As a Reformed Christian I heartily believe that I am made right with God “by faith alone” (Sola Fide) and “in Christ alone” (Sola Christus). This means that I am made right with God NOT by my obedience to his law. I’m made right with God NOT by my own efforts or pursuit of holiness. This is because, since Adam fell in the Garden of Eden, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Eccl. 7:20). Except for Christ.
Because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” we must be “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). So we Reformed types call being made right with God the doctrine of Justification. A simple way to remember what Justification means is that in Christ God looks at me “just as if I’d never sinned.” This is a fairly simplistic explanation, but it does the trick.
Justification comes as a gift of God’s grace.
But works fit in somewhere, right?
Not in our being made right before God. When we talk about Justification, the only works we can talk about are the works of Christ, because he is the only one who was truly righteous, blameless, and perfect before his Father. Not us. Christ. Not you. Him.
But there is more to salvation than simply being made right with God. There is also the work of the Spirit, applying Christ’s power in our lives in order to sanctify us. It is here that we can talk about works. You see, over the broad spectrum of salvation, works are necessary.
But necessary in what sense?
As the ground of salvation? No, for we have already covered that the ground of salvation is only through Justification.
It seems to me that Paul gives a very specific reason about why we are to obey God. It is because we have been united to Christ in his death. And we have been united to Christ in his resurrection.
Paul explains this all in Romans. “ was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6).
So works show the evidence of the Spirit’s work of applying Christ’s benefits to us.
I think perhaps it is easier to believe that Christ died for our justification, whereas believing in the Spirit’s work of daily sanctifying us is a bit harder.
But just as we must believe that we are justified by Christ alone, we must also believe in the power of the Spirit’s work in our lives for sanctification! “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). Did you see that? It’s because we are under GRACE!
We see that a sermon on sanctification can be just as Christ-centered as a sermon on Justification, for it is through Christ that we are both justified and sanctified. Remember, Paul said that sin WILL HAVE NO DOMINION OVER YOU. Do you believe that?
The fact is that God DOES make demands of us. We are now “slaves of righteousness leading to sanctification” (Romans 6:19).
We have been made Sons and Daughters of the Great King. As Christians made right in the sight of God through Christ, we can’t forget that God takes a claim over our entire lives. This is why Peter writes, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who calls you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:14-15).
What a thing it is to be called a child of God! The need for Peter to write these commands shows that we are NOT perfect yet. In fact, “we are his WORKMANSHIP, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). The fact that we are God’s chiseling block means that he’s still sanctifying us.
But Peter’s words hardly imply that there is no hope for deeper and deeper growth in holiness (which his command implies!). I often hear Christians talk about how sinful they are. And with no doubt this is very true. We are all very sinful still. But Sanctification is not about basking in how bad we are. You are not more sanctified because you always talk about how terrible you are.
I hear Christians say, “I can’t be kind.” “I can’t stop.” I can’t be more loving.” “I’m not this.” “I’m not that.”
And I fear this severely undercuts our trust in God’s provision to make us holy. It undercuts the New Covenant that God promised in the Old Testament, which dealt with the forgiveness of sins (Jeremiah 31:34) and God giving us new hearts (Ezekiel 36:26). You CAN count yourself as dead to sin and alive to God (Romans 6:11)! Because in Christ, you are! Do you believe that?
Justification doesn’t lead to moral sloppiness if we really understand it. It’s actually the grounding of a life that pleases God, and makes us ready and willing to serve him. Justification logically precedes sanctification. We can’t begin to serve God until we have been made right with God. But both justification and sanctification are under the umbrella of our salvation.
So are works necessary for salvation? Yes. Because we have the Spirit. Because we have been united with Christ in his death, and in his resurrection, so that we would walk in newness of life. Works flow from the good root of faith.
If it is God’s will that we be sanctified, and if God’s Spirit, the very Spirit who rose Christ from the dead dwells in us, then certainly we DO HAVE THE POWER to fight against sin, and to show forth the fruits of the Spirit.
We CAN walk in a manner that is pleasing to God.
1 Thessalonians 4:1-8
“As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, ”