to a moment of being saved and made just in the eyes of God without committing to or experiencing the process of growing or being transformed?”

In the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s the church in America was experiencing a golden time of growth and evangelism. Events that encouraged people to “receive the gospel” and “make a decision for Christ” were very effective in bringing people into our churches and convincing them to ask Jesus to be their Savior. Evangelistic events and crusades were everywhere, encouraging listeners to be saved so they would go to heaven.

If someone did…done. End of story.
“That’s one more in heaven!”

The problem is that this is not how the Bible talks about salvation or the gospel. God is not just looking for you to get saved. He is looking for you to find that He is your greatest treasure. That you are growing in your love for Him and desire to follow Him. He ultimately wants you to change, to be transformed into the image of His Son in your everyday life, not get your ticket to heaven punched.

Paul described salvation like this:

29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. Romans 8:29–30 (ESV)

1. God intends for us to be conformed into the image of his Son.
2. Those who will be conformed, will be called.
3. Those who are called, will be justified.
4. Those who are justified will be glorified…or literally…will share God’s glory.

One of the greatest injustices that we have done to the gospel is to uncouple sanctification from justification. Millions of christians in America believe that God ultimately wants us to say we are sorry for our sins and ask Him to forgive us so we can go to heaven. You could do all of that in a few minutes without ever changing anything in your life.

God, however, is looking for people who are broken over their sin because they believe there is a better way, see Him as their greatest treasure, trust Him to believe that His Word is true and necessary for living a full life, and are constantly in the process of growing to be more like Christ.

Do you see the difference?

One is focused on a singular moment while the other is focused on eternal change of relationship, perspective, motivation, behavior, and action.

The apostle James struggled with this very same thing.
Paul had been preaching a gospel of being saved by God’s grace through our faith in Christ Jesus and people were responding.

Paul’s main idea was that you can only be saved because of God’s love for you and offer of forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. You couldn’t earn it or pay it back. It was a free gift to those who wanted it and those who believed it was true.

Some christians (again, little ‘c’) were accepting this message without every doing anything about their faith. Never growing. Never transforming. Never doing anything. They had their heaven ticket punched and now they could do whatever they wanted.

In order to combat this false understanding of the gospel, James began teaching this…

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? James 2:14 (ESV)

He then goes on to give an example of how these early christians would claim to have faith but that faith didn’t have any action behind it to demonstrate that it was real.

15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? James 2:15-16 (ESV)

(In the south, when we do this, we say, “I’ll pray for you” instead of lending a helping hand.) Then came his explanation of true faith and salvation.

17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! James 2:17-19 (ESV)

James does not present a list of necessary works because there isn’t one. His point was not that you have to prove your faith. Instead, he was saying that true faith motivates us to act…continually.

If we truly experience Christ, it will manifest change and action in us. If there is no change or action, then that faith is dead.

This brings us to some good and bad news. First, some good news…

Sanctification is a process and not a destination. If you are a follower of Christ, you will be in the process of sanctification your entire life. That means that you are not expected to achieve a perfect place of being sanctified, or some measurable maturity that should be reached on some predetermined time line.

You are on a journey of growth. Wherever you are, if you are growing, you are where God wants you. That will sometimes look like definable actions and other times it will be subtle changes in your world view, your view of God, and your view of yourself.

I often look at other followers, pastors, and leaders and think, “man, they are so much farther down the road than me.” But that’s ok. You may do the exact same thing.

I am encouraged and excited to know that God is doing something in me and that I will continue to change and be transformed.

God’s not shaking a crooked and angry finger at me because someone else is farther down the road. He is pleased and smiling that I am making progress.

There is some bad news to all of this, though. Namely, that there are those that believe they were “justified” but had no interest in growing, changing, or following. They will one day stand before Jesus and he will say, “I never knew you”.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ Matthew 7:21–23 (ESV)

Jesus’s point to them was that there are some that will not only claim to be justified, but they will also do “spiritual-looking” things. On the inside, though, nothing has changed. Jesus is not their treasure. They are not interested in conforming to HIs image and they are not changing.

