Justified by Works? Rethinking James 2:14-26

This summer, I have had the privilege of leading and discipling incoming college freshmen who are working at Sky Ranch. Part of the curriculum is going through the book of James verse by verse. I have been very excited to teach through this book since it has been very controversial since the beginning of the Reformation. James 2:14-26 specifically has been the epicenter of the controversy. Protestants teach that we are declared righteous before by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. However, v. 21 says, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” and v. 24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” This passage seems on its face to clearly refute the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. However, as we will see, rigorous exegesis proves otherwise.

Another interpretation that will be addressed is the interpretation that James is talking about the final judgment. There have been Protestants who believe in justification by faith alone that this passage is referring to the final judgment where God will evaluate the life of the professing Christian and will judge whether or not his or her faith was genuine. It is my contention that rigorous exegesis will prove this proposition otherwise as well. Moreover, I believe that rigorous exegesis will demonstrate that James is much more gracious than we give him credit for. This is James’ proposition in 2:14-26:

If there is no fruit in the life of the professing believer, it is evidence for the church to know the fact that person has not received the grace of God. – James 2:14-26

Or to put it more positively:

The free, abundant, steadfast grace of God will inevitably produce the fruit of holiness in the life of the Christian.

I believe this proposition can be validated by simply diving into one of James’ examples for a faith that works: the life of Abraham.

 

What is True Faith?

James is not the only place in Scripture that talks about true faith. The apostle Paul also talks about faith that saves in Romans.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. – Romans 3:23-24

True faith recognizes that there is nothing we can do on our own to be righteous before God. Faith recognizes that we have sinned against a holy God who requires perfection. The medieval saying goes like this: “God will not deny grace to those who do what is within them.” The problem is there is nothing within us. Our whole being is corrupted by sin (Romans 3:10-18). This is why our justification before God must be a free gift of God’s grace as it says in v. 24. Have you ever paid your parents back or worked for your Christmas presents? No! What did you do on Christmas Day? You merely received the gracious gifts of your parents. So faith is a receiving of the grace of God, as the hymn goes, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling.”

Paul then goes on 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

Faith and works are contrasted here. If you’re not working, what are you doing? Resting! True faith rests in the finished work of Christ. As one pastor says, “Don’t just do something! Stand there!”

On his way to face trial in Rome, a dangerous storm threatened the lives on the ship that Paul was aboard. But God revealed to him that they would all survive. Paul proclaims to the passengers aboard,

So take heart men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. – Acts 27:25

True faith has the knowledge of what God’s word says and simply takes Him at His word, despite what may seem true to our eyes. What does our God proclaim to us? 

All the Father gives to me will come to me and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. – John 6:37

Despite our eyes and hearts telling us that God only deals with us on the basis of justice, we take God at His word that He will never cast us out for anything or any sin. Our faith knows what Christ has said and we will trust it over our heart. We will be as reconciled to God on Judgment Day as we are now. It will be exactly as we have been told.

 

True Faith Produces Works

According to James, the faith that saves will produce good works, as he writes in 2:18,

But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. – James 2:18

Central to James’ concern is refuting a Christianity that has “faith” but no works. Good works are evidence before others that our faith is genuine. But look closely at James’ opponents. The quotation not only lists a practice of having faith without works but also having works without faith. For James, faith and works cannot be separated. Faith produces good works. But if you put works before faith, and do rest in the finished work of Jesus Christ for salvation, you will have neither salvation nor good works. All of our good works are nothing but “splendid sins” in the eyes of God apart from the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

 

Justification by Works?

Abraham is used by James as an example of a believer that demonstrates his faith through obedience to God. But first things first. Was Abraham justified by works? No, and yes. No, in the sense that he was declared righteous before the throne of God by his obedience to God’s command to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In the context of James, the least infraction of God’s law renders one guilty (2:10). It doesn’t matter if one is faithful to his or her spouse, if one murders someone. You’re still a rotten sinner before the holiness and purity of God.

In the context of the entire Bible, Paul is very clear that Abraham was not justified by works. Paul writes, 

For what does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. – Romans 4:3-5

Abraham was an ungodly pagan who worshipped the gods of the Chaldeans. It was not Abraham who first came to God, but God first came to Abraham and gave him the promise to bless all nations through him, which was ultimately fulfilled when the offspring of Abraham, Jesus Christ, took away the curse and blessed all who believe in Him with forgiveness and righteousness. Salvation does not come to the deserving, but to those who have done everything to deserve the wrath of God yet have rested in the One who has exhausted the wrath of God for them.

What About the Final Judgment?

Is there an initial justification based upon grace and a final justification based upon works? James is clear this is not the case. James says nothing about how Abraham’s works justified him before God in the final judgment. Instead, v. 21 says Abraham was justified when he offered up Isaac, which happened thousands of years ago. Moreover, this justification is before other believers, not before God. Verse 24 says, “You see,” not “God sees.” Finally, when we face the final judgment nothing that we have done will merit entrance into the new heaven and new earth. The only condition is having been written in the lamb’s book of life (Revelation 21:27). God’s judgment will “Passover” those who have covered themselves in the blood of the lamb of God, Jesus Christ.

 

The Example of Abraham

Verse 23 says that when Abraham offered up Isaac in obedience to God’s command the “Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness…’” James is clear: Abraham’s good works only evidenced the fact that he was justified by faith alone. But take a closer look. Abraham’s justification before God is announced in Genesis 15. Abraham’s good works happen in Genesis 22. What happened between Genesis 15 and 22?

In Genesis 16, Abraham does not trust God’s promise to bring offspring from Sarai. Instead, he attempts to get the offspring through Hagar (16:24). Paul identifies this historical event as allegorical for attempting to be justified by works (Galatians 4:23-24) which merits no blessing of God, but the curse of God (3:10). Not only did Abraham not believe God (the greatest sin of all), he also committed adultery against his wife Sarai. And as we will know “God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4).

How did God respond to Abraham’s sins? He again promises that Sarah will bear him a son and that kings will come from her (Genesis 17:16). But Abraham laughed at God and offered up Ishmael, the offspring of Hagar, as a substitute for God’s plan to bless all nations. I can think of nothing more terrifying than laughing at a holy God and offering up what the Bible calls “polluted garments” to His purity (Isaiah 64:6). But God, in the very next verse, still promises Isaac will come from Sarah (Genesis 17:19).

In Genesis 18, Sarah is found laughing at God’s promise to bring offspring from her (v. 12). This is evidence of the fact that Abraham was not leading his wife well spiritually. He should have been constantly reminding her of God’s promise. But God still promises that all nations of the earth will be blessed in him (v. 18).

In Genesis 20, Abraham lied to Abimelech, king of Gerar, that Sarah was his sister and allowed Abimelech to almost sleep with her (v. 2-6). If you know your Bible, you would know that Abraham did the exact same thing in Genesis 12:10-16. Abraham lied to Pharaoh not only for his self-preservation but also for his own gain (v. 16). There is debate as to whether Abraham was justified by faith in Genesis 12 when God first appeared to him or in Genesis 15 when his justification is formally announced by the author. In any case, you either have Abraham committing the same sins when he was an unbeliever or committing habitual sin as a believer. Not great for the Romanist interpretation or the Pietist interpretation.

How did God respond to Abraham’s innumerable sins in Genesis 21? The birth of Isaac. The one God promised to Abraham and Sarah. Exactly as they were told.

What happened in Genesis 22? God tested Abraham by commanding him to offer up Isaac (v. 1). And he obeyed. Why did he obey? “He considered that God was able to even raise him from the dead…” (Hebrews 11:19). Abraham’s trust in the grace of God and demonstrated to the world his faith by his works.

 

Takeaways

James 2:14-26 brought to mind three problems that are universal to the Christian experience:

1) We do not fully realize the grace of God in the midst of our sins as Christians. God did not revoke His grace to Abraham; neither will he from you. “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”

2) We do not have a realistic expectation of fruit in the life of the Christian. Abraham’s life was full of sin with good works sprinkled in. We ought not to lose heart when we look at ourselves. As Martin Luther said, “When I look to myself, I don’t see how I could be saved. But when I look to Jesus, I don’t see how I could ever be lost.”

3) We do not understand how the grace of God creates and motivates the fruit of holiness in the life of the Christian. Abraham’s life is evidence of the fact that God is “rich in mercy” and desires to lavish us with “the immeasurable riches of His grace.” It is also evidence of the fact that the richness of God’s mercy will inevitably overwhelm a believer to the point that a believer’s heart will overflow with God’s love for God and neighbor. 

 

The Distinction Between the Law and the Gospel

From the confessional Reformed perspective, the Law-Gospel distinction is not a paradigm we impose onto the Scriptures, but something we find within redemptive history, namely through covenant. Every person who has ever lived has either been condemned by the representation of Adam or justified by the representation of Jesus Christ (Romans 5:18). When we think about representation, we think about our federal government, where we elect people to represent us. If they make good decisions, we prosper; if they make bad decisions, we suffer. Representation is the essence of covenant theology since the Latin word covenant literally is foedus. Therefore, it is proper for us to explore the nature of Adam’s covenant and Christ’s covenant.

