The Evangelical church has always stood firmly on the rock that we are justified by the grace of God through faith, and not our righteous deeds. Good works are never the basis on which God declares us “not guilty” in His court. Martin Luther called this idea of justification by faith alone, “The doctrine by which the church stands or falls.” Because of my union with Christ by faith, there is no one who can condemn me! God has declared me righteous in His sight, and I will never taste death. There is incredible beauty in this free gift of God in Christ that transcends what we mortals can understand.
But this is only half of the story, and my fear is that it is often the only part of the story we tell in the modern church. Paul gives us a solemn warning in 1 Corinthians 6, and we would do well to remember it. He says, “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
This is not talking about how we are declared righteous in the sight of God. Abstaining from sexual immorality, thievery, and drunkenness has never saved anyone and never will. Our good works can never stand up to scrutiny when elucidated by the flame of God’s holiness. But Paul’s warning is something we should take very seriously. He even prefaces it by telling us not to be deceived, signaling that many will try to explain away the truths in this passage.
The reality Paul is pointing us towards is very simple. God’s grace is beautiful not only because it makes Christians clean in His sight, but truly clean as well. In contrast to the Pharisees who seemed externally righteous but were filthy inside, our Father makes us righteous. God’s Spirit gives His people new hearts that hunger and thirst after true righteousness. Our minds are renewed and our thinking becomes more and more like His. Every Christian is being progressively made new – conformed more and more to who Jesus is.
The Apostle’s warning should be taken at face value. If a person lives a life characterized by persistent unrepentant sin, he should fear for his salvation. The faith that God gives makes a person fundamentally a new creation. If someone is not bearing fruit, then He should fear that his faith is not real. These are hard truths, but they need to be said. There is no cheap grace in the Christian life. The grace that God gives transforms.
The Lord Jesus Christ commands us to deny ourselves and take up our cross daily in following Him, and he meant it. Robert Murray M’Cheyne wisely counseled that “If you bear the cross, it will bear you.” There is no such thing as a carnal Christian. If we do not deny ourselves, we will find on the last day that we have never been borne by the Cross of Christ.
While there is fear and terror here, we also find solace and beauty. The true disciple of Jesus Christ is broken by the reality of his remaining sin. More than anything else we long to be freed from the sin which so easily entangles. I am tempted at times to despair over the darkness in the world, but even more by the darkness in myself. To a person like me, this is a precious and comforting truth. Not only am I right in God’s eyes, but He is at work in me even now to make me more and more like Jesus.
How glorious is it that God Himself is faithfully working by His Spirit to defeat my sin? The rotting flesh that drives me to despair is being scraped away. God has found me in a ditch, but He did not leave me there. I am loved apart from my works, and God is now at work to make me lovely. All praise and glory be to Him.
We need to return to the fully orbed gospel. It is an essential truth that we are made right in the sight of God solely by faith – and we should never compromise that message. It is a horrible thing to imagine we could stand justified in our merits before the righteousness of the living God. But let us never forget that the faith God gives is powerful, vibrant, and living.
It is more than enough to clean us.