Christians tend to fall into two variations of the same error. Some confuse the work of God for human action or cultural achievements, or they pit God’s saving work against all human action or virtue. 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 but also of its power in our lives. 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.
Contributing to Salvation or Standing on the Sidelines?
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. 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.
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 find something very different in the gospel of grace. 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. The new life we have in Christ is far greater than we often consider.
Participating in 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.
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.
How 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.
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.
Christ’s good works are now being shaped in us by faith, making us doers of that word of Christ. 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.
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!