Law-Gospel Distinction as the Structure of the Bible

In the beginning, God made the “Covenant of Works” with Adam. A covenant is a divinely sanctioned commitment which is designed to bring man beyond what was capable of him by nature. Adam was incapable by nature as a man to obey and somehow force the Almighty God into a debt to reward him. However, in the Covenant of Works, God condescends to Adam to promise him and his offspring an eternal, glorified life with Himself upon the basis of perfect obedience and threatens eternal death and separation from the blessing of God (Genesis 2:16-17). This covenant is based upon works (i.e. the Law). This is not “legalism” because God created Adam with the ability to fulfill this covenant. However, Adam did not fulfill his covenantal commitment and the sanctions fell upon Him and the whole world. (Romans 5:12). Adam’s sin was imputed to the whole world as if we have eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We therefore fall short along with Adam in attaining glorified life with God (Romans 3:23).

However there is light, for in the darkness of the broken Covenant of Works, comes the dawn of the Covenant of Grace. After Adam and Eve sin, even before God pronounces a single word of judgement to them, He announces the Gospel in seed form for the first time. He pronounces judgement upon the serpent that contains promise for sinful mankind,

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel. – Genesis 3:15

What makes this promise the first revelation of the Covenant of Grace? Whereas God said to us in the Covenant of Works “You will” (Genesis 2:17), God says to us in the Covenant of Grace “I will.” The Covenant of Works is about what we must do for God to fulfill our commitment to Him, while the Covenant of Grace is about what God will do for us to fulfill His commitment to us, which He purposed before the creation of the world (2 Timothy 1:9, Titus 1:2). In other words, this covenant is based upon the grace of God, not our own works. This involves God sending a new Adam in the line of Eve to rescue us from Adam’s sin and do what the first Adam could not. This new Adam we know as our Lord Jesus Christ who has imputed His righteousness to us and has given us eternal life as a free gift (Romans 5:17), not because of what we have done or who we are.

The apostle Paul even sees a parallel between the Covenant of Works and Mosaic Covenant in the clearest affirmation of the Law-Gospel distinction in the New Testament:

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. – Galatians 3:10-14

There are multiple ways the Mosaic Covenant echoes the Covenant of Works. In verse 10, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 27:26 to show that the Mosaic Covenant threatens a curse for disobedience to the terms of the covenant. This curse involves being exiled from the land of Israel, where God’s presence resided in the temple in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 28:63-64). This echoes Eden because Adam and Eve were exiled from the presence of God in the garden (the prototypical temple) for their disobedience (Genesis 3:24). Here also we see that the primary function of the Law after Adam is to reveal our sin and that it is foolish to attempt to be justified by works (Romans 3:20). In verses 11-12, we see Paul distinguishing the two ways of righteousness and life: through works or through faith in the grace of God. Paul even says the law is not of faith.

The Law and the Gospel are of two different substances, works and grace respectively. In the Mosaic Covenant, the land of Israel was to be blessed with temporal life, safety from enemies, and glorification among the nations upon the basis of the Israelites’ obedience to God’s Law, which was to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 18:5, Deuteronomy 28:1-7). This was to make Israel look forward to a New Jerusalem, eternal life, safety from Satan and fallen angels, and glory with the nations in the new heaven and new earth which their fathers looked forward to (Hebrews 11:13-16, Revelation 21:1-4). This glorified life with God would not be gained by works but by faith in the true Israel of God, Christ Jesus (Matthew 2:15, Romans 10:6-8, Deuteronomy 30:11-16) who redeems us from the Law’s curse by taking the curse for us and giving us the blessing of eternal life.

Law as a Covenant vs. Law as a Rule of Life

Hence, we see why Martin Luther had an aversion to those who think Christ’s grace made it possible to be justified in part by works as He writes,

But advocates of the Pope and sectarian spirits don’t hold this doctrine. They turn everything inside out. From Christ, they make a Moses, and from Moses, a Christ… The adversaries are so diabolical and perverse that they merge together law and grace. Thus, they create this monstrous monstrosity by transforming Christ into Moses!

What’s wrong with making Christ a new Moses? Ultimately, the problem is the confusion between the Law as a covenant and the Law as a rule of life. Remember our definition of a covenant. A covenant is designed to extend man’s blessings beyond what he was naturally capable of obtaining on his own. The law of God is written on our hearts by nature (Romans 2:14-15). The Law of God is present no matter if there are any covenants, or which covenant we are under, for we are creatures of God, who is our Creator in whom we have the obligation to obey. However, we could not obey God enough to earn eternal life because we are creatures who cannot put God under a debt that He must repay us (Job 41:11). So God made the Covenant of Works with Adam to bring him to eternal life. Adam failed, but Christ succeeded as our representative so we are no longer under the Covenant of Works. However, the Law still remains.
In Romans, Paul talks about how the Law could never justify a sinner (3:20) and that “Christ is the end of the law” (10:4) Yet Paul still commands us to obey the Law, to love God and our neighbors (13:10). The difference is that we don’t obey the Law to get eternal life, but rather obey from an overflow of gladness in receiving eternal life in Christ. As Paul says, we have freedom from the bondage of the Law’s demands and threats (Galatians 5:1). Our obedience can no longer justify us and our disobedience can no longer condemn us. Yet we use that freedom not to sin, but to serve the Lord “without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him in all our days” (Luke 1:74-75). We don’t obey the Law because we are afraid of God as our judge who punishes disobedience, but because God is our Father through the Lord Jesus who loves us and cares for us (Galatians 4:4-5) by grace alone apart from our love for Him or for our neighbors. Now God our Father instructs His children with His Law as a rule of life.

Summarizing the Law-Gospel Distinction

In short, the Law says, “Do!” The Gospel says, “Done!”. The Law requires perfect obedience for eternal life. The Gospel gives you the perfect obedience of Christ and eternal life as a free gift. The Law announces a curse on all who disobey. The Gospel announces the redemption from the curse on all who believe. The Law shows us that we are ungodly. The Gospel shows us that Christ died for the ungodly. The Law requires you to love God and give yourself for Him. The Gospel tells you that God loves you and has given Himself for you. The Law says, “Do this and live.” The Gospel says, “Do this because you live.” The Law says, “Obey or God will cast you away forever.” The Gospel says, “Obey, because God is your Father for the sake of Christ who will hold you forever.”

Grace is Greater than a Second Chance

This summer, I had the wonderful privilege of being a Sky Ranch summer camp counselor. I worked with high school sophomores who all came from Christian backgrounds. Throughout the week, we walked through six different passages in Scripture, including Ephesians 2:1-10. When we got to verses 4-5, I asked the question, “What is grace?” I asked that question because I knew I shouldn’t assume that just because they came from a Christian background they already knew what grace was. Week after week, I received the same answer from multiple different campers, “Grace is a second chance.” This answer seems like it’s correct. Second chances are great, right? A popular worship band has a song titled “Second Chance” and it has these lyrics:

Your blood offers the chance

To rewind to innocence

Reborn, perfect as a child…

Oh Your cross, it’s where my hope restarts

A second chance is Heaven’s heart

While these lyrics sound wonderful, it is unwittingly leading us back to bondage.

In Socratic fashion, I would then ask my campers, “So it would seem that God forgives our first failed attempt at gaining eternal life because of our sin, but now gives us another attempt to gain eternal life by obedience, correct? God is like a school teacher who takes pity on a student who failed his math test, but now gives him another chance at passing the test.” This is what logically follows from calling grace merely a second chance. This view of grace puts us back in the same position as Adam in the Garden of Eden. Adam was created in a state of innocence and perfect like the lyrics above state. Adam had the hope of eternal life and glory in the presence of God on the basis of his perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience (Luke 10:25-28, Genesis 2:9).

My campers would counter, knowing that we continually fall into sin, “Grace is actually an infinite amount of second chances.” The problem with this view is that you have to attempt to attain eternal life an infinite amount of times (or at least until you die). Salvation, in this sense, can never be applied individually to the believer in the past, but only something that can be applied in the future after death. Moreover, this means that God must pardon (in a legal sense, not the familial sense as in the Lord’s Prayer) us every time we sin. We fall from the state of being justified before God every time we sin and need to be re-justified by God. This is fascinatingly similar to the medieval Christian view of salvation. Church historian Carl Trueman explains this view by writing,

God can demand perfection from human beings prior to giving them grace but, in fact, has condescended via means of a pactum (or covenant) to give grace to ‘the one who does what is in oneself.’ In answer to Luther’s question, ‘How can I be righteous [or justified] before God?’ one might respond, ‘Do what is in you,’ that is, do your best.

