Justification—being declared righteous before God—is possible only by grace through faith. You can heap all your good deeds upon one another and climb them to heaven, but if you aren’t clothed in Christ’s righteousness, God will toss your self-righteous self right out of his presence. Our sinfulness runs too deep for any of our deeds to be purely righteous (Isaiah 64:6), and the guilt we bear for our trespasses is beyond our ability to absolve. The blood of Jesus is the only hope any of us has. Seeing all that Christ is for us and trusting in him to save us is the only means by which we can be declared blameless. Christians glory in being justified as a gift by the grace of God alone—not their own works or morality (Ephesians 2:8-9).
However, in every generation there have been ignorant and unstable people that take the message of God’s grace through Christ and, as Peter wrote, “twist it to their own destruction.” They, as Jude once wrote, “pervert the grace of God into sensuality.” Leave it to the ever-descriptive Paul to put it bluntly: “For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.”
These fleshly-minded people seem to understand the freeness of God’s offer of salvation but don’t understand—or willfully ignore—the purpose for which God saves people. Ephesians 8:2-9 is one of the most quoted passages of Scripture because it beautifully highlights how utterly grace-based redemption is. But verse 10, which details the purpose for every Christian’s redemption, is so often neglected.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” – Ephesians 2:8-10 (emphasis mine)
God’s salvific intention since day one has been to create a people who would love him and obey him from the heart. The Old Covenant failed to produce these kinds of people, though. God gave a Law (the Ten Commandments/Mosaic Law) but the people to whom it was given were unable to keep it because their hearts were spiritually lifeless and enslaved to evil. However, this was no shock to God. He gave the Law knowing full well the people would be unwilling and unable to obey it. His purpose in the Mosaic Law was to show the world how deep humanity’s sin runs and how badly we all need a new heart (Romans 3:20)—a need that he would meet in the New Covenant.
Jesus, the mediator of this New Covenant, sacrificed himself to cleanse sinners from their guilt and clear the way for the Holy Spirit to be poured into their hearts. When he ascended to the Father, the Spirit was unleashed from Heaven to do what mere religion could never do: create new hearts. Through the atoning work of Jesus and by the regenerating power of the Spirit, God fulfills the words he spoke by Ezekiel: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” – Ezekiel 36:26-27
Jesus doesn’t cleanse people from sin so that they can continue to lead sinful lifestyles; he cleanses people from sin so that they can be raised to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4). Every born again person will walk in increasing submission to the moral law of God, not because they desire to “get saved”—they are already completely forgiven, cleansed, and righteous by the blood of Christ—but because the love of God has been poured into their hearts by the Spirit. Fueled by Holy Ghost-wrought gratitude and affection, they progress in holiness throughout the duration of their lives. This is true of every born again person.
But this is where people butt heads. Some professing Christians just aren’t down with the mandatory-ness of a transformed life. They believe walking in [imperfect, but growing] obedience to God is an optional aspect of the Christian life. They say there are rewards in Heaven for the obedient, but people who claim allegiance to Jesus while living lives characterized by unrepentant sin will get into Heaven just as well. My only problem with this is what Jesus actually said . . .
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” – Matthew 7: 21-23.
Jesus didn’t come to enable anyone to live a life of disobedience to God—he came to forgive our disobediences and enable us to obey! Not only does Jesus say he will boot the “lawless” out of his presence, but in the Sermon on the Mount, he actually takes holiness to a deeper level than the Mosaic Law ever did! He blows past the external prohibitions of the Law and digs into the heart of the matter. The Law said do not commit adultery; Jesus said don’t even look lustfully at a woman. The Law said do not murder; Jesus said don’t hate your brother. The Law said an eye for an eye; Jesus said if a person slaps you, turn to him the other cheek, also. Jesus didn’t lift God’s expectation for obedience—if anything, he intensifies it! He took holiness to the heart-level because soon the Holy Spirit would be in the believing person’s heart, renewing, softening, and enabling real righteousness.
Does walking in progressive levels of obedience save us? No—we are saved by grace through faith alone. But walking in good works is the unavoidable evidence of genuine conversion. Just as we breathe in free air that gives our bodies life, when we receive the grace of God in Christ, our souls become alive to righteousness. We will not be perfect in this life. Our pesky flesh will continue to harass us. We will struggle to obey God. We will sin. But our hearts will groan over our sin (Romans 8: 23) and hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6). We will long for the day when God completes his transforming work and cleanses us from the presence of sin. But until that day, we will fight with all our Spirit-might to walk in the good works God has prepared for us. We will not turn the grace of God into licentiousness. We will not live the kind of life that tramples upon the crucified Christ. We will strive to obey the Lord’s command given by the apostle Paul:
“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” – Romans 6:12-14