Happy Friday, everyone. Today we talk about the pursuit of holiness as justified believers — something we must get right. It’s basically the question over whether God delights in us as justified children, in our imputed righteousness, or whether he delights in our actual, lived-out holiness.
The question is from Kelly, a listener who lives in the state of Georgia. “Pastor John, one of the most joy-inspiring truths of the gospel is the imputed righteousness of Christ on our account. I’m thinking here of 2 Corinthians 5:21. Is it safe to say then that God is fully pleased with me based on Christ’s work alone? If so, how do you reconcile this with scriptures such as Colossians 1:10, where Paul encourages us to ‘walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing in his sight’? Does God’s pleasure in me depend upon Christ’s work or my own works? Or is it somehow both? Can you please explain this dynamic?”
This is really crucial. It’s a question that lies very close to my heart because, as I look out across the longer-term effects of the gospel-centered movement of the last forty years or so, one of my concerns is that the stress on justification by faith — which is a glorious doctrine, not to be diminished or compromised at all — has not been accompanied by a biblically proportionate focus on sanctification by faith.
One form that this neglect has taken is the hesitancy for some pastors to say to their people, “You should seek to please the Lord by the way you live.” One of the reasons they’re hesitant to say this is that they think it undermines the doctrine of justification, which says that we already stand pleasing, or perfect, before God, clothed with the perfection and the righteousness and the obedience of Christ, which is counted as ours through faith alone.
So this question is absolutely crucial in order to preach and live biblically, because there’s no doubt that throughout the Gospels and throughout the Epistles we are exhorted to walk — that is, live practically with our minds and our attitudes and the members of our body — in a way that pleases the Lord. You may not please the Lord if you don’t walk that way. Now, that’s not a peripheral teaching, and it’s not in conflict with justification by faith.
Glory of Justification
So let me give some biblical foundation for each of those realities — namely, justification as the imputation of Christ’s obedience to us, and sanctification as a way of life that pleases the Lord. I’ll try to put them together.
- “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
- “[That I may] be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9).
- “As by the one man’s [namely, Adam’s] disobedience the many were [appointed] sinners, so by the one man’s [namely, Christ’s] obedience the many will be [appointed] righteous” (Romans 5:19).
We call this appointing imputation, or being counted righteous, and this imputation happens by union with Christ through faith, not works. Romans 4:5: “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
So the moment — and this is the glory — the moment we experience authentic faith in Christ and are thus united to him, at that moment his death counts as the punishment of all our sin so that all divine wrath is forever removed from us. In that same glorious moment, Christ’s entire obedience is counted as ours so that he fulfills for us every demand that the law made on us in order to be found in God’s everlasting favor. From that moment on for the rest of eternity, God is 100 percent for us — not 99 percent for us and a little bit against us, but 100 percent for us. That’s the glory of justification by faith.
Committed to Our Holiness
Now, the fact that God reckons us to be perfect in Christ, and thus acceptable to him in his holiness, does not mean that God is willing to leave us in a condition embattled by sin where we can’t fully enjoy him forever.
The fact that God accepts us fully in Christ means he is fully committed to making us fully happy forever, which means that he is displeased with anything short of our joyful perfection in attitude and heart and mind and body, because any imperfection is a dishonor to his worth and a diminishment of our joy. God cannot, as a justifying God, be indifferent to our everlasting happiness, which means being indifferent to our everlasting holiness. He cannot. That’s what justification guarantees.
“God intends not only to count us righteous because of Christ, but to make us righteous because of Christ.”
So we have texts like the one Kelly points out in Colossians 1:9–10: “We pray for you,” Paul says, “that you may . . . walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.” That’s what Paul’s praying for. God intends not only to count us righteous because of Christ, but to make us righteous because of Christ.
To say that he sees us clothed with the righteousness of Christ for the sake of justification does not mean that he has become blind to the attitudes and thoughts and deeds of our life on earth. He has not become blind or indifferent to our lived-out holiness. On the contrary, it’s only because our sins are completely forgiven that we can get any victory over sinning at all. Practical holiness is only possible because of the prior imputed holiness. God means to get glory for Jesus, not only as the one who deals with the guilt of our sin by justification, but also as the one who deals with the power of our sin by sanctification.
Pleasing God in Our Walk
Over and over, Paul tells Christians to make it their aim to please the Lord by the way they walk — that is, the way they live.
- “We ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:1).
- “Whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him” (2 Corinthians 5:9).
- “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord” (Colossians 3:20).
- “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people. . . . This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior” (1 Timothy 2:1, 3).
- “Let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God” (1 Timothy 5:4).
The flip side of this repeated refrain that we can and should please the Lord by the way we live is the fact that we can displease the Lord by the way we live — even as justified, accepted, loved children of God. Paul says, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Ephesians 4:30). In 1 Thessalonians 5:19, he says, “Do not quench the Spirit.”
Made Delightful Through Discipline
In Hebrews 12, God disciplines those he loves, his justified children. And then he explains what he’s doing. It says, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11). That’s not imputed righteousness. That’s practical righteousness that happens because God is disciplining us in our need.
“The only sin you can get any victory over is a forgiven sin, not the other way around.”
So there is imputed righteousness, and there is imparted righteousness. The imputed righteousness is the foundation of imparted righteousness. The only sin you can get any victory over is a forgiven sin, not the other way around. The imputed righteousness is the way we become the children of God so that he now exerts his omnipotent fatherly favor to impart his own righteousness to us by the Spirit.
Kelly asks, “Does God’s pleasure in me depend upon Christ’s work or my works? Or is it somehow both?” Here’s the way I would answer. Proverbs 3:12 says, “The Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” So, God is seeking to make us delightful to him in our lived-out holiness and happiness because we are delightful to him as his justified children.