Understanding What the Law Demands

However, Scripture teaches that the Law does not demand that we merely try our best. It demands that we be perfect. Romans 2:13 says, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law will be justified.” Scripture offers two categories of humans: doers of the Law or breakers of the Law (James 2:10). Doers of the Law receive glory, honor, peace, and eternal life (Romans 2:7, 10); breakers of the Law receive wrath and fury, tribulation and distress (Romans 2:8-9). There is no third category of humans who try their best to obey the Law. The Law demands that we love the Lord our God with all of our heart, with all our soul, with all of our mind, and all of our strength and our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:26-27).

The Law demands everything from us. Our entire being must be dedicated to serving God and neighbor in order to have eternal life (Luke 10:28). If not, then we are under the curse of God as Galatians 3:10 says, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” For all of us who live right now, post-Fall, are born in the bondage to sin. We do not have the ability to obey the Law that we can attain eternal life by our own strength. We do not even have the ability to not sin. No one, by nature, can please God (Romans 8:8). Therefore, the pactum of medieval theology has no validity since there is nothing good in us that we can try our best to obey the Law. We are all born “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), in both a legal (Colossians 2:13-14) and moral sense (Ephesians 2:2). We all by nature exiled from the presence of God as the penalty for sin demands, as all those who touched a dead body were ceremonially unclean and could not participate in the worship of God in the community of God under the Mosaic Law (Numbers 19:11). Our whole person is defiled with sin, as touching a dead body defiled the whole person.

Heaven’s Heart

But a glorious light shines through our spiritual darkness: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…” The grace of God in Christ alone initiates and accomplishes our salvation. God alone frees the sinner from the penalty and power of sin. According to this text, this salvation is something that has occurred in the past, not to be gained in the future. Later on in this passage, Paul will argue that we are saved apart from our works (vv. 8-9). This salvation is bestowed upon a sinner apart from anything she does and is something she possesses now and forever more.

Another question I enjoyed asking campers each week was, “How is God just in saving sinners when He demands perfection for eternal life and must punish sin with eternal death?” Does God compromise His just Law to save sinners? He does not. But how can God remain just while being merciful to sinners? The answer is within the text of Ephesians 2: we were raised and made alive in Christ. When Christ was raised from the dead, we were raised from the dead.

The Active Obedience of Christ and Federal Headship

How is it that when Christ was raised from the dead we were raised from the dead? The answer lies in the concepts of the active obedience of Christ and his federal headship. While these are academic terms, they communicate a simple truth: when God sees us, He sees Jesus. When God sees us, He sees us as ones who have perfectly satisfied all of the demands of the Law, both its commands and condemnation.

The active obedience of Christ refers to His keeping of the Law of God throughout His entire life. He loved God and his neighbor perfectly. Because He loved God and neighbor perfectly, He received the reward of the Law: eternal life (Luke 10:25-27). The resurrection of Christ was God’s justification of the perfect life of Christ (Romans 1:4, 1 Timothy 3:16). Jesus was justified by works!

The federal headship of Christ refers to His legal representation of the people He saves. As the Second London Confession puts, “God was pleased, in His eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, His only begotten Son, according to the covenant made between them, to be the mediator between God and humanity.” The federal headship of Christ means that whatever the Son does, those who believe are counted as ones who did the same. When Jesus obeyed, the believer obeyed, just as when Adam sinned, humanity sinned. God regards the whole world as if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil like Adam did. Likewise, God regards all those believe as if they rendered perfect obedience the Law of God as it is written, “For as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19).

The federal headship of Christ also means that we are raised, in a legal sense, with Christ. This means that God’s legal verdict upon Christ becomes our verdict through faith for it is written that Jesus was “raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). Since the resurrection of Christ was God’s legal declaration of righteousness upon the life of Christ, this legal declaration of righteousness becomes ours through the federal headship of Christ. Since God has counted the obedience of Christ as our own, we receive the reward of that righteousness which is eternal life. Jesus was justified by works so that we may be justified by faith.

Grace is much greater than a second chance. God not only forgives our first attempt at eternal life, but sent Jesus to attempt and succeed as our great champion. Jesus not only died for our sins but lived to be our righteousness. On the cross of Christ, God saw us instead of one who perfectly obeyed the Law. Through faith in Christ, God sees Jesus instead of the sinner. “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). For the ungodly who believe, as far as God is concerned, you are Jesus. That is heaven’s heart towards the ungodly.

A Defense of Limited Atonement

Since Limited Atonement is so controversial, I thought it might be helpful to discuss a few of the passages people use to deny the doctrine. Hopefully, this will help resolve any seeming conflicts with other Bible passages.

Evidence to the Contrary?

“But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” – 2 Peter 3:8-10

Second Peter 3:9 is usually used by deniers of Limited Atonement because of the phrase, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” They reason, “If God truly does not want anyone to perish, how could he refrain from providing a sacrifice for their sins?” However, by reviewing the context of this verse, one will see that the group God does not want to perish is not every human being, but Christians. 

In 2 Peter 3:1-8, which establishes the context for verse 9, Peter the apostle encourages the recipients of his letter to believe that God is truly going to save them. Peter wants to reassure them that the scoffers, who declare that God’s judgment will never come, are wrong and that God will come for his people to bring Judgment Day to pass. Verse 9 begins with the assertion that God is not slow to fulfill his promise of salvation. God has made no such promise to the unbelieving scoffers being discussed here, but instead has made this promise of salvation to Christians. Peter wants the recipients of his letter to understand that God has not forgotten them, and that the blaspheming scoffers’ claims have no merit.

After this, Peter says that God is being patient toward “you.” Whatever patience God has is directed toward the “you,” which is the Christian people to whom he is writing. “You” does not refer to all humanity as some people argue. Peter is saying that God is waiting for all those who will comprise the “you” group (Christians) to come to repentance. God has made no such promise to non-Christians, and Judgment Day will follow soon after this promise is fulfilled (v. 10). It is a mistake to apply 2 Peter 3:9 to non-Christian people because it is an encouragement to Christians against lying unbelievers and not a declaration of God’s desire for everyone’s salvation.

To understand the next few passages, we need to understand how John uses the word “kosmos” or “world” in his writings. He sometimes uses it to mean the entire universe (John 17:5), the evil world system (1 John 5:19), unbelievers (John 15:18), Jews and Gentiles worldwide (John 6:33), the human realm (John 1:10), and even large crowds of people (John 12:19) among other uses. The term “world,” especially in John’s writings, must be interpreted in light of the context in which it is written. He does not use the term as most people would today. 

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” 1 John 2:1-2 

The second verse of 1 John 2 seems to deal a decisive blow against Limited Atonement. John calls Christ the propitiation for the sins of the “whole world.” Upon further examination, we will see that this verse cannot be denying Limited Atonement. 

To understand this verse, we need to understand what propitiation means. Propitiation means to appease an offended party. This verse states that Christ actually is the propitiation for the sins of the “whole world.” It does not say that he could be or that he aspires to be the propitiation, or appeasement, to God for the sins of the “whole world,” but that he actually is. If Christ has appeased the wrathful God on behalf of every single person (if that is indeed what “whole world” means here), then neither believers nor unbelievers would have to worry about God’s coming wrath. The whole of scripture is clear, however, that God is going to eventually pour out his righteous wrath on unbelieving sinners. Romans 2:5 says, “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing  up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” 

Our solution lies in understanding how John uses the term “whole world.” It might be helpful to consider that in 1 John 5:19, a short three chapters later, John says, “We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” Here, John excludes Christians, who are “from God,” from the “whole world.” Clearly, “whole world” in this context does not mean everyone living, but only to the many people across the world who are under the power of the evil one. This necessarily excludes Christians because they are no longer under Satan’s power (Eph. 2:1-3, Col. 1:13).

We should view 1 John 2:2 similarly, and understand that “whole world” refers to all those across the whole world who can say Christ actually was a propitiation for their sins, and God no longer has any wrath reserved for them. It cannot mean every single person in the world, because that would mean there is no coming wrath for anyone, and the rest of scripture testifies against that idea. It should be noted that in 1 John 4:10, John refers to Jesus as a propitiation for sins once again, but says that he is a propitiation specifically for believers’ sins.

John 1:29 is another verse that is frequently cited to argue that Christ died for the sins of all people, even those who would never believe. Our understanding of the word “world” is important for understanding this verse too. Referring to Jesus, John the Baptist says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Many people who read this exclaim, “Look! This says he took away the world’s sins. This can only mean that Christ died for all people.” However, if we look carefully at the statement, we will see that John is not speaking of any potential Christ has to take away sins, but that whoever constitutes “the world” actually has their sins taken away. Like I said in my explanation of 1 John 2:2, taking “the world” to include even those who never believe would mean that all people would have their sins taken away and thus be saved. Scripture makes clear that some people will not be saved, and God will pour out his wrath on those who do not turn from their sins (Prov. 28:13). We should also understand the word “world” here to mean Jews and Gentiles across the world rather than every person in the world. 

