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By Grace and By Choice

Doctrine and Covenants 20 is the foundational document of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It testifies that Jesus Christ is the way, the only way, to be saved in the kingdom of God. And it identifies two mighty changes that are offered to us through His grace. The first is justification. The second is sanctification. I think we often get confused between the two and the role of grace and works in each.

D&C 20:30 states, "And we know that justification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true."

Webster's 1828 dictionary clarifies what Joseph would have meant with the term "justification," that is: "remission of sin and absolution from guilt and punishment; or an act of free grace by which God pardons the sinner and accepts him as righteous, on account of the atonement of Christ."

At first, I wanted to quibble with that definition. Sinners, I thought, can't be made righteous without going through the steps of repentance. But then I remembered Alma the younger who was struck down in pitched rebellion against God and His church. Confronted by the reality of his guilt he was in utter agony and wanted to cease to exist rather than be brought before God for judgment. Then he remembered his father's teachings about Jesus Christ and cried out in his heart, "O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death." His pain and his guilt disappeared and, he writes, "My soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain."

In that moment, Alma became righteous through the yielding of his heart to Jesus Christ. He had not confessed his sins to his priesthood leader, nor had he yet tried to undo any of the damage he'd done to the Church. If judged by his works, he could only be condemned as wicked. But his heart had changed, the Holy Spirit filled him, and he was a righteous man.

That's justification. It happened as well with King Lamoni, his father and both their wives and servants. It happened with Enos, with the Lamanites who had come to Nephi and Lehi in prison with intent to execute them, and with the multitude to whom King Benjamin addressed his famous speech. It's happened to me.

In the language of evangelical Christians, that mighty change is described as being "born again." It happens without any labor on our part except the labor of sincerely looking to Jesus Christ and seeking deliverance from him. I don’t think it is always characterized by the sudden spiritual outpourings described in scripture. I think that sometimes it is much more quiet. Always, though, I think it accompanies sincerely turning to the Lord and yielding to Him our hearts.

But that is just the beginning. D&C 20:31 states: "And we know also, that sanctification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true, to all those who love and serve God with all their mights, minds, and strength."

What is sanctification? According to Webster's 1828, it is, "the act of making holy. In an evangelical sense, the act of God's grace by which the affections of men are purified or alienated from sin and the world, and exalted to a supreme love to God."

Here's where I think it gets confusing: justification can feel like sanctification. The multitude who cried to the Lord for mercy in response to King Benjamin's address reported that the Spirit had "wrought a mighty change in [them], or in [their] hearts, that [they had] no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually" (Mosiah 5:2). The early Saints of this dispensation had a similar experience at the dedication of the Kirtland temple, to the point that some wondered if the Millennium had begun.

It didn't last. It couldn't. Not because God is incapable of pouring out the Spirit upon His children to keep them in a continuous state of such abundant grace, but because He won't. To do so would be to compromise our agency. He sent us here to choose and to become, to act and not to be acted upon. His love and goodness are so overwhelming that we had to leave His presence and come to Earth in order to choose for ourselves. So, when we cry out to Him for deliverance, He meets us where we are and gives us a glimpse of Heaven. He may even carry us for a little while. But then, He withdraws a pace, so that we can choose to come to Him.

I may, during an outpouring of grace, long with the hymnist to exercise my agency once and for all, and yield it to Him for eternity. I may sing, "Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above." But God doesn't want my heart by His choice. He wants it by mine. Not by a surrender of agency, but by an alignment of will. He wants me to love Him so fully that I cease being prone to wander and leave Him. So He draws close enough that I can turn to Him and be filled, and then He withdraws a little and invites me forward... again, and again, and again. He never leaves me completely, but there are stretches of time when I feel He is distant and when I struggle with contrary inclinations. Those are the times when I get to choose for myself if I really want to be His. If I fear to move forward or I try and fall on my face, He keeps reaching toward me and inviting me to choose again. When I reach back and move toward Him, eventually I experience another outpouring of the Spirit.

