Throughout her history, the church has faced cultural and ethical issues that placed her in a position to make a stand for righteousness’ sake. Since the Scriptures do not provide specific instructions for every ethical issue, Christians need to wisely use biblical principles to discern what honors God the most. This is not an easy thing to do and as a result of this difficulty, some Christians have either fallen into antinomianism or legalism. Such conundrums are one of the reasons why Christian ethics is vital in the development of believers. In this article, I will differentiate justification and sanctification, give reasons why obedience is essential to the Christian life, and provide an antidote to antinomianism and legalism.
To be justified means to be reckoned as righteous in the sight of God. This is made possible when God grants the gift of faith which causes the sinner to trust in Christ alone as his Savior. Tim Sansbury notes, “Faith is the means by which salvation is brought to us. The basis of our salvation is God’s gracious act to save us.”1 Sanctification on the other hand is the process of becoming more like Christ. It begins after justification and continues throughout the life of the believer.
Let me provide three reasons why obedience and good works are essential to the Christian life:
- Reveals authentic faith
Sansbury states, “Where there is justification, there is always sanctification.”2 Both realities are affirmed in Christian ethics. 1 John is a key epistle in this regard because it shows how a Christian’s relationship with God impacts his relationship with fellow believers. It is important to note that the command to love one another in this epistle is grounded on their being “born of God” (1 Jn. 5:1). Indeed, Christians are called to obey this command because they have been born again and redeemed by God (1 Jn. 2:5, 10, 29; 1 Jn. 4:7-8, 19, 21). Moreover, the commands given in the New Testament epistles are based on the believer’s new identity in Christ. For example, in the first half of Romans and Ephesians Paul writes about the doctrine of justification by faith and redemption (Rom. 1-11; Eph. 1-3). He then applies the gospel to every aspect of their lives in the following sections (Rom. 12-16; Eph. 4-6) to show the purpose of obedience in the Christian life. The call to obey in these epistles is seen as a response to God’s saving grace, not a means to salvation. This observation has led me to see why we should care about rules for godly living. They not only prevent antinomianism and legalism but also show us that true godliness matters to God.
- Teaches believers to love their neighbor
Martin Luther once said, “God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does” (Wingren, Luther on Vocation, 10). While the believer’s good deeds are not meritorious, God expects His children to perform them. This shows us that Christianity is not one-directional. As recipients of God’s love, Christians are expected to show love to others, especially to those who are in need (Jas. 1:27). Indeed, God’s love frees the believer to care for those who cannot repay him for his kindness. Such compassion reflects the love of God for sinners who were unable to offer anything “good” to Him that would merit their salvation.
- Brings glory to God
Jesus said, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16 NIV). The ultimate reason why believers need to obey God’s rules and engage in good works is that it brings glory to God. God has justified sinners by grace through faith that they might lead a sanctified life that magnifies God as the giver of salvation and the agent of transformation. John Frame writes, “If God has justified us, we will want to please Him, and we will make intellectual and other efforts to do what He wants.”3
When believers seek to obey God as a way to express their love for Him they will be protected from legalism because they understand that God’s acceptance of them (revealed in the gospel) is not based on their performance but on the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Furthermore, the gospel protects them from antinomianism since it becomes the motivation for them to pursue what God loves and reject what He hates (Rom. 12:9). When a sinner has truly experienced God’s grace, he will not see it as a license to sin; rather, he will allow himself to be disciplined by it (Rom. 6:1-2; 2 Cor. 5:14-15). Indeed, the grace that saves sinners is the same grace that teaches them to say “no to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Tit. 2:11-12 NIV). Frame rightly concludes, “Obedience does not earn salvation for us; rather, it is the natural response of those who have become God’s sons and daughters.”4
1 Tim Sansbury, Video Lecture. Knox Theological Seminary, Ft. Lauderdale FL. Lesson 19, August 9, 2019.
3 John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2008), 289.
4 Ibid., 181.