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

This verse is often used to argue that Christ died for all. The word “world” here likely means sinners generally as it does in other places in John’s writings. Regardless of who or what “world” refers to, the verse itself says nothing of the atonement’s extent. All we can deduce from this verse is that God gave his Son so that all the believing people would be saved. To use this verse as a rebuttal to Limited Atonement is to assign a meaning to the verse that is not there. We have to be careful to draw the meaning of a passage from passages and not impose our own ideas on the text. 

Further Study

Because I could not address every argument that opponents of Limited Atonement use in this article, I would like to give some general advice for looking at any scriptures concerning the extent of Christ’s atonement. First, we need to be certain that the passages we are examining are actually talking about what Christ desired to accomplish or did accomplish by his sacrifice. Verses about Christ welcoming all who come to him, and verses concerning Christ’s care for unbelievers do not necessarily tell us for whom he died. Secondly, we must be mindful of the consequences of our conclusions. Would your understanding of the verse you are reading contradict the rest of Scripture’s clear teaching? If so, there is an error in the interpretation. We must always be mindful to interpret less clear scriptures in light of clearer.

Rather than railing against this biblical doctrine as some do, we should happily embrace its truth. Everyone who turns from their sins and asks for God to forgive them in Christ can be certain that Christ suffered and died to secure a relationship with them and to make them holy and blameless before God (1 Peter 3:18, Eph. 1:4). That is where he ransomed you. If you have not yet come to Christ, please understand that he is commanding you to repent from your evil works and to find forgiveness in him by faith alone (Acts 17:30). The relationship with him to which he is calling you is greater than anything you could even fathom (Ephesians 3:14-19).

For Whom Did Christ Die?

Is Limited Atonement biblical? This doctrine states that at Jesus’ crucifixion, he only paid for the sins of those he intended to save. He purchased their salvation through his death, and it is guaranteed that each person for whom he died will come to saving faith and continue walking in faith until he or she safely enters into God’s presence. Jesus was able to atone for the sins of as many people as he wished, but he chose to pay only for the sins of Old Testament believers and those who would become Christians. Keep in mind, I am not trying to find verses that explicitly refute those who disagree. Instead, I am working from a neutral standpoint to learn what Scripture says about the extent of the atonement.

Clear Biblical Support 

To start, let’s look at some of Jesus’ statements from the Gospel of John:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.
– John 10:11, 25–28

In this passage, Jesus speaks clearly about his intentions to sacrifice himself for a specific group of people; his sheep. Not only does Jesus declare that he will lay down his life specifically for the sheep who will follow him, but in verse 26 he makes a distinction between his sheep and those who are not his sheep. Since Jesus committed to sacrificing himself for his sheep and he explicitly excluded some people from that group, it is only reasonable to conclude that he does not intend to die for those who are not included in the group of his sheep. In verses 27–28, he says that he will grant his sheep eternal life, they will never perish, and they will not be removed from his care. Because Christ only died for his sheep and only gives them eternal life, it can be said that Christ only died for Christians.

Despite Jesus’ clear statement, some may still object, “Well, the passage does not explicitly reject the idea that Jesus died for his sheep and those who would never repent and believe in him.” Those who reject Limited Atonement may want this explicit statement, but it is unnecessary. When one says they will perform an action for a specific group of people, they do not need to explicitly state that the action is not being performed for people outside the identified group. For example, if one says, “I will pay for the food of everyone in my house,” it is unnecessary to clarify that they will not pay for the food of people outside of their house. Similarly, Jesus’ assertion that he will lay down his life for his sheep is sufficient for communicating that the laying down of his life was only for his sheep. No additional statement is needed, but the fact that Jesus clearly says some people are and his sheep removes any ambiguity. 

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
– Romans 8:32

Following his discussion of God’s unstoppable plan to save and sanctify his people in Romans 8:1–30, the apostle Paul explains how these truths reveal the love of God to believers. Verse 32 emphasizes the great love demonstrated by God the Father in his sacrifice of the infinitely valuable Son of God, Jesus. According to this verse, all those for whom the Son was given up can rest assured that God will give them “all things.” Can those who will spend eternity in Hell for their sins (people who never repent and trust in Jesus alone) say that God has “graciously given them all things?” Absolutely not! All who do not repent and believe will suffer an eternity of weeping, moaning, and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:36–43). It will be evident that Christ died for someone by the spiritual blessings they receive from God (“all things”). “All things” are received by everyone for whom Christ died. Therefore, those for whom Christ died can only be those God chooses to save and bless with “all things.” Clearly, this excludes those who are not saved and consequently condemned to Hell.

I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours… I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
– John 17:6–10, 20–21

In his prayer, Jesus identifies his apostles as individuals given to him by God the Father. He has revealed to them the truth that he is the Messiah, and they believe that he is the Christ. Not only does Jesus pray that the apostles would be saved and perfectly unified, but he prays for all future Christians who would believe through the proclaimed Gospel. While praying for this group, he explicitly states that he is NOT praying for the salvation of anyone outside of that group (John 17:9). Only the people he is praying for belong to God (John 17:10).

If Christ is not willing to pray for the salvation of these people, is it reasonable to believe he would be willing to die for them? It is clear that his intention is to save only those whom the Father has given him for the purpose of saving. Christ’s intentions in atoning for sins are not conflicting with the Father’s will because Christ perfectly did the will of the Father (John 5:19, John 6:37–44).

And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
– Revelation 5:9–10

In this excerpt, we see that Jesus “ransomed people for God” by his blood. The word “ransomed” means to have purchased something, and the “blood” that was used to ransom the people for God refers to the bloody sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Jesus actually ransomed for himself, people by his sacrifice at the cross. This means that he did not merely make a provision for people to accept if they wanted to, but he actually secured certain individuals who would definitely become God’s people. If Jesus chose to ransom all people by dying for all people, they would be his and become Christians. However, this verse does not teach that he ransomed all people, but only some. Notice that the passage says that Jesus ransomed people from every tribe and language and people and nation, and not that he ransomed every tribe and language and people and nation themselves. Those who are ransomed are really his and will be made into a kingdom by God (Revelation 5:10).

Why Is This Important? 

While acknowledging the truths above, we must not forget that God does all these things in love. Christ did not suffer with an indifferent attitude, but with a deep love for each individual that the persons of the Trinity agreed to save before creation (Eph 1:4).  When I first understood that the doctrine of Limited Atonement was biblical, I almost shed tears because of how clearly it revealed God’s love for me.

If you are a believer, rejoice that Jesus had you in mind at the cross. He knew you by name, and he suffered the outpouring of God’s wrath on your behalf. And he did it out of love. The triune God demonstrates his love in this way: the Father gave up the Son for you, the Son suffered for you, and the Holy Spirit has sealed you for the day you will fully enter into God’s presence. All three persons of the Trinity are delighted to have fellowship with you through Jesus Christ. 

If you have not yet received this blessing by repenting of your wicked rebellion against God, do that now. Ask the Lord for forgiveness, acknowledging that you have broken his commands, and come to him believing that Christ paid the penalty for your sins at the cross. There are no good works for you to do to please him. Although you should pursue these things in response to your relationship with God, they are not the foundation of your relationship. If you do repent, you can rest assured that he died for you and ransomed you for a relationship with him.

Faith vs. Belief: A Study on Salvation

Ever since 1517 and the nailing of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door, Protestants have been known for a commitment to salvation by grace through faith alone. This Reformation was a call for the Church to return to its roots because it recognized that biblical salvation is a direct result of faith alone as it is attributed to faith alone over 50 times within the New Testament. Despite the beauty of this biblical doctrine, “Sola Fide” has been often marred and manipulated by a modernized Western church seeking a “cheap faith” that is, in reality, a mere form of intellectual assent. 

Regardless, the Bible preaches salvation by faith alone, so we must also. Again, we preach salvation by faith alone. Not belief alone. We, as Americans, have been inadvertently and falsely taught that faith and belief are, for all practical purposes, in fact one in the same. But maybe there’s more to “faith” than simply the acknowledgement of what is true.

Faith From the Perspective of a New Testament Writer

In the Greek, the word that translates into the English as “faith” is πίστις. As defined by the NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon, πίστις is understood to be “conviction of the truth of anything” and includes with it the idea of “trust and holy fervor.” Surprisingly, the technical modern day definition has hardly changed, and it is generally defined by Merriam Webster as a type of “allegiance” or “loyalty.” 

However, because the word “faith” in everyday conversation has become so overused in referring to a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof”, this is the way we typically envision it. More significantly, this is the way we read the word “faith” when we see it in Scripture, but this was not the intention of the writer then and therefore is still not the intention today. 

With this in mind, “faith alone” and “conviction of the truth, trust, and holy fervor alone” should theoretically invoke the same mental image when we hear each phrase. So yes, salvation is by faith alone, but it is extremely important to know what the writer originally meant when he said “faith.” A misunderstanding here can be dangerous.

