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So, if Christ is my righteousness, if I am accepted by God because of Him, if I am saved by grace alone, and justified because of Christ alone, and declared righteous by faith alone, where do good works fit in my Christian experience? Why should I pursue holiness? Why is personal righteousness important? Are good works necessary? If so, how do they fit? What is the place of good works in the Christian life in light of the completely sufficient righteousness of Christ imput- ed to us? Fortunately, the Bible has a clear answer for us.
Paul emphasizes in various places that our works, our obedience to the Law, our personal righteousness cannot make us right with God. For instance, in Romans 3:27–28 Paul writes, “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” In other words, our works contribute absolutely nothing to our justification (which means being definitively pardoned of sin and accepted as righteous, through God’s free grace, on the basis of Christ’s imputed righteousness alone). Paul’s point is that God’s gracious acceptance and pardon of us is not based on anything in us. By faith, looking away from ourselves and our works, we receive a totally undeserved declaration of forgiveness, based on something outside of ourselves — the perfect righteousness of Christ, credited to our account by faith alone.
But Paul doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say, for instance, in Ephesians 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, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before- hand, that we should walk in them.” In other words, though our works do not save us, we have been saved to do good works. As Paul puts it here, we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” So Paul’s formula is that works contribute nothing to our justification (the whole of our salvation, including our faith, he says is a gift of God), but that new life in Christ always results in living a life of faithful obedience to God’s Word. Indeed, he emphasizes here the necessity of good works in the Christian life in two ways. First, he points out that our obedience is part of the eternal plan of God for our lives as Christians (“we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand” — language very similar to his strong predestinarian statements in Ephesians 1 and Romans 8). We were created anew in Christ, according to God’s eternal decree, to live in righteousness and do good works. Second, he expresses the unqualified expectation that Christians will live in holiness (“that we should walk in them”).
Legalism says we are redeemed by obeying. Paul, in contrast, says we are redeemed to be freed to obey (Gal. 5:1). The difference is colossal. In legalism, our actions function to condition God’s favor. Our righteousness, to some degree or another, is mistakenly thought to prompt his actions of favor toward us. Paul says that’s dead wrong. Instead Paul teaches that we do not condition, prompt, or contribute to the grounds of God’s acceptance of us. The reason God accepts us is not located in ourselves or our works, but rather in God Himself and His provision of Christ. As John Piper so beautifully puts it “What God requires, Christ provides.” But that is not the whole story. Paul goes on to say that grace reigns in righteousness (Rom. 5:21). In other words, the triumph of grace in the heart of the believer manifests itself not only in faith but also in a transformed life. In other words, Paul teaches that God’s gracious redemptive purposes have in view not only a new status (justification) but also a moral transformation (sanctification). Sometimes he talks about this by saying that we have died to sin (Rom. 6:1–11); sometimes he says we walk by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16), but his point is the same: God’s grace, received by faith, is productive of new life — new life in which obedience, good works, and righteousness are featured. Never do these become grounds, or even instruments, of God’s acceptance of us, but they are the invariable accompaniment of true saving faith.
What do these good works do? What is their purpose? No better, more concise answer can be given than that of the Westminster Assembly: “Good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life” (Westminster Confession of Faith 16.2).
How do we do these good works? Ah well, we’re back to Christ and His righteousness again. In being united to Him, the righteous Savior, Paul says, we have been freed from the dominion of sin and initiated into sanctification (Rom. 6:22), and by the Spirit of Christ we are enabled to live more and more to Christ and to die more and more to sin because “it is God who works in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).