When I married, I had wanted to be married for a long time. For sure, I didn’t have to wait as long as many have (and are), but I waited far longer than I expected anyway — long enough to hurt.
That waiting, however, meant that when my wedding day did finally come, it rose all the brighter, stronger, and more vibrant than it would have otherwise, like a sunrise so beautiful it unsettles you. Even if I never saw another picture of that day, I would remember minute details — the squirmy 10-year-old on the aisle, the Scripture reader coming up a song too early, the longer-than-expected wait standing at the altar, her smile when she finally appeared. Even if, without warning, rain had drowned out the sun, soaked everyone in sight, and ruined all our decorations, it would have served only to make our happiness more memorable.
There’s no day quite like a wedding day, and there are few pleasures like those first hours of marriage — the first blissful, awkward steps of a lifelong dance together.
How tragic would it be, though, if our joy in marriage were limited to our memories of that one day? What if my wife and I spent all our years together looking at wedding pictures and retelling the stories of those first hours? What if we never walked beyond the beauties of the altar into the wild and thrilling gardens of actual married life? What if, after all our years waiting for marriage, we settled for a wedding?
As absurd as it may seem, I wonder how many of us have that kind of relationship with the cross.
Beyond the Altar
Some, it seems, love Jesus for forgiving their sins, for canceling their debt, for providing a perfect righteousness in their place — and then spend the rest of their lives rehearsing our justification, as if that were all that the cross could afford. Make no mistake, the cross is our altar — that central, crucial, and glorious event, that deathblow to Satan and all his armies, that blazing climax of history — but it is the altar, not the marriage.
Without justification, we have no hope, no life, no future, but justification alone is not our life; it is our entry into life, our gateway into so many more glories, our path into ever-widening fields of grace. And this side of heaven, some of the greatest treasures in those fields are the changes God works in us to make us more like him — the deep, startling, often slow process we call sanctification. “[Christ] himself bore our sins in his body on the tree,” 1 Peter 2:24 says, “that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” Do you relish the opportunity, in Christ, to live to righteousness — to be increasingly holy?
This holiness is not only possible and necessary — no one goes to heaven without it (Hebrews 12:14) — but this holiness also holds the highest and most durable pleasure. As J.C. Ryle writes, “Let us feel convinced, whatever others may say, that holiness is happiness. . . . As a general rule, in the long run of life, it will be found true that ‘sanctified’ people are the happiest people on earth. They have solid comforts which the world can neither give nor take away” (Holiness, 40).
High Cost of Access
Justification — the act by which God declares guilty sinners righteous — is an unfathomably precious and glorious reality.
“Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). The life and death of Christ made an impossibility a reality — those, like me, who should have drowned in divine wrath were instead baptized into oceans of mercy. Those, like me, who deserved every ounce of divine justice have been showered instead with unrelenting peace.
“Through him,” Paul goes on to say, “we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). Access. Many of us live in a world so inundated with access — access to information, access to resources, access to one another — we may have lost the gravity and wonder of a privilege like our access to God.
Despite how small and insignificant we are, and how often we have sinned against him, and how prone we are to take him for granted, God did not make war against us, but received the war to give us peace. He did not cast us into the lake of fire, but sent his Son into the flames so that he might welcome us into his family.
Tents Pitched at Calvary
The grandeur of the glory of this peace, this access, this justification cannot be overstated — unless we make it the only glory of the gospel, unless we never leave the altar. John Piper writes,
Jesus did not die so that we would pitch our tents on Calvary. He died to fill the world — this one and the new one — with his reflected holiness. . . . He died so that we would not be incinerated by the glory of God, but rather spend eternity reflecting it with joy. . . . The glory of justification serves the unending glories of sanctification. (“Justification Is the Gate, Not the Garden”)
Among the gospel glories we might begin to overlook, sanctification might be the most overlooked. Those who champion justification by grace alone, through faith alone — not by works — can understandably become skittish about any talk of works.
The apostle Paul, however, that greatest of all champions of justification, did not shy away from celebrating and pressing for real sanctification. The bright stars of justification and peace and access were not the only stars in his sky. He loved justification — the wedding, the altar, the declaration — but he also wanted to see and experience more of Christ. As he holds up the cross, he draws us, again and again, into the marriage.
Not Only That
“Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God. . . . Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character” (Romans 5:1–4). Not only that — that is the burden of this article. In the gospel, God gives not only forgiveness, but new character. Not only justification, but sanctification. Not only pardon, but transformation. Not only the altar, but the marriage. Don’t limit your joy in Jesus to the relieving of your guilt and shame.
We see these stars of justification and sanctification align again in Titus 3. “God saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy . . . so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5–7). No work we had done won God’s attention or intervention. He saved us through faith alone, by grace alone, according to his great mercy alone. In the very next verse, Paul writes, “I want you to insist on these things” — the justification of sinners by faith, not by works — “so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works” (Titus 3:8). We were justified by faith alone, not by works, in order that we might devote ourselves to good works.
Or, as he wrote just sentences earlier, “[Jesus Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). He died to redeem and to purify, to justify and to sanctify. To celebrate justification, and not sanctification, is to celebrate half a gospel, half a cross, half a grace, and half a Christ. As much as any voice in history, Paul fought to preach and preserve justification by faith alone, but justification was not the destination. It was driving him somewhere. Paul was not content to rejoice only in the canceling of his sins, but longed to experience greater freedom from the power of his sins.
In fact, he prized his blood-bought, Spirit-empowered, grace-filled holiness so much that he could rejoice even in suffering. “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character.” He could rejoice in imprisonments, rejoice in beatings, rejoice in robberies, rejoice in hunger and need, rejoice even in betrayal, because he saw how adversity conformed him to Christ. He knew that when suffering is met with faith, the fire produces and refines a wealth of godliness.
Marriage Beautifies the Wedding
Not only, however, does justification lead us into the glories of sanctification; the glorious experience of sanctification also leads us further into the glories of justification. Notice how this sequence in Romans 5 ends: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3–4). Hope — in other words, a deeper and stronger assurance that we belong to Jesus and will spend eternity with him.
Christlikeness is a prize to be pursued and treasured, in part, because it strengthens our confidence in our justification. Every inch of progress in godliness is another testimony that God is real and that he really lives in you. Holiness not only flows from hope, but actually produces greater hope. Just as a good marriage, year by year, makes the wedding day more beautiful and meaningful.
So don’t forget the wedding, but don’t miss the marriage. Praise Christ every day for the fathomless gifts of forgiveness, of peace, of access — of full acceptance with a holy God because of Christ — but also plead to experience everything else he is and bought for you.