Scripture’s Definition of Faith

It’s always a good idea to enlist the services of the Almighty God who possesses all the authority, wisdom, and knowledge necessary to define a word, especially when that word is the central theme of His own book. So what’s the Holy Spirit’s definition of faith? 

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
-Hebrews 11:1

Based upon this verse, I believe that faith is where intellectual acknowledgement and desperation collide. Not only is it the convicted assurance of what we do not physically see, but it is also the assurance of something we are genuinely hoping for – something we genuinely need. This passage assumes that there exists a large capsule of hope within the heart that truly possesses faith, and this kind of hope implies a thirst and desire for something we do not yet have. Paul more fully explains this hope in his letter to the Romans.

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
-Romans 8:22-25

To put these things together, biblical faith could be described as hope for the redemption of all creation, including one’s own soul, from the effects of sin and death’s decay, brought about by the convicted assurance of something not yet physically present (2 Cor. 4:16-18). My question is once again this: Does this define the faith of the American church?

Salvation Throughout Scripture

For this section, I have chosen what I believe to be three of the most commonly used “Salvation Verses” in the Bible for further analysis. Upon participating in some brief exploration of each, I quickly discovered the remarkable depth to these verses that we are blinded from seeing by the bright lights of familiarity and cliché. As it has been wisely noted, “the greatest enemy of faith is not fear; it is familiarity.”

because, if you confess with your mouth that “Jesus is Lord” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
-Romans 10:9-10

Sounds simple enough right? Initially, it seems like Paul is saying that to be saved, you must simply say a few words and then acknowledge the validity of a historical event, namely, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. However, with this interpretation, what we miss in the passage is the word “heart.” 

When the word “believe” is used, it is typically defined as an intellectual function of the brain. But if Scripture was trying to communicate academic agreement, it would have instead said “believe in your mind” or maybe even “be fully convinced in your mind” or something more along those lines. 

However, that is not what the passage says. It actually attaches the word “belief” with the word “heart.” The clear distinction we must make is that believing in your heart is in fact different from believing in your head. 

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!
-James 2:19

Now, I am under the impression that demons do not possess the faith necessary to obtain eternal life in heaven, and I hope you would agree. So in order to grasp what this kind of heartfelt belief looks like, let’s look at perhaps the most quoted Bible verse in America:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
-John 3:16

As the most popular verse in the entire Bible, John 3:16 has certainly received its fair share of air time, but what most people have never read are the two verses directly before.

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
-John 3:14-15

To figure out what the belief in the Son of Man that leads to salvation actually is, we must look at the story that Christ is referencing in the Old Testament. The story occurs within Numbers 21 in verses 4 through 9, while the Israelites are in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land after recently being freed from their slavery to Egypt. The people begin to doubt the goodness of God and sin against Him by complaining that the food that God has given to them is not good enough. Because of this, God sends judgement upon the people in the form of what the Bible calls “fiery serpents.” The serpents bring death to many of the Israelites while also bringing about repentant hearts within others. The members of this second group confess their sin, and God provides a path for their healing by asking Moses to set up a pole with a bronze serpent on it. With one glance at this bronze serpent, those seeking healing will be healed from the effects of the fiery snakes.

From this passage, there are three brief things that are important to notice when interpreting the meaning of John 3:14-16. These three things are repentance of sin, willful seeking of healing, and a trusting in the provision of God as the source of redemption. The people actually felt guilty and understood their need for rescue, they sought healing in something outside of themselves, and they found this forgiveness, mercy, and love from the God who freely offers it to those who seek it. This is the kind of faith and belief that Jesus is teaching in John 3:16, and it is the basis for all other Scriptural teaching on salvation. 

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.
-Ephesians 2:8-9

Other than an explicit teaching against a “faith plus works” theology on salvation, this passage reveals that even the faith we have is a gift from God. Now, does intellectual agreement require an act of God? Certainly not, because, as we have seen, demons believe in God. No work gets us into heaven, including the “work” of believing that no work will get us into heaven. 

It is the faith itself, a gift of God, and not the belief in “salvation by faith” that saves. Belief in something does not require anything supernatural, but Scripture teaches that the faith that brings about salvation does. So what’s the difference? What does the Christian saved through faith possess that the nominal Christian who supposedly believes does not?

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
-Romans 8:14-16

The true child of the living God has the Spirit of God within them and a new heart that cries out “Abba,” the Hebrew word signifying personal intimacy between father and child. As Charles Simeon puts it, 

For a nominal Christian is content with proving the way of salvation by a crucified Redeemer. But the true Christian loves it, delights in it, glories in it, and shudders at the very thought of glorying in anything else.

So, faith is a gift of God. It is planted into the contrite heart and broken spirit that seeks redemption, through the Father’s provision, from the condemnation brought about by sin. It is the point where a correct understanding of truth and heartfelt desperation meet. This truth is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and this desperation finds its fulfillment in the Christian’s hope for future vindication – the freedom of all creation from its temporal bondage to death. 

Faith is expressly seen through an inexplicable trust in God and fervor for his Kingdom that flow from the Spirit of God within the Christian’s new heart that inevitably leads to good works for the glory of God. This is biblical faith (Phil. 4:7).

But What About James 2:24?

This is totally a fair question. After all, the only place in the entire New Testament where you can find the phrase “faith alone” is actually in this verse:

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
-James 2:24

First, we must interpret Scripture with other Scripture by using the 50+ verses attributing salvation to an act of faith. Second, we must interpret Scripture within the context of that specific passage. When James uses the word “faith” in verse 24, he has already defined what he means by this in verse 14, and this is not the kind of faith that we have seen so far throughout the New Testament. The faith that will alone never justify anyone is a “dead faith”, a faith without works. While a “dead faith” justifies no one (with or without works), real faith is a “living faith” that justifies man before God, and good works are simply what externally reveal the inward reality of the faith’s condition.

It is also abundantly clear within Scripture that even the good works you do after receiving salvation are the acts of God working through you (Phil 2:12-13, Eph 2:10, John 15:4-5, Heb 13:21, etc.). So, if you believe that your works justify you before God, remember that your works are not even your own. These righteous works are simply the Spirit’s gift of “faith working itself out through love” (Gal 5:6). While belief has to work, faith longs to do so.

So Then How Is One Saved?

Well, it is definitely worth noting that this conversation is only happening because most people who call themselves Christians today are not actually internally bothered and grieved by their own sin. Instead, they are merely bothered by the idea of going to hell. Faith, therefore, looks to them more like belief, because there is nothing within their heart truly begging for healing. In other words, the good news is just news to those who are not poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3-6). But, when this type of pleading is indeed the case, the gospel is much more simple:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
-Matthew 11:28

So, to those who are weary from the seemingly hopeless fight against sin; to those who are weary from the burdens of bad decisions made in the past; to those who are weary from relentless attempts to be good enough, nice enough, righteous enough, kind enough, perfect enough, or whatever enough; and to those who are heavy laden upon discovering that you will never be; come find rest in Jesus. 

Though the world lies to you in an attempt to ignore the problem by telling you that “You are enough,” Christ instead chooses to love you regardless of the fact that you are not enough. He has paid for all your sin on the cross and has defeated sin, death, and the grave on your behalf. Now, He calls out to you under one simple condition: Follow me. And what a privilege it is to do so.

Does God Desire All to Be Saved? A Review

This is a book review on John Piper’s Does God Desire All to Be Saved?


Nearly three years ago, I was sitting on the floor of my small group leader’s spare bedroom with a dozen high school students when we came upon 1 Timothy 2:4. In his pastoral words to Timothy, Paul writes,

This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
-1 Timothy 2:3-4

As we thought through what this verse might mean, and what the contextual clues in this passage and throughout Scripture had to say about it, we concluded that though God desires all people to be saved, not all people are saved. 

What is keeping God from saving all people?

Thankfully, in light of the contextual clues throughout Scripture, the wisdom of our small group leader, and the teaching we had received growing up, we avoided the heresy of universalism. After quickly dismissing the idea that God saved all people despite their faith, we were stumped. How could God desire for all people to be saved, yet all people not be saved? What hindered God from accomplishing his will? These questions were well over our heads.

Our small group leader explained that he believed God was even more committed to giving us self-determination or free will than he was to saving all people. Essentially, God loves us too much to force a decision upon us, therefore, leaving it up to our choice whether we would respond in faith.

This was problematic to me for several reasons. First, the Scripture shows examples of people like Paul who came to faith as a result of God’s regenerative work in bringing them to new life and faith in Christ’s work. Second, the Scripture seemed to present a greater will of God than to merely give us our own choice.

Conveniently, there are men far wiser than I who have asked these same questions and searched the totality of the Scripture for them. One of those men is John Piper. In Piper’s 2013 short theological essay, Does God Desire All to Be Saved?, the seasoned pastor-theologian asks the same question we asked that night.

