Tullian Tchividjian|7:28 am CT

God Doesn’t Need Your Good Works…But Your Neighbor Does

Pertinent to any discussion regarding justification and sanctification is the question of effort. In my recent back and forth with Rick Phillips on the nature of sin and its ongoing effect on the Christian, some have assumed that when I say there is no part of Christians that are sin free, I’m also endorsing a “why-even-try”, effortless approach to the Christian life–that I’m overlooking or understating the importance of “sanctification.” I suspect that one of the reasons for this is owing to my passion to help people understand the inseparable relationship between justification and sanctification.

Whether this was explicitly taught or implicitly caught, I grew up with the impression that when it comes to the Christian life, justification was step one and sanctification was step two and that once we get to step two there’s no reason to revisit step one. In my experience as a pastor, this is one of the reasons why it seems so new to people that the gospel is not just for non-Christian’s but for Christian’s too–that it doesn’t just ignite the Christian life, but fuels it as well. By giving people the impression that sanctification is progress beyond the initial step of justification, they have concluded that once God saves us (justification) he then moves us beyond his work into our work (sanctification): justified by God’s work, sanctified by our work. But justification and sanctification are both God’s work and while they can and must be distinguished, the Bible won’t let us separate them. Both are gifts of our union with Christ and within this double-blessing, justification is the root of sanctification and sanctification is the fruit of justification. Moralism happens when we separate the fruit from the root. Or, as I’ve said before, imperatives minus indicatives equal impossibilities. As G. C. Berkouwer said, “The heart of sanctification is the life which feeds on justification.” So, I think it’s fair to say that sanctification is the justified life.

Having said that, I think the best way to move this conversation forward is to introduce what was, in my opinion, one of Martin Luther’s most helpful contributions: his distinction between passive righteousness and active righteousness. This distinction was Luther’s way to describe the two relationships in which Christians live: before God vertically and before one another horizontally.

Luther asserted that our righteousness before God (coram Deo) is received and defined by faith. Our righteousness before one another (coram mundo), on the other hand, is active and defined by service. The reason this distinction is so helpful is because one of the insinuations whenever the doctrine of sanctification is discussed is that my effort, my works, my pursuit of holiness, my faith, my response, my obedience, and my practice of godliness keep me in God’s good graces. This, however, undermines the clear Biblical teaching that things between Christian’s and God are forever settled because of what Jesus has accomplished on the cross (Romans 8:1; 31-39, Colossians 2:13-14). When we imply that our works are for God and not our neighbor, we perpetuate the idea that God’s love for us is dependent on what we do instead of on what Christ has done. We also fall prey to what John Piper calls “the debtors ethic”–paying God back for all he’s done for us.

However, when we understand that everything between God and us has been fully and finally made right–that Christian’s live their life under a banner that reads “It is finished”–we necessarily turn away from ourselves and turn toward our neighbor. Forever freed from our need to pay God back or secure God’s love and acceptance, we are now free to love and serve others. We work for others horizontally (active righteousness) because God has worked for us vertically (passive righteousness). The Christian lives from belovedness (passive righteousness) to loving action (active righteousness). His love for us begets love from us. As Jono Linebaugh puts it, “We are objects of love before we are subjects who love.” Because everything I need, in Christ I already possess (passive righteousness), I’m now free to do everything for you (active righteousness) without needing you to do anything for me. I can now actively spend my life giving instead of taking, going to the back instead of getting to the front, sacrificing myself for others instead of sacrificing others for myself. This is what Paul was getting at when he says in Galatians 5:6, “The only thing that counts is faith (passive righteousness) expressing itself through love (active righteousness).”

Passive righteousness tells us that God does not need our good works. Active righteousness tells us that our neighbor does. The aim and direction of good works are horizontal, not vertical.

So, on the horizontal plane–in creature to creature relationships (active righteousness)–I’m happy to talk about effort, action, working out our salvation, practicing Godliness, etc. But the two crucial things I try to remember are:

  • It is the passive righteousness of faith that precedes and produces the active righteousness of love for others. Or, to put it another way, our active righteousness for others horizontally is the fruit of our passive righteousness from God vertically.
  • Also, be aware of the fact that our hearts are like a “magnet” that is always drawing the horizontal (non-saving) plane towards the vertical–we are always burdening our love for others (which fulfills the law) with soteriological baggage. In other words, we see our good works as a way to keep things settled with God on the vertical plane instead of servicing our neighbor on the horizontal plane.

