Today’s question is from a listener to the podcast named Jessica. She’s locked in a debate with her father over the role of personal holiness in the Christian life. “Hello, Pastor John, I have a hard question, and I know you have a great answer for me. My father believes that when Christ died, he died for all of our sins. This I agree with. But he concludes this also means that when you have faith and accept Christ into your heart, you are then free to live however you want to, including being loose with and living in sin. I know this is wrong, but I am having a hard time explaining this to my father. Can you help articulate this for me from the Bible?”
As Paul concluded the great fifth chapter of Romans, he wrote,
The law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20–21)
Then as soon as he finishes saying that, someone — perhaps having the same view that your father seems to hold — said, “Well, if grace abounds where sin increases, then our salvation certainly does not depend on fighting sin. In fact, let us sin so that grace may abound.” Here’s Paul’s response to this person, and perhaps to your father, in Romans 6:1–2. He says, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!”
“Sanctification does not save us by replacing our justification; it saves us by confirming our justification.”
Now, what will Paul give as a reason for why he says “by no means”? Will he just say, “Don’t continue in sin because you just shouldn’t. It’s bad. It’s against God’s will. No, it’s not a salvation issue, but just don’t do it”? Is that what he’s going to say? Well, no. Here’s what he says. He argues like this: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1–2).
That’s what he says. So, what’s the reason that he gives for saying, “Don’t go on sinning”? His reason is this: dead people don’t sin. “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” We can’t. We died to sin. You can’t go on practicing sin if you are a Christian and have died with Christ to sin.
Dead People Don’t Sin
So, here’s the issue that your dad does not seem to be facing: Of course, when Christ died, he paid the full price for all my sins — all of them. There is no condemnation ever, forever, for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). But the question is, Do those who are in Christ Jesus go on living in sin? That’s the question.
Over and over, the New Testament’s answer is this: If you go on living in sin — that is, if sin is your pattern of life, and you do not make war on your sin, but instead you make peace with your sin — you have no warrant to believe that you are in Christ.
This doesn’t mean that you can lose your salvation; it means that your life can show you never had it, even though you looked like you had it for a time. That’s why John said in 1 John 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” In other words, those who are truly in Christ persevere in faith and fight their sin and grow in holiness, and those who walk away into sin never were in Christ.
It also doesn’t mean that keeping ourselves saved depends finally on us. Paul said, “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). “[Christ] will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son” (1 Corinthians 1:8–9).
In other words, we don’t keep ourselves saved; God keeps us saved by the way he works in us by the Spirit according to his call.
Saved Through Sanctification
But the pervasive witness of the New Testament is that God keeps us saved through sanctification — that is, he keeps us by leading us to fight sin and grow in holiness. That’s how he keeps us saved.
Here’s the key verse: “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13). Sanctification — that is, progressive making war on sin, progressive growth in holiness, hating sin, pursuing righteousness — is not an add-on to salvation. It is the way God saves us, preserves us, brings us to glory.
“The only kind of faith that saves is the kind that leads us to fight sin and practice the obedience of faith.”
Here’s the way Paul describes this work in Romans 8:13–14. He’s talking to professing Christians: “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”
That’s how we know we are the sons of God: we are led by the Spirit. And where does he lead? In this text, he leads us into mortal combat with our own sin. That’s the meaning of lead in this verse. If you put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit — led by the Spirit into war — you will live. If you don’t, you won’t live. Which means that your dad is very wrong to say that we can live in sin and still be assured of our salvation.
Holiness is the mark of those who are in Christ. Here’s the way Hebrews 12:14 puts it: “Strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” This is not our imputed righteous, which we have by union with Christ through faith. This is the kind of righteousness that you pursue, you strive for: “Strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
This strived-for righteousness does not add to the ground of our acceptance — the righteousness of Christ is the ground. Rather, it confirms the ground of our acceptance as Jesus Christ and our participation in him by faith. That’s what 2 Peter 1:10 means when it says, “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.”
You will never fall because you’ll be confirming that you are in Christ, who is your righteousness. In other words, sanctification does not save us by replacing our justification; it saves us by confirming our justification.
Faith Without Works?
As far as I can tell, Jessica, your dad does not believe that our justification by faith needs to be confirmed with a life of holiness. He seems not to believe that. He seems to have ideas about salvation that both James and John wrote about in their letters.
For example, James said, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? . . . So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14, 17). In other words, the only kind of faith that saves is the kind that leads us to fight sin and practice the obedience of faith.
Here’s the way John said it in his letter. In fact, I think 1 John was written for your dad, because there were a lot of folks around like that, and John knew them and he wrote his first letter for them. He says, “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning” (1 John 5:18). He doesn’t make a practice of sinning, doesn’t make peace with sinning, doesn’t have a life of sinning.
No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. (1 John 3:6)
And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. (1 John 2:3)
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. (1 John 3:14)
So, Jessica, the way I suggest that you say it — to yourself, to your dad — is that we are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone. It causes us to hate sin and to fight it. Our holiness confirms that we are truly justified, truly in Christ. Sanctification does not replace justification; it confirms it.
And that confirmation is necessary, not optional. You might even plead this with your dad, as we all plead it to our own souls: Pursue “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). Pursue that in the power of the Spirit, on the basis of God’s love through Christ.