Those “aha!” moments in Bible study are sweet. It’s the experience the psalmist prayed for in Psalm 119:18 — “Open my eyes that I might see wonderful things in Your law” — and that we long to have more of. A couple of years ago I had one of those moments working through Romans 4 and the light from that study¹ brought much-needed correction and clarity on the relationship between justification (God’s declaration that we are righteous) and sanctification (the process of our becoming righteous).
Maintaining these two doctrines without allowing one to undermine the other is threading a theological needle. How, exactly, does one harmonize a not-by-works salvation with a working faith? We find various formulations (with varying degrees of authority):
God will take you as you are but he will not leave you as you are.
Saved by good works–no. Saved for good works–yes.
We are saved by faith alone but the faith that saves is never alone.
For by grace you have been saved through faith . . . not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
But for all the explanations out there it was the Abraham analogy in Romans 4 that helped me the most. The explicit point of the chapter is that God counted Abraham as righteous because he believed God’s promise.
But consider the broader implications:
- The promise of many descendants was given to Abraham although he was neither a father nor able to become a father.
- Abraham believed that God was able to do what he could not.
- Abraham’s faith was the vehicle by which the promise became a reality.
- At the practical level, Abraham “acted out” the promise.
- Because God called Abraham a father, God made Abraham a father.
And Abraham’s story was written for us:
- The promise that we will be declared righteous is given to us although we are not righteous nor able to become righteous.
- We believe that God is able to do what we cannot.
- Justifying faith is the vehicle by which the promise of righteousness becomes a reality for sinful people like us.
- At the practical level, we “work out” the promise of righteousness.
- Because God calls us righteous, God makes us righteous.
In this light I think we can better understand why Paul: (a) expresses disbelief at the notion that Christians would continue in sin after being justified (Rom 6:1-4) and (b) equates those who are “in Christ Jesus” as those who “do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:1-4). The act of justification can’t be separated from the work of sanctification. Those whom God calls righteous apart from works will be made righteous by their works.
To be sure, Abraham never saw the perfect fulfillment of the promise in his life. Neither will we see the perfect fulfillment of righteousness in this life. But the encouragement of Romans 4 is this: because our righteousness rests on God’s promise we can no more remain fruitless than Abraham could have remained childless.
¹The light bearer for this occasion was Mark Seifrid’s commentary on Romans in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.