Suddenly, I'm thinking of the phrase "from grace to grace." D&C 93:13 says that's how Jesus grew: "he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness." His pattern would be different from ours because He never turned away from the Father, but I wonder if the basic process was the same.

D&C 20:31 clarifies that sanctification is through the grace of Jesus Christ just as much as is justification. We need to serve Him with all our mights, minds and strength, but our might and strength come by His grace and so does our inspired thinking. And love of Him is our whole motivation. Then, He justifies or cleanses us, time and time again, until we become proof against the appeal of sin (Alma 13:12), holy, without spot, and perfect in Christ (Moroni 10:33).

I believe sanctification is what happened with Nephi, son of Helaman. The Lord blessed him for his unwearyingness in declaring the word, for not fearing his fellows or seeking his own life, but for seeking the Lord's will and to keep His commandments. He added, "because thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will" (Helaman 10:4-5).

Justification, then, is what happens when we exercise faith to turn to Christ and He cleanses us. Sanctification is what happens when, after the cares and temptations of the world reassert themselves, we continue exercising faith in Christ, when we follow through on giving our hearts to Him in deed as well as intention, when we never weary of giving away that next thing that stands between Him and us, until we love like He loves and our will has become fully aligned with His.

What does all of this mean to me?

First of all, it helps me consider new possibilities about what has gone on with people like John C. Bennet. In retrospect, it looks like Mr. Bennet was always conniving and insincere, and Joseph's delaying to expose him, his early willingness to accept Bro. Bennet's repeated professions of repentance, can have the appearance of negligence. But it occurs to me now that perhaps there were periods when Bro. Bennet was sincere and even experienced justification. And then, perhaps, he didn't follow through but fell from grace (D&C 20:32).

I have close-at-hand experience with loved ones who seem to have followed a similar path. There have been moments when every signal told me they were deeply sincere in their desire to change, to make things right. I don't think they were acting or manipulating me. I feel that they were being real. But they weren't able to maintain it. They rejoiced in justification, but...what? Was sanctification more than they really wanted? I don't know. I don't understand. And realizing that I don't understand nor do I need to is itself somewhat liberating. It's not my place to be their judge.

The other thing that it means to me is that all of my efforts to be sanctified need to be focused on Jesus Christ. It is not to my own self-improvement that I need to bend all my might, mind and strength, but to serving Him. Is that why D&C 20:34 warns, "and even let those who are sanctified take heed also"? I've wondered how it's possible to have one's will aligned with God's and then to fall away. Could it be that there may be a temptation then to start trusting in oneself, instead of in the grace of God?

When one has become holy, without spot, when they cannot "look upon sin except it be with abhorrence," what can they do to protect against pride? Daily accountability reports with the Father? Mighty prayer to continue to be filled with His love, which never fails? Standing as a witness of God and taking great care to give all the glory to Him?

I feel like all of those things would be key practices. And realizing that, I feel more kindly toward Aaron for vocalizing his concern when he thought Ammon was boasting (Alma 26:10). I don't know where Ammon was on the path to perfection in Christ, but when I get there (as I have covenanted to do), I hope I am blessed with friends who will love me well enough to voice their concerns if I seem to be turning toward pride.

What does the difference between justification and sanctification mean to you?

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Mar 11, 2021

Thank you for this post! What you said feels real and true to me. As I was studying D&C 20 this week, my mind caught on this and I wondered what the differences were. I noticed that justification had no conditions and sanctification did, which made me think about salvation and immortality versus exaltation and eternal life. Eternal life is the end result of that process of sanctification.

What you wrote made me think of in my Marriage and Family class when my professor said that when you first fall in love with someone, it’s a taste of charity because you see all their goodness so clearly and willingly serve them in so many ways, but then that burst of…

Unknown member
Mar 14, 2021
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I love how you relate this to the development of enduring love in marriage. I think it's significant that the Lord describes Himself as the Bridegroom and the Church as the bride. I think the process of learning to truly love God is not that different from learning to truly love a spouse. And love is not fully love until it's been tried.


Mar 10, 2021

This is well thought out and beautifully expressed. I Believe that I have experienced instances of sanctification, but it is always an upward struggle.

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