It is for these reasons that it is so important for us to exert effort to pray, read the Bible, sit under the preached Word, and partake of the sacraments. Not because, as is too often assumed (and taught!), these things increase God’s love for us, but because it’s in those places where God confronts our spiritual narcissism by reminding us that things between he and us are forever fixed. It’s at those “rendezvous points” where God reminds us that the debt has been paid, the ledger has been put away, and that everything we need, in Christ we already possess. This vertical declaration forever secures us and therefore sets us free to see the needs around us and work hard horizontally to meet those needs. Freed from the burden and bondage of attempting to use the law to establish our righteousness before God, Christians are free to look to “imperatives”, not as conditions that have to be met in order to get more of God’s love, but as descriptions and directions as they seek to serve their neighbor. The law, in other words, norms neighbor love–it shows us what to do and how to do it. Once a person is liberated from the natural delusion that keeping the rules makes us right with God, and in faith believes the counter-intuitive reality that being made righteous by God’s forgiving word precedes and produces loving action, then the justified person is unlocked to love–which is the fulfillment of the law.

Fruit of faith therein be showing

That thou art to others loving;

To thy neighbor thou wilt do

As God in love hath done to you. (Luther)

This is also why it is important to fight sin and resist temptation. Sin and temptation is always self-centered. It is, as Augustine put it, “mankind turned in on himself.” Failing to believe that everything we need we already have in Christ, we engage in “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19-21), desperately looking under every worldly rock and behind every worldly tree for something to make us happy, something to save us, something to set us free. The works of the flesh are the fruit of our self-salvation projects. The root of these deadly behaviors is unbelief. Luther said, “The sin underneath all sins is the lie that we cannot trust the love and grace of Jesus and that we must take matters into our own hands.” Out for ourselves, we become selfish indulgers of the flesh. We become so obsessed with having to get for ourselves that we don’t have time to love and serve others. Real freedom in “the hour of temptation” happens only when the resources of the gospel smash any sense of need to secure for myself anything beyond what Christ has already secured for me. We, therefore, “preach the gospel to ourselves everyday” because we forget it everyday. We mortify the selfish misdeeds of the body, not because our sin blocks God’s love for us, but because our sin blocks our love for others. To affirm that Christian’s are capable of grieving the Holy Spirit when we look out for ourselves and not others (Eph. 4:30) does not mean that God’s love for Christian’s fluctuates depending on how we’re doing (Rom. 8:38-39).

So, I’m all for effort, fighting sin, resisting temptation, mortification, working, activity, putting off, and putting on, as long as we understand that it is not our work for God, but God’s work for us, that has fully and finally set things right between God and sinners. Any talk of sanctification which gives the impression that our efforts secure more of God’s love, itself needs to be mortified. As Scott Clark has said, “We cannot use the doctrine of sanctification to renegotiate our acceptance with God.” We must always remind Christian’s that the good works which necessarily flow from faith are not part of a transaction with God–they are for others. The Reformation was launched by (and contained in) the idea that it’s not doing good works that make us right with God. Rather it’s the one to whom righteousness has been received that will do good works.

There’s so much more that can be said, but I hope this serves to clarify that my understanding of the Christian life is not “let go and let God” but “trust God and get going”–trust that, in Christ, God has settled all accounts between him and you and then “get going” in sacrificial service to your wife, your husband, your children, your friends, your enemies, your co-workers, your city, the world.

I also want to thank my friends Rick Phillips, Ligon Duncan, Mike Horton, Jono Linebaugh, Scott Clark and many others for taking this conversation seriously and being willing to think these things through, not to prove a point, but to serve the church. These are important matters and I’m grateful for all my friends (even when we disagree) for being open to pushing the conversation forward. It’s an honor to stand side by side and back to back with you all on the field of battle.



  1. Mitchell Hammonds

    Todd and Anna,
    I’m not sure being judged by our motives is a “good thing.” By the way, we (Christians) suffered the judgment of God at the crucifixion of Christ. There is no further judgment. If we are shown to be righteous before God it will have to be in accordance with what God demands and Christ is the only one I know of who has fulfilled that – imputation. As far as rewards go I would say doing a good deed because you think it gets you another “jewel in your crown” isn’t a motive I want God to judge me for. It’s still falls under selfishness by definition. We are, even as Christians, a mixed bag at best… I know my motives aren’t always pure nor am I prepared to say most of the time. It would be great to say we “do” out of spontaneity and without regard for how it will benefit us… because it’s the right thing to do. And maybe we do at times… I’m not willing to say.

  2. Excellent post, Pastor Tullian!

    We mortify the selfish misdeeds of the body, not because our sin blocks God’s love for us, but because our sin blocks our love for others. To affirm that Christian’s are capable of grieving the Holy Spirit when we look out for ourselves and not others (Eph. 4:30) does not mean that God’s love for Christian’s fluctuates depending on how we’re doing (Rom. 8:38-39).

    Well said…

  3. In the book Saved by Grace by Anthony A. Hoekema he has a chapter on sanctification. He defines sanctification as follows…
    as the gracious operation of the Holy Spirit, involving our responsible participation, by which he delivers us from the POLLUTION of sin, renews our entire nature according to the image of God, and enables us to live lives that are pleasing to him.
    For some reason the word pollution was a big eye opener and made perfect sense concerning sin in my life. God Bless

  4. If sanctification requires NO self-effort, what did Paul mean in 1 Corinthians 9:25-27? Why did he compare the Christian life with that of an athlete in strict training– one who has to be disciplined and fight against his own body?

