Christians tend to fall into two variations of the same error. Some confuse the work of God for human merit or cultural achievements, or they pit God’s saving work against all human action or virtue. Some confuse God's work in us with God's work for us, while others leave out the Spirit's work within us entirely. As odd sounding as it is, God’s work in Christ is undermined by both approaches making Christ only half a Savior.
Jesus not only frees us from the guilt of sin which leads to death but also of its power in our lives. Jesus not only dies for us and is raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25) but the hope of glory is Christ in us for Gentiles like us (Col. 1:27). God makes us into new creatures in his Son and enables us to walk according to the grace of God. The gospel we find in God’s Word is greater than we imagine.
Making Christ Only Half a Savior
On one end of the spectrum, you find many people who believe they are in some sense contributing or adding to Christ’s redeeming work – his work for us. Whether it is personal virtue, or human culture, or even the church itself, Christ’s work is incomplete. We have to add something to it. Either through a perfect act of faith or penance, we remove the burden of our own guilt. Somehow, we put God into our debt, "meeting" him half way. Or so we think. But this is not grace. As one of the great Protestant confessions says,
We believe that, to attain the true knowledge of this great mystery, the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits, appropriates Him, and seeks nothing more besides Him. For it must needs follow, either that all things which are requisite to our salvation are not in Jesus Christ, or if all things are in Him, that then those who possess Jesus Christ through faith have complete salvation in Him. Therefore, for any to assert that Christ is not sufficient, but that something more is required besides Him, would be too gross a blasphemy; for hence it would follow that Christ was but half a Savior.
Therefore we justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith apart from works. However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits, and so many holy works which He has done for us and in our stead, is our righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits, which, when they become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins. (Belgic Confession, Article 22)
On the other end of the spectrum, you may find people who extol the grace of God but to the neglect of God’s work within us. Many people who have grown up in legalistic homes or environments don’t know what to make of the Christian life. There is little room for virtue or moral examples, habits or disciplines.
When Christians who have grown up in this environment come to a fresh understanding of the gospel of free grace, they don’t know what to make of God’s work within us. Anything that sounds like a duty is met with resentment.
God’s Word challenges both views. We should not seek to remove the good habits or practices from the Christian life. Rather, we need to see them in their proper place and order and how they are radically changed in our union with Christ.
Both views have a small gospel and a small savior. We find something very different in the gospel of grace. The Bible rescues us from our small conceptions of Christ and rescues us from a small gospel. The new life we have in Christ is far greater than we can imagine.
The New Life in Christ
When it comes to one’s right standing before God (i.e. justification), Christ’s virtues and perfection are the sole basis for God’s gracious gift and declaration of forgiveness (Rom. 3:21-26; 5:1-11). Christ alone is the path and means to God. His work is sufficient for everything we need for life and godliness. As the Belgic Confession again reminds us,
We believe that this true faith, being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God and the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin. Therefore it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man; for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture a faith working through love, which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word. (Article 24)
When it comes to our moral life and how we live, following Christ’s example, his virtues and his perfections are again the fountain. Our life is now flowing from the life of Christ. We are like the tree planted by the rivers of living water (Ps. 1:3). His work of salvation is the source from the beginning of faith to its end. His virtue is what is now being formed in us (i.e. sanctification) by the Spirit of God (Eph. 2:8-10; Gal. 3:1-14).
Christ’s eternal love fills us from the inside out. Everything that we do is in the power of his love, in the power of his work, and in the power of his Spirit (John 15:1–11). Jesus does not open the door to the new life in order for us to just try harder. No! He himself is the new life God has promised to anyone who has faith. We find life by abiding more and more in him. In him are all the riches God has prepared for those who love him.
The Gospel Is Greater Than We Imagine
Jesus’ work has not only removed the guilt and condemnation of sin but also its power and dominion in our very lives. We don’t have to give in to sin anymore. We don’t have to be enslaved to our desires. We have been given the Spirit to walk in newness of life, daily die to ourselves and rest in Jesus’ finished work. God cleanses us each day so we can walk in his love and power.
Christ’s good works are now being shaped in us by faith, making us doers of that word of Christ. We can see this dynamic and movement in Scripture of holding together Christ's work for us and his work in us. The Apostle Paul tells us in Galatians 2,
Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:16-20; emphasis added).
After being forgiven of our sins and clothed with Christ’s perfect work by faith, the Spirit continues giving Christ to us in all his virtue. We come to participate in his very life by faith and something wondrous begins to happen. God begins to form and shape us into the image of Christ. His life, through our faith, is lived in us by the Spirit. The Spirit begins to work in, with, and through us in our lives to bring Christ to others in all our callings.
No matter how small our callings seem to be, we can know that God is at work, bringing the love of Christ to others in what we say and do (Eph. 2:8-10; Ja. 1:22-25; 1 Jn. 4:7-12). Our words can give grace to our hearers and, because Christ’s Spirit dwells within us, we can buy back the time since the days are evil (Eph. 4:29; 5:16).
We can be sure our deeds have an eternal significance that matter. God has started a good work in us. He will complete the good work he has begun and will never let us go. This is the greatness of the gospel that we can experience and walk in even now!