The Aim of the Essay

If you’re going to read this essay, you should know that Piper comes in with a few presuppositions. First, Piper assumes that Scripture is inspired by God and does not contradict itself. Second, he presumes that God is sovereign over everything. 

To be clear, both of these presuppositions are orthodox positions, but it is important to remember that Piper’s aim in writing this essay is not to defend these truths, but rather, assuming that they are true. 

To show from Scripture that the simultaneous existence of God’s will for all people to be saved and his will to choose some people for salvation unconditionally before creation is not a sign of divine schizophrenia or exegetical confusion.

By saying this, Piper introduces the idea that God has two wills: a sovereign will and a moral will.

Where This Book Excelled

Generally speaking, this essay was fantastic. In a mere 54 pages, Piper lays out his argument clearly, carefully, and pastorally. There were a few areas where I felt like this book particularly shined.

Built on Scripture

Throughout the essay, Piper builds his assertions not on ever-changing logic or deduction, but on the Scriptures. He immediately points out the seemingly problematic nature of a text like 1 Timothy 2:4, but rather than dismissing it as a misunderstanding, he engages it. 

Though Piper notes that “it is possible that a careful interpretation of [this verse] would lead us to believe that [this] does not refer to every individual person, but rather to all types of people,” he puts that interpretation to the side for the sake of understanding the reality that Scripture teaches God desires for all people to be saved (2 Peter 3:8-9, Ezekiel 18:23, and Matthew 23:37).

Relied on History

While the crux of the argument made in this book is made on the basis of thorough examination of the Biblical text, Piper consistently relies upon the insights of faithful Christians of the past. He frequently points the readers back to authors like John Gill, Adolf Schlatter, Heinrich Heppe, Jonathan Edwards, Theodore Beza, Stephen Charnock, Robert Dabney, and John Calvin. For an idea that initially seems rather novel, Piper does well to point to the men of the past in order to strengthen his case.

Engaged with Opponents

As Piper develops his explanation, he simultaneously interacts with the position of his opponents. In a conversation where both camps claim their position is built on the Bible and relies on history, one of the most revealing aspects of the author’s side is the way that he engages opponents’ own text.

Throughout the essay, Piper walks through the ideas presented in A Case for Arminianism by Clark Pinnock and a number of other contributors. For example, he fundamentally changes the way that we answer the question when he references the words of the late I. Howard Marshall. In the section entitled, “Universal Grace and Atonement in the Pastoral Epistles,” Marshall writes, 

We must certainly distinguish between what God would like to see happen and what he actually does will to happen, and both of these things can be spoken of as God’s will.

Identifying the Epicenter

Piper rightly identifies the points of unity and the grounds of debate when he writes, 

Both the Reformed and the Arminians affirm two wills in God when they ponder over 1 Timothy 2:4. Both can say that God wills for all to be saved. And when queried why all are not saved, both the Reformed and Arminians answer the same: because God is committed to something even more valuable than saving all. The difference between the Reformed and the Arminians lies not in whether there are two wills in God, but in what they say this higher commitment is.

This is crucial because initially it seems like Reformed theologians are forced to perform exegetical gymnastics in order to conclude that there are two wills in God, but Piper is arguing that both sides actually come to the same initial conclusion. 

Where This Book Fell Short

At this point, I have spent ample time explaining the areas in which this essay surpassed my expectations. While this work was incredibly well-written and thought-provoking, a few areas missed the mark.

Overly Reliant on Previous Works

To be honest, if I had not read his other works, Spectacular Sins: And Their Global Purpose in the Glory of Christ and Five Points: Towards a Deeper Experience of God’s Grace, much of the assertions made in this book would seem insufficiently explained. Piper relies heavily upon the conclusions of these two books in order to lay the groundwork for the theological ideas presented here.

Lack of Practical Application

Near the end of this essay, Piper notes that Randall G. Basinger argued that “belief in the absolute sovereignty of God is practically irrelevant in daily life.” Piper shows the irony of this statement in light of James 4:13-15, but falls short of giving useful application. The inclusion of actual examples in the Christian life such as evangelism, work, or marriage, would elevate the weight of this essay’s argument.

Who Should Read This Book?

This is not simply a book for the theology nerds, but rather a pastoral call to understand the seemingly paradoxical relationship within the will of God. This is a book for pastors, teachers, business men and women, stay-at-home parents, and even college students. While Piper does not explicitly state how this will affect the Christian life, I believe that by reading it you will not only grow in your knowledge of the Lord, but your love as well.

This topic is dense, but Piper guides the reader through these deep waters. If your aim in reading this book is mere intellectual satisfaction, you’re missing the point. You should read this book in order to grow in your understanding of who God is and, therefore, worship Him for it.

John Calvin on the Assurance of Salvation

Recently, Flame, one of the most prolific Christian rappers in history, came out with an EP called “Extra Nos.” The focus of the album was about Flame’s journey to becoming a confessional Lutheran and how Calvinism tends to erode the believer’s assurance of salvation by pointing believers to their good works and progress in sanctification instead of the finished work of Christ. 

Flame believes that Luther had a scripturally correct view of assurance because his emphasis was upon the mighty works of Christ in His redemptive work for sinners while Calvin had a defective view of assurance because his emphasis was on the weary efforts of the Christian at holiness. I would like to contend that Flame did not say anything Calvin would disagree with. In fact, Calvin expresses the same view of assurance as Flame almost word for word.

Good Works and Assurance

In his interlude song “Good Works,” Flame says,

But what makes us right with God, Paul says, is our faith. That’s how we are made righteous and how we remain righteous, in Christ. But when you blur those lines and start looking at your sanctification for assurance that you’re right with God, a bunch of problems arise. First off, we end up filled with discouragement from constantly missing the mark. We can also end up filled with self-doubt from constantly applying subjective and arbitrary measures to assess our level of sanctification in order to determine whether or not we are justified. Or on the flip side, we could be filled with self-righteousness as a result of fulfilling some criteria we created and then in turn cast judgement on others who don’t check our specific boxes. This is a common experience especially among Calvinists.

The reason Flame believes sanctification and good works cannot be the foundation of assurance is because sanctification is a “partial, uncompleted work” as he said in his song “2KR.” According to Flame, the emphasis should not be upon the uncompleted, subjective work of sanctification in us but upon the completed, objective work of justification outside of us in Christ. The righteousness of Christ extra nos (outside of ourselves) is where we ought to find the objective foundation of assurance of our salvation.

Calvin would like to agree. In his commentary on Romans 5:1, Calvin writes,

When any one strives to seek tranquility of conscience by works, he labors for it in vain; for either his heart is asleep through his disregard or forgetfulness of God’s judgement, or else it is full of trembling and dread until it reposes on Christ, who is alone our peace.

Romans 5:1 is about our objective peace with God. Since we have been justified by faith, we are no longer under God’s wrath, but have peace with Him because Christ exhausted the wrath of God on our behalf and met the demands of His Law as our representative. We merely received and rested in Christ so that God declared us righteous, one who has met the obligations of the Law and has satisfied its penalty. This is objective. It’s true whether we feel it or not. It’s not based upon our good works but upon the good works of Christ.

But Calvin believes the objective work of Christ for us ought to give us a kind of subjective feeling of peace. In order to have tranquility of the conscience, we must repose, or rest in, what Christ has done for us. Calvin agrees that believers, if they trust in their good works, will never find true assurance before the throne of God because even our good works are mingled with sin, as he writes:

There is nowhere such a fear of God as can give full security, and the saints are always conscious that any integrity which they may possess is mingled with many remains of the flesh.

Believers will fall into either despair or self-righteousness if they trust in their good works for assurance because we still fail to meet the demands of a holy God. Calvin agrees with Flame that we must daily come back to the objective, finished work of Christ to find the foundation of our assurance.

Now Calvin did think good works play a role in the assurance of the believer as he writes,

But the fruits of regeneration furnish with a proof of the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, experiencing God to be a Father in a matter so much a moment, they are strengthened in no slight degree to wait for His assistance in all their necessities. Even this they could not do, had they not previously perceived that the goodness of God is sealed to them by nothing but the certainty of promise.

Good works are not the foundation of assurance, but they do strengthen assurance. However, as Calvin indicates at the end of the quotation above, good works can only strengthen assurance once we perceive that the goodness of God is sealed to us by the certainty of His promise in the finished work of Christ for us. For Calvin, we cannot find assurance in the sanctifying power of the Spirit in us unless our emphasis is in the justifying power of Christ outside of us. Indeed, there is no sanctifying power of the Spirit without the justifying work of Christ on the cross!

Election and Assurance

In his song “Sola Fide,” Flame says,

When you believe in the doctrine of election like Calvin did (like I did), you’re pretty much gridlocked in a system in such a way you believe you’re saved by faith alone but for the large part, you look to your sanctification for your assurance (that’s just facts).