It’s hard to imagine a time when someone would want to “fake” being a Christian. In our context, today, there is no real benefit. It’s not valued by secular culture and the church is no longer a money making network for crafty salesmen.

No, in our context, the problem isn’t faking it, the problem is that we never considered it seriously.

“Sure, if there does happen to be a heaven, I might as well make sure my bases are covered. If there isn’t, it’s not big loss. All I said was a prayer. I never really changed anything else in my life or the way I saw myself, God, or the world.”

It is a powerless and dead faith that is no benefit to anyone.

Instead, the good news of the gospel is this.

You were created to be whole, healthy, full, hopeful, and full of joy as you live and walk with our creator, God. However, you are stuck in a world that is constantly being negatively effected by our own fractured understanding of our world, ourselves, and our creator because of sin.

Most people will be completely blind to these realities, but God is consistently trying to point you to a better way of life with Him through the Holy Spirit.

Once you realize that this is possible, if you believe that Jesus is God’s son, that he was blameless and without sin, and that he died to pay the penalty for our sin, you can escape the trap of being controlled by sin and be opened up to a life that begins to return to what God wanted for us in the first place.

That’s it. But here’s the kicker. Once you do, you will be so overcome by life with God that you can’t help but love Him, worship Him, and want to know Him even more. The sun will be brighter, your relationships will be deeper, your outlook will be more hopeful, your failures will sting less, your victories will be more sweet, and your outlook will be more positive.

As you learn through the Bible what God has been doing since creation and how we can live according to His ways, we are motivated to do what He says. It may not be easy and overcoming some of our old ways will be harder and take longer than others, but you can’t help being encouraged to continue this process. To celebrate new realities, new victories, new hope, new happiness, and new perspectives.

Walking with Christ is the highlight of our lives that makes everything else brighter, more full, and more exciting until one day, our ultimate hope will be realized….

Life on this earth will end and we will continue to live with Christ forever, apart from all of the muck and nastiness of sin that we have endured until that point.

So, you see, a desire to be saved without any change in us can not really be the gospel. You can’t find such a treasure and live as if it is anything but.

Justification is an important and definable moment on the journey of sanctification. But what we are focused on is the process, the long haul, the adventure…the journey, not the moment that it all began.

Pastor Mark

23 Comments. Leave new

  • Daniel Cartwright
    August 14, 2019 11:59 pm

    Hey. You’ve got some interesting thoughts here. I agree with you in principle, but I find it much harder to define in practice.

    I often hear testimonies of people who accepted the Lord at a young age, but then went off into sin and didn’t start taking their growth seriously until they were older.

    I guess I’m speculating about all this because of my own experience. I was raised in a Christian home. I prayed to accept Christ at 6 years old. When I was 12 I started attending church regularly, and there did seem to be a genuine hunger for Christ and the word of God.

    I went to these youth conferences where they basically told us that we might be going to hell for watching the wrong movies or listening to the wrong music (at least that’s how I understood it.) It really freaked me out. Not enough to make me stop watching questionable movies, but enough to make me question my salvation when I did.

    Later, I felt that I discovered God’s grace and I quit worrying about that. Although I didn’t live a “sinful lifestyle”, I can now see that I did let my values slip in terms of entertainment, the kind of jokes I would make, etc. I would find myself not just tolerating, but secretly enjoying things that I shouldn’t have (but I couldn’t bring myself to admit it at the time.)

    At the same time, it does seem like I was growing in other areas (generosity, care for others in the body, overcoming immature/selfish mindsets in my relationships etc.) For example, I remember a really sweet moment when I had been mad at my friend because I felt ignored, and I felt like the Lord gently corrected me and showed me that I was being selfish. The moment I repented, it was like a weight was lifted off me.

    Now, I would gladly give up much of my entertainment to follow Christ. I’m not really sure what to make of that “grace” period in my life. Could it be possible that I was truly growing in some areas, but become more carnal in others? Could it be possible that I was having an overreaction to condemning preaching. Was I just a deceived false convert? I’m not sure.

