Justification vs. Sanctification vs. Salvation

The Catholic Saints

Justification, sanctification and salvation. Have you ever wondered what the difference between all of these terms were? I know I have. And when discussing important subjects defined by these terms, it is especially necessary to know the difference between them!

Also, particularly when discussing them with non-Catholics, it is very important to realize the other person may have a very different definition of the words being used. Such semantic confusion often results in additional and needless division.

Below are the definitions of each of these terms from the Modern Catholic Dictionary.


In biblical language the deliverance from straitened circumstances or oppression by some evil to a state of freedom and security.  As sin is the greatest evil, salvation is mainly liberation from sin and its consequences. This can be deliverance by way of preservation, or by offering the means for being delivered, or by removing the oppressive evil or difficulty, or by rewarding the effort spent in cooperating with grace in order to be delivered. All four aspects of salvation are found in Scriptures and are taught by the Church.


Being made holy. The first sanctification takes place at baptism, by which the love of God is infused by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). Newly baptized persons are holy because the Holy Trinity begins to dwell in their souls and they are pleasing to God. The second sanctification is a lifelong process in which a person already in the state of grace grows in the possession of grace and in likeness to God by faithfully corresponding with the divine inspirations. The third sanctification takes place when a person enters heaven and becomes totally and irrevocably united with God in the beatific vision.


The process of a sinner becoming justified or made right with God. As defined by the Council of Trent, “Justification is the change from the condition in which a person is born as a child of the first Adam into a state of grace and adoption among the children of God through the Second Adam, Jesus Christ our Savior” (Denzinger 1524). On the negative side, justification is a true removal of sin, and not merely having one’s sins ignored or no longer held against the sinner by God. On the positive side it is the supernatural sanctification and renewal of a person who thus becomes holy and pleasing to God and an heir of heaven.

The Catholic Church identifies five elements of justification, which collectively define its full meaning. The primary purpose of justification is the honor of God and of Christ; its secondary purpose is the eternal life of mankind. The main efficient cause or agent is the mercy of God; the main instrumental cause is the sacrament of baptism, which is called the “sacrament of faith” to spell out the necessity of faith for salvation. And that which constitutes justification or its essence is the justice of God, “not by which He is just Himself, but by which He makes us just,” namely sanctifying grace.

Depending on the sins from which a person is to be delivered, there are different kinds of justification. An infant is justified by baptism and the faith of the one who requests or confers the sacrament. Adults are justified for the first time either by personal faith, sorrow for sin and baptism, or by the perfect love of God, which is at least an implicit baptism of desire. Adults who have sinned gravely after being justified can receive justification by sacramental absolution or perfect contrition for their sins.

Further reading:
Over-simplifying Salvation: Are You Saved?
Clarifying Faith and Works

10 comments Add comment

Dean Soto August 27, 2009 at 6:27 pm

I’m currently in a conversation with a non-Catholic family member of mine that is confusing the three like you mention in your second paragraph. They meld the three into one, which is understandable, but it makes it very difficult to get anywhere in a discussion. These are great, but how would you be able to come to common ground regarding the definitions. In other words, these are Catholic views on the three terms, but what are some ways to persuade non-Catholics to accept these definitions when Catholic vies aren’t authoritative?

Artie August 27, 2009 at 8:55 pm

I think it is always important for terminology to be defined before conversation takes place. Thank you for the post Matthew!

I need to get my “Salvation Controversy” book back!

Matthew Warner August 27, 2009 at 9:16 pm

Dean – that’s a good question! I’m not sure I have an answer. But I think a start is for each of you to at least define your terms. As Catholics we need to be able to explain what we mean when we use these terms. And then we need to ask those we are speaking with to do the same from their point of view.

And then I would ask where they are getting their definitions from and why they believe them. It’s not like the Bible clearly defines these things in one easy place or anything.

Also, if you look these up in the Catholic Encyclopedia they have a lot more of the history and explanation of why the Church defines them this way. Which might be helpful to the conversation too. Most protestants will not have such a resource. They often have an over-simplified definition derived from select scripture passages that ends up being too narrow to be in harmony with the totality of scripture and reason – in my experience anyway.

Doing this may not totally resolve the issue, but at least it makes it possible to actually communicate what each of you believe in language the other person understands (which is significant)…which then makes it possible to progress in shared understanding and finding common ground.

Many prayers!

Dean Soto August 28, 2009 at 5:45 pm

Thanks Matt,

Those are some really good tips. My uncle (the person I am dialoguing with) is very much a Bible alone person. I think you are right. Perhaps the best way is to move the argument toward showing the the biblical definitions aren’t that clear, then move toward the showing the concreteness of the Catholic definitions. Or, maybe better yet, try to get him to agree to each of the three definitions that you presented, or definitions presented in the Catholic Encyclopedia without letting him know that they are the Catholic definitions, and then let the cat out of the bag so to speak. A Socratic methodology of sorts.

I appreciate the prayers. This helps out greatly. Thanks for the great resources!

Cindy August 28, 2009 at 7:20 am

Thanks, Matt. Like Dean, I am close to two people who are in some process of conversion and justification is a major point of hesitancy for some protestants. There certainly is a big difference between having faith in the salvific power of Jesus’ sacrifice and feeling that no matter what, the sinner is destined for Heaven. We were always taught that grace and salvation are gifts from God that we can, by our free will, return to Him at any time. Absolution is preferable to perfect contrition because we are so imperfect by definition and it is so impossible for us to know the true result of our sins.
I plan to forward your link to the interested parties. God bless.

Kevin Bullock August 28, 2009 at 6:00 pm

Wow, oversimplified? Good luck my friends when you go to “convert” those simplistic protestants that have no resources. What are you converting these Christians to BTW? Are they not saved?

Dean Soto August 31, 2009 at 12:44 pm


Over simplified in this case means that they really is no other authority recognized by Protestants other than the Bible. Going to the Bible alone for definitions is problematic since it is not philosophical writing. The bible is predominantly a historical narrative, and although every word of it is true, it is not meant to be the overarching authority in which Christians are to govern their lives. Don’t mistake me, it is an authority, but it’s not the only authority. For example, how does one know whether cloning or contraception is morally wrong by the Bible alone? Prior to the 20th century all Christian denominations believed that contraception was a sin in any form, did something change in the Bible? I don’t mean to be curt, but it doesn’t seem reasonable to me.

Conversion in our sense of the word when we speak of non-Catholics is not the same as when we speak of non-Christians converting. Protestants are our Christian brothers, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t convert their views to ours – just as Methodists may convert a Southern Baptist to their view. We, of course, believe that we are the fullness of truth (I suspect that all denominations believe this, or else someone wouldn’t be a part of that denomination) but that doesn’t mean that other denominations are condemned.

Jeff Lords June 14, 2013 at 2:59 pm

Sorry that this comment is so much later than your original discussion. In a nutshell, I think of justification as being cleansed from sin. We all have sinned and only through the atonement of Jesus Christ can we be cleansed from sin which is critical because no unclean thing can live with God which is what we want to do forever. I think of sanctification as then moving forward to eventually become like God. This, too, is only possible because of the atonement of Jesus Christ. God gives us commandments as a way for us to work towards that goal, i.e., obedience to his commandments leads us along step by step towards becoming more and more like him, but ultimately this cannot happen without the atonement making it possible. Since our goal is to become like God we have to first accept the Saviour through faith, repentance, baptism, and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and then perservering throughout our life in striving to obey God’s commandments and having faith in the saving power of his Son’s atonement. Without the sanctification this offers, we would not be truly comfortable living with God forever because we will not have become like him.

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