justification

Repentance From Dead Works: 2 – Good Works Are A Sign Of Repentance From Dead Works


Suggested Pre-reading: Repentance From Dead Works: 1


The Christian’s relationship to works is inherently paradoxical. On the one hand, the Christian believes with fervor that works do nothing to contribute to salvation – all works are dead works. On the other hand, the Christian believes that good works are part of Christian living and a sign of true repentance. We see this paradox in the ruling of the Jerusalem council, which we just looked at in regards to the dead work of circumcision. The council advised circumcision is not necessary for salvation, yet in their ruling they included commands for converted Gentiles. The Gentiles were advised to abstain from

  • Things contaminated by idols
  • Fornication
  • What is strangled and from blood

The council was not substituting these three works for circumcision, implying that they were needed for salvation. Rather, the council, believing that the converted Gentiles were indeed recipients of a true and abiding faith in Christ, gave them direction as to how their faith in Christ should manifest in their cultural context. Specifically, they were advised to abstain from three sinful practices that were particularly tempting in their society.

What helps resolve the tension in the paradox of performing good works is understanding where the ability to perform good works comes from. It does not come from the Christian’s own intrinsic piety – it comes from the Holy Spirit. In the Mosaic Covenant, God commanded the people to perform good works, and they had to do so by their own power and piety. Hence Israel’s repeated inability to obey God. But in the New Covenant community, made up of those who have been granted faith in Christ, God has indwelt them with His Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who enables a Christian to perform good works and who frees the Christian from chronic enslavement to serious sins. Paul makes this evident in his letter to the Galatians, where he contrasts the deeds of those without the Spirit and the fruit of those with the Spirit:

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5: 19 – 24)

The logic of Paul’s argument is quite simple. Because the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a promise of the New Covenant, and because the ministry of the Holy Spirit is focused on promoting good works while reducing sins in the life of a believer, every Christian should see a reduction in the deeds of the flesh and an increase in the fruit of the Spirit, as their lives progress. Since the power to perform good works and be free from habitual sinful practices is a gift from the Holy Spirit, if a professing Christian is significantly lacking good works and significantly enslaved to deeds of the flesh, one may rightly question whether the Holy Spirit is indeed in them.

Now, in light of all of this, it must be said that using one’s works as a measurement of true salvation is complex and nuanced. It is not something to be done glibly, and there is no general formula that can be applied to everyone. It is highly contextual, and requires delicacy and gentleness. The misuse of this idea can result in extremely bad conclusions on both ends of the spectrum. One can look at their life and see their good works and believe they are saved because they are “doing things for God” and living holy lives. Or, one can look at their life and their struggle with sin, and believe that since good works are not increasing at the rate they would like, perhaps they do not have a real faith in Christ. In either scenario, the eye has been lifted off of the saving work of Jesus Christ and placed onto the works, or lack thereof, of an individual.

So we must remember we are using works as an imperfect diagnostic of faith. Jesus tells us in Matthew 7 that many who perform “good works” in the name of the Lord will be cast into hell, so we have direct proof the diagnostic is imperfect. But even though using works in diagnosing true repentance is difficult and imperfect, it is nevertheless a Scriptural doctrine. That is why James wrote so strongly about it, to the point of making it sound like works do contribute to salvation.

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (James 2: 14)

No, James is not implying that works contribute to saving faith and salvation. He is simply upholding the teaching that if a person is saved, and has in them the Holy Spirit of God, they will necessarily produce good works. A Christian, whom God has granted a normal length of life, should be able to look back on their life and see an increase in works.

For a concluding word on this topic, we turn to the New City Catechism, which explains the relationship between salvation and works quite well:

New City Catechism Q & A 32

Q: What do justification and sanctification mean?

A: Justification means our declared righteousness before God, made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection for us. Sanctification means our gradual, growing righteousness, made possible by the Spirit’s work in us.

Justification is a gift from God, and so is sanctification. Therefore, if we have one, we have the other. But if we do not have one, we do not have the other. That is the essence of what is meant by “good works are a sign of repentance from dead works”.

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Eternal Judgment: 2 – Righteousness Must Come Apart From The Law


Suggested Pre-Reading: Eternal Judgment: 1


Let us remind ourselves of the predicament.

One day there will be an Eternal Judgment. God will send people to eternal bliss or eternal torment. If this future judgment is based on one’s ability to keep God’s law, all will be sent to eternal torment, for the Bible clearly teaches all have sinned against God and earned death:

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… (Romans 3: 23)

…the wages of sin is death…(Romans 6: 23)

Yet the Bible, just as clearly as it states all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, acknowledges there will be those judged righteous and granted eternal life.

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12: 2)

But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right and the goats on His left. Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 25: 31 – 34)

A great paradox, then, has been presented to the reader of Scripture: how does a sinner who has earned death become righteous in God’s sight and inherit eternal life?

Before answering this question as the Bible answers it, we must first dispel the notion that the answer is “by keeping the law”. Let us use a courtroom analogy to demonstrate the point. Imagine that a man who robbed a bank is being tried for bank robbery. Will his defense be, “Yes, I robbed the bank, but I didn’t murder or rape anyone, so because I kept those laws, I should be declared innocent of bank robbery”? That type of defense, in an earthly court, is absurd. Whether or not he kept some laws has no legal impact on the law that he broke. In the heavenly court it is the same – no amount of law keeping can erase the sins we have committed. Why would my not having murdered someone legally erase my sin of hateful thoughts toward that person?

The conclusion then is this – righteousness must come apart from the law. This Biblical idea is in opposition to what is commonly taught in false religions. Many false religions send sinners to the law to earn righteousness and deal with sins previously committed. Think of the doctrine of karma in eastern religions or the rite of penance in Catholicism. But the Bible is clear on the matter – the law does not save. Here is what the Bible says about salvation on the day of judgment:

Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe…(Romans 3: 19 – 22)

This argument also appears in the letter to Galatia:

I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly. (Galatians 2: 21)

Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “the righteous man shall live by faith.” (Galatians 3: 11)

Jesus Himself stated the same argument clearly and succinctly:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3: 16)

These verses of Scripture make it clear: those whom God will judge as righteous are not the law-keepers, but those whose faith is in Jesus Christ.

This idea is really quite scandalous. If someone lives for seventy years and only commits one sin a day, that equates to 25,550 sins over the course of a lifetime. Will God really declare someone righteous at the Eternal Judgment who has sinned over 25,000 times? Yes, God will – if the person trusts in Christ.

To understand more how this can be, we must discuss the Biblical teaching of atonement. This we will do in the next article.