According to Flame, Calvin pointed people inward to themselves to know if they were chosen by God before the foundation of the world to be saved. The only way we can if we are elected is if we are bearing fruit. But did Calvin really believe this? Calvin writes:

But if we are elected in Him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look to Him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election…

Calvin emphatically denies looking for the certainty of election in ourselves. When we look to Christ we know without being deceived that we are elect because Christ is the mirror of our election. When you look into a mirror, you see what you’re wearing. You must look into a mirror to know for certain how you look. So, if Christ is the mirror of our election, when we look to Him by faith, we see for certain that we are covered with His blood and clothed in His righteousness. God the Father chose us in God the Son (Ephesians 1:4) so that Christ would be our federal representative in His life and death. It is simply untrue that Calvin pointed believers to themselves instead of Christ to know if they are elect.

Preaching and Assurance

In his song “Ordo Salutis,” Flame says,

He rock a priest collar
He cop a crewneck
Both monergistic in the pulpit (Facts)
One told me faith‘s where the proof’s at (Luther)
The other told me better do a fruit check (Calvin)

Flame is contrasting Lutheran preaching and Calvinist preaching. The Lutherans wear the priest collars, the Calvinists wear the crewnecks. Both are monergistic, meaning both believe God alone saves a person apart from a person cooperating with grace. Lutherans point believers to faith and the Gospel for the assurance of salvation. Flame claims that Calvinists point believers to their fruit. According to Flame, Calvin demanded a certain quota of fruit from believers. Flame seems to indicate that Calvin demanded a certain quantity and quality of fruit that meets FDA standards (I’m joking). But Calvin was most certainly not a “fruit-checker” in the pulpit.

In fact, in his commentary on 1 John, Calvin instructs pastors to establish the believer’s assurance in Christ as he writes,         

For the apostle says he wrote these things, that is, that eternal life is to be sought nowhere else but in Christ, in order that they who were believers already might believe, that is make progress in believing. It is therefore the duty of a godly teacher, in order to confirm disciples in the faith, to extol as much as possible the grace of Christ, so that being satisfied with that, we may seek nothing else.

It is the duty of a godly preaching to extol as much as possible the grace of Christ. Calvin would agree that fruit-checking, moralistic preachers in the pulpit are not being faithful to their calling as under-shepherds of Christ, the Good Shepherd himself, who tenderly cares for His flock. According to Calvin, pastors are not called to pound their people with the burden of the Law every Sunday, but to proclaim to weary believers that Christ is here to give them rest by taking on Himself the burden of the Law. 

Encountering Reformed Thought

I’m truly happy that Flame’s relationship with Jesus has exponentially improved since he has discovered Reformation theology. However, what I wish for Flame is that he doesn’t reject Calvinism just because he has interpreted his experience with New Calvinism back into Calvin or the Westminster Divines. My wish for Flame, and for all who are skeptical of Calvinism, is that they come to a deep appreciation for the impact that the Reformed tradition has had on how we think about the Christian life. 

The Impact of God’s Grace: Grace Changes Everything

In the previous article, we learned that sin ruins everything. Because of Adam’s sin, humanity stands condemned in the eyes of God, in bondage to  sin, and lives in a fallen world that can never satisfy our souls. We are now in a position to have a much stronger grasp and appreciation for how God’s grace impacts our lives.

The Promise of a Conqueror

Why didn’t God put Adam and Eve to death and destroy the world as soon as they sinned by eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? After all, He did say, “In that day you eat of it, you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17b). God did not strike down Adam and Eve because, before the foundation of the world, the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit covenanted together to save sinners (2 Timothy 1:9, Titus 1:2, Ephesians 1:9). This covenant, the Covenant of Redemption, is the reason why Romans 3:25 says, “This was to show His righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins.” Michael Horton calls the Covenant of Redemption “The opening act of the drama of redemption.” He was patient and passed over Adam and Eve’s sin because He would send Jesus Christ to save them from their sins and “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). Even before God hands down a single curse to Adam and Eve, God curses the serpent by saying, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). The only words they heard from God’s mouth before this were the demands of His Law and the curse of breaking His Law. This promise, however, is the protoevangelium, or the “first Gospel.” This first Gospel proclamation promises that the offspring from the woman alone will come and conquer Satan, destroy his works, and attain the eternal rest that Adam did not. Here, God reveals the Covenant of Grace, which we will explore in this article, to Adam and Eve. Through Eve’s offspring would come Jesus Christ, the Last Adam, who would accomplish the task that the first Adam failed and redeem the elect from Adam’s sin.

The Incarnation, Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ

How precisely does Christ accomplish the task that Adam failed? First, Christ must assume the same human nature Adam had when He was created. Just as Adam was made in the image of God, so Christ’s human nature must be made in God’s image. Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, having been conceived by the Holy Spirit, so He is without Original Sin. If He had Original Sin, He would have been condemned and corrupted just like the rest of us and could not have represented and saved  those who believe. He was in the same position as Adam. Just as God required Adam’s perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience to attain eternal rest, He also required it of Christ. Jesus never once failed to obey God, even when tempted by Satan. Where Adam succumbed to Satan’s temptations, Jesus conquered Satan and God’s Law (Matthew 4:1-11). Jesus is the only man ever to love God with all of His heart, soul, mind, and strength, and neighbor as Himself (Luke 10:25-28, Hebrews 4:15).

To remedy our condemnation before God and to reconcile His people back into His presence, Jesus died on the cross, bearing the sin and guilt on behalf of sinners. Jesus acts as our federal head by going before us to bear the curse we deserved. Galatians 3:13 states, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” The curses of the Mosaic Covenant pointed the earthly Israel  back to what was already true of Adam and the rest of humanity. Jesus died the death that people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” deserved to die, His own people Isreal (the Church) being among those undeserving of salvation. Where Adam blamed his bride, Eve, for his sin, Jesus takes the blame for His bride’s sin, the Church’s sin (Ephesians 5:25-32).

After God drove Adam and Eve from the Garden-Temple, where His presence dwelled, He placed cherubim at the east of the Garden of Eden to bar them from eating from the tree of life (Genesis 3:24). Jesus entered Jerusalem from the east (Matthew 21:1) and once He died on the cross, the veil that separated the Most Holy Place, where the presence of God dwelt, from everything else was torn (Matthew 27:51). This indicates that by His death, Jesus reconciled unholy sinners back into the presence of God (Romans 5:10). The sacrifice that He offered up as our High Priest makes us worthy to be in God’s presence (Hebrews 9:11-12). Another aspect of the cross is that Christ conquered Satan and all the powers of darkness (Colossians 3:15). Christ as Priest keeps the temple holy by covering His naked people with His blood and righteousness, and interceding on their behalf in Heaven when He ascended (Hebrews 4:14). Christ as King takes dominion over creation by conquering Satan through His righteous life and death.

However, Jesus did not stay dead. Through His resurrection from the dead, Jesus was judged worthy of eternal life. Romans 2:13 says that it is “the doers of the Law who will be justified.” Jesus Himself, having completed perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience to the Law, was a doer of the Law and was “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by His resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). Elsewhere, Scripture teaches that Jesus was “vindicated” or more literally, “justified,” by the Spirit (1 Timothy 3:16). Adam was “the son of God” (Luke 3:38), but died because of His sin and failed to attain rest in the world to come. But Jesus paid for the sins of His people and remained perfectly obedient, which is why He was declared to be the Son of God. He attained the rest promised to Adam. He currently sits at the right hand of His Father in His glorified body that is no longer subject to death.

The Covenant of Grace: Justification and Sanctification

One may wonder, “When is he going to talk about the Covenant of Grace?” I already have,  because, as J.V. Fesko writes, “The substance of the Covenant of Grace is the work of Christ, His life, death, and resurrection, which fulfills the broken Covenant of Works for those who look to Him by faith.” Jesus is the Covenant of Grace. All those who are united to Him by faith partake in His covenant. The Covenant of Grace delivers to the believer two benefits (among others): justification and sanctification. Byron Yawn writes, “In the sin of Adam, man lost his position of innocence, and the corruption of his flesh immediately followed. In Christ, by faith, our status is restored (justification), and our disposition begins its realignment (sanctification).

Paul writes in Romans 5:19, “For as by the one man’s disobedience, the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience, the many will be made righteous.” Adam’s sin was imputed, or counted, to all of humanity, but Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the one who believes. Remember, Jesus came to be our federal head. He perfectly obeyed and bore our sins as our representative. When God looks at us, He doesn’t look at our obedience, but to the obedience of our representative. We’re justified, or declared righteous in God’s sight, for Christ’s righteousness (Romans 5:18), even though we do not have what is required to attain eternal life. We do not have to run and hide from God as Adam and Eve did. Jesus has clothed our nakedness with His righteous robes so that “Everyone who believes in Him will not be put to shame” (Romans 10:11). Indeed, on the last day, we will not be awaiting condemnation because we were already justified  through the death and resurrection of Christ. If, as Paul says, Christ was “raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). The final verdict on the last day has been handed down in the present to all those He represents. All of our sins have been pardoned, and we have been counted righteous solely because of the work of Christ on our behalf. We can rest in the One who has earned rest for His people (Hebrews 4:9-10).