    • Daniel, what a beautiful picture of sanctification and I agree, it is much easier to discuss in principle that define in practice. I think that is a good thing. If it were easier to define in practice, we could put a “list of practices” on the wall and then judge everyone’s sanctification by them. You describe the intent of what I was hoping to write about. We each can have an incomplete understanding of following Christ at some points of our lives where we seem to be “practicing” some things (going to church, i.e.) but not truly grasping what it looks like to truly seek, know, and follow Christ. Once we do, temptation doesn’t stop. In fact, sometimes it gets more intense. What we do with sin matters, though. I am glad to say that I am farther along this path after over 30 years of being a Christian. I am sorry to say that I still haven’t attained a life of sinlessness or a life without temptation. You haven’t either. The difference is that we are striving to become more like Christ. That is really the intent of this post. Are we striving to become more like Christ or have we prayed a prayer of salvation and rarely think another thing about it. Many believe that is all that it’s about…just say a prayer and they’re in. That’s just not the way Jesus or the Bible talks about it. Thanks for the comment. Feel free to continue the conversation!

  • Thank you for your teaching.

    It is understandable that every Christian’s faith should be showed in their everyday life. However, does not this saying direct us to claim that righteousness is achieved together by faith and good deeds instead of salvation by grace through faith?

    • Well, not really. However, understanding the relationship between grace and works has always been difficult to describe. Paul and James believed that salvation was by grace through faith alone but still seemed to disagree at times about works. James said that his faith would be demonstrated by his works but those works were insufficient to grant righteousness or salvation.

      • It can be kind of confusing, because Paul makes salvation seem so easy and simple. Then on the other hand, it’s like you have to be doing certain things to make sure that your faith is genuine. Then I hear loads of different ideas about the ‘Not everyone who says Lord Lord’ text. Some say that at that time Pharisees who didn’t believe still called Him Lord as well as other unbelieving Jews. Then some say that it’s for people who have confessed their faith and called upon the name of Jesus to be saved, but their behaviour is bad so they won’t go to heaven. So what I get from it is that you’re saved through faith, but if you don’t do certain things or don’t live up to the certain standard you’re not actually saved. Which gives me anxiety sometimes because I don’t see any fruits of myself being saved. Nor do I know what God has called me to do in this life. For example if God wants me to be a doctor but I end up being a fireman, will I go to hell? (Just an example). It kind of makes me wish that I never even existed because im scared of going to hell.

        • Nate, I would say this is a struggle for everyone who is serious about their faith. Even Paul said he had to train every day because he didn’t want to share this gospel to everyone and miss it himself. There is truly a mystery to knowing and following Christ. You clearly have done some deep thinking about this but let me encourage you that I don’t believe God wants us to fear all the time. Regardless of your occupation, you can honor God with your life. I’m not one that believes God calls you to 1 job but can use you in many jobs. Still, I struggle with some of the same things you do. I think the key indicator for most people is this…are you moving towards Christ. The gospel is “making us new”. It’s an ongoing process. I think the problem lies in those that claim faith but do no training whatsoever. If we are constantly focusing on Christ and becoming more like Him, I believe we are exactly where God wants us.

        • if you’re saved or justified, you should see it by the fruits you bear, which produces the deeds of your life, sanctification. For example, Galatians 5:22-23. a saved person will continue to grow by prayer and studying the Scriptures, repentance are present, love others, obedience, convictions, confession. You should see yourself grow by true faith, otherwise, you need re-examine yourself.

  • Great help, we are discussing Romans in our men’s group and this is very helpful. The concept of continuing faith as Abraham can be show by deeds that are not necessarily good works. Wasn’t it really taking steps of faith toward what Paul call “wholehearted”commitment to God. This idea of dependence on the spirit for direction and wisdom the “works” that James could be talking about. We immediately go to “taking care of the widows and orphans” and diminish the interaction between us and God as David did in the psalms. Im not making it one “work” more than the other but both are the seeking to be transformed by God’s Spirit.

