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.