We grow in Christ as we go deeper into, rather than moving on from, the verdict of acquittal that got us into Christ in the first place.

It is common in some quarters of the church to think that the message of the gospel initiates us into the Christian life, and then we move on to other strategies when it comes to growing in Christ. This is a fundamental mistake. We will never grow truly as long as we retain this error. My goal in this chapter is to explain how the gospel is not a hotel to pass through but a home to live in. Not only a gateway into the Christian life but the pathway of the Christian life. Not jumper cables to get the Christian life started but an engine to keep the Christian life going.

We could think of it this way: This is a book about sanctification. How do we move forward spiritually? And in this book on sanctification, this chapter is on justification. Sanctification is lifelong, gradual growth in grace. Justification, however, is not a process but an event, a moment in time, the verdict of legal acquittal once and for all. Why then are we thinking about justification in a book about sanctification? Here’s why: the process of sanctification is, in large part, fed by constant returning, ever more deeply, to the event of justification.

This may sound odd at first. Aren’t we going backward if we seek to grow by remembering our initial justification? Not any more than a train passenger, when asked by the steward to see his ticket again, pulls out the ticket that initially got him onto the train. That ticket got him on but is also what is needed to keep him on the train.

But let’s be more specific, bearing in mind that growth in Christ is a matter of transformation from the inside out, as opposed to merely externally oriented behavioral conformity. We could put the point of this chapter in three sentences:

Justification is outside-in, and we lose it if we make it inside-out.

Sanctification is inside-out, and we lose it if we make it outside-in.

And this inside-out sanctification is largely fed by daily appropriation of this outside-in justification.


First, justification is outside-in, and we lose it if we make it inside-out.

Here’s what I mean. Justification is “outside-in” in the sense that we are justified by being given a right standing that comes to us from wholly outside us. This is strange and difficult to get our minds around at first. The very notion of a person’s standing, an assessment of whether someone is guilty or innocent, universally depends on his or her own performance. Yet in the gospel we are given what the Reformers called an “alien righteousness” because the record of Jesus is given to us. In what Luther called the “happy exchange,” we are given Christ’s righteous record and he takes on our sin-ridden record; accordingly, we are treated as innocent and Christ was treated as guilty, bearing our punishment on the cross. We are thus “justified”—that is, declared faultless with respect to our legal standing. Despite being the offending parties, despite having no case to make out on our behalf based on our own merits, we are free to leave the courtroom. And no one can ever accuse us again. And this justifying verdict is something we can receive only by acknowledging that we don’t deserve it and asking for Christ’s record to stand in for ours.

We resist this through and through. Accepting this state of affairs strikes at our most deeply entrenched intuitions about the way the world works. We resist it not merely because it strikes at our pride, though that is true. More deeply, it seems to throw off our moral compass about who we are and how we can feel stable about our place in the universe. The Bible’s teaching on justification by faith feels like moral vertigo, as if up is down and down is up. For we are being told to stop doing what is our inveterate inclination—to look inside to answer the questions Am I okay? Do I matter? What is the verdict over my life? Am I at peace with my Maker?

The great teachers of the past understood how heart-contrary we are to accepting wholesale the surprise of justification. This is why the Scottish pastor Robert Murray McCheyne said, “For every one look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” It’s why John Newton said that a single view of Christ “will do you more good than poring over your own wounds for a month.”2 And they were simply following Scripture’s lead: “looking to Jesus,” as Hebrews 12:2 puts it. We tend to look within to answer the greatest question of the soul, Am I right with God? We do not ask it that baldly, of course. We take refuge in the truth of justification—mostly, anyway—while our hearts find subtle ways of undermining what our minds confess on paper. We receive the truth of justification but gently strengthen it through our performance, generally without consciously realizing what we’re doing.

But to do this—to quietly confirm God’s verdict of “not guilty” over us through our own contribution—is to cause the entire doctrine of justification to fall to pieces and to become impotent in our daily lives. To do this is, in biblical terms, to “rebuild” what we “tore down” (Gal. 2:18). We “tore down” our own righteousness and all the futility of trying to establish it out of our own resources. Why “rebuild” it? This would be to “nullify the grace of God” (Gal. 2:21). To do this is to turn justification from an outside-in truth to an inside-out truth. But we lose entirely the comfort of justification if it is vulnerable to any self-strengthening. It must be all or nothing.

Dane C. Ortlund, Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners, ed. Michael Reeves, Union (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 16–19.

We have just completed a Bible study to guide your group into meditating on and applying these truths. Deeper is our Bible Study based on Dane Ortlund’s book by the same name. It consists of 7 lessons with ready-to-use questions suitable for groups. It can be purchased on Amazon and is also available as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service.