We must be careful not to confuse the righteousness of faith with the righteousness of a Christian life. The former is a gift of grace through the imputed righteousness of Christ making us right before God, the latter is the fruit or results of one who has been born-again, justified and adopted as God’s child. Paul writes to Titus, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” (Titus 2:11-12). While we must avoid the error of legalism, a system of belief that says one is justified (made right with God) by faith plus the merit of our own works which is an obedience-based acceptance, it is equally important that we avoid the error of antinomianism, a system of belief that says one doesn’t need to give any proof of a life of repentance and virtue as evidence of being justified, an obedience-free acceptance. The grace of God does not exclude the Christian from obedience to God’s moral commands. Instead, in the gospel, our new motive is to eagerly desire to live righteously so that obedience becomes the natural expression of our grateful hearts, an acceptance-based obedience. Only in the gospel can we actually give complete loyalty and obedience to Christ and live a life of faith expressing itself through love.
I have recently discovered a theologian who beautifully communicates this careful balance in his classic work, True Christianity. He was often referred to as “the second Luther” by his contemporaries and yet another well-known theologian called him, “the prophet of interior protestantism.” Johann Arndt (1555-1621) was the first Luther scholar to see that “justification by faith alone” does not preclude doing good works but actually unleashes good works in the Christian. He has said,
“Many think that theology is a mere science, or rhetoric, whereas it is a living experience and practice. Everyone now endeavors to be eminent and distinguished in the world, but no one is willing to learn to be devoted. Everyone now seeks out men of great learning, from whom one may learn the arts, languages, and wisdom, but no one is willing to learn, from our only teacher, Jesus Christ, meekness and sincere humility, although his holy, living example is the proper rule and directive for our life…Everyone wishes very much to be a servant of Christ, but no one wishes to be his follower… He who loves Christ will also love the example of his holy life, his humility, meekness, patience, suffering, shame, and contempt, even if the flesh suffers pain…True Christianity consists, not in words or in external show, but in living faith, from which arise righteous fruits, and all manner of Christian virtues, as from Christ himself.”
Arndt is regularly careful to avoid the errors of legalism and antinomianism. Here is an example:
“You must take care that you do not connect your works and the virtues that you have begun, or the gifts of the new life, with your justification before God, for none of man’s works, merit, gifts, or virtue, however lovely these may be, count for anything. Our justification depends on the exalted, perfect merit of Jesus Christ, received by faith…Take great care, therefore, not to confound the righteousness of faith with the righteousness of a Christian life, but make a clear distinction (between them), for here is the whole foundation of our Christian religion.”