Around 500 hundred years ago at the dawn of the Reformation, the topic that was ferociously debated between Protestants and Roman Catholics was how a person was saved from their sins. Unfortunately, many Christians today see what happened at the Reformation as unimportant. “We don’t really need that kind of division today, do we? Why can’t we all love Jesus and get along?” But what they don’t understand is that how we are saved is absolutely critical to the essence of Christianity. “If righteousness were through the Law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Galatians 2:21).
What Do We Need to Be Saved From?
We must first understand the nature of God, the demands of His Law, our sin, and God’s justice. God is holy. The holiness of God refers to His moral perfection. There is no evil in God and all that He does and commands is good. The Law refers to what God demands morally of those made in His image. Since God is holy, His image bearers must be holy. He demands that we love Him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love our neighbors as ourselves if we are to have eternal life (Luke 10:25-28). Our entire being must be turned towards both God and neighbor.
The Ten Commandments show us what exactly loving God and neighbor looks like. In order to love God, you must not have other gods before you, nor have idols, nor take His name in vain, and you must honor the Sabbath, the day God rested after he created the world. To love our neighbors means honoring our parents, not murdering one another, not committing adultery, not stealing, not lying, nor coveting others’ possessions. You don’t need to have a Bible to know these things. Everyone, regardless of their religious upbringing, knows that you shouldn’t steal, murder, or lie. That’s because God has written His Law on everybody’s heart (Romans 2:15). Even if you’re not a Christian, your conscience still convicts you when you lie to a friend or boss.
You may be thinking, “Well I believe in God and have never committed adultery, murdered, or stolen before. I’ve kept the Law, right?” But the Law goes much deeper than that. Jesus teaches that if you have even lusted over another person’s body, you’ve committed adultery with that person in your heart (Matthew 5:28). He teaches that if you have ever become angry with someone for no righteous reason, you are liable to the judgement of God (Matthew 5:22). You may have not have stolen before, but you haven’t given everybody what was due to them. And let’s face it, you haven’t always honored your parents nor have you abstained from jealousy in all circumstances.
As it relates to God, you’ve thought or said untrue things about Him. You may not bow down to idols, but you have certainly put your trust in money, education, or a significant other. And you don’t honor and worship God as the Creator and Sustainer of life that He is.
Why do we break God’s Law? It’s because we are sinners. Sin is a condition that we inherited from Adam. He disobeyed God by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and threw the whole earth into corruption. We are naturally born in rebellion against God. Our sinful nature desires to break the Law of God. Because we have broken God’s Law, we deserve punishment. Since God is a holy and just, he must punish sin. If He didn’t punish sin at all or let some sins slide, He wouldn’t be just and we would have no foundation for justice in society. He threatens sinners with pouring out His wrath on them for all eternity (Romans 2:6-11). There is no amount of good works we can do that can change this reality.
Who Is Our Savior and What Has He Done?
But the good news of the Gospel is this: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:5-6). God the Father sent God the Son to become a human like us but without sin, to be perfectly obedient to the Law that was given to us in order that He would give His life as a ransom to buy us back from the curse of the Law (Galatians 3:13), bringing us into communion with God.
The Father sending His Son is profound, because God would have been perfectly just in letting all of us die in our sins. But He decided to have mercy on His enemies by taking the punishment they deserved so that they would be sons and daughters of His kingdom. Jesus suffered in this fallen world in order than He may keep the Law on behalf of sinners and exhausted the wrath of God on the cross. Jesus rose again on the third day from the grave so that sinners like us might rise with Him into new life. He perfectly loved God with all of His heart, soul, mind and strength, and loved His neighbor as Himself so that God would count His obedience to those who believe and freely give the reward of eternal life (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The righteousness that God requires of us in the Law, He freely provides in the Gospel. On the cross, God counted the sins of all who would believe to Christ Himself so that He would be condemned and exhaust the wrath of God for everyone who believes. The curse that the Law demands upon all Law-breakers, the Gospel takes away in Christ. Jesus rose from the dead so that all of these promises would be true for everyone who believes, promising to come back again to give His people glorified bodies like His and bring forth a new heavens and new earth (1 Corinthians 15:17-19, 49, Revelation 21:1).
How Do We Receive the Benefits of Christ?
There is nothing we do to receive what Christ has done for sinners. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). We don’t have to be obedient to the Law in order to be justified. In fact, Paul would go as far as to say, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). A holy and just God justifies the ungodly. God requires no moral and personal transformation for one to be declared just in the court of God. This is not a contradiction because He justifies the ungodly on the basis of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. We do nothing, but receive and rest in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins and the accrediting of His righteousness to us. We are saved by faith alone because the object of our faith, Jesus Christ, alone accomplished salvation.
What About Works?
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? … So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. … You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
-James 2:14, 17, 24
Roman Catholics and Mormons bring up this passage from James to refute the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. This is foolish because they ignore the entire Pauline corpus for the sake of a few verses in James 2. They must necessarily confess that James and Paul contradict each other.
But what are we to make of these verses? For one, Reformation theology has never confessed a faith that does not work. The Second London Confession teaches:
Faith thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is alone the instrument of justification; yet is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.
Simply put, those who believe in Jesus will love God and others. If we do no good works (i.e. we are in unrepentant rebellion against God), our faith is no faith at all. When James says we are justified by works and not by faith alone, it’s good to point out in verse 24 that he says “you see.” He is referring to the church. The way the church understands who is and isn’t a Christian is by the works they perform. Good works vindicate true faith. If a professing Christian persists in unrepentant sin, then the church can know that person is not in the faith and needs love and discipline.
The Assurance of Salvation
Though good works are necessary, we would do well to heed the words of the great French Reformer John Calvin:
When any one strives to seek tranquility of conscience by works, (which is the case with profane and ignorant men), he labors for it in vain; for either his heart is asleep through his disregard or forgetfulness of God’s judgment, or else it is full of trembling and dread, until it reposes on Christ, who is alone our peace.
Even after we believe in Christ, we are still sinners who do wicked things. This was Paul’s internal struggle:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… Wretched man that I am!
-Romans 7:15, 24
This is a repentant sinner. Repentance does not mean “stop sinning.” The Greek word for repentance is metanoia (meta means “change” and nous means “mind”). Thus repentance means “a change of mind.” Change your mind from thinking you are good and that sin is good and believe the truth that you are a sinner and that God’s Law is good (Romans 7:22). Repentance also includes a godly sorrow and hatred for having offended our Father. But in the midst of our sorrow and frustration with our indwelling sin we ask with Paul, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” But we can joyfully answer with Him, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25). Jesus is our great Deliverer “who is alone our peace.” We can rest in Him because our salvation is not found in our good works or our victory over sin, but in Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension for us.