  • @JourneyChurch You people are Lordship Salvation/Calvinist’s and the biggest poison being disseminated right now. You have the same exact distortion of scriptures as modern day Pharisees such as Paul Washer, Jon MacArthur, John Piper etc, etc. These people work for Satan and so do you. We are saved by faith through grace, works have ZERO to do with salvation. Telling people they have to have a changed life is a total lie. 2 Tim 2:13 says even people who totally fall away will be saved. Galatians 2:16 NO flesh shall be justified by the deeds of the law. Your wanting to see and tell people they need to be just like Christ is a total nightmare for them. You are just wallowing in your own hypocrisy, you do not walk as Christ yet you ask others to do it. Works after salvation are for the reward at the judgement seat, not to be saved or prove you’re saved. Read Romans 4:1-5. To him that worketh not but believeth is counted to him for righteousness. The righteous see God.

    • Hi Louis! Thanks for joining the conversation! Just for some clarification sake, we’re actually are not Calvinists. What you’re touching on is a very subtle but real difference in what I’m saying and what you are hearing me say. I absolutely agree with your assessment about salvation without works. The issue is not about salvation but whether or not we have found the “pearl of great price” and actually do believe. If we believe something, that something will change us. Jesus is offering salvation through grace and not works but he also said we are to pick up our cross and follow him. He also said we will continue to become more like him as we follow him. The issue is not a works based faith, it is a faith that actually changes us versus simply saying we believe something without it actually changing us. There is no true belief without fruit beginning to grow which is exactly what James, the brother of Jesus was saying. In other words, I agree that we don’t have to be changed to be saved but if we are saved, we will change. Appreciate your insights and response.

    • Bethany Saxton
      May 23, 2023 7:33 pm

      Hi Louis,

      I came across your comment and wanted to share an important exegesis of this passage in 2 Timothy. I’m learning that it is vital to cross reference Scripture instead of focusing on isolated verses in order to fully understand the context and meaning:

      Also, here is a good distinction between the different “types” of biblical law:

      And, when Jesus stated that He did not abolish, but fulfill, the law, He was referring more so to ceremonial laws while still upholding moralistic laws.

      And, lastly, I recently came across an article on the very topic of Lordship Salvation which I’d encourage you to read. I can tell you from personal experience that the distinction has made a great deal of difference in my own life:

      And, here is my testimony where I discuss this:

      God bless you! With love in Christ, Bethany

  • Hi I’ve really been struggling with my salvation I have asked Jesus to give me the assurance but it’s just not there I don’t want to go to hell could you please pray for me thank you.

    • Hi Joe! I will definitely be praying for you to not only know but to have joy in knowing Jesus. You know, a lot of the Christian life is not really about going to heaven or hell. It’s about walking with Jesus and knowing him. As we live out his teachings and we value the things he valued like loving God and loving other people, we find a lot of the things Jesus promised. I’ll be praying not only for assurance, but the kind of joy that naturally comes from walking with Jesus.

  • Works are the” true testimony “of your salvation.

  • Faith without works is dead as the apostle me your faith without works and I will show you my faith by my works .Works does not bring about saving faith but it’s a testimony of it.So if you say you have saving faith do you have the testimony of works? this paints a clearer picture for someone who is examining themselves.

  • I loved reading your passage, and all the comments. I am currently in a backsliding stage (adultery, drinking.), I took my eyes off Jesus and got sucked into some secular things. I do pray daily, try to get into the word daily, and I try to always put Jesus first (when I can, relationships are hard.)

    I am working at re-focusing on my relationship with the Lord, but I find it so hard, I know that works are not a part of your salvation, but it is so hard to not look at yourself after falling into habitual sin – and think that you’re saved. I know many people have told me that being concerned about your salvation is a good indicator that the Holy Spirit is working in you, and God always finishes every good work he starts.

    My concern is that I have grieved the Holy Spirit so much, he has left. Yes, I know that in the bible it says God will never leave or forsake us, I also know that is says that we can’t be plucked out of the fathers hand. I know that this is a tough topic about whether or not you can actually lose your salvation, as salvation is not ours anyways, its a gift from God. I just have never really heard the Lord speak to me, I have never had any out of this world experience with God. Can you want to be saved, but not be granted salvation? I guess that’s my main concern, I always think – I am trying to do all these things right, I quit doing a lot of things when I came to Jesus, through his power I believe, but was I ever really saved? especially if I can backslide as badly as I am now?

    Faith should cause a love for the Lord, and I know our love is imperfect, but shouldn’t it be an easy task to chose to pick up my cross daily and die to self, if i have the Holy Spirit?