    “All who compete in the games use strict training. They do this so that they can win a prize–one that doesn’t last. But our prize is one that will last forever. So I run like someone who has a goal. I fight like a boxer who is hitting something, not just the air. It is my own body I fight to make it do what I want. I do this so that I won’t miss getting the prize myself after telling others about it.” (1Co 9:25-27)

  5. Tullian Tchividjian


    Perhaps you didn’t read the post. The purpose of this entire post is to affirm the need to “make every effort”–to “trust God and get going.” As I say above, we need to fight sin, resist temptation, work, put off the old, and put on the new, as long as we understand that it is not our work for God, but God’s work for us, that has fully and finally set things right between God and sinners.


  6. Eph. 2:8-10. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

    Salvation is completely of God, by God’s grace, through faith alone in Christ alone. None of our own doings contribute to this gift from God. Not one of our best works adds to the saving work that Jesus completed on the cross for His people. Yet we work. Yet in sanctification, we do acts of goodness that are pleasing and acceptable in Christ to God; works He prepared way back in the counsel of His will that we should walk in. So there is effort, there is resisting sin, there is walking in new paths of righteousness, loving God and neighbor. But those efforts are the fruit of His Spirit, the result of an already graciously and completely secured salvation in Christ Jesus for us.

    Thanks again, Tullian for unashamedly and clearly proclaiming the gospel of God; “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” (Rom. 1:16)

  7. By the way, I think the words of the English reformer Thomas Cranmer are apt:

    “Nor the faith also does not shut out the justice of our good works, necessarily to be done afterwards of duty towards GOD (for we are most bounden to serve GOD, in doing good deeds, commanded by him in his holy Scripture, all the days of our life): But it excludes them, so that we may not do them to this intent, to be made good by doing of them. For all the good works that we can do, be imperfect, and therefore not able to deserve our justification: but our justification doth come freely by the mere mercy of God…” (Thomas Cranmer – Salvation of Man – Homily of Justification)

  8. [...] God Doesn’t Need Your Good Works…But Your Neighbor Does — Tullian Tchividjian [...]

  9. Having read Murray’s critique, I think there is some confusion about what Tullian is presenting related to the justification/sanctification issue. If I’m reading Tullian correctly, he is saying that our works no more work for righteousness in sanctification than they do in justification. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any works, but the good works produced are for the benefit of others not as brownie points for ourselves.

  10. Thanks Tullian. Great article. I love the quote from Luther. “The sin underneath all sins is the lie that we cannot trust the love and grace of Jesus and that we must take matters into our own hands.”

    I hope I am on the right track when I explain it..

    Declared righteous (justification) – Who I am in Christ
    Recreated righteous (regeneration – the start of sanctification) – Who Christ is in me
    Live righteous (ongoing sanctification) – Who Christ is through me.

  11. [...] God Doesn’t Need Your Works…But Your Neighbor Does – Tullian [...]

  12. Tullian,

    Right on,

    You are pretty much echoing the words ofPaul in Galatians 3, it is foolish to think that having started out by faith(salvation), that we can be made perfect or completely mature(sanctified) by the work of the flesh. Galatians 3, in fact, the entire book of Galatians, makes it abundantly clear that sanctification comes through Faith in God, not through keeping the Law.

    Another place where Paul clearly speaks of this is in 1 Thes 4:3-5:24. The only place in the bible that actually uses the words “this is God’s will for you” twice, in 4:3 it says, this is God’s will for you, to be sanctified(made holy), then Paul goes on to list a lot of things that at first glance look like things we need to do to be made holy. But then we come to chapter 5, and Paul makes it fairly clear that the purpose of all this is for the benefit of those around us, and then caps it off with 5:24, saying that God is faithful, who has called us to become Holy, and will also Himself make it happen.

    Your post title, “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does” could just as easily be the title of 1 Thes 4-5. Thank you for preaching the “true Gospel” message as Paul calls it in Galatians. That sanctification is not moving beyond faith, but moving deeper into faith, not moving from Christ’s work for us into our works, but rather learning to fully trust in Christ’s work and allowing Him to live His life through us.

    May God bless you and your family this season,

    Edwin “FedEx” Aldrich
    Associate Pastor,
    Set Free Ministries,
    Colorado Springs

  13. [...] Tchividjian has written a great post on how God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbour does: So, I’m all for effort, [...]

  14. […] one has been stirring for a while. Tullian’s recent post saying that Christians’ good works are for the benefit of others, not to please God, […]

  15. […] one has been stirring for a while. Tullian’s recent post saying that Christians’ good works are for the benefit of others, not to please God, finally […]

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