Law, Gospel, and the Measure of Our Faith

The measure of the authenticity and efficacy of our faith is its object: Jesus Christ.

It is not the production of good works, in either intensity or volume, that saves a man or "transforms the culture,” an extra-biblical but common refrain of modern, “social justice” infused evangelicalism.

Salvation and transformation are categories uniquely under the power and will of the Holy Spirit, but you might not get that when listening to the “Just Do Something” culture of today. The need, contrary to the tone of many streams in evangelical culture today, is to let the fruit of our salvation be that and that alone, recognizing that it is God who is at work in us both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).

"These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences [emphasis added] of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life." Westminster Confession of Faith, 16.2

If we understand or preach or teach good works as anything other than a consequence of our justification and sanctification, we will invariably make them an instrument of our greater salvation. Here, we will fall into the error of neonomianism, that is, a new type of law (i.e. the production of good works) by which a person is made or remains right with God in addition to faith. This is the heart of the error by which so many in our day confuse law and gospel.

In counseling, I frequently encounter this confusion. It can be identified as a source of much emotional and spiritual angst experienced by believers, who can never know if they have produced an acceptable amount or intensity of good works, or, for that matter, if their efforts were directed at the proper cause (an arbitrary matter usually adjudicated by fellow believers who typically demand that the entire church walk in the same direction and pace as they do).

These believers have, whether of their own accord or through errant teaching, come to confess justification by faith alone, while holding to a subtle sanctification by faith and good works. When this happens, the gospel, that message of salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, is at risk of being lost altogether.

The heart that has embraced neonomianism or that confuses law and gospel cannot rest in Christ because it is trusting in something other than, or in addition to the grace and promises of God. Here, the Christian life becomes a burden, rather than a joy, and that is no Christian life at all. Here, the yoke of slavery to law is taken up once more, and the only fruit is the bitterness of failure and inability.

How then can we know if we are at risk of these errors?

There would be the obvious testimony of our conscience, witnessing to us the reality that we have been holding to good works as an instrument of salvation, whether in justification or sanctification. A more subtle indication would be if in any of what has been said here is the thought or concern that the intended message is the degradation of good works.

Nothing could be farther from the truth!

The desire has been to guide or nudge us back toward a proper understanding of the role and nature of good works. The more faithful our understanding of these matters to the teaching of Scripture, the more freedom, joy, and rest we will encounter in Christ, as he alone becomes and is our sole righteousness and hope.

“For the Law has its terminus, defining how far it is to go and what it is to achieve, namely, to terrify the impenitent with the wrath and displeasure of God and drive them to Christ. Likewise the Gospel has its unique office and function: to preach the forgiveness of sins to troubled consciences. Let doctrine then not be falsified, either by mingling these two into one, or by mistaking the one for the other. For the Law and the Gospel are indeed both God's word; but they are not the same kind of doctrine.” Martin Luther, 1532