    • Hi Kristen! Thank you for sharing your concerns and the things that you are struggling with. Can I first just say that I absolutely DO NOT think that picking up your cross and dying to yourself daily is an easy task. The very language of picking up a cross and carrying signifies that it is a challenge for anyone. As others have told you, your questions signal that something deeper is going on within you. If not, you wouldn’t be struggling with these questions at all.

      Jesus shows his compassion and grace for people asking questions all throughout the Gospels. You also aren’t the first (and certainly won’t be the last) to struggle with sin. Perhaps it’s time to pray about the things that you are using drinking and adultery to escape from. Usually, those 2 things…drinking and adultery…are activities that help you escape other struggles in your life because they get you thinking about something else, feeling something else, and as long as you are indulging those things, you can ignore what’s really causing you pain. If you were to stop drinking and stop sleeping with someone, what would you be forced to face? Loneliness? Depression? A bad decision you can’t escape from? Something bad that is about to happen?

      Faith in Jesus is not just about acting correctly. It’s about resting in forgiveness and knowing that Jesus knew you would never be able to do it on your own. The drinking too much and adultery are causing you pain, too. That’s the primary reason that God told us not to do them. For me, my experience wasn’t seeing him visibly, but choosing to believe and never being disappointed when I follow his teachings. They always seem to be a better choice.

      Perhaps now is the time to face the “demons” that are pushing you towards these behaviors, rest in God’s grace, and choose to start fresh, again. I would also be glad to have a one on one conversation with you since blog comments really aren’t that effective. If you would like to reach me, you can start by emailing me. I’m happy to continue this conversation if you would like to. Regardless, I’m praying you will find freedom, forgiveness and a new path in your life to face it’s challenges with confidence rather than with behaviors that only offer a temporary escape. You are made in the image of God. You are loved and God welcomes those who choose to walk a path of following Jesus no matter what you’ve done.

  • I’m so glad this is still available to read. I needed this today!!

  • I appreciate this well written article on sanctification, and I agree with just about everything you’ve said. The only thing that I do have to challenge, unfortunately, is your statement that “the church is no longer a money making network for crafty salesmen”. Sadly, there are many false teachers who have continued to infiltrate the church and who fleece the flock of Jesus Christ, as well as those who may not truly be part of the flock, with prosperity teaching. It is far from a thing of the past, and we must learn to be discerning in this area and to caution against being deceived.

  • here is my question, my sister excepted Christ as her personal savior and followed the Lord in believers baptism then went to church a few times but then fell away, is she still saved or Lost. cause I was told that salvation is a free gift of God…ephesians 2-8,9…I dont think I could bear knowing my little sister was Lost

    • Hey James, you know there is so much about the Christian faith that is a mystery. I can’t pretend to say whether anyone, including your sister is saved or not. However, I also think we put way too much emphasis on life after death instead of life right now when it comes to salvation. If your sister is not living in a way that emulates Jesus, there are just some things that she is going to miss.

      Loving others as yourself, forgiving rather than holding wrongs against others, experiencing the glory of god in a sunset, and a whole list of other things that bring joy and freedom to Christians are generally missing when we choose not to follow Christ. People also go through a tremendous amount of hardship in this world that can “throw then off kilter”, especially if there expectation of being a Christian is wrapped in a life where nothing goes wrong. When you see the beauty of the true Jesus, you don’t tend to fall away but that doesn’t mean people don’t.

      Growth also takes a lot of different paths. Abraham made a lot of mistakes. Jonah had to see his shade destroyed. Jacob had to wrestle with God. The prodigal son had to experience the hardness of life without God before realizing how good life is with God.

      Our calling is to love people into the Kingdom of God and showing others how good life is when we follow Jesus. When I encounter concerns like this, I have to remind myself of these same things.

      This post isn’t really meant to say who is or isn’t saved, just that when you experience the true Jesus, you will start to change. There is no formula for what that path looks like. Simply seeking and following and, over time, changing more into the image of Christ.

      Hope this helps.

  • I am muslim and I get very much inspiration from your words about being with God and walking and working for progress. Thank you


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