Small Beginnings of True Obedience - Part 1
Imagine a scale of goodness between zero and 100. By goodness I mean actual holiness: right actions, motivations, and affections based on God’s law. Let’s say a zero is someone with no goodness at all, and 100 is someone who perfectly keeps God’s standards. The Bible clearly teaches that before someone is born again, they are a 0 on that scale. They cannot please God and do not have any true faith:
· “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Romans 3:10-12
· “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Romans 8:8
· “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Romans 14:23b
The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, a great overall summary of biblical truth, agrees that real good works are only those which come from true faith. Because unbelievers do not have faith in the true God, they do not please God with their works.
Question 91. But what are good works?
Answer: Only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to his glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations, or the institutions of men.
The Righteousness Which Brings Us To God
It must be stated clearly that the only righteousness, goodness, or holiness that allows us to enter into God’s presence to enjoy him forever is the righteousness outside of us that comes from Jesus Christ by faith alone (Rom 3:21-22; Phil 3:8-9; Gal 2:15-16; etc). God has transferred the sins of Christians onto Christ at the cross, and exchanged their sin for the righteousness that Jesus earned through his perfect life (2 Cor 5:21). He declares us righteous not because we have any actual righteousness in ourselves, but because he counts us righteous due to Jesus’ work, and the Holy Spirit’s application of that work to us. These are the doctrines of justification and imputed righteousness. It is incredibly good news and should cause our hearts to sing with joy! We have nothing to offer God in our flesh, as even our supposed good works are really polluted with sin (Isiah 64:8). But Jesus traded places with us, the righteous for the unrighteous, so that by faith alone we can be declared righteous and be brought to God (1 Pet 3:18). God’s act of justifying sinners, however, does not make the Christian practically righteous in their character. Justification is God’s act of counting the Christian as if he/she lived Jesus’ perfect life (Isa 61:10a; Zech 3:1-5; Rom 4:1-12).
After a Christian is born again and declared righteous, God begins the work of making us holy in our practice. We are empowered to join in with him in this work (1 Cor 15:10). Theologians have called this progressive sanctification. Christians have a changed nature (2 Cor 5:17). We are no longer ultimately defined by our sin, but are called “saints” (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2; Eph 1:1; etc). We were God’s enemies, but are now brought into his family as his dearly loved children (Gal 4:5-6; Rom 8:15; John 1:12; 1 Jn 3:1; Eph 5:1). Jesus’ work through his life, death, and resurrection did not only justify Christians, but also set Christians free from slavery to sin in practice (Romans 6:14). Christians are now to work to kill sin (Rom 8:13) and can actually please God with our living (1 Thess 4:1). We display the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23), and we actually become more and more holy (like Jesus!) as we see him for who he is in his gospel glory, grace, and love (2 Cor 3:18; Acts 20:32; 2 Pet 1:5-9; Titus 2:11; etc). We are not true Christians unless we begin to walk in the way in which Jesus walked (1 Jn 2:6) and keep his commandments (1 Jn 5:2). God saved us not because of our good works (Tit 3:5; Eph 2:8-9), but he saved us for good works (Tit 2:14; Eph 2:10). Those who are not Christians will see the good works of Christians and give glory to God in heaven (Matt 5:16).
These truths are wonderful and should never be discounted. But the Bible clearly teaches that Christians still sin in their practical living after conversion (1 Jn 1:8; Jas 3:2). Although we are not ultimately defined by our old nature, we still have sin in our flesh waging war against our new identity (Rom 7:13-21; Gal 5:17; 1 Pet 2:11; Jas 4:1). Because of this, the faith of Christians is not a perfect faith, so we must grow and be strengthened in faith (Acts 16:5; Luke 17:5; Col 2:6-7; 2 Pet 3:18). We all can resonate with the prayer, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). We must grow in obedience (1 Thess 4:1), continuing to put to death the sin that remains in their flesh (Col 3:5-11) and put on Christ and holiness (Rom 13:14; Col 3:12-17).
The question is, after someone becomes a Christian, what is the speed at which they grow in their actual goodness? What are they on the “goodness” scale, by God’s grace? Are they closer to a five or a 95? After a man has been a Christian for 50 years, is it possible that he is pretty close to perfect, with just a little bit of sin still to kill? Or did he, by the power of the Holy Spirit, make real progress in his practical holiness, but he is still nowhere even close to perfection?
In part two we will seek to answer this question biblically.
1689Society Contributor: David T