Which Direction Should We Go? – Reflections on “Justification” and “Sanctification” in the Reformation

Editor’s note: As the Chinese house church engages the question, “What is the church?” it recognizes the all-important preceding question, “What is the gospel?” The result is that the house church finds itself contemplating what can be gleaned from the depths of church history. The following is Part 4 of a lengthy paper written by a Chinese pastor on the topic of reformed soteriology and its pastoral implications. The paper hopes to train and encourage other urban Chinese house church pastors, and as such is an interesting insight to the theology shaping portions of the house church. It was originally published in Kosmos, an online and print magazine focusing on theological and cultural issues in mainland China. If you missed them, make sure to catch up with Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 from previous weeks.

Even though the medieval soteriology of justification is wrong on the point of man’s final salvation depending on his internal righteousness in order to obtain eternal life as promised by God, nevertheless we must affirm and imitate the church in its attempt to fully explain all scriptures relating to salvation and to construct a comprehensive soteriology over a period of more than 1000 years of church history. This is also why the Reformers parted ways with the medieval church on justification by faith – they wanted to protect the comprehensiveness of soteriology, and therefore they developed doctrines like “union with Christ,” “repentance,” “adoption,” “sanctification,” “rewards,” and “glorification.” Because of their faithfulness in their exposition of the whole of scripture, these doctrines became included in what is meant by “being saved.” 

For a simple question like “How are men saved?” the medieval answer is straightforward: “Justification by faith.” This answer basically includes the entire content of soteriology and covers the lifetime of a man. From another perspective, because the medieval institutional church participated in the lifelong process of a man’s being “justified by faith” through the seven sacraments as effectual means of grace, medieval soteriology melded with ecclesiology. Thus, there was essentially “no salvation outside of the church.”  

The Protestant doctrine of “justification by faith” pushed the time when one is decisively saved up from judgment after death to the moment when one is united to Christ by faith and “declared righteous,” which is also accompanied by a subjective “assurance of salvation.” For a simple question like “How are men saved?” the answer provided by Protestant soteriology was relatively complicated because the phrase “to be saved” has different layers of meaning in light of “justification.” If one is not careful, he may focus solely on “justification by faith” and reduce the entirety of salvation to the atoning work of Christ on the cross, thus downplaying or even neglecting sanctification. For this reason, we have continually struggled with justification and sanctification in our pastoring ever since the Reformation, even in the West. Only pastors who have been trained well and churches with a rich tradition can maintain a comprehensive soteriology in their practices. If this is true in the West, the younger Chinese churches will undoubtedly face an even greater challenge.  

The greatest impact the Protestant doctrine of justification had in replacing the Catholic doctrine of justification was that it demolished the institutional church as the means by which believers obtain salvation. This practically dissolved the unity between soteriology and ecclesiology in the Middle Ages. Ever since then, one of the greatest struggles within Protestant churches has been ecclesiology – what is the institutional church? How should we understand and apply the phrase “There is no salvation outside the church?” What authority has Christ given to the church? In China, which does not have a church tradition, these questions are especially important. But they also provide us an opportunity to try something new and to perhaps contribute something to the universal church.

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Dealing with these two problems may be an effective means by which we elevate our theology by replacing simple questions about salvation with conscious, deep reflection on soteriological questions that are consistent with the whole Bible. 

For example, we can replace the simple question “How are men saved?” with the question “How does God, after man has fallen, complete his plan of creation and cause his glorious grace to be praised?”  On the one hand, this way of asking the question attempts to construct soteriology upon theology proper, making God’s work the foundation and emphasis while pointing to God’s glory as the ultimate goal of salvation; on the other hand, it protects the unity of God’s creation and redemption, where the goal of redemption is re-creation (a new creation). This way of asking the question even implies a relationship between ecclesiology and soteriology, tying the two closer together from the perspective of anthropology. 

Another thing we may try is properly utilizing the achievements of the past five decades in the field of biblical theology to rebuild a framework for systematic theology. My preliminary thoughts are to divide systematic theology into three parts: 1) introduction, prolegomena, the doctrine of revelation, methodology – using biblical revelation to reconstruct personal epistemology and the doctrine of revelation; 2) theology proper – constructing a doctrine of the Trinity; 3) anthropology (the image of God) – from the creation of Adam to the perfection of the second Adam, and finally to the perfection of the entire church (those in Christ). We can subdivide anthropology historically into two parts: a) creation and the fall of man in Adam; b) soteriology or re-creation, which entails redemption and the perfection of man in Christ, including redemption, re-creation, and consummation. Traditional Christology, the ordo salutis, the doctrine of Holy Spirit, and ecclesiology may be integrated into the historical stages of soteriology and re-creation in 2b. 

The goal here is to construct a dynamic and comprehensive anthropology (the image of God) based on the Trinity and the creative and redemptive work of God. Adam, Christ, and those in Christ are included in this anthropological framework, leading to a comprehensive soteriology. Soteriology and ecclesiology may then be integrated and complement each other within this anthropological framework.  


Justification and sanctification are vital and inseparable in Protestant soteriology. Though there is great discontinuity between many aspects of Protestant and medieval soteriology, there is also significant continuity in other aspects, especially in their efforts to maintain consistency in their exegesis of all of scripture and revelation relating to salvation and in their efforts to construct a comprehensive soteriology. As we emphasize justification by faith, we must also simultaneously strive to preach and practice a comprehensive soteriology, so that God’s glorious grace might be praised.  

Theology is a response of the church toward the redemptive work of God and the revelation of scripture. All knowledge is personal, and this necessarily includes knowledge relating to the worship of God and its practical implications. Thus, the history of theology is also the history of the church. This article has attempted to sum up the questions of soteriology by looking at the unity of biblical revelation and suggesting a restructuring of systematic theology. I hope that by reconstructing the whole of anthropology through Christology, soteriology, and ecclesiology we can arrive at a comprehensive soteriology, one in which soteriology and ecclesiology are closely linked together. I also hope, together with all pastors in China, in the tradition of the universal church, to continue reforming and knowing God more, bringing glory to his name. 


English translation provided by Moses, Brent, and the China Partnership translation team. Please refer to our reposting guidelines for permission to share on your blog or website.

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