Q & R – If we’re already forgiven, why strive to be good? Isn’t that salvation by works? –Brad Jersak
Q: If we’re already forgiven, why strive to be good? Isn’t that just “salvation by works”?
R: First, let’s examine each phrase of this question.
“If we’re already forgiven”—Yes, indeed we are. As Christ makes clear from the mercy seat of the Cross, “Father, forgive them,” is the once-for-all divine verdict for sinners. Paul concurs in Romans 5 when he says that when we were still sinners and enemies, Christ died for us, justified us and reconciled us to God.
“Why strive to be good”—Yes, as much as we believe and hope that our goodness is generated from within, the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5) and empowered by Christ-in-us (Gal. 2), we are not ignorant to the reality that obedience, virtue—indeed, love—often involves struggle. Loving, forgiving and serving face continual resistance from my irritated flesh.
“Isn’t that just ‘salvation by works’?”—That’s a bit of a trick question. If we’re already forgiven, justified and reconciled in the death of Christ—if the verdict of mercy has already been rendered and our guilt expunged on the Cross, what is our part? Does Christ’s call to love him by obeying his command to love (John 14:15) undermine grace? Does his requirement to believe in him for eternal life constitute “works”?
To use the medical model of Christ, the Great Physician, we cannot heal ourselves of the fatal disease we’ve contracted. We can neither create the medicine nor afford the treatment. But thank God, by grace alone, Christ has provided both the medicine and the course of treatment by which we are saved, not just from guilt for sin, but from the contagion itself—with all its ugly symptoms and side-effects. Undergoing this treatment is not the “salvation by works” condemned by Paul, but it is the necessary and sometimes painful path of therapy prescribed by Christ. How so?
When, in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” he calls us into his Way of self-giving and even self-denying love (Matt. 16:24). There’s the struggle. But it’s not the struggle of saving ourselves. Rather, it is submission to undergoing the Great Physician’s saving course of treatment by which he saves us from ourselves. We don’t generate our healing but we do participate in his healing through surrender to his care. We aren’t literally “rewarded” for following the Jesus Way as if we earned our healing, but the fruit of the Jesus Way is enjoyment of the health that comes of following Christ by faith—by trusting his words and wisdom enough to do what he says. This is not a new idea. I’ll leave you with an analogy from Gregory of Nyssa (4thc.).
Gregory of Nyssa:
“Suppose two people suffer from the same eye disease. And let’s say one surrenders himself most diligently to the process of being cured. And what if the patient is willing to undergo every prescribed medical treatment, no matter how painful? And what if a second person continues to indulge in an unhealthy lifestyle and listens to none of the doctor’s advice necessary for the healing of their eyes. When we look at the final outcome and observe that they each experience the consequences of their choices—one becomes blind to the light and the other enjoys the light. We’d be misusing the word “recompense” (reward or punishment) to describe this…
“Similarly, we could say that enjoyment of our future life rightly belongs to every human being, but the plague of ignorance has seized almost everyone. Those who purge themselves of it by whatever course of treatment is necessary receive the due “reward” of their diligence, entering the life that is truly natural for us. But those who refuse to allow virtue to purge them of the plague of ignorance, entrapped by their addiction to pleasure and as a result, extremely difficult to cure, go on living in their unnatural state. They are estranged from their true and natural life and aren’t able to share in the existence that rightly belongs to us and is good for our well-being.”
–Gregory of Nyssa, On Infants’ Early Deaths (my paraphrase to more modern English than the 19thcentury translation).
In the New Testament, the Greek word we often translate “saved” is likewise translated “healed” or “made whole.” The initial question is ambiguous because on the one hand, we are “saved” from sin and death by grace alone through the faithfulness of Christ alone. And on the other hand, the actual healing of the mind, will and emotions–our growth and recovery in real life from fleshly or egoist lives–is experienced as we surrender to the Jesus Way. This is why the apostles can say we have been saved and are being saved. What Christ did for us on the Cross is now being worked out day by day in our lives as “keep in step with the Spirit.” My friend Brian West calls this our “Pilgrim’s Process.”
In other words, while the Cross certainly provides us with forgiveness of sin and removal of guilt, the New Testament also speaks of growing up and the need to act like adult Christ-followers.