I grew up in the Bible Belt where, by mid-elementary, most of the kids in my peer group could point proudly to a note written in the front of their Bibles announcing the exact date they Got Saved. At junior high youth rallies, the Rededications began, along with a smattering of I-Thought-I-Was-Saved-But-I-Really-Wasn’t (scribble over that first date and write in the new one). Through all seven verses of “Just As I Am” and all four years of high school, we children of the Bible Belt battled our doubts and bustled our backslidden selves down aisles to altar rails. Maybe, we thought, the Saving will stick this time. Just maybe.
Where's the Freedom?
Our problem was this: Our sinning did not cease with our professions of faith. The salvation that promised us new life in Christ, by all appearances, failed to deliver. We still made all the same mistakes and, along the thorny path of adolescence, we added fresh failures to the list. Given the damning evidence, we assumed that we did not do something right. Where was the freedom from sin we had been promised?
Looking back, I wonder if our problem was not with salvation itself but with our understanding of how the freedom of our salvation actually occurs. In fact, it was not until my early 20s that I gained any clarity on this issue. I knew that I served a God who was and is and is to come, but I did not understand what that meant for my salvation.
But to make sense of this tension and to fully understand salvation, it is helpful that we see it in three categories: justification, sanctification and glorification. For the believer, our justification was, our sanctification is and our glorification is to come. We were saved, we are being saved and we will be saved. I've found the easiest way to understand these three forms of freedom is to remember the three Ps: penalty, power and presence.
Justification: Freedom From Sin’s Penalty
When we came to saving faith in Christ, confessing our great need for Him and asking for forgiveness from the punishment we deserve, we were met with God’s unequivocal “Yes.” Christ bore the penalty for our sins; therefore, we received freedom from that penalty for all sins past, present and future. We were justified before God our judge because our penalty had been paid.
Those who have been justified never need re-justifying. We can look back to the time of our justification—perhaps written in the front of our Bible—and know that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Our justification is behind us. It is a past occurrence. We were saved from sin's penalty.
Sanctification: Freedom From Sin’s Power
Now that the grace of God has been set upon us as a permanent seal, we are being made new. We are being set free from the power of sin by the power of the Spirit. God’s grace is restoring to us a will that wants what He wants. Before we were justified, our broken wills were utterly subject to the power of sin. We chose sin at every turn. Even when we made choices that appeared good from an external standpoint, these choices were sinful because we had no higher internal purpose than to glorify self.
But now the power of sin is broken in our lives. We have been given the deposit of the Holy Spirit. Though we once chose only to sin, we now have the power—and the growing desire—to choose righteousness. We who were once slaves to sin’s power are now free to serve God. We don’t always use our freedom. We still sin. But, over time, we learn increasingly to choose holiness. From that handwritten date in our Bibles onward, our entire lives are devoted to “working out our salvation” as we learn to choose righteousness instead of sin—to walk in obedience to God’s commands.
Our sanctification is ongoing. It is a slow-moving growth in holiness. We are being saved from sin's power.
Glorification: Freedom From Sin’s Presence
We will fight to grow in holiness our entire earthly lives. But when we have run the race and fought the good fight, we will enter into the presence of the Lord forever. We will be glorified. In His presence, our soul-rest will at last be complete, as sin and its devastation will cease to assail us. There can be no sin in His presence. Though now we are surrounded on all sides by sinfulness, though now sin continues to cling to our hearts, we will go to a place where sin is no more—on a day not too distant. In our glorification, we will at last be granted freedom from the very presence of sin.
Our glorification is future. It is the day we trade the persistent presence of sin for the perfect presence of the Lord. We will be saved from sin's presence.
Rest, Labor, Hope
If my childhood peers and I had understood these three aspects of salvation’s freedom better, we might have saved ourselves a great deal of anxiety and a few trips down the aisle. The knowledge of this reality—that sin is gradually overcome across a lifetime—would have been good news to the teenager who thought surely her ongoing sin invalidated her profession. The knowledge that sanctification is hard work would have helped her topple the myth of the effortless stock-photo Christian life. The knowledge that total freedom from sin was a future certainty would have helped her ask in faith for grace for her current failures.
Maybe you, too, have found salvation mystifying. Maybe you’ve wondered, “If I’m really saved, why don’t I feel fully free?” You’re not yet, but you will be. Our complete freedom from sin is certain, but it is not sudden. So we rest confidently in our justification. We labor diligently in our sanctification. And we hope expectantly in our glorification.
Be assured of your justification. It was. One day, you were freed fully from the penalty of sin.
Be patient with your sanctification. It is. Each day, you are being freed increasingly from the power of sin.
Be eager for your glorification. It is to come. One day, you will be freed finally from the presence of sin.