Through our union with Christ, we are freed from the bondage of sin and made slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:18). Christ’s death saves us from the power of sin over our lives as our old self was crucified with Him (Romans 6:6). Christ’s resurrection raises the new self that desires God’s Law (Romans 6:4). We are not saved by these good works but saved to do good works as Paul says we were created in Christ Jesus for good works (Ephesians 2:10). It is good news that we are not saved by our works, even our sanctified ones. As sinners, we could never offer up anything pleasing to God if we were not sure of His promise of eternal life merited by Jesus Christ. “But now we are released from the Law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6). Fear-driven, slavish obedience does not please God. We serve in the new way of the Spirit by looking to Christ by faith and performing good works out of gratitude for what He has done for us.

New Creation

When Christ comes again, we will receive a resurrected, glorified body like His. Paul writes, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:21-23). This is where the dominion mandate is fulfilled. J.V. Fesko writes, “The last Adam accomplishes the dominion mandate by extending the temple, which is the people of God, to the ends of the earth.” This is how Jesus was fruitful and multiplied: not by having children according to  natural descent, but by redeeming His elect from their body of death to His own glorified body (1 Corinthians 15:45). All of God’s enemies will be vanquished forever and the whole earth shall have people who no longer bear the image of Adam, but the image of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:49).

This is a cause for us not to put our identity in success here on earth. The people of God throughout redemptive history look forward to a heavenly country, one whose designer and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10, 16). We’re free to pursue cultural tasks, not as trying to fulfill the cultural mandate in Genesis 1:26, but as ones who know this world will come to an end (1 Corinthians 7:29-31). We have hope when we face death because our Lord Jesus has conquered death Himself and will wipe away every tear from our eyes and abolish sin from our entire existence.

Five Reasons to Live by Faith Alone

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.
-Galatians 2:20 

For Paul, to “live by faith” is not some moralistic platitude to be a better person. In other words, Galatians 2:20 does not say “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faithfulness.” Instead, Paul looks outward to the faithfulness of Christ “who loved me and gave himself for me.” Faith is extrospective in its very nature. To live by faith is to rest day-after-day in the finished work of Christ and to trust Him for the whole of our spiritual life.  Let us consider five reasons why living by faith is far greater than living by faithfulness.

(1) Apostolic Example

Before Paul gets to the Christian’s obedience to the Law and faithfulness in Romans 12-16, he first shows us in Romans 1:18-3:20 that nobody has obeyed the Law or been faithful enough to attain eternal life on their own. However, in Romans 3:21-11:36 Paul provides hope for the sinner. He speaks of the exhaustion of God’s wrath on the cross by Christ for sinners like us, the free justification of the ungodly through faith alone in Christ alone, the objective peace with God that sinners have through Christ, the sanctification of believers by Christ, the announcement for those who struggle with sin that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ, the faithfulness of God to save His people through Christ, the unconditional election of sinners unto eternal life by the will of God, and the inclusion of Gentiles into the covenant community of believers in Christ.

Whether it’s our standing with God, assurance of salvation, sanctification, struggle with sin, the various trials of life, understanding the sovereignty of God, etc., Paul urges us to look to Christ. He doesn’t begin with the imperatives of Romans 12-16 right after Romans 3. Instead, he encourages understanding of what justification is. He knows that we first need to know the assurance of salvation. We need to be familiar with the mercy and grace of God because it is “by the mercies of God” that Paul appeals to the Romans to present their bodies as “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). There is no true Christian obedience or spirituality without faith in the finished work of Christ and all the other mercies of God that are woven into it.

(2) The Nature of the Covenant of Grace

Romans 5:12-21 tells us that all of redemptive history can be distinguished into two people. You’re either in Adam or you’re in Christ. In Adam, there is the imputation of sin, the curse of death, the condemnation of God, and wrath. But in Christ, there is the imputation of righteousness, eternal life, justification, and peace with God. The only way we become united with Christ is through faith in Him, but even after we believe in Christ, we can’t move on from what He did for us. Again, apart from Christ, we have no hope. We must be in constant remembrance of what Jesus Christ, the Sinless Adam, did for us.

To be united with Adam is to be under the Covenant of Works. The condition to attain eternal life in this covenant is perfect, personal, perpetual obedience to God. Since Adam was unfaithful to that covenant, we receive the imputation of his sin and become condemned in God’s eyes because he was our representative. To be united with Christ is to be a part of the Covenant of Grace. The only condition to attain eternal life is faith in Christ (Galatians 3:11). Since Christ kept the Covenant of Works, we receive the imputation of His righteousness through faith, become justified in God’s eyes, and receive the gift of eternal life because He is our representative in His life, death, resurrection. R. Scott Clark writes, “While the Law says, ‘do,’ the Gospel says, ‘done!’ While the Covenant of Works says, ‘work,’ the Covenant of Grace says, ‘rest!’”

(3) We Are by Nature Legalists

Paul makes it clear in Romans 2:15 that everyone, regardless of their religious background, has the Law of God written on their hearts. We have an inherent sense of right and wrong. We even know that “it is the doers of the Law” that will be justified (Romans 2:13). The Law and its demands are natural to us, but our sin corrupts us into thinking we can actually perform what it commands. The Gospel, on the other hand, is unnatural to us. We can’t know what Christ did for sinners apart from special revelation. Even with special revelation, it takes an act of God’s grace for someone to come to Christ (John 6:44). Even after we become Christians, we still struggle with legalism. 17th century Puritan Walter Marshall writes, “By nature, you are completely addicted to a legal method of salvation. Even after you become a Christian, your heart is still addicted to salvation by works… You find it hard to believe that you should get any blessings before you work for it.”

That’s why we need our pastors especially, as well as the Christians around us, to be faithful in preaching the Gospel clearly to us. We need constantly to hear the good news of Christ’s righteous life, substitutionary death, world-changing resurrection, and glorious ascension. We need to constantly hear that “to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). If we live by faith in Christ, we can be sure that, no matter who we are or what we’ve done or are doing, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). It’s only through Christ that we can get over our addiction to the Law and allergy to the Gospel.

(4) Sanctification Is by Faith Alone

All Christians know that we are justified by faith alone. But it seems as though many do not think of the grace of God and faith in Christ when they think of sanctification. Marshall observed this too and wrote, “People think that even though they have been justified by a righteousness produced totally by Christ, they must be sanctified by a holiness produced totally by themselves.” What is Paul’s solution to lawless living in Romans 6:1-2? Does he jump to Romans 12-16? Does he tell us we just need to try really hard to be a good Christian? No. The solution to lawless living is not the Law but the Gospel. 

Paul tells us that we have died to sin and have been raised to new life. How? By being united with Christ in His death and resurrection (Romans 6:5). We did not free ourselves from the slavery of sin; Christ did. We did not make ourselves slaves of righteousness; Christ did. The identity of “slave of righteousness” in Romans 6:18 is not something we have to strive to attain, but something we already have by faith in Christ. John Fonville writes, “In salvation, we don’t receive a half-Christ. We don’t receive a half-Christ that saves us from the guilt of sin, but leaves us to save ourselves from the power of sin. In salvation, we receive a whole Christ who saves us from both the guilt and power of sin.” Since Christ is the One who justifies and sanctifies us, Paul commands us in Romans 6:11, “So you must also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Before we make any effort to obey the Law found in Romans 12-16, we must live by faith in Christ who has “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24) and raised us as a new creation to walk in newness of life.

(5) Christ Is Our Only Hope in Suffering

Even in suffering, we are to live by faith in Christ. Paul writes in Romans 8, 

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
-Romans 8:18

In the context of the letter to the Romans, the church there was soon to be persecuted. In 64 A.D., Nero blamed Christians for the fire that burned down three quarters of the city of Rome and tortured and executed them. As American Christians, we don’t face persecution to the same degree as the Roman Christians did, but we still “meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). Trouble with relationships, depression, familial strife, the injustices we see in American society, financial hardship, etc. all point to the “bondage” of creation. As Paul says, “… we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22). 

But, as Christians, we live by faith in Christ because he promises a new heaven and new earth where Christ will “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

This life isn’t all we have. Therefore, we shouldn’t find our hope and identity in this world, because we are bound to be driven to despair. Our trust is in the sovereign God who “works all things together for good” (Romans 8:28). If we’re tempted to despair of life itself, we must look upward in faith to our gracious Father who gave us Christ. Paul asks, “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). If God demonstrated His love in sending His Son and putting Him to death on our behalf, His love for us is never going to end. He will bring His people home. It’s those who live by faith who are “more than conquerors” because the object of our faith, Jesus Christ, conquered sin and death by His glorious resurrection for His people (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). Therefore, Paul tells us, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).