(Gospel e-Letter - March 2014)
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything,
but only faith working through love (Galatians 5:6).
Justification is one aspect of God’s purpose in our salvation. He wants to forgive us our sins and save us from the condemnation and punishment in hell. But that is not all. God also wants to save his people from the filth and practice of sin. The Father wants his children to be holy as he is holy. So from the very moment that he justifies them, he also renews their heart and begins a life-long project to shape them in the image of his Son. This aspect of salvation is called sanctification.
In other words justification has to do with our legal standing. God declares the believer righteous for Christ’s sake. Sanctification has to do with our character and behaviour; God wants his people to become righteous.
While justification is based on the work of Christ on the cross on our behalf, and not on the merits of our works, sanctification involves the renewing of our thoughts, desires, speech and actions. God teaches and enables us to do good works in obedience to his will. We can only become righteous through our obedience, our good works, and not simply by faith alone.
These two aspects of salvation must be distinguished, but they cannot be separated. A person cannot be justified unless he is also in the process of sanctification. On the other hand, one cannot perform a single good work as long as he remains in sin. No matter what an enemy of God does (for that is what the Bible calls them who are not yet justified), he cannot please the Lord. First he must be reconciled and justified. Then God is well pleased with the good works of his children, albeit their imperfections. He must first be justified by faith, apart from his works, and only then can he begin to do good works.
So just as it would be fatal error to presume that we can add any merits of our works for justifiction, it would be equally fatal if we presume to be saved if our faith is alone, barren and fruitless. The apostle who taught us that God justifies him who ‘does not work but believes’ has also taught us that in our Christian experience what really matters is ‘faith working through love’ (Galatians 5:6). For justification faith works not; for life faith works tirelessly, loving God and neighbour in response to the amazing love the believer has received.
James says the same thing. ‘What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?’ (James 2:14). He tests faith by the fruit it produces. If works are absent faith is dead. Dead faith does not justify. Thus he concludes that ‘a person is justified by works and not by faith alone’ (2:24). The person who claims to have faith without any the evidence of godly life is fooling himself and is in peril of eternal perdition.
We have two questions before us. The first one is this, ‘How can a sinner be justified before God?’ The answer is, ‘By faith in Christ, not on account of the merit of our works.’ The second question is, ‘How do we know that faith is real?’ The answer is, ‘Faith working through love.’
We will do well to ponder these questions before God. Let us not rest until we discard all self-confidence, and rely by faith on Christ alone and in his cross for our justification. But let us not think that we have faith unless we experience God’s transforming power in us as evidenced by sincere love, holiness and abundant good works.