In our fight against sin, do we focus our attention on Christ, or do we focus our attention on ourselves? It’s a very tangible question today from a listener. “Pastor John, hello. My name is Matthew, a Christian college student in Colorado. I just listened to the recent episode ‘Fight Sin Like a Victor, Not a Victim,’ and it brought up a question for me that I’ve been struggling with for the past few years. In that episode you say (and I’m paraphrasing) that having the verdict of ‘not guilty’ on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice on my behalf is the key to overcoming sin. From books like James and 1 John, I also see that obedience to God is the necessary evidence that we have saving faith. There is a great confusion for me with these two truths. This confusion keeps me from joy and gets my eyes on myself instead of Christ.
“The following question is the source of my confusion: How can I rest in being justified if I need obedience as the evidence to truly know that I am justified? In other words, how can I rest in the verdict of ‘not guilty’ if in reality the verdict could be ‘guilty’ unless I see obedience in my life? This circular reasoning inevitably puts the focus back on myself instead of Christ, the opposite of what it is intended to do. I am almost sure I am thinking about this the wrong way. Pastor John, would you please help me see how I’m misapplying these truths?”
Let me begin by affirming Matthew’s dilemma and then suggest a new angle on the problem that might help.
Christ’s Righteousness Alone
Matthew’s dilemma is this: On the one hand, the New Testament is wonderfully clear that our permanent and full acceptance into God’s eternal fellowship of joy is based on the blood and righteousness of Jesus, whose death on the cross is counted as our punishment and whose obedience is counted as our righteousness. So, when God looks at us in union with Jesus Christ by faith, he reckons us to be free of guilt and full of righteousness. That’s amazing.
For example, Paul says in Romans 8:3, “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, [God] condemned sin in the flesh.” In other words, in his own crucified flesh, Christ received from God our condemnation for sin, so that Paul says two verses earlier, “There is . . . no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). It’s all on Jesus. Or as Galatians 3:13 says, Christ became “a curse for us,” so we aren’t cursed anymore in him.
“What Christ secured for us on the cross is not just pardon for sins, but God’s power to break the bondage to sinning.”
We enjoy this forgiven, guilt-free, no-condemnation standing before God because of our union with Christ through faith — I say it again: through faith — not through works. God creates faith in us and unites us to Christ through that faith, so that what he endured on the cross counts for us. Here’s the way Paul said it in Ephesians 2:8–10: “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.”
So, that’s one horn of Matthew’s dilemma: saved by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone.
Here’s the other horn of his dilemma, and we just saw it in Ephesians 2:10: even though we are put in a right relationship with God not as a result of good works, nevertheless we are in a right relationship with God for good works, in order to do good works. And these good works, this new way of life in love and holiness, is not just an opportunity but is a necessity. That’s Matthew’s dilemma: he feels a tension between the finished justification and the necessary sanctification. A new life of holiness is necessary evidence, necessary confirmation, that we are in fact saved, born again, new creatures in Christ, justified.
Our new, transformed life of obedience is not the ground of our justification; it is the result of it. Obedience is not the root of faith and salvation, but the fruit of faith and our regeneration, our justification. Jesus said you can know the tree by its fruit. The bad fruit shows a bad tree. The fruit doesn’t make the tree healthy; it shows whether the tree is healthy. That’s the way Jesus talked about this (Matthew 7:17–20).
For example, in Hebrews 12:14 it says, “Strive for . . . the holiness without which no one will see the Lord”; that is, “Pursue sanctification, without which no one will see the Lord.” It’s necessary. Holiness, sanctification, is necessary to see the Lord. Or 2 Peter 1:10 says, “Be . . . diligent to confirm your calling and election.” You don’t create your calling by your diligence; you confirm your calling by your diligence in good deeds.
Where to Rest
So, Matthew is asking, How can I rest in my forgiveness and justification and acceptance with God when I know I must obey and pursue holiness in order to confirm that I’m accepted? Isn’t the pursuit of obedience, he wonders, the opposite of resting in Christ’s obedience for me? Let me say that again because that’s a paradox lots of us wrestle with, and the Bible wrestles with us: Isn’t the pursuit of obedience the opposite of resting in Christ’s obedience for me? And the answer is no, it’s not; it is not. They are not opposites. They are not in conflict. They go together.
Now, here’s my new angle that may help us feel that — feel the coherence and have peace about it. Here’s the new angle that I want to suggest for Matthew to consider (or all of us to consider).
For sure, Matthew is right to emphasize resting in Christ’s finished work as the foundation of our acceptance with God and as fountain of all our obedience. But here’s what’s missing in that correct emphasis: Christ’s past payment for our eternal life is not the only sovereign act that God performs to get us to heaven. Our security, certainty that we’re going to get there, is achieved not only by the infallible work of Christ’s sacrifice, but also by the infallible work of his Spirit in us to make us holy. That’s an infallible work bought by Jesus.
Another way to say it is that what Christ secured for us on the cross is not just pardon for sins, but God’s power to break the bondage to sinning. The blood of Jesus is the blood of the new covenant. That’s what Jesus said in Luke 22:20: “This . . . is the new covenant in my blood.” And the promise of the new covenant is not only “I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34), but also “I will put my Spirit within [them], and cause [them] to walk in my statutes” (Ezekiel 36:27). Christ’s blood bought and secured and guaranteed that.
“Christ died to make my justification absolutely certain, and Christ died to make my sanctification absolutely certain.”
Or to put it yet another way: when we think about resting in the work of Jesus to save us, we should think about what it means to rest not only in his past work of justification but also in his daily and future work of sanctification. God’s commitment to sanctify his elect is just as sure as his commitment to justify his elect. That’s why Paul says in Romans 8:30, “Those whom he justified he also glorified” — because glorification is the completion of our sanctification. Sanctification is a process. It ends with glorification. It is guaranteed for everybody who is justified. No one who is justified will fail to be sanctified.
Grace to Get You Home
So, perhaps it may help if Matthew and all of us meditate on and rest in promises like these, because they’re blood-bought promises:
“The God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus . . . [will work] in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 13:20–21).
“It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
“I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. . . . He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24).
Those whom he called, in other words, he sanctified. It is done. He is going to do it. In other words, instead of thinking Christ died to secure my justification and now I have to work to confirm my justification, rather think like this: Christ died to make my justification absolutely certain, and Christ died to make my sanctification absolutely certain. Therefore, my resting in Christ and his work is not just a past-oriented resting, in tension with my work, but rather it is a past- and present- and future-oriented resting precisely in his absolutely certain sanctifying work, as well as his justifying work.
I wrote a whole book called Future Grace on this, and the point was simply this: it is a glorious thing that the past grace of blood-bought justification is the guarantee of the future grace that will get us home to heaven through sanctification.