I was listening to an excellent teaching by R.C. Sproul, and he came to a point where you can hear him cracking the chalk against the blackboard decisively with this equation:
Faith + Works != Justification ('!=' is programmer shorthand for 'not equal')
Faith = Justification + Works
How the dust was flying! You can hear people starting to cough. You gotta love him!
He is talking about assurance, as in, being assured that you are really a Christian, really eternally and forever under grace, eternally out of condemnation. If we add works to the wrong side of the equation, we remove the possibility of assurance. Assurance, he says, is a crucial element of our sanctification, and I would have to agree with this.
If we have come to a point, and it is settled, that Christ has truly justified us, that our sin cannot ever come between us and God, and that it is out of our hands to spoil that, we enter a new dynamic. No longer do we labor. No longer do we strive. No longer do we worry. What we DO is no longer part of the equation which leads to justification. Thus, what we do becomes motivated from a very different place. We no longer act from fear, no longer perform based on an attempt to justify ourselves.
We always couch this in religious terms but I believe this is true across the entire spectrum of human experience. Just as Solomon writes:
“And I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind.” Ecclesiastes 4:4, NASB.
All men, believers or not, religious or not, in their field of endeavor, strive for significance and skill as a means to significance, a means to self-justification. Even as we talk, make jokes, do business, work, recreate, form important relationships, we strive for significance with each other. In our minds, significance is earned by our deeds, our cleverness, our greatness in business or debauchery or pleasure or skill with words or music. I must craft my own importance because it is up to me alone to do so. I am constantly on the lookout to be more clever, more successful, more insightful, happier, with better pleasures and appreciations, to prove my significance.
In Christ, this is completely turned around. We are justified as a gift. We are declared significant carte blanche. We no longer need to become great at anything to prove our significance - we simply ARE significant. We are declared just. Any attempt to water this down, to obscure it, to blunt it, only takes us back to the fruitless land of doing things to prove our worthiness.
The flesh rebels at this. The flesh wants to act, to do things, to prove significance. The flesh doesn't rebel at the law, it loves it. The question isn't law or sin, the question for the flesh is really which law to revel in. Either a law of religious leanings, or a law of partying, or a law of violence, or whatever. Every community has its rules for belonging and honor, its rites of passage. You can feel yourself recoil at the idea that you need do nothing to be significant, to be justified.
However, under this new dynamic, under a decisive declaration of justification, we act and work and do things from a wholly different impulse. Under grace, whereas works are no longer necessary, works appear as fruit:
“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:18-23, NASB.
So, we can come around and say, am I acting from faith? It is the right belief, a real assurance of justification, that leads to the right fruit. Works exist in both equations, but if you put works on the wrong side of the equation, you nullify grace. Do you see that? If you have faith in the work of Christ but still have the notion that you have to do stuff to earn justification then it nullifies Christ's work because you are still the one justifying yourself. This has drastic consequences to your works, because they are motivated by self-justification and not as the fruit of love.
When Christ justifies us, all of our human endeavor comes from a wholly different place. We joke differently, because we do not need to pose as a clever person - we already have an assurance that we are completely justified.
Do a mental experiment with me. Just pretend that no matter what, I mean NO MATTER WHAT, you were the very apple of God's eye. If you just got out of an orgy and smoked illicit things and did every debaucherous selfish act you could think of, you could immediately still pray and God would send you a million dollars dropped right out of the sky. How would you live? Would you still orgy-ize and smoke things? Would you keep asking for a million dollars?
Let me pose this to you: it really IS like that. We really have passed out of judgement, and as Peter says,
“... seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.” 2 Peter 1:2, 3, NASB.
A million dollars is nothing more than a burden to manage, and a facade of fake wealth. You can't eat a million dollars. Jesus fed 5000 with a few fish and loaves. Money is nothing but a tool, and it is far from the only tool of provision. Sin is unfulfilling and rotten. So since we are justified no matter what, we are now free to look at the world with a right mind, a free mind. If EVERYTHING is permissable, and EVERY RESOURCE is available to me to do so, then the only question is, what greatness, what humble peace, what sweet loveliness, does my justifier have in mind for me today?
Here is my advice to you my esteemed reader: put works on the right side of the equation. As Peter says,
“Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble;” 2 Peter 1:10, NASB.
Be assured that you are justified by Him, you are significant already in the eyes of God. Live from this position of strength.